Over the last half-century, city and county leaders tore down almost everything that was historic or unique about Charlotte.
Then officials spent the last decade searching for an identity for the area. In the process, they blew tens of thousands of dollars on marketing consultants who struggled to find something unique about Charlotte.
But the unique aspects of the city are obvious to the group of young professionals behind the May 20th Society. For the last three years, they've worked to build both a historical society and a thriving social scene from the ground up around the bold treason enacted by our county's founding fathers during the Revolutionary War.
While other cities and states have capitalized on their Revolutionary-War-era histories, Mecklenburg County's remarkable seditious past has almost faded into obscurity.
Now local corporations like Bank of America, Wachovia and civic groups like the Foundation for the Carolinas have pumped more than $100,000 into the May 20th Society's efforts to resurrect the past -- and make it hip in the present.
New Orleans can keep Mardi Gras; Charlotte has ... a May 20th week of celebration that includes seditious lectures, fetes and a huge "Jollification Party" at Ri Ra Irish Pub on May 18.
It's all built around the events of May 20, 1775. On that day, 27 Mecklenburg militia leaders, enraged by news of the recent American bloodshed during clashes with the British in Massachusetts, penned what many believe was the first Declaration of Independence from the British. It was put to paper 14 months before the United States Declaration of Independence and was quickly followed by the Mecklenburg Resolves, a set of new laws early Mecklenburgers wrote to govern themselves in place of the British law they no longer recognized.
The declaration was read from the courthouse steps at Trade and Tryon streets, and local leaders sent Captain James Jack on horseback to deliver their declaration of independence to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.
But North Carolina's two delegates to the congress, who were thought to have been considering reconciliation with the British, declared the documents premature. So they sent Jack back to Charlotte with a letter of support.
But the British didn't see them as premature. In a June 1775 letter by North Carolina Royal Governor Josiah Martin to the British Colonial Secretary, Martin wrote that the Mecklenburg documents "surpassed all the horrid and treasonable publications that the inflammatory spirits of this Continent have yet produced, and your Lordship may depend its authors and abettors will not escape my due notice whenever my hands are sufficiently strengthened to attempt the recovery of the lost authority of government."
Colonel Banastre Tarlton would later write that "it was evident, and it has been frequently mentioned to the King's officers, that the counties of Mecklenburg and Rohan (Rowan) were more hostile to England than any other in America."
Things got interesting in 1819, when former president John Adams sent Thomas Jefferson, author of the 1776 U.S. Declaration of Independence, a snippy letter after Adams read a copy of the original Mecklenburg Declaration in the Essex Register.
In his letter, Adams, who was stunned by the similarity in the wording of the two documents, essentially accused Jefferson of plagiarizing the Mecklenburg declaration.
"The genuine sense of America at that moment was never expressed so well before, or since," Adams wrote to Jefferson.
An enraged Jefferson struck back at Adams, declaring "Meck Dec" as Charlotteans had come to call it, a fake. That ignited a furious debate about who was really "first in freedom." By then, though copies of the document's wording existed, no originals did. The last known copy, entrusted to the group's secretary, James McKnitt Alexander, was lost to fire when his home burned in 1800, though notes from the drafting were later turned over by Alexander's son to be archived at UNC Chapel Hill's Wilson Library. Though a copy of the declaration was originally printed in the Cape Fear Mercury at the time it was written, no known copies of the paper exist either.
But Meck Dec is referred to in multiple historical and eyewitness accounts, and members of the May 20th Society say they have no doubts. Neither did those who lived at the time. The date May 20, 1775 is still emblazoned on North Carolina's state flag and seal.
May 20th Society Chairman Charles Jonas' family has lived in the area since the 1770s. He still remembers the "First in Freedom" motto on North Carolina's state license plate when he was a kid.
Jonas, a commercial real estate broker with Trinity Partners, says the society's goal is to create something people who were born here and people who have just moved here can rally around.
"I think there is an attitude that Charlotte was conjured out of mid air in 1974, and that is just not true," says Jonas. "We want to return something that is real back to Charlotte."
Jonas uses the word "return" because the residents of Mecklenburg have celebrated Meck Dec day for over 180 years. What started as a small town celebration grew over the decades into one of the hottest social events on the East Coast with balls, parades, concerts, plays and fireworks. In its heyday, it attracted four U.S. Presidents, including Taft, Wilson, Eisenhower and Ford, various generals and dignitaries and the top echelon of society from all over the country.
As late as 1964, a national ad placed by North Carolina National Bank, which later grew into Bank of America, bragged about Charlotte sending King George III a Declaration of Independence 14 months before the one in Philadelphia.
But in recent decades, as many Charlotte leaders adopted a skeptical attitude about anything in the county's past that wasn't corporate, the celebration dwindled to 20 or so elderly people on the corner of Trade and Tryon streets dressed in colonial clothing and waving flags.
But that's changing. Some of the city's biggest names have joined the May 20th Society board of advisors to push the resurrection of Meck Dec.
Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, Congresswoman Sue Myrick, and Mecklenburg County Commission Chairwoman Jennifer Roberts sit on the board; as do Bob Morgan, president of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce; Dr. Tony Zeiss, president of Central Piedmont Community College; and 25 other well-known Charlotte civic leaders.
"We wanted to create a groundswell of support," says Jonas.
For more information on this year's May 20th events, go to May20thSociety.org