YES! Weekly’s ten best significant years in GSO history

by Brian Clarey

1740 (or so) – Quaker settlement

As we begin to debate the ways in which we’ll celebrate Greensboro’s bicentennial in 2008 YES! Weekly looks back on some of the city’s most important years. Our civic character began to be shaped when the first Quaker settlers arrived some time around 1740. They worked the land, praised their God, helped establish the Underground Railroad in the 1830s and built the New Garden Boarding School in 1837 which eventually became Guilford College. The values of social justice, peace and humanitarianism laid a foundation for the city Greensboro would become.

1781 – The Battle of Guilford Courthouse

This one had it all: Cornwallis vs. Greene, red coats and dragoon helmets, musketry, a pyrrhic victory and a fighting giant (Peter Francisco, a 6-foot-8 soldier with Washington’s cavalry, was said to have cut down 13 British soldiers with his five-foot broadsword – dibs on the movie rights). Apparently there was also a post-game interview with General Cornwallis where he said, “The Americans fought like demons.” We lost this one, but I think we covered the spread.

1808 – Greensborough is founded

Guilford County residents walked off a 42-acre tract in the geographic center of the county. The area was more or less vacant in this new County Seat, but the geography was pleasant and the city began to fill with politicians, merchants and pioneers.

1828 – Humphreys’ cotton mill

In this year Henry Humphreys installed the first steam-powered cotton mill in North Carolina just north of Courthouse Square. The action presaged the city’s emergence as a leader in the textile industry. It would be more than 50 years before two Baltimore grocers, brothers Moses and Ceasar Cone, came to town and built the Proximity Manufacturing Co., which eventually became Cone Mills.

1856 – Trains run on time

After his term in office, former NC Gov. John Motley Morehead retired to his Blandwood Mansion (which still survives on Washington Street), but his interest in the betterment of North Carolina was still very much alive. He is credited with bringing the railroad through town and the first cars ran its tracks in this year. Morehead’s legacy of transportation is why we are called the Gate City – there were once 60 trains running through town each day – and its strategic spot in the Eastern Seaboard is still coveted by companies (and, we’ve heard, drug dealers) for its ease of access to other major cities.

1865 – The Seat of the Confederacy?

North Carolina was the last state to secede from the Union (in 1861) and residents of Guilford County voted 2,771 to 113 against even considering it. But if Jefferson Davis was the living embodiment of the Confederacy, then Greensboro was the Heart of Dixie from April 11-15 when Davis was in town weighing his options after Lee’s April 9 surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. He was considering bringing his general Joseph E. Johnson here to fight Sherman, and while he was here Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater (April 14).

1923 – Jefferson Standard Building opens

The insurance company hired Charles C. Hartmann to build their Greensboro showplace that for a hot minute was the tallest skyscraper in North Carolina. Hartmann designed the U-shaped structure to allow light and air into the center windows, and its Beaux Art countenance really classes up the cityscape, though when it was built it was the only tall building in town. Will Rogers, famous quipster, said upon seeing it that the city was as proud of it as a parent of their baby’s first tooth.

1948 – Wendover Avenue Project planning begins

There’s an urban legend that says the roads in Greensboro were carved by wandering cows that escaped their penned pastures, but city planners tried to instill some sense in the grid back in the ’40s, designing Wendover Avenue which connected the far-flung corners of the city. But the east-west thoroughfare has become a symbol of sprawl and wanton commercial development in the last 30 years. It is also notoriously difficult to cross.

1960 – The Woolworth sit-in

Everybody knows that on Feb. 1, 1960 four black students from NC A&T University sat at the whites-only lunch counter at Woolworth’s and contributed to the momentum of a movement. Sit-ins began throughout the South by the next day. A year later Charlie Sifford became the first African American to play in a PGA tournament in the South, the Greater Greensboro Open.

1979 – The Greensboro Massacre

Members of the Communist Workers Party clashed with members of the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazi Party in a gunfight at Morningside Homes on Nov. 3. Five CWP members were killed, and we’re still trying to figure out how it happened today.