On this day in 1908: Greensboro opens a week of centennial festivities, including a re-enactment of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse, a parade of Confederate veterans and the dedication of the 20,000-seat Hippodrome Auditorium. (The corrugated iron building, purchased from the Jamestown Exposition of 1907, is billed as second only to Madison Square Garden in seating capacity.)
The Charlotte Observer reports favorably on “the generosity shown by the Greensboro white people to the negroes in their midst. At the fair the darky has been given a show and in the auditorium a section. This broad-minded way of dealing with the negro caused favorable comment by visitors.”
On this day in 1954: Junius Scales, head of the Communist Party in the Carolinas, is arrested by the FBI and charged under the 1940 Smith Act with membership in an organization advocating violent overthrow of the government. Scales, a longtime resident of Chapel Hill, is a scion of a prominent Greensboro family — both his father and grandfather were state senators.
Scales will be convicted at his trial in Greensboro and sentenced to six years in prison. In 1961, after an unsuccessful appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Scales (who resigned from the Communist Party in 1957, soon after the Soviet invasion of Hungary) begins serving his sentence at the federal penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pa. On Christmas Eve 1962 President John Kennedy frees Scales, the only American to spend time in prison for being a Communist, by commuting his sentence to parole on his own recognizance.
“I’m back in New York after a six months’ stay in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. I was all played out — nerves, etc. I didn’t pick up down there as well as I should have done. There was too much scenery and fresh air. What I need is a steam-heated flat with no ventilation or exercise.”
— From a letter from William Sydney Porter to a friend in Chicago (April 15, 1910)
Returning to New York proved no cure for the Greensboro-born writer known as O. Henry. Less than two months later, at age 47, Porter was dead from cirrhosis of the liver, complications of diabetes and an enlarged heart. After funeral services in New York City, he was buried in Riverside Cemetery in Asheville.
“I was surprised to find that cinema had not deceived me. An old denim factory really is a funhouse of red exit signs and retractable doors that yank open with the pull of the cord. Terminator 2 really nailed the vats and chains, the smoke, chemicals, and decay. They got the catwalks and metal grates, and most of all the lengthening shadows.”
— From “White Oak Denim, Greensboro” a memoir-cum-social history from Aaron Lake Smith, who spent seven months as a security guard at the country’s oldest continuously-working denim mill (N + 1 magazine, May 27, 2011)
Thanks to the inexplicable vagaries of fashion and a new push to “Buy American,” the Cone plant has made at least a temporary comeback since Smith’s tenure.
“What’s that out in the field over there? Donna and Paul Hirsch encountered the strange construction in the photo on a visit to family in Greensboro, N.C. Mrs. Hirsch first wondered if the device might be agricultural, given the numerous nearby farms. She also thought it might have a purpose on the other end of the technology spectrum: Perhaps it was related to the many new-economy businesses in the Greensboro area. Go on, have a look from above.
“As it happens, there are quite a few of these doodads scattered across the landscape. You may have seen one yourself, on a road trip through the middle of nowhere, perhaps — or in a well-developed area like Greensboro. But what is it?”
— From “What’s That Thing? Pastoral Doodad Edition” on Slate (June 7)
A work as ambitious as John Sutherland’s just-published “Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives” is bound to contain errors, but of course the one that caught my eye was the mislocated North Caroliniana:
“[William Sydney Porter] died, aged only 48, of alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver, in North Carolina where he had gone to recover his health.”
Actually, the Greensboro-born Porter — known to generations of readers as O. Henry — died in New York City (on June 5, 1910, which made him 47, not 48). He was buried in Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, near his wife’s hometown of Weaverville.
“In Greensboro, North Carolina, Nixon told his audience that he had a unique understanding of their difficult problem, meaning the race issue, because of the three years he had spent in their midst at Duke University Law School. He talked little about civil rights but spoke extensively about the Democrats’ threats to use federal authority to enforce civil rights. Then he connected that to state education: ‘But let us never forget that… one of the essences of freedom in this county is local and state control of the educational system….’
“That was enough to satisfy any white Southerner in 1960 that Nixon and the Republicans would keep their hands off segregation.”
— From “The First Modern Campaign: Kennedy, Nixon and the election of 1960” by Gary Donaldson (2007)
“…I was lecturing in North Carolina when your letter arrived — which reminds me that some of the Negro leaders in Greensboro… are so timid that they are not accepting as fast the new responsibilities of freedom as they might, which of course they rationalize as the sole fault of white people. Fortunately, this is not true of all…. ”
— From a letter to a reader by Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man,” on March 31, 1953. Quoted in “Letters from Black America” by Pamela Newkirk (2009)
“Communities in Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia watched as huge crowds of local blacks gathered at railroad stations to await transportation to the Mississippi Delta, the Louisiana rice or sugar fields, or the turpentine camps of the piney woods.
” ‘At the depot an interesting spectacle presented itself in the huge mass of luggage piled on the platform,’ a New Bern, North Carolina, newspaper reported in 1889. ‘Old meat boxes, various other boxes, barrels, trunks of all shapes and sizes, were piled 10 feet high. The train could not accommodate all who wanted to go.’
” ‘The negro exodus now amounts to a stampede,’ David Schenck of Greensboro wrote in his diary in 1890. ‘Nineteen passenger coaches filled to the doors, nine cars filled with baggage, 1,400 negroes… on their way to Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.’ ”
— From “The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction” by Edward L. Ayers (2007)
Ayers writes that states of the Upper South such as North Carolina suffered the greatest relative loss of blacks in search of work. Despite the awestruck accounts from New Bern and Greensboro, most headed north rather than west.
“Most frustrating… is that everyone who comes to this museum has to be taken on a guided tour; no one can explore the galleries, exhibits and artifacts at their own pace. While the docents are usually well trained and work from thorough scripts, visitors get only one interpretive angle ….
“Why is the museum insisting on this guided tour, unlike most other major civil rights museums?… Part of the answer… is apparent in the core exhibit, where there is a curious absence of explanatory panels in most display cases and virtually no object labels whatsoever…. ”
— From a mostly favorable review of the International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro by David A. Zonderman, N.C. State history professor, in the North Carolina Historical Review (July 2011)