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A new history of North Carolina

by DG Martin

The Tar Heel State: A History of North Carolina by UNC-Asheville emeritus professor Milton Ready just hit the bookstores.

Because Professor William Powell’s one-volume history of our state, North Carolina Through Four Centuries, published in 1989, is the ‘gold standard’ of our state history books, Ready’s book will be measured against Powell’s work.

One way to compare history books is to look at the way they cover particular events or themes. I took a look at how Powell and Ready treated a list of important matters of North Carolina history between 1950 and 1975 that I shared in this column several years ago.

Here is my list and how both authors handled these events:

1. The Willis Smith-Frank Graham US Senate race in 1950, in which Jesse Helms cut his teeth.

Powell briefly notes this ‘“heated battle,’” mentions Helms, and says that ‘“race [was] a live issue’” for first time since 1900. Ready emphasizes the role of Helms and places the election in the context of racial politics in the South.

2. The creation of the Community college system in 1957.

Both authors make only a brief mention.

3.The January 1958 rout of the Ku Klux Klan by the Lumbee Indians.’ 

No mention by either.

4.The founding of the Research Triangle Park in about 1959.

Both authors devote several pages. Powell emphasizes the role of Gov.Luther Hodges. Ready emphasizes the importance of the ideas of UNC Professor Howard Odum.

5.The Greensboro sit-ins at Woolworth’s in February 1960.

Powell devotes several pages under a section titled ‘“Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-Ins.’” Ready places the event in the lead paragraph in his chapter on civil rights

6.The election of Gov. Terry Sanford in 1960.

Powell has a one-page section on ‘“Governor Sanford’s Progressive Program.’” Ready mentions Sanford very briefly.

7.The end of the Dixie Classic basketball tournament in 1961.

Nothing in index of either book about this topic.

8.The 1963 Speaker Ban Law.

Powell has two pages on ‘“Communism and the Speaker Ban.’” Nothing in Ready’s index.

9. The Charlotte busing decision (Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education) upheld by the Supreme Court in 1971.

Powell has a section on ‘“The Charlotte Mecklenburg School Case,’” while Ready’s one-page discussion is a part of his chapter on civil rights. The authors disagree about where presiding judge, James B. McMillan, went to law school. Powell says Harvard. Ready says Chapel Hill. Powell is correct.

10.The 1972 election of Jesse Helms to the US Senate and of Jim Holshouser as the first Republican governor in the 20th century.

Powell makes a short mention in a section called ‘“Great and Unexpected Changes.’” Ready gives a more thoughtful discussion of the election results as a part of his chapter on civil rights.

Perhaps these comparisons help show the authors’ different approaches. Powell generally sets out the events chronologically. Ready arranges them thematically.

It may be too early to say which approach is better. Ready’s work will certainly get a more thorough review by others later on, but several minor errors, in addition to the one about Judge McMillan’s law school, give me pause. For instance, he writes ‘“Winston-Salem ‘…still has headquarters for’…Wachovia.’” A later statement that ‘“In 2000, First Union and Wachovia combined’…’” arguably corrects the earlier erroneous sentence. But since the merger actually occurred in 2001, the attempted correction actually compounds the error.

Even less important, perhaps, is the following: ‘“An entire generation grew up in the 1950’s humming the Pepsi commercial, ‘Pepsi-Cola hits the spot, twelve full ounces, that’s a lot.’ At the time, Coca-Cola has only eight ounces.’”

But my bottles of Coke during those times had six (or six and a half) ounces. Ready should have remembered the next line of the tune. ‘“Twice as much for a nickel, too, Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you.’”

Putting aside these minor errors, Ready has made a major contribution by giving us a new look at North Carolina history and a new way to look at it. His book will be a valuable aid to students of North Carolina history. It is going to be in the center of my bookshelf ‘— right beside Professor Powell’s classic.

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