By Delia O’Hara
Kathryn Hill’s first month in Charlotte is one she will never forget. After having spent most of her adult life working in museums (including the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.), Hill became president of the Levine Museum of the New South. She'd been in the position for less than three weeks when the city exploded over the death of Keith Lamont Scott — a 43-year-old African-American, killed by an African-American policeman in the parking lot of his apartment complex in the city's University City neighborhood.
Within hours, protests turned violent and spilled out across the city. There was one death, many injuries, and extensive vandalism. The business district of one of America's major banking centers shuttered its doors for a day, but the museum stayed open.
People were calling and asking, "What's the Levine Museum going to do about this? We need you to do something," Hill recalls. Never in her career had she seen a community turn to a museum with that kind of call to action, she says.
Nevertheless, a week later, with emotions in the city running high, the Levine hosted a town meeting, "to lay down historical context to explain what happened," and to facilitate a conversation Hill says was "passionate and genuine" — and respectful. By April, the museum's staff had mounted a "rapid response exhibit," K(no)w Justice, K(no)w Peace, that incorporated stories from activists, the local police, clergy, civic leaders, and others. "The community stepped up and helped us stage it really fast," Hill says. K(no)w Justice K(no)w Peace had the highest attendance of any exhibit at the museum in the past decade, she says.
"What exploded around that event had been in the ground for years and years," she says. "If you don't understand that history, you're not going to understand what happened. I had the opportunity, under tragic circumstances, to honor the legacy of the museum's founders, to seize the moment to use history to build community, as I think only the Levine Museum can."
The Museum of the New South opened in 1991, later named for Leon Levine, who founded Family Dollar, and his wife Sandra, whose foundation is a significant supporter. The late Anne Batten, a longtime elementary-school teacher and chairman of the Mecklenburg Historical Society, recruited her former pupil, Sally Robinson, to help her expand the city's official presentation of its past, which up to that point had stopped at the Civil War.
The new museum was without a building for five years, putting up exhibits in kiosks, tents, and spaces around town. Robinson, a prominent supporter of the arts in Charlotte, assembled a team and led the effort to create a museum that would know how to tell a story. But what story? In the beginning that was the question.
"Tell me a story with me in it," Robinson says, citing one of the group's early mottoes. "You don't just tell the story of the mill owner; you also want to get to know the story of the person who worked on the spinner."
Those two characters — the mill owner, and the person on the spinner — figured prominently in the early narrative. That narrative was about how the South — especially the Southern Piedmont, with Charlotte at the center — transformed from a predominantly agrarian culture into an industrial powerhouse with textile mills at its heart.
"There were no major Civil War battles here. Our story really began after the Civil War," says David Goldfield, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, one of four historians who guided the perspective in the early days. He also advised on Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers, the museum's permanent exhibit, which went in a year after the museum opened in 2001 as the Levine Museum, in its present quarters at 200 E. Seventh St.
The story was about "the connections between the Southern city and the countryside," Goldfield says; there was little in-migration to the Charlotte area after the Civil War until about 50 years ago. At a breathtakingly rapid, pace everything changed for Charlotte. It has become a cosmopolitan city now, with residents from all over the world.
"The initial purpose of the museum was to show these tens of thousands of newcomers why we're here," Goldfield says. But the founders all agreed that "we weren't going to be a museum of hagiography. We were going to present history with all its warts and allow visitors to draw their own conclusions."
Emily Zimmern, the museum's second director, embraced that charge, taking over from the founding director, the late Robert Weis, in 1995. The museum's success depended not only on community support but also on generous funding from local businesses. Some exhibits raised hackles early on. When mill owners who were sponsoring Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers, pleased that it told their industry's story, learned the exhibit would also include a section on the violent, unsuccessful 1929 Loray mill strike in Gastonia, North Carolina, some threatened to withhold funds, Zimmern says. She held firm.
"We especially wanted to tell the stories that hadn't been told," she says.
Over the years, says Zimmern, who retired as president in 2015, "We've had remarkably little pushback. We've always been able to secure funding. Many in the community leadership thought it was good we were willing to confront these stories."
She adds, "I've heard people criticize the museum for being too liberal, and I've had some criticize it for being too conservative. I've always felt if you're getting that from both sides, as an institution, that's a good place to be."
The Levine Museum has always had a PhD historian on staff. Tom Hanchett, another of the historians who set the course for the early museum, served in that role for 16 years. He says he believes the civil rights movement, which sprang up to an extent in the museum's own catchment, changed the whole enterprise of reporting history.
"The civil rights movement called into question the simple narrative that America was the land of equality and justice for all. And the movement itself, especially the Montgomery (Alabama) bus boycott and the Greensboro (North Carolina) sit-ins, indicated that ordinary people can shift the levers of history," Hanchett says.
But America's grassroots have never been the place to find contentment, and a standout moment for Hanchett, he says, came in encountering a section of Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers, which he curated, that focused on Roland Dagenhart, a Charlotte man who worked in a textile mill alongside his two young teenage sons. In 1918, Dagenhart successfully sued to overturn the federal Keating-Owen Act, which had outlawed child labor. Parents like Dagenhart had likely grown up working on tenant farms themselves, and saw mill work as the same kind of enterprise, Hanchett says.
So, in addition to presenting the case against child labor — including a number of Lewis Hine's haunting photographs of young workers from the early 1900s — the designers worked very hard to find the words of textile workers themselves on why child labor made sense to them, and it was language about parental control, parental responsibility," Hanchett says. "Whether you agree with that or not, all of a sudden you see the world through different eyes, and that is really powerful. That language resonates with things we're seeing in our society today. Those people didn't want the government telling them what to do. The thing that impressed me was that the museum was willing to tell a difficult story."
The museum had showcased various aspects of the lives of Charlotte's residents over the ensuing years, including contemporary voices of local veterans reflecting on their experiences in the Iraq War, and intriguing figures in the Southern music culture, a celebration of the increasing diversity of the area, and a look at the influence of Christianity on life in the South. At the same time, the Levine Museum has presented exhibit after exhibit that embraced a social justice perspective.
In 2004, the museum staff produced Courage, the story of Briggs vs. Elliot, the first 20th-century challenge to the constitutionality of racially segregated schools. Briggs began in Clarendon County, South Carolina, in 1947, with a rebuffed request for a school bus for African-American children forced to walk several miles to school in a district that deployed a fleet of buses for white children. Briggs vs. Elliot became one of the cases included in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, which overturned school segregation in America in 1954.
Zimmern calls Courage "transformative" for the museum. In 2012, she carefully rolled out a visiting exhibit called Without Sanctuary, a collection of horrific 19th and 20th-century photographs of lynchings of black men and boys as public events, many though not all across the Deep South. Before the exhibit arrived, Zimmern held a series of "listening sessions" with community members about the exhibit, and workshops for her staff.
Sally Robinson recalls one photograph of "an African-American boy hanging by his neck from a tree limb, and standing there, looking at him, are parents with their little girl, who was wearing white gloves. They'd just been to church. Can you imagine?"
Many Charlotte residents would have said lynchings never happened in their area, Zimmern says, but "indeed they did happen."
Robinson praises Zimmern's effort to prepare the community, white and black, for that exhibit's sensitive content, "so that when it came, it was appreciated. I would say, under Emily's great leadership, we moved more and more into social justice, and racial justice and Kathryn Hill has embraced that."
Hanchett says, "History is made every day. It's made by how we live, how we work, where we choose to reside. All those decisions help create the society we live in. One of the reasons I'm in history is that it's very empowering. If there's been a debate in the past — and we can see that there always has been considerable debate — then I can join the debate today."