May 1888: William Henry Belk Opens First Store in Monroe, N.C.

This Month in North Carolina History

Postcard of Main Street, Monroe, NC, includes Belk store in foreground

In the late 19th century, many of the large retailers we know today were establishing their first stores and offering new goods and services to middle class consumers. Macy’s doors opened in New York City in 1858; Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia opened in 1861; and Sears and Roebuck founded their business in Chicago in 1886.

After the end of the Civil War, country and general stores became popular in the South, and in 1874, William Henry Belk began working in a dry goods store in Monroe, NC. Henry Belk, as he was called, was only twelve years old when he started. He worked as a store clerk for more than a decade, and the skills he learned and the money he saved allowed him to open his own store.

During the Post-Reconstruction period, the Southern farm economy was in shambles–especially the credit system— because farmers received such low prices for their crops. Belk saw an opportunity to create a new type of store that was not based on the credit model of the Southern general store. On May 28, 1888, he opened the New York Racket on the corner of Main and Morgan in Monroe’s business district. The Racket’s business model was cash only, accept no credit, offer low prices, and provide excellent customer service. Belk was able to keep prices low because the store was not carrying the weight of the customer’s credit. As a result, he could afford to pay producers in full, which in turn lowered his cost. At the end of his first year of business, Belk’s Monroe store had turned a profit of $3,000. As the store became busier and more successful, Belk began looking for a partner and found a likely candidate in his brother, John, who left his medical practice in 1891 to join Henry in running the Monroe store. They changed the name of the store from New York Racket to W.H. Belk and Bro. They advertised aggressively in newspapers, heralding their low prices and scheduling sales when they knew they could draw a large crowd, for instance, during town parades and large celebrations.

The Belk brothers enjoyed success in their retail ventures and continued to make decisions that encouraged growth. For example, they would invest in textile mills in order to sell the cloth in their stores for less than what competitors were charging. However, in 1894, economic setbacks for the Belks became the subject of town gossip in Monroe. Henry was so insulted that he considered moving his business to Texas, but his mother convinced him to stay in North Carolina. Charlotte seemed to be the best option to open a new store–at the time, Charlotte was North Carolina’s second largest city, a commercial center for textile production in the state, and just a short train ride from Monroe. Belk opened his Charlotte store on East Trade Street in September of 1895. His brother John remained in close touch as the manager of the Monroe store.

Postcard of East Trade Street, Charlotte, NC with Belk store in center of image

The Belk stores quickly expanded throughout the southeastern United States, and often formed strong partnerships with store managers, many of whom worked their way up from being clerks. This process resulted in the opening of Belk stores with names like Belk-Park, Belk-Hudson, and Belk-Leggett. The Belk leadership was flexible and innovative in that bulk purchasing was organized through the Belk headquarters so as to afford lower prices, but indvidual stores maintained independence to mangage their store’s promotions and services. By the mid-twentieth century, Belk stores had become a fixture of the downtown landscape in towns all over North Carolina and the Southeast.

Bridget Madden
May 2010

Henderson, Belk. Early Belk Partners: Ordinary People Who Did the Extraordinary. Cramerton, NC: The Belk Press, 1994.

Blythe, LeGette. William Henry Belk: Merchant of the South. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1958.

Covington, Howard E., Jr. The Company and the Family That Built It. Belk, Inc., Charlotte, NC: 2002.

Image Sources
“Main Street, looking North, Monroe, N.C.” Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

“East Trade Street, Charlotte, N.C.” in Durwood Barbour Collection of North Carolina Postcards (P077), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

April 1960: Creation of the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee

Demonstration at Brady's Restaurant, Chapel Hill, February 11, 1964
Demonstration at Brady’s Restaurant, Chapel Hill, February 11, 1964

This Month in North Carolina History

In February 1960, when four African American students from what was then the Agricultural and Technical College of North Carolina defied the law and custom of the racially segregated South by sitting down to be served at the lunch counter of the Woolworth store on Elm Street in Greensboro, they sparked a protest movement that rapidly spread from North Carolina through the rest of the South and the United States as a whole. The “sit-in” movement affected every part of American society, but it particularly galvanized black students. Realizing the potential in this outpouring of youthful energy, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, under its executive director, Ella Baker, convened a meeting of local and regional student activists in Raleigh, North Carolina, at Shaw University, Baker’s alma mater, April 15 through 17, 1960. Representatives from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congress of Racial Equality, among others, lobbied the assembled students to align themselves with one of the established civil rights organizations. From the very beginning, however, there was a strong sentiment in the meeting for the creation of a grassroots coalition run by students themselves. Many felt that the mainline movements were not radical enough and that the student led sit-ins had broken new ground in the fight against segregation. This was echoed in strong speeches by James Lawson and Martin Luther King, Jr., criticizing the more conservative elements in the movement. In the end, the meeting voted to create a separate entity, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to pursue a new vision of civil rights protest.

SNCC (pronounced “snick”), while it was rooted in African American civil rights protest, shared many of the goals and aspirations of the radical culture of the 1960s. SNCC attempted to create democratic decision making, emphasizing consensus building from the ground up. Both men and women participated in the organization in its early years, and many white students joined. In many ways SNCC became the cutting edge of a new civil rights militancy. SNCC provided many of the “Freedom Riders” on the integrated bus trips through the South sponsored by the Congress on Racial Equality in 1961. SNCC volunteers also participated enthusiastically in voter registration drives throughout the South. In all of these activities SNCC volunteers dealt with verbal abuse, physical violence, and the threat of death. In the mid-1960s SNCC had the largest staff of any civil rights organization in the South and had become a force to be reckoned with.

Increasingly in the late 1960s SNCC moved in the direction of Black Power, eventually rejecting its nonviolent roots and its racial inclusiveness before it faded from the scene in the 1970s. Its impact on the civil rights movement, however, was important and lasting. SNCC was a key element in shifting the movement away from a legalistic vision of reform to a direct, if nonviolent, confrontation with the segregated system. It provided what some have called the “shock troops” of this direct confrontation in some of the most difficult and dangerous times of the civil rights struggle. Former president Jimmy Carter is supposed to have said that if you wanted to scare the white people of the South you only needed one word – SNCC.

Carson, Clayborne. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, c.1995.

Lewis, Andrew B. The Shadows of Youth: the Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.

Image Source:
“Demonstration at Brady’s Restaurant, Chapel Hill, February 11, 1964,” in North Carolina County Collection (P0001), North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

March 1781: Battle of Guilford Courthouse

This Month in North Carolina History

Map of Battle of Guilford Courthouse
In a clearing in the woods in Guilford County, North Carolina, in 1781, British soldiers led by General Charles, the Lord Cornwallis, clashed with Whig troops led by General Nathanael Greene in a battle that changed the course of the American Revolution in the southern colonies and contributed to the ultimate defeat of the British at Yorktown, Virginia.

In 1780 the British, stalemated in their attempt to subdue the northern and middle colonies, turned their attention to the south. Relying on their command of the sea, they quickly gained control of the coastal areas of Georgia and North Carolina. Whig forces responded by an attack on the British advance base at Camden, South Carolina, but were defeated and scattered. George Washington, disturbed by the deteriorating military situation in the south, entrusted command of Whig forces there to General Nathanael Greene, his quartermaster general. Faced immediately with a severe supply problem, Greene divided his army into several independent units which could supply themselves more easily. They were also rallying points for Whig militia.

From his base in Camden Cornwallis struck at Greene’s independent units, hoping to destroy them or drive them from the Carolina back country. British troops and loyalist militia were themselves defeated, however, at the battle of King’s Mountain in October, 1780, and the British Legion, sent to find and destroy a detachment of troops led by General Daniel Morgan, came to disaster at the battle of Cowpens in January, 1781.

Spurred on by the defeat at Cowpens and the capture or more than six hundred British soldiers, roughly a quarter of his troops, Cornwallis led his whole army into North Carolina in pursuit of Morgan and his prisoners. Cornwallis failed to take into account, however, the extreme difficulty of moving an army in the backcountry in winter, and Morgan stayed well ahead of him. On January 25th, at Ramsour’s Mill, North Carolina, Cornwallis burned his wagon train with all his supplies in an attempt to speed up his men.

Watching Cornwallis push on recklessly into North Carolina, Nathanael Greene saw a great opportunity to catch the British far from their base. He summoned the scattered units of his command to unite with Morgan, at the same time maintaining the withdrawal northward. In the end Greene withdrew all the way into Virginia, exhausting his pursuers. By early March 1781 Greene had pulled together more than four thousand of his men including 1500 troops of the continental line and was ready to offer battle. Greene prepared for Cornwallis at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, organizing his forces in three lines. The first two comprised militia troops who were expected to fire only a couple of rounds before retiring. Greene’s continental regulars filled the third line. On the 15th of March, 1781, Cornwallis arrived at Guilford Courthouse. Although he was outnumbered two to one, Cornwallis attacked head on, pushing aside the militia lines and ultimately forcing the retreat of the third line as well. Left in possession of the field, Cornwallis claimed victory. The “victory,” however, had cost him more than 25 percent of his army, which was no longer fit to keep the field. Cornwallis began a slow and exhausting march to Wilmington, North Carolina, where he could be resupplied by the British navy. Greene, on the other hand turned south into South Carolina and Georgia where he began attacking the troops left behind when his opponent marched north.

Greene’s decision to move south proved a wise one as he gradually drove the inland British garrisons back to the coast. Cornwallis on the other hand elected to move north into Virginia. There, as in North Carolina, his regulars were the masters of the ground on which they stood, but their supply lines were constantly disrupted by Whig regulars and militia. Cornwallis again had to retreat to the sea at Yorktown and the protection of the navy. There he found that the navy had been driven off by the French fleet, and he was soon besieged and forced to surrender by the combined armies of Washington and Rochambeau.

Babits, Lawrence E. and Joshua B. Howard. Long, Obstinate, and Bloody: the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Davis, Burke. The Cowpens-Guilford Courthouse Campaign. Raleigh, NC: Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.


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.

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].

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-.

November 1879: Colored Industrial Association Fair

This Month in North Carolina History

On November 18, 1879, the North Carolina Colored Industrial Association Fair opened in Raleigh at the site of what had been a military hospital. Thousands of African Americans flocked to the state capital to participate for the first time in an event that would display to all the extent to which they had established themselves in the world of free people. Held about a mile outside Raleigh, the fair featured a speech by Governor Thomas J. Jarvis, who was conveyed to the fairground in a parade of decorated carriages and African American military units. The four main buildings at the fair were devoted to handicrafts, agriculture, machinery, and art. Displays of tobacco, wine, corn, hams, and pumpkins vied with exhibits of wagons, plows, harnesses and even coffins. Many of the handicrafts, especially the spreads and baby hoods, would, in one reporter’s opinion, “hold their own in any Northern fair I have ever attended.” Amusements such as a Punch and Judy show and an “electric machine” were much admired and, in the case of the latter, a bit feared. Horse races and a walking race provided entertainment.

The fair was the brainchild of Charles Norfleet Hunter. Born into slavery in Raleigh in the late 1850s, Hunter became a journalist and educator after the Civil War and was a voice of the African American community in North Carolina. He believed that African Americans in North Carolina and throughout the South had made great progress since emancipation and had much in which to take pride. He also believed that the progress of the race depended and would continue to depend on the goodwill and kindness of whites. The Colored Industrial Association Fair embodied these beliefs. It was a showcase of African American achievement, but Hunter emphasized to reporters the importance of the support of prominent white people in bringing the fair about. In the end, however, it was race pride that made the fair an important part of North Carolina’s Black community for nearly fifty years.

Logan, Frenise A. “The Colored Industrial Association of North Carolina and its Fair of 1886,” North Carolina Historical Review, XXXIV:1 (January 1957) : 58-67.

Haley, John H. Charles N. Hunter and Race Relations in North Carolina. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, December 6, 1879.

October 1853: The North Carolina State Fair

This Month in North Carolina History

State Fair button from Lew Powell Collection in NC Collection Gallery

October in North Carolina is the season for the State Fair. Crowds from around the state are drawn to an exciting combination of agricultural exhibits and midway attractions. A visit to the pig house, followed by a ride on the “Ring of Fire,” topped with fried chicken and funnel cake makes for a happy visit, especially if your digestion is robust. Popular entertainers, baby ducks, fireworks displays, pony rides, the world’s biggest frog, and the best peach preserves in North Carolina (blue ribbon) are all part of the mix.

The Fair itself grew out of the agricultural reform movement of the mid-nineteenth century. The North Carolina State Agricultural Society, organized in 1852, encouraged the adoption of good farming practices and agricultural education. In 1853 the Society organized the first State Fair to promote scientific farming and recognize the efforts of individual farmers. The Fair, a popular success in the 1850s, was interrupted by the Civil War but began again in 1869. The state of North Carolina took over the Fair from a financially strapped Agricultural Society in 1930, and for a few years the Fair was run by a circus promoter. In 1937, however, it was made a division of the Department of Agriculture where it has remained ever since.

The exhibition of prize livestock and crafts was the main emphasis of the Fair in its early days, but there was always an element of entertainment. Political speeches were an important part of the Fair if it were an election year. Horse racing was a perennial favorite activity almost from the beginning up through the early twentieth century. Athletics had a part in the Fair from early days. In the latter nineteenth century first baseball and then football games were played at the Fair. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, North Carolina State University played annual games on Thursday of Fair week, often against either the University of North Carolina or Wake Forest University. Individual entertainment events began early—a favorite was a balloon ascent followed by a parachute jump. In the 1870s carnival events and “freak” shows began appearing, and by 1895 a modern midway of rides and shows was an annual feature.

The State Fair was a popular occasion from its origin and has become a fixture of the social life of the state. The entertainment aspect of the Fair has grown over the years, but the heart of the event remains the crafts and the animals. People crowd in to see the prize winning pies and preserves, the beautiful horses and cattle, the blue ribbon pigs and mules, and unusual breeds such as silkies, a type of chicken covered all over with fine feathers. A young fan of the Fair, on seeing them for the first time, pronounced them to be “chickens with pants on.” All of this and more is on display at the North Carolina State Fair.

McLaurin, Melton A. The North Carolina State Fair: The First 150 Years. Raleigh: Office of Archives and History and the North Carolina State Fair Division, c2003.

Image Source:
“Souvenir of Fair, Raleigh, North Carolina,” button from the Lew Powell Memorabilia Collection, North Carolina Collection Gallery, Wilson Special Collections Library.

September 1862: The Birth of O. Henry

This Month in North Carolina History

Porter, William Sydney (O. Henry) in the Portrait Collection, #P002, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina, is the final resting place for Thomas Wolfe, Asheville native and North Carolina’s most famous author. It is perhaps less well known that Riverside also contains the grave of William Sydney Porter who, under the pen name O. Henry, had gained a national and even an international reputation as a writer at the turn of the twentieth century.

Porter was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, on September 11, 1862. He was educated by his aunt, Evelina Porter, until he was fifteen, when he left school to go to work in the drugstore of his uncle. He became a licensed pharmacist at nineteen. In 1882 Porter left Greensboro for Texas hoping to improve his health. For almost a decade he worked at a number of jobs, including ranch hand, cook, draftsman, and, ultimately, bank teller. At the same time he began to write short pieces for local newspapers and develop his talent as a cartoonist. In 1895 Porter left his position at the First National Bank of Austin to become a columnist and reporter for the Houston Daily Post. He married Athol Estes in 1887. The couple had a son, who died in infancy, and a daughter, Margaret Worth Porter.

Porter’s life changed dramatically in 1896 when he was indicted for fraud in connection with his work with the bank in Austin. Porter protested his innocence, but, to avoid standing trial, he fled to Central America. Learning that his wife was suffering from an incurable disease, Porter returned to Austin in 1897. After his wife’s death, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years in the Ohio Penitentiary. After serving a little over three years he was released for good behavior in 1901. Working as a druggist in the prison hospital gave Porter the time to continue his writing. His first short story was published in 1898 and others followed. To conceal his identity and imprisonment from his publishers, Porter wrote under several pseudonyms, but the one on which he finally settled was O. Henry. On his release from prison Porter moved with his daughter to New York City, where for the remaining eight years of his life he wrote prodigiously, producing more than 380 short stories, sometimes at the rate of one a week.

O. Henry became one of America’s most popular writers, with an international following as well. Whether his theme was serious or comic, his writing style was casual, light, and playful. He created hundreds of characters from the people he found around him in the west or in New York. Clerks, waitresses, ranch hands, policemen, confidence men – The Four Million, as he entitled one of his collections of stories – were his inspiration. O. Henry was most famous for his surprise endings. In “The Cop and the Anthem” a New York hobo, Soapy, tries repeatedly to get himself arrested so he can spend the cold winter months in the relative warmth of the city jail on Riker’s Island. Discouraged because all of his efforts have failed spectacularly and comically, Soapy sits on a bench and listens to a beautiful anthem being sung in a nearby church. Under the influence of the music Soapy pledges to become a new person and rebuild his life. At that moment a patrolman arrests him for loitering and marches him off to The Island.

Porter’s health began to fail in 1908 under the impact of diabetes and heavy drinking. He traveled to Asheville in an attempt to recuperate and believed he had regained much of his strength while he was there. He returned to New York to resume work, but his health continued to deteriorate. He died on June 5, 1910.


O’Connor, Richard. O. Henry: the legendary life of William S. Porter. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970.

Edgar E. Macdonald, “Porter, William Sydney.” In Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, vol. 5. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Image Source:

Porter, William Sydney (O. Henry) in the Portrait Collection, #P002, North Carolina Collection Photographic Archives, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

August 1831: North Carolina and Nat Turner

This Month in North Carolina History


Beginning in the early hours of Sunday, 21 August 1831, a slave named Nat Turner led about sixty followers in a series of attacks on white families in Southampton County, Virginia. By the time local militia had suppressed the insurrection some 48 hours later more than fifty people had been killed.

The shock waves from Turner’s attack were felt all over the South. Counties in North Carolina were just over the state line from Southampton, and word of the assault spread rapidly along the border. Rumors grew by leaps and bounds as they traveled.

As refugees from Virginia poured into Murfreesboro, North Carolina, a band of rebellious slaves was reported to be within six miles of the town. The militia was called out in Hertford, Halifax, and Northampton Counties. North Carolina’s Governor Montford Stokes was bombarded by reports of violence and requests for weapons. In Edgecombe, Gates, and Chowan Counties white people armed themselves and closely monitored the behavior of their slaves.

As news of Turner’s insurrection spread, reaction began to crop up in areas relatively far removed from the North Carolina-Virginia line. In Duplin, Sampson, and New Hanover Counties, more than a hundred miles from the scene of Turner’s attack, a situation near panic ensued. Frightened by rumors, most of the citizens of the area convinced themselves that there was a general plot among their slaves to rise up and massacre the white population.

Confessions extorted from slaves under torture became the basis for arresting even more slaves who were similarly tortured until they confessed. Wild stories were everywhere. At one point, the town of Clinton in Sampson County was reported burned to the ground and dozens of white families killed. Kenansville in Duplin County braced for an attack by an army of more than 1500 slave insurrectionists. Wilmington in New Hanover County was thrown into a panic by the discharge of a cannon north of the city, and citizens passed a night of near hysterical fear.

Investigation the next day revealed that the gun had been fired by a carousing group of white men. Eventually news of the events in Virginia reached even the far western counties of North Carolina. In Rutherford County, slaves who worked local gold mines were feared to be plotting an uprising.

None of the many rumors of murderous slave insurrections which circulated in North Carolina in August and September of 1831 proved to be true. Terror and death were very real, however, for the state’s African American population. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of slaves or free blacks were arrested, and many were tortured and killed in areas where white peoples’ fear turned into panic and then into violence. Black North Carolinians paid a heavy price for the revolt of Nat Turner.


Charles Edward Morris, “Panic and Reprisal: Reaction in North Carolina to the Nat Turner Insurrection, 1831,” The North Carolina Historical Review, January 1985 (Volume 62, no. 1).

Robert N. Elliott, “The Nat Turner Insurrection as reported in the North Carolina Press,” The North Carolina Historical Review, January 1961 (Volume 38, no. 1).

Image Source:

Nat Turner. The confessions of Nat Turner…. Baltimore : T.R Gray, 1831 ([Baltimore] : Lucas & Deaver).