Queens, kings, dukes and crowns may seem like words heard in a British history class, but they are just as relevant to Charlotte, North Carolina.
Community historian Tom Hanchett presented Charlotte’s history to an audience of all ages Jan. 7 at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library’s Mint Hill branch. The presentation was part of the library’s new monthly series in which Hanchett will discuss different aspects of Charlotte’s history.
During Hanchett’s “Mecklenburg History 101” presentation, he broke down the Queen City’s history into four eras: Queen, King, Duke and Crown.
The city was named after Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III of England during the colonial period. People who lived there were merchants who sold locks.
The merchants also named the county Mecklenburg, after where Queen Charlotte came from in Germany.
As Europeans began to settle in North America, they were settling on Native American land. An example of this was the Catawba River, named for the Catawba tribe.
Hanchett said many of the settlers were Scots-Irish, Presbyterian, German and Lutheran, which he related to the many Presbyterian and Lutheran churches in Charlotte. He said people described where they lived based on the church community they were near, such as Sharon Presbyterian Church.
Hanchett also discussed a gold rush in Charlotte, which led to the establishment of another location of the U.S. Mint in Charlotte. It was on Mint Street before it was not needed anymore in the city. Parts of it can be seen at the Mint Museum on Randolph Road.
“At one point, street names in Charlotte made sense,” Hanchett said.
Cotton was often referred to as “King Cotton,” which defines this era of Charlotte’s history.
The creation of railroads was one of the elements that allowed farmers to grow cotton in Charlotte. Buyers and sellers would come in from as close as Mint Hill and as far as Lexington. Hanchett said there was a “cotton wharf,” which is where the Charlotte Epicentre is located today.
“What a great name for a shopping mall,” Hanchett said. “It really was the epicenter of cotton buying and selling.”
The other element that led to the cotton boom in Charlotte was the end of slavery. When freedom came, Charlotte became one of the major cotton-producing and trading towns in the South.
Then, people in Charlotte decided to build their own textile mills to make more money. An example of one of the mills is Atherton Mill, which is now a popular, upscale shopping center in South End.
Hanchett said that pretty quickly, Charlotte and its surrounding areas became competitive in the textile industry. Many children worked in the mills. Hanchett said urbanization and the notion that kids should go to school both began in this era.
With everything happening in Charlotte at this time, immigration was not one of them. Hanchett said most of the last wave of immigrants settled in “new” lands out in the far west. Still, a lot of growth happened in the city.
At the beginning of the last century, James B. Duke of Duke Power (now known as Duke Energy) was at the forefront of producing and distributing electric power. He defines this era.
“We now take it for granted,” Hanchett said. “We assume it’s always been there, but it wasn’t. And it took somebody very visionary and also incredibly rich to make electricity a functional thing we can use every day.”
Hanchett said Duke, who was from Durham but moved to New Jersey, was rich because of the mass-produced cigarette made by Duke American Tobacco.
Duke later founded Duke Power, creating tremendous growth in Charlotte. An old picture of Charlotte shows Tryon Street as “the Wall Street of Charlotte.”
The growth in Charlotte led to the development of places like Myers Park, which was so nice because of the money from textile mill owners, Duke Energy employees and the bankers in the neighborhood.
NASCAR also began to develop in Charlotte at this time, with races happening on Sundays.
“If you worked in the mill, you got paid on Saturday,” Hanchett said. “When do the NASCAR races run? Sunday. Still today.”
In more recent years, Charlotte’s skyline has grown with new and old buildings. Hanchett calls this the city’s crown.
Though Hanchett said he does not know exactly why the city has grown so much, he does know some of the pieces.
Civil rights is one of the key reasons for Charlotte’s growth, according to Hanchett. Some of the beginnings of the national Civil Rights Movement began in Charlotte, such as efforts to desegregate upscale restaurants, which caught the attention of John and Robert Kennedy. The Kennedys later put together the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which was inspired in part by the success in Charlotte.
Another key component was education with the establishment and growth of UNC Charlotte, which is one of the major universities in the South, according to Hanchett.
“This is a region that has been a lot more willing than a lot of parts in the South to change,” Hanchett said.
Hanchett said Charlotte’s investment in change has brought so many people to this city to thrive.
“No, they’re not all on 485 right in front of me, but it feels like it,” Hanchett said. “It’s amazing that we’re not stuck in traffic all the time because we have a city that was built for half of us, and we’re all here now.”