A few weeks ago, the Charlotte Museum of History announced plans to close down its operations for a while and figure out how to close a significant gap in its annual budget. Then in early July, the organization’s interim executive director announced plans to attract arts groups, historical societies, and other tenants to help pay the bills for the museum, the main attraction of which is the Hezekiah Alexander Homesite, the oldest house still standing in this part of North Carolina.
I’m all for nonprofit leaders being creative in how they raise funds to carry out their missions. But as an outsider looking in, it strikes me that the real problem at the Charlotte Museum of History has been mission creep. It lost its way, and thus its strongest case to potential donors.
Under a previous executive director with few ties to the state, the museum moved away from its roots as a place for commemorating the role that Charlotte-Mecklenburg and North Carolina as a whole played in the successful American Revolution against the British empire. Instead, the organization tried to be all things to all people. That’s almost always a recipe for failure.
There has rarely been a time when early American history, and the Revolutionary period in particular, has been a more popular subject for books, films, TV programs, and public events. While the framers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution attract the lion’s share of attention, there are many other personalities and events that, with the proper presentation, can find an audience among both donors and the general public.
Hezekiah Alexander’s role in the Revolution is a good example. His home, built in 1774, ought to be a colorful Carolina shrine to the birth of political liberty in America, rather than a setting for the tedious or trivial, as many believe the museum has become.
Hezekiah Alexander was a fascinating North Carolina leader. Born in 1728 into the sprawling Alexander clan of northern Maryland, he began his working career as a blacksmith before joining most of his siblings and cousins in a mass movement down the Great Wagon Road in the 1750s to settle in what would soon become Mecklenburg County. During the late 1760s, he was one of the local Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, many of them bearing the surname of Alexander, who sought to convert a local school into the original Queen’s College, the first institution of higher education in the Carolinas. It secured a charter from the colonial assembly but was opposed by King George III because it would be run by Presbyterians rather than Anglicans. “He did not want a rival religious institution stirring up trouble among people and raising hell about having to pay taxes to England,” said Jack Claiborne, a former Charlotte Observer writer, in an Our State magazine article about the school.
George may have been a bad king. But he was right about the college – operating under the names “Queen’s Museum” and “Liberty Hall,” it did promote ideas that proved injurious to British interests. By 1775, backcountry Carolinians had come to believe that Parliament’s tax legislation and other policies violated their rights. Local Mecklenburg leaders began to meet at Liberty Hall to discuss their options. They decided to convene a meeting of the Mecklenburg Committee of Safety in May 1775, most likely with the intention of adopting what became known as the Mecklenburg Resolves to nullify unjust laws imposed on them from Britain, set up a new local government, and prepare the local militia for possible war with the mother country. When news arrived of the battles of Lexington and Concord, however, many believe that the two dozen Mecklenburg leaders assembled at the meeting decided to go further and on May 20 issued the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, the first such declaration in the American colonies.
Whether either or both documents were formally adopted in May 1775, those leaders present – including Hezekiah Alexander and five other Alexanders – clearly did something of great significance in the history of our state and nation. The following year, Hezekiah was elected to North Carolina’s fifth provincial congress in Halifax County, where he helped write the first constitution of our new state government. Hezekiah’s brother John McKnitt Alexander, another Meck Dec/Resolves signer, helped pass the Halifax Resolves in April 1776, through which North Carolina became the first colony to instruct its Continental Congress delegation to pursue American independence.
[You knew this was coming, didn’t you? Another of those Meck Dec/Resolves signers was Hezekiah’s cousin Adam Alexander, my 5th-great grandfather, who went on to command the Mecklenburg militia during the early years of the Revolutionary War. So that makes Hezekiah and John McKnitt Alexander my first cousins, several generations removed.]
North Carolina’s contributions to the American Revolution deserve to be more widely known and more enthusiastically celebrated. The Charlotte Museum of History and its Hezekiah Alexander Homesite should be refocused on this important mission. Do that, and support will follow.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and author of Our Best Foot Forward: An Investment Plan for North Carolina’s Economic Recovery.