Civil Rights Reform

Charlotte’s pace of reinvention began to accelerate in the late 20thcentury. A city that had once been a backcountry farm community before the Civil War and a regional textile center in the early decades of the New South, had now begun to take a place on the national stage.

The new era began with the civil rights movement. The city’s African-American leaders succeeded in desegregating Revolution Park and the city’s new airport in the mid-1950s. In 1960, students at JCSU organized one of the largest sit-in efforts in the South. Their demonstrations led to the opening of lunch counters to all.

But upscale restaurants still barred African Americans—until a remarkable series of events unfolded in May of 1963. Crusading dentist Dr. Reginald Hawkins led a march from JCSU to City Hall demanding total desegregation. Cities elsewhere in the South were meeting such requests with police dogs and firehoses. Then-Mayor Stan Brookshire determined that Charlotte would be different. He phoned Chamber of Commerce leaders and quietly arranged for white-black pairs to eat lunch, integrating each restaurant. The action, coming a year before the 1964 Civil rights Act, required integration in all public places and gained national notice.

In an era when national businesses were looking to expand south, a welcoming image paid dividends. Charlotte’s progressive reputation solidified when the city became the U.S. test case for court-ordered busing to integrate schools in 1971 and again when Harvey Gantt won election as the first African-American mayor of a majority-white U.S. city in 1983. Between the early 1960s and early 1980s, Charlotte’s population grew by more than 50 percent.

A Banking Empire

Banking became Charlotte’s next frontier of change. The city already had robust local banks, thanks to a North Carolina law that allowed branches statewide. In 1982, banker Hugh McColl at North Carolina National Bank (NCNB) figured out how to buy a small out-of-state bank. The innovation sparked a massive rewriting of banking laws across the nation.

NCNB (rebranded as NationsBank) and local rival First Union (later renamed Wachovia, then bought by San Francisco, California-based Wells Fargo) rode the crest of the interstate banking wave, rapidly building two of America’s largest financial institutions. In 1998, McColl purchased San Francisco’s venerable giant Bank of America and moved the headquarters to the Queen City, creating the U.S.’s first coast-to-coast bank. Charlotte suddenly ranked second only to New York City as the nation’s biggest banking town.

A new skyline sprang into being along Tryon Street, the heart of Uptown. Or should it be called downtown? Longtime merchants insisted it had always been Uptown, and in a Sept. 23, 1974, resolution, City Council officially declared it so. A few years later, local leaders again chose a history-savvy name for another area being transformed by new construction. When Charlotte Douglas International Airport’s new terminal opened in 1982, the expressway linking it to Interstates 77 and 85 honored Charlotte-born Billy Graham, farm boy-turned global evangelist.

A Sports Stronghold

As Charlotte broke into the ranks of top-20 U.S. cities, major league sports arrived. In 1988, the beloved Charlotte Hornets brought professional basketball to a region known for its love of college hoops (thanks especially to North Carolina’s famed Duke University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill rivalry and Michael Jordan’s Tar Heel State roots). Jerry Richardson, a former NFL player-turned Hardee’s restaurant franchiser, put together financing to create the Carolina Panthers football team in 1993. Among his innovations were selling personal seat licenses (PSLs), which guaranteed availability of season tickets. The Charlotte Knights minor league baseball team started the same year, moving from a smaller stadium in Rock Hill, South Carolina, to the sprawling BB&T Ballpark in Uptown in 2014.

In auto racing, Charlotte had long been in the big league, ever since NASCAR ran its first-ever professional stock car race at the former Charlotte Speedway in 1949. But now, as the sport became increasingly sophisticated, the high-tech engineering operations of most race teams clustered near mammoth Charlotte Motor Speedway. In 2010, the NASCAR Hall of Fame opened in a glistening Uptown building designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, the internationally renowned firm that includes celebrated architect I.M. Pei. PCF&P is also responsible for the Grand Louvre in Paris, France, the Palazzo Lombardia in Milan, Italy, the Four Seasons Hotel in New York, New York, and countless other famous buildings across the U.S. and the world.

A Cultural Melting Pot

Between 1990 and 2015, Mecklenburg County’s population doubled, surpassing one million residents. Governments in the city, county and outlying towns, still technically separate but all facing the same challenges of rapid urbanization, worked together to construct new hospitals, schools, roads and Charlotte’s first modern-day light rail transit lines.

While most newcomers arrived from across the nation, a growing number came from around the globe. The influx took many longtime Charlotteans by surprise; earlier immigration had largely bypassed this part of the South. A Brookings Institution report named Charlotte a Latino “hyper-growth” city in the 1990s, ranking it fourth in the nation. A subsequent study by Neilsen ranked Charlotte the fastest-growing major Latino metropolis in the entire U.S. from 2000 to 2013.

But Latinos made up only about half of immigrants. Signs written in Vietnamese, Arabic and Spanish dotted older suburban corridors, including Central Avenue and South Boulevard, where many newcomers launched businesses. Foreign-born families did not cluster in distinct neighborhoods, though, as in the Chinatowns and Little Italys of older U.S. immigrant destinations. At the edge of suburban Matthews, North Carolina, for instance, you could find Grand Asia Market, Lucy’s Colombian Bakery, Enzo’s Italian deli and a Mexican buffet in a single shopping center, with a Russian-Turkish grocery and a Greek pizza/Iranian kabob restaurant nearby.

Today, a rich international culinary scene continues to flourish around the city, welcoming in family-owned and locally built businesses that add even more character to Charlotte’s unique and diverse climate.

At Independence Square, in the heart of Uptown, four statues tower over Tryon and Trade streets. Each link Charlotte’s history with the present and future.


  • An African-American railroad worker stands for transportation. That now includes rails, interstate highways and one of the nation’s top-10 busiest airports.
  • A woman and child in textile mill worker uniforms represent industry. Manufacturing and distribution account for a sizable part of today’s economy.
  • A gold miner symbolizes commerce. Banking surely heads that category in present-day Charlotte.
  • And the fourth statue? It is a mother holding a baby—aptly pointing to the future. Each of the other statues is facing the future.


The rest of Charlotte’s history remains to be written. But as surely as when country families from the farm came to work in New South cotton mills, and as surely as when Civil rights activists and local officials worked together to open restaurants and schools to all, no matter where you’re from or how you get here, the Queen City welcomes you home.

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