Visions of the New South: Q&A With David Goldfield

ON APRIL 7, historian and UNC Charlotte professor David Goldfield, takes a look back on a century and a half of Charlotte history in his talk, “Visions of the New South—1860s and today,” at the Levine Museum of the New South. Meanwhile, Charlotte magazine’s yearlong history series, “The Story of Charlotte,” ends this month here. (Read the entire series here.) To mark the end of the series and the program at the Levine, series writer Chuck McShane sat down with Goldfield recently to discuss how far Charlotte has come since the end of the Civil War 150 years ago.

Charlotte magazine: What do you mean by the “New South” and how does Charlotte fit into that?

David Goldfield: In 1865, Charlotte was in the middle of a region that was agricultural. In fact, during the three or four decades after the war, Mecklenburg County was growing cotton. One of the major changes was industrialization, particularly the development of the textile industry. Several major players were involved in that, foremost D.A. Tompkins, who was actually from South Carolina. That’s another theme in Charlotte, most of our innovators have come from someplace else other than N.C. At the same time you needed power to run those big looms, right? So James B, Duke and several of his colleagues got together and formed the Southern Power Company. Eventually it became Duke Power and then Duke Energy. That attracted investment. So what you had by 1905, over 50 percent of the textile mills in the U.S. were within a 100 miles of Charlotte.

CM: Do you think Charlotte’s experience in the Civil War, the fact that it avoided any direct fighting, gave it an advantage in the New South economy?

DG: Not being destroyed was certainly good (laughter). And Charlotte never really owed its existence to the plantation economy. … Charlotte became a hub, not necessarily for industry because most textile mills were actually not in Charlotte. But Charlotte became service hub for the textile industry, and that laid the foundation for what Charlotte became.

If you look at where we were, where we are now, it’s really a much better place, and a good deal of that goes to this wonderful diversity that we have. When I first came to Charlotte in 1982, the choice you had for a restaurant was a meat-and-three and ice tea and that’s that. Liquor by the drink had just come but not everybody had it. I’d probably say we’re more cosmopolitan. Back in the 80s, they asked me ‘how would you describe Charlotte?’ and I said, “Charlotte is urban but not urbane.”

CM: Is anti-urbanity and anti-urbanness a theme in Southern history?

DG: It has been, and that’s because we tend to associate cities with new ideas, and we associate new ideas with diversity. So we’re a little suspicious of cities, but that’s changing because the demographics are changing. I mean from a political standpoint if you took Charlotte, Greensboro, and the Triangle out of North Carolina, we’d be like Mississippi. (When) Rick Santorum was running in the Republican primary (in 2012), people said, ‘Well you’re a Yankee from Pennsylvania, what can you tell us here in Alabama?’ He said, “We’re just like Alabama. You take out Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and we’re just like Alabama.’” And the fact is, he’s right. Rural areas, small towns, (and cities)—I think that’s probably where the division is.

CM: That’s not a new thing, though.

DG: It’s not a new thing, but I think it’s becoming more dramatic. Because the difference between urban and small town or rural was never very great. The city had the same racial customs as the countryside. The religious caste of the city was still an extremely important part of life … and ruled by the so-called ‘better sort,’ the well-to-do white people of the city. So there were a lot of family connections between farm and city. And those connections are much less obvious today. Part of it is immigration, and part of it is economic. Our rural areas are hurting in North Carolina, and that’s true also in other parts of the country. So there’s a growing economic divide, there’s a growing cultural divide, there’s a growing religious divide, and, we’re becoming more like the rest of the country.

CM: Do you think that urban-rural divide was something that people like DA Tompkins or the other New South industrial leaders, those very early ones, foresaw?

DG: They believed that in order to recover from the devastation of the Civil War, the South would have to become urban and industrial. They believed that you could not build a prosperous region by relying primarily on agriculture. And they also believed that one of the reasons the South lost the war was that they lacked the industry, they lacked the economy that the cities of the North had.

CM: Do you see more recent leaders like, say, (former Bank of America CEO) Hugh McColl, as a continuation of that New South tradition?

DG: I don’t really see that. The leadership of Bank of America, what is it, Mahoney? I don’t even know his last name. (It’s Brian Moynihan.) But anyway, he still lives in Boston, right? So that type of engagement in the community that McColl had, I think that era has passed on. But the legacy that these folks have left behind is being continued on a much lower profile basis. And that’s not unusual in cities throughout the country. Their vision was not a vision that stopped with their active participation in the community. But it formed a legacy, and other people with lower profiles are definitely carrying it on.

CM: Going back further, do you see any connection between leaders like Tompkins and Duke and McColl?

DG: They all have a vision, and they were all what I would call Renaissance men. Tompkins for example was an engineer but he also loved the print media. So they had a variety of interests and they all had the vision of building a city, a region, and a state that would never again fall into the category of second-class citizenship. They also understood that in order to attract good people, bright people, innovative people, interesting people, they would have to build an interesting and prosperous city.

CM: Was part of that becoming less Southern? I mean, do we lose some of our Southernness when we chase those cultural activities?

DG: I know Hugh McColl, and I talked about this with him, and he was and is a Southern patriot. He got tremendous delight by going up to New York and doing the ‘poor ol’ country boy’ routine, you know with his accent, and then taking their wallets (laughter). He enjoyed doing that. The answer is no. Because in talking with these people and seeing what vision they had—Why shouldn’t the South be prosperous or as prosperous as other regions of the country? This is good for our region. Maybe we can be leaders in showing the rest of the country how to accommodate diversity. I still think we’re a Southern city. But we’re a Southern city with a significant national and international influence.

CM: Does that diversity, that mobility, does that make it less likely that leaders like a D.A. Tompkins or a Hugh McColl will emerge in the future?

DG: I remember standing with McColl on the 60th floor of the bank building, and he was pointing here and there, sort of like a monopoly set. And he was saying, “Well that’ll go there, and this is going to go over there.” And of course the bank owned the whole thing (laughter), or they were going to buy it. But I don’t think you can do that anymore so we’re going to have contention. You know we have contention over this light rail but by golly it’s going to be built.

The big story, I think, in Charlotte has been the growing diversity of its population. Up until the 1980s, Charlotte was primarily a black and white city. It was a typical Southern city. Immigrants did not go to the South for the simple reason that economic development occurred elsewhere, and that’s where they found jobs. When my grandfather came to this country he went to the steel mills in Pittsburgh—not to Charlotte. And with the expansion of the financial sector, we’ve had a number of people come from other parts of the country. And with that diversity, the city has become a much more interesting place.

CM: And that type of diversity and immigration—is that a new thing for the South?

DG: Before the Civil War, the South had a number of immigrants, mostly from Ireland and Germany. But then, after the war, the South was so poor. Why would an immigrant come here? So, in 1900 we had this tremendous wave of immigration from Europe and some from Asia. Only 2 percent of those immigrants came to the South. Well, that’s not true anymore. They want to take advantage of these opportunities.

CM: What makes a guy from Brooklyn want to study Southern history?

DG: Well, I was actually born in Memphis. But I grew up in Brooklyn. When you grow up in Brooklyn you sort of have a built-in inferiority complex and so that’s what first attracted to me to the South. The South is like me. The South is like Brooklyn. You get no respect. And you’re always the underdog and it’s an interesting to study. The second thing was that my uncle was a big, big Civil War buff. And every Christmas he would send me books on the Civil War. But what really pushed me over the edge was when I was about 16 or 17, we were assigned Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel. I know my colleagues in the English department think he’s way overrated. But I just loved the cadence of his writing and his evocation of the South, particularly of Asheville. I wanted to go to North Carolina to see Asheville. And then I started reading William Faulkner and I said, ‘Man, this is incredible.’

When students come to me and ask, ‘How can I get immersed in Southern history?’ I tell them there are just two things you need to read. You need to read the Bible, and you need to read William Faulkner.  Once you’ve done that, you’ve got it.

CM: As far as your career goes, having this Yankee influence, how does that affect how people receive your work?

DG: There was an episode in the city, I think it was 2006. The controversy was over the cemetery and the erection of a Confederate flag there. African Americans in Charlotte objected to it because in order to get to the older black section of the cemetery they had to go by this Confederate battle flag. About 120 people just crowded into this room, and most of them were from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. And boy, it was so contentious; I had to have a police escort to my car. So the city asked me to make a recommendation on what to do. OK, we can’t wipe the Civil War off the map, and we can’t wipe away the fact that North Carolina was part of the Confederate States of America. And these young men buried there fought for the Confederacy. That’s history; we can’t just bury it. So I recommended that the city take down the Confederate battle flag (and) put the flag that North Carolina used during the Confederate period. It would be more historically accurate. Well, that didn’t please the NAACP, and it didn’t please the Sons of Confederates. But I thought as a compromise it was the least obnoxious alternative. What happened was, they just tore down the flagpole. So that was the end of that. And that was my end at political mediation (laughter).

CM: What do you think would surprise most people about Charlotte history over the past 150 years?

DG: How far we have come. Wherever I go, when I mention that I’m from Charlotte, the reaction is invariably positive. “Oh, it’s a beautiful city. You’ve got so much going for you.” In 1986, the Southern Historical Association met here in Charlotte, and we have these comment cards asking how the convention went. Charlotte got maybe an F-plus. There was just nothing here for the attendees to do. 2010, the Southern Historical Association comes back—rave reviews about the city. We’ve been lucky, but we’ve also been good. And the early vision of Tompkins and Duke, and the fact that they were outsiders, I think this outsider mentality is extremely important to Charlotte because it brings in new ideas. It brings in new people. It’s just one of the reasons why we’re at the point we are now.

I’m getting to the age where I’m thinking down the road of retiring. And you know when people start thinking about retiring, the next question is, “Well, where are you going to retire to?” Well, I’m going to be right here.

Categories: By Chuck McShane, Quick Reads, The Buzz