Most recently updated on April 9, 2022
Originally posted on April 5, 2021
There are three states on the agenda for Day 17 of this virtual journey.
We’ll catch some golf, visit the largest stone faces on Earth, stop in at a Green Book hotel and finish up with a mix of religion, race car driving and barbecue.
We’ll also chat with longtime Congressman James Clyburn along the way.
First, we need to grab some breakfast on the way out of Atlanta.
The Waffle House Museum can be found on East College Avenue a few miles from downtown in the suburb of Decatur.
The museum is housed in the site of the original Waffle House, which was opened in 1955 by two neighbors, Joe Rogers Sr. and Tom Forkner. The business partners hadn’t planned on opening a second restaurant, but that changed in 1957 when they purchased an additional eatery. By 1961, they had four Waffle House establishments in Georgia.
The original restaurant no longer serves food, but it sits just a few blocks from a Waffle House that does.
In fact, Waffle House restaurants are so well known for being open that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has what they call a “Waffle House Index” when assessing natural disasters such as hurricanes.
If the local Waffle House is closed after a disaster, that means the community was hit hard. If the restaurant is open but the menu is limited, that means moderate damage. If the local WaHo is fully open, then the community is doing all right.
There’s still plenty of Georgia history to see, so we hop onto Highway 78 east for a 15-minute ride to Stone Mountain Park.
The 3,200-acre park includes a theme park, two hotels and two golf courses. It’s the most visited attraction in Georgia with more than 4 million guests in a typical year. The park was used for filming some outdoor scenes of the Netflix drama “Stranger Things.”
Our attention today is on Stone Mountain itself, which towers 825 feet above the surrounding ground. That makes it the world’s largest free-standing piece of exposed granite.
What makes the rock slab famous, however, is what’s carved into its north face.
The Confederate Memorial Carving is the largest high relief sculpture in the world.
The likeness of the three men riding horseback with hats over their hearts takes up an area 90 feet by 190 feet, actually larger than the Mount Rushmore monument in South Dakota with the faces of four U.S. presidents.
The site was owned in the late 1800s by William and Samuel Venable, two brothers who had rock quarries in the area. Sam Venable apparently had ties to the Ku Klux Klan and was one of the forces behind the Stone Mountain carvings.
Venable allowed the Ku Klux Klan to a hold a crossing burning on the site in 1915 and granted the organization an easement to the mountain in 1923.
The brothers deeded the mountain face to the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1916. Work on the carving began in 1923 but was stopped numerous times before being finished in 1972.
The state had purchased the mountain property in 1958 as “a memorial to the Confederacy.” The park opened on April 14, 1965 on the 100th anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The monument was officially dedicated in 1970 in a ceremony attended by Vice President Spiro Agnew.
Stone Mountain is reportedly considered a sacred place by the Ku Klux Klan. It’s where the group started their revival in 1915 after the film, “Birth of a Nation,” debuted. The Klan held a cross burning on top of the mountain every Labor Day from 1915 to 1965.
There have been a number of calls over the decades to remove the Confederate carving. The Atlanta chapter of the NAACP calls it a “glorification of white supremacy.”
Stacy Abrams made removal of the carving a campaign issue during her unsuccessful bid for Georgia governor in 2018.
However, any changes to the granite wall must be approved by the state Legislature. So far, that hasn’t happened.
However, in late May 2021, the Stone Mountain Memorial Association board voted to establish an on-site museum that details the history behind the carvings. The plan also will relocate a Confederate flag plaza from the monument’s walk-up entrance to an area near the base of the mountain that already has number of tributes to the Civil War South. Georgia law prohibits removing the flags from the site.
In August 2021, the association voted to change the organization’s logo, removing a rendering of the carving on the emblem.
From Stone Mountain, we make our way back toward Interstate 20, our traveling companion from our first full day in Texas.
In the early 1800s, Lithonia was a crossroads for a farming community of less than 100 people. In 1845, the Georgia Railroad came through to service the rock quarries. The name Lithonia comes from two Greek words meaning “stone” and “place.”
Today, the main attraction in town is the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, a mega-church that sits on 250 acres and is known for high-profile funerals.
In 2002, a memorial service was held there for Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez, a member of the 1990s trio known as TLC. Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston were among the thousands who attended.
In 2006, New Birth Missionary was the site for the funeral of Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. Among the thousands who attended the 5-hour service were President George W. Bush and three former presidents – Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. Musician Steve Wonder and poet Maya Angelou were also there.
Since then, the Baptist church has had a fall from grace.
Jamal Bryant was appointed as the new pastor and took over the reins in December 2018. He inherited a church with $30 million in debts, a membership that had fallen from 25,000 to 10,000 and an average weekly attendance that had dropped to less than 3,000 in a church with a 10,000-seat capacity.
Bryant was in the news again in 2020 when he and his ex-wife Gizelle Bryant, one of the stars of “Real Housewives of the Potomac,” decided to try to reconcile after divorcing in 2009.
We’re back on Interstate 20, heading east through central Georgia.
Native tribes lived in the area for more than 10,000 years before Europeans arrived.
In the early 1800s, the region was along a main route that pioneers took to move inland after the American Revolution.
Between 1816 and 1821, Georgia opened up the area for settlement. The first resident was blacksmith John Holcomb, who built a log cabin. A few years later, railroad executives came calling. Holcomb didn’t want to sell his land, but he was convinced to do so by Dr. W.D. Conyers, after whom the town is named.
The Georgia Railroad finally arrived in 1845 with Conyers being a watering post along the line.
Conyers had a special guest at the end of the Civil War. General William T. Sherman stayed overnight at an encampment here after burning Atlanta and tearing up some nearby railroad tracks. The town was also where Confederate Major General Joe “Fightin’ Joe” Wheeler was captured by Union forces who were in the area searching for Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
In the 1870s, the town had 12 saloons and five brothels in one section. Elsewhere, it had 40 stores, a college, a hotel and a carriage manufacturer. The good people of Conyers didn’t take kindly to the bars and brothels, so they set up churches on the sidewalks in that neighborhood to force out the unwanted businesses. To this day, Conyers resident take pride in those “sidewalk churches.”
The construction of Interstate 20 in the 1960s allowed Conyers to diversify its economy and appeal to young families as a suburb of Atlanta.
During the 1996 Summer Olympics, Conyers hosted some of the equestrian and bicycling events. About 600,000 Olympic visitors came through town. The Georgia International Horse Park was built for the Olympics and remains a fixture in Conyers, hosting an array of events from festivals to concerts to dog shows.
Another spectacle was happening in this small community during that decade.
From October 13, 1980, to October 13, 1998, Conyers housewife Nancy Fowler claimed that the Virgin Mary appeared before her to relay messages to the people of the United States. Thousands of pilgrims sojourned to a field next to the Fowler ranch and prayed on a holy hill. Fowler said the messages arrived on the 13th of each month. She held monthly sessions until May 1994, when 80,000 people attended. After that, the messages only came once a year on October 13 from 1994 to 1998. After the October 1998 event, the apparitions ceased without explanation. Fowler died in 2012 at the age of 69.
Conyers was also the locale for several episodes of “The Dukes of Hazzard” television show in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A few scenes from the 1990s version of “In the Heat of the Night” were also filmed here.
Despite being a small town, the community has had its share of celebrity residents. Conyers is the home town of singer Brenda Lee and actor Holly Hunter as well as actor Dakota Fanning and her sister, Elle Fanning.
Golf, Soul and Cyber Security
Interstate 20 cuts through the center of Georgia.
The route today takes you past the Oconee National Forest and a swath of rural communities before you reach the South Carolina border.
Right before you get there, you enter the town of Augusta, best known as the home of the Masters Golf Tournament.
Augusta has 200,000 residents and is the second most populous city in Georgia. About 57 percent of the city is listed as Black with 36 percent white.
The town sits on the Savannah River, overlooking the western edge of South Carolina.
The community was founded in 1736 by none other than James Oglethorpe, who led an expedition to form a town at the beginning of the navigable waters of the Savannah River. He is believed to have named the settlement after Princess Augusta, who at the time was the princess of Wales and mother of the future King George III.
A fort was completed on the site in 1736 and in 1763 four colonial governors negotiated a treaty with Native American tribes over the land.
In the late 1700s, tobacco was the main crop, but in the early 1800s the cotton gin, which had been invented down river in Savannah, shifted farm production to cotton. The construction of the Georgia Railroad in 1833 brought Irish immigrants to town and expanded the cotton industry.
The Augusta Canal was built in 1845 and widened in 1875, allowing more cotton to be transported by boat to Savannah. At one point, Augusta was the world’s second largest inland cotton market. The canal also attracted a flour mill, iron works and other manufacturers.
During the Civil War, Augusta housed the Confederate Powder Works. The factory was built in 1862. It had 26 buildings stretched along 2 miles of the Savannah River. It produced 7,000 pounds of gunpowder per day. After the war, the facility was sold and demolished. In 1880, the Sibley Manufacturing Company built the Sibley Mill on the site. The factory processed cotton and eventually produced denim.
Augusta is home to Fort Gordon, a 55,000-acre U.S. Army base that was established in 1941. At the base, troops trained under General George Patton. It also was a prisoner of war camp for captured German and Italian soldiers. In 1948, the base became the home for the Signal Corps Training Center as well as a military police school.
In the 1980s, the Computer Science Schools was established at Fort Gordon. In 2013, the Army Cyber Command was consolidated there. In 2016, the facility was named as the new National Cyber Security headquarters. This is the complex where the Army keeps track of Russian computer hackers, Chinese high-tech intruders and other security threats to the nation’s electronic infrastructure.
Overall, Fort Gordon now houses 16,000 military personnel, 3,000 civilian workers, 21,000 family members, 13,000 retired military and 35,000 retired family members.
The other major complex in town is the 750-acre Augusta National Golf Club. Membership is considered the most exclusive of any golf club in the world. Women weren’t allowed to be members until 2012. Currently, there are still only six women who are members.
In early April, the course was the site for the Augusta National Women’s Amateur tournament. Some of the female participants were not shy about speaking up during the competition about social issues.
The tournament, one of the four annual Grand Slam golf championships, is usually played in April. It was postponed until November in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2022, Tiger Woods made a comeback at the Masters just 14 months after a serious car accident.
Another famous landmark in town is the Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home. The 28th president of the United States lived in Augusta with his family from 1858 to 1870 while his father worked as a minister at a Presbyterian church. The family lived in this 2-story, 10-room historic home from 1860 to 1870.
Wilson’s next-door neighbor was Joseph Lamar Rucker, who was appointed in 1910 by President William Howard Taft to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Wilson remembered as a child seeing wounded Confederate soldiers being cared for at his father’s church as well as his home. He also saw Confederate President Jefferson Davis being led through Augusta by Union soldiers after his capture.
The Wilson home was purchased by Historic Augusta Inc. in 1991 and is now a museum.
Another historic building in town is the Springfield Baptist Church. There are two complexes on this property. One is the 1801 structure an African-American congregation took over in 1844. The other is a facility built by the congregation in 1897.
In 1866, the church hosted a meeting of 38 delegates from 11 counties and formed the Georgia Equal Rights Association. Morehouse College was founded as the Augusta Institute in the basement of the church before it moved to Atlanta and was renamed.
The Springfield congregation itself dates back to 1773, making it the oldest African-American congregation in the country. The church has the largest membership in the Georgia Baptist Association and is part of the historic Springfield neighborhood.
Six blocks from the church along the Savannah Riverfront is the Augusta Museum of History. The facility, established in 1937, features exhibits on the town’s history as well as golf and local legends from baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb to actress Butterfly McQueen.
However, the most highlighted exhibit at the museum is the one dedicated to the soul singer James Brown. Brown was born in 1933 in South Carolina. He was sent to Augusta at the age of 4 to live with an aunt who was the madam of a brothel. Brown had an impoverished childhood, earning pennies as a child while shining shoes, picking cotton, washing cars and dancing for soldiers at Fort Gordon. He was dismissed from school at age 12 for “insufficient clothing” and turned to religion and music.
Brown was sent to prison for three years at age 16 for stealing a car. It was there that he met Bobby Byrd, who invited Brown to join his R&B vocal group. From there, Brown rose to music stardom and earned the nickname “The Godfather of Soul.”
The exhibit at the museum includes clothing worn by Brown, his King of Soul crown and family photos. There is also a life-sized statue of Brown in the downtown area that has a mounted camera that will send a photo of you with the statue to your phone or email.
Both the Baptist church and the museum sit along the Augusta Riverwalk. The promenade follows along the portion of the Savannah River between 6th and 10th street. It’s similar but smaller than the River Walk in San Antonio, Texas. The walk here is part of the Augusta Tomorrow project to help revitalize the downtown area after businesses moved to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s.
Cruising Through South Carolina
Out of Augusta, Interstate 20 takes you over the Savannah River and immediately into South Carolina.
Its population of 5.3 million is 23rd on the list, not too far behind Minnesota. It’s a state of smaller towns. The most populous is Charleston with 141,000 residents, not even in the top 200 most populated cities in the country.
The state is 64 percent white and 26 percent Black, the fifth highest percentage in the nation.
The first native tribes arrived about 11,000 years ago. The initial European visitors arrived here in 1521. In 1629, King Charles I established the province of Carolana, which meant the “land of Charles.” The territory would eventually become North and South Carolina. In 1670, the first group of English settlers arrived.
The state was a hotbed during the American Revolution. The first seizure of British property by revolutionaries occurred here in July 1775. Nearly 300 Revolutionary War battles were fought on South Carolina soil.
South Carolina has the distinction of being the first state to secede from the Union at the onset of the Civil War, doing so on December 20, 1860. The first shots fired in that conflict occurred off the coast of South Carolina when Confederate soldiers attacked Union troops at Fort Sumter in April 1861.
After the war, South Carolina imposed a number of Jim Crow and voter suppression laws. One was known as the “one drop rule” in which a person who had just one ancestor of sub-Saharan African descent was considered Black. No biracial marriages were allowed during this era either.
South Carolina rejected the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote in 1920. Women could still vote in South Carolina because that was a federal law. However, South Carolina didn’t officially approve the 19th amendment until 1969.
In November 2014, South Carolina began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected attempts by state leaders to block the nuptials. In 2018, six state legislators tried unsuccessfully to have these unions labeled as “parody marriages.”
One of the first cash crops in South Carolina was indigo used in blue dye. The state prospered early on due to its fertile soil and accessible harbors. In the late 1700s, South Carolina was one of the richest of the 13 colonies. After the invention of the cotton gin, the cotton industry flourished. In the 1900s, textile manufacturing blossomed.
Today, South Carolina is the leading producer of tires among states. Its top agricultural crops include tobacco, corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat and peanuts. Livestock is also a major component of the agricultural industry.
The industrial sector is dominated by aerospace, automotive, advanced manufacturing, life sciences and distribution.
Tourism is becoming a bigger part of the state’s economy with Charleston, Hilton Head and Myrtle Beach drawing visitors.
In addition, South Carolina has the only commercial tea plantation in the continental United States. It’s located on Wadmalaw Island.
After you enter South Carolina, Interstate 20 bends slightly to head in a northeasterly direction.
An hour of driving takes you to the center of South Carolina and into the state capital of Columbia, a focal point of civil rights actions in the 1900s as well as a powerful point of political persuasion in 2020.
The town sits where the Broad and Saluda rivers meet to form the Congaree River.
Columbia is South Carolina’s second most populous city with nearly 130,000 residents and is named after Christopher Columbus.
The Congaree tribe lived in this region for centuries.
European pioneers set up camp here in the 1700s because the site is where the “fall line” of the Congaree River is located. This is point where you can no longer navigate upstream on the river and the downstream flow is strong enough to power a mill.
A fort called The Congarees was constructed at this spot. Ferry service was added in 1754.
Columbia was named the state capital in 1786 as a compromise between farmers in the “up country” and the plantation owners in the “low country.”
The Santee Canal was finished in 1800, connecting Columbia with the growing seaport town of Charleston. By 1816, Columbia had 250 homes and 1,000 residents. The canal drove the local economy until the railroads took over in the 1850s.
In December 1860, the South Carolina Secession Convention met in Columbia with delegates voting to secede from the Union. In 1865, General William Sherman and his 20,000 soldiers came here after marching through Georgia and torched the state capital where the secession movement was launched.
Today, the economy is more diverse, relying on government, medical and education employment with the University of South Carolina leading the way. There is also textile, synthetic fiber and electrical equipment manufacturing. In addition, the downtown is being revitalized, including the 800-acre Congaree Vista business district.
The city is also home to Fort Jackson, the largest U.S. Army installation for basic combat training. The base handles 50 percent of the Army’s basic training load. More than 48,000 basic training recruits and 12,000 advanced training soldiers come through every year. The 52,000-acre facility established in 1917 has 1,160 buildings and 100 training ranges.
During the 1900s, Columbia became a center for civil rights actions to undo the Jim Crow laws and voter suppression tactics that had been initiated in the late 1800s.
In 1945, Black teachers in Columbia won a lawsuit over equal pay. In 1946, activists won another lawsuit to allow Black voters to cast ballots in primary elections. Up until then, only white voters could participate in the primaries due to restrictive political party rules.
In 1960, about 50 Black college students held sit-in protests at segregated lunch counters in two department stores in the city’s downtown region. In 1962, those eating areas were finally integrated.
Congressman James Clyburn, who represents Columbia and its surrounding communities, told 60 Days USA in late March that Columbia has “always been there” when it comes to civil rights and perhaps doesn’t get the credit it deserves.
“South Carolina played a big, big role,” Clyburn said.
A remembrance of this era is on Wayne Street. The Harriett Cornwell Tourist Home was one of the businesses listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book carried by African-American travelers from the mid-1930s into the 1960s.
The travel guide, made famous in the 2018 movie “The Green Book,” was first published in 1936 by New York City postal carrier Victor Hugo Green. It listed hotels, guest houses, restaurants, service stations, pharmacies and other businesses that would serve Black customers.
The book became popular after World War Two when more African-Americans could afford to own cars and the interstate highway system was being built. Black travelers quickly learned they weren’t welcome everywhere and might have trouble finding a hotel room or a place to eat in certain towns. The book had a motto on its cover that stated: “Carry your Green Book with you – You may need it.”
Harriet Cornwell’s husband, John, was the original owner of the Wayne Street home. John operated a barber shop on Main Street. After his death, Harriet, who taught elementary school, and her two daughters lived there. From the 1940s until 1964, they operated it as a place for Black travelers to stop and stay. The home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.
Clyburn said the country has made progress on civil rights in the past six decades, but there is still much work ahead. At the top of his list is voting rights.
He said the new laws enacted in Georgia and new voting restrictions being proposed in other states are obstacles that can stymie progress on all types of issues.
“There has never been a problem getting good people to rally around good causes,” Clyburn said. “The problem has been that good people have had their efforts subverted.”
He points to the Jim Crow period that followed after Reconstruction efforts ended a decade after the Civil War. He says the current attempts to restrict voter access can take us back to the time before the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“Anything that has happened before can happen again,” Clyburn notes.
Clyburn is known for the World Famous Fish Fry he hosts every summer for Democratic presidential candidates and other party leaders. The event was originally organized in 1992 by Clyburn as a way to thank his campaign volunteers and celebrate the local community.
The congressman says that original purpose is still the focus.
“We tend to pay a lot of attention to the people who make the headlines and not enough attention to the people who do what I call the grunt work,” Clyburn said.
However, Clyburn still had a substantial impact on the 2020 presidential election.
It was Clyburn who endorsed the candidacy of Democratic contender Joe Biden in late February when the former vice president’s campaign was teetering on the edge. Clyburn’s backing boosted Biden to victory three days later in the South Carolina primary, mobilizing Black voters and delivering Biden key wins in the Super Tuesday contest three days after that. That momentum eventually carried over to Biden capturing the Democratic nomination on his way to victory in the November presidential election.
Clyburn’s endorsement cannot be overstated. His emotional plea for Democrats to select Biden as their nominee changed the entire course of the presidential election. Without it, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders would probably have been battling President Donald Trump in the fall election.
One of Clyburn’s other passions is the preservation of historic buildings.
One of the chief landmarks in Columbia is the Town Theatre, the oldest continuously operating community theater in the country. The theater was constructed in 1924. It underwent a $1.2 million renovation in 1993. The theater was temporarily shuttered in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It reopened in October with restricted seating. In a typical year, 30,000 people will attend the five to eight shows the theater company produces.
Clyburn said it’s important to retain structures such as the Town Theatre.
“I think buildings tell a lot about the character of the people,” he said. “I think buildings say a lot about what we are.”
A local artist named Blue Sky is doing his part to add some style in Columbia. He is the creator of the Busted Plug sculpture, a four-story, 675,000-pound piece of art work that is officially the world’s largest fire hydrant. The concrete and steel hydrant looks as if it’s been hit by a giant automobile, spraying water from its base at all hours.
Clyburn said all these elements make Columbia and South Carolina a great place to live.
He suggests the state reintroduce a mantra that locals have used in the past.
“South Carolina. Smiling faces. Beautiful places.”
Getting to Know You, Charlotte
You do get to see a lot of the Palmetto State along this route.
Interstate 77 heads north out of the state capital and glides along the north-central portion of South Carolina for an hour and a half before you cross the Calawba River and a few miles later enter North Carolina.
The region was first explored by Europeans in 1524. In the ensuing decades, France and Spain both failed to set up permanent settlements.
In 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh formed an expedition to establish the colony of Roanoke Island along what is now the Outer Banks off the North Carolina coast. About 120 pioneers settled there, building structures and planting crops. In August, the new community celebrated the birth of a baby girl named Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the colonies.
That fall, one of the expedition leaders sailed back to England for supplies. When he returned three years later, there was no trace of the settlers at the outpost. The only clues to their disappearance were the letters “CRO” carved into a tree and the word “Croatoan” carved into a post. Baby Virginia was among those missing. No one knows for sure what happened to the Roanoke pioneers. One theory is they joined a nearby Native American tribe and became part of that society.
North Carolina was the 10th of the 11 Southern states to secede during the Civil War. About 31,000 of its soldiers were killed during the conflict, tied with Virginia for the most of any Confederate state.
In the 1800s, cotton and tobacco were the main export crops. At first, the state struggled to produce suitable chewing tobacco, but later in the century a new way to cure tobacco and the growing popularity of cigarettes ignited the state’s tobacco industry. R.J. Reynolds was founded here in 1875, one of many tobacco companies to set up shop in North Carolina. By 1880, the state was producing 2 million pre-rolled cigarettes a year.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, textile mills sprung up along the Eastern seaboard as the textile industry fueled the demand for cotton.
The state’s economy began to diversify after World War Two with research and financial institutions moving in. The Research Triangle Park in the Raleigh area is the largest high tech research park in North America. Charlotte is also the second largest banking center, behind only New York City and just ahead of San Francisco.
North Carolina still retains a strong manufacturing and agricultural base. It leads the nation in the production of tobacco, furniture, textiles and sweet potatoes. It’s third in hogs and pigs as well as second in turkeys. It’s also second in the production of Christmas trees, behind only Oregon. There are 1,300 growers on 40,000 acres producing 4 million trees per year.
North Carolina is also fourth when it comes to solar energy. It trails only California, Texas and Florida with its solar capacity of 7,800 megawatts, enough to power more than 1 million homes. North Carolina ranks high in this industry due to state energy policy that encouraged utility-scale projects as well as a 2017 law that allowed the leasing of solar equipment.
North Carolina consists of mostly flatlands in its eastern half with forested mountains in its western sector. Mount Mitchell at 6,684 feet elevation is the highest point east of the Mississippi River.
At nearly 54,000 square miles, North Carolina ranks 28th among the states in area. Its 10.8 million residents makes it the 9th most populous state, slightly behind Georgia and just ahead of Michigan. Almost 63 percent of its population is white while about 21 percent is Black and almost 10 percent is Hispanic.
The state’s slogan is “First in Flight” and for good reason.
The beach town of Kitty Hawk is located in the Outer Banks. It was here on a sand dune a few miles south of town called Kill Devil Hill on December 17, 1903 that brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright completed the first powered flight of an airplane. The site was chosen because of its wind, soft ground and lack of trees and bushes.
The Wright brothers actually conducted four flights that day, the final one lasting almost a minute with their aircraft traveling 852 feet. The plane never got that high off the ground, but the flights proved the basic concepts of the Wrights’ flying machine.
A Wright Brothers National Memorial now sits on top of that sand dune.
Charlotte is the most populous city in North Carolina, well ahead of second place Raleigh. It also the second most populated community in the Southeast, behind only Jacksonville, and ranks as the 14th most populous city in the country.
The population is an ethnic mix of 40 percent white, 35 percent Black, 15 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian.
The median annual household income is $63,000, slightly higher than the state average. The poverty rate rests at a relatively low 11 percent.
The community has a long history of economic success.
The region was inhabited for thousands of years by the Catawba tribe. They numbered more than 8,000 in the 1500s. However, a series of small pox epidemics reduced that number to 500 by 1759.
Charlotte was an early defiant of the king. In 1775, a year before the Declaration of Independence was signed, local residents approved the Mecklenburg Resolves, a statement that proclaimed the king’s authority over their colonial land to be “null and void.”
That resolve carried over to the Revolutionary War. After a 1780 defeat in Charlotte, a British commander reported that the town was a “hornet’s nest of rebellion,” leading to the community’s nickname that now emblazons the Charlotte Hornets basketball uniforms.
To honor that fighting spirit, the downtown intersection located at the corner of Trade and Tyson streets is still known today as “Independent Square” or simply “The Square.” Four statues stand there. They depict a Black railroad worker, a mother and child in a textile mill, a mother and baby, and a gold prospector.
Gold rushes are usually associated with California, but North Carolina had one a half-century before the discovery of the precious metal at Sutter’s Fort near Sacramento. It began in 1799 when a 12-year-old boy found a 17-pound rock that his family used as a doorstop. Three years later, the rock was determined to be gold. It was the first documented discovery of the valuable metal in North America.
The discovery set off the country’s first scramble for gold. Miners scoured the state for the ore in the 1800s and even early 1900s. North Carolina, in fact, was the nation’s chief producer of gold until the 1848 discovery in California. The Reed Gold Mine operated until 1914 and people still pan for gold in rivers in the Charlotte area.
Gold, however, wasn’t the primary driver of the economy. The first railroad arrived in 1852, connecting Charlotte with Columbia, South Carolina, boosting the burgeoning cotton industry.
During the Civil War, the city was the site of the Confederacy’s Navy Yard, where ammunition was manufactured. After the war, the city developed into a cotton processing center and railroad hub. City leaders embraced the idea of a “New South” that no longer relied on agriculture and slaves. Instead, it focused on manufacturing and urbanization, traits that carry over to today.
Charlotte started to become a major banking center in the 1970s when Hugh McColl transformed North Carolina National Bank into a formidable entity before it became part of Bank of America. First Union Bank in Charlotte became Wachovia Bank. The city is now home to the corporate headquarters of Bank of America as well as the East Coast regional headquarters for Wells Fargo Bank, which purchased Wachovia in 2008.
Charlotte also has a thriving energy-based sector with 39,000 employees tied to that industry. Duke Energy is the largest electric power holding company in the country. It has built a new 39-story office building downtown to go along with its 49-story headquarters. City officials have labeled their community “Charlotte USA – The New Energy Capital.”
Charlotte is also considered a “millennial hub” with more of this generation moving here than just about anywhere else. This age group is attracted by job opportunities, affordability and quality of life. In 2020, Charlotte was ranked as the 5th most popular city for the 25-to-39 age group to relocate. This demographic is reflected in the city’s median age of 34 years.
Charlotte does have an affordable housing problem. The city reportedly needs as many as 34,000 lower priced homes to meet local demand. That’s double the number estimated a decade ago.
The median price for a home in Charlotte is $250,000, about $60,000 above the state average. Rents have climbed 45 percent since 2010. Nearly 50,000 Charlotte residents pay more than half of their income for rent. The crunch was evident in May 2020 when 1,000 people waited in line during the COVID-19 pandemic for a chance at 129 affordable housing units.
Housing officials say the issue began in the 1960s when neighborhoods were torn down and not enough replacement housing was built. In the early 1990s, a new development that was supposed to contain some low-cost housing ended up being all upscale housing. A light rail system built during the early 2000s was intended to produce a corridor of affordable homes but instead drove up property values.
Charlotte isn’t the only place facing an affordable housing deficit.
A 2019 report concluded that there was not a single county in the United States where a person working 40 hours a week at minimum wage could afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment. The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports there is a shortage of 7 million affordable housing units across the nation. The group states that providing families with affordable housing creates stable households, allows for upward economic mobility and reduces childhood poverty. Those problems, the group says, can hamper the nation’s economy as a whole.
Charlotte also has a religious history. It’s known as the “City of Churches” due to a long history of religious freedom. It was a prime settlement area for European immigrants of Presbyterian faith. The city now has more than 700 houses of worship.
You see the first evidence of this religious streak along Interstate 77 just south of downtown.
That’s where the Billy Graham Library is located. The 40,000-square-foot facility rests on 20 acres on Billy Graham Parkway. The complex includes Graham’s childhood home where he lived from age 9 to 18 as well as a prayer garden and exhibits recounting the life of the man who became known as “America’s pastor.”
Graham was born in Charlotte on November 7, 1918. His father was a dairy farmer, so Graham grew up in rural settings. His parents were both strict followers of the Calvinism branch of the Protestant religion.
In 1934, Graham attended a revival meeting and underwent a religious experience that stayed with him for the rest of his life. In 1936, he left home to attend Bob Jones University, a Christian liberal arts college that at the time was known as Bob Jones College and was located in Tennessee. Graham eventually transferred to the Florida Bible Institute, now known as the Trinity College of Florida. He graduated in 1940 and became an ordained minister through the Southern Baptist Convention, an organization of churches dedicated to spreading the teachings of Jesus Christ around the world.
Graham continued his education by enrolling at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he met and then married Ruth Bell, whose father was a missionary in China. Graham graduated from Wheaton in 1943 and quickly developed his style of preaching that was a simple and sincere message of sin and salvation.
A few years later, Graham joined Youth for Christ and decided to revive the traditional sector of Protestant faith. He began preaching to audiences at revivals inside circus tents in Los Angeles and quickly gained notoriety. From there, he took his crusade across the nation and then the world. One of his most publicized tours was a 16-week stop at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1957.
Graham was criticized by liberal religious leaders for being too much of a fundamentalist and by conservative religious leaders for straying too far from their traditionalist views.
Graham became close to a number of U.S. presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to George W. Bush. He generally stayed away from politics, although he was involved in Richard Nixon’s 1960 presidential campaign against John F. Kennedy as well as Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign against George McGovern.
Graham formed a powerful media-oriented organization through the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, a group that worked with local churches and political leaders. The association also produced a syndicated newspaper column, a magazine and the “Hour of Decision” radio program.
Although he didn’t consider himself a “televangelist,” Graham’s media-centered crusades helped open the door to the televised religious preachers who proliferated during the 1980s.
In 1996, Graham and his wife received the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor. His final public preaching occurred in Queens, New York, during June 2005.
The Graham Library is near the Carolinas Aviation Museum at Charlotte airport. The facility is full of aviation artifacts, including the Airbus jetliner that Captain Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger landed safely on the Hudson River In New York City on January 15, 2009. The plane had left LaGuardia Airport and was headed to Charlotte.
The aviation museum also provides STEM-based learning programs for children. In addition, there are hands-on learning experiences for all ages where visitors can sit behind the console of a Cessna 150, a Boeing 727 trainer, a F-14 fighter jet and a Wright Flyer simulator.
From the airport, it’s a 15-minute drive into downtown Charlotte, known as “Uptown” by local residents. There is a wide variety of sites to see here.
One of them is the Levine Museum of the New South, a facility that features post-Civil War artifacts from North Carolina from 1865 to today. The biggest presentation is the 8,000-square-foot “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers” exhibit that looks at the transformation of parts of the South from an agricultural society to a more industrialized region.
Charlotte had to overcome its own segregation barriers. Like most Southern communities, Charlotte adopted Jim Crow laws in the late 1800s and kept them for more than 80 years. In the 1950s, civil rights activists finally succeeded in overturning desegregation policies at the airport and in city parks. In the 1960s, lunch counters and restaurants were opened to all races.
Although there are no longer discriminatory laws on the books, activists say Charlotte remains a segregated city with whites living in an upscale triangle in the southern part of the city and residents of other ethnicities spread out in the northern and western neighborhoods. Some census tracts report Black and Hispanic populations of more than 70 percent.
A half-dozen blocks away from the Levine museum is the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The 5-acre site includes an 86,000-square-foot center with a hall of honor and high-tech exhibits dedicated to the race drivers in the NASCAR circuit. As part of the experience, visitors can get behind the wheel of an actual race car.
NASCAR, short for the National Association of Sports Car Racing, was founded in 1948 by William “Bill” France Sr., an auto mechanic, auto repair shop owner and occasional race car driver from Daytona Beach, Florida. France had noticed how rules varied between different auto races and how show promoters sometimes grabbed a slice of prize money from themselves. He felt the racing circuit needed a governing body.
One of the new organization’s first races was held in 1949 at the Charlotte Speedway. In the initial years, NASCAR drivers drove the types of cars people used on the streets. That eventually changed as drivers developed customized, high-powered vehicles. The first Daytona 500 was held in 1959.
NASCAR now holds races at more than 30 different tracks in the United States and Canada in a typical year. NASCAR reached its zenith in popularity in 2005. Since then, it has seen a steady decline. In 2019, the circuit had lost 50 percent of its audience from live events and online viewing.
Now, you can’t leave Charlotte without talking about food.
In June 2021, the city did lose one of its best-known restaurants. The owners of Price’s Chicken Coop announced it was closing its doors after 59 years of business. The walk-up, cash-only eatery served Southern fried chicken in Charlotte’s South End neighborhood. The owners said they decided to shutter their business due to labor shortages, rising costs and food quality issues. The closure of Price’s reignited concerns over rising property costs in Charlotte as well as a shortage of employees in the post-pandemic era.
We’ll take it all in and rest our feet here for the evening.
Tomorrow, it’s an all-day virtual trek across North Carolina to take in new vineyards, big furniture, historic civil rights markers and the place where one of the most famous baseball movies was made.