Category Archives: Edgecombe County

New book about Tarboro, worth a close look

Two weeks ago Brian Lampkin’s book came out. The Tarboro Three: Rape, Race, and Secrecy.

No time yet to read it, but MidLaw has given it a heavy skim. The publisher’s blurb sets it in line with Blood Done Sign My Name, Oxford’s “raw mix of memoir and history.” And no story of race, sex, and the legal system set in a small Southern town can be without its relationship to To Kill a Mockingbird.

A preliminary skim suggests that The Tarboro Three looks well written, fair minded, and after bigger game than simply recounting news stories or skewering villains. Lampkin, who wrote for the Daily Southerner for a time and is now in Greensboro, recaptures much of what set Tarboro apart from similar small places — its history, its legends, the people, and its racial culture — and displays them in the light of an awful event.

Looks like he saw complexity and decency as well as injustice and drama. His book is worth a close look.

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From Tarboro to the Transvaal in search of treasure

Bridgers School in Tarboro was named for the sisters Mary Horne Bridgers and Lola Bridgers, who made their careers teaching in what was known as Central School until it was renamed Bridgers School in 1943. They were legendary teachers.

Miss Mary and Miss Loulie had an errant brother, an adventurer named Marcus.

He lit out from Tarboro for Africa in 1897, searching for gold in the Transvaal.

In 1903, Marcus left South Africa and traveled up Africa’s east coast to Egypt. Along the way, he sent postcards home to Mary and Lola.

Those postcards and artifacts he brought back from Africa are now on display at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

Postcards from Africa to Tarboro a hundred years ago. Something to see. Exhibit runs until December.

Tarboro produces best running back in NFL, undefeated high school football champions — place is sans pareil

The Washington Post brands Tarboro’s Todd Gurley “the ideal modern NFL running back.” Says he “may be the most dynamic offensive weapon in football.” 

The Raleigh News and Observer credits Tarboro high school as a “football dynasty” as it rolls up another state championship and a second, consecutive undefeated season.

Both papers affirm Tarboro coach Jeff Craddock and a unique culture in Tarboro. 

Nothing said about what’s in the water. MidLaw has been saying. Everybody there drinks it. Do they put it in the beer at Tarboro Brewing Company?

The new thing in Conetoe – what is it about that place?

Even as MidLaw was marveling about the extraordinary human talent cultivated there in the past, Conetoe was garnering fresh national approbation and accolades for new achievements. There’s a movie about it. They won an Emmy.

Conetoe.

What is it about Conetoe?

 

Conetoe and the limits of human talent

Tyler Cowen cites an analysis questioning whether Kareem, Russell, Jordan, Curry or Magic is the most valuable player of all time. Cowen frames the issue in terms of “The Limits of Human Talent.” Noteworthy to me: all but Russell have key North Carolina connections.

Closer: a trusted source tells me that Magic Johnson’s mother’s family started out in Conetoe, before moving to Tarboro. Just as Theolonius Monk’s mother’s family also started in Conetoe before moving to Rocky Mount. 

Conetoe.

Two of the most notable figures of our time – testing the limits of human talent – link back to Conetoe.

More Edgecombe-connected talent going big time: Ben Fountain’s new book getting global attention/approval:

This has been worked out here before. Ben Fountain is not actually from Edgecombe County but his people are. Some of them back to the 18th Century. His father was from the Edgecombe side of Rocky Mount; his grandfather from Leggett. (Compare him to Magic Johnson in this respect.)

He’s also said to be the best writer from Texas since Larry McMurty and Cormac Mcarthy; author of the 8th best novel of the 21st Century; and a “genius.” (Joe Smith says, “I don’t know about ‘8th best in the century”, but it is a good book.”)

So it is well for Edgecombe to claim him.

Last week, the New York Times published a favorable review of his latest book. The Times’ review is written by Amanda Carpenter, a former staff member for Senators Jim DeMint and Ted Cruz. And, so did the Washington Post in a review by Robert Kaiser.

The book is Beautiful Country Burn Again.

Two weeks ago, Bill Moyers said, “this is the boldest, bravest and most bracing book about politics that I have read this year,” and published a long interview in which Fountain talks briefly about his Edgecombe County forbears, before plunging forward to today and “the sad, psychotic, and vengeful in the national life producing a strange mutation, a creature comprised of degenerate political logic.”

Carpenter credits Fountain with saying that “the rich and powerful peddle a mirage of the American dream for everyone else to lust after rather than doing anything to help them achieve it.”

Fountain says, “our most successful politicians have all become fantasy novelists.” Carpenter says, “no wonder Fountain is sending such a flare shot. They’re invading his turf.”

Tarboro, Edgecombe: sources of talent & positive models at Guilford College and in wider world

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was at Guilford College yesterday. The Guilford College Bryan Series brought him to town.

Guilford’s great alumnus, M.L. Carr, came back from Boston to join Abdul-Jabbar and talk with him about the legendary rivalry between Abdul-Jabbar’s Los Angeles Lakers and Carr’s Boston Celtics, and also about the many social values and achievements of the two. Great models for Guilford students.

In conversations and in a public presentation Abdul-Jabbar lifted up Tarboro several times.

Abdul-Jabbar’s mother was from Wadesboro. Carr himself is from Wallace. At different points, Abdul-Jabbar remarked with interest on how many players with North Carolina connections were connected with the Los Angeles Lakers while he played there. 

He consistently mentioned Tarboro prominently among those connections. Magic Johnson’s mother came from Tarboro and Johnson still has family there. Apparently, Magic made Tarboro well-known to Abdul-Jabbar and among their Lakers teammates.

Abdul-Jabbar’s achievements and his commitment to social justice are quite amazing and a bit inspiring. Carr is right there with him (although Carr may not have authored quite as many books as Abdul-Jabbar has). The two of them, together with Magic Johnson, bring highly principled, positively oriented, upbeat role models to Guilford students.

How great to hear Abdul-Jabbar lifting up Tarboro in his conversations and presentations at Guilford College and at the Coliseum.

This thing of remarkable people coming out of Tarboro and Edgecombe is nothing new. It’s where they come from.

Edgecombe County! – The view from 1891

Not long ago, MidLaw called attention to Joyner Library’s Digital Collections at East Carolina University. They collect and publish papers, photographs, maps, and other materials centered on northeastern North Carolina. There’s a trove of Tarboro and Edgecombe County materials there.

Partly in response to MidLaw’s post, a resident of Greensboro and descendant of Edgecombe’s Bridgers and Battle families came forward with a “motherlode” (her word, and she’s right) of documents. They include President Andrew Johnson’s hand-executed presidential pardon of Tarboro’s John L. Bridgers,  who commanded Fort Macon and earlier had commanded the Edgecombe Guards at the Battle of Bethel when Edgecombe’s Henry Wyatt was killed, becoming the first Confederate soldier killed in the Civil War.

Hands down, MidLaw’s favorite document from the motherlode is a 40-page pamphlet published in 1891, entitled Edgecombe County! North Carolina. Her People and Resources. The Foremost Agricultural Section of the State

It’s a unique and vivid picture of Edgecombe County in 1890 – in words and graphic sketches. And it evidences both how Edgecombe understood its past (“Cotton is no longer King!”) and also its robustly optimistic vision for the future (“The county offers every opportunity … and all that is needed is some men among us who have not cotton in their eyes, first, last and all the time.”)

It is spoken in the voice of an unabashed booster, seeking to attract people and investment to the County at the moment when Edgecombe was just beginning a major new emphasis on tobacco.

Tarboro is destined to be a great center for the sale and manufacture of tobacco. … How many of us thought, a little more than a year ago, what an easy mastery the bright leaf would have over King cotton?

At the time the pamphlet was published, the population of the County was 26,179. Only 7,956 of those were white. The pamphlet is breathtakingly racist and incidentally sexist as well:

It is well known that negro labor is unsuited to the cultivation of tobacco. It is a crop for white labor and small farms.

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What we want is increased white population to cultivate the tobacco crops in Edgecombe. 

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We cannot speak of the society of our section without bringing conspicuously into view our women … . They are the most refined and intelligent, and possess all the attributes of body and mind that are essential for them to adorn the highest society of the land. 

So, if African Americans and women are pushed to the side, then the pamphlet actually speaks for only about 4,000 people (about half the white people) in a county of 26,000.

But the claims it makes for Tarboro and Edgecombe – as an agricultural, manufacturing and railroad center – are exuberant. Local resources are confidently said to be without peer in the State:

  • The hotel accommodations cannot be surpassed in the State. (There is a page-sized sketch of “Hotel Farrar, Tarboro – Cost $40,000.”)
  • Four railroads run to or through the town.
  • The town has just completed the handsomest city hall in the State.
  • Edgecombe doesn’t owe a dollar; has better school-houses than any county in the State; and pays three times more per child for education than is the average for the State.
  • President Battle, of the State University, say[s] that there is a greater number of college-bred farmers in Edgecombe than in any other county in the State.
  • The most striking and notable characteristic of the people of this county is the very high degree of intelligence and culture prevailing among our farmers.
  • There is more culture among her people, as little crime and disorder, and more comforts and refinement in her homes than can be found elsewhere in North Carolina.
  • It is a land lying midway between the bleak North and the hot languid South, where peace and plenty bless all with their smiles.
  • There is no section of the country in which the seasons are more equally distributed than in Edgecombe.
  • Tarboro is as cosmopolitan as any town in the South.
  • Edgecombe’s citizens are the most enlightened, law-abiding, liberty-loving, congenial and courteous.
  • No more cultured, able and impressive ministers are to be found anywhere. Regular church attendance is very large.

Some twenty pages adumbrate Edgecombe’s unique agricultural potential. Beyond cotton, tobacco and peanuts (“no section is superior to this for growing peanuts”), the range of vegetables, fruits, ornamental plants, crops, timber, dairy and livestock that can succeed in the County takes twenty pages and more to describe – from 50-pound watermelons to turnips, rutabagas, asparagus, all fruits, the tea plant of China, trailing arbutus, yellow jasmine, burdock, and the finest thoroughbred horses bred in North Carolina. “You stir the earth, nature does the rest.” Opportunities in manufacturing, transportation, and finance go from here.

Judge H.C. Bourne, who had come to Tarboro from Mississippi found that

The people of Edgecombe are unsurpassed for their energy, pluck and perseverance. They are hospitable and liberal, broad in their views and enterprising – requisites that always command success.

No doubt, salt is needed with this dish. Not a pinch, but a boxful.

Still – despite all the moral and social short-sightedness – and the pall of knowing that a hundred years of Jim Crow lie ahead – Edgecombe County, and all its towns and villages (which are described) are pictured as rising, hopeful and enterprising places. Leading farmers are cited by name.

The hyperbole itself is a gushing resource.

This is a great little artifact: parochial, chauvinist, historical, nostalgic. And it’s hard to resist the conclusion that, with all its (undisclosed) faults, Edgecombe County is a pretty cool place –  where the citizens are uncommonly “intelligent and hospitable”, the “plants please the eye and make glad the heart”, and the people “only die from old age”.

Robust Tarboro Jewish community in 19th & early 20th Century — first bank holding company in US had roots in Tarboro

Tarboro attracted its first Jewish citizens just before the Civil War, following the construction of the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad.

Tarboro and Edgecombe investors had influenced the railroad to build its main line through Edgecombe County instead of Wake County. A spur line was built off the main line, which is now the Nash-Edgecombe County line, to Tarboro. It connected Tarboro to the wider world.

With the railroad, Jewish citizens among many others came to town. By the late 19th Century, Tarboro was home to a Jewish community that was robust, prosperous and creative, although it never exceeded 15 families.   A hundred years later,  they were mostly gone. Several with origins in Tarboro’s Jewish community went on to have notable careers well beyond Edgecombe County, including an international “man of curiosity, mysticism, and luck,” and a ground-breaking, nationally prominent American banker and consumer champion (by then a Presbyterian) who established the first bank holding company in the United States and originated Morris Plan banks.

Arthur J. Morris, University of Virginia Archives

Harold Bernard “Dov” Shugar

An odd bit of verse with an odd provenance about notable NC lawyers in the 19th Century

An odd little book found recently in a used bookstore (The Captain’s Bookshelf in Asheville), recites the following odd verse, which is attributed to Tarboro’s John L. Bridgers (see below). It features three leading lawyers of 19th Century North Carolina: Bartholomew F. Moore, Judge Robert Strange, Jr., and William A. Wright. All three are figures worth knowing about (see below), but this piece of doggerel about them is its own reward:

Messieurs Moore, Strange and Wright

Met to drink and good cheer to exchange

Said Moore, ‘of us three

The whole town will agree

There’s only one knave, and that’s Strange.”

Said Strange, rather sore,

‘I’m sure there’s one Moore –

A terrible knave and a bite,

Who cheated his mother,

His sister and brother.’

‘Oh, yes,” replied Moore, ‘that’s Wright.’

The book from which this comes is Law Tales for Laymen, written by Joseph Lacy Seawell and published in 1925. Seawell was the Clerk of the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Seawell attributes the verse to “John L. Bridgers”. (He says Bridgers “tells” it, not that he “wrote” it.) There were two John L. Bridgers (John and John Jr.).  Both were prominent lawyers, farmers, and businessmen from Tarboro. The elder Bridgers died in 1884. He had commanded the Edgecombe Guards and Fort Macon in the Civil War. His son, John L. Bridgers, Jr., was a local judge and an author of The History of Edgecombe County. He died in 1932. Jr. seems the more likely source of the verse.

Bartholomew Moore was one of that extraordinary line of lawyers who emerged along the Edgecombe-Nash County line. He was among the most distinguished North Carolina lawyers in the 19th Century. Famously, he represented Will in State v. Will, a landmark judicial opinion which arose from Edgecombe County and was a major step forward in establishing the legal rights of enslaved people. Moore strenuously opposed the Civil War and refused to appear in Confederate courts, which required an oath of allegiance. Even so, he remained a prominent and highly respected member of the North Carolina Bar throughout the War and afterward.

Robert Strange, Jr., from Fayetteville, was a lawyer, a superior court judge and a United States senator. He wrote Eoneguski, or the Cherokee Chief, which is said to be the first novel set in North Carolina.

About William A. Wright, a superficial Internet search finds no references, which is Strange, but which permits MidLaw to say nothing Moore, and that’s alWright.