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The spy who would be governor

Among the many curious characters depicted in the newly published Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America is Mary Price, a Rockingham County native and UNC-Chapel Hill graduate (journalism, ’31) who used her employment as secretary to columnist Walter Lippmann in the early 1940s to pass along information from his files to the Soviet Union.

In 1945 Price returned from Washington to organize the state chapter of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare and in 1948 ran for governor on the Progressive Party ticket. She was not only North Carolina’s first female gubernatorial candidate, but also the first one accused—by a Communist defector—of espionage. On a campaign swing through the state, Price and Progressive presidential candidate Henry Wallace were met with heckling, eggs and tomatoes.

“In Charlotte,” Rob Christensen writes in The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics, “Wallace noted that Price was wearing a pin of an eagle on her dress. ‘That eagle there is an American eagle and it has a left wing and right wing. That is the way of American politics. It has left and right wings.’ Minutes later, someone in the crowd ripped the eagle pin off her dress.” (Now there’s a “memorabilia moment.”)

After her predictably overwhelming defeat, Price moved back to Washington, where she worked first for the Czech embassy, then for the National Council of Churches. Until her death in California in 1980, she continued to deny having spied for the Soviets. Later, however, her role would be extensively described in the decoded Venona papers.