How often is it that we are aware of some historical personage only as a name on a building? I happen to know that the federal courthouse in Charlotte, the Charles R. Jonas Federal Building, is named after a lawyer from Lincolnton who served 20 years in Congress, from the year of my birth, 1953, until his retirement in 1973. He was the first Republican elected to Congress from North Carolina in the 20th century, and my parents—both staunch Republicans—voted for him every time. His law firm, eponymously named “The Jonas Law Firm” carries on his legacy today.
I knew most of that even without having to Google the name simply because I’m old enough to remember Mr. Jonas when he was alive. I’ll bet that most people who enter that courthouse have no idea who he was. That’s kind of a shame, because he—like most people who have their names carved into buildings—was a person of historical significance that we ought to know something about.
I don’t know why, but none of the state courthouses in North Carolina are named after actual people: they are all just [fill in the name of the county] Courthouse, like our own Mecklenburg County Courthouse.
But that’s not true of schools. Many schools are named after actual people, generally long dead and otherwise mostly unknown now. Some of the schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System are named after former superintendents (Harry Harding, Elmer Garinger, Jay Robinson and Alexander Graham), while others are named after all manner of folks. [Digression—Alexander Graham, for whom the middle school is named, was the father both of University of North Carolina President and U.S. Senator Frank Porter Graham and Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, the latter made famous in the novel “Shoeless Joe” and the movie “Field of Dreams.” Moonlight Graham really did play right field for one inning in the Major Leagues for the New York Giants in a game in 1905 without ever having an at-bat or a fielding chance. He also started his minor league career with the Charlotte Hornets in 1902. Following his stint as a baseball player, he practiced medicine in Chisholm, Minnesota for over 50 years, where he was known as “Doc” Graham.]
Schools are not often named after lawyers, though. [Additional digression—One notable exception is the former Mount Vernon Middle School in Los Angeles, which changed its name to Johnnie L Cochran, Jr. Middle School to commemorate its most famous alum. My daughter taught special education there for two years in the Teach for America Program. I don’t think she’s ever appreciated why I find such humor in that.]
Zebulon B. Vance, for whom a Charlotte high school is named, happened to be a lawyer. He is best known (when he is known at all), however, not for his legal career, but rather as a pre-Civil War congressman and the two-time governor who served both during the Civil War from 1862-65 and in the immediate post-Reconstruction period from 1877-79. In 1879, the General Assembly elected him to the United States Senate, where he served until his death in 1894. [Constitutional buffs among you will recognize that this was well before passage of the 17th Amendment providing for the direct election of senators] While he did practice law in Charlotte for the 10-year period between governorships, he didn’t have much of a connection with Charlotte other than that. His most famous case was the unsuccessful defense of Tom Dula for the Wilkes County love triangle murder of Laura Foster, memorialized as the folk song “Tom Dooley,” recorded many times, most famously by the Kingston Trio in 1958.
As a politician, he was, for his time, something of a progressive. He initially opposed secession, and as Civil War governor was often at odds with Jefferson Davis. He never suspended the right of habeas corpus, as did Lincoln. North Carolina was the only Southern state to maintain a working court system throughout the war. As a senator, he supported individual rights, worked hard to reconcile the sectional wounds of the Civil War and pushed his fellow Southerners to look toward the future rather than dwell upon the past.
Most surprisingly, around 1870 he composed a speech called “The Scattered Nation” that he was to deliver many times in the ensuing years. It’s a gushingly effusive paean to the Jewish people, written in a florid and ornately rhetorical style. It is also longer than anyone today could sit still for. What’s amazing about it is that the speech was wildly popular during a period of rampant anti-Semitism. You can find the full text online with accompanying commentary in a volume edited by Maurice Weinstein (yes, the same Charlotte lawyer who founded the now-disbanded Weinstein Sturges firm and chaired the International B’nai B’rith).
Vance’s admiration for the Jews arose out of his friendship with several Jewish residents of Statesville, where he lived for the last months of the war after the capture of Raleigh by Union troops, and Charlotte, where he lived afterward. The story goes that in May of 1865, when federal troops arrested him at the house where he was staying in Statesville and were going to force him to ride on horseback the 35 miles to the railroad in Salisbury for transport to prison in Washington, the somewhat portly Vance was given a buggy ride by Samuel Wittkowsky, a German-Jewish immigrant hat seller who later moved to Charlotte and founded a textile business. The two became lifelong friends, and doubtless this relationship influenced Vance’s warm attitude toward the Jews.
Vance’s good feelings did not, however, extend to African-Americans. He had after all been a slave owner who opposed emancipation. Here is a statement from the young Vance given on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives: “Even the mind of a fanatic recoils in disgust and loathing from the prospect of intermingling the quick and jealous blood of the European with the putrid stream of African barbarism.”
Wow. It’s hard to reconcile how one man can have such divergent views of his fellow human beings based solely on race and ethnic heritage. It’s also hard to grasp that notwithstanding his racial attitudes, Vance was by the standards for the time relatively benign in his actual policies toward black people. For instance, he advocated for equal—though separate—educational opportunities and insisted on the rule of law being applied to all. Did he moderate his racial views in later years? Perhaps, but who knows? It’s fair to say, though, that his legacy is that he set the stage for North Carolina being perceived as at least somewhat more racially tolerant and culturally progressive than its Deep South neighbors, a tradition that held through the20th century and beyond until quite recently.
The same cannot be said for the South Carolina governor Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman. Tillman’s name adorns prominent buildings on the campuses of both Clemson University and Winthrop University. Both are called “Tillman Hall” and are clock towers built around 1894. [Author’s note—there is a Vance Hall on both the UNC-CH and UNC-A campuses, but these buildings are not nearly so prominent as the Tillman Halls] Tillman followed a somewhat parallel career path to Vance. He was governor of South Carolina from 1890 to 1894, and a United States Senator thereafter until his death in 1918. He was also a vicious racist who boasted of murdering blacks in the 1876 “Homburg Massacre” as a leader of the “Red Shirts.” He supported passage of a constitutional amendment to disenfranchise blacks and preached that African-Americans must either submit to domination by whites or else face extermination. At least Tillman wasn’t a lawyer.
What’s particularly galling about the Tillman buildings is that neither initially was named for him. Each was formerly known for decades as simply “Main Building.” Clemson honored Tillman with a building rededication in 1946 and Winthrop followed suit in 1962. Ostensibly the rationale was that Tillman as governor had a role in founding each institution: a cynic might suspect that the real reason had more to do with official state resistance to increasing agitation for civil rights on behalf of black citizens.
I recently attended a reception at the Mecklenburg County Bar & Foundation Center in conjunction with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library to celebrate the publication of “Julius Chambers: A Life in the Legal Struggle for Civil Rights” published by the University of North Carolina Press. The authors, Rich Rosen and Joe Mosnier, gave a talk and answered questions. Several of his former law partners were in attendance, and longtime colleague Jim Ferguson reminisced about his time with Chambers and their tireless advocacy for the rights of all people.
Julius Chambers passed away less than four years ago, and it will be many more years before memory of him fades down to an opaque baseline of “civil rights lawyer.” There are a number of members of the Mecklenburg County Bar who practiced law both with and against him, and know him as a real flesh and blood person of extraordinary accomplishments; not only as the preeminent civil rights lawyer of his time, but also as the director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and chancellor of North Carolina Central University.
As you probably know, especially if you or your firm was solicited for the Naming Rights Campaign, various rooms and fixtures of the Bar Center are adorned with plaques recognizing firms who contributed to the cost of construction of the building. There are only two plaques that specifically honor an individual. One is at the entrance—the Julius Levonne Chambers Portico, sponsored by the past presidents of the Mecklenburg County Bar and Foundation. The other is for the Judge James B. McMillan Courtroom, sponsored by McGuireWoods. It’s fitting that the two men are linked, as Chambers tried some of his most notable cases before Judge McMillan. The Chambers plaque is also the only one engraved with an individual likeness. As I mentioned in introductory remarks at the reception, it’s also fitting that his name and face are what you first see upon entering the building—as he and his colleagues opened a great many doors that hitherto had been closed to far too many people.
Julius Chambers opened his law office in Charlotte during the same year as the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, almost 100 years after Zeb Vance’s buggy ride on the way to a federal prison with his Jewish friend. By 2064, there likely won’t be anyone still practicing law who knew Chambers. And unless the Bar Center has a useful life of at least 50 years, you won’t be able to find his name on the building. Yet even though the name of Julius Levonne Chambers will inevitably slide into near obscurity, the ripples of societal change that he helped set in motion will still be felt. One doesn’t need to be remembered forever in order to have a lasting legacy.
I have one relative with a building named after her. My great aunt Myrtle Williamson was the youngest sister of my grandfather. Theirs was a family of yeoman farmers in the Steele Creek area of Mecklenburg County, like most from those parts of Scots-Irish Presbyterian heritage. I have only a vague memory of her, as she died of breast cancer when I was only five years old. I have a picture in my mind of her as a large and kindly woman who visited us one time. I also have an actual family picture of her taken some time before 1910 as a smiling little girl who bears a remarkable resemblance to my own daughter when she was that age.
From 1948 to 1958, Aunt Myrtle served as a Bible professor and Director of Christian Activities at Stillman College, a small historically black college in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. After her death, the college built the Myrtle Williamson Chapel in honor of her memory. It’s an unusual little building: with its curvilinear brickwork and short tower it looks more like a tiny mosque than a church.
I’ve only seen the chapel in pictures online. While I don’t keep a bucket list, I do hope someday to visit the chapel and contemplate for a while how a poor Southern white woman came to teach at an African-American school in the heart of the Deep South during a period of Jim Crow segregation and virulent racism. If only I had a magic Ouija board, I’d love to talk to Aunt Myrtle about her life and times. Too late for anything like that, though. I’m sure after almost 60 years there’s nobody still at Stillman College who knew her. She’s just a name on a campus building.
My cousin Jane, who’s a generation older than me and the main repository of family lore, recently told me a story about Aunt Myrtle that’s reminiscent of a Biblical parable. It seems that the neighborhood children often came to her door because they knew she would usually have some candy to hand out to them. One of the children noticed that Myrtle, like many of us Scots-Irish who’ve been left out in the sun too long, was developing dark liver spots on her hands. He went home and told his mother that “Miss Williamson is turning black—pretty soon she’s gonna look just like us.”
A person’s legacy can be complicated. A namesake building standing mute can’t tell you anything of its honoree. You have to go behind the facade to get a real understanding of who that person was. While I may have an ambivalent opinion of Zeb Vance, I harbor no such uncertainty when it comes to Julius Chambers or my Aunt Myrtle. Now they were both good people. As for Pitchfork Ben—to paraphrase a guy who’s fond of naming buildings after himself—he was one of the really bad dudes.