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Charlotte museum's focus: Post-Civil War history

September 04, 2012|By Robin Abcarian
  • Segregated drinking fountains as seen in the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, N.C.
Segregated drinking fountains as seen in the Levine Museum of the New South… (Robin Abcarian / Los Angeles…)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The handful of museum-goers who had come to learn about the region at the Levine Museum of the New South were a bit surprised Monday to be invited to taste several kinds of soda pop by Tom Hanchett, the museum’s staff historian.

Turns out the area is known for its production of sugary and caffeinated sodas, and Hanchett was making a point.

Workers toiling in the cotton mills that dominated North Carolina in the 20th century needed stamina, he said, and they got it through sugar and caffeine. (A formula familiar to any contemporary office drone too.)

The local brew that got the biggest reaction was Blenheim Ginger Ale, a sweet, spicy drink with kick that made it absolutely unrecognizable as a cousin of Canada Dry’s bland version.

On the eve of the Democratic National Convention, the Museum of the New South offered convention-goers a fascinating take on life here since the end of slavery. The museum is devoted to the region’s post-Civil War heritage. “I love being a historian in a city that thinks it doesn’t have a history,” said Hanchett, a slightly rumpled, mid-50ish professorial type whose enthusiasm for the city is infectious.

PHOTOS: The protests of the DNC

Until a generation ago, Charlotte was a city of mostly native-born whites and blacks, with a thriving black middle class. Nowadays, thanks to an influx of immigrants, it’s a far more diverse place. A banking center since the 1980s, a number of Fortune 500 companies are based here (Bank of America, Duke Energy, Lowe’s and Family Dollar among them), and the population has doubled in the last 25 years to 1 million.

A recurring theme in local coverage of the national political convention seems to be whether Charlotte can finally be considered a “world-class city.”

“Charlotte is a city that has had tough times and reinvented itself,” Hanchett said. “That’s something the U.S. needs to do as a whole. It’s why the DNC came to Charlotte.”

Hanchett’s version of Charlotte’s history had so many modern echoes that one was tempted to think of him as an ironist as much as a historian.

For instance, the city, named after Queen Charlotte, the wife of England’s King George III, pushed hard for a county courthouse after it was chartered in 1768. A courthouse would draw commerce to the area – a form of government stimulus, if you will. But the good citizens also wanted government off their backs, of course, and it wasn’t long before the colonies were engulfed in a revolution.

A century later, after whole families left subsistence farming, where everyone pitched in, and simply transitioned to the mills, battles over child labor erupted.

One of the museum’s displays features arguments for and against the practice. In 1918, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a law banning the practice, persuaded by the very modern and familiar argument that parents should be able to decide what’s right for their children, not government. It would take 20 more years for the federal government to finally outlaw child labor.

And of course, with voter ID laws on the minds of many engaged citizens these days, there was a certain familiar ring to a display devoted to the poll taxes and literacy tests of the 20th century. In Charlotte, as elsewhere, those barriers were erected to keep the vote away from blacks and poor whites.

Before giving a tour, Hanchett narrated a modest slide show, summing up Charlotte history in four words: “queen,” “king,” “Duke” and “crown.” 

This is the “queen city” as the crowns on all the street signs are reminders of Queen Charlotte. “King” sums up the area’s reliance on “King Cotton.” “Duke” stands for James B. Duke, of both Carolinas, who became rich mass-producing cigarettes, then more or less underwrote the invention of hydroelectricity. (He was also the father of the heiress Doris Duke, who inherited his millions when she was 12.)  “Crown” is an allusion to the compact city’s extraordinary skyline of newly built, architecturally imaginative buildings.

PHOTOS: Scenes from the DNC

Hanchett led visitors through the museum, which had a bit of a Hollywood back lot feel, complete with a cotton worker’s cabin, an old-time general store and a lunch counter.

Charlotte, it happens, was a center of lunch counter sit-ins protesting racial segregation in the 1960s, but also a leader in desegregating “white tablecloth” restaurants, an advance in which other Southern cities lagged.

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