The Crossroads Merchants

“Standin’ at the crossroad

I tried to flag a ride

Didn’t nobody seem to know me

everybody pass me by”

—Robert Johnson

I went to Charlotte in search of the New South and found it in a museum, the Levine Museum of the New South on 7th Street in Uptown Charlotte.  Like most historical museums, the Levine tells a familiar story: The New South is a narrative of “reinvention,” and Charlotte epitomizes the New South in toto.  Six hands-on “environments” illustrate the phases in Charlotte’s long quest for distinction, beginning with the transformation of the Carolina Piedmont by the textiles industry in the 1890’s.  The War itself is mentioned merely as the catastrophic backdrop to this first defining moment of reinvention.  The heroes in this narrative are not the defenders of Southern sovereignty but those who rose up out of the defeat to adopt the sharp practices of the conqueror—the crossroads merchants and the builders of the mill towns which established Charlotte and the greater Piedmont as a dominant player in the empire of cotton.  Upon this foundation, Charlotte prospered to become first...

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