Happy Friday everyone!
The thirty years following the end of World War II in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County were anything but dull. These three decades are rivaled in importance in terms of fundamental social and political modification only by the arrival of white settlers in the 1740s, the defeat of the Confederacy and the end of slavery in the 1860s, and the overpowering of Populism and the enactment of Jim Crow laws at the turn of the last century. Change occurred on many fronts, but all shared the common result of increasing participation by a broader spectrum of society in influencing and making decisions about the future of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.
Nobody was predicting profound change when WWII came to an end. Everybody assumed that it would be “business as usual.” Indeed, during the immediate post-war years it looked as if Charlotte’s white male business upper-class would continue to monopolize local power. The process by which Independence Boulevard came into being seemed to affirm this truth.
Hundreds of Chantilly, Elizabeth, and Piedmont Park residents gathered at Midwood School on Central Avenue on September 8, 1946. They had just learned that Mayor Herbert Baxter and the City Council wanted to use $200,000 of local bond money to help build a massive “cross-town boulevard.” The protestors called it a “foolish scheme” that could “throttle traffic between downtown and the eastern residential districts.” One irate resident suggested that the route had been chosen because it would increase the value of the property that Ben Douglas, District Highway Commissioner and former Mayor, owned at what is now the intersection of Independence Blvd. and Elizabeth Avenue.
“Somebody’s toes are bound to be stepped on.” That’s how Councilman John P. White, the 67-year-old production manager and mechanical superintendent of the Charlotte Observer, responded to the protestors. A native of Alabama, White lived on Grandin Rd. in the Wesley Heights neighborhood off of West Trade St. Like the majority of Charlotte businessmen of that era, he was caught up in the euphoria and optimism that gripped the country in the years immediately after WWII.
“You only look back for reasons to move ahead, and by golly nobody can say that we lacked ideas,” Mayor Baxter told journalist Kays Gary in 1964. A handsome and personable Bostonian, Herbert Baxter had come to Charlotte during World War I to train at Camp Greene, had settled here, had prospered in the lumber business, and had moved to a fine home on Queens Rd. in Myers Park.
The real brain behind the building of Independence Blvd. was James B. Marshall (Marshall Park is named after him). He was a brilliant engineer who had served as Mayor Ben Douglas’ City Manager. Born in Anderson, South Carolina in the early 1890s, Marshall graduated from the College of Charleston and settled in Charlotte in the 1920s. He left City government in 1941 and joined J. N. Pease as an engineer and contact man with City Hall.
In 1946 the Charlotte Planning Board hired Marshall as a consultant to prepare a master plan for Charlotte’s streets. Several months earlier, the North Carolina Highway Department had conducted a comprehensive survey of local traffic trends and had determined that Charlotte needed “cross-town boulevards” to relieve congestion on uptown streets. Mayor Baxter knew that Charlotte had become a major trucking and distribution center in the first half of the 20th century and that highways were essential to the local economy. Buildings such as the Charlotte Supply Company Building and the Textile Mill Supply Company Building attested to Charlotte’s service to the regional textile industry.
Word leaked out in September 1946 that the expressway would split the Chantilly, Elizabeth, and Piedmont Park neighborhoods. A throng of infuriated citizens packed the City Council meeting on September 10, and their spokesman, attorney Frank K. Sims, Jr., accused the City of being secretive and manipulative. On October 8, 1946, the City Council gathered for an informal dinner at the Myers Park Country Club, where Mayor Baxter was president. There in the midst of Myers Park, with fine china, cut crystal, and sumptuous food on the table, the representatives of the pople endorsed the route through Chantilly, Elizabeth, and Piedmont Park. That’s how deals were struck in those days.
Myers Park Country Club, where many political and business deals were made over golf and dinner.
On October 21, 1946, the residents of the affected neighborhoods descended upon City Hall for a public hearing. The atmosphere was tense and electric. “Isn’t it a little absurd,” Frank Sims remarked, “to build a highway that winds and twists and turns across a park and baseball diamond and over a rose garden and through a thickly populated residential section just to reach Ben Douglas’ property?”
Mayor Baxter and the Councilmen did modify their position in the face of this fierce public opposition, at least in terms of the preferred route. But this route was never built, because the Federal government, the principal financier of the project, rejected it outright as unsuitable for an expressway. On December 5, 1946, the Councilmen took up the issue again. For a while it looked like Charlotte would never decide the issue of where to build Independence Blvd. The members of City Council seemed to be hopelessly divided.
City Councilman John P. White saved the day. He persuaded Ross Puette and Henry Newson to abandon Hawthorne Lane and back the original route. “By jingo, at one point there, I thought I was going to have to switch to Hawthorne Lane myself,” White laughed. Such were the fickle ways of politics in those days. The battle was not over. City Council approved the contract with the Federal government on March 11, 1947.
Independence Blvd., circa 1960. A view from Albemarle Rd. to Briar Creek Rd. It is easy to see the impact this new road was having on East Charlotte. This stretch of road now is one of the busiest in all the Carolinas, carrying tens of thousands of commuters daily.
Stay tuned to learn who would begin to make their way into the conversation and turn the tide on lack of influence and access in the Charlotte region.
Until next week!
Email me at chris@704Shop.com if you have interesting Charlotte facts you’d like to share or just to provide feedback!
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Information taken from:
Historic Charlotte: An Illustrated History of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County; 2001, Dan L. Morrill.
Additional commentary added.
“We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and the future.” – Frederick Douglass