Tag Archive | Rocky Mount

Reprieve for Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe (far right) receives his Olympic medals from the king of Sweden.

On October 13, 1982Jim Thorpe’s medals from the 1912 Olympics were reinstated.

The famed athlete, who lived from 1888 until 1953, was born in a cabin on an Indian reservation in Oklahoma and educated at Indian boarding schools nearby. In 1904, he enrolled at the U. S. Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. While at Carlisle, Thorpe was coached by Glenn “Pop” Warner, who added him to the track team. Recognizing his talent as an athlete, Warner suggested that Thorpe train for the 1912 Olympic Games.

In 1909, Thopre played semi-professional baseball in North Carolina for the Rocky Mount Railroaders and the Fayetteville Highlanders.

At the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Thorpe won gold medals in the newly-created multi-events, the pentathlon and the decathlon. Sweden’s King Gustav V called him “the greatest athlete in the world.” A year later, after word spread that Thorpe had played semipro baseball in North Carolina, he lost his amateur status and he was forced to return his Olympic medals.

In 1982, nearly 30 years after his death, the International Olympic Committee voted unanimously to restore Thorpe’s medals.

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Kay Kyser:“C’mon Chillun! Le’s Dance!”

On July 23, 1985James “Kay” Kyser, popular radio personality and bandleader, died in Chapel Hill.

Born in Rocky Mount in 1905, Kyser attended UNC where he was an exuberant head cheerleader and the class president. Also known as the “Ol’ Professor of Swing,” Kyser became one of the wildest and most grandiose bandleaders of the swing era.

In the 1930s, Kyser toured with his band, Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge, through much of the Midwest. Over the next two decades, they garnered national attention and had 11 number-one hits. Although he never learned to play an instrument, Kyser was a top-notch entertainer and went on to star in over a dozen movies, co-starring with greats of the time like Lucille Ball and John Barrymore.

In 1941, Kyser was the first person to perform live at camp shows for U.S. military personnel, predating performers such as Bob Hope. He retired suddenly in 1950, withdrawing to Chapel Hill where he remained until his death.

In 1999, he was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.

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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, make sure you subscribe by email using the box on the right, and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest.

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.

Susie Sharp and Her Appointments without Precedent

Chief Justice Shrap in her chambers. Image from
the N.C. Supreme Court Historical Society.

On January 2, 1975, Susie Sharp took the oath of office as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina.

Governor Kerr Scott had appointed Sharp a Superior Court judge 26 years earlier, in 1949, making her the first female judge in state history. As she rode the circuit she encountered the usual challenges, but experienced some unexpected ones, too. In Morganton, the judge’s bathroom had only a sink and a urinal. In another instance, an attorney in one of her trials once began his summation, “Gentlemen of the jury, the presence of sweet womanhood in this courtroom today rarefies the atmosphere.”

Governor Terry Sanford appointed Sharp to the state’s high bench in 1962, and she was elected by the people that fall. Twelve years later, she received 74 percent of the vote to become the first woman Chief Justice in the nation to be popularly elected.

The petite jurist, who served until 1979, was a native of Rocky Mount but lived most of her life in Reidsville. She was at once progressive, advocate for judicial reform and for humane prison conditions, but also deeply conservative, passionately arguing against the Equal Rights Amendment. Time magazine named Sharp one of twelve “women of the year” in 1975.

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P. T. Barnum Preaches in Rocky Mount, 1836

An 1897 poster for the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Image from the Library of Congress.

On November 12, 1836, Phineas Taylor “P. T.” Barnum arrived in Rocky Mount after leaving Aaron Turner’s Traveling Circus, for which he managed the sideshow acts and took tickets.  Barnum convinced some of the Turner acts to join his own traveling circus.

Their first stop was in what is now Rocky Mount. Arriving on a Saturday evening, Barnum spent the night at the Stage Coach Inn. In his autobiography, Barnum wrote that, the next morning, he accompanied the landlord to the Baptist church. Before entering the church, Barnum noticed a grove with a stand and benches. Wishing to speak to the congregation, Barnum was permitted by the preacher to speak for a half an hour after the service.

Approximately 300 people stayed to listen to Barnum preach. It was reported that the crowd was pleased the performance by Barnum, who was not yet known as the Greatest Showman on Earth.

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Jazz Giant Thelonious Monk of Rocky Mount

Monk plays the piano in September 1947. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Monk plays the piano in September 1947. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On October 10, 1917, Thelonious Monk was born in Rocky Mount. Though Monk lived most of his life in Manhattan, his North Carolina roots ran deep.

Monk’s style was original and unorthodox, incorporating elements of stride piano and gospel to create a “rhythmic virtuosity,” striking dissonant notes and playing skewed melodies. He collaborated with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and many other noted jazz musicians of the time. Along with Dizzy Gillespie, another of his collaborators, Monk is credited as an architect of bebop; The third composition he copyrighted, and his first as sole composer, was also his best-known, “’Round Midnight.”

Personally, Monk had a reputation as the ultimate hipster, with his goatee, skullcap and bamboo-rimmed sunglasses. He often left his keyboard to dance while onstage and, at random moments, on the street or in public spaces, would twirl for several minutes. Viewed by some as temperamental and eccentric, he is described by his biographer Robin Kelley as essentially rebellious. Kelley documented that Monk suffered from bipolar disorder most of his adult life.

In 1972, Monk withdrew from public appearances and was hospitalized intermittently until his death. Among his last extended stands was a week at the Frog and Nightgown in Raleigh’s Cameron Village in 1970. A park in his hometown has carried his name since 2000.

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Rocky Mount Man Inducted into Baseball Hall of Fame

Buck Leonard catches a ball in the 1930s while playing for the Homestead Grays. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Buck Leonard catches a ball in the 1930s while playing for the Homestead Grays. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

On August 7, 1972, Negro League ballplayer and Rocky Mount native Walter Fenner “Buck” Leonard was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Born in 1907, Leonard was forced to quit school at age 14, since there was no high school for black students in Rocky Mount at the time. To help support his mother and five siblings following his father’s death, young Leonard worked at a local hosiery mill, as a shoeshine and later for a railroad while playing semi-pro baseball for the Rocky Mount Elks and Rocky Mount Black Swans.

The loss of his job during the Great Depression prompted Leonard to focus on professional baseball full time. He eventually made his way to the Pennsylvania-based Homestead Grays.

Fans and analysts alike heralded Leonard, an extraordinary first baseman and hitter, as the “black Lou Gehrig.” Alongside power slugger Josh Gibson, Leonard helped to lead the Grays to nine consecutive Negro League championships.

In 1950, with 17 years and a career batting average of .320 under his belt, Leonard retired to his hometown of Rocky Mount.

He was the first National Baseball Hall of Fame inductee from North Carolina.

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Rocky Mount Mills Burned by Union Troops, 1863

Rocky Mount Mills in 1924. Image from the N.C. Museum of History.

Rocky Mount Mills in 1924. Image from the N.C. Museum of History.

On July 20, 1863, Union cavalry led by Gen. Edward Potter torched Rocky Mount Mills, the second cotton mill in North Carolina after the short-lived Schenck-Warlick Mill in Lincoln County.

Manufacturing began in Rocky Mount in 1818 on a 20-acre tract at the falls of the Tar River. The mills were initially operated by Joel Battle and two partners, but by 182,5 Battle was the sole proprietor.

Built from local granite, the facility, housing cotton and grist mills, was three stories plus a basement. Slaves and a few free African Americans supplied the labor from the earliest days until about 1852, when the Battles began to substitute white workers, many of them women and children. By that time, local slaveowners were less inclined to hire their slaves out for factory work.

After the Civil War, Battle rebuilt the mills on the original foundation. The new brick building, four stories with a basement this time, burned in 1869 and Battle again rebuilt the mills.

When Rocky Mount Mills closed in 1996, it was believed to be the oldest operating cotton mill in the South. It now comprises a local historic district and is undergoing redevelopment.

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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.