By DAVID BORAKS
Davidson College and the Town of Davidson trace their origins to 1837, when a group of Presbyterians paid William Lee Davidson $1,500 for 469 acres of wooded land along the road between Charlotte and Statesville. In the 175 years since, Davidson has evolved into a unique place with a story to tell, a story about citizens committed to making our town a better place.
It has been more three decades since anyone tried to tell that story in a book, and so much has changed – not only the place, but our way of looking at it. This year, as the college and the town celebrate 175th anniversaries, authors Jan Blodgett and Ralph B. Levering have updated that history with a new volume titled “One Town Many Voices: A History of Davidson, North Carolina.”
Published by Davidson Historical Society, the book is due out this month. It takes a broader view than anything before of the town’s evolution from rural village to mill town to affluent suburb. Drawing on historical records and oral history interviews, Ms. Blodgett and Professor Levering have incorporated “many voices.”
Ms. Blodgett is the archivist at Davidson College. She first conceived of the book about 15 years ago while participating in an interracial community-building effort called Common Ground. Then, Mary Beaty’s 1979 book “Davidson: A History of the Town from 1835 until 1937″ was the only local history, telling the town’s story by focusing on buildings, houses, and organizations. A local African American minister asked Ms. Blodgett why there was no history of the town’s African American community.
Ms. Blodgett got the point. “I use Mary Beaty’s history all the time, but it was written for a particular time and place. It’s now 2012 and it seemed to be the time to write a more comprehensive history that included the mill families, the African American Community, children, women – sort of more of a mix of the history over all,” she said.
Professor Levering, the Vail Professor of History at Davidson College, said he thought it was time for an update as well, since Ms. Beaty’s book ends in 1937. “And I thought it had not covered the African American or the mill communities or even … the downtown merchant communities,” he said. “So, we’re trying to be more comprehensive.”
HISTORY AND STORIES
The book is organized into chronological chapters, starting with the college’s founding and how the town grew up around it, challenges to growth in the mid-19th century, and the town’s formal incorporation in 1879. Ms. Blodgett said the town’s survival before about 1880 was always a question: The Civil War took the train away and financial woes threatened both the town and the college.
“One Town Many Voices” then recounts the evolution of the town and its social patterns in the early 20th century, troubles with race relations in the 1950s and 1960s, and includes an epilogue on the town’s “smart growth” from 1985 to the present.
It’s a book of both observations and stories, such as the student revolt of 1854-55 that nearly closed the college and the NAACP’s effort a century later to promote racial integration through a conference in Davidson. That brought an angry response from the area Ku Klux Klan that included cross burnings at the college and in the town’s African American neighborhood. Ms. Blodgett also studied how African American residents were educated and found records of some who attended what are now Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte and Barber-Scotia College in Concord.
Many of the town’s most prominent historical figures make appearances, from the college’s first president, the Rev. Robert Hall Morrison, to African American businessman Ralph Johnson, who was the target of a 1968 boycott over his whites-only barber shop. The book includes legendary basketball coach Lefty Driesell, whose recruiting prowess propelled Davidson to national stature, as well as the story of African American recruit Charlie Scott, who picked UNC Chapel Hill after being snubbed at the Coffee Cup on Depot Street.
A TOWN ENGAGED
Besides trying to offer a wide-angle view of the town’s past, the book also tells the story of a town that has always had higher aims and a culture of “civic engagement,” Ms. Blodgett and Professor Levering said.
In the 20th century, the best example of that culture came in efforts to improve the lives of the poor and African American residents in town, including building modern housing.
“There always has been this pact of civic engagement, even though we have divisions,” Ms. Blodgett said.
Professor Levering said what makes Davidson different may be partly its religious underpinnings. “My theory is that the town has always been made up of people of faith,” he said.
The authors hope the book adds to our understanding of Davidson, and its uniqueness. Professor Levering said one of the most important legacies may be the oral history interviews that he and Ms. Blodgett completed, “in some ways even outlasting the book itself, perhaps.” They provide insights into the town’s history that written sources can’t, he said.
He also said he hope people grasp how different Davidson was until recently. “The South was very poor until the 1960s,” he said. “Life was hard here, most people who have had businesses on Main Street have struggled, there hasn’t been a lot of money made. And yet people have stayed here, for the community.”
“It’s only in the last 20 or 30 years that Davidson has become the affluent community that it is today,” he said.
Ms. Blodgett hopes the book becomes part of the ongoing conversation here about what kind of place this is and who we are.
“My hope is that we don’t see this as the final word,” she said. “Rather it’s an invitation to talk to each other about the stories in the book, and how we fit into the stories or how we differ with the stories.”
Listen to an interview with Jan Blodgett and Ralph Levering, by DavidsonNews.net‘s David Boraks. Click the play button to start. Can’t see the player or hear the audio, or want to download to your audio player? CLICK HERE>
(MP3, 28 min., 5 sec.)
Davidson College-owned WDAV-FM is also helping to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the college this spring with a series of interviews with prominent Davidsonians. See WDAV.org
MORE ABOUT THE BOOK