When developers try to employ history and heritage as a marketing tool, they often get it very wrong. This is the case with the former Loray Mill now being repurposed into lofts in the town of Gastonia, North Carolina, just west of Charlotte. Alex Cummings, who grew up there, offers his own personal history with the town as well as poignant reminders of Gastonia’s economic and labor struggles.
My family moved to North Carolina in the late 1980s, having left a stagnant and hopeless West Virginia in search of greater economic opportunities. My mom and grandparents and I first tried Indiana for a few years, but eventually left for the greener shores of the Sunbelt. We came to Gastonia, a modest-sized former textile town (it once boasted of having “more looms and spindles within its hundred-mile radius than… any other southern city”) in the greater Charlotte metropolitan area. An aunt and uncle had already paved the way for us, in a sort of internal chain-migration, leaving WV for NC several years before. I once asked my mom why Suzy and Jim had settled on Gastonia as a place to live, and I’ll never forget her answer:
It’s about as far as you can get from Charleston on a tank of gas.
As Charlotte inches closer to playing its role as host of the 2012 Democratic National Convention (DNC), stories of what makes it a southern city (or not) have been trickling in over the last month. Many of the local news stories, and even stories appearing in other online news outlets, let us know that business owners in the Queen City are actively playing the southern card.
In this case, it usually means using phrases like “southern hospitality” or “southern charm” to describe what’s being sold. As is often the case, these terms are tossed around without considering their historical antecedents in the plantation South. Today, however, such terms are co-opted for purposes of profit, which is more in keeping with Charlotte’s identity as a “New South” city.
So, what does the “southern card” look like?
The Sacramento Bee (among many other news outlets) published the article “Fashion Travel Tips for the South” informing both RNC and DNC delegates what they should wear to their respective conventions. “Whether you’re a first-timer or a convention pro, you may still be new to modern, Southern style,” says Arlene Goldstein, vice president of trend merchandising and fashion direction for Belk stores–headquartered here in Charlotte. Now we know this was a Belk PR piece that was picked up in several news outlets and ties back into the company’s re-branding of itself as the store with “Modern. Southern. Style.” Still, what is “modern, southern style” except brand messaging with a nice ring to it.
Then there’s Charlotte’s SouthPark magazine, which recently published the article “The DNC Means Big Business.” In it, Kelly Koepel, owner of the branding agency that created the Charlotte DNC logo played the southern card this way: “Woven throughout the image is this message: ‘Charlotte is a beautiful, clean city with a high quality of life where you’ll find both the expected comforts of Southern hospitality and exciting evidence of a forward-thinking, can-do Southern culture.'” There’s the hospitality again, with some “can-do” thrown in.
African American business owners are also playing the southern card in ways that may surprise you.
Rhonda Caldwell, owner of The Main Event, was hired to host a party at Rosedale Plantation for delegates from Florida, Mississippi and Alabama. “I’m such a history buff, and I wanted to take the history behind Rosedale Plantation and incorporate it in every detail,” Caldwell exlained. “I wanted to make the guests feel like they were back in time.” Does this mean there will be slave interpreters waiting on folks? It is a plantation, after all.
Local television station WCNC recently showcased another African American business owner in the news feature “Southern charm on Display at delegate welcome party,” focusing on a venue in the city they claimed “oozes southern charm.” The Wadsworth Estate in Wesley Heights will be hosting a party for the DNC. Historically, ideas of “southern charm” and “southern hospitality” have been associated with well-to-do white women–quintessential southern belles. Yet, the Wadsworth estate is owned by a black woman, Shirley Fulton, and even she is playing up the southern card of old.
As she puts it “I think it’s going to be a lot of genteel southern hospitality because we want to show them Charlotte, [in] particular, and North Carolina in general,” adding “People know that they’re stepping back in time and if you look around at the furnishing, there is almost nothing modern here, so you get that feel of southern charm.” Genteel. Southern hospitality. Southern Charm. Stepping back in time. Say what?
I wonder if she considered what “stepping back in time” means for African Americans like herself? As a business owner Fulton is indebted to the southern civil rights movement such that I doubt she really wants to step back in time, because instead of owning the estate she’d be cleaning it. Yet, it’s a savvy business move since most of the delegates to the convention are white, some of whom probably expect to experience a version of “southern hospitality.” (The white reporter added, “no doubt they’ll be saying ‘y’all’ on their [the delegates] way out.” Um, I doubt it.)
Clearly, Charlotte-area businesses believe that playing the southern card is good for their bottom line. Still, as a historian, I know that what people believe is “southern” can cut both ways–and not just the way of hospitality and charm. I’ll be looking at the flip side in a future blog post.
As we get closer to the kickoff for the Democratic National Convention, I thought it would worthwhile to repost a blog I wrote in February 2011 when it was first announced that Charlotte, North Carolina, would host the convention. Look for more DNC-related posts in the near future. Here’s the link to that post: