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Historic Charlotte: An Illustrated History of Charlotte and Mecklenburg
County.  By Dan L. Morrill (published by Historic Charlotte, Inc., in
cooperation with Historical Publishing Network, a division of Lammert
Publications, Inc., San Antonio, Texas, 2001).



Good history books don't merely tell about the past.  They make you think
about it in new ways.

Dan Morrill's Historic Charlotte does just that.  In a slim 95 pages of
text, Morrill creates an overview of Charlotte's development through the
past 250 years that is very accessible for newcomers but also
thought-provoking for long-time residents.  The old familiar stories are all
there, those tales of community-creation that natives share with new
arrivals.  You'll get to know the Catawba peoples whose Native American
trading paths became Trade and Tryon Streets.  You'll follow the exploits of
Revolutionary War general Lord Cornwallis who called Charlotte a "hornet's
nest" of rebellion and thus gave the community a lasting nickname.  You'll
tramp along with young Conrad Reed as he stumbles upon the first gold
discovered in North America.  You'll hear the trumpeting cries of
entrepreneurs D.A. Tompkins and Edward Dilworth Latta as they build a New
South city of textile factories and streetcar suburbs.  You'll meet hospital
founder Jane Wilkes, African American foreign diplomat J.T. Williams,
hydroelectric pioneer James B.Duke, rabble-rousing author Harry Golden, and
bank builder Hugh McColl.   But even as you enjoy getting to know the men
and women who have made history here, you'll find yourself asking bigger
questions you may never have considered.  Morrill pushes readers to ponder
"what if?"

What if ... the most important person in Charlotte's twentieth century
development was a woman?  Morrill spotlights Bonnie Cone as the key
individual who pushed the development of the University of North Carolina at
Charlotte.  Cone was just a math teacher at Central High School in 1947 when
Chapel Hill opened an outpost there to educate returning veterans on the GI
Bill.  "A woman of indomitable will and determination, Cone began almost
immediately laying plans to make the school a permanent institution of
higher education," writes Morrill.  In 1965 UNCC opened its suburban campus,
a catalyst that has transformed sleepy northeast Charlotte into major growth
corridor.  The people that the University attracted did even more to remake
this city, both economically with such developments as W.T. Harris Boulevard
and the University Research Park, and also culturally.  Morrill may be
reaching too far when he claims that UNCCıs blossoming is "perhaps as
notable as the arrival of [first preacher] Alexander Craighead in 1758, the
coming of the first railroad to town in 1852, and the opening of the
Charlotte Cotton Mills in 1881."   But the assertion coaxes us to consider
that cultural and educational changes can be as vital as the economic ones,
and that womenıs contributions are fully as noteworthy as those of men.

What if ... the most critical moment in Charlotte politics was something
that most people have never heard of -- the Populist revolt and resulting
White Supremacy Campaign of the 1890s?  Scholarly historians including Wake
Forest's Dr. Paul Escott and Yale's Dr. Glenda Gilmore have done extensive
work in recent years uncovering the hair-raising story of political
repression that rocked North Carolina and the South a century ago, but this
history is only just beginning to reach popular audiences. Morrill sets the
story squarely at the center of his narrative.  In the early 1890s white
farmers squeezed by national economic forces joined hands with African
Americans to unseat the state's economic elite.  The new Populist Party and
its allies passed interest-rate caps, increased funding for public
education, and took other steps to help "the little guy."  Elites retaliated
by mounting what they termed a "White Supremacy Campaign" that appealed
openly to racism.  When it succeeded, victorious leaders followed up with
array of Jim Crow laws, including enforced segregation on streetcars and in
other public places, meant to ensure that blacks and whites would never join
forces again.  This held until the 1960s when the cityıs desire for economic
progress convinced leaders to join the national trend toward Civil Rights.
"[T]wo major themes have been present in the history of Charlotte and
Mecklenburg County from the earliest days," Morrill says in his Preface.
"One is an intense desire for economic development and expansion. The other
is the saga of race.  Whenever the pressures of the two have come into
direct conflict, especially in the 1890s and in the 1960s and 1970s,
economic considerations have won out."

What if ... there was a simple way to cut through the tiresome controversies
over Charlotte's "Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence"?  Since the early
19th century, some Charlotteans have maintained that local leaders signed a
"Declaration of Independence" more than a year before the well-known July
4th event in Philadelphia.  The date, May 20, 1775, is even incorporated in
North Carolinaıs state flag.  The only problem is that no copy of the
document survives, and what is more, no one outside Mecklenburg seems to
have heard of it when it was supposedly written in 1775.  Generations of
local history buffs have searched in vain for news of its arrival at the
Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  But what they have found is the
existence of a very real statement known as the "Mecklenburg Resolves."  On
May 31, 1775, county leaders stated that they would cease to obey the
dictates of British colonial officials until England ended "its unjust and
arbitrary pretensions with respect to America."  The Resolves were published
in the South Carolina Gazette that June and in a Massachusetts paper that
July.  Morrill makes a convincing case that the Resolves were mis-remembered
in 1819, forty-four years later, in the midst of a nationwide effort to
capture the memories of the departing Revolutionary generation.
"[S]upporters of the so-called OMeck Decı interviewed several alleged
signers.  These elderly gentlemen agreed they had attended a meeting in May
1775 but could not recall the exact date.  William Polk, son on Thomas Polk,
published a pamphlet containing these testimonials and declared the matter
settled." Suggests Morrill, "One cannot help wondering whether these aged
men remembered the meeting where the Mecklenburg Resolves was signed, not
the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence."

Throughout Historic Charlotte, Morrill keys the narrative to buildings and
sites that readers can visit in Mecklenburg County. More than 150 images
supplement the text, many of them showing structures that the Charlotte
Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission has helped safeguard.  In fact,
thatıs really the genesis of this volume.  Since 1976 Dr. Morrill has served
as Consulting Director of the landmarks board.  In that time the agency has
carefully researched and designated over 200 historic sites in the County ­
more than in all the rest of North Carolina combined.  It is Morrill's
research that fueled the rediscovery of Dilworth as a desirable
neighborhood, that helped save the textile mills anchoring the NODA arts
district, that sparked development of the popular Charlotte Trolley.  The
Landmarks Commissionıs files are all on-line at www.cmhpf.org; this volume
serves as a fine introductory overview to that trove.

    Morrill's narrative occupies only the first half of Historic Charlotte.
The second part profiles businesses and others who have contributed money
toward the publication, a standard feature of volumes produced by the
Historical Publishing Network of San Antonio, Texas.   The vignettes, by Joe
Goodpasture and Marie Beth Jones, give interesting random snapshots of
todayıs economic players, from big boys such as Belk, Inc., to lesser-knowns
like homebuilder Alan Siminoni.   Unfortunately the publisher does not make
clear the distinction between Morrill's scholarship and these paid
histories.

The holidays are upon us, and Historic Charlotte will surely be a favorite
gift both to give and to receive.  With its cover painting by artist William
Werner depicting a Charlotte trolley on Tryon Street, Historic Charlotte
makes a handsome volume to display on a living room coffee table.  Dr. Dan
Morrill's scholarship earns it an essential place on the working bookshelves
of area scholars, as well.

 

Thomas Hanchett, Ph.D.

Levine Museum of the New South