- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2003

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Many Southern cities wrestle with how much of the pre-Civil War past to remember, to learn from — and how much to forget.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in two museums in this city, whose reputation as a modern and moderate metropolitan area has been forged by its huge banking industry.

Displays at the Levine Museum of the New South in a downtown high-rise barely acknowledge the war some Southerners are still fighting. The Historic Rosedale Plantation, a circa 1815 Federal-style home and grounds on the outskirts of downtown, brings to life the struggles of farming in the 1800s.

They have nothing — and everything — in common. Together, they tell a more complete story of Charlotte’s history and its hopes for the future, a story very much like that of any Southern city with aspirations. Both are don’t-miss stops on a visit to Charlotte.

Rosedale Plantation

This home built by merchant Archibald Frew was originally part of a 911-acre plantation operated with the support of about 20 slaves.

It was grand for its era, with faux grained woodwork and French wallpaper and carefully tended formal gardens. Its grounds are shaded by giant trees on the North Carolina Register of Big Trees or designated as Mecklenburg (County) Treasure Trees — among them a China fir that may date to the original owner and a swamp chestnut oak planted in 1894 by a descendent of the second owner, Dr. D.T. Caldwell.

But Karen McConnell, the curator of education for the plantation, is quick to point out to tour groups that life there was nothing like a tale in a Civil War romance novel — not for the plantation owners, and certainly not for their slaves.

The home, heated by coal-burning fireplaces, was cold and drafty in winter, hot in summer. The mistress of the plantation from 1830 to 1861 didn’t sit around sipping tea and eating dainty sandwiches; she was in charge of running the plantation while Caldwell conducted a thriving medical practice, administering the primitive remedies of the times, including doses of mercury.

The slaves, of course, had the worst lot.

“Jenny (the plantation cook) cooked for 35 persons, three meals a day, every day,” Miss McConnell says. When a visitor on the tour tries lifting the large iron skillet Jenny used for fireplace cooking, it is almost too heavy to pick up with one hand. Jenny’s family lived and slept in one room behind the kitchen, about the size of a walk-in closet.

In addition to that labor, she also worked the fields. On this plantation, Miss McConnell says, “There were no field hands and house hands — everyone picked cotton.”

Another slave was Nat the blacksmith, who taught four apprentices, all hired out to neighboring plantations to bring in extra money.

Other slaves operated the on-site cotton mill and sawmill, butchered livestock, tanned hides, made candles, scrubbed laundry and handled other endless tasks to keep the plantation running.

Rosedale’s “Unheard Voices” and “Children’s Plantation Life” tours, which guides will give to groups by special reservation two weeks in advance, let visitors see the plantation through the eyes of its slaves or its children.

However, the regular tour gives a good accounting of how the family and their slaves lived, interacted and survived the past with all its warts.

Levine Museum

Anyone old enough to remember when cotton was king in the South will be fascinated by the centerpiece of this museum, “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers: Charlotte and the Carolina Piedmont in the New South.” So will people who have never even seen a cotton boll.

The museum, founded in 1990, for years operated as a “museum without walls,” setting up exhibits in office buildings, kiosks and other spaces. It opened in its permanent home in 2001.

On a self-guided tour, visitors can step inside a tenant farmer’s one-room shack, with Carolina banjo and fiddle music for sound effects (1860s to 1920s); visit a re-created textile mill, with sounds of clanking machinery (1880s to 1930s); walk down Main Street and enter a Belk’s store to try on hats (1900s to 1940s); or sit at a typical lunch counter during the civil rights movement and see videos of sit-in participants (1940s to 1970s).

In the re-created textile mill, you’ll learn about a process that sprayed a warm mist of water into the air to moisturize the cotton yarn and keep it from breaking. That air conditioning did nothing for the comfort of the mill hands, the display notes.

About 25 percent of mill hands were children who started as young as age 6 sweeping floors or doffing (removing full spindles from fast-running machines). Until the 1960s, whites made up more than 95 percent of mill hands in the Carolinas textile force because blacks were barred from those jobs.

The last section, Banking Boomtown (1970s to 2000s), explains the rise of Charlotte as a banking center and the issues associated with rapid growth and development, urban sprawl and traffic. These are issues over which Charlotte, Atlanta and every major Southern city still grapple.

Exhibitions, events for fall, winter

Historic Rosedale Plantation, 3427 N. Tryon St., Charlotte, NC 28206 (three miles from downtown); 704/335-0325, libweb.uncc.edu/archives/crhc/rosedale.htm. Grounds open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday at no charge; tours at 1, 2 and 3 p.m. Thursday to Sunday, $4 for adults, $3 students and seniors, free for children age 8 and younger. Upcoming events:

• Oyster roast and barbecue, Oct. 4

• Williamsburg Decorating Workshop ($45), Nov. 15, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

• Christmas Candlelight Tours ($6 adults, $4 students and seniors, 8 and under free; $15 family ticket available), Dec. 13-14, 5:30 to 8 p.m.

• Each August, Rosedale holds a reunion for descendants of owners, slaves, farmworkers, house servants and neighbors, as well as plantation volunteers, board members and donors.

Levine Museum of the New South, 200 E. Seventh St., Charlotte, NC 28209; 704/333-1887; www.museumofthenewsouth.org. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday; $6 adults, $5 seniors and students, under 6 free, $17 family tickets, $4 each for groups; free parking for 90 minutes at the Seventh Street Station parking deck adjacent to the museum. Upcoming events:

• A special traveling exhibit, “A Portion of the People: 300 Years of Southern Jewish Life,” Sept. 14 to Nov. 30. On the exhibit’s opening day, the museum presents Community Day from noon to 5 p.m. with family activities, entertainment and discussions on growing up Jewish in the South. Other talks are planned throughout the exhibit’s run.

• “Courage: The Carolina Story that Changed America,” about Carolina families who 50 years ago launched a lawsuit to end school segregation; Jan. 30 to Aug. 15. The exhibit will open with a two-day symposium and panel discussions related to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.

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