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Charlotte Travel Guide

The History and Museums of Charlotte

PHOTO: charlottesgotalot.com / Kyo H Nam

From the Revolutionary War to the Civil Rights Movement, Charlotte is rich with history. You just have to look a little to find it.

Chartered in 1768 and named for the Queen of England at the time, Charlotte has a long, rich history that may not be evident at first glance. In the decades following the American Civil War, Charlotte embraced the pro-business mindset of the “New South” and grew dramatically. Many of its old buildings and structures were torn down to make way for the new. With glimmering metal and glass skyscrapers dotting the landscape, today Charlotte feels like a very modern city. However, if you dig a little deeper, you’ll uncover remnants of the city’s past as an agricultural, textile, and railroad hub. In the city’s museums, you’ll also see evidence of the region’s commitment to arts and culture. The following are a few key sites to visit for a deeper dive into Charlotte’s history and museum scene.

Charlotte Museum of History

Learn what life was like for the Catawba Indians, early settlers, and the people and events that shaped modern-day Charlotte at this long-time history museum focused on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area. It’s also the site of the Hezekiah Alexander House, a 1774 two-story stone house that is the oldest surviving structure in Mecklenburg County and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The house is accompanied by a reproduction log kitchen, barn, and reconstructed springhouse that helps to recreate what life was like in the 18th century. A general admission ticket includes a guided tour of the Hezekiah Alexander Home Site and a self-guided tour of the museum galleries.

Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture

Named for community leader and the first African-American mayor of Charlotte, Harvey Gantt, this innovative arts institution celebrates the contributions of Africans and African-Americans to American culture. More than a museum, it’s also a community epicenter for music, dance, theater, visual art, film, arts education, literature, and conversations related to African-American arts in Charlotte and beyond. The exhibits change frequently with topics ranging from local history, social issues, and innovative artworks, but you can always see their Hewitt Collection of African-American Art. The collection features 58 works of art, including those of Harlem Renaissance-famed and Charlotte-born Romare Bearden.

INSIDER TIPPurchase a Levine Center for the Arts Access Ticket at the discounted price of $20 which gives you two-day access to the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, the Harvey B. Gantt Center, and The Mint Museum campuses. It’s a great way to save and experience three diverse cultural attractions that are in close proximity to one another.

Levine Museum of the New South

Recognizing the significant transformation of Charlotte and the Carolina Piedmont since the American Civil War, this unique Uptown museum focuses on the history of the post-Reconstruction era to present day. Their award-winning signature exhibit, “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers” explores the social history of the economic transformation of the Piedmont from a rural, agriculture-based society to the major business and industrial center that it is today. Interactive features include a recreated tenant farmer’s house, cotton mill machinery and a luncheon counter where you sit down and hear stories from local Civil Rights sit-in leaders. Changing temporary exhibits focus on various topics designed to provoke community conversation.

Mint Museum Uptown

With its modern, impressive building located in the heart of Charlotte’s Uptown arts district, this long-time Charlotte institution is one of the most comprehensive fine art museums in the Southeast. The 145,000 square-foot Uptown location houses an expansive collection of crafts and design, plus international and American art. The permanent collection ranges from ancient New World pieces to modern and contemporary art. Check ahead to see what rotating exhibits are featured. Past exhibits have featured North Carolina artists as well as British ceramics, fashion, collage, and more.

INSIDER TIPIf the Mint Museum of Art is on your agenda, consider staying at the Le Méridien Charlotte in Uptown which offers complimentary access to the museum (both campuses) for each guest.

Mint Museum Randolph

North Carolina’s first art museum, the Mint, got its name from the unique building that became its home. Its first campus (now known as the Mint Museum Randolph) opened in 1936 in what was the original branch of the United States Mint. The Mint Museum Randolph offers a beautiful park setting and intimate galleries where visitors can engage with the art of the ancient Americas, decorative arts, European and African art, and changing temporary exhibitions. History buffs will enjoy the Heritage Gallery which features works of art, archival documents, and photographs documenting the growth and evolution of the museum itself. A general admission ticket gives you access to both Mint Museum Randolph and Mint Museum Uptown for two consecutive days so you have plenty of time to explore.

Wells Fargo History Museum

This small Uptown museum is dedicated to telling the story of Charlotte’s early banking years.  Step inside an 1889 bank, sit in a 19th-century stagecoach, or try your hand at Morse code. Exhibits highlight the history of gold mining in North Carolina and the beginnings of Charlotte’s Wachovia Bank which would later become part of Wells Fargo. Admission is free.

Historic Latta Plantation

Located in Huntersville, just 30 minutes north of Charlotte, this historic cotton plantation home dates back to 1800 and operates as a living history museum located within the 1,343-acre Latta Nature Preserve. Guided tours of the plantation home are offered daily. You can tour the grounds, including 11 outbuildings and live farm animals, at your own place. It’s a great way to get a glimpse of what life was life in North Carolina prior to 1865 for both the plantation owners and enslaved African Americans who were essential to the farm’s operation.

Historic Rosedale Plantation

This historic home and plantation, built in 1815, is one of Charlotte’s rare Antebellum buildings. Located on 9 acres in the heart of the city, it’s a serene urban oasis that has survived the development around it. The restored historic house, recreated blacksmith shop, and beautiful gardens, including a Tree Museum, help to connect visitors with Charlotte’s past. The star of the show, of course, is the beautiful yellow-trimmed two-story home built by Archibald Frew. Rosedale was known during its time as “Frew’s Folly” due to its expense and extravagant design.

Reed Gold Mine State Historic Site

You may be surprised to learn that it’s in Carolina, not California, where the first gold was discovered in the United States. This state historic site located in Midland, about 20 miles east of Charlotte, was the site of that lucky discovery in 1799. The gold rush that commenced grew into a mining industry and helped fuel Charlotte’s emergence as a banking town. Here, you can go underground into a former mining tunnel for a guided tour of the gold mining process. You can also visit a stamp mill and try your hand at gold panning. Call or check ahead for the tour schedule as availability varies with the season.

INSIDER TIPTo maximize time, hop on a history-themed tour with Charlotte NC Tours. This locally owned company offers a variety of ways to see Uptown Charlotte and its surrounding neighborhoods. The company offers a Center City Walking Tour that stops at several museums and historic sites. There’s also Segway and bike tours if you’d rather be on wheels.

 

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