A Review of Thomas W. Hanchett, Sorting Out The New South City. Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte 1875-1975 (University of North Carolina Press)
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 Dilworth, Biddleville, 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 Europe."
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 employees."
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 Myers Park, 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.