February 1971: The Wilmington Ten

This Month in North Carolina History

Free the Wilmington 10 button
In early February, 1971, downtown Wilmington, N.C. was a war zone. Shots rang through the streets, traffic was blocked, and citizens were barricaded in a church. Although it took only a couple of days to restore peace and order, the actions of those few days and nights would bring worldwide attention to North Carolina, and would resonate for decades to come.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, African Americans in North Carolina were frustrated by the slow pace of school desegregation and other reforms promised by federal legislation and court decisions. Many young people, rejecting the commitment of the Civil Rights pioneers of the 1950s to non-violent tactics, looked for new ways to make themselves heard. There were prominent cases of arson against white-owned businesses in Charlotte and in Oxford, N.C., and many North Carolina cities erupted in violence after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968.

The largest demonstration following the assassination of King took place in the historic port city of Wilmington. Race relations there had worsened following the desegregation of the city’s high schools at the beginning of the 1969/70 school year. There were frequent clashes between white and African American students resulting in a number of arrests and expulsions. The hostilities reached a boiling point in late January 1971 when Wilmington’s African American students announced a boycott of the city’s schools. Ben Chavis, an experienced activist from Oxford, N.C., was called to Wilmington to organize the boycott.

Shortly after Chavis’s arrival, two downtown businesses were burned, and there was evidence of other arson attempts. African American activists were blamed for the incidents. Members of the Ku Klux Klan and a group called The Rights of White People began to patrol downtown Wilmington armed and openly hostile to the boycotting students and their leaders. On the night of February 6, 1971, several fires were set, and a small downtown grocery store was firebombed. When firemen reported to the scene, they were shot at by snipers on the roof of the Gregory Congregational Church, in which Chavis and a number of students were barricaded. Two people were killed and several were injured during the battle that raged that night and into the next day. Finally, on February 8, National Guardsmen forced their way into the church only to find it empty.

Based on the testimony of two African American men who claimed to have been in the church the night of February 6, ten people – nine African American men and one white woman – were arrested, tried, and convicted on charges of arson and conspiracy to fire upon firemen and police officers. The “Wilmington Ten” were sentenced to a combined 282 years in prison.

In the years following the violence in Wilmington, the case became known around the world. The Wilmington Ten were perceived to be political prisoners by individuals and groups who believed that they were prosecuted not for the actions of February 6, 1971 – and about which there were still conflicting reports – but for their beliefs. Amnesty International took up the case of the Wilmington Ten in 1976, causing an embarrassment for both the North Carolina and federal governments. As the administration of President Jimmy Carter accused the Soviet Union of human rights abuses, it was especially sensitive to charges of mistreatment of American citizens.

The case did not go away. In early 1977, the CBS news program 60 Minutes ran a feature on the Wilmington Ten, suggesting that the evidence against them had been fabricated. After higher courts refused to dismiss the charges, Governor Jim Hunt was under great pressure to pardon the prisoners. In January 1978, in an address broadcast throughout the state, Hunt refused to release the Wilmington Ten, but did reduce their sentences. In 1980 the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the convictions, citing prosecutorial misconduct and denials of due process.

Although the Wilmington Ten were freed from prison, the charges against them remained for another three decades. On December 31, 2012 North Carolina governor Beverly Perdue issued a full pardon for each member of the the group. The action meant that the state no longer believed that any of the 10 committed a crime.

In explaining her pardon, Perdue pointed to the recent discovery of notes suggesting the prosecutor’s efforts to select a jury based on race. She wrote, “These notes show with disturbing clarity the dominant role that racism played in jury selection. The notes reveal that certain white jurors believed to be Ku Klux Klan members were described by the prosecutor as ‘good’ and that at least one African American juror was noted to be an ‘Uncle Tom type.'”

At the time of the pardon, four members of the Wilmington 10 had already died and several were in ill health.

Wayne King, “The Case Against the Wilmington Ten.” New York Times Magazine, 3 December 1978.

Wayne Grimsley, James B. Hunt: A North Carolina Progressive. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2003.

Larry Reni Thomas, The True Story Behind the Wilmington Ten. Hampton, Va.: U.B. & U.S. Communications Systems, 1993.

Timothy Tyson, Blood Done Sign My Name. New York: Crown, 2004.

Image Source
“Free the Wilmington 10 Now!” button, ca. 1971-1981; 4.4 cm.
North Carolina Collection Gallery

February 1948: Piedmont Airlines’ First Passenger Flight

This Month in North Carolina History

Postcard of View of a Piedmont Airlines plane at Fayetteville's Municipal Airport, ca. 1953.
View of a Piedmont Airlines plane at Fayetteville’s Municipal Airport, ca. 1953.

Thomas H. Davis was born in Winston-Salem in 1918, and grew up in a family of successful businessmen. His father worked as an executive for R. J. Reynolds Tobacco, a relationship that would later be crucial for the story of Davis’s own success story and for commercial aviation in Winston-Salem. Davis had an interest in planes and aviation from a young age and began taking flight lessons on the sly when he was 15 or 16 years old at the Winston-Salem Airport.

In 1939, Davis began working as a salesman for the Camel City Flying Service, an aviation company owned by R.J. Reynolds, Jr. As a salesman, Davis’s job was to fly planes to potential customers. He enjoyed the work so much that he put his college career on hold to take a full-time job with company. Camel City Flying Service was in debt, and Reynolds had a vested interest in its success. At the time, he was gearing up to run for mayor of Winston-Salem, and wanted to see his town and companies do well. Furthermore, North Carolina was a major manufacturing center for textiles, tobacco, and furniture, but was cut off from the distribution centers in the Midwest. Reynolds offered to sell the Camel City Flying Service to Davis if he could bring the company out of debt. He did, and in 1940, the company was reincorporated under the name of Piedmont Aviation. At the time, Davis was only 22 years old.

During World War II, most of Piedmont Aviation’s business came from training pilots and flight instructors – it’s estimated that they trained more than 1,000 pilots. As the war was winding down, the military took over responsibility for training pilots and instructors, and Piedmont Aviation quickly set into motion plans to re-envision itself as a passenger airline.

Piedmont applied to the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) in 1944 for a contract that would recognize them as a feeder airline operating passenger, mail, and cargo routes to many North Carolina towns, as well as branching out for a few longer trips. So many companies applied for this contract that it took the CAB several years to make their decision. Although Piedmont Airlines was awarded the contract in 1947, their initial service was held back by competition from other small airlines, including State Airlines, a company based in Charlotte. State Airlines petitioned the CAB with a similar service plan, but was not awarded the contract. They brought a case to the Supreme Court that took several months to iron out before deciding in favor of Piedmont Airlines.

Photograph with View of Piedmont Airlines' DC-3s in a hangar in Wilmington, NC, ca. 1948.
View of Piedmont Airlines’ DC-3s in a hangar in Wilmington, NC, ca. 1948.

Four years after submitting their application to the CAB, Friday, February 20, 1948, at around 7:00 am, Piedmont Airlines launched its first passenger flight. The flight took off in Wilmington, made several stops along the way, and landed in Cincinnati at 12:24 pm. The plane then made its return trip and landed back in Wilmington at 7:19 pm. The DC-3 plane Piedmont Airlines was flying at the time could carry up to 28 passengers, a pilot, co-pilot, and a purser.

Early regional airlines like Piedmont Airlines modeled their schedules after the railroads. Piedmont Airlines had proposed a system of several routes to connect small cities in North Carolina. The first flight followed a route that began in Wilmington, made stops in Southern Pines; Charlotte; Asheville; the Tri-Cities, a regional airport serving Tennessee and Virginia; Lexington, KY; and Cincinnati, OH. Because of their fast schedules and quick time spent on the ground, Piedmont’s planes earned the nickname “puddle jumpers.”

Despite their lowly nickname, Piedmont Airlines quickly became known for its famous balance between excellent customer service and spartan accommodations. An anecdote recounted in Elliott’s Flight of the Pacemaker mentions how the pursers picked up Krispy Kreme donuts on their way into work for flights leaving out of Winston-Salem, but that was one small comfort in a crowded cabin that was hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and unpressurized.

The airline’s reputation and customer base grew steadily, as did its good relationship with the CAB. Piedmont Airlines jumped a much bigger puddle and made its first international flight to London in 1987. In 1989, USAir acquired Piedmont Airlines.

Piedmont wings pin from Lew Powell Collection

Dunn, James Alexander Clarke. “The History of Piedmont Airlines” in Pace, vol. 15, no. 12, p. 53-78.

Eller, Richard E. Piedmont Airlines: A Complete History, 1948-1989. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2008.

Elliott, Frank. Piedmont: Flight of the Pacemaker. Winston-Salem, NC: Piedmont Aviation Historical Society, 2006.

“Air Route is Given Supreme Court Okay,” in News & Observer, 7 February 1950.

“Thomas H. Davis, Founder of Piedmont Airlines Receives the Honor of His Peers,” in We the People of North Carolina, vol. 42, no. 4, p. 22-24, 59.

Image Sources:
<a href"“Piedmont Airlines planes in hangar,” in Hugh Morton Collection of Photographs and Films, P081.

“Municipal Airport, Fayetteville, N.C.” in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Piedmont Airlines wings button, in the Lew Powell Memorabilia Collection.

February 1891: Founding of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro

This Month in North Carolina History

Postcard of UNC-Greensboro Administration Building
On February 18, 1891, the North Carolina General Assembly passed “An Act to Establish a Normal and Industrial School for White Girls,” creating the first public institution in the state to offer higher education to women. Called originally the State Normal and Industrial School, it became North Carolina College for Women in 1919, Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina in 1931, and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1963.

“The Normal” was one of the notable achievements of the reform movement in education which began in North Carolina in the 1880s. By almost any standard, education in North Carolina was in miserable condition at the beginning of the final decade of the nineteenth century. Nearly one third its citizens were illiterate; school attendance rates were well behind that of the nation as a whole; and, at one point during this period, North Carolina had the lowest per pupil expenditure rate in the nation. A group of young teachers, several of them trained at the University of North Carolina, accepted the challenge of revamping the state’s educational system. To do this they advocated the adoption of the graded school concept throughout the state. Graded schools — in which students pass from lower to higher levels or grades every year — demanded a substantial increase in professionally trained teachers, so the educational reformers also sought the establishment of training schools for a new generation of teachers. Beginning in 1889 Charles Duncan McIver and Edwin Alderman, two of the young leaders of the educational reform movement, crisscrossed the state holding “Teachers’ Institutes” in every county. They hammered home the advantages of the graded school system and always put in a plea for a teachers’ training school. When the legislature finally acted in 1891, McIver was the obvious choice to head the school, while Alderman was one of the first faculty members. After considering several locations, a site on the edge of Greensboro, North Carolina, was chosen for the new school, and in 1892 the Normal and Industrial School welcomed the first students to its new, two-building campus.

Postcard of Student's Building, State Normal and Industrial CollegeOver the years under several names, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro supplied teachers to the public school systems of the state. McIver and Alderman, however, had also believed in the value of higher education for women as a good in itself, and from the beginning the school served this cause as well. The curriculum in the arts and sciences broadened and deepened as the Normal became first a college and then a university. As Chancellor William Moran observed in 1992, the founders and faculty at Greensboro understood “that talented women were one of the new forces that would shape the nation and the twentieth century.”

Trelease, Allen W. Making North Carolina Literate: the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, from Normal School to Metropolitan University. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2004.

Moran, William E. Between History and Hope: Some Centennial Reflections. New York: Newcomen Society of the United States, 1992.

Bowles, Elisabeth Ann. A Good Beginning: the First Four Decades of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1967.

February 1881: The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina

This Month in North Carolina History

State seal from Volume 1 of State and Colonial Records
On February 17, 1881, the General Assembly of North Carolina passed a resolution authorizing the Trustees of the State Library to print “records, papers, documents and manuscripts…bearing date prior to the year 1781, belonging to the State of North Carolina.” While they may not have known it at the time, the legislators set in motion a process that when finished—over thirty years later—would produce a thirty-volume set containing 28,840 pages of transcribed and printed original documents from North Carolina’s colonial and early state periods. The Colonial Records of North Carolina and the State Records of North Carolina have allowed generations of scholars to produce exhaustive histories of the Tar Heel State and its citizens.

William Saunders, who served as North Carolina’s secretary of state from 1879 to 1891, edited the first ten volumes of the series, which where titled the Colonial Records of North Carolina. As secretary, he had unique access to public records, many of which were then in the custody of the secretary’s office. Although authorized by the resolution to cover the period up to 1781, time constraints and ill health required him to conclude with the ratification of the North Carolina State Constitution in December 1776. In keeping with the general tradition of historical editing, Saunders arranged the materials in chronological order, but the volumes contained no indices and no tables of contents, either individually or as a set.

After Saunders’ death in 1891, a second editor, Walter Clark, began where the first left off. As a justice on North Carolina’s Supreme Court, Clark did not have Saunders’ privileged position with respect to the state’s records, but his concern to preserve and promote the state’s history caused him to go to great lengths in search of relevant materials. He hoped to fulfill Saunders’ original intent of continuing the series through 1781, but after he had been collecting documents for two years, the General Assembly authorized him to publish the records of the subsequent decade as well. The sixteen volumes that Clark published between 1895 and 1907 are known as the State Records of North Carolina. Though the title is different, Clark decided to continue the series’ sequential numbering and attempted to continue the chronological arrangement of the earlier volumes.

In 1895, Stephen B. Weeks, who is considered by many scholars to be “North Carolina’s first professional historian,” was selected to prepare an index to both the Colonial Records and the State Records. The task was daunting, and it took him almost twenty years to complete the four-volume master index for the set, the index to a subset of published laws, and the index to the 1790 census in volume 26. In addition, Weeks wrote a lengthy essay describing previous efforts to document North Carolina’s history, providing an “analysis of the materials printed,” and surveying still unpublished historical materials relating to the state available in various public and private collections.

Though the series is over a century old, it continues to remain an important resource for individuals researching North Carolina’s history and peoples. In recognition of its value and in an attempt to make it even more accessible, UNC Library’s Documenting the American South has scanned and published online the entire thirty-volume set.

H. G. Jones. For History’s Sake: The Preservation and Publication of North Carolina History, 1663-1903. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1966.

“Colonial and State Records.” Encyclopedia of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006.

Image Source
Detail of the North Carolina state seal from the spine of Volume I of the Colonial Records of North Carolina.

February 1885: North Carolina Recognizes the Lumbee

This Month in North Carolina History

On February 10, 1885, the state of North Carolina legally recognized the identity of the “Indians of Robeson County,” a milestone in the history of the tribe now known as the Lumbee. One scholar has identified no fewer than seven theories about the origins of the Lumbees, many of which are still debated today. In fact the law of 1885 referred to them as Croatan Indians, reflecting the idea that they descended from the settlers of the “Lost Colony.” Over the years, the Native American community in southeastern North Carolina, who usually referred to themselves as “Our People” or “the Indians,” adopted an old version of the name of the river on which their ancestors had settled, Lumbee.

In the increasingly polarized racial environment of the ante-bellum south, the Lumbees found it difficult to maintain their identity as Native Americans. Since they were not a recognized tribe, they were pushed to declare themselves either white or free persons of color, neither of which was acceptable to them. The situation became acute after the Civil War when, in 1875, North Carolina began building a new, racially segregated, public school system. No schools were planned for Native Americans, and Lumbees faced the choice of giving up their Native American identity or denying public education to their children. The next ten years—”the decade of despair” for the Lumbees—ended when Hamilton McMillan, a representative from Robeson County, shepherded through the General Assembly a bill recognizing the Lumbees legally and providing for public schools for their children.

Thus there emerged in Robeson County a rare three-part public school system providing schools for white, African American, and Native American children. By the time Robeson County schools were integrated in 1970, separate educational facilities for Native Americans were provided at the grammar school, junior high school, and high school levels. In 1887 the General Assembly provided money for the establishment of an Indian Normal School to train teachers for the Native American public schools. In 1941 it became Pembroke State College for Indians and is now the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Today the Lumbees are the largest Native American tribe in North Carolina and one of the largest in the country. Building on their recognition by the state, Lumbees have attempted for years to gain full federal recognition as a tribe. In 1987 they submitted a three-volume petition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Representatives from North Carolina in the U.S. Congress have also introduced a number of bills to grant direct federal recognition to the Lumbees, but the tribe remains formally recognized only by North Carolina.

Adolph L. Dial and David K. Eliades. The Only Land I Know: A History of the Lumbee Indians. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, c. 1996.

Gerald Sider. Living Indian Histories: Lumbee and Tuscarora People in North Carolina. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, c.1993, 2003.

Vernon Ray Thompson. “A history of the education of the Lumbee Indians of Robeson County, North Carolina from 1885 to 1970.” Ed. D. diss., University of Miami, 1973.

Robert K. Thomas. “A report on research of Lumbee origins.” [1976?]

February 1927: “The Old North State”

This Month in North Carolina History

Title page of "The Old North State"
On February 18, 1927, “The Old North State” was officially adopted as the state song of North Carolina.

The lyrics to “The Old North State” were composed by Judge William Gaston in Raleigh in 1835. Judge Gaston had left his plantation in Craven County and was staying with a local family while the state Supreme Court was in session. After couple of the women in the household had attended a concert of bell-ringers visiting from Switzerland, they sang and played on the piano one of the tunes they had heard. Taken with the music, Gaston wrote out several verses of the now well-known song.

Though the words to “The Old North State” are appropriately patriotic, one line often stands out to people hearing or reading it for the first time: “Tho’ the scorner may sneer at, and witling defame her, Yet our hearts swell with gladness, Whenever we name her.” Who were these scorners and witlings? Gaston was writing at a time when North Carolina was one of the poorest states in the nation. The state was rapidly losing population as people emigrated, often to newly opened western territories, in search of more promising opportunities for themselves and their families. It was not unlikely then for local elites who were determined to stay in the state, such as Gaston, to feel a little bit defensive.

“The Old North State” received statewide attention during the 1840 Presidential campaign. At a Whig rally in Raleigh, supporters of William H. Harrison gathered from around the state for a day of speeches and entertainment, which included a choir of fifty young women singing Gaston’s song.

“The Old North State” has been published on many occasions, and while the words have remained true to Gaston’s original poem, the music has evolved over the years and probably little resembles the original air upon which it was based. The current version of the song, with which North Carolinians today are familiar, is from an arrangement prepared by Mrs. E. E. Randolph in Raleigh in 1926.

William Gaston (1778-1844) was a native of New Bern, N.C. He was educated at Georgetown (where he was the first student to enroll) and Princeton. He worked briefly as a lawyer, but was quickly swept up into state politics. Gaston served in both houses of the state legislature, and in the U.S. House of Representatives. From 1833 until his death, he sat on the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Charles H. Bowman, Jr. “Gaston, Willliam Joseph.” In Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, vol. 2., ed. William S. Powell. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

“Our State Song: Carolina.” Undated and unsigned newspaper article in the North Carolina Subject Clipping File through 1975, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Image Source:
“The Old North State: A Patriotic Song. Written by the late Wm. Gaston of North Carolina and by him adapted to a German melody and arranged for the piano forte by R. Culver.” Philadelphia: George Willig, 1844. North Carolina Collection.

February 1820: Bunkum

This Month in North Carolina History

Asheville and the Land of the Sky tourist brochure

On February 25, 1820, during the contentious debate over the Missouri Compromise, Representative Felix Walker from North Carolina rose to speak before Congress. Walker’s speech was rambling, had little relevance to the immediate debate, and several members tried to cut him off. Walker refused to yield the floor, informing his colleagues that his speech was not intended for Congress, but for his constituents at home in Buncombe County. His statement was reprinted in a Washington paper the next day and the phrase “speaking for Buncombe” began to be used by other Congressmen and by journalists describing frivolous, self-serving speeches.

The word “buncombe,” often misspelled as “bunkum,” soon came to refer to any sort of spurious or questionable statement. The word must have been widely used, for when it first appeared in a dictionary in 1848, bunkum was said to be a “very useful and expressive word, which is now as well understood as any in our language.” By the 20th-century, the abbreviated version “bunk,” meaning nonsense or silliness, began to appear in speech and in print. In 1916 Henry Ford was quoted as saying “History is more or less bunk.”

Asheville, North Carolina, in the “land of the sky,” is the seat of Buncombe County. The image shown here is from a tourist brochure published by the Asheville Chamber of Commerce in 1922 .

Suggestions for Further Reading

Archibald Henderson, “Man Who Gave Us ‘Bunkum’ Deserves More of Historians.” Durham Herald-Sun, April 13, 1941. In North Carolina Collection clipping file through 1975 : biography, pp. 729-730

John Russell Bartlett, A Dictionary of Americanisms: A Glossary of Words and Phrases Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States. New York: Bartlett and Welford, 1848.