Charlotte’s foremost keeper of the past is moving into the future.
Tom Hanchett, who last month left the Levine Museum of the New South where he was staff historian for 16 years, has embarked on a project researching the history of the McCrorey Heights neighborhood around Johnson C. Smith University.
Founded by JCSU president H.L. McCrorey in the early 1900s, the neighborhood grew rapidly after World War II as the home to the city’s black professional class of ministers, educators, doctors, dentists and attorneys along the north side of Beatties Ford Road.
“I’m doing oral histories and research on when individual houses were built,” says Hanchett, “pulling that together while those families are still alive and in good memory.”
Hanchett’s research, which may be used if the neighborhood association decides to apply for a historic designation, is an echo of his earliest days in Charlotte.
A native of Chicago’s south side who grew up in upstate New York and Virginia, Hanchett came to Charlotte in 1981 as a graduate student in urban studies at the University of Chicago.
He worked with UNC Charlotte history professor Dan Morrill on a 14-month grant for the Historic Landmarks Commission studying what was left of the city’s historic neighborhoods after urban renewal.
“It was incredibly exciting,” says Hanchett. “I didn’t know much about Charlotte. Like most people, I knew it was a beautiful city on the South Carolina coast where the University of Virginia was.”
Hanchett got to know his neighborhoods from the seat of a bicycle, a method he found gave him time to absorb detail and interact with residents.
Morrill kept getting grants and adding neighborhoods for Hanchett to study. Hanchett left in 1987 to get his Ph.D. at UNC-Chapel Hill.
History in family
Hanchett’s father was a college professor who specialized in the urban history of Russia. His mother was a research librarian, “a library detective in the days before Google,” he says.
His father liked to pack Hanchett and his brother into the family’s 1960 Rambler American to go hunting in the Virginia countryside for what he called “lost houses” – farm houses abandoned as the South’s agrarian culture devolved.
His father also instilled in Hanchett an appreciation for ethnic cuisine. No matter where they lived, he found the right spots – the Chinese restaurant in Roanoke, Va., or the Russian bakery in Binghamton, N.Y.
Hanchett entered Cornell University in 1974 and worked for the local historic preservation agency in the summers photographing old buildings in Ithaca, N.Y.
Return to Charlotte
Hanchett was in a tenure-track teaching position at Cornell in 1999 when the Levine started planning its building on Seventh Street.
Emily Zimmern, the museum’s president, was looking for a historian but couldn’t find one with an understanding of Charlotte.
“I was getting desperate,” says Zimmern, who retired last year after leading the Levine for 20 years. “Out of the blue, he emailed me and said he understood the historian position might be open and he might be interested. Well, I was on the phone in no time.”
She was already familiar with Hanchett. He had been involved in getting the Levine’s original grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a staff historian.
Within weeks, she was in Ithaca for her son’s law school graduation and met with Hanchett for coffee. Soon he was back in Charlotte, developing the museum’s centerpiece exhibit, “Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers” that opened in 2001 with more than 1,000 artifacts and oral histories.
“Tom is the quintessential public historian,” Zimmern says. “He has a unique ability to take big, complex ideas and distill them down to be understood by a broader public.”
Fiddle and food
Hanchett, 60, is also an accomplished bluegrass fiddler – he took up the violin in the fourth grade after deciding the piano was too complicated – and a curious explorer of the Charlotte ethnic restaurant scene, which he chronicles in a column for the Observer.
“His use of food, music and Southern culture provides a window into Southern history,” Zimmern says.
Food and music are two ways to track the demographic change of a region, Hanchett says. “My ‘Food From Home’ column is basically the newcomer story with the word ‘yum’ inserted.”
Zimmern and Hanchett put together a team that soon elevated the Levine to national prominence. In 2006, only five years after the opening of its uptown building, the museum was one of six institutions honored at the White House with a prestigious National Award for Museum and Library Service.
Focusing on the post-Civil War history of Charlotte and the Piedmont, the Levine was among the youngest institutions to ever get the nation’s highest award for museums and libraries.
Under Hanchett, three major Levine exhibits received national recognition – “Purses, Platforms & Power” in 2005 on the generation that opened doors for advancement of women in Charlotte during the 1970s and 1980s, “Courage” in 2006 on school desegregation and “Changing Places” in 2009 on the demographic transformation of the region.
Hanchett’s deeply researched 1998 book, “Sorting Out the New South City,” gave modern Charlotte a surprising view of its early 20th century roots and the pre-Jim Crow era that had been largely forgotten.
“It’s a treasure,” says Jim Williams of the Mecklenburg Historical Association. “At the turn of the century, Charlotte was a fully integrated city. It has things I never knew.”
Morrill, the university historian who brought Hanchett to Charlotte, says his low-key manner has been essential in spreading his scholarly passion about the past.
“He doesn’t care one whit about being regarded as prestigious or highly significant,” says Morrill, who retired in 2014 from UNC Charlotte but remains active on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission.
“He really is a public historian. He has a very deep sense of social conscience. He has a real concern for the underprivileged and underrepresented. He saw history as a way of neighborhood building.”
Hanchett has been credited by colleagues as raising the profile of the city’s historic preservation effort.
“Now people at least give lip service to Charlotte’s propensity for tearing down old buildings,” says Hanchett. “I count that as progress on the history front.”
Bridge to future
In the last week of December, Hanchett cleaned out his office at the Levine. Among the odd items he discovered was a memo of understanding from 2003 to bring aboard an intern who would go on to assist him in research for “Courage” and “Purses, Platforms & Power.”
“That was a pretty cool thing to find,” says Hanchett, because the artifact represents the power of both the certain past and the unseen future. That intern – Brenda Tindall – is the next occupant of the office, hired in August as the Levine’s next Ph.D. historian.
“Hanchett is one who inspires me,” says Tindall, who considers him a mentor from her undergraduate days. “I don’t know how to imagine the Levine without Emily and Tom.”
Hanchett plans to continue living in Charlotte with his wife, Carol Sawyer, and will work as a consultant to the Levine. He’s been contacted about a possible role with a national folk festival and other offers. He’s playing more music. And continuing his safaris into ethnic cuisine and what it signifies about the tide of change.
“Last week I tried a new Dominican restaurant,” he says. “It’s a continual delight to see how history is unfolding even today.”