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When you look back at great moments in American history, what are a couple things that pop into your head? Washington crossing the Delaware? Gettysburg Address? WWII Victory in Europe Day? The Declaration of Independence? Imagine one day someone told you that Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration could be a plagiarized and the original was written in your own home town.
Imagine then you quickly research it and find that your local Declaration was national news for over a century, four sitting U.S. Presidents visited your town to celebrate this amazing feat, it was covered by the largest newspapers of the day, and that John Adams stated that he believed that the document was real.
For a history nerd like myself (and I believe everyone is secretly one as well), it was literally mind-blowing. My little hamlet of Charlotte, North Carolina was the center piece of American history and I just could not believe it. So, I combined that natural feeling of curiosity and need for further proof and dug a little deeper.
I learned about my hometown and it includes: the first X-Ray was invented here, U.S. Tobacco magnate lived here, it’s the home of the first African American hospital, we have the largest privately held department store, the first gold rush took place here, we had the first desegregated schools and more.
How could I, as a native Charlottean, not know about such amazing pieces of American history? So, I got together with several friends, city leaders, men and women that loved history to discuss how we celebrate these amazing moments in our local history, but more importantly, how we can ensure that they are never forgotten. The recognition and celebration needed to be permanent. Also, not everyone is a history nerd like me, so how do we create something that can be interactive and withstand the test of time? How could it engage kids and adults alike, but also speak to a broader group of our fellow citizens who aren’t history buffs?
At the same time, Charlotte and its county, Mecklenburg, were undergoing a significant investment in greenspace with the unveiling of hundreds of acres of new county parks, four new downtown parks, and a greenway stretching from Charlotte’s downtown to the state border with South Carolina over 13 miles away. The design of the greenway was to incorporate various forms of natural art – rock, glass and bronze.
The idea was simple and immediate. What if we used the bronze art to create statues of the local men and women who helped develop the region? This linear park/greenway could serve as a crossroads of art, environment, education and exercise for all Charlotteans; Charlotte’s own Central Park.
Thus the Trail of History was born.
The Trail of History today is a collection of privately-subsidized bronze sculptures memorializing the men and women who shaped and defined the rich history of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. The goal of each individual piece contributes to the experience of the public space by attracting pedestrians, improving and animating the public space, expressing local identity and helping to develop community spirit and pride. The Trail of History serves as an anchoring reference point and “heart” of the community located adjacent to Center City Charlotte. It is a special place where newcomers may learn of their community and its history, and where business prospects may gain an appreciation of their potential home. School children can be educated via a walking tour through time, that feature role models and visionary advocates who shaped and formed the continuum of life in their home county. Its location along the Little Sugar Creek Gre
enway has become a nationally-recognized and distinctive venue, demonstrating the community’s commitment to our cultural heritage.
We challenged ourselves to solely raise private dollars and not stretch precious public money. So we walked into homes, businesses and foundations, sharing our vision. We have been overwhelmed over the last seven years with the amount of support, totaling $2.6 million in donations that has been used to erect statues for eight amazing men and women with a total goal of 21 statues.
Who are these men and women?
Captain James Jack, often referred to as Charlotte’s Paul Revere, volunteered in May 1775 to take the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence from Charlotte to the country’s first capital in Philadelphia. This 500+ mile ride took Jack through towns, hamlets and taverns riddled with pro-British citizens. If Jack was caught, he would have been hanged on the spot. As the local lore goes, Paul Revere rode only 12 miles shouting about freedom, but James Jack rode over 500 miles to hand over a document that gave us our freedom.
William Henry Belk started a dry goods store in a small town in Monroe, NC in 1888. He used a loan to obtain goods on consignment from a bankrupt store and opened his own store. He advertised it as “The Cheapest Store on Earth”. His store was a success, using some innovative ideas for the day. His family got involved and the store expanded into numerous locations, include downtown Charlotte. The family moved to Charlotte and continued to expand. In 2015, Belks Stores was the largest privately held department store company in the United States.
Jane Wilks moved to Charlotte during the end of the Civil War. She volunteered to help many of the wounded soldiers and she realized a hospital was needed in the region and led the effort to build Charlotte’s first two civilian hospitals. The Charlotte Home and Hospital of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church began serving the community in 1876 and was the first civilian hospital in North Carolina. Wilkes also helped found the Good Samaritan Hospital in 1882 and was the first hospital designated for the care of African-Americans in the United States. She later founded the region’s first orphanage.
Seeing our community embrace and celebrate these leaders in our history is so meaningful.