A Review of Thomas W. Hanchett, Sorting Out The New South City. Race,
Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte 1875-1975 (University of North
Historian Thomas W. Hanchett knows Charlotte well. He spent the early
1980's studying its pre-World War Two
neighborhoods for the Chrarlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks
Commission. Hanchett spent months walking the streets of places like
Washington Heights, and
North Charlotte. He always asked probing questions -- the essential
attribute of an able researcher. Have African Americans and whites always
lived in distinct enclaves? Why were most of Charlotte's
cotton mills built on the edge of town? What impact did Southern values,
including racial, have upon the patterns of Charlotte's growth? Why do most
wealthy Charlotteans reside in the southeastern quadrant of the city?
Hanchett, now a professor at Youngstown State University in Ohio, answers
these questions and more in his instructive and scholarly book Sorting
Out The New South City. Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte
1875-1975, just published by the University of North Carolina Press.
It is not an altogether pleasant story. Hanchett's book is a must read
for anyone who cares about the history of this community. Even those who
don't care should peruse its pages, because it tell us so much about what we
have been and, even more importantly, what we are. History is not the past.
It is our consideration of the past. In 1875, Charlotte, like most Southern
urban centers, "looked like a scattering of salt and pepper." Rich and poor,
black and white, storeowner and day laborer, says Hanchett, frequently lived
side by side in the same block. Blacks comprised about 40 percent of the
town's inhabitants, and they regularly elected African Americans to the
Board of Aldermen until 1893. Although wealthy whites, mostly small-scale
merchants, had controlled Charlotte politics and economy since the arrival
of the railroad in October 1852, they felt no need to retreat into affluent
residential districts and separate themselves from their poorer neighbors.
Homes, craft shops, stores, and livery stables were all mixed in together.
The idea that Charlotte would have one district exclusively devoted to
business, another to manufacturing, another for laborers, and another for
blacks would have been unthinkable in 1875. "The landscape of Charlotte
expressed this confidence in tradition," says Hanchett. "Well into the
1870s, Charlotteans organized their city in ways that would have seemed
familiar to a time traveler from colonial days or even from Medieval
Hanchett describes how and why these customary forms of land use began to
unravel in Charlotte in the 1880s and 1890s and why the city started sorting
itself out, first into a quilt-like pattern of business and residential
districts drawn along racial or income lines and then into entire quadrants
or wedges extending outward from the center city. The initial cause was
economic. New South industrialists like D. A. Tompkins and Edward Dilworth
Latta championed the building of
textile mills. Unlike most of Charlotte's earlier manufacturing
establishments, which had had relatively few workers, factories like Latta's
Charlotte Trouser Company (1883) and the
Alpha, Ada, and Victor Cotton Mills (1889) attracted hundreds of
laborers to town. Most were newcomers who had little, if any, loyalties to
local elites. It became increasingly difficult within this cultural milieu
to maintain the feelings of cordiality that had characterized social
relationships in pre-industrial Charlotte. For the first time residential
enclaves filled exclusively with cottages for mill workers began to appear
on the outskirts of Charlotte. To quote Hanchett, "The close-knit
relationships of the small workplace were giving way to less personal
interactions between the factory owner and his numerous and interchangeable
The principal reason for the breakup of the "salt and pepper" city,
however, and for the abandonment of traditional land forms in Charlotte, and
for its transformation into a "patchwork quilt" of disparate districts, was
political. "Sorting-Out of land uses likely would have continued gradually
and haltingly in Charlotte, pushed forward by the growing size of economic
enterprises but pulled back by faith in tradition, if not for a series of
political upheavals that rocked the region during the 1890s," Hanchett
writes. Wealthy whites in the South, including those in Charlotte, became
increasingly alarmed by the rise of the Populist Party at the end of the
nineteenth century. Made up of small farmers, factory workers, and African
Americans, the Populist Party sought to wrest political control from the
Democrats and institute fundamental changes in the economic system.
Populists championed such issues as government regulation of the railroads,
abandonment of the gold standard for currency, and recognition of the right
of factory workers to organize. Affluent Charlotteans no longer felt secure.
Their place atop the established hierarchical social system of this
community was becoming increasingly tenuous. "Where once their hard-won
prosperity would have guaranteed them the deference of the community," says
Hanchett, "now they found themselves jostled by strangers who seemed to lack
respect for property, morality, and hard work."
Hanchett's explanation of how D. A. Tompkins, Edward Dilworth Latta, and
their affluent cohorts met the Populist challenge in Charlotte is gripping.
It was a two-pronged attack. The first involved the disenfranchisement of
African Americans and their relegation to second class citizenship. The
second was to use the nefarious doctrines of White Supremacy to overcome the
feelings of class solidarity that had induced poor whites to join ranks with
African Americans in forming the Populist Party. In 1900, after a campaign
filled with mean-spirited ballyhoo and bluster, white North Carolinians went
to the polls and approved a series of amendments to the State Constitution.
The upshot of these changes was to strip the vote away from the great
majority of blacks and thereby make it impossible for the Populists to
prevail at the ballot box. Specifically, the Democrats instituted literacy
tests for voting but provided a loophole for poor whites by stipulating that
if your ancestors had cast ballots before 1867 you could continue to vote
even if you could not read. "With black citizens disfranchised, the Fusion
coalition would no longer muster enough votes to effectively challenge
Democratic control," Hanchett writes. The political domination of wealthy
white businessmen in Charlotte became even stronger after 1907, when many
poor whites could not or did not seek to pass the more stringent literacy
requirements for voting that went into effect in North Carolina that year.
Turnout at the polls plummeted. "Voter turnout dropped dramatically all over
the South, from 73 percent of adult males in the early 1890s to just 30
percent by the end of the decade of the 1900s," says Hancett. New South
industrialists like D. A. Tompkins were in the driver's seat.
Seeing themselves as defenders of order against unruly blacks and
unreliable mill workers, the "commercial civic-elite" used their political
preeminence to reshape the physical form of the city into a network of
homogenous districts, including immaculate neighborhoods like
Eastover, and the curvilinear section of Dilworth. "By the end of the
1920s," Hanchett explains, "Charlotteans had undergone a conceptual shift in
their definition of a desirable urban landscape. Now Charlotteans resided in
a patch-work pattern of self-contained neighborhoods, each distinct in its
developer-devised street system and each largely homogeneous in its racial
and economic makeup." Hanchett singles out Piedmont Park, which opened just
after 1900, as the suburb that led the way in showing how to keep
"undesirable" elements away. Situated along Central Ave. between Kings Drive
and Louise Avenue, Piedmont Park was the brainchild of two of Charlotte's
most influential developers , F. C. Abbott and George Stephens. It was the
first neighborhood in Charlotte to abandon the city's grid street pattern.
This helped make it feel like a realm set apart. Deed covenants were the
most innovative tools that Abbott and Stephens used to exclude people of the
"wrong" race or poor whites from Piedmont Park. To quote Hanchett " . . .
the covenants provided a bulwark against a society that seemed to be growing
more and more topsy-turvy. In such a district the 'best population' would
suffer no intrusions from people who did not 'know their place.'" Deed
covenants, explains Hanchett, "hammered home three essentials of the
sorted-out city." First, Piedmont Park would be exclusively residential,
meaning that workplace and domicile could no longer exist side by side.
Second, deed covenants stipulated that African Americans could not own or
rent homes in Piedmont Park. The era of racially segregated neighborhoods
mandated by law was at hand. Finally, houses had to cost at least $1500.
This meant that poor whites could not afford to own homes in Piedmont Park.
Until the 1930s, neighborhoods emulating Piedmont Park and its deed
covenants existed on all sides of town. Wesley Heights to the west. Wilmore
to the south. Myers Park to the east, to name just a few. During the Great
Depression, however, largely because of the influx of Federal dollars and
where local politicians decided to spend them, southeastern Charlotte gained
a series of attractive public amenities that helped make that part of town
"the place to live." Hanchett notes that these included Memorial Stadium,
beautification of Queens Road, and the dismantling of the former United
States Mint in center city Charlotte and rebuilding it as the Mint Museum of
Art in Eastover. Also, the introduction of Federal insured home mortgages,
especially those provided by the Federal Housing Administration, helped
healthy neighborhoods become stronger and caused marginal neighborhoods to
weaken even more. Specifically, Federal officials ranked neighborhoods
according to the level of risk for foreclosure. Those that ranked well, like
Dilworth, Myers Park, and Eastover, received a boost. Those that did not,
like Wesley Heights and Wilmore, sustained a setback.