Jeffrey J. Crow: Rethinking North Carolina History

Tise & Crow, New Voyages to CarolinaToday, we welcome a guest post from Jeffrey J. Crow, co-editor (along with Larry E. Tise) of New Voyages to Carolina:  Reinterpreting North Carolina History, on a new way to view North Carolina history.

New Voyages to Carolina offers a bold new approach for understanding and telling North Carolina’s history. Recognizing the need for such a fresh approach and reflecting a generation of recent scholarship, eighteen distinguished authors have sculpted a broad, inclusive narrative of the state’s evolution over more than four centuries.

New Voyages to Carolina is available now in both print and e-book editions.


Rethinking North Carolina History

When Larry Tise and I published Writing North Carolina History (Chapel Hill, 1979) nearly 40 years ago, we took a straightforward approach. We asked a distinguished group of historians to survey the vast historical literature on North Carolina, evaluate the best works, identify major themes, and establish a historiographical baseline for historians who came after. That book succeeded handsomely, but it carried the interpretation of North Carolina history only to the 1970s.

In the years since, the field of North Carolina history has thrived. Many new works—books, essays, and articles—appear each year. Through historic preservation, historic sites, and museum exhibits, North Carolina’s material culture continues to provide fresh perspectives on the state’s past. With these eclectic new works has come a paradigm shift. Whereas older studies emphasized great white men, chronology, politics, institutions, wars, and a Whiggish faith that history is an inexorable march toward progress, newer works take a much more critical view. Historians have begun to look at race, class, and gender as new tools for deconstructing the past.  The new paradigm focuses on social history, class conflict, gender-based studies, the African American experience (including civil rights), economic development, and working-class struggles.

In putting together the topics and essays for New Voyages to Carolina, Larry and I recognized that the newer studies had yet to penetrate the traditional narrative of North Carolina history. A few examples will suffice. In 1979, H. G. Jones wrote in Writing North Carolina History that the post-World War II era was a period in which historians “fear to tread.” That is no longer the case. Indeed, one could make a compelling argument that at present, twentieth-century North Carolina receives more sustained attention from historians than any other period. In particular historians have discovered the vitality of the civil rights movement. The Greensboro sit-ins on February 1, 1960, represented only one episode in the “long” civil rights movement. Civil rights ferment can be traced to the 1930s, and the struggle to integrate public schools dominated the 1950s and 1960s. For a brief time in the 1970s and 1980s, North Carolina boasted the most integrated schools in the nation. The re-segregation that started in the 1990s continues to today.

Similarly, North Carolina’s reputation as the South’s most “progressive” state has received increasingly skeptical interpretations from the last generation of historians. A “progressive plutocracy,” in the words of political scientist V. O. Key Jr., governed the state for much of the twentieth century. That progressivism meant good roads; efficient government services; tax incentives; cheap, nonunion, and unskilled labor; one-party politics (Democratic); and white supremacy. Democratic hegemony began to unravel with the growth and success of the civil rights movement. Over a generation or more conservatives migrated to the Republican Party and moderates concentrated in the Democratic Party. That fundamental division became apparent with the Republicans’ winning the North Carolina General Assembly in 2010 and the governorship in 2012. How North Carolina’s progressive reputation will fare in the twenty-first century raises provocative questions about the past.

A final example of the rethinking that characterizes New Voyages to Carolina centers on the cultural confrontation between Europeans and Native Americans in the age of exploration. The romantic tale of Sir Walter Raleigh’s failures to plant a colony on Roanoke Island between 1584 and 1587 has generated many histories, poems, novels, and even an outdoor drama. But the Spanish had attempted to establish a settlement in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains twenty years earlier.  Why did these early efforts at European settlement collapse? In short, when the Europeans became too demanding and aggressive, the Native Americans expelled or killed them. For more than a century a combination of Indian intransigence and an uncompromising geology and environment impeded European expansion beyond the tidewater.

Larry and I believe that the essays in New Voyages to Carolina will chart new routes and new destinations for understanding and interpreting North Carolina’s rich heritage. In a previous post, Larry discusses just how the fresh interpretations advanced in this book might revolutionize the traditional narrative of North Carolina history (You can read Larry Tise’s post here).


Jeffrey J. Crow is former director of North Carolina’s Division of Archives and History and deputy secretary of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.