Meet Tom Hanchett: Charlotte's Dr. History
Tom Hanchett, staff historian at Levine Museum of the New South and interpreter of Charlotte’s last 100 years, says the city’s history “is begging to be told.” Got time for a story?
Hanchett, author of Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975, revels in telling the story of how Charlotte came of age. He’s shown here with a cotton gin on display at Levine Museum.
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On a sunny weekday morning in December, Tom Hanchett, bespectacled, bearded, and blazered, is doing something that comes naturally to him: standing backward in a moving bus.
“Look historic?” he asks the rapt audience of 40, craning their necks to see the nearly six-year-old Mecklenburg County courthouse on their right. We’re on a tour of Charlotte’s racial history. Outside, men and women wearing badges and suits, cellphones at their ears, walk past. “We’re in the heart, right now, of Brooklyn.”
You know the deal. Many buildings in uptown Charlotte of yesteryear were bulldozed to make way for our theme park of a center city. You may not know about Brooklyn, which was a mini-city itself, home to more than a hundred black businesses and thousands of residents.
This is the part of the tour where one might expect Hanchett, staff historian at Levine Museum of the New South and one of the more visible authorities on all things 20th-century Charlotte, to sigh, perhaps give his head a small shake. He doesn’t. For Hanchett, this is where he gets to dig into the good stuff.
Hanchett knows the power of story, and every storyteller knows that what’s left out from a tale can be as illuminating as what’s there. As the bus rumbles down South McDowell Street, Hanchett sets the tone for what’s to come.
“In the 1960s, urban renewal money was used to wipe out black neighborhoods,” he says in his characteristic upbeat tone, microphone in hand. “Why the buildings aren’t here is an important part of this tour. The story of why they’re gone is still with us.”
As the bus turns right toward the plaque marking Second Ward High School—you can probably guess why a plaque is needed to find the spot—Hanchett talks about the promises made to the African American community to replace the demolished school.
“That promise was never kept,” he says, as the bus passengers fall silent. “Those are the kinds of stories that are here. They’re stories under the ground.”
The bus pulls away from the plaque and starts heading toward Biddleville, a west-side neighborhood that’s seen recent, dramatic gentrification.
“I called him once with a question,” the woman next to me whispers. “And he called me back and left this long answer in my voice mail.”
People told him to go to Charleston or Charlottesville instead.
“Charlotte has no ‘history,’ quote unquote,” Hanchett remembers being told in 1981, when he was a 25-year-old graduate student. He was living in Chicago at the time, working on a master’s degree in urban studies at the University of Chicago and exploring a city with no shortage of history, visible or otherwise. Hanchett was interested in how neighborhoods take shape, and he has a lifelong sweet tooth. So he spent weekends in search of ethnic bakeries, riding his bike beyond Hyde Park’s gorgeous gothic mansions through all sorts of South Side neighborhoods.
Raised mostly in Virginia and upstate New York, Hanchett, 57, had never been to Charlotte until that year, when UNC Charlotte history professor Dan Morrill got a 14-month grant, including funds for a graduate student, to study older historic neighborhoods for the local Historic Landmarks Commission.
“I was used to a world of late 19th-century buildings,” Hanchett says. “None of that was here! It was almost physically scary, like when you go to the deserts of Utah for the first time and it feels like entering another climate, another planet. That was a negative.”
But if Hanchett is anything besides a historian, he is an optimist. “The positive was the trees. The longer you live here, the more you forget that other cities are not filled with trees like this.”
He rented a place in Elizabeth—30 years ago the neighborhood was not yet, well, as adorable—and placed an old car seat on the front porch so the place wouldn’t look worth breaking into. Working on the grant project, Hanchett delved into Myers Park, Center City, Fourth Ward, and Biddleville.
“I didn’t have a car so I biked everywhere, which people in Charlotte thought was very weird. But it allowed me to see the city close-up,” he says, sitting in his office at the Levine. It’s the classic fire hazard academic’s space, filled floor to ceiling (and tabletop and cabinet top) with books, and nary a blank spot on the wall, either. A handwritten recipe for fellow North Carolina historian David Cecelski’s grandma’s sweet potato biscuits takes up prime wall space by his desk. There’s room for one visitor to sit—in a rocking chair.
What was supposed to be a 14-month stint in 1981 stretched until 1987. Morrill and Hanchett studied more neighborhoods, then went deep into Charlotte’s gospel and bluegrass history from the 1930s. After later earning his PhD in history, Hanchett taught at UNC Chapel Hill, Youngstown State, and Cornell. He enjoyed teaching but found himself craving a broader audience than undergraduates. “I found myself wanting to be outside the classroom, reaching a wider swath of people,” he says. “Part of my soul wanted to be in the community instead of in the academy.”
He returned to Charlotte in 1999 for the staff historian spot at Levine, calling it his “dream job.” By then, Elizabeth had become expensive, and his family settled in Plaza Midwood.
“Charlotte does have a history,” Hanchett says. “It’s just mostly in the 20th century, and it’s begging to be told. For me that’s been exciting. It appears not to have history because some people define history as at least 100 years old, and in 1900 there were only 20,000 people living here. But if you define history as remaking itself—if you think of history as living—the city is making history right now.”