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Old Bute County, One for the History Books

 A 1775 map showing Bute County

A 1775 map showing Bute County


On January 20, 1779, the North Carolina General Assembly abolished Bute County less than 15 years after establishing it.

The legislature had established the northeastern county in June 1764, and named it in honor of John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute. A Scottish

James Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute. Image from the National Portrait Gallery, London.

nobleman, Bute was the tutor of Great Britain’s Prince George. After the prince became King George III in 1760, Bute served as the king’s advisor and eventually became prime minister.

Carved from eastern Granville County, Bute County provided the residents of the area better access to local government. In 1766, the legislature expanded the county by annexing part of northwestern Northampton County.

By the late 1760s, though, the Earl of Bute had become very unpopular with Americans. Many blamed him personally for instituting the 1765 Stamp Act. With Bute County’s population growing, support for dividing and renaming the county grew during the mid-1770s. After two years of discussion, the General Assembly decided to divide Bute County along Shocco Creek with the northern part becoming Warren County and the southern part, Franklin County.

With the incorporation of the two new counties, Bute ceased to exist. The courthouse that once served Bute County no longer stands.

Lumbees Rally, Klansmen Scurry, in Robeson County

A photograph taken at the clash. Courtesy of the NC Archives

On January 18, 1958, the Ku Klux Klan rallied in a field outside of Maxton in Robeson County to “put the Indians in their place, to end race mixing.”

A generator powered the public address system and the single light bulb that illuminated the speaker’s immediate area. With only the dim light, the Klansmen, numbering less than 100, could not see the hundreds of Lumbee, some armed, surrounding them. The two groups clashed and struggled over the light bulb until a gunshot shattered it. More gunshots rang out in the darkness as the Lumbee routed the Klansmen from the field, ending the night’s event. Police arrested the Klan leader, James “Catfish” Cole, for inciting a riot. He was convicted and served a year in prison.

The incident garnered national attention in contemporary news outlets, including a three-page spread in Life magazine. Several images captured the unfolding events and the aftermath, including a triumphant Simeon Oxendine wrapped in the captured KKK banner. Oxendine was a prominent Lumbee community leader and a World War II veteran who flew more than 30 bombing missions.

In 1967, folklorist Malvina Reynolds paid homage to the confrontation in her song “Battle of Maxton Field.”

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X-Ray Experiments at Davidson College

The first X-ray taken at Davidson College. Image courtesy of the Davidson College Archives.

The first X-ray taken at Davidson College. Image courtesy of the Davidson College Archives.

On January 12, 1896, three students at Davidson College experimented with x-rays.  On January 6, 1896, the Associated Press announced that German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen had discovered a new form of radiation. While experimenting with cathode rays, he discovered that mysterious “x”-rays passed through a variety of objects. He put his hand in front of the rays and saw the silhouette of his bones. At the time, many physics labs had equipment to duplicate the x-ray. Henry Louis Smith, a physics professor and future president at Davidson, was the first professional in North Carolina to work with x-rays.

It was actually a group of Smith’s students who appear to have been the first people in the state to perform x-ray experiments. Three juniors professed to having bribed a janitor to let them into the building housing the physics equipment just six days after Roentgen’s announcement reached America. The students placed objects on photographic paper taking photographs, or what were called roentgenograms, of objects including an eggshell with a button in it, a rubber-covered magnifying glass, a cadaver’s finger, pins, cartridges and paperclips. Years passed before the students’s escapade was made public. The original x-ray images are now housed in the Davidson College Archives.

The experiments are the subject of  a highway marker in Mecklenburg County.

Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Founder of Palmer Institute, Died

chb11On January 11, 1961, noted African-American educator and founder of the Palmer Memorial Institute, Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown died. Born in Henderson, Brown moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her family when she was young, and was educated there. In 1901, at age 18, she was persuaded by the American Missionary Association to return to North Carolina to assist in their effort to educate southern blacks.

The "Three Bs"

From left to right, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Charlotte Hawkins Brown and Mary McLeod Bethune, in 1922

Brown established the Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, naming it for Alice Freeman Palmer, former president of Wellesley College, who was a friend and benefactor. The school opened in 1902. It first operated out of an old blacksmith shop, but eventually grew to house hundreds of students in more than a dozen buildings. Palmer grew to become known as an elite black preparatory school, hosting students from all over the country and world.

During her tenure at Palmer, Brown actively toured, speaking on behalf of women’s suffrage and racial equality. She devoted her life to the improvement of the African American community’s social standing and was active in the National Council of Negro Women, an organization founded by celebrated educator Mary McLeod Bethune in 1935. Also as president of the North Carolina State Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs, Brown directed African American women’s formal civic experiences for more than twenty years.

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“Carbine” Williams, Weapons Designer

“Carbine” Williams outside his Cumberland County workshop, circa 1970.  Image from the State Archives.

“Carbine” Williams outside his Cumberland County workshop, circa 1970. Image from the State Archives.

On January 8, 1975, famed firearms inventor David “Carbine” Williams died.

Born in Cumberland County in 1900, Williams worked for a railroad for a time while operating several illegal distilleries. In 1921, law enforcement officers raided one of those distilleries and, in the ensuing gunfight, a deputy was shot to death. Williams denied firing the fatal shot, but pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 30 years.

Image from the State Archives.

Image from the State Archives.

As a “trusty” in the blacksmith shop at Caledonia, a Halifax County prison, Williams began drafting innovative gun designs with scraps. His designs drew the attention of Colt Firearms, whose representatives visited him in prison.

Governor Angus McLean commuted Williams’ sentence, and in 1929, he was released. In 1940, working with a team at Winchester, Williams created the .30 caliber M-1 carbine. Williams, a colorful character with his long sideburns, Stetson hat and cigar, became wealthy and patented over 50 inventions.

More than 8 million Allied soldiers carried the M-1 carbine, a light, semiautomatic rifle, in World War II. General Douglas MacArthur described the weapon as “one of the strongest contributing factors to our victory in the Pacific.” J. Edgar Hoover and others had similar praise for “Carbine” Williams, the weapon’s designer.

Visit: Step inside Carbine’s workshop for yourself at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh.

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Gertrude McKee, Groundbreaking Lawmaker

gdm002_retouched-851x10241On January 7, 1931Gertrude McKee became the first female member of the North Carolina Senate.

Among the most prominent North Carolinians of her day, McKee brought to the legislature a wealth of experience in public affairs.

Born and raised in Dillsboro in Jackson County, she was the daughter of the town’s founder. Her family also long operated the High Hampton Inn, among the leading resorts in the region. McKee’s first involvement in politics came in 1928 when she worked on a campaign for Congress.

After being elected to the state Senate seat from the 32nd District in 1930 and taking her seat in 1931, she jokingly referred to her 49 male colleagues as her children. As chair of the public welfare committee, she took a special interest in child labor laws and old age assistance. Voters returned her to the Senate four times, and there was even talk of her becoming North Carolina’s first female governor.

McKee died in 1948, three weeks after being elected to a fourth Senate term.

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Central Prison Opens in Raleigh


On January 6, 1870, Central Prison opened in Raleigh. The first three prisoners—one man and two women—had been convicted of robbery in Johnston County. Prior to the prison’s opening, North Carolina did not have a central, state-operated prison and instead relied on the counties to manage inmates. Central Prison’s construction was proposed as early as 1846, but did not begin until the adoption of the North Carolina Constitution of 1868 as part of Reconstruction.

A committee appointed by the General Assembly originally chose a tract in Chatham County for the prison, but the legislature opted for a site near downtown Raleigh. Prisoners were housed in temporary structures until the first permanent building was completed in 1884.

Though inmates accounted for most of the labor used to build 1884 structure, some outside help was brought in, perhaps most notably stone carver W.O. Wolfe, the father of novelist Thomas Wolfe.  The prison complex underwent extensive renovations in the 1940s, 1960s, and 1970s, and rebuilding in the 1980s. Today it is the intake site for all male felons over the age of 22 with sentences longer than 20 years.

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