The History of Charlotte
Whether you’re a visitor, a proud native or an enthusiastic transplant who calls Charlotte home, you’re not “official” until you’ve become well-versed on some of the lesser-known ins and outs of the Queen City’s story.
by Tom Hanchett
Have you ever wondered why Charlotte defies most other cities by calling downtown “Uptown?” Why the NBA team’s mascot is an angry hornet? Or why you’ll see a crown on so much of the city’s insignia?
Charlotte looks like a brand new city, but there’s a lot of history here. Its roots run deep in the Old South, way back before the American Revolution. As the New South dawned after the Civil War, Charlotte took off—first as a railroad junction and then as a cotton mill hub.
Today, it is one of America’s largest banking centers and one of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas. Newcomers roll in daily from across the United States and around the globe.
There’s a sense of possibility and of change so strong that it’s energizing—and magnetic. Charlotte is a place that asks you to dig in, to find connections and to make history here yourself.
Charlotte in the Old South
The Queen City
Charlotte calls itself the Queen City. But why? The nickname offers a hint that this community is older than the U.S.
King George III still ruled the Colonies when European settlers chartered the town back in 1768. They named the new hamlet after the King’s wife, Queen Charlotte, and gave the surrounding county the name Mecklenburg in honor of her majesty’s birthplace in Germany.
The Creation of Uptown
If you look at a map of Center City Charlotte today, you’ll still see the grid of square blocks that points to its time under Colonial influence. Tryon, the city’s main street, still carries the name of North Carolina’s Colonial governor William Tryon.
Interestingly enough, Tryon Street does not align to the compass, as in many Colonial towns. Instead, it runs along a low ridgeline with a diagonal slant. That’s because it predates European settlement. Tyron Street follows the Nations Path, the great trading route of the Catawba and other Native American tribes, which ran from Georgia up to the Chesapeake Bay. Today’s Interstate 85 traces that same route.
The Tryon Street ridgeline is the reason behind Charlotte’s custom of calling its downtown “Uptown.” Head to Independence Square at the heart of the Center City; no matter which way you approach it, you’ll be moving gently upward.
Independence Square got its name during the American Revolution. In May of 1775, more than a year before Patriot leaders signed the Declaration of Independence, Charlotte made its own statement of defiance against Britain. The Mecklenburg Resolves of May 31, 1775, declared the “authority of the King or Parliament” to be “null and void.”
Tradition holds that there was even a full-blown Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence created on May 20, 1775. However, no copies exist, and the document never appeared in any Colonial newspapers or other records. Although there isn’t physical proof of its existence, it’s city tradition to celebrate the Meck Dec each year on May 20.
In June 1775, a local tavern-keeper named James Jack served as a messenger carrying important papers to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The documents could have been the Resolves or the “Meck Dec,” but it’s unclear. In Jack’s honor, locals and visitors can admire a statue of him on horseback galloping along Little Sugar Creek Greenway, just east of Uptown.
Hornets’ Nest of Rebellion
Late in the Revolution, British General Cornwallis swept into town—and soon wished he hadn’t. Local sharpshooters peppered his men mercilessly in the 1780 Battle of Charlotte and the Battle of Kings Mountain nearby.
As he departed, it is said that Cornwallis wrote in his diary that Charlotte was a “hornet’s nest of rebellion.” Today, the hornet and hornet’s nest are popular civic symbols. You will find them on police officers’ uniforms and NBA Charlotte Hornets’ uniforms, among other places in town.
The First U.S. Gold Rush
After the Revolution, a totally unexpected event put Charlotte on the money map. In 1799, a boy named Conrad Reed, playing in a creek 25 miles east of the city, picked up a 17-pound rock that glittered. His parents used it for a doorstop until a sharp-eyed merchant offered them $3.50 cash for it. It was the first piece of gold ever discovered in North America.
In 1933, with the intention of opening an art museum, a group of citizens purchased a building that had served as the original branch of the U.S. Mint. It had been constructed in 1837 Uptown to handle gold ore. During the Civil War, the Mint had been converted into a Confederate and headquarters and hospital. Upon its purchase in 1933, the building was deconstructed, moved and reconstructed on Randolph Road, where it opened in 1936 as The Mint Museum of Art, North Carolina’s first art museum. Today, the museum, which remains in the same spot, is known simply as the Mint Museum. Meanwhile, old mine shafts still lurk beneath Uptown. Head out to Reed Gold Mine near Albemarle, North Carolina, to explore the Reed family’s actual mineshafts and pan for gold yourself.
The Rise of Railroads
Charlotte’s gold history is romantic, but railroads actually had a greater impact on the local economy. In 1852, local investors in Charlotte and upstate South Carolina succeeded at completing the first rail line to enter the heart of the Carolinas. It connected Charlotte with Columbia, South Carolina, where existing tracks transported goods to the port of Charleston, South Carolina. The North Carolina state legislature immediately authorized construction of a second line to link Charlotte with Raleigh, North Carolina.
That railroad crossroads made tiny Charlotte a hot spot in the Civil War from 1861 to 1865. The Confederates manufactured cannon and ironwork for their ships here, and when Richmond, Virginia, fell in the last days of battle, Confederate President Jefferson Davis fled south along the rail lines, holding a final full meeting of his cabinet in a house on Tryon Street.
New South Reinventions
Cotton Fields-turned Skyscrapers
Though the hardships of war touched most families, Charlotte came out of the Civil War stronger than ever. Troops had cut the railroad to Columbia, but it was quickly restored. African Americans, who comprised 40 percent of Mecklenburg population, were now free. Charlotte’s population doubled during the 1860s, hitting 4,473 in 1870.
Leaders in Charlotte and across the post-war South talked avidly of creating a New South. The region would no longer rely on slavery and farming; like the North, it would embrace factories and urbanization.
That New South spirit of reinvention still defines Charlotte. No wonder the city is home to Levine Museum of the New South, whose nationally award-winning exhibitions show the region’s reinventions, spanning cotton fields to factories and finance, the journey from slavery to segregation and, ultimately, the Civil rights movement.
By the 1880s, Charlotte sat astride the Southern Railway mainline (the “main street of the South”) from Atlanta, Georgia to Washington, D.C. Farmers from miles around brought cotton to the railroad platform Uptown, where today’s EpiCentre (aptly named!) bustles with activity. Local promoters began building textile factories, starting with the 1881 Charlotte Cotton Mill that still stands at Graham and 5th streets.
By the 1920s, this part of the Carolinas—from Greenville and Spartanburg in South Carolina to Winston-Salem and Durham in North Carolina—surpassed New England to become the nation’s top cotton manufacturing district. Charlotte blossomed as the trading city for the region. The city’s population soared from less than 20,000 residents at the turn of the century to more than 100,000 by 1940.
You can see that history today in Charlotte’s NoDa neighborhood, a cluster of former mill villages reborn as an eclectic arts district filled with pedestrian-friendly retail, nightlife, dining and music venues. Or look further to the now-suburban towns of Pineville, Cornelius, Kannapolis, Belmont, Mount Holly and Gastonia, where big brick mill buildings have been reimagined into restaurants, entertainment hubs, businesses and shops.
Cotton’s legacy lies behind other landscapes as well. The glass-roofed 1915 Latta Arcade and adjoining Brevard Court in Uptown—where employees of Center City businesses now flock to restaurants and retail during the lunch hour—housed offices of cotton brokers. Myers Park, with its gracious greenways and curving, oak-shaded streets added by renowned Boston, Massachusetts, landscape planner John Nolen, was laid out in the 1910s for mill owners, bankers and utility executives. And Lake Wylie in South Carolina began as a hydroelectric project of James Buchanan Duke, who sold power to textile companies. You’ll recognize the name in Duke Energy, one of the largest electric power companies in the U.S., which is headquartered in Charlotte. Duke is also the namesake of The Duke Mansion, one of the city’s most popular bed-and-breakfasts, venues and historic landmarks. Duke, having been at the helm of many of the mansion’s renovations, was its most famous owner.
Small Businesses-turned National Brands
Charlotte was never a one-industry town; its central location made it the Carolinas’ sales and distribution hub for all kinds of goods. The Belk family built the South’s premier department store chain; Belk’s flagship store is in Charlotte. On Central Avenue, Leon Levine opened the first Family Dollar discount store, which now operates nationwide. Across the street, W.T. Harris operated a food market that blossomed into the regional grocer Harris Teeter. Charlotte food salesman Philip L. Lance turned a raw peanuts deal gone awry into the ever-popular Lance crackers (now Snyder’s-Lance) brand. And in nearby Wilkesboro, North Carolina, a hometown hardware store grew into mega retailer now known as Lowe’s. Still, other notable locally born brands, like Cheerwine and Bojangles’ Famous Chicken n’ Biscuits, also came to fruition under the direction of area businessmen.
New South prosperity aided educational opportunities. Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU) was founded just west of Uptown immediately following the Civil War in an effort to train African-American “preachers and teachers.” In Myers Park, Queens College (now Queen’s University of Charlotte), also started by Presbyterians, was established as a school for educated, young white women. North of the city, elite Davidson College opened its doors to provide a liberal arts education to young white men. These specialized colleges were joined by what is now the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, launched by Bonnie Cone in 1946. The campus serves more than 28,000 students annually today as one of North Carolina’s major research universities.
A Music Mecca
Colleges possessed no monopoly on culture. WBT, the first radio station licensed in the South, attracted a remarkable array of country music and gospel performers who sang live over the airwaves. RCA Victor and other record companies visited often. A South Tryon sidewalk plaque marks where Bill Monroe, the Father of bluegrass music, cut his first discs in 1936.During the late 1930s, more records were made here than in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Newest New South
Civil Rights Reform
Charlotte’s pace of reinvention began to accelerate in the late 20th century. A city that had once been a backcountry farm community before the Civil War and a regional textile center in the early decades of the New South, had now begun to take a place on the national stage.
The new era began with the civil rights movement. The city’s African-American leaders succeeded in desegregating Revolution Park and the city’s new airport in the mid-1950s. In 1960, students at JCSU organized one of the largest sit-in efforts in the South. Their demonstrations led to the opening of lunch counters to all.
But upscale restaurants still barred African Americans—until a remarkable series of events unfolded in May of 1963. Crusading dentist Dr. Reginald Hawkins led a march from JCSU to City Hall demanding total desegregation. Cities elsewhere in the South were meeting such requests with police dogs and firehoses. Then-Mayor Stan Brookshire determined that Charlotte would be different. He phoned Chamber of Commerce leaders and quietly arranged for white-black pairs to eat lunch, integrating each restaurant. The action, coming a year before the 1964 Civil rights Act, required integration in all public places and gained national notice.
In an era when national businesses were looking to expand south, a welcoming image paid dividends. Charlotte’s progressive reputation solidified when the city became the U.S. test case for court-ordered busing to integrate schools in 1971 and again when Harvey Gantt won election as the first African-American mayor of a majority-white U.S. city in 1983. Between the early 1960s and early 1980s, Charlotte’s population grew by more than 50 percent.
A Banking Empire
Banking became Charlotte’s next frontier of change. The city already had robust local banks, thanks to a North Carolina law that allowed branches statewide. In 1982, banker Hugh McColl at North Carolina National Bank (NCNB) figured out how to buy a small out-of-state bank. The innovation sparked a massive rewriting of banking laws across the nation.
NCNB (rebranded as NationsBank) and local rival First Union (later renamed Wachovia, then bought by San Francisco, California-based Wells Fargo) rode the crest of the interstate banking wave, rapidly building two of America’s largest financial institutions. In 1998, McColl purchased San Francisco’s venerable giant Bank of America and moved the headquarters to the Queen City, creating the U.S.’s first coast-to-coast bank. Charlotte suddenly ranked second only to New York City as the nation’s biggest banking town.
A new skyline sprang into being along Tryon Street, the heart of Uptown. Or should it be called downtown? Longtime merchants insisted it had always been Uptown, and in a Sept. 23, 1974, resolution, City Council officially declared it so. A few years later, local leaders again chose a history-savvy name for another area being transformed by new construction. When Charlotte Douglas International Airport’s new terminal opened in 1982, the expressway linking it to Interstates 77 and 85 honored Charlotte-born Billy Graham, farm boy-turned global evangelist.
A Sports Stronghold
As Charlotte broke into the ranks of top-20 U.S. cities, major league sports arrived. In 1988, the beloved Charlotte Hornets brought professional basketball to a region known for its love of college hoops (thanks especially to North Carolina’s famed Duke University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill rivalry and Michael Jordan’s Tar Heel State roots). Jerry Richardson, a former NFL player-turned Hardee’s restaurant franchiser, put together financing to create the Carolina Panthers football team in 1993. Among his innovations were selling personal seat licenses (PSLs), which guaranteed availability of season tickets. The Charlotte Knights minor league baseball team started the same year, moving from a smaller stadium in Rock Hill, South Carolina, to the sprawling BB&T Ballpark in Uptown in 2014.
In auto racing, Charlotte had long been in the big league, ever since NASCAR ran its first-ever professional stock car race at the former Charlotte Speedway in 1949. But now, as the sport became increasingly sophisticated, the high-tech engineering operations of most race teams clustered near mammoth Charlotte Motor Speedway. In 2010, the NASCAR Hall of Fame opened in a glistening Uptown building designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the internationally renowned firm that includes celebrated architect I.M. Pei. PCF&P is also responsible for the Grand Louvre in Paris, France, the Palazzo Lombardia in Milan, Italy, the Four Seasons Hotel in New York, New York, and countless other famous buildings across the U.S. and the world.
A Cultural Melting Pot
Between 1990 and 2015, Mecklenburg County’s population doubled, surpassing one million residents. Governments in the city, county and outlying towns, still technically separate but all facing the same challenges of rapid urbanization, worked together to construct new hospitals, schools, roads and Charlotte’s first modern-day light rail transit lines.
While most newcomers arrived from across the nation, a growing number came from around the globe. The influx took many longtime Charlotteans by surprise; earlier immigration had largely bypassed this part of the South. A Brookings Institution report named Charlotte a Latino “hyper-growth” city in the 1990s, ranking it fourth in the nation. A subsequent study by Neilsen ranked Charlotte the fastest-growing major Latino metropolis in the entire U.S. from 2000 to 2013.
But Latinos made up only about half of immigrants. Signs written in Vietnamese, Arabic and Spanish dotted older suburban corridors, including Central Avenue and South Boulevard, where many newcomers launched businesses. Foreign-born families did not cluster in distinct neighborhoods, though, as in the Chinatowns and Little Italys of older U.S. immigrant destinations. At the edge of suburban Matthews, North Carolina, for instance, you could find Grand Asia Market, Lucy’s Colombian Bakery, Enzo’s Italian deli and a Mexican buffet in a single shopping center, with a Russian-Turkish grocery and a Greek pizza/Iranian kabob restaurant nearby.
Today, a rich international culinary scene continues to flourish around the city, welcoming in family-owned and locally built businesses that add even more character to Charlotte’s unique and diverse climate.
Charlotte Past, Present & Future
At Independence Square, in the heart of Uptown, four statues tower over Tryon and Trade streets. Each link Charlotte’s history with the present and future.
- An African-American railroad worker stands for transportation. That now includes rails, interstate highways and one of the nation’s top-10 busiest airports.
- A woman and child in textile mill worker uniforms represent industry. Manufacturing and distribution account for a sizable part of today’s economy.
- A gold miner symbolizes commerce. Banking surely heads that category in present-day Charlotte.
- And the fourth statue? It is a mother holding a baby—aptly pointing to the future. Each of the other statues is facing the future.
The rest of Charlotte’s history remains to be written. But as surely as when country families from the farm came to work in New South cotton mills, and as surely as when Civil rights activists and local officials worked together to open restaurants and schools to all, no matter where you’re from or how you get here, the Queen City welcomes you home.