Mysterious North Carolina It's a Not-Exactly Southern State with Puzzling Politics

Article excerpt

CHARLOTTE, N.C.

North Carolina matters in the upcoming presidential election. So it is no coincidence that the Democrats selected Charlotte to host their convention this week and that both candidates spend a lot of time here.

People outside the state aren't sure what to make of us, though. North Carolina seems liberal because Terry Sanford and John Edwards served as senators. But so did Jesse Helms, and for a lot longer.

If you think North Carolina is typically southern, you don't know us. Bad soil and shallow rivers denied us the slave-based plantations that powered South Carolina and Virginia to their 19th- century peaks. Instead, North Carolina remained poor, with a population of independent-minded yeoman farmers.

Slave culture or not, North Carolinians fought for the Confederacy and took so many casualties that monuments across the state recall "Our Confederate Dead." Still, as the war wound down, Union Gen. Tecumseh Sherman called off his army of locusts that had swarmed through Georgia and South Carolina. His orders read, "[T]he State of North Carolina was one of the last States that passed the ordinance of secession ... it should not be assumed that the inhabitants are enemies of our government."

Sherman wasn't sure what to think of North Carolina, either.

A political environment friendly to business made post-Civil War North Carolina attractive to labor-intensive industries such as textiles, apparel, furniture and cigarette production. By 1900, there were nearly 200 large textile mills operating in the state, attracting workers (called "lint heads" for the cotton fragments in their hair) from the surrounding countryside. The state's population doubled between 1880 and 1920.

The state legislature and a succession of pro-business governors of both parties were keener than those in other Southern states to invest in roads and higher education. The twin giants, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and North Carolina State, now occupy two corners of the "Research Triangle," with the third corner held down by medical and research powerhouse Duke University. The Triangle has among the highest concentration of advanced degrees in the nation.

Today's largest employment sectors are manufacturing and health care, concentrated around the Research Triangle and the Triad (Greensboro, Winston-Salem and High Point), as well as finance, concentrated in Charlotte. …

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