The Story of Charlotte, Part 6: Power Shifts

After the Civil War, former slaves fight for their freedom, former Confederates fight to regain their power, and cotton becomes king


Published:

ILLUSTRATION BY 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. 

May 1865—Charlotte looks like hell. Half-naked refugees from plantations and battle-torn towns scramble for scraps and drunken looters break store windows. At the hospital on the fairgrounds, wounded soldiers in tattered gray uniforms lie unattended. The end of the war has thrown everything into a state of confusion. No mail. No newspapers. Only a few trains are running. Freed slaves from nearby plantations stream into town seeking food and family and safety in numbers.

Charlotteans seem relieved when federal troops from New Jersey and Ohio march into town. The troops set up in the old U.S. Mint building on West Trade Street that Confederates have abandoned. Former Confederate soldiers stagger to the Mint to recite the oath of allegiance and renounce the rebellion. Most come willingly but some fights break out. That summer, Union General Thomas Ruger orders the ex-Confederates to remove their buttons and stripes and anything else that might signal their rank in the defeated Confederacy. For some Southern veterans, the gray jackets are the only clothes they have.  

Federal troops call a curfew and ban liquor sales to restore some sense of order. Around the state, newspapers lash out at the occupying Northerners, saying that they are “assuming the power to say what we shall drink and wear.” The federal government quickly pardons rank-and-file Confederate soldiers and restores their rights as citizens. But higher-level Confederate officers and wealthy landowners will have to wait a few years before they’re allowed to vote again. In the summer, Robert Waring, editor of the short-lived Charlotte Carolina Times, writes that the federal troops have placed the South “under a more grinding despotism than has heretofore found a place upon the face of the earth.” General Ruger scoffs at the Southerners’ accusations. A few Northern soldiers might be horse thieves, sure, but to compare the Southerners’ situation to Russian serfs, as Waring does, seems laughable. “Prohibiting the wearing of insignia and badges of rank by persons lately officers of the insurgent forces cannot honestly be construed as assuming ‘the power to say what we shall drink and wear,’ ” Ruger says. A military commission fines Waring $300 for “disloyal and seditious writings.”

Local whites save their worst language for the Freedmen’s Bureau.

The bureau, established to help about 4 million freed slaves make the transition from slavery to freedom, sets up a district office in Charlotte near the grounds of the shuttered North Carolina Military Institute on Morehead Street. With transportation between states suspended, refugees stream into Charlotte. As many as 20 new refugees—black and white—arrive each day at the tent city set up by Captain John Barnett, the local Freedmen’s Bureau leader who’s just arrived from Indiana. By summer 1865, about 200 freedmen from Mecklenburg crowd the tent city, along with 500 to 600 more waiting for a chance to move elsewhere.

***

As bad as things are in Charlotte, it’s worse elsewhere. The town might have been looted, but it has not burned like Columbia, South Carolina, and Atlanta. Crews quickly fix the railroad tracks and leaders make plans for new lines. Farmers’ wagons fill the streets again. Shopkeepers and tradesmen return to the city. Former Confederate governor Zebulon Vance sets up shop as a lawyer in Charlotte—after he gets out of federal prison in early 1866. Charlotte, one of the few railroad hubs with tracks still intact, draws business away from the river market towns of South Carolina, which are still reeling from the destruction left by the Union Army. Even Charleston merchants advertise in Charlotte papers hoping to regain some of the cotton business they’ve lost. “The quantity of goods brought here is amazing,” local preacher Robert Burwell writes in 1866, “and yet they all are sold.”

With cotton in short supply, prices surge. Many farmers, some in debt after the war, stop planting corn and wheat to focus on the cash crop. Even when cotton prices drop in 1870, cotton still brings in more money on less land than food crops. Charlotte reeks with the thick smell of bat guano, a new and cheap fertilizer good for growing cotton. Warehouses full of the stuff line the streets near the train depot.

It’s no wonder, then, that plantation owners want former slaves back in the fields, some of which are overgrown with weeds and grass as abandoned slave cabins sit nearby. Many do return to become sharecroppers. But other freedmen know they’ll only get a raw deal back in the country. Although the Freedmen’s Bureau helps arrange work contracts between freedmen and their former owners, payment is difficult to enforce and, as one bureau agent says, “There are but few cases where the terms of the contract are respected.” Wealthy whites resent having to negotiate with former slaves and Yankee soldiers. “Compulsion is necessary to make [blacks] work,” the Western Democrat writes in June 1865. Local whites, Captain Barnett says, “are taking every opportunity to thwart the Government in all of its efforts to establish freedmen in their rights.” 

The freedmen want their own land or a chance to make a living in town. They want to learn to read and write and to worship in their own churches. By the end of 1865, freed slaves, with the help of Northern missionaries, establish Clinton AME Zion Chapel. A year later, they found Seventh Street Presbyterian Church. The bureau and missionaries establish schools, too.

Families scrape together the 50-cent tuition. Students of all ages, some dressed in old blue Union cavalry uniforms, practice the alphabet in a school recently opened by Northern missionaries.

A rumor circulates within the tent city and the black settlements now surrounding the new churches and the schools. The government, the freedmen have heard, will soon distribute the rebel plantation owners’ land, offering each freedman 40 acres and a mule, like General William Tecumseh Sherman had done with the abandoned plantations on the coast and sea islands around Savannah and Charleston. But that won’t happen anywhere else. Barnett quickly shuts down the rumor. “The Government has given you your freedom,” Barnett says, “and you must not expect anything further from it.” 

The freedmen do expect more. They expect a voice in politics, and they’re willing to risk everything to get it. Black leaders from throughout the state gather in Raleigh in September 1865 to establish the State Equal Rights League. “We must learn to rely upon ourselves,” the convention leaders say at another Raleigh convention in 1866. The league endorses the Civil Rights Bill and the Fourteenth Amendment, which will make blacks citizens and encourage states to allow black males to vote. Among the delegates is John T. Schenck, a 42-year-old Charlotte carpenter. Schenck was born a mixed-race slave in Cleveland County and earned enough to buy his freedom. He then traveled to Europe and Mexico and returned sometime before the war to buy his wife’s freedom as well. During the war, he had joined the Union Army, serving with Stoneman’s Raiders. As a soldier, Schenck showed a knack for politics and persuasion. When his regiment passed through Cleveland County, Schenck convinced his commanding officer to not destroy his former master’s plantation.

Back in Charlotte now, Schenck sets out to build a political coalition. The Reconstruction Acts pass in early 1867, giving blacks the right to register to vote. Republican newspaper editor William Woods Holden from Raleigh aims to build a statewide Republican Party and seeks help from blacks and former Unionists throughout the state. In Charlotte, Schenck and a handful of other black tradesmen join forces with whites such as William R. Myers. Myers had been a Unionist until the war broke out, then supported the Confederacy during the war. Myers donates land for a black college, the Biddle Memorial Institute, which years later will become Johnson C. Smith, on the west side of town. Rufus Barringer, a former Confederate general, also joins the Republicans. “Moral causes,” Barringer says, had won the war for the Union. In 1867, the Charlotte Republicans select May 20, Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence Day, to announce their presence. On that day, the Colored Union League forms a line stretching a half-mile down Tryon Street. The line of black voters marches to the speakers’ podium at the Square. “We are here upon equality under the law,” one speaker announces, “as American citizens.”

The Republicans win local elections in 1867. Local whites are outraged. When Holden campaigns for governor in 1868, his opponents burn him in effigy as he arrives at the Charlotte train station. The Ku Klux Klan roams the countryside dressed in hoods and horns. They terrorize blacks and even some white Republicans, hoping to scare them away from the polls. There are no reports of Klan activity in Mecklenburg, but local whites intimidate black voters in other ways. Several farmers and business owners in town fire black employees for voting Republican. On the night of the election, out in the county, someone kills a black voter’s mule. Black Republicans defy those threats and come to the polls anyway. Holden wins. As one of his first acts as governor, he appoints Republican officials to local offices, including John T. Schenck as Charlotte’s first black police officer.   

The election results don’t sit well with former Confederates and other local whites. The Conservative Party, a loosely organized group of ex-Confederates formed earlier that year, vows to band together in future elections. They set out to put an end to political participation by “negro jurors and the baser element of whites,” as one wealthy ex-Confederate calls the Republicans.

“We are in favor of treating colored people kindly, fairly and justly, but at the same time we warn them, as a friend, against thrusting themselves forward as the rulers of the white race,” Western Democrat editor W.J. Yates writes in a thinly veiled threat .

***

In Raleigh, the new Republican legislature, including the state’s first black representatives, sets out to rebuild and reform North Carolina. They issue bonds to railroad companies to help them reconstruct damaged lines. Some live up to their “carpetbagger” image by keeping some of that bond money for themselves. Despite the corruption, legislators also pass bills funding schools and improving conditions for prisoners.

In the rest of the state, the Ku Klux Klan builds strength. Many members are local Conservative party officials, ex-Confederates determined to take back control. In 1870 in Caswell County, Klan members lynch a prominent black Republican and slit the throat of a white state senator who had encouraged local blacks to fight back against the Klan. In Caswell and Alamance counties, the Klan is in charge. Governor Holden declares martial law in those two counties and more than 100 people are arrested and held for a military trial. The Klansmen are powerful in local politics, Holden says, and if tried in civil courts, will only be acquitted by their friends on local juries. In a twist, the prisoners’ lawyers say Holden is violating their Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. The federal government agrees. Holden frees the prisoners.

In fall 1870, the Conservatives win back the legislature. Their first act—impeach Governor Holden.

***

Back in Charlotte, the federal troops move out by 1872. Three years later, railroad executive William Johnston—who in 1861 had led Charlotte into secession—becomes mayor. It’s a sign that the old order is back in charge. Even so, people in Charlotte look to the future and get back to business. The cotton market continues to flourish. In 1870, city aldermen build a cotton-weighing platform alongside the railroad tracks. After new rail lines connect the city to Atlanta and Wilmington, farmers flock to Charlotte, and the city builds a second platform to handle the traffic. The number of cotton bales passing through Charlotte more than triples, from 12,000 to 40,000 bales, between 1866 and 1875. Cotton money fuels growth; the population doubles to about 4,500 people between 1860 and 1870. And the people keep coming. Merchants such as Samuel Wittkowsky build brick and iron stores at the square. Five new banks open in Charlotte, mostly to provide loans to cotton farmers. When cotton prices drop in the early 1870s and the loans come due, farmers lash out at the new class of bankers and “middlemen” in town. 

Throughout the South, wealth and power shift from the plantations to the towns and cities. And, more than ever, Charlotte is a city. Merchants and bankers build large homes along the city’s main streets, Trade and Tryon. Cotton money brings new activities to town, too. The Charlotte Female Institute hosts recitals and lectures. A roller skating rink opens, exclusively for the “genteelly dressed.” In 1874, the city’s Opera House brings dramas and circuses, along with some “lowbrow” comedies.

Traveling shows from the faster growing cities of the North visit, too, like Baltimore comedian John E. Owens, who stops at the Opera House on a tour in 1875.

When another Civil Rights bill passes in 1875, calling for the integration of public places, a local group puts the new law to the test. One day in May, six black men sit in the white section of the Opera House. At first, the audience pays no attention, but some ushers grumble. Word eventually reaches the street, and “a crowd of young gentlemen” assembles. The Daily Charlotte Observer reports that the men enter the Opera House, grab the six blacks by the collars, and throw them out, kicking them down steps. 

Despite the physical intimidation and calls by local newspapers for blacks to “make up their minds to occupy subordinate positions in the world,” John T. Schenck and other black Republicans haven’t given up hope of having political influence yet. On the Fourth of July in 1876, 8,000 black people from around Mecklenburg County flock to Biddle Memorial Institute. During the celebration, speakers urge the audience to vote against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Zebulon Vance and for the Republican ticket.

As the population grows, city leaders divide the town into four wards, separated by the train tracks and Trade Street. The city’s neighborhoods are still largely integrated, with wealthy whites in mansions stretched along the main streets and poorer whites and blacks living on side streets. Second Ward, east of the Charlotte and South Carolina train tracks and south of Trade Street, has a small black majority. It’s enough to elect Schenck as the ward’s representative on the town board in 1879.

By 1880, more than 7,000 people live in Charlotte, filling the houses and apartments above stores in the city’s four wards and new suburbs—with black settlements like Biddleville to the west and Blandville around the old gold mines to the south. More than ever, Charlotte shopkeepers and merchants pay close attention to the rest of the country. Northern cities are booming. Factories there have brought wealth and power but also labor strife and grim living conditions for the North’s immigrant workers.

In early 1880, a pair of local merchants takes a trip up north. They visit the textile mills of New England to examine the best new equipment. They look closely at the looms and spindles and the steam engines that power them. Then, they make an offer to buy.

Meanwhile, back in Charlotte, bricklayers are hard at work on a new building sprawling the entire block of Graham Street between Fifth and Sixth streets in Fourth Ward. The Charlotte Cotton Mill will open soon, and reshape the city forever. 

Chuck McShane is a frequent contributor to this magazine and the author of A History of Lake Norman: Fish Camps to Ferraris, out this month from History Press. Contact him at chuckmcshane@gmail.com. On Twitter: @chuckmcshane.

Coming next month—A mill town is born, and the brief era of civil rights comes to an end. 

Edit ModuleShow Tags

More »Related Stories

Before + After: A Home Overlooking Carmel Country Club

Look Inside Denny Hamlin’s Lake Norman Mansion

The NASCAR champion's home is equal parts high tech and high style

New Year's Eve 2017 Parties in Charlotte

Perspective: One, Two, Three, Four

Use this breathing exercise to exhale holiday stress

We invite your responses and discussion. Please refrain from personal attacks, profanity, commercial promotion, or non sequiturs.

Add your comment: