December 1865: Henry Martin Tupper and the Founding of Shaw University

This Month in North Carolina History

Postcard of Shaw administration building

Massachusetts native Henry Martin Tupper (1831-1893) attended Amherst College and Newton Theological Seminary before enlisting in the Union Army in 1862. After he was honorably discharged, Tupper requested that the American Baptist Home Mission Society of New York station him in the South so that he could work with former slaves.

The Tuppers arrived in Raleigh in October 1865. An anecdote recounted in Carter’s Shaw’s Universe reports that after travelling to Portsmouth, Virginia, Tupper and his wife stopped at a train station that had been partially destroyed during the Civil War, and purchased the first two tickets on the train to Raleigh after the tracks had been reconstructed. After establishing himself in Raleigh, Tupper began teaching Bible classes to former slaves in December. The classes were held in the Guion Hotel and aimed to teach African Americans how to read and interpret the Bible to prepare them to be Baptist ministers. In March of 1866, his wife began teaching classes to African American women in the Tupper’s home. Tupper quickly realized the need for education beyond theology courses, and set out to found what would eventually become Shaw University, the first black college in the South.

In February 1866, Tupper purchased land on the corner of Blount and Cabarrus Streets and built a two-story structure there that would serve both as a church and a school. Tupper used $500 that he had saved from serving as a Union soldier to help fund the land purchase. Significant financial assistance for construction was provided by the Freedmen’s Bureau and the New England Freedman’s Aid Society. On January 1, 1869, the Raleigh Theological Institute admitted its first class of fifteen seminary students. A year later, the school had outgrown its facilities and began making plans to expand. Through Tupper’s fundraising efforts and monetary support from Elijah Shaw (a woolen manufacturer from Massachusetts) and the Freedmen’s Bureau, funds were secured to purchase an estate in the center of Raleigh. Upon relocating, the school changed its name to the Shaw Collegiate Institute. In 1875 the school officially became incorporated as Shaw University.

Postcard of women on Shaw campus

Shaw University was co-educational from the beginning. A dormitory for men was built in 1871-1872, and, the first dormitory for African American women – Etsey Hall – was constructed on Shaw’s campus in 1874. Shaw University claims several other firsts, including Leonard Medical School, which was the first medical and pharmacy school that trained African Americans in the state of North Carolina, and, in 1888, the only law school for African Americans in the South. The 1878-1879 Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Shaw University reports that there were a total of 152 males and 115 females enrolled in various courses of study for that particular school year. During the 1878-1879 academic year, the majority of students were from North Carolina, but students from anywhere could enroll – several students were from Virginia and South Carolina, and one was from New Jersey.

Postcard of Leonard Building and medical school

At Shaw Collegiate Institute, Tupper served both as an administrator and instructor of the school and pastor of the church. He taught lessons during the day and night school classes. Managing both the school and the church gave rise to conflict for Tupper, and in 1870, people claiming to be trustees of the Second Baptist Church brought a suit accusing him of defrauding the church. The various charges suggested intrigue and internal politics relating to Tupper’s funding and administration of the church and the school and the wronging of African American church members. The law suit lasted until 1875 when a verdict was given in Tupper’s favor. Despite the lawsuit and other setbacks, Tupper oversaw the growth and expansion of the University and advocated for access to higher education for African Americans until he died in November of 1893. Tupper was buried on the campus grounds, and Dr. Nickolas Franklin Roberts, an African American and a graduate of Shaw University, was named acting president.

Shaw brochure


Carroll, Grady Lee Ernest, Sr. They Lived in Raleigh: Some Leading Personalities from 1792 to 1892. Raleigh, NC: Southeastern Copy Center, 1977.

Carter, Wilmoth A. Shaw’s Universe: A Monument to Educational Innovation. Raleigh, NC: Shaw University, 1973.

Kearns, Kathleen, and Dayton, Michael J. Capital Lawyers: A Legacy of Leadership. Birmingham, AL: Association Publishing, 2004.

Shaw University. Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Shaw University, 1878 and 1879. Raleigh, NC: Edwards, Broughton & Co., Printers and Binders, 1879.

Image Sources:

Shaw Building, Shaw University, Raleigh, N. C.” in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill

Shaw University for the Colored, Raleigh, N.C.” in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill

Shaw University, Raleigh, N.C.“, Wake County, North Carolina Postcard Collection (P052), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill

Shaw University brochure 1974, from [Shaw University Announcements, Bulletins, Programs, etc.] VC378.9 M67 Shaw 1874-.

December: Jonkonnu in North Carolina

This Month in North Carolina History

In antebellum North Carolina, Christmas season was the time for an African American celebration found almost nowhere else in North America, but widespread through the islands of the Caribbean. Variously called Jonkonnu, Johnkannaus, John Coonah, or John Canoe, the custom was described in the slave community of Jamaica in the late eighteenth century where it was thought to have been of African origin. Although the details often changed from place to place, Jonkonnu usually involved several African American men who dressed in costumes made of rags and animal skins with grotesque masks and horns. Sometimes one of their number wore his best clothes instead. They danced wildly, often playing musical instruments and singing. In towns, the Jonkonnu men went from house to house while on plantations they performed at the homes of masters, overseers, and other white people. They expected to be rewarded with gifts of money or liquor. Jonkonnu dancers were often accompanied by crowds of men and women who cheered them on while taking no direct part in the performance.

Jonkonnu obviously represented a time of release and enjoyment for slaves from the drudgery of their day–to–day work. Some historians believe that it may also have been a time when the constraints of the slave system were loosened in other ways. On plantations in North Carolina slaves of all sorts had access to their masters in ways that they seldom had during the year. The Jonkonnu performers and their accompanying crowd usually came right up to their master’s house, a privilege usually denied to all but house servants. After the performance, the master would often speak to the performers and shake hands with them, another departure from usual practice. Jonkonnu continued in North Carolina after emancipation, at least in Wilmington, where it was observed as late as 1880. A version of it also seems to have been adopted by whites in the late nineteenth century. In the end, however, it may have been too closely tied to the slave system in which it arose to have survived long after freedom.

Fenn, Elizabeth A. “‘A perfect equality seemed to reign’: Slave Society and Jonkonnu.” The North Carolina Historical Review, 65:2 (April 1988), pages 127-153.

Powell, William S., Ed. The Encyclopedia of North Carolina. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, c. 2006

December 1789: North Carolina Cedes Western Lands to the Federal Government

This Month in North Carolina History


In many early maps of the American colonies, we can recognize North Carolina by the familiar shape of the Outer Banks on the coast, and by the borders with South Carolina and Virginia, which were first established in the 1600s and were pretty close to today’s state lines. The western border, on the other hand, was much more flexible. Some maps show no formal western border at all, with the colony ending in a roughly-mapped area labeled as the home of the Cherokee Indians. Many other maps show North Carolina stretching as far as the Mississippi River, incorporating all of present-day Tennessee. The western border of the state was for a long time a matter of conflict and debate, and was not finally set until December 1789.

Exploration and settlement in the “backcountry,” the rugged mountain areas that would become present-day Tennessee and Kentucky, began in earnest in the late eighteenth century, led by pioneers including the famous frontiersman Daniel Boone. Many families from North Carolina and other eastern colonies left for the west in search of better land. As the population grew, so did the desire for self-governance. The western areas between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River were a long way from the established seats of government in the east, and the needs and desires of the people in the new settlements often differed from those of the original colonies, whose populations were still congregated primarily along the Atlantic coast.

In recognition of the growing western population and the need for established government in the new settlements, the North Carolina legislature authorized the creation of six new counties in the region between 1779 and 1784. In 1784, residents in the new counties, led by John Sevier, organized a new state to be named after Benjamin Franklin. The State of Franklin had a complicated five-year history. The Franklin government had poorly-defined relationships with both the North Carolina legislature and the Continental Congress, and the new state was never formally admitted to the union. Regular battles and land disputes between the residents of Franklin and the Cherokee Indians made the matter even more difficult.

The Franklin legislature met for the last time in 1788, and the western lands were folded back into the jurisdiction of North Carolina the following year. On December 22, 1789, North Carolina formally ceded the six western counties to the Continental Congress, leading to the eventual establishment of the new state of Tennessee, which was admitted to the union in 1796.

William S. Powell. North Carolina Through Four Centuries. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1989.

William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006.

Samuel Cole Williams. History of the Lost State of Franklin. Johnson City, Tenn.: The Watauga Press, 1924.

Image Source:
Detail from “North America with the Boundaries of the Thirteen United States.” Published in England, ca. 1783.

December 1804: The Walton War

This Month in North Carolina History

Approximate location of the disputed land in the Walton War.
Approximate location of the disputed land in the Walton War.

Arguments between states in this country are usually settled more or less decorously and peacefully through debate and compromise. In at least one instance, however, such a quarrel resulted in armed conflict and loss of life. In December 1804, in disputed land along their common border, several Georgians assaulted and killed a Buncombe County, North Carolina constable, and North Carolina responded by sending in a detachment of militia to restore order and assert its authority in the area. Called the Walton War, this incident was part of a series of more peaceful boundary conflicts between North Carolina and its neighbors which were caused by confusion inherited from British colonial rule and territorial pressure resulting from the creation of the new American nation.

At the time of the American Revolution, North Carolina’s boundary with South Carolina was in dispute, particularly in the western part of the state. After the Revolution the new government of the United States pressed states that had claims on land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River to cede those lands to the national government. North Carolina gave up its claim to a broad swath of land from which most of the state of Tennessee was later formed. South Carolina, however, had only a narrow strip to cede between the southern border of North Carolina and the northern border of Georgia. In 1802, after long negotiation with the federal government, Georgia surrendered claim to the territory from which Alabama and Mississippi were formed. As part of the negotiation, the federal government gave Georgia the strip recently ceded by South Carolina, giving Georgia and North Carolina a common border. Unfortunately, this common border had never been accurately surveyed, and there was substantial debate about how it should be defined. The eastern edge of this strip, as Georgia defined it, contained land at the head of the French Broad River that North Carolina believed to be part of Buncombe County which at that time was the only county in the far western end of the state.

This messy situation was aggravated by the presence of settlers in the disputed territory who began coming over the Blue Ridge about 1785. By 1802 there were some 800 people in the area. The fundamental problem was that many of the settlers held their land by grant from South Carolina while many others had North Carolina grants. In the confusion over state authority settlers saw the possibility of losing their land and hence their livelihood. In 1803, to solidify its claim, Georgia organized the disputed territory into Walton County, named for George Walton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Relations between residents in the new county rapidly deteriorated. Holders of South Carolina land grants supported the new county government and resisted the authority of Buncombe County officials. North Carolina grant holders supported Buncombe and refused to acknowledge the Walton County government.

The crisis came in December 1804 when Walton County officials and their supporters attempted to intimidate and possibly dispossess several outspoken partisans of Buncombe. One of these, John Havner, a Buncombe County constable, was struck on the head with the butt of a musket and killed. In response, Buncombe County called out the militia. A detachment of seventy-two men, under Major James Brittain, marched into Walton County on December 19, 1804, where they were joined by twenty-four North Carolinians living in the disputed area. Ten important Walton County officials were taken prisoner and sent to Morganton, North Carolina, to be tried in the death of Havner. The Walton County government was effectively crushed. North Carolina and Georgia continued to quarrel over the disputed territory until 1807 when commissioners from both states met to establish the boundary. Joseph Caldwell, president of the University of North Carolina, and Joseph Meigs, president of the University of Georgia, were charged with making the scientific observations for the party and after several trials established that the true boundary was a number of miles south of its assumed position. The commissioners from Georgia admitted that all of Walton County was in fact in North Carolina.

In the end North Carolina recognized the South Carolina land grants and extended amnesty to those who had opposed the state in the Walton War — except for the ten men accused of the death of John Havner. They, however, had escaped from the jail in Morganton and fled the state, never to be seen again. Although Havner was the only fatality, stories of the Walton War grew over the years creating a legend of the conflict in which truth and fiction freely mixed. In the legend, dozens of Georgians died in pitched battles with North Carolina militia. The frustrated farmers of Walton County, worried about the legality of their land grants, became, in some stories, bands of vicious desperados inhabiting a “no man’s land” beyond the law.

By the late twentieth century the Walton War was almost, but not quite, forgotten. In 1971 Georgia questioned the location of its boundary with North Carolina, and the North Carolina General Assembly, reported by the press to be in a “jocular mood,” passed a resolution urging that the National Guard be called out to defend the border.

Carpenter, Cal. The Walton War and tales of the Great Smoky Mountains. Lakemont, GA: Copple House Books, 1979.

Reidinger, Martin. “The Walton War and the Georgia-North Carolina Boundary Dispute.” Typescript in North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1981.

Skaggs, Marvin Lucian. “North Carolina Boundary Disputes Involving Her Southern Line.” James Sprunt Studies in History and Political Science, Vol. 25, No. 1. University of North Carolina Press, 1941.

Durham Morning Herald, 12 September 1971 as found in North Carolina Collection Clipping File through 1975, Subject Clippings, vol. 177.

December 18, 1776: North Carolina Constitution

This Month in North Carolina History

Constitution News that the American colonies had declared independence from Great Britain finally reached North Carolina on July 22, 1776. One of the first orders of business in the newly independent state was the writing of a constitution. Elections for the Provincial Congress were held in October and, once elected, the representatives met in Halifax. Several states had already adopted constitutions, and North Carolina looked to these as examples. The legislators also examined the English Declaration of Rights and wrote to John Adams for advice. Rather than go through the lengthy and uncertain process of submitting the document to the voters, the representatives agreed that once they approved the final draft, it would be enacted. On December 18, 1776, North Carolina had its first constitution.

The 1776 North Carolina Constitution has many elements that will seem familiar to North Carolinians today. The Constitution opens with a Declaration of Rights, containing twenty-five guarantees of personal freedom that anticipate the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution and many of which are present in similar form in the current state constitution. The first North Carolina constitution also presents a familiar form of government, with a governor and a bicameral legislature.

However, there are several sections that differ significantly from current practice. The most notable of these were the property requirements for officeholders and voters. In order to be eligible for the Senate, members had to own at least three hundred acres of land in the county they sought to represent; candidates for the House of Commons were required to own one hundred acres; and voters were required to own at least fifty acres to be eligible to cast a ballot for a senator.

Under the 1776 constitution, most of the power was vested in the General Assembly. Governors were chosen by the legislature, served only a one-year term, and were not eligible to serve more than three terms in a six year period. Legislators were appointed by county (with a few assigned to specific towns), without regard to population. This vested a disproportionate amount of influence in the eastern part of the state, which had many small counties, even though the western counties began to increase steadily in population.

The 1776 constitution was effective in establishing an independent government in North Carolina and guaranteeing individual liberties for its citizens. Yet under this document, the state remained in the control of a small group of primarily eastern elites. North Carolina grew slowly, on its way to earning the nickname “The Rip Van Winkle State” in the early nineteenth century. By overlooking many of the demands of its less prosperous citizens, North Carolina saw a widespread emigration and was finally forced to draft a more egalitarian constitution. The state passed a series of amendments in 1835 that changed to a system of representation that was determined by population and allowed for the popular election of the governor. It was not until after the Civil War, in 1868, when North Carolina finally adopted a constitution that did not include property requirements for officeholders.


William S. Powell, North Carolina Through Four Centuries. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

John L. Sanders, “A Brief History of the Constitutions of North Carolina.” In North Carolina Government 1585-1979: A Narrative and Statistical History. Raleigh: North Carolina Department of the Secretary of State, 1981.

“Constitution of North Carolina: 18 December 1776.” Avalon Project, Yale Law School,

Image Source:

The Constitution, or Form of Government, Agreed to, and Resolved Upon, by the Representatives of the Freemen of the State of North Carolina. Philadelphia: Printed by F. Bailey, 1779.

December: Old Christmas

This Month in North Carolina History

The Outer Banks town of Rodanthe oldxmashas long maintained a custom once observed in many parts of North Carolina: the celebration of “Old Christmas.” After observing modern Christmas on December 25th, people in Rodanthe and a few other places on the Outer Banks enjoy another Christmas Day on January the 5th.

Historians agree that Old Christmas arose from a change in calendars. In 1752 the government of Great Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar to replace the less accurate Julian calendar. To make the change, eleven days were dropped from the month of September 1752 in Britain and all of her colonies. This made Christmas day fall on December the 25th, but many North Carolinians continued to celebrate Christmas on the old date in January.

Ultimately, only on the Outer Banks was the day preserved. One feature of Old Christmas in Rodanthe is the appearance of “Old Buck,” a four-footed creature looking something like a bull which is said to roam the forest during the year. At Christmas he appears to dance and frolic among the celebrating children and adults. Music, bonfires, and oyster roasts also mark this unusual North Carolina event.

Kane, Harnett T. The Southern Christmas Book: The Full Story from Earliest Times to Present: People, Customs, Conviviality, Carols, Cooking. New York : D. McKay Co., 1958.

Image Source:
“Dare County: Rodanthe: Old Christmas, circa 1920s-1930s,” P0078_0181, Ben Dixon MacNeil Photographic Collection (P0078), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

December 1870: The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

This Month in North Carolina History

smallhatterasJust off of Cape Hatteras lies Diamond Shoals, a large area of turbulent waters and constantly shifting underwater sand dunes which can wreak havoc with passing ships. This and other treacherous passages caused so many shipwrecks that wary sailors began to call the waters off of North Carolina’s coast the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

The first lighthouse at Hatteras began operating in 1802 and was effective in helping some boats steer clear of dangerous waters, but sailors complained that it was neither tall enough nor bright enough to provide as much advance warning as they needed. Hatteras was the site of an important naval battle early in the Civil War. The island was occupied in the summer of 1861 by Federal troops, many of whom camped around the lighthouse, finding themselves forced to defend the beacon against a Confederate plan to blow it up. After the war, continued complaints about the effectiveness of the light, combined with natural deterioration of the structure, led the United States Congress to authorize funds for a new lighthouse in 1867. In December 1870, the new lighthouse at Cape Hatteras, destined to become one of North Carolina’s most enduring symbols, was lit for the first time.

The new lighthouse took over two years to build and cost $155,000, more than twice the cost originally allocated by Congress. The familiar black and white stripes were painted in 1873. The finished structure stood 208 feet high, making it the tallest lighthouse in the United States, a distinction that it still holds.

The new light shone for decades, helping ships steer clear of the dangerous passages, but it was these very waters that threatened the existence of the lighthouse. Beach erosion had become so severe that by 1936 waves reached the base of the lighthouse and, without any immediate solutions to stop the encroaching tide, the Lighthouse Service was forced to close the Hatteras lighthouse. For 14 years, it would remain dark.

In 1950 the lighthouse was restored, a new electric light was installed, and the Hatteras lighthouse began its second life. The next half-century saw a number of efforts to reinforce the shoreline – sand was pumped in to extend the beach, concrete bunkers were poured, and a large seawall was built around the base of the lighthouse – but none were able to keep the ocean away for long. Finally, in 1999, the entire lighthouse was lifted from its foundation and moved to a new location 1,600 feet from the sea. In the years since the move, the lighthouse has reopened to visitors, has withstood several severe storms and, most importantly, has continued to shine, warning passing ships that they were approaching the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

This detail from an 1897 map produced by the U.S. Light-House Board shows the range of the Hatteras light. The dotted lines mean that the light at Hatteras was a blinking white light, while the solid black line signifies a fixed white light, as with the Ocracoke lighthouse south of Hatteras.
This detail from an 1897 map produced by the U.S. Light-House Board shows the range of the Hatteras light. The dotted lines mean that the light at Hatteras was a blinking white light, while the solid black line signifies a fixed white light, as with the Ocracoke lighthouse south of Hatteras.


Suggestions for Further Reading
Carr, Dawson. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse: Sentinel of the Shoals. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Duffus, Kevin P. The Lost Light: The Mystery of the Missing Cape Hatteras Fresnel Lens. Raleigh: Looking Glass Productions, 2003.

Stick, David. North Carolina Lighthouses. Raleigh: North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 1999.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore, National Park Service

Image Source
“Fifth L.H. District.” Map published in Annual Report of the Light-House Board to the Secretary of the Treasury for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1897. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1897. Detail.