Playmakers On the Road

Carolina Playmakers on the Road, ca. 1926

One of the little-known treasures in the North Carolina Collection is the impressive collection of scrapbooks documenting the early history of the Carolina Playmakers. Frederick Koch, the pioneering faculty member who brought the idea of a folk drama to the University of North Carolina, maintained scrapbooks filled with programs, letters, newspaper clippings, and photographs about the group. We found these two photographs in a volume from 1926. When the season ended in Chapel Hill, the Playmakers went on the road, travelling in their own bus. These photos were probably taken in western North Carolina.

Carolina Playmakers on the Road, ca. 1926

Lying-In-Road Deaths

While perusing the North Carolina Collection’s massive collection of newspaper clippings, we came upon an odd subject heading: “Lying-In-Road Deaths.” We went to the clippings and found two articles from 1986 reporting on a study by Dr. Lawrence Harris, a medical examiner in Greenville, who reported that between 1980 and 1984, 136 North Carolinians were killed while lying in the road. This bizarre phenomenon was a little easier to understand when we read that 85 percent of the victims were heavily intoxicated at the time of their death. Apparently in the majority of the cases the victim was walking home after a bout of heavy drinking, caught cold, and decided to lay down on the warm paved road.

Although not unique to North Carolina, we seem to have had far more lying-in-road deaths than any other state. Georgia was second on the list, but with only forty percent of North Carolina’s total. In an editorial under the headline “Liquored Up, Smashed Flat,” the Wilmington Star-News asked “Why us, why here?” Dr. Harris speculated that the high rate of what columnist Hal Crowther called “tragic human possums” in North Carolina had something to do with the prevalence of warm weather, alcohol abuse, and poverty.

There were no more clippings on the topic in our files after 1986, so we can’t report on whether or not things have improved since then. We think a follow-up study is in order.

North Carolina Lottery

With a new state lottery about to begin, we decided to have a look at Alan D. Watson’s article, “The Lottery in Early North Carolina” (North Carolina Historical Review, October 1992) to see how it worked a few centuries ago.

Watson pointed us to the early laws of North Carolina, which contained a provision for a lottery as early as 1760. The act allowed four Managers to organize a lottery to raise money to finish the construction of churches in Wilmington and Brunswick. It was noted that an earlier lottery had been tried but failed due to “the Scarcity of Proclamation Money in this part of the Province.” The new act allowed players in the lottery (referred to as “adventurers”) to buy tickets with only a written promise of payment. The price for the ticket was pretty steep for a somewhat meager payment, at least by PowerBall standards. For three pounds, you could purchase a ticket giving you a chance at a grand prize of four hundred pounds. In order to supplement the money raised by the lottery, the state would also allow the churches to use money obtained from the sale of slaves captured from a wrecked Spanish privateer.

Tar Heels on the Supreme Court

Justice James Iredell by Willis Whichard We’ve recently discussed a couple of North Carolinians — George Badger and John J. Parker — who failed to be confirmed by the Senate after being nominated for the Supreme Court. We should point out that not every Tar Heel proposed for the Court has met with this fate. It’s just been a little while since one of our fellow North Staters has been confirmed. James Iredell was the first Supreme Court Justice from North Carolina, serving on the court from 1790-1799. After the death of Iredell, New Hanover County native Alfred Moore was nominated by President John Adams and confirmed by the Senate. Moore sat on the Court until 1804.

Iredell is the subject of a recent biography by Willis P. Whichard (Justice James Iredell, published by Carolina Academic Press, 2000). There is still no full-length biography of Moore, but interested readers can look to a shorter sketch by Robert Mason, Namesake: Alfred Moore, 1755-1810, Soldier and Jurist, published by the Moore County Historical Association in 1989.

November 1979: Greensboro Killings

This Month in North Carolina History

image of Southern Struggle special edition
On November 3, 1979, members of the Communist Workers Party (known then as the Worker’s Viewpoint Organization) sponsored a rally at Morningside Homes, a housing project in Greensboro. Billed Klan Kills Five Headlineas a “Death to the Klan Rally,” the demonstrators gathered to speak out against what they saw as continued racial injustice in North Carolina.
A group of self-proclaimed Klansmen and Nazis attended the rally and fired upon the crowd, killing five people and wounding nine. Much of the violence was captured on film by reporters who were covering the event.

The men accused of firing on the crowd were apprehended and charged with murder. In November 1980 a jury found them not guilty on the grounds of self-defense. After extensive FBI inquiries into the killings, the case was reopened and, in 1983, nine people were indicted for conspiracy to violate the protesters’ civil rights. Again, the defendants were acquitted.

In addition to their outrage at the violence in their community, many people in Greensboro blamed the police department for failing to act promptly enough to prevent the killings. The frustration in the community continued to grow as the courts failed to convict anyone for the shootings.cover to "They Died Fighting..."

At the twentieth anniversary of the killings in 1999, it was clear that tensions in Greensboro still ran high and that there were many unresolved feelings and accusations surrounding the case. A Truth & Reconciliation Commission, modeled on similar projects in South Africa, was established in 2004. The Commission began holding public hearings on the 1979 killings, operating under the principle that the community cannot begin to heal until the events of the past are honestly and openly confronted. The final report of the Commission is due in 2006.

Elizabeth Wheaton, Codename GREENKIL: The 1979 Greensboro Killings. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

“The Third of November.” Southern Exposure, vol. 9 no. 3 (Fall 1981), pp. 55-67.

Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission

Greensboro Truth & Community Reconciliation Project (available via the Wayback Machine)

Image Source:
Southern Struggle (Special Edition), vol. 37 no. 6 (November-December 1979). Greensboro Massacre Materials, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“They Died Fighting Rather Than Live As Slaves.” Card produced by the Committee to Avenge the Greensboro-CWP 5, [1979]. Greensboro Massacre Materials, North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Greensboro Killings, 1979

The latest This Month in North Carolina History feature looks at the events of November 3, 1979, when members of the Communist Worker’s Party clashed with the Ku Klux Klan in Greensboro. The current work of groups like the Greensboro Truth & Reconciliation Commission reminds us that our history is more than dry details and dates relegated to textbooks, that in fact it is a vital part of the world we live in today.

George Badger

George E. Badger“While there may be some question as to who should be regarded as the greatest North Carolinian, certainly in a list of the five greatest, the name of George E. Badger should be included.”

We’ll bet he wasn’t on your list. That quote, and the portrait, are from volume seven of Samuel Ashe’s Biographical History of North Carolina, published in 1908. Badger (1795-1866), a native of New Bern, held a number of government posts, including Secretary of the Navy under William Henry Harrison. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1846.

We ran across Badger in researching North Carolinians who had been nominated to the Supreme Court. In 1853, President Millard Fillmore nominated Badger to fill a seat left vacant by the death of Justice John McKinley. The discussion over Badger’s nomination focused on his views on a strong federal government and slavery. Southern, pro-slavery Democrats ultimately turned against Badger, a Whig, and his nomination was defeated by a vote of 26-25. After leaving the Senate in 1855, and with the demise of the Whig party, Badger did not hold another prominent position in government.

Yardley on Franklin

Jonathan Yardley reviews Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin in yesterday’s Washington Post. Franklin, currently Professor Emeritus of History at Duke and one of the nation’s pre-eminent historians, has a long connection with North Carolina. His doctoral dissertation at Harvard was on free African Americans in antebellum North Carolina and was later published by the UNC Press in 1943 as The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860. Franklin has taught at a number of colleges and universities including North Carolina Central.

Jonathan Yardley is a Tar Heel himself, a 1961 graduate of the University of North Carolina, and former editor of the student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel.

John J. Parker

The recent political skirmishes over Supreme Court nominees bring to mind the case of John Johnston Parker, which shows, if anything, that getting onto the nation’s highest court has never been an easy task.

Parker (1885-1958) was a native of Monroe, N.C. He was a successful lawyer and an active member of the Republican party, which put him firmly in the minority in the then staunchly Democratic state. Parker worked for the U.S. Attorney General’s office and served as a judge on the Fourth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals before being nominated in 1930 by President Herbert Hoover to the Supreme Court.

Although widely considered an able jurist, Parker quickly drew the ire of organized labor and the NAACP. Labor interests opposed his nomination due to a decision he’d made on the appeals court that limited union organizing, while the NAACP pointed to comments he’d made in a gubernatorial campaign a decade earlier that were perceived to be racist. It was a close fight, and one that did not fall strictly along party lines. When the vote came before the Senate, Parker’s nomination was defeated by a vote of 41-39.