Sorting Out the New South City

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Thomas W. Hanchett. Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975. Charlotte: University of North Carolina Press:1998. pp. 379. $34.95. ISBN 0807846775



In his book Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975, Thomas Hanchett uses Charlotte, North Carolina as a case study to explore the process through which segregation became solidified. In this book segregation describes not only racial separation, but also class separation as well as industrial and residential separation. Looking at Charlotte’s long history, Hanchett shows how the city moved from a salt and pepper intermingling of races, classes, and building types in the 1870s to the 1900s, to a semi-segregated patchwork pattern of zones for each sub-group from the 1900s to the 1920s, and finally to a fully segregated sector pattern in the 1920s to the mid-1970s.

The development of each of these patterns in Charlotte was the result of national, Southern, and local events. Charlotte’s early industrialization and railroad development made it keenly situated to take off as an industrial hub following the Civil War. This development combined with the South’s desire to keep older Colonial models of land development intact to give Charlotte a diverse downtown with an intermingling of races, classes, and building types. However, as factories grew, land and mill owners began to construct housing specifically for the workers; this separated the worker from the owner and contributed to a shift from a close working relationship to one which was distant. This physical distance combined with class conflict and social unrest in the 1890s when the Populist Party and Republican Party joined forces to oppose the establishment. This argument is similar to C. Vann Woodward's regarding when and why Jim Crow laws and segregation began.

Now afraid of the threat of political usurpation by working class blacks and whites, elite whites set out to restrict lower class voting for both races through disfranchisement and residential segregation, removing the threat politically and physically. These forces came together to create a patchwork pattern of separation across the city. But these divides were not yet wholly solidified or completely zoned off from one another. This complete separation would not occur until the federal policies of the New Deal and post World War II investment through the Home Owners Loan Corporation, the Federal Housing Administration, the Veterans’ Administration, highway aid, and tax code changes each came together to insist on homogeneity, “economic stability, and freedom from adverse influences” as ideals.(pp 232) Each of these influences effectively removed black from white, rich from poor, and industrial from residential with their discriminatory practices. It was not until the mid-1970’s that changes in voting patterns and the rise in social movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement and neighborhood organizations, that people would begin questioning the preeminence of the sorted out neighborhood and being pushing for race and class intermingling.


Alan S. Brody

Sorting Out the New South City follows a long line of urban place histories seeking to identify the key influences shaping the city and its inhabitants. As historians, we must accept this idea of cause and effect and in urban history, this paradigm works especially well and geographic changes combined with plentiful sources result in a well researched monograph. Imagine any well researched city history, such as Osofsky’s Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto: Negro New York, 1890 to 1930 to Kevin Kruse’s White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism you can see how historians have tried to grapple with the issues of race, class, power and place. The New South is also a concept that has been challenged by Lassiter and Crespino among others who argue that no such constraint should distract the historiography. In other words, there is nothing distinctive about the South and studies ok Northern cities have confirmed. Regardless of the ones historical orientation, Hanchett reminds us that the success of a city was not inevitable and that the physical arrangement and neighborhood groupings were subject to change over time.

The city of Charlotte, NC started with a wharf and mills and grew to a reasonable size for a preindustrial city, especially after the Civil War. The city was divided in to Wards and the patchwork nature of these meant that Blacks and whites lived in mixed communities, although wealthy people were somewhat segregated. Institutions like schools and businesses also practiced a form of de facto segregation as well, however, as business became larger and mill hands needed places to live, pocket neighborhoods arose. By 1917, there were very clear Back neighborhoods such as Brooklyn and others that what were once suburban areas were now being brought in to the city. Washington Heights was a streetcar suburb that catered to affluent ‘strivers’ as they were known. Piedmont Park was the white equivalent and deed restrictions helped ensure the separation or sorting out process. Myer’s Park was another planned suburb, this one influenced by the powerful George Stephens, a wealthy developer. The gap between the owners and the workers, Black and white widened to include not only parallel racial areas but class based ones as well, raising all of the inevitable questions about property values.

The downtown area also grew and it is here where the author makes his best case for social and business factors affecting growth. While it seems a simple concept, that business would bring growth, it is important to note that it was not volume, rather it was the new types of business that attracted shoppers as trolleys delivered them for shopping and recreation downtown. A financial corridor also gave the impression that Charlotte was a city worth seeing and as historian Peter Bacon Hales pointed out boosterism was an important part of city growth. It was actually education that completed the sorting out process, the new downtown was the heart of the city bit students came and went from very different places. Tech High trained white blue collar students, Second Ward High served the Black community and Central High taught wealthy white students. “The precisely chosen locations of Charlottes first high schools summed up the great changes that had taken place in the New South city.” (202). Hanchett is correct, just as rapid urbanization transformed the cityscape, the sorting out process was also completed, the same case be made for New York and its immigrants. Analysis of the Blacks leaving for Northern cities is a missing part of this story as are the patterns and roles of other ethnic groups.

While the focus is on Charlotte and its inhabitants, city planning and the role of the federal government conclude the book, noting that more than a transformation from private to municipal hands, public housing and subdivision services all played an important role in helping to establish the boundaries of Charlotte. Redlining and covenants did what the municipal government did not in raising the cost of home ownership and helping keep Charlotte a city that was well divided in to ‘sectors’. Hanchett writes in a cohesive and logical manner and his chronological approach works well. He seems enamored of several of the wealthy leaders, however, his sources may have limited him as well and it is helpful to see how generations of families influenced the city. In sum, this is an excellent model for looking at how changes in the physical world reflected changes in the social world.

Richard Hardesty, Fall 2011

Thomas W. Hanchett examined the forces that molded the evolution of land use in Charlotte over a 100-year period. During the 1870s, Charlotte’s land use exhibited a salt-and-pepper quality, as blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, whites, and blacks lived side-by-side. Neighborhoods became clearly defined by the 1920s. However, white neighborhoods adjoined black neighborhoods while working class communities rested next to elite communities, illustrating the limited scope of separation. Socio-economic divisions grew significantly by the 1970s. Now resembling wedge-shaped sectors, Charlotte’s land use patterns showed that white and black neighborhoods rested on opposite ends of the city, as did working class and elite neighborhoods (3). Scholars like Elizabeth Blackmar and Sean Wilentz attributed the evolution to industrialization. Hanchett agreed, but, in examining Charlotte, he further argued that “race and historical context gave the sorting process a distinctly Southern flavor” (9-12, 260).

After the Civil War, Southern cities like Charlotte started to pursue Northern-style industrialization, which initiated the sorting out of the city’s built environment. Yet, as Hanchett showed, “Dixie leaders did not adopt Northern ideas wholesale. They endeavored to pick and choose those things that would enhance, not remake, their familiar society” (48). The establishment of the Alpha, Ada, and Victor cotton mills in 1889 demonstrated a shift in land use. Unlike the Charlotte Cotton Mill, which rested within the existing town, the Alpha, Ada, and Victor mills stood outside the urban grid (51). Charlotte nonetheless exhibited only limited change, as illustrated by the creation of Dilworth. Set on Charlotte’s edge and served by trolleys, Dilworth appeared like a Northern streetcar neighborhood. However, the neighborhood’s layout showed an unwillingness to break with local planning customs, highlighting the ambivalence Charlotteans held toward modern urban designs (54, 62, 65).

Social and class dynamics further fueled the sorting out process in Charlotte. As Hanchett noted, the city’s social structure represented a pyramid, whereby small farmers, working class whites, and African Americans showed deference to the elite (14, 17). Populists and their Republican allies turned Charlotte’s social pyramid upside down, forming a Fusion ticket that gave a political voice to the dispossessed. In 1896, for instance, Mecklenburg County Democrats lost every countywide contest to the Fusionists. The Populist challenge led Democrats to disenfranchise African Americans and poor whites, thus enabling elite Charlotteans to return to power (70, 83, 84-7). However, the Populist challenge had ramifications on the city’s built environment. The social tensions of the 1890s helped facilitate the development of sizable blue-collar and black neighborhoods, while “[a]ffluent buyers showed a decided preference for residential areas away from African Americans and, as critically, away from factories and workers” (90, 116, 146).

Yet, the federal government represented the strongest factor in Charlotte’s reorganization. Hanchett noted that several New Deal programs “explicitly promoted the ideal of racial and economic homogeneity. Others could be used to that end by local leaders who were so predisposed” (224-5). The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), for example, provided funds for projects that could show the strict separation of race and income group. Moreover, local officials used Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and Civil Works Administration (CWA) funds to improve the built environment in white, high-end neighborhoods like Myers Park and Independence Park (227-8, 232-3). The role of the federal government led Hanchett to conclude that the evolution of land use represented “the product of particular historical forces, which shift kaleidoscopically with the passing years” (257).

Hanchett overstated the importance of Charlotte’s transition from salt-and-pepper to patchwork land usage. While he showed that “the dwellings of owners and workers, rich and poor, and even blacks and whites still coexisted in close proximity,” existing scholarship showed that Charlotte did not differ significantly from other American cities in this regard (37). Local Attachments noted the close proximity of Jamaica Plain’s diverse population, as did The Park and the People with Seneca Village and “Pigtown.” Here, Hanchett could have improved his analysis had he explored why the transition did not occur sooner, given how antebellum slave revolts increased racial tensions in the South. Nonetheless, Hanchett’s flaw does not detract from an otherwise clear, organized, and persuasive study.

Hanchett succeeded in adding depth to the historiography surrounding the development of the urban environment. The Park and the People showed how elite New Yorkers sought to use a public park as a means of uplifting the poor and other inferior groups. Like Blackmar and Roy Rosenzweig, Hanchett showed that political, cultural, and social factors shaped the built environment. The difference, however, rested in the motivations elite Charlotteans had in shaping the urban landscape. They did not want to use the built environment as a means of uplifting inferior people. Instead, elite Charlotteans sought to shape land usage as a means of separating inferior people, especially after the Populist uprising in the 1890s. The greatest strength of Hanchett’s study thus rested in his ability to present land usage as a means of differentiating urbanization in the South from urbanization in the North.

Lindsey Bestebreurtje, Fall 2012

For me this was one of the strongest books of the semester thus far. Hanchett’s combination of municipal and federal law, architecture, the built environment, and community planning to show how segregation changed was compelling. The understanding of “segregation” to mean division not just between races, but also between classes and also building types was also an interesting and dynamic understanding of the push for homogeneity and separation. Additionally, Hanchett’s explanation of the ways in which national trends, such as Progressivism, mill towns, and zoning ordinances, had particularly Southern flairs and were not inherited unchanged from the North showed a complex understanding of Southern culture. Another great strength of this book was Hanchett’s demonstration of not just push factors which removed African Americans and lower class whites from certain neighborhoods, but also the pull factors which drew them to particular areas over others. In this way these disfranchised groups were given more agency.

Despite its many strengths, this book did have a few weaknesses. One weakness was that Hanchett describes Charlotte’s development, especially its economic strength and its salt and pepper integration through the early 1900s, as unique. But he does not go into details about just how unique Charlotte is or how it compares to other cities, leaving me uncertain about how common these patterns of development were for the South. Perhaps the greatest of these weaknesses was that, with the exception of city planners, there were no people in this book. Hanchett talked very little about the individuals who were impacted by changes in residential and business districts and the rising tide of segregation. This weakness for Hanchett actually points to one of the ways I would use this book as a jumping off point for my own research. I would hope to use similar sources and frameworks as Hanchett, but with the addition of analysis of the people who lived in these neighborhoods and a closer examination of the houses themselves.

Sheri A. Huerta, Fall 2012

Hanchett analyses land use patterns within a sociopolitical context to understand how Charlotte, North Carolinians determined “a good place to live” (p. 3). Hanchett’s ability to weave seamlessly city growth with national, state, and local politics and broad cultural factors makes this work an invaluable resource not only for urban historians, but also for social, political, and cultural historians. One crucial argument Hanchett presents is the changing nature of land use from salt-and-pepper to clusters to patchwork and then sector-style districts. By placing the changing structure of city growth and industrialization within a political framework, Hanchett explains how early integrated “salt-and-pepper” residential patterns reflected a limited emphasis on race and residence or property values. According to Hanchett, the perceived disruption of social hierarchies due to the political power of the Populist-Republican Fusion in the 1890s created a need for segregation and purposeful exclusion in zoning as a means of protecting racial groups. Hanchett also explains the growth of working class neighborhoods as a result of Charlotte’s mill owners creating “mill villages” in the late nineteenth century. Company housing not only enabled employers to “monitor” employees, but also “encouraged millhands to feel traditional bonds of obligation to their employers” (p. 53). This mill village concept contrasts sharply with business interests in the Second World War that provided employment but no housing options. The progression to clustering, patchwork, and then sector patterns reflected concerted movements of people and businesses to certain areas for financial, racial, or aesthetic reasons.

Hanchett’s discussion of Edward Dilworth Latta’s suburb development of Dilworth provides a fascinating view into the suburbanization movement. Created due to the ability of trolley service to transport workers and consumers from residential areas to commercial areas, Dilworth also reflected a utopian concept of suburban living with integrated living, landscaping, amusement parks, and trolley service during the late nineteenth century, decades before suburbia peaked in commercial or residential importance. Hanchett’s analysis of the Dilworth division challenges traditional “white flight” constructs of suburban developments with alternate motives.

Hanchett’s greatest contribution is to the debate over “what constitutes desirable urban form” (p. 257). At various times close proximity to railroad tracks or factories meant higher value property. Residences along busy thoroughfares also were deemed high status due to their prominence in the early decades of the twentieth century. African Americans clustered close to schools and churches as a source of value. After segregation, neighborhoods placed different markers on desirable locations and city planners used zoning, restrictive deed covenants, Home Owners’ Loan Corporation ratings, slum clearances, or suburbs to declare desirable or undesirable neighborhoods. Hanchett’s contribution is to place these decisions within sociopolitical movements not only on a local level, but in terms of regional trends or national politics. In the New South City, urban development and restructuring of land use constituted much more than financial decisions. Hanchett provides a thoughtful and meticulously argued work that considers the changing perspectives that guided the creation and recreation of urban and suburban built environments.

Alex Bradshaw; Fall 2012

In the 1970s, the city of Charlotte, North Carolina was the site of the Supreme Court’s nationwide test case for court-ordered school busing, which reflected the divided nature of the city at the time. Just as the Supreme Court used Charlotte to represent the modern South, Hanchett uses Charlotte to represent new southern urban areas, charting the growth and modification patterns of land use from the 1870s to the 1970s. Using maps and traditional historical documentation, Hanchett builds upon a base comprising three different social science models of urban growth to challenge traditional assumptions about the character of southern cities during the latter part of the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century. Hanchett argues that, contrary to prevailing assumptions about the nature of social and economic relations in the South since emancipation, segregation based on race and class did not characterize the land use in the urban South unrelentingly. Charlotte, and a number of other southern cities, resembled a scattering of demographic salt and pepper until the ultra-reactionary 1890s, when the city began to become “sorted out,” dividing along lines of economic and racial difference, eventually assuming the appearance of a “patchwork quilt.” During the “salt and pepper” era, residents of Charlotte intermingled in surprising ways: the wealthy and the poor, the black and the white, businesses and residences, all lived comfortably next to each other. At the end of the nineteenth century, though, influenced by the availability of housing, services, employment, and transportation, clearly defined neighborhoods began to emerge. Hanchett explains the three different social science models that have been used to explain such “sorting out” throughout the twentieth century; the “concentric ring” model, the “sector theory” model, and the “walking city/streetcar city” model. Although these three models had validity as explanations of Charlotte’s organic growth, it was economic and social change, catalyzed by the turn away from the agriculturally-dominated South of the past and turn toward industrialism that had the greatest influence over the city’s historical geography. The structure that industrialism brought to all aspects of the lives of people who were encountering it for the first time governed urban land use as well. Small businesses grew into larger businesses and moved out from the city center, it became newly important to live in close proximity to the workplace, particularly for those who did not have the resources needed to make commuting a viable option; homes for laborers were built by employers who wanted to maintain the separation, control, and reliability of their workers, and black people and white people were offered and denied residence in particular places with ever-increasing regularity.

Megan Brett, Spring 2014

In addition to attempting to create a history of Southern urbanization and suburbanization patterns, Hanchett is clearly engaging in a debate within the field of urban development history. He rejects the ring models which place transportation as the key factor in expansion and change, arguing that economic changes were the key factor. In this book, he successfully refutes the ring model arguments, but the economic change he describes is as much the result of the action of a group of small group of elites as overall changes in the market. As Alan S. Brody points out above. Hanchett frequently returns to these elite white men when describing changes in the city; this may be a reflection of the limitations of the sources, but it implies that the other populations in the city lacked any form agency, not just the vote.

One of the strengths of this work is Hanchett’s ability to interrogate non-textual sources and interpret them for the reader. His use of maps and plans helps to support his analysis of a shift from “salt and pepper” to a “patchwork,” and his reading of architectural styles is both engaging and informative. While some of the black and white figures might have benefited from labels (especially for those with poorer eyesight), Hanchett’s figure captions are always informative and contribute to the overall quality of the text.

The greatest failing of the work is the incomplete contextualization of Charlotte, both in urban development and as part of a state, region, and nation. As Richard Hardesty points out, many of the trends which Hanchett identifies in Charlotte are not unique to the city. Hanchett does not always make clear whether the changes he discusses in Charlotte were ahead of, behind, or on par with national and regional trends. While it is useful to have the comparisons with the Northern urban patterns of which the Charlotte elites were aware, the lack of comparisons to other Southern cities makes it hard to determine how many of the decisions of that elite were unique to Charlotte and how many were part of a regional urbanization trend. Hanchett is also spotty when engaging with the history of North Carolina. His total omission of the Wilmington Riot of 1898, particularly when he is making the case for why the elite wanted to separate the communities, is baffling. While the afterword does something to alleviate this decontextualization, it is insufficient.

Daniel Curry, spring 2014

In his book, Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975, Thomas Hanchett uses the example of Charlotte, NC to convincingly argue that “patterns of racial segregation [in the south] changed considerably over time,” did not come into existence until the beginning of the 20th Century and intensified over the course of the century (p. 116). 19th Century Charlotte was a single community where residences, businesses and individuals of different races and classes intermixed throughout the city. But as the 20th Century progressed, the city became a collection of separate communities divided by class and race which were physically separated from places of business.

He convincingly explains that the impetus for this change was the combination of an influx of blue collar workers and the political “Fusion” of Populists and African Americans which threatened the dominance of the ruling white elites of the city. He describes methods used by elites to enact segregation in the city such as the establishment of a city manager with an “at large” city council, disfranchisement practices, zoning and the use of residential covenants dealing with housing prices and racial exclusion. These practices allowed the ruling elite to maintain political control and shape the city to separate themselves in almost every way from lower class whites and African Americans as residences and public venues such as churches, stores and services moved out of the city center.

Despite his detailed analysis of events leading to these changes, one area lacking a full explanation was the influence and agency of “the region’s long-established black middle-class.” Hanchett describes how planners established “the fashionable black outpost” of Washington Heights and used the construction of “West Charlotte High School… [as an] additional magnet drawing ambitious African American families westward.” Despite his acknowledgement of a significant educated African American middle class, there is no discussion of their involvement in urban planning. He concludes that Washington Heights was established because “the black middle class was too tempting a market to ignore” (p. 235). Although an educated African American middle class did not have the ability to vote they would have economic influence within the community. To more fully tell the story of the creation of Washington Heights, Hanchett needs to address the role prominent African Americans had in influencing urban planning as well as funding for the high school and other public facilities. The quality of housing and public facilities in Washington Heights seems to be vastly different from descriptions of other African American communities in the Jim Crow South found in works such as Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan by Nancy MacLean and The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. While Hanchett’s analysis of urban development in Charlotte is impressive, the lack of analysis regarding the agency of non-white elites is glaring.

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