north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 
 

 
 
 

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     To Thomas W. Bickett, the first North Carolina governor to reach the office by way of a statewide party primary, fell the task of leading the state through World War I. The “War Governor” (one of several Tar Heel Chief Executives to share that nickname) was born on February 28, 1869, in Monroe to druggist Thomas Winchester Bickett and his wife, the former Mary Covington. His father died when young Bickett was thirteen years old. Educated in the public schools of Monroe and at Wake Forest College, where he graduated in 1890, Bickett himself taught in public schools in Marion and Winston-Salem before studying law at the University of North Carolina in 1892. The following year he was admitted to the bar and in 1895, after working briefly in Monroe and Danbury, he moved to Louisburg, where he joined an already successful practice. In 1898 he married Fannie Yarborough of Louisburg; only one of their three children survived infancy.

     In 1906 Bickett was elected to represent Franklin County in the state House. In his single term he made his mark as the sponsor of the “Bickett Bill,” which set aside a half-million dollars to fund land purchases and building construction to facilitate care for the mentally handicapped. At the Democratic convention in Charlotte in 1908 Bickett drew acclaim for his speech nominating Ashley Horne for governor and was himself nominated for attorney general. In his two four-year terms in that office, Bickett successfully defended the state’s interests in almost 400 cases before the state Supreme Court and five cases before the United States Supreme Court, including a boundary dispute with Tennessee. In the 1916 Democratic primary for governor, the first held since the enactment of the primary law the previous year, Bickett defeated Elijah L. Daughtridge and in the fall defeated Republican Frank A. Linney.

     Three months after Bickett’s inauguration, the United States entered World War I. An exceptional orator, the Governor delivered speeches to lift spirits, sell Liberty bonds, and lead the war effort in North Carolina. In Ashe County in 1918 he took a direct role in solving a problem with local desertions. In his farewell address Bickett noted that 2,338 North Carolinians died in the war and stated that all of his achievements paled in comparison to the contribution of the 80,000 Tar Heels who had taken part in the conflict.

     In his inaugural address in 1917 Bickett laid out a set of recommendations with attention given to moving farmers from tenancy to land ownership, to the importance of agricultural education, to the need for telephones in all rural homes, to an increase of the school term from four to six months, to the need for increased spending on public health, and to prison and hospital reform. Bickett’s initiatives met remarkable success with the legislature adopting forty of forty-eight proposals during his term.

     The parole system was overhauled and the legislature, with the Governor’s endorsement, approved a $3 million bond program to permit expansion at state colleges and universities and increased funds for the charitable institutions. Tax reform measures modernized the state’s revenue structure. While not committed to an extensive program of road-building, Governor Bickett laid the groundwork for his successors by enlarging the duties of the State Highway Commission.

In the context of his times, Bickett was considered to be extremely progressive on issues relating to race. He advocated for the creation or improvement of public institutions and services for Black North Carolinians. He detested and publically denounced mob rule and the lynching of Black citizens and never shied away from deploying the National Guard to put down a lynch mob. “Protect those prisoners at all hazards and notify the people that I have ordered you and your machine gunners to shoot straight if an attempt on the life of the prisoners is made,” he instructed National Guard commanders then deployed to Graham in Alamance County. Two men were killed in the mob’s attempt to break the jail following Governor Bickett’s orders.

He used his pardoning powers to send more prisoners—most of whom were Black—home than any governor that had preceded him. He personally ran out of the state a man who sought to organize new chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. He convened conferences with Black leaders to find ways of increasing the spirit of interracial cooperation in the State and to identify ways in which to improve conditions for Black citizens. He was, as J. M. Avery, the president of the Durham Branch of the N.A.A.C.P., once wrote, “a very liberal Governor” in respect to his racial views.

But make no mistake. Bickett held the same White Supremacist and paternalistic views as many of his contemporaries. He believed, and openly stated his belief, that Whites were the “dominant race.” He instructed Black North Carolinians who had gone North in search of better opportunities not to return to the state if they had “become tainted or intoxicated with dreams of social equality or of political dominion…, for in the South such things are forever impossible.” In an address to the Tuskegee Institute in 1920, he urged Black citizens to “lay your cause at the door of the white man’s conscience and leave it there,” warning that any attempt to advocate for their rights would result in a resurgence of the Red Shirts, the Klan, and mob riots. Bickett’s version of progressivism fell far short of racial equality.

     At the conclusion of his term in office Bickett set up law practice in Raleigh with Attorney General James S. Manning. On December 27, 1921, three weeks after he had attended the reception for Allied commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch in Monroe, the ex-governor suffered a stroke at his home in Raleigh and died the following day. His body lay in state in the Capitol before the funeral in Raleigh’s Christ Church and burial in Louisburg.


References:
R. D. W. Connor, ed., History of North Carolina: North Carolina Biography, IV (1919)
Sandra Sue Horton, “The Political Career of Thomas Walter Bickett” (M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1965)
Santford Martin, comp., and R. B. House, ed., Public Letters and Papers of Thomas Walter Bickett, Governor of North Carolina, 1917-1921 (1923)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, I, 149-151—sketch by Nathaniel F. MacGruder
Proceedings of the Twenty-fourth Annual Session of the North Carolina Bar Association (1922)
(Raleigh) News and Observer, December 29, 1921
Robert Sobel and John Raimo, eds., Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789-1978, III (1978)
Mrs. Thomas W. Bickett Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh
“The War Governor: Thomas W. Bickett, 1917-1921,” MosaicNC.org/war-governor, accessed 2020
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Gov. T. Walter Bickett

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