Friday, 23 October 2020 12:32

Hog-Jowls and Christendom: Women’s suffrage in Richmond County Part I

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Nancy Pegues Leak, the first woman to hold public office in Richmond County. Nancy Pegues Leak, the first woman to hold public office in Richmond County. Contributed photos

It began on Friday the 13th in April, 1917, when a car ran over William Clay “Doc” Leak just as he strode out of Angus McAuley’s store in downtown Rockingham. 

It was a freak accident. Mr. Hunsucker from Ellerbe — Frank or Daniel, best we can figure — lost control of his Ford as it climbed toward the courthouse square. Friday the 13th was just Hunsucker’s third time behind the wheel, so he didn’t have a lot of experience with automobiles. Maybe that’s why, when he crashed into Doc Leak, he didn’t know exactly what to do. The Ford kept moving until a passenger from the back seat jumped to the front and slammed the brakes. The Ford had traveled 30 or 40 feet by then with Doc underneath, dragged the distance.

Doc had severe injuries to show for it: Two broken legs, a broken shoulder and a nasty cut on the back of his head. The accident horrified people across the state. Our details, in fact, come from a front-page article in the Charlotte Observer. 

Fifty-three-year-old Leak’s life had been one success after another and he stood among the most prominent men in the region. In college, he had been a star cadet and star baseball player, both. When he became president of Pee Dee Mill in 1891, at the age of 28, he was the youngest textile mill president in the entire South. Claude Gore, owner of Great Falls Mill, praised Leak’s “rare judgment, unusual executive ability and broad vision.”  

Tragically, Doc Leak would never recover. Soon after the accident, he suffered a stroke and partial paralysis. Leak continued to work as best he could, but his decline and death surprised no one.

At the time, Leak served as director or officer in at least eight major local businesses.

“I do not believe he ever stopped to consider what a weight his influence exerted on the life around him,” Gore remarked. “What civic improvement have you ever had in which he was not either the active leader or the close advisor to him who led?” 

Faced with a tremendous loss, Rockingham men busied themselves with the task of finding new leaders and shuffling directorships. 

One of Doc’s roles, though, presented a special kind of challenge. He served as chair of the Rockingham School Board and his death created a problem. The non-elected school board’s dueling factions maintained a precarious balance of power. The loss of Leak could flip control from one side to the other. 

I’m sure everyone in town assumed the members would come up with a fine, successful businessman to replace Leak because, in 1918, the town was full of fine, successful businessmen. Rockingham had fine, successful businessmen who ran local cotton mills and banks. Other fine, successful businessmen operated insurance companies, owned stores, and so on. 

To everyone’s shock, the Rockingham School Board went a different direction entirely: They chose a fine, successful woman to fill the role.  

Rockingham Post-Dispatch editor Ike London, himself a proponent of women’s rights, buried the news on page five of the Jan. 31, 1918 issue. He said, in an act of editorial subtlety, “To fill the vacancy on the board caused by Mr. Leak’s death, his widow, Mrs. W. C. Leak, was elected.” 

And so Nancy Pegues Leak, at 47 years old, became the first Richmond County woman to hold public office. 

Considering the power struggle within the Rockingham School Board, replacing Doc Leak with his widow was both the least controversial and most progressive choice possible. Most local men, who eyed the hot national battle for women’s suffrage with heavy skepticism, felt very differently about Rockingham women in power.

Angus McAuley, for one, had long expressed skepticism over women in politics and public service. It’s a satisfying twist of historical irony, considering McAuley’s store is the one Doc Leak exited just before he was hit by a Ford that Friday the 13th.  

Specifically, Angus McAuley questioned women’s book clubs, beginning with the “Over the Tea Cups” club in the 1890s. McAuley sneered. “I have never seen any books in that club,” he said, against all evidence to the contrary. “I believe it is some secret political chicanery.” 

McAuley continued, talking about the various “Over the Tea Cups” members. 

“First thing we know, Miss Dale Shaw will be running for Governor of North Carolina, Mrs. Frank McNeill will be on the Supreme Court bench and Miss Fanny Thomas might be sheriff of the county. The whole thing is headed towards votes for women!”  

McAuley reeled off a list of local women whom he thought had stepped from their proper places, but he missed Nancy Leak. 

Nancy had helped to organize the “Over the Tea Cups” book club. Then, with two others, she established the town’s most serious, studious and smallest club. Together, the three ladies read The History of Germany, The Moors of Spain, and similar heady works. They then traveled to Europe on the eve of the outbreak of world war, and spent 10 weeks touring sites they studied. They were brilliant women.

By comparison, one of the town’s leading businessmen demanded his bookshelves to be filled with “pretty red books” but cared nothing about reading them.

So, when Nancy Leak assumed the role of school board member, she was more than prepared. Together with her 10 male colleagues, she took up the school board’s most burning issue in the winter of 1917-18: Swine in the city of Rockingham. In a unanimous vote, the board opposed them.

“Even should the price of fat-back rise until it sweeps the skies the health of our boys and girls is worth more than pork,” the board said, “and the round and rosy cheeks of happy, healthy children [is worth more] than all the hog-jowls in Christendom. If it is a question of Children or Hogs, please count our vote for the children.” 

The board’s eloquent wording may have been Nancy Leak’s work as she began her 14-year tenure on Rockingham’s School Board. 

Meanwhile, the battle for women’s suffrage continued. A year after Nancy assumed her seat on the Rockingham School Board, the board’s chairman, W. N. Everett, took the battle for women’s suffrage to the North Carolina legislature. 

Over the next 18 months, Richmond County men struggled with the idea of women in the voting booth, while women watched quietly.

Originally published in the September newsletter of the Richmond County Historical Society. This is the first of a two-part series.