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Spotlight: Local Historian Reflects on CLT250

Tom Hanchett is something of a local celebrity around Charlotte, in terms of community historians.

When I sat down with him in Arepas Grill, a traditional Venezuelan spot on Old Pineville Road, we were in the midst of our conversation when someone approached Hanchett to introduce themselves. Proclaiming himself a fan, the man was excited to meet Hanchett and exclaimed that he was a big fan of the historical work he has been involved in since first coming to Charlotte in 1981.

Hanchett himself was excited that we were in a traditional Venezuelan restaurant in a city that historically had very little Latinx immigration. He said Charlotte is a city of reinvention, and we’re in the middle of a reinvention right now that’s bringing more culture to a burgeoning city.

“This reinvention is bringing people from all over the U.S., from all over the world, and suddenly we have in this block, a Venezuelan restaurant, an African market, an Argentinian place with amazing empanadas,” he happily said.

In the lead-up to Charlotte’s 250th birthday, Queen City Nerve sat down with Hanchett to talk about Charlotte constantly reinventing itself, the impact of newcomers to the city and the celebration of our beloved Queen City.


Q.C. Nerve: How does Charlotte fit into the vision of the New South?

Tom Hanchett: What we said in the Levine Museum of the New South is that if you boil the whole “New South” thing down to one word it’s “reinventing.” The New South as a term started to happen right after the Civil War. Slavery was gone, the South’s economy was in a mess, basically the region had to reinvent itself, and everybody was watching. So it had to be sincere about it. And that keeps happening. We’ve gone from slavery to segregation, which was a major reinvention. From slavery to segregation to civil rights to where we are now. We’ve gone from fields to factories to finance.

Here, we’ve grown every single decade since the railroads came in the 1850s. And that means that we’ve been too busy building new stuff for anything to get old enough for anyone to think was historic. I’m partly a historian but I think I’m a little contrarian. People don’t respect something or want to know the story of it. And in Charlotte, there’s tremendous history because people built one big honkin’ city here and figuring that out and helping people get turned on to it makes me feel useful and happy.

Tom Hanchett
Community historian, Tom Hanchett. (Photo courtesy of HistorySouth.org)

Charlotte has a lot of “transplants” in the city now, has that always been something Charlotte’s been known for?

This has been a city that has welcomed newcomers from the very beginning. In the New South period, one key moment was when the first cotton mill got built. It wasn’t built by a Charlottean, it was built by a guy named R. M. Moates, who came here from someplace else and ended up partnering with somebody in Charlotte and they built the building that’s still there. It’s a historic landmark, on the corner of Graham and 5th Street.

Charlotte has always been a place that welcomes newcomers, that pulled newcomers in. Another great example of that is this guy namedHugh McColl who grew up on a cotton farm down in Bennettsville, South Carolina, came up here was a young trainee at a bank. They had just merged two banks to make something called NCMB and he kind of worked his way up through NCMB until he led the place and reinvented American banking. He created Bank of America here in the ’90s, he’s another example of someone like me, who was a newcomer who was able to find something useful to do in partnership with the community, and the community embraced him.

So, in the spirit of the Queen City’s 250th birthday, what about our history should we embrace as we move forward?

It’s kind of typical of Charlotte that there has been a good effort on celebration, but it hasn’t really swept the city’s culture like it might in more history-oriented communities. This is part of the New South is embracing the future, running toward the future with open arms. I’ve been kind of quietly proud of charlotte and CLT250 effort.

Let’s make something of this. It’s an opportunity for us to do what is really hard if you’re a person on the make, if you’re an ambitious person, if you’re a person really engaged in the day-to-day making of a new world which so many folks are here for. Whether you’re in a corporate world or the parent track or building a nonprofit, whatever. The tasks right in front of you seem more important than sitting down for an afternoon and having some birthday cake.

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