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

In honor of Greensboro’s bicentennial we present some of the more seminal and overlooked moments in the city’s first two centuries that give the Gate City its soul and quirk. Let’s start with an event 39 years ago when the administration at Dudley High School disqualified Claude Barnes from election. Student protests and heavy-handed police response evolved into widespread unrest that soon overtook NC A&T University. Barnes, now an associate professor of political science at A&T, remembered that time in testimony before the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2005. Barnes said his name was taken off the ballot because he was considered a “subversive” on the basis of his association with Nelson Johnson, Joyce Johnson and Lewis Brandon, three people who continue to advocate for political change through the Beloved Community Center. “The students, of course, exercised their First Amendment rights to free speech and protest, and, of course, being naive young people we did not know that you can’t do that in America without being the victim of excessive use of force,” Barnes said. “And we were absolutely surprised and amazed that on a high school 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

The Greensboro Bicentennial calendar, edited by Linda Evans, lists this as the date when the Greensboro Buddhist Center opened on Liberty Road. The Buddhist center’s origins go back to the early 1980s, when the US Office of Refugee Resettlement chose Greensboro, along with Charlotte, to host Cambodian refugees displaced by the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge. “Organized in 1985 by the Khmer Aid Group of the Triad with help from Lutheran Family Services and a grant from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the center is located on ten acres that includes two houses,” a report posted on the web by UNC-Chapel Hill’s Pluralism Project states. “The temple functions as a religious, cultural, and educational center for over 500 families from North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia. The congregation is made up primarily of Lao and Cambodian 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 or so. Two of the driving issues of the party’s forerunner appear to have been protecting white nationalist terrorists and stripping funding from public education. A description of the nominating convention prepared by the city’s library and historical museum holds that “the party began as a loosely organized political organization in North Carolina during the Civil War and came into power in the 1870 legislative elections. It impeached Governor Holden for pursuing the Ku Klux Klan, and it cut back on spending, including the support of education. In 1876, it will become 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 to Greensboro with his wife at the close of the Civil War and went into the nursery business. He soon rose to prominence, organizing the Loyal Reconstruction Leagues, championing black rights, successfully running for judicial seats, and later helping to found Bennett College. The Dictionary of North Carolina Biography reports: “During his six years as a judge, Tourgée provoked intense opposition with his outspoken, effective and equalitarian Republicanism. Like all Republicans of Yankee origin, he was stigmatized as a carpetbagger and was considered ‘for many years the most thoroughly hated man in North Carolina.’ His judicial circuit was a center of racial conflict and Ku Klux Klan atrocities, including the brutal assassinations of Wyatt Outlaw and John Walter Stephens in Alamance and Caswell counties respectively.”

Presidential candidate Henry Wallace assaulted and jeered across state in September 1948

Racial politics seems to hold an abiding sway over Greensboro and North Carolina as a whole. Let’s just call it our historical birthright. Henry Wallace, a former vice-president under FDR, headed the Progressive Party ticket in 1948, and he barnstormed across North Carolina in a campaign that seemed designed more to challenge prevailing prejudices than to win votes as he called for an end to segregation. “In Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point, Hickory and Charlotte, Wallace was heckled, shouted down, and splattered with rotten eggs and spoiled fruit,” Raleigh News & Observer staff writer Rob Christensen writes in his new book, The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics. “He showed personal courage, standing up to angry crowds, even as his gray hair became stained with egg yolk. When he called for federal aid for Southern hospitals, he was jeered as a communist. ‘Any one 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

Aside from what the Greensboro Bicentennial calendar and UNCG presents, the internet relinquishes scant information about this episode in which Greensboro fell victim to a public health scourge rampaging across urbanized parts of the United States. The UNCG website contains this nugget: “Thirteen college students and one staff member died in a typhoid epidemic, caused by a defective sewer line contaminating the college’s well water. The college closed for two months, and was hooked up 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

Anyone who’s met Henry Frye, a lawyer employed with Brooks Pierce law firm in Greensboro, likely knows him to be an amiable and approachable sort. He’s also known as the first African American in several categories of North Carolina history. The library and history museum presents this snapshot of his moment of honor in 1983: “Henry E. Frye of Greensboro, former state senator, successful businessman and attorney, is sworn in today as an associate justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, the first African-American justice in the court’s history. His mother, Pearl Motley Frye, says, ‘I didn’t dream of such a thing.’ Thirteen years ago, he became the first African-American elected to the North Carolina General Assembly since 1897.”

Charlton Heston married at Grace United Methodist Church on March 17, 1944

Known to many as “the voice of God” for his 1956 portrayal of Moses in The Ten Commandments, actor Charlton Heston was a mortal human being when he took his bride before a preacher in Greensboro. “Charlton Heston, a 19-year-old college student who has enlisted in the Air Corps and is stationed in Greensboro, has finally persuaded his sweetheart Lydia Clarke to marry him before he is sent overseas,” this Bicentennial Minute reads. “At Grace Methodist Church on Friendly Avenue, the minister performs the ceremony on two hours’ notice, with two church members as witnesses.”

Junius Irving Scales convicted under the Smith Act in US District Court in April 1955

Few would suspect that one of the most prominent communists jailed in the United States for his party membership was a son of Greensboro textile wealth. Junius Irving Scales, who was radicalized after attending UNC-Chapel Hill in the late 1930s, rose to the rank of party chair for North and South Carolina, according to a biographical note attached to his personal papers in the Southern Historical Collection. “He was the first individual imprisoned under the Smith Act for membership in the Communist Party and suspected plotting to overthrow the United States government. He served 14 months before his sentence was commuted by President John F. Kennedy.” What made him fall under the spell of Stalin? Scales wrote in his memoir before his death in 2002: “Immeasurable suffering, exploitation and poverty had existed among thousands of people, right under my nose all my life, and I’d been totally unaware of it.”

The Coffins aid fugitive slaves in the 1820s

There’s no date to mark the opening of the Underground Railroad because the extensive network of abolitionists, Quakers and freed blacks that helped slaves escaped bonded servitude was necessarily a clandestine affair. Many historians credit Levi Coffin and Vestal Coffin, Quakers who lived near the site of present-day Guilford College with helping to launch the effort. “Runaway slaves used frequently to conceal themselves in the woods and thickets of New Garden, waiting opportunities to make their escape to the North, and I generally learned their plans of concealment and rendered them all the service in my power,” Levi Coffin writes, in a passage quoted in The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom, a volume by Wilbur H. Sieber that was published in 1898. “These outlying slaves knew where I lived, and, when reduced to extremity of want or danger, often came to my room, in the silence and darkness of the night, to obtain food or assistance. In my efforts to aid these fugitives I had a zealous coworker in my friend and cousin Vestal Coffin, who was then and continued to the time of his death – a few years later – a staunch friend of the slave.”