On December 3, 2018, the City of Charlotte will mark the 250th anniversary of its founding. In December of 1768, the Assembly of the colony of North Carolina passed and the royal governor approved a measure that defined the boundaries of the town called “Charlotte,” which would serve as the meeting place for county government. Three local men were named “Commissioners” with the right to sell half-acre lots to merchants and lawyers and others who saw a future for themselves in a fledgling settlement.
Photo caption: This photo was originally published in Harper’s Weekly, Vol. 19, p.476 (1875). The magazine sent a reporter to Charlotte to cover the festivities surrounding the 100th anniversary of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence.
A few years following the creation of the town, the people of Charlotte became disenchanted with royal government and showed themselves to be forward in the demand for independence. The streets of Charlotte saw bloodshed in 1780, when opposing forces in the American Revolutionary war clashed there. Ten years later, another general, George Washington, passed through as part of a tour of the freshly independent United States in his first term as president.
The discovery of gold in the region and the arrival of the railroad in the 1850s sent Charlotte on its journey from crossroads town to regional hub. Unlike other Southern cities, it was not destroyed by the Civil War. After local investors established the first textile mill in 1880, Charlotte grew to provide machines, chemicals, transportation, and financial services for mills in the entire Piedmont region. Twentieth-century Charlotte built on this foundation to make energy and interstate banking the new foundations of the city’s economic life.
The story of economic growth forms the backbone of Charlotte’s history, but the whole story involves struggle as well as progress. The city, state, and indeed the country had been founded on the exploitation of unfree labor. When the Civil War put an end to slavery, Charlotte and the rest of the nation entered a period of uncertainty – what would freedom mean? The renewed economic growth of the late nineteenth century coincided with a political settlement that limited African American participation in education, politics, and business. “Jim Crow” arrived, making the New South like the old.
Within the confines of segregation, African American schools, churches, and businesses served their community and produced local leaders who could advocate for their people. Decades of steady struggle bore fruit in the overturning of segregated systems and the establishment of new values in the minds of all citizens. Nonetheless, the present has still grown out of the past, for better or for worse.
The beginning of Charlotte was an act of leaders and property holders, yet it required the remaining ranks of society to make it work. The name of the town and its boundaries on a map defined it, but Charlotte acquired its character from the people who made their lives here, lived through extraordinary events together, and struggled over questions of rights and respect within the community they shared.