Moms Mabley, Boundary-Breaking Comedian from Brevard

On May 23, 1975, the comedian known to the world as “Moms” Mabley died in a White Plains, New York hospital.

Born in Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard around 1897, Mabley was the granddaughter of a former slave. She left home as a teenager and joined a minstrel show based in Pittsburgh, beginning a 60-year career that included work in everything from African American vaudeville to Broadway to television and the movies. Mabley also released of more than 20 comedy albums during her lifetime.

Throughout her career, Mabley performed in many of the nation’s top venues, including Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, and broke gender and racial barriers by becoming the first female comedian to perform at New York’s Apollo Theater in 1940. Her television performances included appearances on the Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, Flip Wilson, Mike Douglas and Smothers Brothers shows.

Mabley is best remembered for her brilliant stand-up comic persona, a grumpy lady dressed in bright and crumpled housedresses, who delivered sly double-entendres tackling topics such as race and sex with expert timing and ad-libbing.

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National Park Status for Great Smoky Mountains, 1926

Front of souvenir postcard packet Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 1948

A 1948 souvenir postcard from Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Image from the State Archives.

On May 22, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill that established the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The process was difficult, taking many years and much negotiation before the park became one of the 59 parks in the national system.

The idea to create a park in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee originated in the late 1890s.  Initially there was a debate over whether to make the public land preserve a national park or a national forest. The main difference is that in a national forest timbering of the land is allowed, while in a national park, scenery and resources are protected.

Students beside Great Smoky Mountains National Park sign

Students pose at the entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Image from the Library of Congress.

Once Coolidge signed the bill establishing the park, supporters had to find the funds to purchase an initial 150,000 acres before the Department of the Interior would assume responsibility. By 1928, $10 million had been raised by individuals, the North Carolina and Tennessee state legislatures, private groups and a campaign by school children.

Thousands of small farms and homesteads as well as large timber corporations had to be bought out. The park was dedicated in 1940, and today it is regularly among the most visited national parks.

You can also check out the 1927 North Carolina law that authorized the purchase of land for the park online in the digital collections of the State Archives and State Library.

For more about North Carolina’s history, arts and culture, visit Cultural Resources online. To receive these updates automatically each day subscribe by email using the box on the right and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.

Hiwassee Dam, Five Years in the Making

Hiwassee Dam and powerhouse

Hiwassee Dam and powerhouse. Image from
the Library of Congress.

On May 21, 1940, the Hiwassee Dam in Cherokee County generated power for the first time. The dam was built by the Tennessee Valley Authority and was one of the largest construction projects in the state at that time.

The Tennessee Valley Authority was one facet of the sprawling New Deal plan created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The goal of the TVA was to bring electricity, economic development and flood control to the Southern Appalachian region and, to achieve those aims, it recommend building dams and reservoirs along the Tennessee River and its main tributaries. The Hiwassee and the Fontana Dams were the two built in western North Carolina as part of that effort.

Work on the Hiwassee project began in July 1936, and it took a crew of 1,600 men nearly four years to complete. The building of the dam and reservoir led to the creation of Hiwassee Lake which is still used today for recreation.

At the time of construction the overspill dam was the nation’s tallest at 307 feet. The final cost of construction came in at $16.8 million, which would be about $282 million if built today.

Check out Works Projects in North Carolina, 1933-1941, an online exhibit from the State Archives, for more on New Deal projects in the Tar Heel State.

For more about North Carolina’s history, arts and culture, visit Cultural Resources online. To receive these updates automatically each day, subscribe by email using the box on the right and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

Secession Vote and Realigned Allegiance

A letter book copy of North Carolina's Ordinance of Secession. See the full document online from the State Archives.

A letter book copy of North Carolina’s
Ordinance of Secession. See the full document
online from the State Archives.

On May 20, 1861, North Carolina delegates unanimously voted to approve an Ordinance of Secession from the United States.  Only three months earlier, in February 1861, North Carolinians by popular vote refused to call a convention to consider a Secession Ordinance. The vote in May made North Carolina’s action the last legislative vote to secede.

Between February and May 1861 much happened that shaped the delegates’ decision. After South Carolina passed a Secession Ordinance in December 1860, one attempt after another to stem the Secession Crisis failed. North Carolinians adopted a “watch and wait” attitude after the election of President Abraham Lincoln.

The April 12 bombardment of Fort Sumter by the budding Confederate government prompted Lincoln to call for troops to put down the rebellion. Deeming such a call an illegal use of Federal power, Governor John Ellis replied that Lincoln would get no aid North Carolina.

Ellis called for a convention. The delegates debated the wording of the resolution but not the outcome. Divided sentiments expressed earlier were not voiced and the vote to pass the resolution became unanimous. Shortly thereafter the state aligned with the Confederacy.

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For more about North Carolina’s history, arts and culture, visit Cultural Resources online. To receive these updates automatically each day subscribe by email using the box on the right and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.

Tour’s Country Stars Overshadowed by Elvis Presley

Elvis-Poster

A poster for the tour Elvis was on when he came to Raleigh. Image from ElvisBlog.

On May 19, 1955, Hank Snow’s All Star Jamboree tour, featuring a new young talent named Elvis Presley, ended at Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh.

The concert marked the beginning of the end of the touring relationship between the headliner, Faron Young, and featured new player Presley. Young later recounted that each night of the tour Elvis attracted bigger and wilder crowds. Before intermission, each show included a new talent portion in which Presley took the stage, with the headliners performing after intermission.

As the tour progressed, fans began to shout for more Elvis during the other performances, and he was called back for encore after encore. In the early days of the tour, Colonel Tom Parker, as booking agent, actually paid teenagers $5 apiece to scream for Presley. He used the publicity photographs to send to the newspapers in the next cities on the tour.

Other performers on the tour recalled how much they discounted Presley and his odd onstage behavior. Most country singers thought that he was a fad and would quickly fade, but Presley soon found himself the headliner, and few established stars would agree to perform with him on a tour.

For more about North Carolina’s history, arts and culture, visit Cultural Resources online. To receive these updates automatically each day, subscribe by email using the box on the right and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

North Wilkesboro and the Roots of NASCAR

A pit crew working during a 1954 stock car race

A pit crew working during a 1954 stock car race

On May 18, 1947, the North Wilkesboro Speedway opened its doors to a crowd of more than 10,000 spectators who watched Fonty Flock win the first official race held there. The 5/8-mile oval dirt track was well-known for challenging the best of drivers.

Stock car racing fans and scholars have long acknowledged that the roots of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) are closely tied to the tradition of illegal moonshine production. Races between “runners” evolved into spectator events. The North Wilkesboro Speedway was among the first tracks recognized by NASCAR during its inaugural year of 1949. NASCAR’s first finale took place there, with the crowning of the first points champion, Robert “Red” Byron, in October 1949.

The speedway often has been called to as “The House that Junior Built,” a reference to racing legend Junior Johnson who began his career there at age 16. Johnson earned four of his 50 career NASCAR victories there, and continued his success on the track as a team owner.

The last NASCAR race at North Wilkesboro, won by Jeff Gordon, was held on September 29, 1996, with more than 60,000 fans in attendance.

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For more about North Carolina’s history, arts and culture, visit Cultural Resources online. To receive these updates automatically each day subscribe by email using the box on the right and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.

Olympic Medalist Leonard No Match for Camacho

An image of Leonard from the
Raleigh DeGeer Amyx Collection.

On May 17, 1956, Olympic gold medalist and professional boxer Charles Ray “Sugar Ray” Leonard was born in Wilmington.

Leonard spent the majority of his formative years in the suburbs of Washington D.C. where, as a teenager, he discovered his love of boxing. At the age of 20, he dominated opponents in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and took home the gold medal in the sport. Though he had originally planned to retire following the Olympics and go to college, his father’s mounting medical bills and the birth of his son persuaded Leonard to pursue boxing professionally.

In February 1977, Leonard fought the first of forty professional bouts, defeating Luis “The Bull” Vega and claiming a $40,000 prize. He went on to claim world titles in five different weight classes.

Despite his retirement in 1991, Leonard returned to the sport at age 40 to fight Hector “Macho” Camacho. The match was an embarrassing loss for Leonard and proved to be his last. Nevertheless, he finished his career with a record of 36 wins, 3 losses and 1 draw. Twenty-five of his wins were knock-outs.

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For more about North Carolina’s history, arts and culture, visit Cultural Resources online. To receive these updates automatically each day, subscribe by email using the box on the right and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

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