Author Interview: Thomas W. Hanchett on Sorting Out the New South City

In this Q&A, Thomas W. Hanchett discusses Sorting Out the New South City, Second Edition: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875–1975, available now from UNC Press. This updated edition includes a new preface by the author.

One of the largest and fastest-growing cities in the South, Charlotte, North Carolina, came of age in the New South decades after the Civil War, transforming itself from a colonial courthouse village to a thriving textile and banking center. In this deeply researched and updated edition, Thomas W. Hanchett explores the interplay of national trends and local forces that shaped Charlotte and, by extension, other New South urban centers. A new preface by the author examines issues of race, immigration, gentrification, and more in the last half century, bringing this groundbreaking study—now more relevant than ever—up to the present.

Sorting Out the New South City, Second Edition is now available in paperback and ebook editions.


Q: Sorting Out the New South City was first published in 1998. Why is the time right for a new edition?

A: To my surprise, the story that Sorting Out the New South City tells is even more relevant today than it was in the 1990s.

On one level, the book is a case study of how a city grows. Today Charlotte is twice as big and much more nationally visible than in 1998, with people flocking here by the hundreds every week—which raises the curiosity level about the city’s history generally. How did Charlotte become a major U.S. metro?

On another level, the book explores what scholars now call “the geography of opportunity.” Charlotte’s growth has come with problems, especially in economic mobility and affordable housing. Sorting Out the New South City digs into the processes by which Charlotte became segregated by economic class and by race over the course of the twentieth century. That’s a history that is not unique to Charlotte, so this book is of interest to anyone here or elsewhere who wants to understand and re-shape patterns of inequality in America’s cities.

Q: The 2020 Republican National Convention will take place in Charlotte. What do you most want Convention-goers to know about the city?

A: I know from being here in 2012 when the Democratic National Convention came to town, that hundreds of media folks will be looking for background on this New South city. Having a fresh edition of the definitive history of Charlotte readily available from UNC Press at a very reasonable price will be a boon to all of those reporters and commentators.

From Sorting Out The New South City, they’ll get solid background on the “New South” concept in general and Charlotte’s rapid growth in particular—along with a sense that this city is striving to understand and address problems of inequality.

As I talk with people outside the South about their perceptions of Charlotte, I hear two competing myths. One is of the eternally backward South, a region hopelessly mired in age-old attitudes about poverty, race, and power. The other, ironically, is of Charlotte as a glistening banktown, all new and near-perfect. I hope this book helps readers go beyond easy assumptions.

Q: What makes Charlotte a particularly interesting city for this kind of study?

A: Urban history, as a field of study, has focused mostly on America’s biggest metros. Today, historians are bringing the field’s insights to urban places of every size. It’s a kick to do that for Charlotte.

Q: This book covers a span of one hundred years, from 1875-1975. What’s significant about these dates? Do you go beyond them in the new edition?

A: That span in the title was meant to give readers a sense of the book’s focus, not its limits. There’s an expectation that any history of the South will be about the Civil War. I do sum up the city’s early history from settlement in the 1760s through the conflict of the 1860s. But the story I tell gets really interesting a full generation after the war’s end, around 1900. Likewise, the 1975 date represents a moment when the city’s current geographical patterns had gelled—but time has not stood still since then. The new Preface looks at ways Charlotte is changing in our own era, especially in terms of immigration, school assignment issues, and gentrification.

Q: What was the most eye-opening piece of data that you encountered when researching the new edition?

A: Charlotte’s growth since the early 1990s is astounding. The county had half a million people then, over a million now. Most newcomers hail from elsewhere in the U.S., but the immigrant population has risen even more quickly. Less than one percent of us were foreign born in 1990, more than fifteen percent today. Those changes were one reason I wanted to write the new Preface.

What I did not realize was how dispersed Charlotte’s international residents are. UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute graciously had staffer Laura Simmons create a map showing the percentage of foreign-born Charlotteans in each census tract in 2017. It follows no pre-existing patterns of race or wealth. There are immigrant concentrations along Central Avenue and South Boulevard—older areas of affordable apartments and small shops—but also in the newly suburban Mallard Creek area out by the Interstate 485 loop. Only a handful of census tracts have no immigrants.

This is so different from the Chinatowns and Little Italys of earlier immigration. Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised me; I write a monthly column for the Charlotte Observer about the food traditions that immigrants and other newcomers are bringing to this city, and those eateries are not concentrated in any particular part of town. But Laura’s map still blew me away.

Q: In your opinion, is Charlotte succeeding in its efforts to increase levels of affordable housing? What are the impediments to progress in this area?

A: In the past couple of years, Charlotte leaders have gotten highly intentional about combatting problems of housing affordability. That is partly because of a national trend of folks with money and the ability to choose to move inward in America’s cities, bidding up prices in older neighborhoods—where “naturally occurring affordable housing” has traditionally existed. That’s particularly visible in fast-growing Charlotte. Two big recent news events helped us grasp the reality of the crisis. In 2014, scholar Raj Chetty released a much-publicized study that ranked fifty U.S. metros according to opportunities for economic mobility and Charlotte came in fifty out of fifty. In 2016, the police-involved Keith Lamont Scott shooting here sparked weeks of protests, in which housing affordability emerged as a major area of complaint.

Voters went to the polls and elected Mayor Vi Lyles, a career city finance person with deep personal roots in the historically black West Side. She helped put a $50 million housing bond on the 2018 ballot, which voters approved overwhelmingly. And then Foundation for the Carolinas got corporations and non-profits to double that dollar amount. Even out in Ballantyne, a high-wealth “edge city,” major landowners began talking about building mixed-income housing.

It’s too soon to know exactly what the results of all that will be. I’m encouraged. But the need is huge and—as Sorting Out the New South City shows—we’ve spent decades moving the needle in the opposite direction. What kind of history will we choose to make today?

Q: How has the recent immigration boom altered life in Charlotte?

A: When I arrived in Charlotte in 1981, you couldn’t buy a bagel. Today, there are bagels, empanadas, arepas, pupusas, bao, and so much more. Over 180 languages are spoken at home by families in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. Newcomers are helping drive innovation, from the burgeoning restaurant chain Sabor to fin-tech wizards who travel back and forth from Mumbai to the banks here.

Q: What is your favorite part about living in Charlotte?

A: There’s an exciting sense of possibility in Charlotte. It’s a city that’s growing fast, that embraces change. That can be frustrating for a historian, watching old buildings—sometimes barely a generation old—fall to the bulldozer. But the folks who are flooding into this city turn out to be hungry to know its stories, to grasp its history.

Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Understanding how people have shaped the city is an empowering thing. We are people, too. We have the power to make history.


Thomas W. Hanchett taught urban history and history preservation at Youngstown State University and Cornell University before becoming the staff historian at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte.

On March 18, 2020 at 6PM, Dr. Hanchett will sit down with Dr. Willie Griffin at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte to discuss the new edition of Sorting Out the New South City. RSVP here.