The Levine Museum of the New South is devoted to telling the story of Charlotte, NC, since 1865. Its street level contains a relatively permanent exhibit called “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers”, a succinct phrase that neatly captures Charlotte’s history since the Civil War. The second level has changing exhibits that cover contemporary issues. Both were very busy when Ruth and I visited on a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon, and it struck me as a good idea for a museum in a part of the United States that seems to be the starting place for many thorny issues, most recently the pulling down of Confederate statues. Our guide at the Chickamauga Battlefield said that, in some ways, the Civil War has not ended.
This city calls its downtown Uptown and seems to be thriving. Uptown has so many skyscrapers that it seems like a larger city center than it is and promotes the idea that Charlotte is the financial hot spot of the New South. As we explored this community, we saw very little urban rot. Old buildings have either been updated or are in the process of being redone. The building pictured above, for example, used to be a cotton mill and is now full of inviting stores and eating places on the CATS transit system.
On the Levine Museum of the New South’s first floor the word Piedmont is often used. It’s the common name for this geographic area of rocky rivers and small, not-so-prosperous subsistence farms. However, cotton grows well here. The Civil War affected the supply of this commodity and pushed prices up. Charlotte, for centuries at a place where two native American trading paths met, was ripe for an economic explosion. Railroads helped turn it into a New South city of thriving churches and cotton mills, a growing city surrounded by poor tenant farms. By the 1920s The Piedmont roared past New England as America’s foremost textile manufacturing region. By the 21st century Charlotte was home to 8 Fortune 500 companies. Today Lowe’s, Family Dollar, and NASCAR maintain headquarters here in a city where a company called Radiator Specialty patented and produced those ubiquitous orange traffic barrels and citizens elected the first African-American mayor in a Southern city.
Over time, unpleasant social issues included poor, ex-slave tenant farmers, dismal school enrollment, the Ku Klux Klan, segregation, etc. All and more are thoroughly explored in “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers”. Long-term problems have set Charlotte up for dealing with the contemporary social issues that are explored on Levine’s 2nd floor. The temporary exhibit that I saw, “Know Justice Know Peace” has closed. It was, to my knowledge, the first museum exhibit to deal with police-involved killings. It commenced with timelines focused on local events related to school policy, housing, and criminal justice. What I most appreciated were up-to-the-day updates of several cases about controversial killings involving police. Being from St. Louis, I was most interested in the Ferguson details. I don’t know when “Let Love Reign” will be taken down or what is coming next.
The Levine Museum of the New South challenges visitors by exploring contemporary issues that often make people uncomfortable. This makes it both worthwhile and unique.