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Ten Best: Overlooked moments in Greensboro’s history

by Brian Clarey

Dudley High School students protest disqualification of Claude Barnes in election on May 21, 1969 Inhonor of Greensboro’s bicentennial we present some of the more seminaland overlooked moments in the city’s first two centuries that give theGate City its soul and quirk. Let’s start with an event 39 years agowhen the administration at Dudley High School disqualified ClaudeBarnes from election. Student protests and heavy-handed police responseevolved into widespread unrest that soon overtook NC A&TUniversity. Barnes, now an associate professor of political science atA&T, remembered that time in testimony before the Greensboro Truthand Reconciliation Commission in 2005. Barnes said his name was takenoff the ballot because he was considered a "subversive" on the basis ofhis association with Nelson Johnson, Joyce Johnson and Lewis Brandon,three people who continue to advocate for political change through theBeloved Community Center. "The students, of course, exercised theirFirst Amendment rights to free speech and protest, and, of course,being naive young people we did not know that you can’t do that inAmerica without being the victim of excessive use of force," Barnessaid. "And we were absolutely surprised and amazed that on a highschool campus we were confronted with tear gas, riot gear and beatings,and we were all thrown in jail with knots on our head." Buddhist temple opens on May 22, 1994 TheGreensboro Bicentennial calendar, edited by Linda Evans, lists this asthe date when the Greensboro Buddhist Center opened on Liberty Road.The Buddhist center’s origins go back to the early 1980s, when the USOffice of Refugee Resettlement chose Greensboro, along with Charlotte,to host Cambodian refugees displaced by the genocide perpetrated by theKhmer Rouge. "Organized in 1985 by the Khmer Aid Group of the Triadwith help from Lutheran Family Services and a grant from the Z. SmithReynolds Foundation, the center is located on ten acres that includestwo houses," a report posted on the web by UNC-Chapel Hill’s PluralismProject states. "The temple functions as a religious, cultural, andeducational center for over 500 families from North Carolina, SouthCarolina and Virginia. The congregation is made up primarily of Lao andCambodian refugees and their families." Conservative Party Convention held on June 15, 1872 Boy,has the NC Democratic Party changed its stripes in the past century orso. Two of the driving issues of the party’s forerunner appear to havebeen protecting white nationalist terrorists and stripping funding frompublic education. A description of the nominating convention preparedby the city’s library and historical museum holds that "the party beganas a loosely organized political organization in North Carolina duringthe Civil War and came into power in the 1870 legislative elections. Itimpeached Governor Holden for pursuing the Ku Klux Klan, and it cutback on spending, including the support of education. In 1876, it willbecome the Democratic Party of North Carolina." Judge Albion Tourgée speaks at opening court session on Sept. 1, 1873 Meanwhile,a left-leaning counterweight was also developing in Greensboro,exemplified by an Ohio journalist named Albion Tourgée who relocated toGreensboro with his wife at the close of the Civil War and went intothe nursery business. He soon rose to prominence, organizing the LoyalReconstruction Leagues, championing black rights, successfully runningfor judicial seats, and later helping to found Bennett College. TheDictionary of North Carolina Biography reports: "During his six yearsas a judge, Tourgée provoked intense opposition with his outspoken,effective and equalitarian Republicanism. Like all Republicans ofYankee origin, he was stigmatized as a carpetbagger and was considered’for many years the most thoroughly hated man in North Carolina.’ Hisjudicial circuit was a center of racial conflict and Ku Klux Klanatrocities, including the brutal assassinations of Wyatt Outlaw andJohn Walter Stephens in Alamance and Caswell counties respectively." Presidential candidate Henry Wallace assaulted and jeered across state in September 1948 Racialpolitics seems to hold an abiding sway over Greensboro and NorthCarolina as a whole. Let’s just call it our historical birthright.Henry Wallace, a former vice-president under FDR, headed theProgressive Party ticket in 1948, and he barnstormed across NorthCarolina in a campaign that seemed designed more to challengeprevailing prejudices than to win votes as he called for an end tosegregation. "In Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point, Hickory andCharlotte, Wallace was heckled, shouted down, and splattered withrotten eggs and spoiled fruit," Raleigh News & Observer staffwriter Rob Christensen writes in his new book, The Paradox of Tar HeelPolitics. "He showed personal courage, standing up to angry crowds,even as his gray hair became stained with egg yolk. When he called forfederal aid for Southern hospitals, he was jeered as a communist. ‘Anyone who wants to call that a Bolshevik plot is welcome to do so,’Wallace shot back. ‘I say it is a Christian thought.’" UNCG closed on Nov. 21, 1899 due to a typhoid epidemic that killed 14 Asidefrom what the Greensboro Bicentennial calendar and UNCG presents, theinternet relinquishes scant information about this episode in whichGreensboro fell victim to a public health scourge rampaging acrossurbanized parts of the United States. The UNCG website contains thisnugget: "Thirteen college students and one staff member died in atyphoid epidemic, caused by a defective sewer line contaminating thecollege’s well water. The college closed for two months, and was hookedup to the city’s water supply following this event." Henry Frye becomes first African-American justice on the NC Supreme Court on Feb. 3, 1983 Anyonewho’s met Henry Frye, a lawyer employed with Brooks Pierce law firm inGreensboro, likely knows him to be an amiable and approachable sort.He’s also known as the first African American in several categories ofNorth Carolina history. The library and history museum presents thissnapshot of his moment of honor in 1983: "Henry E. Frye of Greensboro,former state senator, successful businessman and attorney, is sworn intoday as an associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, thefirst African-American justice in the court’s history. His mother,Pearl Motley Frye, says, ‘I didn’t dream of such a thing.’ Thirteenyears ago, he became the first African-American elected to the NorthCarolina General Assembly since 1897." Charlton Heston married at Grace United Methodist Church on March 17, 1944 Knownto many as "the voice of God" for his 1956 portrayal of Moses in TheTen Commandments, actor Charlton Heston was a mortal human being whenhe took his bride before a preacher in Greensboro. "Charlton Heston, a19-year-old college student who has enlisted in the Air Corps and isstationed in Greensboro, has finally persuaded his sweetheart LydiaClarke to marry him before he is sent overseas," this BicentennialMinute reads. "At Grace Methodist Church on Friendly Avenue, theminister performs the ceremony on two hours’ notice, with two churchmembers as witnesses." Junius Irving Scales convicted under the Smith Act in US District Court in April 1955 Fewwould suspect that one of the most prominent communists jailed in theUnited States for his party membership was a son of Greensboro textilewealth. Junius Irving Scales, who was radicalized after attendingUNC-Chapel Hill in the late 1930s, rose to the rank of party chair forNorth and South Carolina, according to a biographical note attached tohis personal papers in the Southern Historical Collection. "He was thefirst individual imprisoned under the Smith Act for membership in theCommunist Party and suspected plotting to overthrow the United Statesgovernment. He served 14 months before his sentence was commuted byPresident John F. Kennedy." What made him fall under the spell ofStalin? Scales wrote in his memoir before his death in 2002:"Immeasurable suffering, exploitation and poverty had existed amongthousands of people, right under my nose all my life, and I’d beentotally unaware of it." The Coffins aid fugitive slaves in the 1820s There’sno date to mark the opening of the Underground Railroad because theextensive network of abolitionists, Quakers and freed blacks thathelped slaves escaped bonded servitude was necessarily a clandestineaffair. Many historians credit Levi Coffin and Vestal Coffin, Quakerswho lived near the site of present-day Guilford College with helping tolaunch the effort. "Runaway slaves used frequently to concealthemselves in the woods and thickets of New Garden, waitingopportunities to make their escape to the North, and I generallylearned their plans of concealment and rendered them all the service inmy power," Levi Coffin writes, in a passage quoted in The UndergroundRailroad: From Slavery to Freedom, a volume by Wilbur H. Sieber thatwas published in 1898. "These outlying slaves knew where I lived, and,when reduced to extremity of want or danger, often came to my room, inthe silence and darkness of the night, to obtain food or assistance. Inmy efforts to aid these fugitives I had a zealous coworker in my friendand cousin Vestal Coffin, who was then and continued to the time of hisdeath – a few years later – a staunch friend of the slave."
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