Tag Archives: North Carolina

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #7: North Carolina Haunts (2011)

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Ward, Kevin Thomas. North Carolina Haunts. Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 2011.

By far, the most interesting thing about North Carolina Haunts is the number of original stories the author tells that don’t appear elsewhere, particularly those in the Rocky Mount area. Ward doesn’t include every known tale from around here by any stretch, but he does add to the pile with writing down the oral ghost stories about Antebellum Greek Revival mansion Stonewall and a certain local house I’ve visited many times and where I know the principles very well indeed.

He also does a good job in his section on the Bentonville Battlefield, in which he discusses with compassion how both sides were ordinary men fighting for their homes and what they believed was right. Interestingly, most of the haunting at the battlefield appears to be aural.

The Fayetteville and Smithfield sections also have some spooky stories of a ghostly chief of police in the Prince Charles Hotel and a bar called Orton’s, as well as some down-home hauntings. Other sections have some of the old favorites, such as the Brown Mountain Lights, the Maco Light, the Devil’s Tramping Ground, Gimghoul Castle, Piney Grove Church, the Battleship North Carolina, and (of course) Blackbeard.

Ward’s special interest in the area stems from a childhood home in Rocky Mount (on Sunset Avenue) that he describes as extremely haunted in his introduction. These early stories range from ghostly footsteps to a faceless shadow at the foot of the bed to angry spirits glimpsed through the attic hatchway to a precog dream that helped prevent a fire. All of the family members saw or heard or felt a ghost at one time or another. Ward blames it on a time his sister used a Ouija board. A seance is a common folkloric origin in hauntings that begin abruptly with no apparent previous history.

So, early on, we get a taste of Ward’s storytelling style, which is evocative. Ward divides the book into five geographical parts relating to the Mountains, the Piedmont area, the Coastal Plain, the Coastal Tidewater (Inner Banks), and the Outer Banks. The freshest stories come from the Piedmont and Coastal Plains sections. The latter area has definitely been neglected by Carolina ghost story collections, so Ward makes some important additions there.

The illustrations, though childlike and crude, are quite eerie. I found myself stopping several times because the book was too creepy to read too late at night. That’s a compliment, by the way.

Less of a compliment is that I also frequently had to stop in irritation because this book really needed a copy editor before publication, but didn’t get one. It’s rife with typos and grammatical errors, as well as awkward diction, repetitious speech, and just plain weird idioms. I’ve noticed this is a problem with Schiffer and History Press publications. You’d think the publishers would put in the effort and money for some editing and proofreading to make these books shine. North Carolina Haunts is still worth a read, but it would have been an easier one with a good editor and proofreader on board.

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Halloween in North Carolina, Day #5: Ghosts of the Carolinas (1967)

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Roberts, Nancy. Ghosts of the Carolinas. University of South Carolina Press, 1962, reprinted 1967.

This is an older book by Nancy Roberts than the other one I reviewed, Ghosts from the Coast. Interestingly enough, I enjoyed this one a bit more. Maybe she ran out of steam (or material) toward the end of her career. It’s still not wonderful storytelling, and I found many of the stories forgettable, but it has its merits. Roberts’ then-husband contributed appropriately creepy photos and some stories put a bit of actual chill in the air.

Notable stories are the pirate treasure curse on Folly Island in Charleston, SC (Alan Brown retells a version of this legend from Louisiana in his book) and a “talking corpse” from a tavern in Old Salem, NC, as well as one tale about a door that just wouldn’t stay shut and a really creepy beach ghost known as The Grey Man, that predicts hurricanes for Pawley’s Island in South Carolina. And she retells a popular folk tale usually known as “The Witch Cat,” which likely hailed originally from the British Isles. There are also several plague tales from Savannah and Charleston, though those tend to run together in the memory.

Alas, there are still problems. If anything, Roberts is even more vague about dates and places in Ghosts of the Carolinas than in Ghosts from the Coast. Half the time, I couldn’t even tell what state we were supposed to be in. Her dialogue is atrocious. It is doubtful any human being ever spoke the way she has them speak, especially the few African Americans in her stories (who sound like Minstrel Show characters).

African Americans generally appear as window-dressing for her Lost Cause tales of doomed pairings of Southern belles with their gallant beaus, straight out of Gone with the Wind. But as people in their own right, with stories of their own to tell? Nope. Not even though “The Witch Cat” is a very big part of Carolinas African American folklore.

So, I can’t say I really recommend this one, either.

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Halloween in North Carolina, Day #4: The Haunted South (2014)

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Brown, Alan. The Haunted South The History Press, 2014.

Oh, Book, I wanted to love you, but you were so, so boring. Took me forever to get through this one. Ugh.

Popular ghost story collections tend to go to one of two extremes. On one end, the author may vaguebook like crazy all details about some legend, going off into entirely invented reveries of Victorian-style purple prose. On the other end, you get people who just list facts and figures in the dullest and most uninteresting way. Usually, these facts and figures involve the history of the haunted place or haunter (if it’s a person), with much attention paid to crumbling old Antebellum Greek Revival piles erected by rich old white dudes, maintained into the 20th century by their spinster daughters and grand-nieces, then sold off to childless Yuppie couples to turn into a B&B.

Unfortunately, The Haunted South not only goes the latter route, but does so with such a vengeance that half the time, you barely get any ghost stories at all. The author is so focused on giving you the Ye Olde Haunted House tour that he frequently skimps on the “haunted” part. In addition, despite endless architectural detail (which bored even this historic preservation-minded gal), his documentation for the folklore is almost nonexistent in some parts. This tosses him right back to the other extreme. How an author can occupy both ends of the spectrum, I don’t know, but you should ask Mr. Brown, because he pulled it off.

There is another major problem with The Haunted South and it’s geographical. I’ve been reading books about the region as well as just the state. Obviously, the legends of North Carolina are not limited all that much by borders. The state has both its imports and exports, and examples of regional, or even worldwide, trends (like the Phantom Hitchhiker of Lydia’s Bridge). But when reading about folklore in the South for the purposes of doing work on North Carolina, I obviously would expect some coverage of the Old North State.

Alas, the regional coverage here is lumpy, to put it kindly. The author neglects certain states to the point where some barely get five pages. Savannah in Georgia is criminally neglected, while there’s not even a mention of Texas and no explanation why. The Texas omission is especially puzzling, since the author has done an entire book of Texas ghost tales, but doesn’t even mention that in this book.

North Carolina is one of those neglected states. It gets a few brief pages about what are basically tourist trap spots (like Fort Fisher) and that’s it. I think I added maybe one new legend to my collection from reading this. That’s pretty poor for a book that’s over two hundred pages long.

Nor does extra length automatically equal better coverage, even of the states with more pages. The author spends a good third of the book in Louisiana (specifically, New Orleans), yet makes downright rotten gumbo out of NO’s seriously colorful history. The incoherent and scanty approach to how Hurricane Katrina affected the local folklore is particularly disappointing, considering this book came out in 2014. Maybe I should count my blessings that he didn’t do the same thing to North Carolina, even if his selections for NC were less-than-inspired.

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Halloween in North Carolina, Day #3: Ghosts from the Coast (2001)

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Roberts, Nancy. Ghosts from the Coast: A Ghostly Tour from Coastal North Carolina, South Carolina & Georgia. The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Nancy Roberts (1924-2008) was known during her lifetime (at least, according to her Wikipedia page, which gives no source) as the “First Lady of American Folklore.” Good Lord, I hope not. If there’s anything Roberts wasn’t, it was a great folklorist, or any kind of folklorist, really. Basically, she was a journalist from North Carolina (albeit born in Milwaukee to Southern parents), who started writing articles about local ghost stories. After this caught a good readership, she graduated to books. She was certainly popular (since she’s still in print), but if she was a folklorist, I’m a stripper.

The book covers ghost stories and legends along the coastlines of three states, in order: North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Even I weren’t mainly looking for NC tales, I’d still judge the first section the best. There’s something about the Outer Banks that keeps Roberts (mostly) honest. The one about the lifeguard station is especially creepy and likely the best of the collection.

Roberts’ style is to take a story and then embellish it with imaginary conversations and such. She also makes up characters from whole cloth. This is common among NC storytellers, though they tend to do it the most with legends that may or may not have an historical basis. This wouldn’t be so bad if she weren’t so darned vague about things like dates and places, making everything (including events that really happened) sound as though they occurred somewhere long, long ago and far, far away. This has the tendency to uproot the stories from any realistic dirt and make them seem less scary. On top of that, whenever she is in a sharing mood with facts, she has a tendency to do long-winded “house tours” before she tells any ghost stories, which are then pretty perfunctory. Dull.

Not helping is that she tells some obvious porkies that are easily disproved. For example, Savannah didn’t exist until 1733, so the likelihood that Blackbeard (who died in 1718) frequented a tavern there is pretty low. She also repeats the tired old canard that Blackbeard was bloodthirsty and evil. Yet, historians these days aren’t sure if he ever killed anyone before his last battle, let alone a girlfriend who probably never even existed.

Roberts also has a tendency to romanticize Southern history (she buys the Lost Cause approach hook, line and sinker) and slut-shame any woman who doesn’t follow that rigid code. So, Roberts hints that the probably-apocryphal pirate moll Jenny had it coming for ditching the love a Good Man for the no-good Blackbeard.

Even worse, Roberts invents a poisonous cousin for poor Nell Cropsey, a real-life teenager who was murdered (probably by her boyfriend, Jim Wilcox) in Elizabeth City in 1901. As said cousin testifies at Wilcox’s trial, she has a purely invented internal monologue about how Nell kinda deserved getting her head bashed in and dumped in a canal for teasing Jim and being mean to him while preparing to dump him for the next thing to come along. Roberts even manages to twist it so that the cousin didn’t believe Jim did it, even as her thought process does a great job of giving him a strong motive. Ewwwww.

Overall, I found this collection unsatisfying. If the book’s Amazon and GoodReads reviews are any indication, I’m not alone. While a lot of ghost books are short, some pack more material into those pages than others. Ghosts from the Coast included an awful lot of boring fluff that either had little to do with the legend at hand or made stuff up from whole cloth out of badly researched history. Roberts’ writing style has not dated well. I’m also not too thrilled about the strange fact that despite there being at least two other major male NC writers in the 20th century, she was the only woman writing about the Carolinas legends at the time, with three new women folklorists popping up only after her death in 2008. Hmm.

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Halloween in North Carolina, Day #2: Ghost Stories from the American South (1985)

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McNeil, W.K., ed. Ghost Stories from the American South. August House, 1985.

As I read through these ghost story collections, not only do I collect the stories and critique how the authors treat them, but I also examine how the authors (or editors and compilers) in question put their books together. It’s tough to find a way to be thorough and rigorous at an academic level, while also staying entertaining and holding on to the reader’s interest.

Well, this nifty little classic collection by the late Ozark Carolina folklorist W.K. McNeil (1940-2005) does a great job of both. In the back, every story is amply documented, from everything McNeil could find about the source and the tale’s background, right down to the folklore type of story. He even includes lists by state for easy reference (Yayyy! My Hero!).

In the main section, McNeil records these stories verbatim as they came down from whatever source he used. And some creepy tales he does find. They are grouped roughly by subject and some are then also grouped with the chapters as variations of the same tale. Because these are oral histories of the campfire tale type, they are all pretty short. This makes it easy to stop and start with ease, putting the book down after finishing one short narrative and then picking it up to read another.

In addition, that shudder-inducing cover (even now, I leave that thing turned down and under a bunch of other books) is augmented by some seriously creepy interior illustrations. It actually took me longer to get through this because it creeped me out too much to read alone than because of all the information I had to take down from the references.

The book is by no means comprehensive, though it works as an introductory overview. McNeil chooses 100 stories from all over the South, from different sources and different periods of time. Though he does try to cover all the major folklore trope and trend bases, he is willing to admit that even that coverage is sketchy, at best (there are, for example, no sea or coastal stories whatsoever). The book is less than two hundred pages long, after all. It’s just too bad he never did another one.

Contrary to what some reviewers claim, many of these stories do not come from the WPA folklore collections. In fact, McNeil is fairly acerbic about the tendency of the WPA compilers to tart up the oral histories they heard and make them sound more “literary” (which generally makes them read like bad Victorian melodrama), rather than record what was actually told, the way it was told.

Also, one of the nice things about the book is that McNeil collected some of the newer (for the time) legends. There’s a fairly large collection of stories from the 1970s, which were only a few years before the book came out in 1985. These include some pretty interesting variants on the Mexican-American legends of “La Llorona” and “The Devil in the Dance Hall” that might otherwise have been lost to time.

The book has unfortunately dated a bit, through a few choices by McNeil that probably seemed logical at the time. McNeil emphatically puts down popular collections of published tales as useless for oral history. While I agree that there’s a fair amount of, shall we say, personal embellishment and bias in these collections (McNeill has no truck with any of that Lost Cause guff), they do influence oral history in their own right. In addition, McNeill effectively ignores the role of electronic media that has increasingly and heavily influenced the evolution and telling of American folklore over the past century, especially since the World Wide Web came out less than a decade after this book. Is that oral history or written? It acts an awful lot like oral history.

Sadly, McNeill never dealt with these issues before his death in 2005. Now I guess he never will. We’ll just have to make do with this book. Don’t read it in the dark, though, kids. Just because it’s academic, doesn’t mean it’s not creepy.

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Halloween in North Carolina, Day #1: The Devil’s Tramping Ground and Other North Carolina Mystery Stories (1949)

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Harden, John. The Devil’s Tramping Ground and Other North Carolina Mystery Stories. 1949. Reprinted University of North Carolina Press, 1980.

John William Harden (1903-1985) was one of North Carolina’s well-known folklore storytellers of the 20th century. He originally hailed from Alamance County and was a journalist most of his life. He’s usually remembered for this collection and another book called Tar Heel Ghosts, which will probably be getting a look-in later this month. But back in the day, he was best known for the radio show on WPTF where he first told these stories, Tales of Tar Heelia, in the 1940s. Sadly, none of these broadcasts appears to have survived (or, at least, is yet accessible among his papers), but if you’ve ever watched Tar Heel Traveler on WRAL, it was a similar kind of show.

This was the first folklore book I began reading this summer. You could say it set the tone to a large extent for the others. Harden tells stories from the whole Old North State. He does a good job of showing the balance between telling tales for entertainment (“storyteller”) and preserving local history and culture (“folklorist”). Every author has their particular balance.
Harden’s wording may seem a bit odd to today’s reader looking for ghost stories. He calls these “mystery” stories. This means that every time, however strange and eerie the story, he always looks for a “rational” explanation, however convoluted. So, there aren’t any “real” ghost stories in the collection.

It’s largely a collection of odd disappearances (Peter Dromgoole, Major Robert Clark, Reverend Hawkins, Captain Blakeley) and unsolved murders (Nell Cropsey, Polly Williams), which may or may not make your blood run cold, paired up with the odd bit of cryptozoology or sea story (notably, the Carroll A. Deering). Every single time, he finds a way to Scooby-Doo it, even when he’s talking about well-known Carolina oddities like the Devil’s Tramping Ground (often confused with the somewhat lesser-known Devil’s Stomping Ground in South Carolina) or the Devil’s Hoofprints of Bath (there is also a Devil’s footprint in Largo, NC with one matching in SC), or the Brown Mountain Lights. This was a common attitude back in the first half of the 20th century.

Mind you, I’m not arguing for a knee-jerk supernatural explanation, either, but a Rube-Goldbergian chain of circular reasoning is not superior to a simple and honest “It’s a mystery; we just don’t know,” just because all the links in the chain of circular reasoning involve some sort of known natural phenomenon. I think it’s entirely possible that both the Devil’s Tramping Ground and the Hoofprints of Bath have natural causes (ditto the Brown Mountain Lights), but I also think we aren’t going to get anywhere by imposing ill-fitting theories on poorly understood phenomena and calling it a night.

That said, Harden’s hard-headedness can be refreshing. There is, for example, his entry toward the end of the book about a Wilkes County hound dog who tangled with a new and previously unknown mystery creature and, after a terrible fight, was never seen again. As far as I know, this story is unique to the collection. Harden astutely surmises that it was likely a Cougar that was displaced east by a recent forest fire in the mountains. Someone else might have claimed it was Bigfoot (though, after all the Homo floresiensis findings, I’m beginning to soften a tad on the idea of Bigfoot, but only a tad) or a forest demon. But Harden’s theory is both simple and logical. Most importantly, it fits all the facts without strain. This dovetails rather nicely with Hair’s book on Carolina monsters (coming up later this month).

Another thing that hasn’t aged too well is Harden’s love affair with Lost Cause mythology. Fortunately, this only really appears in a story or two (notably, the wreck of the Fanny and Jennie) related to the Civil War and it’s fairly benign. Some other ghost books bang away at it a lot harder.

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Halloween in North Carolina

Welcome to Halloween in North Carolina. All month long, I’ll be reviewing ghost story and folklore books about the state of North Carolina. The Old North State has a lot of eerie tales, some new, some old, some startling, and some downright frightening.

North Carolina is the only state to have its folklore thoroughly catalogued in a seven-volume series, The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore. Brown collected stories from 1912 until his death in 1943, and the series was published in 1951. It’s available online. The state also had its own WPA guide (a research project from the 1930s). In addition, there is Tom Peete Cross’ lengthy article, “Witchcraft in North Carolina” (1919), and Elsie Clews Parsons’ “Tales from Guilford County” (1917), among others, that have preserved a lot of the stories that have since appeared in more popular collections.

But much new folklore has popped up since the 1950s. You’ve got Bigfoot and Goat Farm Road and Piney Grove Church and Stateline (Satan’s) Bridge, etc., etc., etc. We’ll talk about those stories, too.

I’ve been collecting books and articles and websites about North Carolina ghost stories for years, but this will be by no means a comprehensive list. The bibliography of published books alone would be at least three times as many as what I can review this month. But I can give you a pretty good idea of what’s out there. And perhaps, I can give you some creepy new material to read and retell.

My current two projects are a book on tales from the Tri-County (Edgecombe, Wilson and Nash) area in Eastern NC and one on tales about the Devil in North Carolina. But this stuff takes time and money to do. If you’re interested in helping me with this research (or you just want to check out my notes and other such perks), head on over to my Patreon page and join up. You can also help by making a one-time donation on this site or directly through Paypal, or sending me a coffee.

Happy Ghost Hunting!

The articles:

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #1: The Devil’s Tramping Ground and Other North Carolina Mystery Stories (1949)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #2: Ghost Stories from the American South (1985)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #3: Ghosts from the Coast (2001)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #4: The Haunted South (2014)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #5: Ghosts of the Carolinas (1967)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #6: Tales from the Haunted South: Dark Tourism and the Memories of Slavery from the Civil War Era (2014)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #7: North Carolina Haunts (2011)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #8: Monsters of North Carolina (2013)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #9: Haunted Hills (2007)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #10: Mysterious Tales of Coastal North Carolina (2018)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #11: Tar Heel Terrors (2011)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #12: Tales from Guilford County (1917)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #13: Witchcraft in North Carolina (1919)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #14: Best Ghost Tales of North Carolina (2006; 2011)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #15: The “Wettest & Wickedest Town” (Salisbury, NC) (2011)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #16: Haunted Uwharries (2009)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #17: Ghosts of Old Salem, North Carolina (2014)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #18: Ghosts of the Yadkin Valley (2009)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #19: Ghosts of the Triangle: Historic Haunts of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill (2009)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #20: Mountain Ghost Stories (1988)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #21: Looking for “Lydia”: The Thirty-Year Search for the Jamestown Hitchhiker (2018)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #22: Ghost Stories In North Carolina: Every Haunted Place In North Carolina (2012)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #23: Cursed in the Carolinas (2017)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #24: The Lost Colony in Literature (1985)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #25: Legends of the Outer Banks and Tar Heel Tidewater (1966)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #26: Ghost Stories and Legends of Murphy, NC (2015)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #27: North Carolina’s Haunted Hundred, Volume 1: Seaside Spectres (2002)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #28: North Carolina’s Haunted Hundred, Volume 2: Piedmont Phantoms (2002)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #29: North Carolina’s Haunted Hundred, Volume 3: Haints of the Hills (2002)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #30: Ghost Tales of the Moratoc (1992)

Halloween in North Carolina, Day #31: Pirates and Ghosts of the Carolinas’ Coast (2014)

Halloween in North Carolina, All Saints’ Day: Bonus Round #1: The Little Book of the Hidden People (2015)

Halloween in North Carolina, All Souls’ Day: Bonus Round #2: Scottish Ghosts (1999)

African American Artisans: William W. Smith

By Paula R. Stiles

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William W. Smith (1862-1937) was one of the first African-American architects in the United States and the first in Charlotte, NC. His career demonstrates the difficulties faced by free African American contractors and architects following the Civil War and Recontruction, as well as the difficulties of survival of early African American architecture. Though Smith was born in 1862, all of his known career is encompassed by the Segregation period and is heavily influenced by the cultural impositions made on architecture by segregation laws that forced blacks and whites to live, worship and do business in separate spheres.

He is also a good example of a tradesman who crossed over to designing buildings in addition to building them. Part of what may have helped him further his career as a trade mason and contractor was that he was a local leader of the African American community and a member of Prince Hall Freemasonry as part of the Paul Drayton Lodge # 7. An early branch of Freemasonry founded in Boston by free black Prince Hall in the late 18th century, when white lodges refused to take in African Americans, Prince Hall Freemasonry was well-established in North Carolina by the middle of the 19th century. Smith was apparently a devoted lifelong member. The three major interests that come through in his architecture are church (the Grace African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which he built), education (Livingston College, for which he taught, and also built, repaired and designed several buildings), and the Masonic lodge.

Smith most likely began life as a slave, since he was born during the Civil War in Mecklenburg County. His father, Robert C. Smith, was born in 1831 and died when Smith was around fourteen years old. William married his wife Keziah E. Eggleston (1860-1925), who was from South Carolina, in 1877. He later married a woman named Mary, who eventually survived him. While he had no children of his own, he was survived by a stepson, Arthur Anderson. All evidence indicates he never left Mecklenburg County and most of his known work, particularly after 1910, was in Charlotte.

Little is known about his early life or career. He does not appear to have had the formal education of the first professionally trained African American architect in the U.S., younger contemporary and fellow North Carolinian Robert Robinson Taylor (1868-1942), who came from Wilmington. Instead, he apprenticed in the trades. Previous architects John Merrick and Henry Beard Delaney came from out of state or had some white ancestry, indicating that architecture had not been accessible as a career to most local African American tradesmen up to that point.

Smith does not appear in records until 1886, when he shows up as one of the founders of the Grace African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (a branch of Methodism that dated to around the beginning of the 19th century) in Charlotte that year, along with his wife Keziah. Though Smith did not design the church (it was designed by Hayden, Wheeler, and Schwend, who normally designed courthouses, along an auditorium plan), his later style is illuminated in the church’s final appearance. He incorporated both Gothic (the crenellated towers) and Classical (columns and pilasters) elements into the final design, working in brick, marble, ironwork, and even oak (for the interior). He was also instrumental in getting it built, agreeing to supply the materials and labor if the congregation raised money for it.

Smith’s support for his congregation extended even further to designing and building a sanctuary for the church in 1902 (the original architects of the church having disbanded a few years before). In the 1890s, he began to appear as a brick mason in the Charlotte City Directory. He did not start to be reported as an architect until the turn of the century. Though he had no formal education, he was not self-taught, nor did he invent the African American tradition of masonry in Charlotte wholesale. He apprenticed with William Houser, a noted local bricklayer in Charlotte’s uptown Second Ward, known as Brooklyn. Brooklyn was a relatively self-contained haven for African Americans in the city as Segregation took hold. It included many African American businesses and was a symbol of African American pride in Charlotte.

While Charlotte rapidly expanded following the Civil War, African Americans like Houser and his protege dominated the masonry field in the industry. Smith even taught bricklaying at African American-founded Livingston College in Salisbury in the early part of the 20th century. Livingston College, which began existence as Zion Wesley Institute in Concord in 1879 (moving to Salisbury in 1882), was the first A.M.E. Zion school in the state and an early example of a college founded and controlled by African Americans. Bishop James W. Hood, Joseph C. Price (who died in 1893), and William Henry Goler (who succeeded him in and retired in 1917) were all early leaders of the college.

A.M.E. Zion’s desire to bring in African American recruits and help support the leadership of the African American community led to a name change in 1885. It was in commemoration of the famous missionary explorer in Africa, Dr. David Livingston, who had died in what is now Zambia in 1873. Livingston was an early, notable example of a European who was sympathetic and respectful toward Africans: a good example of A.M.E. Zion’s goals.

After building the church, Smith became closely involved in A.M.E. Zion’s other great local endeavor, Livingston College. His first project as an architect was probably the restoration of Ballard Hall in 1905 on the Livingston College campus. The next year, he designed Hood Hall. He also designed Goler Hall. Both were named after the college’s early presidents.

Smith also designed several business buildings downtown in Charlotte. He was the architect for the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Publishing House (1911), the Afro-American Mutual Insurance Company building (1911), and the now-famous Mecklenburg Investment Company Building (1922). All were in the same general vicinity around South Brevard and 3rd Street (close to the Grace African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church), though only the Mecklenburg Investment Company Building now survives. The other two, like many African American buildings in the U.S., fell victim to the urban planning movement in the 1950s and 1960s, which disproportionately targeted poorer neighborhoods for renovation and destruction of older buildings deemed obsolete. Smith also designed his own family mausoleum, which still stands in Pinewood Cemetery, as well as one for a local family, Jones. This is the only known personal structure of his surviving, though the Mecklenburg Investment Company Building is generally regarded as his master work.

Smith’s style was unique and he went to great lengths to demonstrate the versatility of brick as a building material. Though he used other materials with equal skill, brickwork was his signature. He also taught his style at Livingstone College, to the point that students created the bricks used in the projects he designed and restored there. He was especially fond of geometric (particularly diamond-shaped), multicolored designs that resembled Beaux Arts, or 15th century, yellow-monochrome, Mudejar brickwork in Spain, but his main influences were Gothic and a sort of vernacular-flavored Richardsonian Romanesque. His buildings had a square solidity and simplicity that contrasted with his ornate and colorful brickwork. His church (which was not entirely his own design) also had Gothic Revival and Classical elements, including a large bell tower.

Smith was so well-respected locally that even white-owned newspapers of the area acknowledged his death in 1937. A.M.E. Zion wrote a eulogy for him in its newsletter, as he was a great success for the denomination. Smith was a signal example of the self-reliant African American businessman ideal that both African American leaders and sympathetic white groups like A.M.E. Zion promoted after the Civil War and during the early years of Segregation (1900-1939). Like his contemporary Booker T. Washington, Smith promoted the ideals of African American education and community involvement. He created a variety of still-iconic structures and was one of the small group of African American architects in the United States in the early 20th century. By all surface standards, he was a great success, both in individual terms and for his community.

But Smith’s successes obscured his precarious and isolated situation as a prominent African American architect during the Segregation period. The works he did were all on African American-related projects. Except for the business buildings, they were all related to his church and denomination. The college was African American. The business buildings themselves were for African American businesses.

Though he is famous in Charlotte and also had a significant influence on the A.M.E. Zion denomination, Smith does not appear in most architectural biographies or those of famous North Carolinians. He does not even appear in most African American biographical dictionaries, perhaps because they tend to have a strong focus on entertainment and sports. Outside of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, he is almost unknown, while contemporary architects who contributed far less have more fame. It is difficult to perceive this as not related directly to Segregation.

Smith’s entire community operated in the same relative obscurity. The Mecklenburg Investment Company Building was commissioned by several African American businesses in the first place because no whites would let them rent their buildings. The African American business community desperately needed office space, so these businesses pooled their money and commissioned the only African American architect in the area to build one for them. A demonstration of how cramped for space was that community in Charlotte, despite their industry and rapid expansion, was that these buildings housed several businesses and different concerns at once.

One building also housed a Prince Hall lodge in addition to African American businesses. As Smith’s religious devotion came out in his work at his church and Livingston College, his devotion to Freemasonry came out in his work on these office buildings. Smith and his community’s world was constrained, a safe space that was nonetheless small, with the church and the office buildings built close to each other. Their proximity also reflects the deep devotion to religion that permeated even secular concerns in turn-of-the-century African American North Carolina.

This constraint was probably not all voluntary. Smith was limited to work in his own community and could not take commissions from white clients. The more visible and lucrative contracts of the white community were not open to him as an architect (though he might work on them as a bricklayer).

In light of how Smith’s surviving work, even that which he did not design, was so focused on the African American community, it is also possible that he chose to concentrate on building for his own community to the exclusion of personal financial advancement through doing construction jobs for the white community. Smith’s powerful and colorful buildings reflect a great deal of pride in his own considerable skill in masonry and ability to parlay that skill into designing entire buildings. His choice of projects also shows a great deal of pride in his community. But their light was largely kept under the bushel of Segregation.


Catherine W. Bishir. North Carolina Architecture. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill: 1990.

Catherine W. Bishir and Michael T. Southern. A Guide to the Historical Architecture of Piedmont North Carolina. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill: 2003.

Jeffrey B. Leak. “Memories of Brooklyn: A black man’s search for the ‘warmth of other suns’ leads him back to his Southern roots,” Charlotte Magazine (August 27, 2014).

North Carolina Architects and Builders: A Biographical Dictionary, Smith, William W.

What is the A.M.E. Zion Church?” Greater Centennial A.M.E. Zion Church.

Pioneering Black Architects in North Carolina,” North Carolina Modernist Houses.

William W. Smith,” Lost Charlotte: The Queen City of the South’s Past Revisited.

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Telling Stories

By Jim Lee

I have recently published a book of 21 short stories entitled The Haze of Memory. These stories, mostly fiction but also a smattering of non-fiction, are based on events I have experienced and people I have encountered throughout my almost six decades of life on this earth. In the foreword, I wrote that although I put “teacher” as my occupation on my tax forms, I consider myself a writer. But in the final editing of the book, I almost changed that line. And now I am asking out loud (and if you write on a frequent basis, you may ask as well), am I a writer or a storyteller?

There is a difference between the two. Storytellers do not necessarily create the stories they tell. They often retell stories that are important to the culture or the history of a group they identify with. Every family has that one person who is the repository of family lore and you can find that individual surrounded at Christmas or reunions with a rapt audience. I serve that role for my daughter and she will often ask me to relate the events of her adoption or how her granny got stopped for running a red light to avoid dumping a lemon pie on the floor of her car.

Writers, on the other hand, are more concerned with universal themes, interesting characters, or the significance of a setting. Much modern literary fiction has even disposed of some traditional elements of storytelling completely or deconstructs them to such an extent that the writing becomes to literature what a cubist painting is to modern art: The elements are present, but they are disproportionate or displaced. Don’t get me wrong. I can appreciate what the writer is trying to do, but I don’t enjoy it. I only go to an art museum once every couple of years and I can appreciate the pieces I observe there; the art I have in my home, however, is what I enjoy. In the same way, since I read for pleasure (as I suspect most people do), I want my writing to be more accessible to people.

While I want my writing to be enjoyable, I also want it to be purposeful. I know my fiction does not rise to the level of “literary” writing, but I want someone who is educated to be able to appreciate a level of complexity that adds to their enjoyment. Therefore not everything I want my reader to get out of the story is explicit in what is written. Histories and relationships between characters, for example, are often only hinted at, but if you want to spend the time and energy thinking about what those relationships are, you certainly can. In my story, “Wandering in the Shadows,” the parents are headed for a divorce and the mother may be having an affair. That fact is never stated, but it colors the relationship that the father has with his daughter and the depression the daughter is exhibiting. The casual reader can still enjoy the story and find a level of understanding that he or she is comfortable with, but the more-literary reader can find something more.

I suppose I am hung up on labels because I, as most writers, I suppose, want to be taken seriously. Stephen King was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award in 2003 and a number of the members of the organization boycotted ceremonies or even canceled their memberships in protest. Their point was that King is not a “literary” writer; he’s just a glorified storyteller. But more people are reading, and in my case writing, because they were introduced to literature through King’s books than the esoteric writers the NBF honors annually.

In his book, On Writing, King famously stated that a writer writes not because he wants to, but because he has to. By that definition, I am a writer. I have to write. When Paula gave me the opportunity to write this entry, I had already been considering writing this essay, and I am grateful for the opportunity for it to reach an audience wider than my Facebook friends or writers’ group. I had to write it; it was going to burst into existence. But I’m a writer who uses traditional storytelling as the vehicle for my literary vision. My stories move emotions, whether to laughter or tears. My stories teach lessons that someone may not otherwise have an opportunity to experience. I don’t envision winning the National Book Award, but literary journals publish one of my stories every now and again, and my writers’ group seems to enjoy them. So, I’ll keep writing stories and publishing them on whatever platform for whomever wants to read them.

Because I’m a writer. Who tells stories.


Jim Lee’s book of short stories, The Haze of Memory: A Literary Autobiography (by James T. Lee), is available on Amazon.com or through the CreateSpace community.

Unusual History: Annie Wealthy Holland

By Paula R. Stiles

[Check out more details about the above photo of Pee Dee Rosenwald School, c.1935, here.]

Though born in Virginia, plain, unassuming workhorse Annie Wealthy Holland (1871-1934) was one of the most influential African American educators, woman or man, in the early 20th century in North Carolina. Though greatly dedicated to the cause of African American education, she never earned a diploma. And though she wielded considerable power across the state as the demonstration agent for the Jeanes Fund and founder of the Negro Parent-Teacher Association (the first of its kind), equivalent to being a supervisor over all African American schools in North Carolina, she never had a formal administrative position. Annie Wealthy Holland’s career, first profiled a mere five years after her death in Five North Carolina Negro Educators, reflected the contradictions for women and for African Americans in Reconstruction and Segregation era North Carolina.

Holland was born in 1871 in Isle of Wight County in Virginia. Her parents, John Daughtry and Margaret Hill, had married in 1869, but divorced soon after she was born. This resulted in an early setback for Holland in her road to education. Even though her grandfather and grandmother had strong ties to the nearby plantation, her mother moved her young daughter to Southhampton County after remarrying. There, Annie spent her early years with few prospects, raising her six younger siblings while struggling to study.

Holland’s paternal family regarded the white owners of the nearby plantation so highly that they had named her after the mistress, Annie Wealthy. The Wealthys had also freed her grandfather, Friday Daughtry, in 1867 and given him some property of land and livestock to get started. He was able to increase this to the point where he invited his eldest granddaughter to return and pursue her studies while living with him. There, Holland learned about the ways and hardships of farming peanuts and sweet potatoes, a lifelong lesson. She also noticed that educational opportunities were increasing for African Americans, who were beginning to replace the previous white teachers in the field, and quickly took it to heart as her vocation.

After Holland graduated from the Isle of Wight County School at age 16, her grandfather sent her to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) in Hampton, Virginia. Founded in 1861 to educate African American refugees from the War as future leaders of their communities, the Institute focused on teaching practical skills like trades. Unfortunately, Holland’s education was interrupted when her grandfather died after her first year. After moving to New York and working as a nurse and nanny for a family there, she was able to earn enough money to enroll for a second year, but illness due to malaria prevented her from completing her diploma (a lifelong regret she expressed decades later in surviving letters). She was, however, later able to earn a teaching certificate from Virginia Normal Industrial Institute.

At the age of 18, around the time of her grandfather’s death, she married a Hampton graduate named Willis Holland. They moved to Franklin, Virginia where, eight years later, they were serving as principal and assistant principal of a nearby school. Holland quickly learned (perhaps aided by her own early experiences of balancing study with child care) that the ability of their students to study and even attend school could be greatly and adversely affected by lack of basic resources. For example, she took it upon herself to conduct clothing drives for students who were too poor to have adequate winter clothing. African American public schools at this time suffered from a lack of educational resources, such as textbooks, in comparison to white schools. This made keeping the school open a constant challenge. Aside from a brief stint working on her own with a rural school, Holland continued to run the Franklin area school with her husband until 1911.

In October of that year, Holland made the decision to join the Jeanes Fund. The million-dollar Anna T. Jeanes Fund had been created by, and named after, Quaker philanthropist Anna Jeanes in 1907 to help expand public education for African Americans. It was unique among such foundations for allowing African Americans on the board of trustees.

The job was a formidable undertaking. As of 1914, the Fund did not even have one teacher for every one of their 119-county coverage in Virginia and North Carolina. The position involved a great deal of extension work, not only teaching of students but also community outreach and interaction. Nevertheless, Holland was so good at this that in 1915, she was asked to become the State Home Demonstration Agent in North Carolina. This gave her de facto authority over all African American elementary schools in the state. She held the position for 13 years.

In her new role, Holland had a comprehensive variety of roles and duties. She had to train and organize teachers, create reading circles and homemakers’ clubs, run meetings, and give church speeches. Her purview included 19 county schools, 10 city schools, and 3 “normal” (teaching college) schools. She might visit as many as twenty counties in a given month and oversaw forty-five county supervisors. She was the epitome of leading through service.

At the end of this period, Holland founded the first Negro Parent-Teacher State Association, called the North Carolina Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers, at Shaw University (an African American college founded as Raleigh Institute in 1865) in 1928. Shaw was a prestigious college, the first in the U.S. to have a four-year medical degree and the first African American college to accept women. This meeting of some fifteen thousand people and seven hundred and seventy organizations was the culmination of a long and hard, but fruitful career.

Holland died six years later in Louisburg, NC and was buried in Franklin. While her life and career had begun in Virginia, in the end, her heart belonged to North Carolina. In commemoration, a tree was planted in her honor at Shaw University in 1939, five years after her death at the age of 63.

Much of Holland’s success stemmed from her remarkable knack for diplomacy and her self-effacing approach. She was an excellent mediator, gifted at persuading teachers and parents, blacks and whites, to get along and work together. She believed that African Americans should stand up for themselves, albeit not in ways that would deliberately alienate whites.

She also had to deal with the reality that she was working in a period where women had to take a secondary role to men, regardless of their race. There was never a question, for example, when she ran a school with her husband, whether he would be the principal and she would be his assistant. The few women who were able to have a career outside of the home also had to work very hard to maintain their position — and as Holland herself discovered, that work often involved teaching other women how to be better homemakers.

Her low-key approach also allowed her to navigate potentially dangerous political shoals and expand education – especially rural, public education — in the state for African Americans considerably during the early Segregation period. Unlike some other African American leaders of the time, Holland lacked the option in her later career of working exclusively in that community. She had to deal with a white community that perceived itself as superior to her and did not necessarily approve of giving up resources for African American education, and she had to do so with both firmness and tact. Teaching impoverished children might have been the easiest part of her job. Possibly, her early experience with sympathetic whites such as her namesake was what led to her even-handed skill in dealing with both communities and establishing unusual legal ties across the great divide of Segregation.

Annie Wealthy Holland was not a glamorous woman by any stretch. Nor was she an obvious candidate for a forceful or transformational leader. But the drip of water over many years can erode stone better than a tsunami. Holland is an excellent example of one of many such leaders during the Segregation period who transformed North Carolina in numerous, pervasive and positive ways.



The Educators,” The Women Who Ran the Schools: The Jeanes Teachers and Durham County’s Rural Black Schools.

Carter, Nathan. Five North Carolina Negro Educators. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1939.

Crow, Jeffrey J.; Escott, Paul D.; and Hatley, Flora J. A History of African Americans in North Carolina. 2nd ed. Raleigh: North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 2011.

Gillespie, Michele and McMillen, Sally G., eds. North Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times, Vol. 1. The Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014.

Hoffschwelle, Mary. The Rosenwald Schools of the American South. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

Kent, Scotti and Cohn, Scotti. More Than Petticoats: Remarkable North Carolina Women. Helena: Falcon Publishing, Inc., 2000.

Shaber, Sarah R. “Holland, Annie Wealthy,” NCPedia.org, 1988.

Williams, Shane. “Annie Wealthy Holland (1871-1934),” North Carolina History Project, 2016.