Southern history resembles chaotic weather on a dark winter day. Hail and sleet pelt the landscape, long stretches of time pass with no break in the clouds to reveal the shining sun, and, every so often, our solar system’s reigning star emerges in a moment of magnificent triumph. The great political scientist V.O. Key described South Carolina and Mississippi as the “Super South,” apogees of the trends that shaped this region. But North Carolina more than almost any other Southern state represents the ambiguities, inconsistencies, and pain that made the South, the South.
Any effort to trace all the currents flowing through N.C. history would fill a book shelf. But in my view, two themes in particular stand out: moral failure, and resilience. The state has tried again and again to transcend its founding as a slave society, and again and again it has fallen short. This is not by and large a comforting story. Through these same centuries, however, North Carolinians have endured traumas and often found themselves just a little bit closer to the mountaintop than they ever thought they could be.
It goes back to 1663, when the colony of Carolina (eventually split into two provinces named “North” and “South) was founded as both a refuge and a prison. John Locke’s Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina envisioned nothing less than a feudal society reminiscent of medieval England or Tsarist Russia. The common people, given the derisive moniker “Lubbers,” would be tied to land owned by a group of elites enshrined as the colony’s ruling class. Lubbers would have no political rights and, explicitly, no avenues for upward mobility.
For all the oppression Locke wished to visit upon white Carolinians, it paled in comparison to the horrors of chattel slavery, which would become fundamental to Carolina. Locke was a board member of the Royal Africa Company. The first Black slaves were brought to the colony by its founders, who were themselves European-born slave lords from the British colony of Barbados. In time, slavery would infect every aspect of colonial and antebellum North Carolina, defining the economy, the social hierarchy, the culture, and the political system. Nothing about the place could resist the virus of enslavement.
But despite these hardships, North Carolinians Black and white would build societies founded on the strength of community. White immigrants originally from Virginia would settle and create a society of yeoman farmers that continues to influence the state’s culture to this day. Meanwhile, on the horrific plantations better described as slave labor camps, African Americans resisted their oppression in the fields and created a new institution, the Black church, that would serve as the locus of African American communitarianism for centuries to come.
By the 1830’s, the state was in crisis. After decades of conservative state government, North Carolina was arguably the most backward state in the nation, with a dilapidated economy and sky-high illiteracy rates. The few North Carolinians with education were fleeing to other states. So a visionary leader in Whig Party governor John Motley Morehead pursued an agenda of internal improvements, agricultural modernization and public schooling. He became known as the “Father of Modern North Carolina,” and his bust sits in the state capitol rotunda.
Perhaps the most traumatic period in North Carolina history transpired in the second half of the 19th century. And it is almost entirely devoid of anything to the feel good about. North Carolina lost more men in the disgraceful Confederate cause than any other state, despite having been reluctant to secede at the beginning of the war. It was only the herculean efforts of racist Governor Zebulon Vance that kept the state in the war in the first place, and the hopes of Reconstruction would be snuffed out in a matter of just a few years.
But for all that, North Carolina African Americans began building a future for themselves. Emancipation, effected by the Union Army with the help of some North Carolina loyalists, was a world-historical achievement. Later in the century, North Carolina African Americans achieved more political influence than Blacks in any other Southern state. Indeed, George Henry White was the last African American to hold Congressional office in the 19th century.
The ensuing years would see another three generations of institutionalized racial subjugation. The inspiring fact is that North Carolina played a key part in lifting this yoke and extirpating the the Jim Crow system. Black students at NC A&T University started the sit-in movement, which spread across the South and helped to break down segregation in the area of public accommodations. Decades, later Representative Dan Blue became the first Black Speaker of a state House of Representatives in the South since Reconstruction. As George Henry White had predicted, the Phoenix rose again.
The state has been through other traumas and hardships. North Carolina was ground zero for the Trail of Tears. The collapse of textiles, tobacco and furniture laid waste to rural communities across the state. A revanchist legislative majority took over in 2010. None of these injustices have been fully atoned for. Nevertheless, North Carolinians across the social spectrum retain a deep faith in their state’s future that defies centuries of setbacks, and sets the state apart from its backward-gazing Southern neighbors. North Carolina exceptionalism exists. And it was built through years of resilience.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.