Bill Geer: he dared students to join in “the battle of ideas”

Bill Geer photo
Bill Geer, as photographed for the 1980 Yackety Yack

On a clear evening he held forth about the so-called dangers of Chapel Hill–at that time the hub of all things liberal in the great north state. He was sure we had been told by the folks at home not to let all those radical University of North Carolina professors fill our heads with nonsense; and no doubt we had been warned about the dangers of dope smoke wafting across the green and other sensual pleasures that lie in wait for us. His point, in gently mocking the fears we imported with us, was that it was time we tried out some new ideas and new ways of thinking. That college should not be like the education we had engaged in to prepare us to get here. Rather, it was time to think broadly, to talk to people with whom we disagreed, to read authors sometimes banned at libraries back home, and to maybe, just maybe, hatch an original thought or two of our own.

Heady stuff. All presented with humor and the grace that only a 50 something balding man who looked like Santa Claus but talked like Marx (both Groucho and Karl) could pull off. I had to find a way to be in his classes.

An excerpt from a tribute to one-time UNC-Chapel Hill history professor William “Bill” Geer. Geer was a longtime Chapel Hill resident and fixture on the UNC campus. For many years Geer collected material on O. Max Gardner. His biography on the former North Carolina governor had not been completed when Geer died in 1999. Correspondents in the Washington, D.C. and Raleigh bureaus of N.C. Miscellany alerted us to the tribute to Geer. Its author is George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, and executive director of the nonprofit Forum for Education and Democracy, a collaboration of educators from across the country. The tribute also appeared in a recent column in the Washington Post.

On Blind Tigers

Yesterday’s @ncnewspapers headline, from the Charlotte News in 1911, read “Alleged Blind Tiger Seized.” For those of you unfamiliar with Prohibition-era jargon, the story was not about a sightless jungle animal: a “blind tiger” was another name for a speakeasy, or any place where untaxed liquor (often homemade) was sold.

I first ran across the term in the title of a fascinating pamphlet in the North Carolina Collection, “The Life of George L. Smith, North Carolina’s Ex-convict: Boldest and Bravest Blind Tiger Man, Who Has Run Blind Tigers in Nearly Every Town in North Carolina.” Smith was a compulsive bootlegger who was rarely able to evade the law, but despite frequent arrests he nearly always ended up back at the still.

I was curious about the use of the term “blind tiger” and looked through the North Carolina Newspapers collection for examples. The phrase was definitely in use well before Prohibition. The earliest example I could find was in the Elm City Elevator from April 4, 1902, which referred to a “blind tiger wagon” selling “liquor for sale by the keg, often very cheap.” The term appeared frequently in the Charlotte News from 1911 (North Carolina enacted statewide prohibition in 1908), as well is other papers from around the state during the same period. The latest use of it I found was 1945, in an issue of the Raeford News-Journal.

Visualizing Emancipation in N.C. and beyond

Screenshot of Visualizing Emancipation website

It was a singular spectacle, that immense column of every color and ever possible description, that drew out of camp on Wednesday, the 15th of March, and set out for Wilmington via Clinton. There were 4,500, mostly negroes, from my wing alone.

Major General Oliver Otis Howard to Major L.M. Dayton, Assistant Adjutant General, Military Division of the Mississippi, U.S. Army. Howard was reporting on the status of refugees who had joined with Union forces near Columbia, S.C. and were being moved from an encampment near Fayetteville.

The report is included on the website Visualizing Emancipation, produced at the University of Richmond. As the site’s creators describe it, Visualizing Emancipation “organizes documentary evidence about when, where, and how slavery fell apart during the American Civil War.” An interactive map ties the locations of “emancipation events” to excerpts describing the incidents in books, official documents, newspaper accounts, diaries and letters.

When women wanted husbands who deserted

“In February 1864, a North Carolina government official wrote: ‘Desertion takes place because desertion is encouraged…. And though the ladies may not be willing to concede the fact, they are nevertheless responsible’….

“One woman not only conceded her encouragement of desertion, she made it publicly clear. At the rail depot in Charlotte, she called to her deserter husband, who was being dragged back to the army: ‘Take it easy, Jake — you desert agin, quick as you kin — come back to your wife and children.’ As the distance between them grew, she yelled even louder. ‘Desert, Jake! Desert agin, Jake!’ ”

— From “Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War” by David Williams (2008)

Charlotte air crash led to Colbert’s life of comedy

“It has been said…  that all good comedians have some painful experience in their lives. Any truth to that thesis, do you think?” [Morley] Safer asked.

“Sure,” Colbert replied. “My father and two of my brothers died when I was 10. I think I did my best to cheer my mom up.”

The three were killed in 1974 in an Eastern Airlines crash [at what is now Charlotte/Douglas International].

Asked if the tragedy still affects his life, Colbert says, “I know that after they died, nothing, I was 10, you know? I was still in elementary school. But nothing seemed that important to me. And so, I immediately had, I won’t say a cynical detachment from the world. But I certainly  was detached from normal behavior of children around me. It didn’t make much sense. None of it seemed very important. And that feeds into a sense that acceptance, or blind acceptance of authority, is not easy for me.”

— From a “60 Minutes” interview with Stephen Colbert, April  30, 2006

On September 11, 1974, Eastern Airlines Flight 212 crashed 3 miles short of the foggy runway at Douglas Municipal Airport. Seventy-one of the 82 passengers on the DC-9, including the three Colberts, died on impact or from the resulting fire.


Edward R. Murrow’s 104th Birthday

Edward R. Murrow photographed by Don Sturkey
Photograph by Don Sturkey

On this day in 1908 Edward R. Murrow was born in the Guilford County community of Polecat Creek. Named Egbert Roscoe Murrow by his parents, the CBS News broadcast legend changed his name to Edward while a college student. The Murrow family left their Guilford County farm when Murrow was six and moved to Washington in search of more prosperous work in the lumber industry. However, Murrow always remained loyal to his Piedmont roots, visiting Guilford County and other parts of the state throughout his life. The Charlotte Observer‘s Don Sturkey captured the image above during Murrow’s stay at the Hotel Charlotte in the Queen City in December 1956. The photograph below was taken about 1951 and is from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Photographic Laboratory collection. The photographer, location and exact date of the photograph are unknown. I’m still searchng for details on Murrow’s visits to Chapel Hill and Charlotte. I’ll add to the story if and when I find additional information. In the meantime, our colleagues at NCPedia have created a rich entry on Murrow.
Edward R. Murrow with
Gordon Gray, president of the UNC system; Edward R. Murrow; F.O. Carver, president of the Carolinas Radio News Directors Association; and Chancellor Robert B. House

An ‘integrationist’ GOP candidate for governor in ’64?

“In the [1964] North Carolina governor’s race, approximately 97 percent of black voters preferred segregationist Democrat Dan K. Moore to his integrationist Republican opponent, Robert L. Gavin. As Gavin explained, ‘This I believe was because of the determination of the Negro race to defeat our [Goldwater-Miller] national ticket.’ ”

– From “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party” by Geoffrey Kabaservice (2012) 

As a two-time gubernatorial candidate in the early ’60s, Gavin may have qualified as a situational moderate — but “integrationist”?

Rob Christensen notes in “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics” that when running against Terry Sanford in 1960, Gavin had “said if the Democrats were elected, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell  — the only black in Congress — would try to integrate every public school in North Carolina.”



Obama visit to Chapel Hill marks seventh by a sitting President

Tickets to Obama speech

As UNC-Chapel Hill prepares for a visit by President Barack Obama on Tuesday, we thought it appropriate to recall previous Presidential visits to campus. The photographs below, by Hugh Morton, attest to visits by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Both visited on October 12, the anniversary date of when the cornerstone for the University was laid and a day known on campus as “University Day.” Kennedy visited in 1961 and Clinton, in 1993 to mark the University’s bicentennial.

President John F. Kennedy at UNC-Chapel Hill
President Bill Clinton at UNC-Chapel Hill

James K. Polk was the first sitting President to visit campus. He arrived in Raleigh by train on a late spring day in 1847 and was met by a UNC professor and students. The President, born in Mecklenburg County and a member of UNC’s class of 1818, stayed overnight in the state capital and then left the next morning in a caravan of carriages and wagons. The trip from Raleigh to Chapel Hill took nine hours, with Polk stopping at farms along the way to water the horses, greet well-wishers and eat lunch.

Polk was officially welcomed by University President David Lowry Swain during a ceremony at Gerrard Hall. In response, he said, “Twenty-nine years have passed since I was here, yet I recognized as I came up a number of particular objects which were still the same in these halls in which I spent three years of my life and to the acquisitions here received I mainly attribute whatever success has attended the labor of my subsequent life.” The President stayed in Chapel Hill for two days, visiting with old friends and his former haunts, including his dorm room on the top of South Building. Polk ended his stay with attendance at Commencement. Upon his return to the White House he wrote in his diary that his visit has been “an exceedingly agreeable one.”

President James Buchanan was the next chief executive to visit Chapel Hill. He arrived on campus on June 1, 1859 during the University’s multi-day commencement exercises. Much like today, when gridlock is expected in parts of Chapel Hill, Buchanan’s visit placed a strain on the town. Anticipating a presidential visit, a large crowd–perhaps the largest to have ever attended graduation exercises to that date–arrived in Chapel Hill. Public accommodations and private homes were filled. As the NCC’s Harry McKown wrote in 2009:

Every carriage in the village and surrounding countryside had been pressed into service transporting the crowds, and when they were not sufficient, springless wagons took up the slack in a bone-jarring sort of way. The carriage of the President and official party was drawn by matched horses. Anything that could pull a wagon, including combinations of horses and mules, sufficed for the rest.

Buchanan’s visit occurred as sectional tensions over slavery were growing and talk of Southern secession was increasing. The President used his speech to the commencement audience to call for preservation of the Constitution.
“Let this Constitution be torn to atoms,” he said. “Let thirty republics rise up against each other; let the Union separate, and it would be the most fatal day for the liberties of the human race that ever dawned upon the land.”

The Union had separated, the Civil War had been fought and Reconstruction begun when the next Presidential visit to Chapel Hill took place. President Andrew Johnson, who was born in Raleigh, visited UNC for Commencement in 1867. Johnson was greeted by Swain, who was still serving as President of the University. From the steps of Swain’s home, the President, who had received very little formal education, told the audience, “North Carolina has not been, in the language of school men, exactly my alma mater, but still she is my mother and, God bless her, I am proud of her.” At the commencement ceremony in Gerrard Hall, the President and his fellow stage guests outnumbered the graduating class, which included only eleven men.

Although Woodrow Wilson visited the University before he was President and William Howard Taft, only two years after leaving the White House, seventy-one years would pass between Johnson’s trip and the arrival of the next sitting President. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was scheduled to speak at Kenan Stadium when he visited in early December 1938, but rain forced the President and his audience into Woollen Gymnasium. Roosevelt, who traveled by train from Warm Springs, Georgia, was greeted by thousands as he disembarked in Sanford. Large numbers of people were also gathered along the roadside to cheer the Presidential motorcade as it made its way to Chapel Hill. At the University, Woollen Gym was so packed that officials had to direct the overflow to Memorial Hall and three other buildings to which the President’s speech was piped. Roosevelt’s address to the Carolina Political Union, a student forum, was filmed by eight newsreel cameras and carried over 226 U.S. radio stations as well as broadcast overseas by shortwave. As Presidential historian William Leuchtenburg writes in “The Presidents Come to Chapel Hill”, Roosevelt’s speech prompted keen interest for several reasons.

At home, he had just suffered so severe a defeat in the midterm elections that many doubted that the liberal outlook would long survive. Abroad, Hitler had in September humiliated the democracies at Munich. Still worse, the Nazis had only days before carried out their horrifying pogrom against Jews. The President had not delivered an address since the midterm elections, and it was singular that he chose Chapel Hill as his venue….It was clearly young people, the people who carried hope for the future, he was seeking to reach.

Kennedy arrived on campus eight months after taking office. About 40,000 people assembled in Kenan Stadium on a warm fall afternoon to listen to the President. Kennedy was awarded an honorary degree by Chancellor William Aycock before being introduced by William Friday, the president of the University system. In his speech, Kennedy praised North Carolina’s spirit of progressivism and the University’s “great traditions” and “devoted alumni.” He spoke of the concept of a university as defined by Woodrow Wilson. Then the President cited 19th century German statesman Otto von Bismarck, who once said that one-third of students at German universities break down from overwork, another third break down from “dissipation” and the other third ruled Germany. Then, with echoes of his famous “ask not” lines from his inauguration address, Kennedy looked at the UNC students and said, “I will leave it to each of you to decide in which category you will fall.”

Thirty-two years to the day after Kennedy’s speech in Chapel Hill, Bill Clinton spoke to a capacity crowd during a chilly evening ceremony at Kenan Stadium. Like Kennedy, Clinton, too, had served barely more than eight months as President. And, he, too, praised the University for its openness to new ideas. “This University has produced enough excellence to fill a library or lead a nation,” he said. “As one who grew up in the South, I have long admired this University for understanding that our best traditions call on us to offer that light and liberty to all. Chapel Hill has always been filled with the progressive spirit.”

What are the chances that President Obama, too, will speak of the University’s progressive ideals and cite the University’s motto of lux libertas (light and liberty)? And how will his visit be recorded in the annals of the University? He’ll help write the first draft today.

W. J. Cash apologizes to Margaret Mitchell

On this day in 1941:  W.J. Cash writes Margaret Mitchell to explain a reference to her “Gone With the Wind” in his “The Mind of the South”:

“About that ‘sentimental’ crack: thinking it over, I have an idea that what inspired that carelessly thrown-off judgment was the feeling that your ‘good’ characters were shadowy.

“On reflection, I think the feeling may have proceeded less from themselves than from the fact that they were set beside that flamboyant wench, Scarlett. There were good women all over the place in the South, of course. But Scarlett is a female to go along with Becky Sharp [in “Vanity Fair”], wholly vivid and convincing. Beside her everybody else in the book, including even Butler, seems almost an abstraction.

“I hope you don’t mind my saying it; I know how stupid the judgments of others on his creation sometimes seem to a writer. Indeed, I am often madder at the critics who are trying to be kind than at those obviously out to do me dirt.”