Ill-Fated Donner Party Included North Carolinians

A depiction of the Donner Party’s winter camp published a few years after the event. Image from the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

On April 16, 1846, the 87 men, women, and children known as the Donner Party set out from Sangamon County, Illinois, on their ill-fated journey to California.

Already running behind schedule and facing an early winter when they reached the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the group saw its situation made worse by an enormous blizzard with snow as high as 16 feet that trapped them in place for five months. So desperate was their situation that some members resorted to cannibalism. Before the winter was over, 46 of the group had died.

George and Jacob Donner, who led the group, were Rowan County natives. The Donners moved from North Carolina to Kentucky, and then to Indiana and Illinois. George was elected leader of the group, and so the party bore his name.

George’s wife Tamsen Eustis was a well-educated woman from Massachusetts who also had a North Carolina connection. She was an administrator at the Elizabeth City Academy before moving to Illinois and meeting George. Unfortunately, George, Tamsen, and Jacob Donner all perished in the cruel winter of 1846-47. When rescuers did come, Tamsen refused to leave her husband, who was dying from an infected wound. Tamsen’s three daughters and two stepdaughters were all rescued and survived.

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SNCC’s Raleigh Roots

A 1963 brochure for SNCC

On April 15, 1960, about 150 student leaders from 10 states met at Shaw University in Raleigh for the “Southwide Leadership Conference on Nonviolent Resistance to Segregation.” The meeting took place just two months after the Woolworth sit-ins in Greensboro had launched the protest effort.

The session was designed to consolidate isolated sit-in efforts and map strategy. It was organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference whose executive director, Ella Baker, was a Shaw graduate. The conference created the “Temporary Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee” headquartered in Atlanta.

The weekend’s keynote speaker, the Reverend James Lawson of Nashville, criticized established older groups such as the NAACP for moving too slowly and acting too conservatively. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to a large group in Memorial Auditorium, urging students to adopt the nonviolent philosophy of Ghandi and face jail time for peaceful protest if necessary.

SNCC members were the “shock troops” and frontline leaders in the civil rights movement, especially in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. John Hope Franklin called them “probably the most courageous and the most selfless” of the civil rights workers.

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Fort Macon, Contested Ground during the Civil War

Sketches of the 1862 surrender of Fort Macon. Image from the State Archives

On April 14, 1861, a militia company from Beaufort, acting on its own, boated over to Fort Macon, near Atlantic Beach, and seized the fort in the name of the state from a lone Union army caretaker.

Only two days after the firing on Fort Sumter, North Carolina had not yet left the Union to join the Confederate States of America. By the time North Carolina did secede on May 20, Fort Macon was securely in state hands with hundreds of Confederate soldiers making it ready for war. Over the next year, the fort was armed with 54 heavy cannons.

However, the Confederacy did not manage to hold the fort for long. In April 1862, after an extended siege led by Union Brig. Gen. John G. Parke, Fort Macon’s Col. Moses J. White surrendered the garrison to Union forces. The fall of Fort Macon closed the port of Beaufort to the Confederacy. The seizure was part of the Burnside campaign which saw much of coastal North Carolina fall into Union hands.

Today, Fort Macon is one of 35 state parks.

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Journey of Reconciliation, 1947 Civil Rights Protest

On April 13, 1947, a mob attacked civil rights protesters at the bus station in Chapel Hill. Earlier that year, the Congress of Racial Equality laid plans to test the enforcement of a Supreme Court decision that declared segregation on interstate buses and trains unconstitutional.

On April 9, eight African American and eight white members of the group set out from Washington, D.C., on Greyhound and Trailways buses in what was billed as the “Journey of Reconciliation.” A few days later, the buses arrived in Chapel Hill where the organizers met with students and townspeople. As the buses prepared to depart on April 13, two blacks refused to move to the rear. Upon leaving the buses, several of the protesters were attacked and arrested.

In May, those who had been arrested went on trial and were sentenced. Organizer Bayard Rustin and two white protesters, charged with interference, surrendered at the courthouse in Hillsborough and were sent to segregated chain gangs. Rustin published journal entries about the experience. His writings, as well as the actions of the “Journey of Reconciliation” riders, in time inspired Rosa Parks’ nonviolent protest in 1955 and the Freedom Riders of 1960-1961.

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Sports Journalists Honored in Salisbury

On April 12, 1960, the first National Sportscasters & Sportswriters awards program was held in Salisbury. At that program, those in attendance formed the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. The group added a Hall of Fame two years later.

The idea for the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association started with local restaurant owner Pete DiMizio, who appreciated the regional sports media and decided to honor them. He hosted a banquet for them at his restaurant in 1953. The event launched the North Carolina Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association and, after DiMizio’s death in 1958, a small group of Salisbury citizens continued and expanded upon DiMizio’s dream. The association went national the next year.

Today the association is dedicated to honoring, preserving and celebrating the legacy of sportscasters and sportswriters in the United States with the knowledge that what they do helps American sports fans form lifelong connections to sports. The organization also develops educational opportunities for those who are interested in pursuing a career in sports media. Salisbury remains the group’s national headquarters.

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Charles B. Aycock and His Mixed Legacy

On April 11, 1900, Charles B. Aycock was unanimously nominated as the Democratic candidate for governor of North Carolina.

Aycock practiced law and co-founded the Daily Argus newspaper in Goldsboro, but it became clear that politics was his true passion. He distrusted the Republican Party, which supported African American involvement in government and endorsed the idea that politics should be reserved for the white race.

As he sought to build a political reputation, Aycock worked tirelessly on behalf of the public schools, believing that education was the key to social change. After serving as a federal prosecutor, he toured the state in 1898, pressing his views on race and education in a statewide series of debates with Populist Cyrus Thompson.

Aycock handily defeated his Republican opponent in the general election, and his inauguration in 1901 launched a 72-year Democratic hold on the state’s highest elected position. As governor, Aycock touted the “Dawn of a New Day” and continued to press for educational progress. He also advocated strongly for child labor reform and temperance laws, but met mixed success on those initiatives with the legislature.

His restored birthplace in Wayne County is now a state historic site.

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Kenneth Noland and Abstract Art

Noland painting in 1968. Image from the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

On April 10, 1924, abstract artist Kenneth Noland was born in Asheville. Noland devoted much of his career to the artistic genre of color field abstraction. He studied and painted the interaction of contrasting and complementing colors. His most famous paintings feature a circle or chevron pattern that contains a distinct array of colors.

After a four-year stint in the Air Force, Nolan enrolled at Black Mountain College, not far from his hometown. The experimental liberal arts college challenged students to learn through their own creative approach. During his time at Black Mountain College, Noland learned Professor Josef Albers’ color theory and was greatly influenced by geometric abstractionist Ilya Bolotowsky. From Black Mountain, he went on to Paris to study artist Ossip Zadkins in 1949 before returning to the United States and teaching in Washington, D.C. and New York for the remainder of his career.

Noland’s work has been shown around the world. It has been said of Noland he was “one of the great colorists of the 20th century,” and that, “he invented a n

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ew kind of American abstraction based on the primacy of color.”

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