Finding a true Charlotte native is pretty much like finding a unicorn, so there are a lot of us in the Queen City who don’t know some of the city’s cool history. (Like the reason we’re the “Queen City” is because of Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the queen consort of British King George the III, who was the king at the time the city was founded …) That’s why we chatted with long-time Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett, who shared his insight on the city’s impressive past and the events that put us on the map. Read on, and the next time you run into a Charlotte unicorn, you can test their knowledge of how we became the crown jewel of the South.
The railroad puts Charlotte on the map.
Charlotte is old. Like 250 years old. And the thing that probably most changed the city’s direction was when the railroad came to town. The trains ushered in a new era and literally paved the way for the city to become the world-class city it is now. Tom says, “My favorite single event is the coming of the railroad in the 1850s. When the first railroad steamed into town, it literally put Charlotte on the map. Before the trains, Charlotte was old but isolated, there was no good river route to the coast, so the arrival of railroads made us part of the global market.”
Desegregation, which separated Charlotte from the rest of the South
In the 1960s, the sit-in movement in Charlotte helped to desegregate lunch counters, but the upscale restaurant and movie theaters stayed segregated. That changed in May, 1963, when local civil rights activist Dr. Reginald Hawkins, an African-American dentist, lead a march from Johnson C. Smith to City Hall demanding the end to segregation. Then-Charlotte Mayor Stan Brookshire (the Brookshire Freeway is named for him) recognized the importance of making it happen. “Mayor Brookshire wanted Charlotte to be a good city for business and called the Chamber of Commerce, who was a group of all white men, to get all the restaurants desegregated, and it worked,” Tom says. Civil rights leaders and business leaders joined forces, eating together in restaurants, and that, Tom says, “was a real turning point in Charlotte in choosing a progressive path.”
NASCAR (the National Association for Stock Car Racing) ran the first Strictly Stock car race here on June 19, 1949, at what was then called Charlotte Speedway, a 3/4-mile dirt track. Approximately 13,000 spectators were on hand to watch the 200-lap race. NASCAR went on to become a billion-dollar industry with more than 1,200 races at 100 tracks across the country, but it all started right here in Charlotte. Having been home to the first-ever race helped Charlotte win the fight to build the NASCAR Hall of Fame, now a popular tourist attraction in Uptown.
The Godfather of Soul makes music – and history — in Charlotte.
“Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” is one of James Brown’s most well-known songs, but here’s a little-known fact: he laid down the tracks in Charlotte. It was 1965, and Brown happened to be coming through Charlotte, so he recorded the song at Arthur Smith Studios on Monroe Road. Legend has it, Brown recorded the track in one take and had to read the lyrics from paper because he hadn’t totally memorized the song. Music historians refer to the song as the first funk recording ever. It was Brown’s first top 10 hit, and The Rolling Stones called it one of the best 100 songs of the 20th century. The song has since been covered by many other artists.
A hospital is born.
A lot of the wounded Confederate soldiers ended up in Charlotte during the Civil War, and a woman named Jane Wilkes volunteered to care for them. It made her realize the need for a hospital, a central place to treat patients. Before that, Tom explains, “There was a time when people didn’t think hospitals were a good idea, but women helped create hospitals during the Civil War, as Wilkes did here in Charlotte.”
In 1875, she lead the movement to raise money to build the first two hospitals in the Queen City — St. Peter’s and Good Samaritan. According to Tom, the two hospitals ultimately formed the framework for what later became known as Carolinas Medical Center. CMC Main is now the home base for Atrium Health, one of the largest healthcare networks in the Southeast, with more than 900 care locations.
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