Why William Styron had to write ‘Nat Turner’

“Born in 1850 on an eastern North Carolina plantation, my father’s mother was the proprietress of two slave girls who were her age, 12 or thereabouts, at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation. Many years later, when she was an old lady in her 80s and I was 11 or 12, she told me at great length of her love for these children and of the horror and loss she felt when that same year, 1862, Union forces…  under General Burnside swept down on the plantation, stripped the place bare and left everyone to starve, including the little slave girls, who later disappeared.

“It was a story I heard more than once, since I avidly prompted her to repeat it and she, indulging her own fondness for its melodrama, told it again with relish, describing her hatred for the Yankees (which remained undiminished in 1937), the real pain of her starvation (she said they were reduced to eating ‘roots and rats’), and her anguish when she was separated forever from those little black girls, who were called, incidentally, Drusilla and Lucinda, just as in so many antebellum plantation novels.

“All of the deliciously described particulars of my grandmother’s chronicle held me spellbound, but I think that nothing so awed me as the fact that this frail and garrulous woman whom I beheld, and who was my own flesh and blood, had been the legal owner of two other human beings. It may have determined, more than anything else, some as-yet-to-be-born resolve to write about slavery.”

— From “Nat Turner Revisited” by William Styron in American Heritage, October 1992

Fashion spotlight lands on faded denim

“When Huck Finn put on his patched, faded blue denim overalls to go catfishing, he never dreamed he was anticipating a fashion trend for 1953.

“Denim’s revolution is a product of the two-day weekend, the trek to the suburbs, and the increasing informality and casualness of U.S. living. Schoolboys started it, in the 1930s, with a penchant for ‘levis’ [from] Levi Strauss.  Spare-time yachtsmen found that salt water gave the deep blue levis a faded look, which became so fashionable that youngsters dumped bleach into the family wash to fade their own…. U. S. makers decided that if people preferred light blue denim, they had better start making it….

“The denim revolution was helped along by Mary Shannon, fashion stylist for Cone Mills. The company brought out more than 50 new kinds — stripes, plaids, multicolored combinations. At the 1949 showing, Mrs. Shannon herself appeared in a denim dress of her own design, set off delighted murmurs in the trade.

“One high-fashion stylist even produced a limited collection of mink-trimmed denim suits — for California, obviously. [And] men’s oxford grey denim suits have created a stir….

“For the ailing U.S. cotton industry, long ago threatened by synthetics, the coronation of Cinderella denim proved that where there is a way to make homely cottons attractive there is a will to buy.”

— From Time magazine, June 29, 1953

Dr. Livingstone’s son dies in Salisbury prison riot

On this day in 1864: Robert Moffat Livingstone, eldest son of missionary Dr. David Livingstone, is fatally injured in a riot at the Confederate prison at Salisbury.

Young Livingstone, born in Africa and reared in Scotland, enlisted with a New Hampshire regiment using a false age (21, instead of 18) and name (Rupert Vincent).

In a letter to his father he cryptically referred to the alias as a means to avoid “further dishonoring” the family name. He expressed regret at having joined the Army. “I have never hurt anyone knowingly in battle,” he said, “having always fired high.” He was captured at the battle of New Market Road in Virginia and taken to Salisbury.

A friend will later quote Dr. Livingstone as saying, “I am proud of the boy, and if I had been there, I should have gone to fight for the North myself.”

Robert Livingstone is likely buried in a mass grave in what is now Salisbury National Cemetery.

‘A nest of the most notorious profligates on earth’

“Some women came to the new world to get away from a man, in the form of a harsh master or unsatisfactory lover…..Women who were independent enough to sail to America by themselves were also inclinded to take matters into their own hands if they got stuck in unhappy marriages after they arrived. In the early 18th century, a minister described North Carolina as ‘a nest of the most notorious profligates on earth…. Women forsake their husbands, come here and live with other men.’ ”

— From “America’s Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines” by Gail Collins (2003)

“Old Slave Day” in Southern Pines, 1934

I found this fascinating photo in a November 23, 1934 issue of The Pilot, from Southern Pines, N.C. Apparently the inaugural Spring Blossom Festival, held in Southern Pines in April 1934 featured an “Old Slave Day.” The newspaper description reads:

The Festival was featured by Old Slave Day, a day set aside for those of the colored race who lived during slavery days. These old timers came from far and near, spent a day in the Municipal Park telling of their experiences and recollections to the thousands that gathered about to see and hear them. A program of entertainment was provided, in which both white and colored participated, and the day was one long to be remembered throughout this section. Old Slave Day will be repeated this year.

I don’t recall seeing anything like this before. Were “Old Slave Days” common at public events in the early 20th century?

There are now more than 600 issues of The Pilot, ranging in date from 1929 to 1942, available on DigitalNC.org in the North Carolina Newspapers project.

Among Rocky Mount’s souvenirs: hat tip in ‘Howl’

Launching pad for the fast-food apple turnover and the “I Have  a Dream” speech…. home of the pro baseball team that cost Jim Thorpe his gold medals… birthplace of Kaye Gibbons and Allan Gurganus,  Phil Ford and Julius Peppers, Mike Easley and Roy Cooper, Thelonious Monk and Kay Kyser, Buck Leonard and Sugar Ray Leonard… source of the Electra-piano played by John Lennon in “Imagine”… site of North Carolina’s first sit-down barbecue joint…writing retreat for Jack Kerouac….

Is there no end to the notable and footnotable distinctions dotting Rocky Mount’s civic CV?  And here’s yet another, courtesy of Rocky Mount-reared fiction writer Megan Mayhew Bergman, blogging for Kenyon Review:

“Kerouac’s time in Rocky Mount wound its way into other Beat work.

“Allen Ginsberg namedrops Rocky Mount in his epic poem Howl, writing of those ‘who retired to Mexico to cultivate a habit, or Rocky Mount to tender Buddha or Tangiers to boys or Southern Pacific to the black locomotive or Harvard to Narcissus to Woodlawn to the daisychain or grave.’ ”


In Boiling Springs, a ka-boom! goes bust

“If you read local histories of Boiling Springs and then-Gardner-Webb College, you will find no mention of the ill-advised use of dynamite. Even today, seven decades later, older residents are reluctant to talk about what occurred. The exact details are sketchy, but the essence is that during the 1940s, the town fathers wanted to promote the “boiling spring” (there was actually only one) as a major tourist attraction, a Southern version of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful. The only problem, a rather significant one, was that while Yellowstone’s geyser boiled up 50 feet, the town’s spring topped out at 24 inches — on a good day.

“Enter Boiling Springs High School’s chemistry teacher. The novelist in me loves to imagine this scene: The town elders gather in a classroom as the eccentric teacher begins to clutter a chalkboard with formulas and symbols. His listeners are skeptical at first, but slowly they are won over by the periodic table’s arcane vocabulary. After finishing at the board, the teacher corroborates the future spring’s height and velocity with his slide rule. Then he lets the town fathers pass the slide rule around so they can see for themselves that what is being proposed is not a theory but a mathematical fact.

“Whatever was said or shown that day, the plan passed. A time was set, the required materials gathered. Most of the town fathers were storeowners or landowners, so surely visions of crowded stores and land booms filled their heads when, days later, the chemistry teacher planted dynamite sticks in and around the spring. I’d like to think that shortly before pushing the detonator, the mayor made a speech about the necessity of progress. After the smoke cleared, the boiling spring, now not even a gurgle, lay flat and calm as water in a sauce pan. It has remained that way ever since.”

— From “Lost Moments in Basketball History,” a reminiscence about David Thompson by Ron Rash in Grantland

Was Lost Cause out of place on Veterans Day?

“On Veterans Day an ad featuring this 1896 artwork took up two-thirds of a page in the Jacksonville (N.C.) Daily News.

“Above the image were the words ‘Remembering all the gallant men who wore the Gray on Veteran’s Day — Deo Vindice,’ and below it was a quote from Major R.E. Wilson, CSA: ‘If I ever disown, repudiate, or apologize for the Cause for which Lee fought and Jackson died, let the lightning’s of Heaven rend me, and the scorn of all good men and true women be my portion. Sun, Moon, Stars, all fall on me when I cease to love the Confederacy. ‘Tis the cause, not the fate of the Cause, that is glorious!’

“This ad would more appropriately run on Confederate Memorial Day. If someone truly believes the Confederate States of America was a sovereign nation, then why  remember its heroes on a day set aside to remember veterans of the United States military?

“Stuff like this really diminishes my interest in the Civil War. Too many people still fighting it, too many thinking the South will rise again and a Lost Cause that simply won’t get lost.”

— Excerpted from Andrew Duppstadt’s blog, “Civil War Navy, the History Profession and other Historical Musings” (Nov. 13)


N.C. Cancer Society shuns Great American Smokeout

What could be more innocuous than today’s 36th annual Great American Smokeout? ‘Twas not always so.

In 1978 North Carolina’s Cancer Society was the only one in the country not encouraging a national day of tobacco abstinence. “The North Carolina division has not and does not endorse any action against or criticism of any product manufactured in North Carolina or anywhere else for that matter,” explained a society spokesman.

In a protest letter to his fellow board members, Dr. R. Wayne Rundles of the Duke University Medical Center wrote, “At the very least, [the decision not to participate] gives the impression we think only about our financial interests and have no public health conscience. At the worst, it makes North Carolinians appear bigoted, myopic, inept, two-faced and devious….. Our non-action turned out to be a massive national advertisement for the Smokeout….

“Tobacco is the greatest environmental health hazard in the world today. In North Carolina it represents, in addition, an endangered industry, an economic dilemma and a politician’s nightmare. We can’t solve these problems by denying their existence behind a cigarette wall…. Are we working on the solution, or are we part of the problem?”


Artifact of the Month: North Carolina Prison Dept. tokens

The Artifact of the Month for November comes from the North Carolina Prison Department. Several patrons donated a total of ten Prison Department tokens to the NCC Gallery. Supposedly used between 1930 and 1970, the tokens were provided to prisoners in the North Carolina state prison system as canteen money for the purchase of cigarettes, magazines, toiletries, and other personal items from prison shops and commissaries. Donors believe the officially sanctioned form of currency in the state’s prisons established financial equity amongst the inmates because the amount of individual wealth in “the real world” was negated. The tokens also helped prevent inmates from bribing guards to obtain items unavailable in the prisons.

A current employee of the North Carolina Division of Prisons described the current state institutions as “a cashless society.” Nevertheless, popular culture has consistently maintained that the cigarette serves as a form of currency within American correctional institutes, especially as state legislatures progressively ban them in prisons. Recent articles claim that objects ranging from honey buns and cans of mackerel to the use of contraband cellphones possess the most influence for bartering.

The ten tokens ranging in denominations worth 1¢ to $1.00 highlight one of the NCC Gallery’s collection strengths: numismatics. The Gallery holds a large assortment of bank notes, coins, tokens, and scrip. Some of the collection has been digitized for the Historic Moneys of North Carolina digital exhibit.