Tar Heels All By Jonathan Daniels, editor of the Raleigh News and Observer
As old William Byrd of Virginia told it, the line between North Carolina and Virginia was drawn across the map with much bickering and boozing. And when the line between the two Carolinas was drawn, legend insists that the South Carolina commissioners, being low-country gentlemen, were concerned with little more than keeping Charleston in South Carolina. Between the lines, between William Byrd’s aristocratic contempt and the Charleston gentlemen’s aristocratic unconcern, was left an area which for years on end rejoiced in the generalization that it was a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit. The generalization is useful, as most generalizations are. A modicum of truth lies in it, a persisting modicum, borne out in the report of a modern North Carolinian that among his state’s neighbors there were only two classes of people, those who never had worn shoes and those who made you feel that you never had. His report is important as reflecting, in a North Carolina recently more proud than humble, a continuing conviction that one man is as good as another and that if you don’t believe it, he’ll show you he’s a damn sight better.
Such generalizations may aid the mechanically and mentally hurrying traveler, but it also may lead him into error in a state 500 miles long in which on the same day the winds may whisper in the palms at Smith Island and the snow cover trees common to Canada in the altitudes of Clingmans Dome. Such a generalization certainly can indicate nothing about the fact that between the fishermen of Manteo and the men in the coves beyond Murphy there are at least three areas, different not only in the geography of Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and Mountain Regions, but different in the men and their preoccupations within them. Over roads and taxes, representation and offices, they have fought and quarreled and still fight and quarrel. The East, which once angrily insisted on political preference because it paid most of the taxes, now resists the Piedmont, which today does most of the paying. The greater part of the tobacco crop is raised in the East but all tobacco is manufactured in the Piedmont, and growers have shouted in anger both at tobacco prices and corporation politics. The East, conventional old agricultural plantation South of cash crops, Negro labor, and a straight Democratic ticket, remains socially conservative while it grows politically liberal. The Piedmont is the New South, up-and-coming, in which the cleavages of industry have flung up, out of the same small farmer class, the class-conscious worker and the property-conscious millionaire. And beyond them both the Mountain Region, still politically divided in memory of Union and Confederate division in the War between the States, remains more divided too in its desire for industry like the Piedmont’s and preoccupation with its precipitate earth—rich, if sometimes difficult, for farming for living, and magnificent in its appeal to those able to come up from the physically undramatic lowlands.
So the North Carolinian is three North Carolinians, at least three. But from Tidewater to Tennessee he is the native American. The North Carolinian has been where he is a long time, as America counts. Largely English, with lesser infusions of German and a large element of Scotch, the white North Carolinian, through time and a difference in environment, has become three different men; and, in addition, nearly one-third of the population is Negro.
The East remains expansive, leisurely, interminably and excellently conversational, concerned with good living, devoted to pleasure, politically fixed but also politically philosophical. Perhaps the absence of any large cities has contributed to the fact that the easterner’s neighborliness is little short of gargantuan. Gregarious in an area not thickly settled, he finds it a trifle to go a hundred miles for a dance—and found it a trifle even when traveling means trains and not the simplicity of automobile movement. His social life is restricted to no county or town. His “social set” is a whole population. And the famous June Germans of Rocky Mount, where the hugest tobacco warehouse is required for the dancing multitude, are perhaps the best example of his—and her—gregarious, nonexclusive ideal of pleasure.
The Piedmont is another land. It has always been a more serious-minded land. Somehow, the Episcopalians, though they are relatively few in number, seem to have marked the East, not as a church but as a people. In contrast, the Piedmont seems more directly to have grown from the stern spirits of the Quakers of Guilford, the Moravians of Forsyth, the Calvinists of Mecklenburg, the ubiquitous Baptists, and that practical Methodism from which the Dukes emerged. The plantation disappeared at the fall line. Labor became increasingly white. Leisure was less highly regarded, and practical concerns were paramount above philosophy, even above pleasure. Furthermore, where there was little Negro labor, there was water falling in the streams. And, long before the hydroelectric plants of Duke, it did not fall in vain. Hard-working, hard-headed men, with no foreknowledge of the inevitable change in relationship from money and land to money and machinery, attached themselves and their region to the change. Doing so long ago, they took the Carolina Piedmont into the direct stream of modern mechanical America and built the Piedmont in North Carolina into an area less distinguished for its differences from than its similarities to American industrial areas elsewhere. Its people are stirring or struggling. Wealth here has more sharply stratified society than in the older and more aristocratic East. But unlike some other industrial areas, its people are homogeneous. There are more foreign corporations than there are foreign workers. The stock ticker has come and also the labor union. The region has seen both the efficiency expert and the “flying squadron.” It has seen a great deal of industrial money and some industrial murder. It is modern and American in almost every familiar connotation of those terms.
Perhaps the mountains meet the Piedmont in those towns where folk have come from the difficulties of scratching a living out of the steep sides of tough hills to the promised ease and regularity and generosity of the mills. The meeting has not always been a happy one. Sometimes it has been as violent as might be expected in the collision of the Elizabethan and electricity. The mountain man is by no means so quaint as some of the novelist have made him. His isolation is seldom so complete as it has been pictured; indeed, some sentimentalists spend themselves weeping over its disappearance. There are movies in every mountain town. Good roads run into a great many mountain coves. The boys and girls have gone out of the valleys to the schools. And now a good many simple mountaineers are waiting in hopefulness for some simple tourists. But the characteristics of the mountaineer remain. An individual may emerge from isolation swiftly, but a people does not immediately lose the characteristics created by long dwelling apart. The tourist is now to be welcomed, but to come to trust the stranger wholly is a more gradual process. By no means have all the strangers who have gone into the mountains in the past have been worthy of trust. And though the battles were not of the proportions to reach the history books, the divided mountaineers in the War between the States received the undivided and indistinguishable attentions of undisciplined bands of soldiers on both sides. Furthermore, the antagonism in the sixties in the mountains was more personal and immediate than elsewhere. There the division between the Union and the Confederacy might be no wider than the creek between two men’s houses. A man learned to trust in himself, to share his deeper thinking slowly, to welcome warily, to mind his own business, and to vote as his granddaddy fought. He still does.
But to reduce the North Carolinian to three North Carolinians is only the first step in the reduction of generalization to particular fact. There are diverse men among mountaineers. Certainly there are plenty of different types and classes and people in the Piedmont. In the East they are a different folk who fish on Harkers Island from those who plant peanuts in Bertie. And in each area there are those indistinguishable men, worn to an identity of shape and coloration by the processes of education. They are everywhere, able, active, or otherwise, but unobtrusive, unimpressive in determining the quality or character of a native civilization.
There are, however, in North Carolina interesting groups which, without losing the characteristics of section, yet create a unity that—beyond the uniformity of taxes and laws—may very well be called North Carolina. Strongest of all, perhaps, is the alumni of the University of North Carolina. This of course does not mean the body of enthusiasts articulate over football. Farm more importantly it means a group of men in every section of the State who have something more than a provincial’s sense of the meaning of his native land. From Battle and Winston through alderman and Venable and Graham and Chase to another Graham, a series of able presidents has made the institution in a very real sense the center for an aristocracy of intelligence that in half a century has transformed the State. In no sense are these men everywhere in North Carolina steadily agreed on the directions that the State should take. Personal and sectional interests move them as they do other men. But in a broad and diverse State they know each other and have together a sense of the importance of their university and the schools that lead to its doors. They were chiefly responsible for North Carolina’s educational advance. They are responsible now for their university’s high integrity in freedom. And that institution, more than the capital at Raleigh, is the center for the progressive idealism of the State.
The university at Chapel Hill serves as a symbol for unity in aspiration as do few other institutions in the country. Sometimes regarded with suspicion, sometimes attacked with bitterness, the university nevertheless is more often held in an almost pathetic affection by the State. North Carolina was so long in ignorance, so long in poverty! Its people today are restless in the consciousness of their former stagnation. Chapel Hill, no longer remote, embodies their aspirations that the vale may become the mountain (if, indeed, already it has not!)—that the inconsiderable people be between the two aristocracies may yet accomplish a greater destiny than either.
North Carolina, which has never been very long on history, nevertheless remembers that when it followed the aristocracies into the War between the States it provided certainly more privates and probably fewer generals than any other Southern state. It is still a state of privates ready to show scant respect to any who rise pretentiously among them. It even laughs sometimes at its own millionaires and is sometimes glad to get rid of the public officials it has elected. The North Carolinian is, as he has always been, an equalitarian individualist. And he believes in the possibility that he and his fellows may advance. He is no longer humbled, if he ever was, by the aristocracy of his neighbors. He learned in the third decade of the century to boast easily and often, and he had something to boast about, not only in the material progress of road building and accelerated industrial growth, but also in improved race relations, better care for the unfortunate, better schools, and a greater university. But a depression placed in neat relation to his progress taught him much. He is now less proud of the distance he has gone than aware of the distance he must go. He knows that he has “the greatest State on earth” and that he is as good as anybody in it. But he is by no means sure that this is good enough.
Jonathan Daniels wrote this essay for North Carolina: a guide to the Old North State, a Federal Writers’ Project book. Daniels was a volunteer consultant on the project. The Federal Writers’ Project of North Carolina was started in October 1935 in Asheville. District offices were established later in seven other cities of the state. The project was primarily designed to provide work for unemployed writers, journalists, and research workers. Volunteer consultants who helped the writers included W.C. Coker, professor of botany; H.M. Douty, assistant professor of economics at Women’s College; Samuel H. Hobbs Jr., professor of rural economics; Guy B. Johnson, research associate; Hugh T. Lefler, professor of history; Gerald MacCarthy, assistant professor of geology; Z.P. Metcalf, professor of entomology at State College of Agriculture and Engineering; Miss Blanche Tansil, associate professor of institutional management at Women’s College; B.W. Wells, professor of botany at State College of Agriculture and Engineering; and W.A. White, assistant professor of geology. Also C.K. Brown, professor of economics, Davidson College; H.L. Bryson, state geologist; C.C. Crittenden, secretary of the State Carolina Historical Commission; Jonathan Daniels, editor of the Raleigh News and Observer; Richard Dillard Dixon, Clerk of the Superior Court, Chowan County; Miss Adelaide L. Fries, historian of the Moravian Church, Winston-Salem; Mrs. Elizabeth Lay Green, Chapel Hill; Miss Louise Hall, professor of Fine Arts, Duke University; J.S. Holmes, state forester; Mrs. Guion Griffis Johnson, Chapel Hill; Paul Kelly, assistant director of Department of Conservation and Development; and Coleman W. Roberts, president of the Carolina Motor Club. Edwin Bjorkman was state director and W.C. Hendricks was state editor of the project.