Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers

Banner carried on North Carolina Equal Suffrage League float // May 20, 1914

I’d planned to meet a friend for lunch in Charlotte the other day, but she was running late (stuck at a never-ending bridal shower; the worst, am I right?). I decided to walk a couple of blocks to the Levine Museum of the New South on East Seventh Street; I used to volunteer at the museum in high school for their annual Day of the Dead Festival–I remember these festivals as being the best day of the year–but I’d never walked through the Museum’s exhibits myself. I had an uninterrupted block of time, though, and this was the perfect opportunity to check the Museum off the bucket list. Here are a few thoughts this MLK Day:

The centerpiece of the Museum is Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers: Reinventing Charlotte and the Carolina Piedmont in the New South, an award-winning exhibit that explores the profound changes the American South–and Charlotte, more specifically–underwent from the post-Civil War Reconstruction era to now. I talk a lot about Buffalo: all of my ancestors lived in and around the city, and many of my favorite childhood memories are from visiting my grandparents “back home.” I’ve always loved Buffalo and the idea of Buffalo, but I was actually born and raised in Charlotte, in the South. The exhibit’s six “environments”–six rooms featuring a different period of Charlotte’s history–allowed me to explore the complicated history of the city that’s become my family’s new hometown.

What is the New South? As the Museum and its historians describe it, it’s the South since the Civil War, when the legal emancipation of “all persons held as slaves” (taken from the Emancipation Proclamation) forced the region to reinvent its economy and society. The exhibit begins with the Reconstruction era: I walked through a replica of a sharecropper’s home–a one-room dwelling without running water or air conditioning–and past a model of a cotton field. Sharecropping–a system in which a landlord allows a tenant to farm and live on the land in exchange for a share of the crop–arose out of the absence of employment, cash or an independent credit system after the War. High interest rates, unpredictable harvests, unscrupulous landlords and laws favoring landowners kept tenants and their families severely in debt, and this system was fraught with precarity.

Recreation of a sharecropper’s home

The Reconstruction-era room also features a cotton gin from the period (along with baskets of what I’m now referring to as pre-gin cotton and post-gin cotton for comparison) and includes a section on the impact that Birth of a Nation (1915) had on the American psyche; on the prevalence of the Ku Klux Klan in the Charlotte area; on the state’s aggressive efforts toward disenfranchising former slaves; and, ultimately, on the use of lynching as a tool to intimidate and to punish, all to uphold a system that kept the white majority in power. This section offers a compelling and comprehensive narrative of the Reconstruction era in Charlotte and foreshadows the “environments” and events to come.

Cotton gin

And that brings us to the second “environment:” turn-of-the-century Charlotte and the cotton industry. Around the corner is a model of a textile factory floor, complete with descriptions of local textile mills and their founders; a remodeled spinning frame, carding machine and Draper loom; and carts of cotton. The room even smells of a textile mill–it reminded me immediately of the bedding-factory-turned-antique-mall that I visited last summer–and I listened to the accounts of former textile-mill employees as I strolled through the exhibit. There’s a mill house “down-the-road” from the factory, and visitors can take a seat and play checkers on the inviting front porch.

The next room is a change-of-pace: a re-creation of Charlotte Street, highlighting such Charlotte-area businesses as RCA Studios, Southern Power Company, Belk and Lance Crackers. I took a tour of a miniature Belk department store, tried on “antique” clothing and sat in a barber’s chair. I read about the suffragette marches in the city of Charlotte, listened to a few Bluegrass tunes on a 1940s radio and saw a cool old car that I couldn’t possibly identify. The exhibit ends with a look at Charlotte today–the skyscrapers, the banking industry and the plans for the future–and asks visitors to record their own video about the direction the city should grow in.

But it’s the “environment” in the center–the room dedicated to the Civil Rights era–that is the most moving part of the exhibit. I’m a few generations removed from the teenagers of the 1960s: I’ve grown up seeing images of “separate-but-equal” water fountains, of the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro and of the school buses featured in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), but this was new. I sat at a replica of the Greensboro lunch counter and listened to personal accounts from local sit-in leaders; I came face-to-face with artifacts from the segregated South; and I climbed aboard a school bus and watched videos of Charlotte-area integration. It’s an exhibit that reminds us of our past, keeps us accountable for our actions today and suggests that there is still so much social justice work to be done. I’ll leave you with these words:


Oh, and Emily? I’m really glad you were late. 

18 thoughts on “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers

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