Back to the future: Greensboro Historical Museum gives us a glimpse of ourselves

by Ogi Overman

‘“History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.’”

‘— David C. McCullough

The initial hint comes before entering the building. Even if one were not aware that it was once a Confederate hospital as well as the First Presbyterian Church, there is something about the red brick exterior and rounded corners that just looks’… well, historical.

Once inside, another hint that something special awaits comes in the form of the elegant, green-carpeted spiral staircase that seems to wind into infinity. But the true affirmation comes only after a few hours browsing through the hundreds of exhibits and thousands of artifacts.

To say that Greensboro has a rich history would be an understatement. Likewise, to say that the Greensboro Historical Museum gives an accurate and detailed portrayal of the city’s varied past falls far short of the mark. Indeed, the true measure of the museum’s worth cannot be captured in this space through words and pictures. One must savor it as fine wine, curl up with it as if it were a spellbinding novel, cherish it as you would a long-lost love. Like history itself it must be treasured, preserved and respected, but as the above quote implies, it should also be used as a learning tool, a window into not only our past but our very selves.

The visitor may enter its portals looking for a pleasurable way to kill a couple of hours, but upon leaving, even the most oblivious among us are bound to come away with a deeper sense of the area’s past as well as a keener appreciation of the historical precedents that make Greensboro, Guilford County and Piedmont North Carolina what it is, circa early 21st century.

Ask most Greensboro residents to cite a few of the city’s famous figures and the list is likely to begin with O. Henry and end with Dolley Madison with few names in between. Oh, some will note our namesake, Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene, and the newshounds among us will certainly recall Edward R. Murrow. The sports-minded will cite the baseball-playing Ferrell brothers, Wes and Rick; business leaders as well as mill workers will mention the Cone brothers, Bernard and Julius; and military buffs will recite the heroics of World War II flying ace George Preddy and Vietnam Medal of Honor winner Phill G. McDonald.

But how many would know of the exploits of prohibition agent Fred Ratledge? Or the historical significance of Charlotte Hawkins Brown? Or the role played by David Caldwell? Or Henry Humphries, owner of the state’s first steam-powered cotton mill? Or one of the first female licensed pilots in the U.S., Mary Webb Nicholson?

Spend a few hours touring the building at 130 Summit Ave. and the grounds surrounding it and you will know the answers to all those questions. And many more.

‘“One faces the future with one’s past.’”

‘— Pearl S. Buck

Granted, there is no way to absorb the museum experience vicariously, yet come with us on a virtual tour that will at least hint at the flavor and diversity of the exhibits. The tour may be subjective, as no two visitors will have identical interests, and it will certainly be incomplete, but hopefully it will whet one’s appetite for the real thing. (Bear in mind that many, if not most, of these exhibits are rotated periodically.)

Among the first exhibits at the first level of the spiral staircase are the sterling silver collections of two of Greensboro’s most prominent historical families, the Zenkes and the Metcalfs. From there the mood shifts to baseball, as a dozen or so uniforms worn by local professional and amateur teams of yore are on display. Next comes a large collection of pottery from the famous Jugtown, followed by an actual whiskey still like the ones busted up by the aforementioned Fred Ratledge.

Visitors are likely to stop for a while at the Belle Meade mansion exhibit, featuring three rooms furnished with near-exact replicas of the furniture and accoutrements of the home that sat on the grounds now occupied by First Horizon Park.

Heritage, as it should, plays a prominent role in the saga that is Greensboro, and the museum itself is a reflection of that heritage, both ethnic and religious. The rich tapestry is on display with exhibits featuring the diversity of the area’s Quaker, Native American, Moravian, African-American, German, Scotch-Irish, and Jewish populations. One exhibit that chronicles our evolution from a farming to manufacturing community is titled ‘From Forest to City.’

One of the most impressive rooms in the building is devoted to the region’s Cambodian influence. It contains hundreds of artifacts from the Far East, as well as photos and an audio-visual narrative.

‘“This exhibit has won four prestigious awards,’” revealed the museum’s public relations director, Taneka Bennett. ‘“We have a large number of refugee families from the Khmer Rouge who’ve settled here, and this pays tribute to their struggles and courage.’”

Among the most visited rooms is one unofficially known as the Carol Martin Room, which is chock-full of images by the acclaimed News & Record photographer. It details our more recent past, from the late-1930s through the early-’90s.

‘“When Carol died, his fellow photographer, Malcolm Miller, donated all these pictures to the museum,’” said Bennett. ‘“In all there are over 200,000 of them, both here and in the archives.’”

A part of mankind’s (and Greensboro’s) history can be glimpsed through the things that it builds. And re-builds. And tears down. While the image of the Burlington Industries headquarters on Friendly Avenue being imploded is still vivid, future generations will know of the building primarily through the museum. Already relegated to the memory banks and/or museum are such erstwhile landmarks as the King Cotton and O. Henry hotels, the Benbow House, the Opera House (later the Grand Movie Theatre), the Central Fire Station (except for the façade), the Greensboro YMCA, the Manor Motel, Montaldo’s, and countless others. Photos of those structures, many taken by Martin, are on display, while the rest, and many more, may be found in the museum’s archives, which are available to the general public by appointment.

Surely, most locals are aware of the pivotal role Greensboro played in the civil rights movement with the Woolworth’s sit-ins. So, quite naturally, the museum has a large exhibit dedicated to February 1, 1960 and the A&T students who came to be known as the ‘Greensboro Four.’

Just as this nation was born in war, a large part of Guilford County’s history has been consumed by battle. And, for better or worse, a large portion of the museum reflects that fact. Two full rooms are devoted to Civil War artifacts, particularly rifles and armaments. The Revolutionary, Spanish-American, Korean and Vietnam wars, not to mention both World Wars, are given ample space and reverence.

A visit to the museum would not be complete without a tour of the grounds. Incongruous as it seems in the middle of a bustling downtown, one can, with very little imagination, step back to the nation’s formative years. Five historic structures are situated therein: the Francis McNairy House, the Christian Isley House, a kitchen, woodworking shop and blacksmith shop. An herb garden grows nearby and herb-growing, woodworking and blacksmithing demonstrations are given on a regular basis by the museum’s docents, each dressed in period costume.

More than a few lifelong residents of Greensboro may be startled to know that a graveyard sits in the middle of downtown. Since part of the museum was originally the First Presbyterian Church, as was the custom, its cemetery is adjacent to the church. The most prominent of the hundred or so gravestones belongs to John Motley Morehead, Governor of North Carolina from 1841-’45.

Visitors curious as to how Greensboro came about its moniker, ‘The Gate City,’ will find the answer when a new exhibit opens July 4. Titled ‘Railroads Made the Gate City,’ it includes an invitation to the 1851 groundbreaking ceremony for the North Carolina Railroad, which linked the eastern and western parts of the state.

‘“We want to thank the Greensboro chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, who made a donation for this exhibit,’” noted Bennett. ‘“It will include the different sounds and whistles that the various trains make.’”

As would be expected, first lady Dolley Madison has a room full of dresses, portraits and heirlooms, while the city’s other leading light, O. Henry, is featured throughout, including a statue of him outside and an intimate theatre on the lower level. The theatre hosts five of his short stories in an annual event, ‘Five by O. Henry.’

‘“But it’s not the same five each year,’” smiled Bennett.

‘“In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.’”

‘— Alex Haley

Although Greensboro’s bicentennial is not until 2008, museum officials are already gearing up for the celebration. As might be expected, it will be a centerpiece of the town’s 200th anniversary and the staff and volunteers will take a lead role in helping facilitate the myriad events surrounding the fete.

‘“We’ve already begun planning for 2008,’” disclosed Bennett. ‘“That’s going to be an exciting time for us at the museum as well as the whole city. As we draw closer to the bicentennial, I think you’ll be hearing more and more about the various things we have planned.’”

One of the most visible of the bicentennial-related exhibits will debut in 2006, the O. Henry Village on the upper level of the building. It will include a re-creation of his uncle Clark Porter’s drugstore at 121. S. Elm; his elementary school on Lindsay St.; the Porter House where he was reared; and an interactive slide show.

Yet, while O. Henry and Dolley Madison may be our two most revered historical citizens, the museum goes to great lengths to pay homage to the generations of anonymous folk who built Greensboro over the past 200 years. For, in the final analysis, it is the people who came before us, our ancestors and progenitors, who give us the best glimpse into ourselves. It is not only the political, business, military and civic leaders who paved the way, but the carpenters, the masons, the railroad engineers, the teachers, the artists, the farmers, the mill workers, the homemakers. It is the sum of us all that gives us our identity; culturally, geographically, ethnically and in every way that matters. It is in our diversity that we draw our strength.

And it is within these hallowed grounds, in and around this place at 130 Summit Ave., where we will discover who we are and why we are the way we are.

The author would like to acknowledge the contributions of former museum assistant director Gayle Hicks Fripp, archivist Stephen Catlett, and public relations director Taneka Bennett to this story. Fripp’s essay on the history of Greensboro, accessible on the website, and her photo-journalistic look at Greensboro, ‘“Images of America, Greensboro,’” (available in the museum’s gift shop) were invaluable. Catlett’s continuing use of providing archival images adds immensely. And Bennett’s guided tour for both the author and photographer made the story possible.

Greensboro Historical Museum hours are Tue.’–Sat. 10 a.m.’–5 p.m. and Sun. 2’–5 p.m. Admission and parking are free. For further info, call 336.373.2043 or go online to