President Taft took a seat (but not this one)

“The story goes that President William Howard Taft sat in this plain wooden chair — specially procured for his outsize stature — in 1909 while delivering a speech at Johnson C. Smith University, then known as Biddle University. Except Taft never really sat in this chair at all.

“Brandon Lunsford, university archivist and digital manager, says that the truth is widely accepted. ‘It’s a cool little artifact and just a fun story,’ he explains. The whereabouts of the actual Taft chair remain a mystery.”

— From “19 Hidden Treasures at North Carolina’s Universities” by Chloe Klingstedt in Our State (January)

Among the eclectic selection of treasures: Miles Davis’s trumpet, Elisha Mitchell’s pocket watch and Southern Culture on the Skids’ flaming La-Z-Boy.


The North Carolina Emergency Bank Holiday of 1933

Newspaper headline "All Banks Closed in State and Nation"

The Great Depression hit North Carolina hard, effectively lasting from the stock market crash of 1929 to the beginning of World War II in 1941. During the early 1930s, about ¼  of all North Carolinians were on relief programs. Between 1929 and 1933, gross farm income dropped almost 50 percent, and cotton and textile wages declined 25 percent.

The state’s banking industry was devastated. Between June 1927 and June 1932,  over 200 banks in North Carolina failed, having lost over $264 million. “[S]till, about the safest place to keep one’s money is in a bank,” the Independent of Elizabeth City reasoned. As 1933 began, the Great Depression showed no signs of stopping.

Runs on banks increased in early 1933, as people in cities like Asheville and Charlotte withdrew their money and left banks with little to no reserves. On February 14, 1933, Michigan became the first state to declare a bank holiday, closing all banks for a week to prevent sudden withdrawals and bank failures. This led panicked customers across the country to pull money from their banks, which, in turn, caused other states to declare bank holidays.

North Carolina was one of the last states to take action. On March 3, legislators passed a law providing the state Commissioner of Banks with authority to declare a bank holiday for state-chartered banks (as opposed to national banks, those that are under the authority of the Comptroller of the Currency). As the Roanoke Rapids Herald reported, lawmakers crafted the legislation despite few banks requesting a bank holiday. The Commissioner was also given authority to limit withdrawals from individual banks.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, shortly after inaugurationUsing Chronicling America, the Library of Congress’ free, online database of scanned American newspapers, it’s possible to research and learn more about the bank holidays of 1933.

By March 4, 1933, the day that Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, banks nationally held about $4 billion in liquid funds and reserves. Accountholders were seeking to withdraw $43 billion, according to The Independent of Elizabeth City.

On his 3rd day in office, March 6, FDR declared an immediate, national bank holiday, beginning that day and lasting until March 9, closing every nationally chartered bank across the country. For North Carolina, the order was modified to “resume certain functions as may be necessary to meet community needs”—i.e., for food, salary and wage payments, and other essentials. One state bank announced it would be open for one hour a day to allow customers to access their safe deposit boxes or exchange dollars for smaller denominations or coins.

Notice from the State Trust Co. announcing it will be only open for one hour a day to make change and allow use of safety deposit boxes

North Carolinians handled the sudden bank holiday with cautious optimism. A Greensboro judge adjourned superior court because “this is no time to be holding court…” Hendersonville residents were “in good spirit,” accepted the banking holiday calmly, and believed theirs would “be one of the first cities in the state” to return to normal. The Roanoke Rapids Herald reported “more optimism and confidence than in some time” among local businesspeople. 

On March 9, Roosevelt extended the national bank holiday indefinitely, while also creating a path for some national banks to reopen, provided they were considered solvent by the comptroller of the currency. On the same day, North Carolina governor J. C. B. Ehringhaus extended the state bank holiday for another week. 

Newspaper headline "Bank Holiday is Modified; Local Folks Confident"Despite the bank holiday extension, North Carolinians were confident their financial institutions would be able to reopen as soon as Thursday the 16th, the end of the bank holidayBoth the Treasury Department and the state banking commissioner noted that if state or national banks were solvent, they could resume operations despite the nationally mandated bank holiday. Hendersonville residents had a “very optimistic attitude…none of the hysteria or uneasiness, prevalent before the banking holiday was declared, will be displayed.”

Newspaper caption "A New Feeling of Safety and Confidence Turns Scowls to Smiles in All the Albemarle"Public confidence in financial institutions seemed to be slowly returning. Two banks in Halifax County reopened on the 16th as expected. The State Trust company received a surprising amount of deposits on that day, according to “particularly well pleased” bank officials.

Other banks took longer to reopen. The Bank of Manteo reopened more than a week later. The First & Citizens National Bank of Elizabeth City finally reopened on April 1, after its officers discussed the possibility of conservatorship

Newspaper headline "U.S. Banking Restrictions Are Relaxed"

The First National Bank of Salisbury reopened in early June, nearly three months after the bank holiday. That month, FDR signed the 1933 Banking Act, which created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, insuring bank deposits in the case of bank failures. By July of the following year, all but two North Carolina banks had joined the FDIC.

For many residents throughout the state, despite the bank holiday and new financial regulations, the Great Depression continued. In August 1933, the Polk County Bank & Trust Company closed its doors and went into “voluntary liquidation”—one of the first banks to close since the bank holiday. The town of Scotland Neck was completely “without banking facilities” well into September 1933. 

The Independent of Elizabeth City named 1933 “one of the darkest and most trying” years in North Carolina history, but because of North Carolinians’ strong resolve and decisive action across all levels of government, people entered 1934 filled with optimism about the years to come.

New in the collection: Raleigh Masonic Temple pinback

Pinback featuring image of the Masonic Temple and the words 122nd annual commuunication Grand Lodge of N.C.A.F and A.M., Raleigh, January 09.

“The Masonic Temple Building was the first reinforced concrete skyscraper erected in the state of North Carolina. Built from 1907 to 1909, it represents Raleigh’s growth in the early years of the 20th century, as well as the rise of the Masons as an important fraternal organization….”

— From “Raleigh: A Capital City” (National Park Service)

Without going into detail a report on the 1909 communication noted that “Not withstanding some irritating and annoying delays, the Masonic Temple has at last been completed.”

Parsimonious pay for teachers (cont.)

“Mr. W. N. Smith of 608 Polk Street sends the News and Observer a clipping from this paper. One advertisement is for a barber at $35 a week. Two others are for teachers, [offering $55 a month] in one instance, $65 in another, and $60 in a third….

“No wonder teachers are so scarce. Any kind of work pays better, yet teaching is at the foundation of individual and national success and happiness.”

— From the News & Observer, as reprinted in the Monroe Journal, Oct. 22, 1918 (hat tip, Rural North Carolina History)

Space Shuttle vet and UNC-CH alum dies

Challenger postcard with cancellations stamps noting the cards trip in space.
From North Carolina Collection Gallery. Gift of William and Virginia Powell.

UNC-CH alumnus and former NASA astronaut William “Bill” Thornton, who used his own inventions to measure and combat the ill-effects of microgravity while on board two Space Shuttle missions, has died at the age of 91. 

Born in Faison, N.C., Thornton received two degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill–a B.S.from in physics in 1951 and an MD in 1963–before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force.  He was selected by NASA to be part of its second group of scientist-astronauts known as the XS-11 class in 1967. NASA told the group that they would likely wait for some time before heading into space. 

Portrait of William Thornton from 1951 UNC-Chapel Hill yearbook
Portrait of William Thornton from 1951 UNC Yackety Yack.

Sixteen years passed before Thornton launched on the first of his two Space Shuttle flights as a mission specialist aboard the Challenger on August 30, 1983.  Thornton was added to the crew primarily to observe their susceptibility to space adaptation sickness (SAS), a condition that affects the vestibular system as the human body adapts to microgravity.  Thornton’s work on the 1983 flight led him to invent a treadmill for use aboard the Space Shuttle.  The 1983, six-day STS-8 mission also deployed a weather and communication satellite and carried more than 260,000 stamped envelopes.   

On April 29, 1985, Thornton again launched aboard the Challenger for his second space flight.  The seven-member crew worked in two teams around the clock on more than a dozen experiments in the Spacelab module.  They conducted experiments using the first laboratory animals in space and exercised on the space shuttle treadmill invented by Thornton.     

Thornton served 27 years with the space agency before retiring in 1994. During the course of his two expeditions, he logged 13 days, one hour and sixteen minutes in space.  For his service to the nation’s space program, Thornton received the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal, and two NASA Space Flight Medals. 

New in the collection: Women’s suffrage flyer

Broadside for women's suffrage

“During the latter half of the 18th century, women’s suffrage associations formed across the Union; however, one did not form in North Carolina until 1894. That year, 45 women and men convened in Buncombe County at the courthouse and established the North Carolina Equal Suffrage Association (NCESA).

“For the first 20 years, NCESA remained almost inactive, but when it became part of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1913, the association became a political influence…. In 1915, NCESA found sponsors to introduce a bill allowing women to be notary publics. The bill passed both houses, but the state Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional. NCESA also found sponsors to introduce an Equal Suffrage Bill. Both houses defeated the bill….

“In 1920, Tar Heel women obtained suffrage because the necessary number of states (36) had ratified the [19th] Amendment and made it part of the U.S. Constitution. North Carolina, as historian William Powell writes, ‘in a meaningless action, finally ratified the amendment in 1971.’ ”

Entry on NCESA from the North Carolina History Project

This flyer from Raleigh is undated but similar to one, circa 1915, attributed to the National American Woman Suffrage Association. For whatever reason the North Carolina version omits the passage addressing “Women of Leisure.”

Here’s how the Charlotte Observer reported “Suffrage Folks” opening their Raleigh office (July 23, 1920).


Thorpe: A Railroader railroaded

“[C]oach Glenn “Pop” Warner directed [Jim] Thorpe and two other Carlisle athletes to play semipro summer baseball in North Carolina [for the Rocky Mount Railroaders]. Thorpe was paid a pittance — the exact amount isn’t clear — but Carlisle’s strict control over the wages of students who worked meant he probably kept nothing. And remember: Thorpe played at Warner’s instruction.”

— From “‘World’s greatest athlete’ Jim Thorpe was wronged by bigotry. The IOC must correct the record.” by Anita DeFrantz in the Washington Post (Jan. 13)

New in the collection: Newspaper club for kids

Pinback buton with image of person blowing on two horns and the words "National Sunshine Club, The Charlotte Observer."

The National Sunshine Club was part of Observer Junior, an eight-page tabloid insert in the Charlotte Observer, 1928-1934. Sending in coupons from four successive Sunday editions would bring you this pin — and if your story, joke, poem, cartoon or pen-pal letter was published, you could even win a dollar!

Smallpox upends life in Williamston

“The report of a case of smallpox [in Williamston in 1862] has been confirmed. William Hoell…  is said to have gone to New York and returned by sea. It is supposed he contracted the disease while in New York. The village has been thrown into great excitement. Several families have left…. Business is at a standstill. The school has come to a close two months sooner than planned….

“The sick man, Hoell, has been carried about one and one-half miles from town to a school house… where he is to be attended to by a nurse, and no one else but the physicians is to visit him.”

— From the diary of Elder C. B. Hassell, published in “Martin County History, Vol. I” by Francis M. Manning and W. H. Booker, 1977

h/t Northeastern North Carolina Stories 

A Shot in the Arm Against Polio

child receiving polio vaccination
A doctor vaccinates a Chapel Hill Schools student on April 18, 1955. Photograph by Roland Giduz, from the Roland Giduz Photographic Collection (P0033).

Amid this coronavirus pandemic, with two recently approved COVID-19 vaccines in the news, it’s worth noting that 100 years ago this coming summer, the poliovirus struck a then-39-year-old Franklin Delanno Roosevelt. It caused the disease poliomyelitis, commonly called polio, that permanently paralyzed his legs. Polio is a disease known to ancient worlds, with epidemics striking many cultures and countries over centuries. Outbreaks commonly occurred during the summer months.

The first documented poliovirus epidemic in the United States occurred in 1894. It wasn’t until 1905 that Ivar Wickman discovered from a Swedish epidemic that polio was highly contagious and that one could have the disease without exhibiting symptoms. By the early 1950s, polio had reached pandemic proportions.

To inoculate people against the coronavirus, the pharmaceutical industry has thus far developed two COVID-19 vaccines within ten months. As a comparison, polio vaccine development and trials took twenty years. The first polio vaccine trials began in 1935, but success was not reached until April 12, 1955 when the medical profession declared Jonas Salk’s controversial vaccine safe, potent, and effective after testing 1.8 million children during the previous spring in advance of the summer infection season. The United States Government licensed the vaccine that same day, and mass distribution began the following day. A United Press news story declared it to be “the biggest mass assault on disease in history.”