Blue Greenberg: Tar Heel customs and governing through the ages

Jan. 10, 2013 @ 04:03 PM

“Leading the State: North Carolina Governors,” N.C. Museum of History, 5 E. Edenton St., Raleigh, through April 28. Hours are Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. For information, call 919-807-7900.

Since the American Revolution and before, when North Carolina was a British colony, the state’s governors had their own old boys’ network and their wives were the first ladies. That changed when Beverly Perdue (2009-2013) was elected to office. She broke the glass ceiling and became the state’s 68th governor and the 28th one to live in the Governor’s Mansion. Experts on protocol had to rename the category of the governor’s spouse and so her husband, Robert Eaves Jr., became the first gentleman, and from now on, the spouse of the sitting governor will be referred to as first spouse.
The exhibition about North Carolina’s governors at the Museum of History accompanies the election of the new governor, Pat McCrory. This week will be one of celebration culminating with the Inaugural Ball today and a parade Saturday. According to RaeLana Poteat, curator of political and social history, as soon as the festivities are over, N.C. Museum of History Director Kenneth Howard will call McCrory’s office and gently request the governor’s tuxedo and his wife’s ball gown for the museum’s permanent collection.
Tucked away in one corner of the first floor is the exhibition; outside a TV monitor flickers. It runs on a continuous loop with images of various governors making ceremonial appearances. Also outside the small gallery are an interactive machine where the visitor can ask questions about the governors and a large glass case which focuses on the mechanics of the political process. The case includes a voting machine, campaign buttons and posters extolling the virtues of one party or the other.
By definition history is a series of facts in chronological order, often including an explanation of their causes. I wonder, however, if curators in history museums could put chronology to one side and spice things up by focusing on events or time periods rather than dates.
One of those events which immediately come to mind surrounds Governor William Holden, who was impeached after the Civil War because he tried to protect blacks and white Republicans from the wrath of the KKK. (He was finally pardoned in 2011). Then there is the exhibition statement about North Carolina being the “most progressive state in the south,” during the terms of Luther Hodges (1954-1961) and Dan Moore (1965-69). What events made North Carolina so progressive at that time? And now that North Carolina has elected its first female governor, an exhibition about the equality of women could be powerful. With all that said, buried in the texts are interesting bits of information which make the governors and their spouses real people.
For example, Daniel Fowle (1889-91) was the first governor to occupy the new mansion but died three months after taking office. Seventeen governors have lived in the Mansion with their children and pets; Arthur Dobbs (1754-1765), a royal governor appointed by the English king, was 73 when he married 15-year old Justina Davis; and in 1996 North Carolina (the last state to do so) gave the governor the right of veto and Perdue used that power 19 times.
The gallery is divided into two parts with a large aisle in between. Texts about the various artifacts are printed on reading stands which make a barrier between the visitor and the items on display. Display items include clothing worn by the governors, their spouses and children, and many small things such as a brief case, writing pens and a walking cane. There are also gifts to the state like a Japanese kimono given to Carolyn Hunt in 1984 for her work with the Friendship Force, and moon rocks from President Nixon commemorating NASA’s first manned mission to the moon. The left side of the exhibit deals with the governors in chronological order. The right is dedicated to the spouses and at its beginning a large sign tells us the title “first lady” no longer works, because Perdue’s husband, Robert Eaves Jr., has made the term obsolete.
The information about the spouses is fascinating. The wives did not bring their families to Raleigh in the beginning because the governors’ term was too short. After the Civil War, the governor was elected for four years, but there was no decent place in Raleigh for the family to live. It was only after the mansion, a beautiful Queen Anne style Victorian house, was built in 1889 that the wives packed up their households and moved to Raleigh.
The house was built with prison labor and was to be staffed with prisoner help, a practice which remains to this day. There was no managerial staff, so the governors’ wives had to run a very large public house without help and if there was a fancy dinner, they brought their best from home. There was no state china or plate. In fact, the first governor’s spouse to have a secretary was Dan Moore’s wife, Jeanelle Moore (1965-69).
Except for Mary Easley, a lawyer who worked at NCCU and then N.C. State, the spouses did not work while their husbands were governor; rather, they took on worthy causes. Perdue’s husband worked with Celebrate North Carolina, Students @ Work, and Carolina Helping Heroes. Governor Glenn’s wife, Nina, (1905-09) worked for the temperance union; and Jeanelle Moore was responsible for the founding of a permanent commission dedicated to preserving the mansion.
Despite the abundance of dry facts, a little digging will show how interesting our governors were. With our new head of state in the news every day, this exhibition will give you and your children a base to understand just how North Carolina is governed.
Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, P.O. Box 2092, Durham, NC 27702.