Terry Sanford: Politics, Progress, and Outrageous Ambitions

Terry Sanford: Politics, Progress, and Outrageous Ambitions

by Howard E. Covington Jr., Marion A. Ellis

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Terry Sanford (1917–1998) was one of the most important public figures of the postwar South. First as North Carolina’s governor and later as president of Duke University, he demonstrated a dynamic style of progressive leadership marked by compassion and creativity. This book tells the story of Sanford’s beginnings, his political aspirations, his


Terry Sanford (1917–1998) was one of the most important public figures of the postwar South. First as North Carolina’s governor and later as president of Duke University, he demonstrated a dynamic style of progressive leadership marked by compassion and creativity. This book tells the story of Sanford’s beginnings, his political aspirations, his experiences in office, and, of course, his numerous accomplishments in the context of a period of revolutionary change in the South.
After defeating a segregationist campaign in 1960 to win the governorship, Sanford used his years in office to boost public education and advance race relations. A decade later, at the height of tumult on American campuses, Sanford assumed the presidency of Duke University and led it to its position as one of the top universities in the nation. During his more than fifty years as a public servant he was associated with presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter. Sanford was a presidential candidate himself in 1972 and 1976, and he won election to the United States Senate in 1986 where his international commission produced an economic recovery plan for Central America. As one of the last New Deal Democrats in the Senate, he remained passionate about the opportunity for leaders to use government to improve people’s lives.
Terry Sandord draws on Sanford’s considerable private and public archive as well as on the recollections of Sanford himself and his family, colleagues, and friends. This biography offers a unique perspective on North Carolina life, politics, political personalities, and the shifting public allegiances of the second half of the twentieth century that transformed life both in North Carolina and throughout the American South.

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Terry Sanford

Politics, Progress, and Outrageous Ambitions

By Howard E. Covington Jr., Marion A. Ellis

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7946-1


Double Moons over Laurinburg

* * *

The three simple frame houses standing side by side along Caledonia Road on the eastern edge of tiny Laurinburg, North Carolina, had once been the classrooms and dormitory of Laurinburg High School. A private institution, the school was presided over for twenty-one years by William Graham Quackenbush, an orphaned and crippled Virginian who had opened the doors to as many as a hundred students a little more than a dozen years after the end of the Civil War and taught them Latin, Greek, geography, history, math, spelling, English grammar, and music.

Until the school closed in 1901, a year after Laurinburg became the county seat of the newly created Scotland County, Quackenbush and his school had been a source of intense pride for the independent Scots who had settled the lands between the Yadkin and Cape Fear Rivers more than a hundred years before. Indeed, Laurinburg thought so highly of their professor that after his death in 1903 a monument was raised in his honor and placed in front of the courthouse on Main Street. Virtually every county seat across the South had a monument in the square, usually one topped by a musket-toting soldier facing north. Few, if any, memorialized an educator. "Christian, Scholar, Philanthropist," the chiseled inscription read. "His life was gentle and the elements so mixed in him that nature might stand up and say to all the world this was a man."

Nearly two decades after Quackenbush's school gave way to classrooms operated at public expense, the buildings were still in use. The largest of the three, the two-story with dormers on the front that had housed boarding students and Quackenbush's office, was the home of the Butler family. Next door, in a smaller, story-and-a-half version with a plain front and a broad front porch, the King family lived in what had once been classrooms. Just beyond, where the dusty road sloped to meet the crossing of the Seaboard Air Line Railway, the Sanfords—Cecil and Betsy and their three children—lived in an identical classroom turned residence.

The Sanfords had moved to Caledonia Road not long after their second child, James Terry, was born on August 20, 1917. Along with their eldest son, Cecil Leroy Jr., who had been born the year before, and their daughter, Elizabeth Martin, who arrived in 1919, the Sanfords found life on Caledonia Road to be comfortable and adequate. It would do nicely until Cecil Sanford saved enough to afford the new house he planned to build on a lot he owned closer to the center of town. In the meantime, the Sanfords warmed to their neighbors, the Butlers and the Kings, as well as the Ropers, whose house sat under huge oaks on a slight rise beyond the railroad tracks, and the Fairleys, who lived in a big white house directly across Caledonia Road.

A. M. Fairley was superintendent of the Dickson, Prince, and Scotland cotton mills and a man of considerable importance in Laurinburg. From his front porch, he could hear the hum of the spindles in the mills that spun yarn from cotton grown on Scotland County farms. The first of the low, one-story factory buildings was less than a hundred yards behind the Sanfords' house; the rest anchored the southern shoulder of the railroad tracks, one mill building after another down the right-of-way for a quarter of a mile or more. Adjacent to the mills and spread out over a dozen streets from First to Twelfth was the company's mill village, an orderly collection of more than a hundred small, white, frame houses and privies that offered little more than basic shelter for many of the company's eight hundred workers. The first blast of the company's morning whistle awoke those inside, and the second called them to their labor.

This section of Caledonia Road reflected life in Laurinburg in the 1920s as well as any other. The town was small, about twenty-six hundred residents at the 1920 census, which meant that rich and poor, powerful and powerless, merchant and farmer, all lived in close proximity. The proud local gentry said that what really mattered in Laurinburg, and throughout Scotland County, was not wealth or power, but industry and personal responsibility. "Scotch blood runs strong in the veins of these people," a writer would later describe them. "They know that work is not only practical, it is proper. It is the rock of character, the mother of discipline and the conqueror of handicap."

The people were Baptists and Presbyterians mostly, clean, steadfast, and sober. The nation's first temperance society had been organized at nearby Wagram in 1855 in a white hectagonal building that stood for years. Violators of the temperance pledge paid a fine of five dollars for the first violation; members were expelled after a second. When the Civil War broke out, members resolved that "each man return as sober, moral and upright as he is now." With names like McCall, McKinnon, McDuffie, McLean, McLaurin, McNair, and Evans, the Laurinburg families traced their lineage to the Highland Scots who had followed the Cape Fear River up to Fayetteville and then kept going. During the Revolution, some had fought for the Crown and formed a Tory resistance that had been put down at the battle of Moore's Creek Bridge. Flora MacDonald, a heroine of the Loyalists, was remembered by Presbyterians, who named a small Presbyterian college located at Red Springs, about twenty miles northeast of Laurinburg, in her honor.

This was flat country, save for the rolling pine lands of the Sandhills in the northeastern corner of the county, and well watered. In this corner of North Carolina the plain was crossed by streams with names like Shoe Heel, Juniper, and Gum Swamp. Drowning Creek, which formed the headwaters of the Lumber River, crossed to the north. The rise from the coast was so gentle that folks took pride in the nearby village of Old Hundred, which was said to be at the end of the longest stretch of arrow-straight rail line in the Western Hemisphere.

For such a tranquil land, where on a late afternoon the only sound came from circling crows and the wind in the pines, Scotland County was the product of turbulent times. The white supremacy movement of 1898, led by the Democratic Party, had sounded its opening call in Laurinburg at a public meeting on Confederate Memorial Day, May 10, that was attended by nearly every white man in the county, according to one who was there. That fall, armed and mounted men, wearing symbolic red shirts, demonstrated sufficiently to keep most African Americans from polls and discourage support for a ticket of Populists and Republicans. There was no physical violence, at least not in Laurinburg, but at nearby Mason's Crossroads an angry mob of three hundred white citizens forced a Republican who had expressed his affection for African Americans to stand in a buggy and apologize to one and all. "He was then told to hit the grit, which he did," wrote Josephus Daniels, whose newspaper, the News & Observer of Raleigh, fanned the opposition to the Republican-Fusionist government. Daniels witnessed one political meeting featuring South Carolina's most rousing and vitriolic spokesman for the white race, "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, who arrived in Lumberton, just east of Laurinburg, with an escort of mounted armed guards.

He had spoken violently ... saying that the white folks of South Carolina would chunk enough Negroes in the river before they would permit their domination.

If you have never seen three hundred red-shirted men towards sunset with the sky red and the red shirts seeming to blend with the sky, you can conceive the impression it makes. It looked like the whole world was carmine. I then understood why red-shirted men riding through the country, even if they said nothing and shot off no pistols, could carry terror to the Negroes in their quarters.

[W]hen the red shirts marched, ... their appearance was the signal for the Negroes to get out of the way, so that when the red shirt brigade passed through the Negro end of town, it was as uninhabited to all appearances as if it had been a graveyard.

Laurinburg's reward for loyalty to the resurgent Democrats, who reclaimed control of the state legislature, was delivered in the 1899 session. At the insistence of Representative Hector McLean of Lumberton, the legislators separated the southeastern corner of Richmond County and drew a line to the South Carolina border to create Scotland County. In 1900, Laurinburg welcomed not only a new century but a new level of local control that was vested mainly in the hands of the plantation owners and businessmen of the town. A majority of the population was black, but it was a white man's land.

By the 1920s, much of Scotland County's 317 square miles was the private domain of the McNairs. Laurinburg's first family carefully managed textile mills, cotton gins, fertilizer plants, flour mills, and a bank that had grown from the enterprise of John F. McNair, a four-year veteran of the Civil War who returned to the family homestead and began putting together his empire based in the fertile farms across three counties. Most of the McNair lands were tended by black tenant farmers, many of whom had migrated to the cotton fields of the Carolina coastal plains after the boll weevil devastated crops in the Deep South. Between 1910 and 1925, North Carolina had the largest increase in black farmers in the nation, many of them in Scotland County. Yet only one in ten of the black farmers around Laurinburg owned the soil they worked from dawn to dusk.

Terry Sanford's father had come of age with Scotland County. The elder Sanford was born in 1877, nine years after Laurinburg was incorporated as a town, and was not quite a teenager when the Red Shirts gained control in the 1898 elections. He had received his early education under Professor Quackenbush, and his only absence from the sandy streets of Laurinburg had been a stint at business school in Nashville, Tennessee, where he was sent to sharpen his skill with numbers. He returned to work with his father in the J. D. Sanford & Son hardware store on Main Street in Laurinburg not far from his aunt's millinery shop, which was successful enough to rate a listing in Dun & Bradstreet.

Terry's grandfather had been a cabinetmaker before he turned merchant. Grandfather Sanford was the son of a Richmond County farmer who had died for the Confederacy at Bristoe Station, Virginia, in October 1863, the victim of his commander's miscalculation of the strength of a retreating Union force. James Kendrick Sanford had enrolled as a private at age forty-one in the 44th North Carolina Regiment, known as the Montgomery Guards, when the regiment were mustered in at Camp Mangum near Raleigh in April 1862. Following the war, his son, James D., left the farm for Laurinburg and worked in the railroad shops. He had stayed on in 1894 when the shops were moved to Hamlet, seventeen miles to the west, when the Seaboard consolidated its works at the intersection of the main north-south line out of Raleigh.

J. D. Sanford raised his family in Laurinburg, making his home in a house set on a rise north of the railroad tracks in a perfect line of sight to his store on Main Street. His wife was the daughter of a planter from nearby Sampson County, who in later years would tell her grandchildren about life before her father's slaves were freed by invading Yankee soldiers. Sherman's troops had ridden through the Carolinas in March 1865, stopping long enough at nearby Laurel Hill Presbyterian Church to destroy the rail lines and set fire to the shops at Laurinburg before moving on to join the main force at Goldsboro.

Like most of the South, Laurinburg had recovered slowly in the years following the war. The railroad had been reopened to Wilmington and extended farther west to Rutherfordton in the foothills of the western Carolina mountains, which helped turn the town into something more than an isolated outpost a hundred miles from Charlotte, Greensboro, Wilmington, Raleigh, or any city of significant size or reputation.

The size of the cotton crop remained the principal measure of the local economy, but in the years following World War I, some farmers were beginning to develop markets in fruit and melons. In 1920, the county reached a peak in cotton production with more than forty-five thousand bales processed at the local gins. The success at the gin meant business for the Sanfords, whose hardware store enjoyed a prime location midway along Main Street. Packed into this busy collection of storefronts between the railroad tracks and the Methodist Church three blocks south were grocers and clothing stores, three banks, restaurants—including two run by Greeks—a Chinese laundry, a jewelry store, MacDougald's furniture store and funeral parlor, the Scotland County courthouse, and the Chetwyn Hotel with its white-tiled lobby floors. Banquets were held on the second floor of the Belk department store, and the Argyle Club, whose members were prominent men of the community, occupied rooms in the State Bank Building. Main Street continued south to pass in front of the large homes of Laurinburg's wealthy families in the blocks immediately beyond the town square, whosesouthern corners were guarded by two large churches, one for the Presbyterians and the other for the Methodists.

On the northern fringe of the business district were the railway offices, the depot, cotton gins, and the Goose Girl flour mill, which, at six stories, was the tallest structure in the county. Across the tracks was New Town, where Laurinburg's African Americans lived a separate and unequal existence. Yet, in a community that had witnessed some of the meanest racial intimidation at the turn of the century, there existed a private school called the Laurinburg Institute, which had been founded in 1904 by the E. M. and T. M. McDuffie families and recruited paying students from black families all across the South.

Terry's father, Cecil, was a quiet man of medium height and sturdy build, with a keen wit and comfortable personality, strong features, and a steady countenance. His education had not been extensive, but he maintained a keen interest in public affairs and for three years, before World War I, was town clerk. His window on the world was the Raleigh News & Observer that arrived a day late by mail. The brand of Southern Democratic liberalism preached by Josephus Daniels suited him just fine. He took his religion seriously and found a solid spiritual base at the Methodist Church.

When he spotted Elizabeth Martin, or Betsy as she was called, on the town's tennis courts, he was twenty-eight years old and a most eligible bachelor. She was two years younger and had been in Laurinburg less than a year, having arrived in the summer of 1913 to teach in Laurinburg schools. She was a spunky young woman who first thought that Cecil's attentions were directed at one of the other single teachers who lived with her at the teacherage, a boarding house for the school staff. Besides, her mind was not on romance. She nurtured a dream of becoming a missionary in South America or China.

Laurinburg was a long way from Betsy's home in the Shenandoah Valley town of Salem, Virginia, where she had grown up with a house full of sisters and brothers. Her father, David Terry Martin, called the family home Beaconsfield, after British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli's English estate. He owned a feed store and coal business in Salem and did well; his barns at Beaconsfield stabled some of the finest horses in the county, including a particularly striking black stallion named Prince. Oats, wheat, and rye—feeds that he sold in town—were harvested off his farm of nearly a thousand acres. Large orchards of apple and pear trees and vegetables from a large garden filled the family larder. There were always hogs for slaughter in the fall and nobody went hungry. An educated man, he had finished three years of study at Emory and Henry College and was well read. The Roanoke Times came daily to his office.

Beaconsfield was a busy place, full of children and visiting relatives. Betsy was bright, active, athletic, and something of a tomboy. A lasting childhood memory was the year she pitched the girls' baseball team to victory over the boys. She adored her father and often stopped for a treat at his office in Salem on her way home from school. On occasion, when she would see him approaching the house at the end of the day, she would run down the hill to meet him and he would sweep her onto the back of his horse and gallop home. Once, after hearing the minister at the Presbyterian Church preach that only the righteous would enter heaven, she became inconsolable that she would be eternally separated from her father, who did not join his family in the pew on Sunday.

She excelled in the Salem schools, losing by a fraction of a point the award for excellence in mathematics. In 1906, her father enrolled her at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she registered for a double load of mathematics, taking the freshman and sophomore courses simultaneously. In addition, she studied French, English, and science. College life introduced her to a new world of acquaintances, including a Chinese student who arrived on campus virtually destitute. Her wardrobe consisted of the long, high-collared jacket of her native land that she had on her back. Betsy and other girls helped her pick out her first Western dress.


Excerpted from Terry Sanford by Howard E. Covington Jr., Marion A. Ellis. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Howard E. Covington Jr. is a writer and former journalist. During his years as a reporter for the Charlotte Observer, his work won many honors including the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1981. His previous books include Belk: A Century of Retail Leadership ,Linville: A Mountain Home for 100 Years, and Uncommon Giving: A. J. Fletcher and A North Carolina Legacy.

Marion A. Ellis is a freelance writer who was also a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team at the Charlotte Observer. He is the author of a number of books, including Working Together: The Sheltons of North Carolina and The Meaning of Honor: The Life of Frank H. Kenan. In addition, Covington and Ellis are coauthors of NationsBank: Changing the Face of Retail Banking.

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