The Story of Charlotte, Part 7: Bills of Rights

The mills bring growth and the city expands, giving Charlotteans the freedom to live in such faraway places as the new neighborhood of Dilworth. But after a series of political fights, many residents will soon feel the full grip of oppression


Published:

KIM ROSEN

Last year, Mecklenburg County celebrated its 250th anniversary. This year, Charlotte magazine is looking back at life in the region through the years. From Charlotte’s beginnings as a rural crossroads to its current status as a major U.S. city, this 12-part series traces the city’s growth and highlights some of the turning points that made the city what it became. 

1881—Charlotte’s streets are filled with noise. The scream of steam whistles from the dozen trains stopping in town each day. The looms at Charlotte Cotton Mills clack and hum. Horseshoes clomp along the dusty streets, carrying wagonloads of cotton. Above the noise at the Square, hundreds of voices mingle—salesmen and tailors and cotton dealers. Other voices—some laughing, some shouting—spill into the street from saloons. 

Charlotte, a city of 7,000 people now, has 17 saloons and a beer garden scattered among its streets and alleys. That’s not to mention the handful of pharmacies that sell liquor. Taverns have been part of the town since it was founded. But as the city grows, leaders look at the new saloons with worried eyes. There are too many strange faces in the streets, they say. And factory owners want their new workers to show up on time. Preachers and politicians have been talking about the evils of alcohol for years, but nothing serious has come of it. Now, though, calls for closing the saloons get louder and more organized.   

“This city has been cursed and handicapped with the dead weight of the grog shops,” one resident writes in an 1881 edition of The Charlotte Observer, the daily newspaper that opened in 1869. A new group of local businessmen and their wives form a Prohibition Association to elect anti-saloon aldermen and lobby Raleigh for a statewide ban on alcohol. Women like Jane Wilkes, wife of Mecklenburg Iron Works owner John Wilkes, are already experienced in charity efforts. They’ve helped raise money for a new hospital and home for the poor. Now they turn their efforts to closing the saloons and ending the “drink traffic,” condemning the moral failures of the saloon keepers while their husbands organize politically. The group is successful; the saloons close for a few months in 1881. But a state election that year overturns the ban and the saloon doors open again.  

Over in Biddleville, William C. Smith likes what he hears from the Prohibitionists. Smith is part of a new generation—the first blacks to live most of their lives free. They are the first generation to be educated in the Freedmen’s schools and the Biddle Institute’s college, and they’re now coming of age as preachers and teachers and leaders. The 26-year-old Smith opens a newspaper, the Charlotte Messenger, in 1882, and in the first issue the paper calls for local blacks to “stop smoking cigars, drinking whiskey, [and] pleasure riding.” For Smith, Prohibition is just what the black community needs to become equals with whites in politics and business. Smith urges his readers to vote for Prohibition candidates. 

John T. Schenck doesn’t buy it. Schenck is in his late 50s now and an established politician and businessman with a saloon of his own on the busy streets of Second Ward. Born a slave, he’s now the most powerful black man in Mecklenburg County. Schenck and other old timers, most of them former slaves, believe their newfound freedom includes the right to have a drink now and then. All this Prohibition talk is a trap, Schenck says, a scheme by the whites to divide the black vote by splitting the “preachers from the common Negroes.” Some worry that the “next step will be to pass a law to prohibit the poor colored man from voting for his president.” 

Smith and other young black teachers and preachers want respect and a chance to prove themselves “gentlemen.” They want none of the “fogey ideas” of old-timers like Schenck, whose power comes not from education or religion but from backroom deals and party loyalty and the rough-edged world of urban politics. Twice in the next four years, Prohibitionists—black and white—try to oust Schenck from the board of city aldermen as part of a broader push to close the saloons. Twice, Schenck beats them and strengthens his alliances with mayor William Johnston and other white anti-Prohibitionists. The saloons, Johnston says, are good for Charlotte’s economy. After all, liquor taxes provide nearly half of the city’s budget for the newly opened public schools. The alliance between Schenck and Johnston is an unlikely one. Twenty-five years ago, Johnston was one of Charlotte’s most vocal pro-slavery secessionists.

After years of bickering, the city decides to put Prohibition to a vote. On June 6, 1886, voters head to the polls. On the streets, Prohibitionist women gather to pray while their children march and hold banners decrying the evils of alcohol. Voters reject Prohibition 1,018 to 589, with the black majority in the Second and Third wards voting overwhelmingly to stay wet. In Second Ward, groups of anti-Prohibitionists march in celebration. Working men, black and white, wave flags and pin red, white, and blue ribbons to their shirts emblazoned with the words “Freedom and Liberty.” 

***

ON ANY GIVEN DAY, this fast-growing town is filled with new faces. Farm hands come here looking for work in the new mills, passengers kill time waiting to switch trains, and ambitious clerks look to make names for themselves in business after growing up in rural outposts, where it’s becoming harder and harder to make a living. Charlotte seems like a decent place for the young and ambitious. The Oates brothers, who recently opened the Charlotte Cotton Mills, were once just Cleveland County farm boys who came to Charlotte as grocery store clerks. 

Another young and ambitious face belongs to Daniel Augustus Tomkins, who grew up in rural South Carolina and arrives in 1883 as an engine salesman for the Westinghouse Company on Fourth Street. Charlotte evenings, Tompkins says, are “intolerably dull,” so he spends his time working, saves his money, and plans for the future. By 1884, he’s saved enough to buy a cottonseed oil mill in Charlotte. 

By the late 1880s, Tomkins and his business partners are building mills through­-out the South. In Charlotte, they make plans for three mills on the edges of town, just inside the city limits. The mills all rise by 1889—the Alpha Mill on the northeast side of the city; the Ada Mill on the northern side; and the Victor Mill, the tallest of the three, casting shadows over South Cedar Street.

Beside each mill, three- and four-room houses stand together in neat rows. Thousands of workers and their families, many fresh from mountain farms, fill the homes and the unpaved streets. The mills’ location, away from the center of town, makes it easier for managers to keep an eye on the workers and prevent other mill managers from coming in and poaching the best loom fixers. The location also keeps the workers away from the saloons so they’ll “go to bed at a reasonable hour” and show up on time. 

Another country boy from South Carolina, Edward Dilworth Latta, who came to Charlotte as a salesman in 1876, opens a clothing store on the Square. By 1890, more than 100 seamstresses sew day and night at his nearby Charlotte Trouser Company. But Latta isn’t content with the money from the clothes. He sees the possibility of money in real estate, given the city’s rapid growth. Latta and a group of big-name city merchants, including the mayor, start a new partnership—the Charlotte Consolidated Construction Company. The papers dub the new company the Four Cs. The company snaps up farmland and forests—442 acres—on the city’s southern edge. 

The Four Cs has a plan for the land—it wants a neighborhood of homes with lawns set into the landscape, plus a large central park. The neighborhood will be a place for people who want to escape the noisy and crowded city, which has grown to almost 12,000 people. It will be a place for people willing to pay for that peace. But something’s missing. To make the new neighborhood work, Latta needs a way to get people there. Horse-drawn streetcars carry rail passengers along new tracks from the town’s two train depots to the Square. But other than that, walking is the best way to get around town. In Asheville and in some Northern cities, electric streetcars have made it possible to build suburbs like the one the Four Cs envisions. So when Thomas Edison comes to town one day to experiment with electromagnetism as a way to refine gold ore, Latta invites him over for dinner. A few months later, the Four Cs purchases the old horse-drawn lines and announces it will spend $50,000 converting to electricity and extending the streetcar lines from the Square and outward in every direction. Edison Electric gets the contract.  

On May 20, 1891, crowds gather along South Tryon Street as the first electric streetcar leaves the Square and heads south toward the new 90-acre park set among thousands of empty lots. When the streetcar lets the passengers off at Latta Park, the people head for the surrounding lots, where auctioneers shout numbers and small boys run to mark off lot boundaries. On the first day, 165 of 1,630 lots are sold. Soon, Charlotte’s first suburb—Dilworth—welcomes its first residents. Advertisements seeking new buyers fill the newspapers. Latta offers long-term mortgages that can be paid in installments, rare in a time when most people pay for houses in cash. He also takes out ads around town, even painting a slogan on the town water tower just south of the city: “Buy a House in Dilworth for Your Rent Money.” 

Near the edge of Latta’s new neighborhood, along the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad line, factories and mills spring up. Tomkins builds his fourth Charlotte mill, Atherton, there in 1892. It opens in 1893 and is the first of many he will manage. Latta expands his Charlotte Trouser Company from its uptown offices to a vast new factory that turns out 150,000 pairs of pants each year. Tomkins purchases the Observer, whose pages promote mill building and industry as the key to rebuilding the South’s economy. On the top floor of the Observer building on Tryon Street, the Southern Manufacturers’ Club opens. Within its wood-paneled walls, Latta and Tompkins and other local businessmen play billiards, eat fine meals, and make plans and deals.

The city belongs to men like Tomkins and Latta now.

***

OUT IN THE COUNTRY, the cotton farmers begin to resent the city and its wealth. Cotton prices are down, and land and fertilizer prices keep rising. As competition for land grows more fierce, politicians pass laws banning free-grazing animals, which makes it even more difficult for small farmers to get by. Some are so deep in debt to merchants and bankers that they sell their land and rent it back, just to keep farming. About half of Mecklenburg’s farmers are tenants by 1890. The farmers lash out at the merchants and bankers. “When we farmers are in the fields working hard in the summer,” one farmer from Davidson writes, “the merchants are sitting around the store doors with their linen shirts and black neckties on, waiting for us to bring in the first bale of cotton.” 

Many farmers migrate to towns, looking for work in the new mills. By 1896, 14 cotton mills surround Charlotte with 958 looms operating day and night. Mill life might mean a little more money and food than farming, but the mills are dirty and dangerous and the shifts are long. Entire families—men, women, and children—work 12-hour shifts six days a week in hot and dusty conditions. Many of them earn less than $1 a day. Although the city opens public schools, mill children rarely make it to class.

They have to work so their families can rent the small cottages owned by the mill companies. When the economy crashes in 1893, many mills shut down for weeks and lay off workers, leaving families to search for work at other mills or beg in the city streets. The mill workers and other factory workers sometimes walk out or slow down to protest conditions, but they find no sympathy from other businessmen in the city. One local newspaper tells the town’s millhands and mechanics they should “grumble less and work more.” 

In speeches at rallies and letters to local papers, the farmers have made their anger known to the town businessmen. They organize the Farmers’ Alliance and vote for the People’s Party, which is part of the Populist movement that’s hostile toward banks and railroads and corporations. The wealthy townspeople and Observer editors, Democrats all, mock the farmers and their demands for lower interest rates and government-owned railroads. “We suspect some … believe in woman suffrage and that the moon is made of green cheese,” the Observer writes after a People’s Party rally in 1892. 

For black men and women in Charlotte, even the low-paying and dangerous jobs in the mills are unavailable. The AME Zion Publishing House opens in Charlotte’s Second Ward in 1894, bringing some higher-paying jobs. But for the most part, blacks are limited to unloading cotton carts or cleaning work. Even the teachers, preachers, and businessmen find daily life in the city full of humiliations, such as segregated seating at the Opera House. Some drugstores, “will not take a colored man’s money for an innocent, refreshing drink,” William C. Smith writes in the Charlotte Messenger. Although people of both races mix and mingle at area events, such as the bicycle races in Latta Park and parades, many whites complain about interactions with blacks on uptown streets. At the Richmond and Danville station one day in 1893, a group of Biddle University students helps women visiting from Scotia Seminary of Concord onto a train. The white conductor, angry over their “loud talking,” tries to quiet them.

They refuse. Not long after that, the Observer publishes stories that call for segregated waiting rooms, and the railroad soon announces it will create them. 

Black Republicans and white farmers and millhands have common enemies now in bankers and merchants. Republican John Schenck pushes for “fusion” between the People’s Party and the Republicans to beat the Democrats. Schenck, though, dies before the 1894 elections. The 70-year-old  was the city’s first black policeman, a businessman, and a city politician for 25 years.

Given his stature—the newspapers say he “carried the negro vote, almost as his own”—Schenck’s death leaves Charlotte’s black vote divided. But fusion catches on in the rest of North Carolina. Fusion candidates carry almost two-thirds of the seats in the General Assembly. The new legislature, elected in 1894, passes major reforms to elections, higher taxes on railroads, and a cap on farm loan interest rates. The farmers and millhands like these changes, and the Fusionists gain more support in Mecklenburg. When the next election rolls around in 1896, Fusionists carry every countywide election. They also control the governor’s office and 78 percent of seats in the General Assembly. 

Charlotte’s merchants and bankers are furious. The Fusionists’ platform is, they say, based on bold disrespect of the lower classes toward people of higher social standing. “It is liberty run mad,” writes the wife of cotton broker John VanLandingham.

Charlotte mayor J.H. Weddington, one of the few Democrats remaining in office, lashes out at the Fusionists, writing in a letter to the Observer: “You wanted to take the government out of the hands of the men who own the property and put it in the hands of those who are ignorant and own no property.” The Democrats do not stew in their anger for long. Soon, they make plans to take back the government.

Newspapers throughout the state spread inflammatory stories of “Negro rule” in the eastern counties, where black populations are much larger. When black minister D.C. Covington writes in his Observer column, “Afro-American Interests,” that stories of deranged black officeholders in eastern counties are “malicious falsehoods and baseless rot,” the newspaper cancels his column.

The Democrats’ white supremacy campaign goes farther. Young Democrat clubs, led by Heriot Clarkson and made up of lawyers and bankers in their 30s and 40s, hold speeches and rallies at the Atherton Mill and other mill villages. They hope to convince the poorer white voters that “blood is thicker than water,” and praise “white supremacy and white labor.” Some join the “Red Shirts,” who intimidate black voters throughout the countryside and hold parades in the city promoting white supremacy. On Election Day in 1898, Democrats destroy a ballot box and assault a Fusionist registrar in the rural Providence District of Mecklenburg County. 

The white supremacy campaign works. Democrats regain control of the legislature. In Charlotte, Democrats take back several offices and win small majorities in rural areas and at the mills. On the coast, in Wilmington, the election results spill over into violence as a mob of hundreds of whites destroys the office of a black newspaper and riots in the streets, killing 11 blacks and injuring 25 more. There is less violence in Charlotte, now a city of almost 18,000, but the Democrats’ sentiment here is the same.

Soon, the Democratic legislature announces bills to segregate railroad cars and a new amendment to prevent blacks from voting. Although the amendment doesn’t mention race, its purpose is apparent. In the next major state and national election, only those who can read and write will be allowed to vote. Illiterate people who can prove that their grandfathers were able to vote before 1867, though, will be an exception. 

Voters decide on the amendment in a special election in August 1900. Two days before the election, 600 men in red shirts parade down Tryon Street. They walk and gallop on horseback over the streetcar tracks and head out to Latta Park. Leading the pack are Police Chief W.S. Orr and Clarkson. Signs on display make their message clear. One reads: “Down with N----r Rule.” Another reads, “Steele Creek—White Supremacy.” 

On August 2, the amendment passes. 

On election night, the sounds of the city drone on. The mill looms hum and the steam whistles scream, and now, they’re accompanied by new sounds—the clang of streetcar bells, the buzz of electric streetlights, and the occasional ring of a telephone. Charlotte moves forward, even as it moves backward.

Chuck McShane is a writer in Davidson and a frequent contributor to this magazine. He is the author of A History of Lake Norman: Fish Camps to Ferraris, on shelves now. Reach Chuck at chuckmcshane@gmail.com. On Twitter: @chuckmcshane

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