With so many subdivisions and shopping malls sprouting up across North Carolina, it can be hard to appreciate just how old this state is. People first began inhabiting the future North Carolina 12,000 years ago. Europeans first made contact with the state nearly 500 years ago, or half a millennium. Even the two-party era in the state’s politics will reach the 50-year mark in 2022. So engaged citizens should seek to reevaluate their state’s history at least once a generation.
That principle is on sad display in the late William Powell’s 1988 book, North Carolina: A History. An admirable celebration of the author’s native state, the volume nevertheless fails to treat key themes and comes across more as a work of marketing than true history. Powell’s writing betrays the outmoded historiography that predominated in popular discussions until recently, and badly needs an updated successor.
Powell ignores an extraordinary amount of history in what is supposed to be a concise overview of everything that has happened in the state. He dedicates almost no time to the Indigenous nations that inhabited the state for millennia prior to European contact. In fact, Natives largely occupy a role ranging from afterthought to menace to trusty companion. None of this is fair to the diverse and enduring influence of Native Americans on North Carolina.
Still worse is his neglect of slavery. North Carolina, particularly in the eastern region that dominated the colony-turned-state for its first 250 years, was a slave society. Every person knew his or her place in the social order based on how they related to the institution of slavery. It was fundamental. Despite this centrality, Powell attributes only a couple of pages to the peculiar institution in the state. This oversight fails the state’s people and its history.
Overall, Powell strongly emphasizes the positive. In his effort to tell a story of glorious ascent from colony to dynamo, he sugarcoats the feudalistic Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, romanticizes the state’s participation in the Confederacy, and seldom references even elite women. His purpose here is to sing something of a lullaby to readers about the greatness of North Carolina, not to use his prodigious knowledge to educate us on this remarkable place.
Though this assessment may seem rather sour toward the state’s history, there are genuinely uplifting aspects to its history. The underclass “Lubbers” who settled the state created a democracy of manners that persists to this day and motivates its continued support for social mobility and (imperfectly) fair play. Abolition was a world-historical triumph, and the resilience of Native communities in the state is inspiring. In spite of the horrific, genocidal Trail of Tears, North Carolina still has the largest Indigenous population east of the Mississippi River, and Lumbee legislator Charles Graham is set to challenge the state’s most notorious bigot for Congress next year.
All this deserves to told and honored in a history of state. But the past is a land of immense complexity, and often of horrors about which people need to learn. William Powell was one of the greatest historians North Carolina ever produced. A successor should strive to retell the story to which this book tries but fails to do justice.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.