January 1716: North Carolina “Blue Laws”

This Month in North Carolina History

Copy of 18th century law preserving blue laws

Sundays in North Carolina used to be a lot quieter than they are today: perhaps less hustle and bustle, but certainly a lot less commercial activity. Throughout most of the twentieth century Sunday was a day of rest, not just by religious conviction, but also by law. Varying from county to county and town to town, North Carolinians were firmly in the grip of the “blue laws.” Business activity was strictly limited. In most places only drugstores and gasoline stations were open. In Raleigh in the 1930s almost everything was closed on Sunday, although you could play golf, swim in public pools, and, strangely enough, gamble on slot machines.

Sunday had long been recognized as a day of rest, and for most devout Christians it was also a day set aside for worship. From early days in Europe and later in colonial America, however, the restful nature of Sunday was protected legally. Story has it that the first Sunday law passed in the New Haven colony in 1665 was printed on blue paper, thus giving a name to all the “blue” laws that followed it. In January 1716 (1715 in the Julian Calendar) the colonial assembly of North Carolina adopted the first Sabbath Observance Act prohibiting improper activities, including profanity and prostitution, on Sunday. Replaced by an act of 1741, this remained the Sabbath Law of North Carolina throughout the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries. Although this Sabbath Law was never repealed, it was often observed in a very casual manner. An observer in 1858 noted the people conducted business, gambled, hunted, fished, and engaged in all sorts of other activity on Sunday throughout North Carolina.

In the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth Sunday Closing Laws were tightened down through action on the local level. This resulted in a patchwork of legislation varying from town to town and county to county. Sometimes there were even significant differences between the level of Sunday activity in a town and in the county surrounding it. In 1961 the General Assembly enacted a new state Sunday Closing Law, but in 1962 the state Supreme Court threw it out as unconstitutionally vague. While the Supreme Court may have been hostile to a statewide law, it continued to turn away challenges to local “blue laws,” and it was not until the 1970s that local government—for the most part in the bigger towns and cities—began to repeal the Sunday Closing Laws. Although some of the laws remain on the books, in general, most areas of commerce, entertainment, sports, and recreation on Sundays in North Carolina have become a livelier, busier time.


Laband, David N. and Deborah H. Heinbuch. Blue laws: the history, economics, and politics of Sunday-Closing laws. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, c1987.

Johnson, Guion Griffis. Antebellum North Carolina: a social history. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1937.

Jeter, Frank, “Blue laws and slot machines.” The State, 53:2 (July 1985), pp. 14 and 31.

“Court throws out state’s ‘Blue Law’.” News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), 24 May 1962, as found in “North Carolina Clipping File through 1975,” reel 5, vol. 18, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Acts of the North Carolina General Assembly, 1715 – 1716” as found in the The Colonial and State Records of North Carolina, (Digital Edition), Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.

Image Source:

A collection of all the public acts of Assembly, of the province of North-Carolina, now in force and use : together with the titles of all such laws as are obsolete, expir’d, or repeal’d. Newbern: Printed by James Davis, M,DCC,LII. [1752].

January 1890: Creation of the American Tobacco Company

This Month in North Carolina History

Late in January 1890 the five largest tobacco companies in the United States completed a series of meetings stretching back for almost a year and agreed to combine their operations into the largest tobacco manufacturing corporation in the world. The American Tobacco Company, chartered under the laws of New Jersey, dominated the market for tobacco products in the United States and was a major supplier of tobacco to Europe and Asia for nearly twenty years. A prime example of what historian Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., called “managerial capitalism,” American Tobacco monopolized the production of all tobacco products except cigars, and replaced market forces with management decision making to both stimulate and supply the demand for its product.
Scotland Coins of All Nations card from American Tobacco packet

The driving force behind the creation of American Tobacco was W. Duke Sons and Company of Durham, North Carolina, led by James Buchanan Duke. The family business had prospered under James B. Duke’s combination of aggressive marketing and strict cost accounting but lagged behind older and larger firms. Duke believed that the future of tobacco manufacturing was in cigarettes and that the key to success in making cigarettes lay in the cigarette rolling machine. In 1885 Duke reached an agreement with the Bonsack Company of Virginia to lease their cigarette manufacturing machines for his factories. Other cigarette manufacturers had rejected the Bonsack machine, fearing that it was unreliable and believing that customers had a strong preference for hand-made cigarettes and would not buy the machine-made variety. Duke’s gamble paid off in a big way. The machines worked effectively and greatly increased W. Duke Sons production. Lower cigarette prices, brought on by increased manufacturing efficiency and secret leasing terms Duke had negotiated with the Bonsack Company, overcame any customer resistance. W. Duke Sons became one of the largest tobacco companies in the United States. In the late 1880s James B. Duke slowly moved toward creating a monopolistic combination of the five dominant tobacco firms. This led ultimately to the series of meetings in 1889 from which American Tobacco was born.

Siam Coins of All Nations card from American Tobacco packet

After 1890 Duke methodically combined the manufacturing functions of the firms comprising American Tobacco. He introduced the accounting system which had been so successful at W. Duke Sons and continued a strong marketing and sales program. Under his leadership American Tobacco flourished, gaining control of the market for plug tobacco and pipe tobacco as well as cigarettes. American Tobacco’s success, however, brought it to the attention of Federal regulators, and in 1907 the national government began an anti-trust suit against the company. In 1911 the United States Supreme Court held that American Tobacco violated the Sherman Anti-trust Act and ordered it dissolved. James B. Duke participated in the process of reorganizing the tobacco giant into three companies: a much smaller American Tobacco, Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company, and P. Lorillard Company, but, after that, increasingly distanced himself from the tobacco business and went on to other interests. For a short while, a North Carolina company was at the center of the biggest tobacco manufacturing concern in the world and one of the giants in the era of great American business combinations.


Tilley, Nannie May. “Agitation against the American Tobacco Company in North Carolina.” North Carolina Historical Review, 24:2 (April, 1947), pages 207-223.

Durden, Robert F. Bold entrepreneur: a life of James B. Duke. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2003.

American Tobacco story. [New York]: American Tobacco Co., 1962.

Image Source:

Coins of all nations. New York: Knapp & Co., [188?]. [Distributed in packages of Duke’s cigarettes.]

January 1961: Bombs Over Goldsboro

This Month in North Carolina History

Detail of Rural Delivery Routes map of Wayne County, 1920. Shows Eureka
On the night of January 24th, 1961, the quiet farmland surrounding Goldsboro was disturbed by an airborne alert mission gone awry. “I heard the whine of an airplane about to land, then there was a big explosion. It almost knocked me out of bed. I got up and ran to the window and saw my whole field on fire,” stated a local farmer. Witnesses said the plane spun through the sky “like a roman candle,” finally hitting somewhere near Musgrave’s Crossroads, between Patetown and Eureka. The B-52 jet carried two thermonuclear bombs and had been in the air for about twelve hours before it experienced a drop in fuel pressure. While attempting an emergency landing, the crew lost control of the aircraft, and they were ordered to bail. Five men ejected and landed safely. One ejected but did not survive the landing, and two died in the crash.

Lieutenant William R. Wilson, one of the survivors, told of his experience parachuting into the surrounding swampland: “I don’t know how it happened. I know when I landed in the field I felt awfully good. I felt like running. I went to a house and a fellow got his wife up and they fixed some coffee. They thought at first I was a prowler when I told them I had jumped out of an airplane. I must have been bad looking.” The co-pilot, Major Richard Rardin, also gave his account of the crash: “I could see three or four other chutes against the glow of the wreckage. The plane hit ten or twelve seconds after bail out. I hit some trees. I had a fix on some lights and started walking. My biggest difficulty getting back was the various and sundry dogs I encountered on the road.”

The next day, local newspapers reported that as the plane went down, one of the nuclear bombs on board was ejected and parachuted to the ground, while the other was found among the wreckage. Air Force officials stressed that there was no danger of radiation affecting the area because the two bombs were unarmed, meaning that there were safety devices in place to prevent explosion. Later sources indicate, however, that an explosion may have indeed been a real concern. In a 1983 statement, Robert McNamara, then Secretary of Defense, admitted that when the parachute-less bomb was found, its arming mechanism had accidentally gone through all but one of the seven steps toward detonation.

More alarming information about the crash was revealed later. In 1992, Congress released a summary of the Goldsboro accident indicating that, according to investigators, upon impact the parachute-less bomb had broken into several pieces, one of which was never found. The missing piece contained uranium, and it was believed that it may have struck the ground so hard that it sank deep into the soft, swampy earth. Crews excavated the surrounding farmland to a depth of fifty feet, but were unable to recover the missing piece. Two days after the accident, officials at nearby Seymour Johnson Air Force Base asked that all visitors to the crash site return any aircraft parts they may have removed. The officials claimed that these parts were needed to assess the cause of the accident, though they made no mention of the missing portion of the bomb. The Air Force eventually purchased an easement to the area surrounding the crash site, in order to prevent any land use or digging.

Radiation tests have been conducted on the crash site and surrounding area over the years, though no harmful substances have been detected.


“Survivors Relive Story of B-52 Crash.” The Goldsboro News-Argus (Goldsboro, N.C.), 25 January 1961.

“Air Force Wants All Parts from Crashed B-52.” The Goldsboro News-Argus (Goldsboro, N.C.), 26 January 1961.

“Trio Dead, Five Safe in Crash of B-52 Jet.” The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), 25 January 1961.

“Broken Arrow: Goldsboro, N.C. The Truth Behind North Carolina’s Brush With Disaster.” http://www.ibiblio.org/bomb/index.html. Accessed July 1, 2014

“Narrative Summaries of Accidents Involving U.S. Nuclear Weapons, 1950-1980.” ENERGY AND WATER DEVELOPMENT APPROPRIATIONS ACT (Senate – August 03, 1992). Congressional Record for the 102nd Congress (1991-1992).

Greensboro Daily News, 16 September 1981, p. A1.

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Detail from Rural Delivery Routes, Wayne County, N.C. [Washington, D.C.]: Post Office Dept., [1920].

January 1870: North Carolina State Penitentiary Opens

This Month in North Carolina History

Image of State Prison of North Carolina from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, January 1895

On January 6, 1870, North Carolina’s State Penitentiary accepted its first prisoners, housing them in a temporary log structure that was surrounded by a wooden stockade. Charles Lewis, a twenty-two-year-old African American convicted of robbery in Johnston County, was the first person to be admitted, and his accomplices, Eliza and Nancy Richardson, were the second and third individuals received by the prison and the first women.

Prior to 1870, North Carolina, unlike the majority of other states, did not have a central, state-operated prison. Responsibility for housing convicts and administering punishment rested with the counties. As local jails became overcrowded and expenses mounted, public officials began to examine the possibility of opening a state-funded institution to house long-term inmates. In 1846, there was a statewide vote on the desirability of a state penitentiary, but North Carolina’s voters, many of whom still believed in the efficacy of corporal punishment, such as whippings, croppings, and brandings, overwhelmingly disapproved of the plan. Not until mandated by the Reconstruction-era Constitution of 1868 did North Carolina fund and build a state penitentiary.
Stockade at the State Prison, Raleigh from Harper's New Monthly Magazine, January 1895

Operating under this more progressive plan of government, the General Assembly created a penitentiary committee in August 1868 and charged it with selecting a location for the new structure and contracting to have it built. This committee chose and purchased land near Lockville, a community in the Deep River Valley of Chatham County, but the legislature nullified the purchase and began anew after an investigation discovered that the entire process had been fraudulent. The assembly disbanded the original committee and selected a new commission, ordering them to locate the prison near the state capital and giving explicit limitations on acreage and price. The new committee, of which Alfred Dockery was president, purchased about twenty-two acres in southwestern Raleigh. This site had easy access to a railroad line and was adjacent to a stone quarry from which material to build the structure could be removed. With the location chosen, construction of a temporary facility began in late 1869.

The prison into which Charles Lewis and the other inmates were admitted on January 6, 1870, differed greatly from Central Prison, the modern structure that now occupies the same location. A report submitted by the penitentiary’s assistant architect on November 1, 1870, describes the original wooden edifice as such:

“The Work has been as follows: 2965 ft. Prison Stockade made of long leaf pine poles, hewed on two sides placed close together and set four (4) in the ground, standing fifteen (15) ft. above ground. In which are two (2) large Wagon gates, one (1) Railroad gate, and one small gate for entrance of Persons on foot.

There are twenty (20) Prison Cells, two (2) Hospital Rooms and (2) Rooms for Lockups, all of which are 19×19 ft. square, 8 ft. pitch, built of logs, and sealed with heavy boards on the inside, and all covered with one continuous roof…

There is 850 ft. Railroad Track running in the grounds, and connecting with The N. C. Railroad, also 870 ft. heavy plank stockade enclosing the quarry.”

Believing that the state penitentiary should be self-supporting and that manual labor was beneficial for the prisoners, state officials utilized the readily available and inexpensive inmate work force to construct the permanent buildings, walls, and fences. The process took almost fifteen years and over one million dollars, but in December 1884 the permanent buildings were completed and occupied. The old log cells, which were eventually used as storage bins for animal feed, survived for several more years, with some burning in 1887 and others removed over time.

Brown, Roy Melton. “The Growth of a State Program of Public Welfare.” Typescript in North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, ca. 1950.

Murray, Elizabeth Reid. Wake, Capital County of North Carolina. Raleigh, N. C.: Capital County Publishing Company, 1983.

North Carolina. Board of Public Charities. First Annual Report of the Board of Public Charities of North Carolina. February, 1870. Raleigh, N.C.: Printed by Order of the Board, 1870.

North Carolina. Penitentiary Commission. Report of the Penitentiary Commission, to the General Assembly of North Carolina, Made December 8th, 1870.Raleigh, N.C.: The Commission, 1870.

North Carolina. Penitentiary Commission. Rules and By-Laws for the Government & Discipline of the North Carolina Penitentiary During its Management by the Commission. Raleigh, N.C.: M. S. Littlefield, State Printer & Binder, 1869.

Olds, Fred A. “History of the State’s Prison.” The Prison News, vol. I, no. II (November 1926): 4-7.

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Ralph, Julian. “Charleston and the Carolinas.” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, No. 536, January 1895.

January 1849: Dorothea Dix Hospital

This Month in North Carolina History

Image of Dorothea Dix
In the 1830s and 1840s the United States was swept by what one historian has described as a ferment of humanitarian reform. Temperance, penal reform, women’s rights, and the antislavery movement, among others, sought to focus public attention on social problems and agitated for improvement. Important among these reform movements was the promotion of a new way of thinking about and treating mental illness. Traditionally, the mentally ill who could not be kept with their families became the responsibility of local government, and were often kept in common jails or poorhouses where they received no special care or medical treatment. Reformers sought to create places of refuge for the insane where they could be cared for and treated. By the late 1840s, all but two of the original thirteen states had created hospitals for the mentally ill, or had made provision to care for them in existing state hospitals. Only North Carolina and Delaware had done nothing.

Interest in the treatment of mental illness had been expressed in North Carolina in 1825 and 1838 but with no results. Several governors suggested care of the mentally ill to the General Assembly as a legislative priority, but no bill was passed. Then in the autumn of 1848 the champion of the cause of treatment of the mentally ill made North Carolina the focus of her efforts. Dorothea Lynde Dix was a New Englander born in 1802. Shocked by what she saw of the treatment of mentally ill women in Boston in 1841 she became a determined campaigner for reform and was instrumental in improving care for the mentally ill in state after state.

In North Carolina Dix followed her established pattern of gathering information about local conditions which she then incorporated into a “memorial” for the General Assembly. Warned that the Assembly, almost equally divided between Democrats and Whigs, would shy from any legislation which involved spending substantial amounts of money, Dix nevertheless won the support of several important Democrats led by Representative John W. Ellis who presented her memorial to the Assembly and maneuvered it through a select committee to the floor of the House of Commons. There, however, in spite of appeals to state pride and humanitarian feeling, the bill failed. Dix had been staying in the Mansion House Hotel in Raleigh during the legislative debate. There she went to the aid of a fellow guest, Mrs. James Dobbins, and nursed her through her final illness. Mrs. Dobbins’s husband was a leading Democrat in the House of Commons, and her dying request of him was to support Dix’s bill. James Dobbins returned to the House and made an impassioned speech calling for the reconsideration of the bill. The legislation passed the reconsideration vote and on the 29th day of January, 1849, passed its third and final reading and became law.

For the next seven years construction of the new hospital advanced slowly on a hill overlooking Raleigh, and it was not until 1856 that the facility was ready to admit its first patients. Dorothea Dix refused to allow the hospital to be named after herself, although she did permit the site on which it was built to be called Dix Hill in honor of her father. One hundred years after the first patient was admitted, the General Assembly voted to change the name of Dix Hill Asylum to Dorothea Dix Hospital.


Margaret Callendar McCulloch, “Founding the North Carolina Asylum for the Insane,” North Carolina Historical Review, vol.13:3 (July, 1936).

Dorothea Lynde Dix, Memorial soliciting a state hospital for the protection and cure of the insane: submitted to the General Assembly of North Carolina, November, 1848. Raleigh, N.C.: Seaton Gales, printer for the State, 1848.

Dorothy Clarke Wilson, Stranger and traveler: the story of Dorothea Dix, American reformer. Boston: Little Brown, 1975.

Richard A. Faust, The story of Dorothea Dix Hospital. Raleigh, N.C., 1977.

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“Lunatic Asylum. Rear View.” Inset illustration in “Bird’s eye view of the city of Raleigh, North Carolina 1872. Drawn and published by C. Drie.” Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

January 1958: The Lumbee Face the Klan

This Month in North Carolina History

On the night of January 13, 1958, crosses were burned on the front lawns of two Lumbee Indian families in Robeson County, N.C. Nobody had to ask who was responsible. The Ku Klux Klan had risen again in North Carolina, its ranks swelling after the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education calling for the desegregation of public schools. While the Court instructed schools to proceed with “all deliberate speed,” the Klan fought — often in the form of anonymous nighttime attacks — to slow the process of integration.

Robeson County in the 1950s had a uniquely tri-racial population. There were about 40,000 whites, 30,000 Native Americans, and 25,000 African Americans, each group with its own separate school system. Although the Klan had typically targeted African Americans, in early 1958 a group led by James W. “Catfish” Cole of South Carolina began harassing the Lumbees. One of the crosses burned on the night of January 13 was on the lawn of a Lumbee family that had recently moved into a predominantly white neighborhood, while the other was intended to intimidate a Lumbee woman who was said to have been dating a white man. Not content to leave it at this, the Klan planned a rally in Robeson County to be held just a few days later.

The rally was scheduled for the night of January 18, 1958, in a field near Maxton, N.C. The stated purpose of the gathering was, in the words of Catfish Cole, “to put the Indians in their place, to end race mixing.” The time and location of the rally was not kept secret, and word spread quickly among the local Lumbee population.

Reports vary about the number of people gathered on that cold night, but there were thought to have been around a hundred Klan members. They brought a large banner emblazoned with “KKK” and a portable generator, which powered a public address system and a single bare light bulb. When the meeting began, the arc of the dim light didn’t spread far enough for the Klansmen to see that they were surrounded by as many as a thousand Lumbees. Several young tribe members, some of whom were armed, closed on the Klan meeting and tried to take down the light bulb. The groups fought, and a shotgun blast shattered the light. In the sudden darkness, the Lumbees descended upon the field, yelling and firing guns into the air, scattering the overmatched Klansmen. Some left under police protection while others, including Catfish Cole, simply took to the woods.

News photographers already on the scene captured the celebration. Images of triumphant Lumbees holding up the abandoned KKK banner were published in newspapers and magazines throughout the world. Simeon Oxendine, a popular World War II veteran, appeared in Life Magazine, smiling and wrapped in the banner. The rout of the Klan galvanized the Lumbee community. The Ku Klux Klan was active in North Carolina into the 1960s, but they never held another public meeting in Robeson County.

Gerald M. Sider, Lumbee Indian Histories: Race, Ethnicity, and Indian Identity in the Southern United States. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Adolph L. Dial, The Lumbee. New York: Chelsea House, 1993.

January 1795: The University of North Carolina

This Month in North Carolina History

The University of North Carolina held its opening ceremony on January 15, 1795, and soon after became the first state university to enroll students.

Drawing of Old East by John Pettigrew

The winter of 1794-1795 had been rough, and by mid January the roads were a muddy mess. Governor Richard Dobbs Spaight made the difficult trip from Raleigh to Chapel Hill for the official opening and was met by members of the Board of Trustees and other government officials. When these dignitaries gathered to open the University on January 15th, 1795, it was a cold, windy, rainy day and the area looked more like a construction site than a college campus. Only the two-story East Building and the unpainted wooden house of the Presiding Professor had been completed. The rest of the campus was filled with tree stumps, recently dug clay, and piles of lumber to be used for additional buildings. The North Carolina Journal reported that “the buildings prepared for the reception and accommodation of students are in part finished, and that youth disposed to enter the University may come forward with the assurance of being received.”

With the campus ready, and the Governor and school officials gathered for the ceremony, all that was missing was students. Unfortunately, none showed up. It wasn’t until three weeks later that 18-year-old Hinton James arrived on campus from his home in Wilmington from which, as legend has it, he walked all the way to Chapel Hill. For two weeks James comprised the entire student body, but he soon had company. By the end of the first term, the new university had 41 students receiving instruction from two faculty members. When the first graduation was held in 1798, James was among seven students receiving degrees.

The North Carolina Constitution of 1776 authorized “one or more” state universities. The university was formally established by the North Carolina General Assembly in December 1789, and the first members of the Board of Trustees met later that month to begin raising funds and to select a site for the school. A small group of commissioners charged with finding a location viewed more than a dozen sites in Orange and Chatham counties before selecting a spot at what was then called New Hope Chapel Hill. The cornerstone for the first building, East Building (now “Old East”), was laid on October 12, 1793. The drawing of East Building by a UNC student in 1797, shown on this page, is the first known image of the University of North Carolina.

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Powell, William S. The First State University: A Pictorial History of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Snider, William D. Light on the Hill: A History of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

Battle, Kemp Plummer. History of the University of North Carolina. Raleigh: Edwards & Broughton, 1912.