Category Archives: Greensboro

“Blast the prejudice that puts women down as only fit to be men’s playthings!”

We are at a cultural moment.

Sexual boundaries seem to be the “acutest issue” of the moment.

These are not new questions to North Carolina. This moment is not the first.

In Greensboro in 1878, Quaker editor David Swaim thundered in Greensboro’s leading newspaper: “Blast the prejudice that puts women down as only fit to be men’s playthings!”

His conservative counterpart, former Supreme Court Justice and founder of the UNC Law School, William Horn Battle rejoined: “No Southern lady should be permitted to sully her sweetness by breathing the pestiferous air of the courtroom.”

They were arguing about whether women should be permitted to practice law.

The issue was joined in Greensboro and taken to Raleigh. Leading North Carolina legal figures of the day took up the question: Albion Tourgée, William Horn Battle, Richmond Mumford Pearson.

It is the story of Jamestown native Tabitha Holton who became the first woman lawyer in the South.

A circular published when Holton died proclaimed:

The power of thy genius has broken the iron bands of brutality which had been rivited [sic] for ages upon thy sex. No more can the barbed shaft of prejudice and envy reach thee in thy eternal repose.

First in all the Sunny South to claim, and obtain, the full rights of womanhood

Tabitha Holton’s story is fabulized here. Her victory, which upset the custom and practice of centuries, was, in the end, based on merit. Opposition based on her status as a woman failed to stand against her unquestioned merit as a lawyer.

 

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The Splendid Table comes to Greensboro, not for the hummus

The Splendid Table” is readily recognized as a radio program/podcast/website/blog focused on food. To see “Greensboro” identified as a subject of a recent installment was a minor jolt.

My knee jerked: “Please, not another paean to North Carolina barbecue.”

Maybe, hummus?  MidLaw was the first to posit the theory that hummus originated in Greensboro.

As it turns out, The Splendid Table’s focus is neither barbecue nor hummus. It is “the Greensboro Four” who historically sat in for lunch at Woolworth’s in the 1960’s. In a brief interview, Joseph McNeil gives a dignified and generous account of the sit-ins (it’s impossible not to like the guy), reprising the now iconic, unidentified white lady who encouraged the students, and crediting the solidarity of the UNC-G (then, Women’s College) students who came out to support the Four. But he trashed the food.

The Splendid Table picked up the interview from New York’s Other People’s Food. The theme is “the universality of food to find common ground amid racial and cultural differences.”

MidLaw is able to attest: “universality” and not “quality” is the right theme for downtown food in Greensboro at the time. In the 1970’s, when MidLaw set up shop at Brooks Pierce in downtown Greensboro, Woolworth’s was one of a limited few venues for lunch downtown.

Joseph McNeil does not recount being served in 1960, but he does recall returning to Woolworth’s in the 1970’s after the lunch counter was integrated. He says the coffee was bad and the apple pie was bland (“it sucked,” he says).

There weren’t many choices for lunch in downtown Greensboro back then. The big department stores were departing for the shopping centers, taking with them their cafeterias and dining rooms. What was left were lunch rooms in office towers and a small handful of stand-alone restaurants. MidLaw recalls Mathews Grill, a meat-and-two-vegetables place whose proprietor was busy parleying restaurant proceeds into real estate; The Lotus, a mid-century Chinese restaurant that was far from home; Randy’s Sandwich Shop, which served the standard sandwiches of the day; the Southeastern Soda Shop; and a delicatessen whose name I can’t recall that famously served “Kosher Dogs” (hot dogs smothered in sauerkraut). And Woolworth’s. Mr. McNeil’s word captures everything except the kosher dogs: “bland.”

Woolworth’s led the way. The meats at Woolworth’s were such that the smartest order was a Vegetable Plate. The vegetables came largely from cans and frozen packets. Macaroni and cheese was prepared in large sheets and cut into squares with a knife to make a serving. Greens from a can. The squash casserole was redeemed, if at all, by cheese melted in the juices of the squash and onions. Salt was the key ingredient.

Except those who were members of the Greensboro City Club, lunch most often required flight to the shopping centers, where the great American culinary innovation of the day awaited: the all-you-can-eat salad bar.

So, Joseph McNeil’s commentary on mid-1970’s downtown Greensboro food is about right.

Today though is different. Today, there are a couple of places downtown who might actually earn a place on The Splendid Table.

Here again, McNeil gets it right. He says “we’re going to make progress sometimes in spite of ourselves.”

I need a good statue – the ones we have don’t get the job done


My North Carolina heritage started in the mid-18th Century. After about 1760, my ancestors are from North Carolina all the way down.

Some of them were slaveholders, most not.

One, from Perquimans County, is identified as the first person in North Carolina to have liberated all his slaves because he concluded that slavery itself was immoral. Another, said to be the largest slaveowner in Guilford County, provided for his slaves to be liberated upon his death. This provoked litigation (to the Supreme Court) contesting his will by his disappointed son. His widow, evading local law enforcement, took off with the people to Ohio.

Others included founders of the North Carolina Manumission Society, secret participants in the underground railroad (a participant as best I can tell, it was secret after all), and abolitionists.

But, still others continued to hold slaves. And probably more than anything else my forebears were small farmers, laborers, teachers, and lawyers, preachers. One was an indentured servant.

When war came, two were Confederate officers: one was killed in a daring charge; another served for an initial term, then returned home to his family in Randolph County. Two more were private soldiers, one of whom spent much of his war as a prisoner, while the other one got trounced at Gettysburg then nearly starved to death on a long, solitary walk back to Edgecombe County.

Others opposed the war. One paid the fee that exempted members of peace religions from military service. He provided succor to deserters and escaped POWs for whom Guilford County was a gathering place. Another was imprisoned for refusing to serve in the Confederate army. He was tortured by his North Carolina neighbors at the infamous Confederate prison at Salisbury.

So, what is my heritage? What monument do I claim?

I am not unusual. North Carolina’s story was never one of united, unreserved support for the Civil War. It was never so simple.

Few, if any of us, tie back to only one narrative — or to a simple, narrow “heritage.”

A second comment on The Bright Hour

While Nina Riggs’ The Bright Hour is “a memoir of living and dying” which recounts Nina Riggs’ experience of cancer and approaching death, it is profoundly and meaningfully humorous.

I find the writing and the insights to have particular relevance for professionals. Although the book is not explicitly didactic, it is so for a moment. Nina writes:

We contain things and give shape to things in order to be less afraid of them. … The crafted idea does this. It’s why I write. The metaphor does this. … I can hear Montaigne hollering: break it open, look inside, feel it, write it down.

Much to find in this book.

Go get this book – Nina Riggs, The Bright Hour – from Greensboro but far beyond

Nina Riggs’ The Bright Hour, justly, has gathered national appreciation (acclaim, really).  Reviewers say her “memoir of living and dying” is a “stunning” expression of the human spirit. Across the country, readers are recognizing and celebrating it, and rightly.

Nina was a Greensboro poet and the wife of former Brooks Pierce lawyer, our friend John Duberstein. Her story and stunning book have created a quiet sense of wonder and more than a little pride here.

I see The Bright Hour as a liberal education – in itself – and, at the same time, a vibrant affirmation of the value of a liberal education. To make of cancer and a final illness what Nina has done and how …

Nina Riggs, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Michel de Montaigne. How she walked with them, in her Greensboro life and how the three of them made meaning together (and with others) as Nina’s life came to an end are a profound validation of a liberal education and a compelling, ennobling demonstration of what it is, and how, to be human.

Go buy and read this book.

Guilford College president meets with Congress, President

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NC Capitol

War came and North Carolina Quakers were in a bad spot. They were abolitionists and unionists and pacifists to boot.

A bill was introduced in the North Carolina legislature to require that every free male over sixteen years old must publicly renounce allegiance to the government of the United States and agree to defend the Confederacy. The penalty for noncompliance was banishment.

It was a bridge too far. Former governor William Graham, who Bishop Cheshire said was one of the greatest men North Carolina ever produced and who represented North Carolina’s traditions of progress and moderation, spoke against the bill. He said it would be “a decree of wholesale expatriation of the Quakers.” “The whole civilized world would cry ‘shame,’” he said.

And so the bill was defeated, although “not so the hostility” from which it came. “Hatred and malice … fell with much violence” upon North Carolina Quakers.

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Virginia Capitol

Legislation was proposed at both the State and Confederacy levels to provide exemptions from military service for Quakers and other “peace churches.” North Carolina Quakers recruited a committee to go to Richmond and make their case to the Confederate government.

Among the five-person committee was Nereus Mendenhall, the leader of New Garden Boarding School (later Guilford College) in Guilford County. He was “well known as one of the most learned men in North Carolina and a prominent educator.”

At Richmond, they met with a committee of the Congress. It was summer and they met at night outside on the grounds of the Capitol. One of those present said later,

It was the feeling of the delegates that Nereus Mendenhall was preeminently the man to present our case. It seemed impossible, almost, to secure his consent, owing to his natural reserve. Finally, [the chairman] said: “Gentlemen, the Committee is ready. Please state your case.” A dead silence followed. In a few minutes, fearing the committee would not understand or appreciate our holding a silent Quaker meeting then and there, I reached over and gently touched Nereus. He arose slowly, and when fully aroused and warmed up to his subject I thought I never heard such an exposition of the doctrines of Friends on the subject of war.

Later, the group visited Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. Davis received them courteously but remarked that he “regretted to learn” there was a group of people who were not willing to fight in defense of their country.

A statute was passed that exempted Quakers and members of other peace churches from military service upon either payment of money or rendering noncombatant services. A participant in the process said that

To Nereus Mendenhall’s argument, perhaps more than any other one thing, was due the passage of this law.

In later times, some Quakers refused to serve and refused to make payments or perform noncombatant services. Some of them were punished severely.

Mendenhall’s home, The Oaks, was located on what is now NC 68 between Greensboro and High Point in Guilford County. It is for sale by Preservation North Carolina and may be destroyed.

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Nereus Mendenhall

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The Oaks

Greensboro’s greatest citizen of the 20th Century?

randall-jGot to be Randall Jarrell, right?

Here’s proof. There’s this podcast from London, “Backlisted, a podcast giving new life to old books.” It’s these two Brits with a guest talking (fortnightly) about books. (Awfully good talkers. Listening to them talk is like watching real athletes play pick-up basketball. You might get in the game but you could never keep up.)

Anyway, in September the sixth show was about The Animal Family by Randall Jarrell,  author, poet, critic, UNC-G professor and collaborator with illustrator Maurice Sendak. The extravagance of their appreciation for Jarrell made me wonder why we hear his name so little in Greensboro. Maybe we should have a statue of him to go with the O’Henry one. (O’Henry born here, left; Jarrell came here, stayed.) The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.

Name somebody else from Greensboro (from NC) they’re talking about in London.

If not him, who?

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Guilford College president charged with possessing subversive literature, house for sale

nereus_mendenhall_the_oaks-16Circulating anti-slavery literature was a crime punishable by imprisonment and a whipping in North Carolina in the years just before the Civil War and The Impending Crisis by Hinton Rowan Helper was the very definition of such literature.

Nereus Mendenhall, the Superintendent (president) of New Garden Friends School (which became Guilford College) and himself an abolitionist, owned multiple copies of The Impending Crisis which he made freely available to others. So Greensboro authorities determined to seize his books and put him in jail. They sent out a posse for that purpose.

But Mendenhall’s brother Cyrus, a Greensboro lawyer, businessman and the Treasurer of the North Carolina Railroad, had learned of the plan and sent word to his brother. More to the point, he also sent word to his to his sister-in-law, Orianna Mendenhall. Upon receiving the news, Nereus sat stolidly in his chair and refused to take any action. He continued reading. No so, Orianna. When she saw what Nereus was doing, she gathered up the books and threw them into the fire. Arrest averted. (Go Orianna!)

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nereus_mendenhall_the_oaks-19Mendenhall’s home and Orianna’s fire were on a farm known as The Oaks between Greensboro and High Point out on what is now NC Highway 68. The house where Mendenhall received his brother’s message and the room in which his books were burned are now for sale by Preservation North Carolina. The house was built in 1830 and is an architecturally significant example of a Quaker Plan house. If not sold, it will likely be destroyed.