H.005. Piedmont Industrialization: Charlotte, N.C.
- Creator: Southern Oral History Program
- Collection: Southern Oral History Program Interviews
Charlotte, N.C., has been a focal point for economic development in the Piedmont region. During the antebellum period, Charlotte was a small market town, with only 3,000 citizens in 1860. In spite of its small size, it became an important trade center. As early as 1825, Charlotte businessmen began urging the state legislature to improve the town's transportation links with other markets by establishing railroad service. Construction on the first railroad began in 1849. Location in the center of a gold-producing region also added to Charlotte's importance. With the discovery of gold in Mecklenburg County in 1799 and the opening of other mines in surrounding counties, Charlotte became a center for shipping gold to the federal mint in Philadelphia. In 1835, the United States government established a branch of the mint in Charlotte. Industrial and commercial development began in the second half of the 19th century, with cotton playing an important role. As cotton prices fell after the Civil War, it became more profitable to manufacture textiles in the South, thereby avoiding the cost of shipping cotton north. Charlotte, however, was slower to develop a textile industry than elsewhere in North Carolina. In 1881, entrepreneurs established the town's first textile manufacturing establishment, the Charlotte Cotton Mill. Other mills followed, with the most rapid expansion occurring between 1889 and 1910. Charlotte began to expanded even more rapidly after the turn of the century. With the encouragement of businessmen and investors such as Daniel Augustus Tompkins, Charlotte's industry became more diversified, with no one industry predominating. Textile and agricultural machinery, chemicals, cotton seed oil, and peanut food products were among the industries that developed in Charlotte during this period. Real estate development and construction accompanied economic expansion. In 1890, James Latta began to develop Dilworth, a tract of land outside the city limits. The Dilworth project eventually included both residential and industrial neighborhoods. Myers Park, a residential development, was begun shortly after the turn of the century. As Charlotte expanded, the city used North Carolina's annexation law to incorporate outlying neighborhoods and mill villages. After World War II, distribution rather than manufacturing became central to Charlotte's economy. As conglomerates began to incorporate individual mills, cotton manufacturing became more centralized. Consequently, textile manufacturing moved out of the city to other locations, although Charlotte remained at the geographical center of the region's cotton industry. At the same time, new highways began to displace mill villages and other working-class neighborhoods. The development of superhighways facilitated Charlotte's development as a distribution center. Charlotte eventually claimed to be second only to Chicago as a trucking terminal. Charlotte's emergence as a financial center began after the Civil War. Numerous banks were founded in the 1870s, and the wave of new financial and commercial institutions continued into the 1920s. By the early 1980s, Charlotte claimed to be the largest financial center in the southeast. The Charlotte interviews on the mill village neighborhoods of north Charlotte. Most of the interviewees worked all or part of their careers in the cotton or hosiery industries. Among the topics discussed are various jobs in the mills, work conditions, child labor, work discipline, changing technology, speed ups, and efficiency experts. The impact of the Depression and World War II is also discussed. Accounts of unionization attempts and strikes figure prominently in these interviews. A few interviewees recalled specific strikes, among them the Gastonia Strike and the 1934 General Strike. Mildred Gwin Andrews, who served as secretary-manager for the Yarn Spinners' Association and worked as a researcher for the Cotton Textile Institute and the American Textile Machinery Association, provided information about the history of cotton manufacturing in North Carolina and described some of the industry's professional associations. Mill village and family life constitute the other major themes of these interviews. Discussions of paternalism, living conditions, and company stores reveal the close ties between the mills and the villages. The relationship between textile workers and other Charlotte residents illuminates class relations within the city. Almost all of the interviewees discussed family life, including childhood, education, furnishings and diet, courtship, marriage, and pregnancy. A few interviewees also touched upon more personal matters, such as illegitimacy, divorce, birth control, suicide, and alcoholism. Because the interviewers made some of their contacts through a church hot lunch program for senior citizens, programs for the elderly are an important element in these interviews. Other themes relating to everyday life include recreation, health care, and religion. The interviewees enjoyed a wide variety of recreational activities, including fishing, hunting, square dancing, quilting bees, and playing in musical groups. Interviewees also mentioned attending movies, minstrel and medicine shows, and listening to the phonograph and radio. Several workers also played on mill baseball teams. Among the topics relating to health care are folk cures, the 1918 flu epidemic, and vaccinations. Midwives attended many women at the births of their children, but hospital deliveries are also mentioned. Religion was an important element in the lives of these interviewees. In their narratives, they emphasized church attendance, Sunday school, and revivals rather than their experiences as members of specific denominations. Because of Charlotte's importance as a commercial center, a few of the interviewees are from outside the textile industry. The owner of a trucking company, and railway, streetcar, and auto workers are included among the interviewees representing occupations relating to transportation. These interviewees discussed unionization in the trucking and railroad industries, and the streetcar workers recalled the strike of 1918. Several mentioned Cameron Morrison, a Charlotte businessman who served as governor of North Carolina (1920-1928) in connection with transportation. In order to show Charlotte's economic diversity, the project included interviews with business leaders and executives. Milton Short, a member of the Chamber of Commerce, offered a businessman's perspective on Charlotte's growth and development. Interviews with John Belk, Jean Cole, and with engineers at Duke Power and Westinghouse provide information about some of Charlotte's other major enterprises. The Charlotte interviews include information on a number of prominent North Carolinians. The role Mildred Gwin Andrews took in the textile industry brought her into contact with Liston Pope, Harriet Herring, Howard Odum, Luther Hodges, and James Spencer Love. In his capacity as a naval officer serving in Georgia, Ralph W. Strickland recalled meeting Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Benjamin V. Martin, son of a Clemson professor, had many recollections of his early years and college education at Clemson University.