Home Lifestyle COLUMN: Securing a tardy justice

COLUMN: Securing a tardy justice

Nancy Pegues Leak was the first woman to hold office in Richmond County, even before women could vote.
Contributed photo

When Nancy Pegues Leak took her seat on Rockingham’s School Board on Jan. 29, 1918, she secured her place in history as the first Richmond County woman to hold public office. Incredibly, had her position been an elected one rather than appointed, she would not have been able to vote for herself.

Her colleague, W. N. Everett, the thin bespectacled School Board chair, had plans to change that. Everett firmly believed North Carolina women should vote.

By 1918, Everett had more than two decades of public service under his belt, mostly on the side of progress. He first took his seat on the Rockingham town board in the turbulent 1890s and served 17 consecutive years. He spent 15 of those years as mayor, efficiently guiding the town into a modern era of graded schools, electric lights and city water. He worked alongside men every single one of those years, until he welcomed Nancy Leak to the local school board.

Everett’s contemporary and colleague, Cameron Morrison, described him as “a model citizen in every respect, charming and lovable in social life.” Those skills served him well when he took a turn in the North Carolina Senate in 1917. Then, rather than run for a second term, the popular politician declared himself a candidate for North Carolina House in 1918. He sailed through the election.

House Speaker Dennis Brummett quickly selected Everett as chair of the powerful Committee on Internal Improvements. Everett, however, had a different agenda: He knew North Carolina citizens would never vote in favor of women’s suffrage in an open election. So, he intended to use his legislative power and talent to change the law himself.

W. N. Everett met strong resistance. “I have been profoundly disturbed about what politics might do to women,” North Carolina Gov. Thomas Bickett confessed to Everett, “I greatly fear that the women who desire to go are all unconsciously offering to barter a very precious birthright for a very sorry mess of pottage.” 

Still, the North Carolina legislature formed a suffrage committee in January 1919, with Everett as chair. Committee members drafted the “Everett Bill,” proposing that women be allowed to vote in school and local elections only. Half a loaf is better than none at all, Everett figured. If local voting rights for women could be secured, state and national voting rights would follow.

The Senate argued and passed the Everett Bill in a stunning 35-to-12 margin. The House took up the measure March 5, where it failed on a narrow 54-49 vote. Everett later claimed it would have passed, had several house members not been sick and absent, perhaps due to the Spanish Flu pandemic.

Back home, W.N. Everett enjoyed the steadfast support of Ike London, editor of the Rockingham Post-Dispatch. London invested substantial ink and column space in support of women’s suffrage. He also wrote candidly in support of Everett himself. No one was surprised: Everett happened to be London’s father-in-law. In this case, a complementary press made for comfortable family holidays, if nothing else..

London’s wife, Lena Everett London, may have been the glue that held the two men fast to the women’s suffrage issue. Somewhere along her educational journey, first as an honor student in Rockingham’s private schools and then a scholar at St. Mary’s in Raleigh, Lena Everett London may have made up her mind that women ought to vote.

Virtually no other man in Richmond County believed women should vote.

Local men watched as Nancy Leak continued to serve as an independent, effective member of the Rockingham School Board. She handled the “sorry mess of pottage” efficiently, managing the tenuous balance of power and politics with apparent ease.

Still, men remained hostile and unconvinced. In the summer of 1920, they decided to make their voices heard. When the July municipal election rolled around, businessmen put the issue on an unofficial ballot. “This vote is not authorization of the Democratic Executive Committee.” Ike London stressed, “but is arranged by private citizens.”  London likely knew what would happen, and sought to disqualify that mess of pottage ahead of time.

Under the direction of several of the county’s most powerful men, including mill president W.B. Cole, future sheriff W.E. McNair, attorney W.R. Jones, and Rockingham Mayor Steele Lowdermilk, unofficial ballot boxes appeared at all the Rockingham precincts. Following the election, the men tallied the results and proudly announced 1,001 men had voted against women’s suffrage, while just 113 had voted in favor.

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Unswayed, W. N. Everett continued to push the issue. He wrote Governor Bickett in the early spring of 1920. “I hope,” he said, “that you will join hands with those of us who favor the franchise for women and help us to secure for them a tardy justice.”

Governor Bickett, still personally opposed to the idea, responded. “Woman suffrage is inevitable. He is a dead man who does not hear the swish of its skirts.”

The governor was correct: Six weeks after Rockingham men voted 10 to 1 against women’s suffrage, it became national law with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. 

Pleased, Ike London pushed women to register. “Perhaps a woman thinks she does not care to vote,” he said. “She may think so now and have a different view a month hence….Being registered does no harm. But not being on the registry list may result in disappointment.”

Richmond County’s women moved into action. In the early fall, more than 75 met at the Rockingham Opera House to form the “Woman’s Democratic League of Richmond County” to learn about national and international issues.

Elsewhere, “a most estimable lady” aged 88, announced she intended to register. “Prior to the enactment of the suffrage amendment, I was opposed rather than favorable to woman’s suffrage,” she explained. “But now that the law has placed upon women’s the voting privilege, I consider it my DUTY to register to vote just as much as any household duty I might be called upon to perform.” The paper provided the story, but not the lady’s name. Only one woman matches up in census records, however: Mary Morse, born in 1830.

By the middle of October, 1250 women had registered locally, 650 in Hamlet and 600 in Rockingham. For most, the national election on Nov. 2 would be their first opportunity to vote. Notably, Charlotte attorney and Richmond county native, Cameron Morrison, was a candidate for governor.

North of Rockingham, however, the Harrington School District scheduled a school tax election for Saturday, Oct. 16. Early that fall morning, Ella Henry Harrington, a 52-year-old grandmother of four, arrived at the polls and cast her vote. Hers would be the first by a female in the history of Richmond County. Seven other women turned out later that day, passing the school tax 17 to 11. Ida Emerson Covington made history that Saturday as well, serving as the county’s first female poll-holder.

Ella Harrington’s vote, regarded as a milestone today, was considered just a curiosity in 1920. Most knew her best for the slew of awards she won at every county fair. She began with “best dried vegetables” in 1919. In 1920, Ella followed it up with four first place awards (best grapes, canned sausage, jarred blueberries and honey in comb), and a stunning nine first-pace awards in 1921 (best canned children, pickled pear, pickled watermelon, fig preserves, pie, fruit pie, jarred huckleberries, jarred blackberries, and stickies).

Extra material:

W. N. Everett, with the battle behind him, continued his good work. The well-loved Rockingham champion for women’s suffrage, became North Carolina’s Secretary of State in 1923, appointed by Gov. Cameron Morrison. He served until his death in 1928. Before his burial in Rockingham, his body lay state below the Capitol Dome and his office door was closed and covered in crepe.  

Originally published in the newsletter of the Richmond County Historical Society. This is the second of a two-part series. The first part was republished by the RO in 2001.

 

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