Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Names in the Aycock Historic District

[Note: this post was updated with new information on 11/22/16 and 3/14/17]

The Guilford County School Board has recently decided to rename Aycock Middle School after local school administrator and desegregationist Melvin Swann. This affects my neighborhood, which surrounds the school. The Aycock Historic District was named after the school in 1984 when the neighborhood opted to enter Greensboro's then-new Historic District Program  (see below). Since the neighborhood is named after the school, and since the neighborhood existed for many years before Aycock school was built, the question has come up: what should we call our neighborhood? Should we change the name, and if so, what should we call it?

In order to help answer that question, I've done some research to find out what our neighborhood has been called in the past. If you have solid information that can add to this account, please let me know by email, or leave a comment.

Pre-Colonial Period

Before Europeans came to Guilford County, it was inhabited by members of the Occaneechi and other Siouan tribes. I don't know of any archaeological evidence for sustained occupation at the location of the current Aycock neighborhood, so it doesn't look like the area had any Native American names -- at least not any that we can discover.

Robert P. Dick and Dunleath (also spelled Dunleith - see below)

The earliest recorded settlement of the area of the current neighborhood I could find was a tract of farmland and woods owned by the Robert P. Dick family. A map of the area on file with N.C. State University shows that the area of the Dick family's property probably included nearly all of the area that is now within the present boundaries of the Aycock neighborhood:

The Dick Family Farm (overlaid on the modern street grid)

In 1857, Dick and his wife Mary Eloise Adams Dick decided to build a mansion that they called "Dunleath", located on the western side of the property, facing what is now Church Street. Here is a description of the property, recorded after 1933, on file with N.C. State University.
"Dunleith" [sic], as named by the Dick Family, has been owned by only two families, the Robert P. Dicks and the W. L. Trotters. Both families are of historical importance to Greensboro. The Robert Dick couple, married in 1840, decided upon a new house for their farm near the center of Greensboro. The house was in a primeval oak forest on the western edge of the farm.
A Philadelphia architect (Samuel Sloan) was employed to draw plans for "a house that would last through the ages". The style of the house was known as "Italian Villa" and was a considerable departure from the square and columned brick houses of the Georgian manner, a locally predominant style of the day. The house, completed in 1857 or 1858, was surrounded by some 125 to 150 acres. When the house was completed, the architect came down from Philadelphia to landscape a number of acres surrounding the house. Among the great oaks he chose to place tall evergreens, unusual for the area. He laid out walks, cut vistas, introducing half concealed nooks, planting hedges, and new shrubs. 
A long path led from the sun porch to Judge Dick's famous law office. In 1864 a railroad was built between the grounds and the country road which it faced, but the survey was so worked out that a sweeping curve was laid around the house so that the railroad was kept from cutting through the house. 
Near the end of the Civil War Greensboro was seized by Sherman's troops and the Union army chose Dunleith as headquarters for the occupation army commanded by General Cox. The Dick family was moved into an outbuilding while the general and his staff occupied the house and the lawn was filled with the tents of Union soldiers. 
In 1917 Mr. Trotter, who was then president of Southside Hardware Company, bought Dunleith. Since the railroad had been run through the front yard and Chestnut Street and been Plotted, the Trotters added to the back of the house to make it function as the entrance.  

Dunleath Mansion East Elevation
(Source: Historic Architecture Research. Project Records (UA110.041),
Special Collections Research Center at NCSU Libraries)




Dunleath Mansion ca. 1945
(source: Greensboro History Museum)


Dunleath Parlor ca. 1950 
(Source: Greensboro History Museum)


The Dunleath mansion survived until the late 1960s, and was considered to be a haunted house by children living in the neighborhood at that time (Source: John Hammer, personal communication, Sept. 2016). Eventually it fell into disrepair and was demolished, although some of the stone masonry from it can still be found in the woods behind the Dunleith Community Garden. Some decorative ironwork from the mansion is also on display in the last gallery of the Voices of a City exhibit at the Greensboro History Museum (Dunleath ironwork is visible in the first two slides of the slideshow).

The name "Dunleath" appears to be a (perhaps fictional) Scottish place name, which may have been inspired by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, a much-loved writer of the  18th-19th century, or by a 1851 novel by Caroline Sheridan NortonStuart of Dunleathalso set in Scotland. Scott depicted a highly romanticized, chivalrous Scotland of the Middle Ages, and the theme was hugely popular in the American South in the 19th century. Many southern mansions (as well as pets and sometimes even children) were named after places and characters in Scott's books (Source: Celeste Ray, Highland Heritage: Scottish Americans in the American South, UNC Press 2001, p. 188, and Celeste Ray, "Thigibh!" Means 'Y'll Come!'": Renegotiating Regional Memories through Scottish Heritage Celebrations, in Southern Heritage on Display: Public Ritual and Ethnic Diversity Within Southern Regionalism, University of Alabama Press 2003, pp. 259-60).

The name of the Dick mansion is variously spelled either as "Dunleath" or "Dunleith" in records and in newspaper accounts. According to the Greensboro History Museum's archivist Elise Allison (personal communications, November 2016), the records on file there -- including an undated typescript description of the grounds by Lizzie Leigh Dick Crabtree, a granddaughter of Judge Robert P. Dick, and a 1917 handwritten letter on the back of a photograph of the house -- indicate that the spelling at that time was "Dunleath". Allison also reports that the "Dunleath" spelling was used in Greensboro Daily News accounts written before 1917. Additionally, an 1879 map on file with the City of Greensboro  labels the Robert P. Dick property with the "Dunleath" spelling (source: Mindy Zachary).

In an interesting historical twist, there is a Barony of Dunleath of Ballywater in Northern Ireland, but the "Dunleath" title was not created until 1892 -- more than 3 decades after the building of the Dick family mansion. Its impressive house, Ballywater Park, is a tourist attraction, film location, and home of Lord and Lady Dunleath.

There is a famous mansion with the name "Dunleith" still standing in Natchez, Mississippi, and there are towns or neighborhoods named "Dunleith" in Illinois, Virginia, and Georgia.

Who was Robert P. Dick?

Robert Paine Dick (1823-1898) was a prominent Greensboro native who was influential in local, state, and national politics. Educated at UNC Chapel Hill, he worked as a lawyer in private practice until 1853, when he was appointed U.S. Attorney in eastern North Carolina. He served on the North Carolina Council of State from 1862-1864, and as a state senator from 1864-1865. He was an active unionist, which meant he opposed North Carolina's secession from the Union before the outbreak of the Civil War, although he voted for secession after the Union attack on Fort Sumter. Later in the war he was active in the state's peace movement, and he was a critic of the leadership of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. After the war, he changed his party affiliation to Republican and worked with president Andrew Johnson's administration in implementing Reconstruction. He was later appointed to a federal judgeship by president Ulysses S. Grant, but declined the appointment. He also served as an Associate Justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court from 1868-1872. He and his friend John Dillard founded a law school in Greensboro and trained many of its most prominent lawyers.

Dick was a noted scholar of history and religion, and an orator whose skills and passion as a speaker were widely admired. He gave many speeches on topics both secular and religious. He was deeply dedicated to his Protestant faith, an active member of the First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, and an avid supporter of the Temperance movement. He died of a kidney ailment (Bright's Disease) in 1898 and is buried in Green Hill Cemetery, about six blocks away from the site of his Dunleath mansion.

According to a personal reminiscence in the Greensboro Daily News (Nov. 16, 1966) by Virginia B. Douglas, wife of Robert and Mary Dick's grandson, the Dicks were slave owners. Mrs. Dick was charged with the slaves' care and religious instruction, and she claimed she was relieved to be free of this responsibility after the Civil War. Mrs. Douglas reports that, after the war, Judge Dick purchased some farmland on what is now NCA&T University and deeded it to a few of his former slaves, while most of them continued to work for wages in the Dick household.

Summit Avenue

(Note: the information in this section comes from the National Register of Historic Places.)

The area kept the Dunleath name until the late 1890s, when most of that property changed hands, although several acres surrounding the mansion remained for a time with the house. The remainder of the property, along with much more property to the north, was briefly owned by North Carolina Steel and Iron Company, which quickly went out of business. That property was then purchased by Moses and Ceasar Cone. The Cone brothers built the Proximity Cotton Mill on part of the property north of the current neighborhood, and in 1895 the neighborhood "held cultivated fields, land grown up in old field pines, clay pits excavated for making bricks for the Proximity mill buildings, and perhaps one small house". Shortly thereafter Ceasar Cone offered to lend the city the money to build Summit Avenue from Lindsay Street to Bessemer Avenue, which at that time was the city limit. Although one citizen tried to block the project with a lawsuit, Cone prevailed, and the city built a macadamized roadway which was described as "probably the finest highway in North Carolina. What was, a short while ago, a stubble field lying in waste has been opened by a magnificent boulevard, with many handsome and commodious residences erected on either side."

Summit Avenue was soon home to the Cones, the Sternbergers, and many mill executives. In 1902 the city installed an electric streetcar that ran from Summit to South Elm Street. By 1913, nearly all the rest of the existing neighborhood had been platted by the Summit Avenue Building Company, although the property on the west side of Percy and all along Chestnut was not under Cone control, as it had remained longer as a part of the Dunleath estate and was platted by others. Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. maps show that neighborhood homes were built out steadily from this period through the 1930s.

It was also during this period that 801 Cypress street was chosen as a site for a school. The first school there was called the Cypress Street Graded School, but it was soon replaced by the much larger, and more architecturally distinguished, Charles B. Aycock Elementary school in 1922. The New York architectural firm of Starrett and Van Vleck was hired to build Aycock and three other schools in Greensboro -- McIver, Caldwell, and Price -- all part of a $1 million bond passed that year. "The Charles B. Aycock School at 811 Cypress Street was the largest of the four, a long, two-story, brick structure adorned with classical urns, swags, cartouches, and a portico, all modeled in limestone."

According to the National Register nomination forms, through this period the neighborhood didn't have an official name, and people called it the Summit Avenue neighborhood, but people who lived in the neighborhood during the mid-20th century have told me they called it the Aycock neighborhood, or didn't give it a name at all.

The Charles B. Aycock Historic District

In 1984, neighborhood residents decided to participate in the City's new historic district program. They had already formed a neighborhood association, and the neighbors at that time decided to name the local historic district, and their neighborhood association, after Aycock School. The City Council agreed, and the Charles B. Aycock Historic District, and the Charles B. Aycock Neighborhood Association were born.

In 1993, the City submitted an application for the neighborhood to receive national recognition on the National Register of Historic Places (see above), and this was approved by the United States Department of the Interior. The boundaries of the National Register district are slightly different from those of the local historic district, and since the name of the local district wasn't considered to be its historical name, the name of the neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places is the "Summit Avenue Historic District".

So at the moment, the neighborhood has two official names -- as a city-designated and controlled zoning district, it's the "Charles B. Aycock Historic District", but as a National Register district, it's the "Summit Avenue Historic District". The two different designations have different purposes. Local historic designation puts the neighborhood under the zoning regulations of the Greensboro Historic Preservation Commission. National Register designation qualifies many of the structures in the neighborhood for federal tax credits.

Who Was Charles B. Aycock?

Charles Brantley Aycock (1859-1912) was a native of eastern North Carolina, born in Wayne County, and educated at the University of North Carolina. He practiced law in Goldsboro and became a rising star in Democratic politics at the end of the 19th century. He led the Democratic party during the election of 1900, and campaigned heavily in the eastern parts of the state where African Americans held substantial political power and many political offices in the wake of Reconstruction. Aycock thought that Reconstruction had been a disaster for the state, and he was elected governor from 1901-1905.

I gathered a few quotations from Aycock I found in a 1912 biography, The Life and Speeches of Charles Brantley Aycock by  R. D. W. Connor and Clarence Hamiton Poe (Doubleday 1912). Connor and Poe were profound admirers of Aycock.
"[Aycock] believed that the only hope of good government in North Carolina and the other Southern States, rested upon the assured political supremacy of the white race" (p. 61).
Aycock was chosen to lead the Democratic party in 1900, which at the time wrote, "It will be well that the man who is to hold the leadership in the great argument, the appeal to the white men of North Carolina, shall come from the section [of the State -- eastern NC] wherein the curse and the blight of negro domination has been felt." (p. 76)
Aycock vigorously promoted an amendment to the state's constitution that year that aimed to eliminate voting rights for African Americans. Aycock said, "This amendment was drawn with great skill. It was drawn after long thought, and with full knowledge of the end to be attained. It was drawn with the deliberate purpose of depriving the negro of the right to vote, and of allowing every white man to retain that right." (p. 81) He called universal suffrage "a failure" (p. 82). Aycock said, "We recognize and provide for the God-given and hereditary superiority of the white man" (p. 84).
Aycock's biographers wrote, "He knew ... that the justice of taking the ballot from the negro was a good thing for the black man, and the justice of giving an adequate education to the negro was a good thing for the white man" (p. 153).
In a speech given in Connecticut, Aycock said, "Let the negro learn once for all that there is unending separation of the races, that the two peoples may develop side by side to the fullest but that they cannot intermingle ... There flows in my veins the blood of the dominant race that has conquered the earth and seeks out the mysteries of the heights and depths" ( pp. 162-3).
Charles Aycock and the Democratic party were successful in taking voting rights away from African Americans for many decades. But despite Aycock's vehement support for white supremacy, he also insisted when he was governor that public schools should be built for African Americans and that they should all have the opportunity for an education, and he made provisions that their schools should be publicly funded from the same source as white schools, although the schools for black students eventually received far less funding, and focused solely on vocational education (source: Prof. Chuck Bolton, UNCG Department of History, "Every Effort to Revise the Past Isn't Nefarious", Greensboro News & Record, Nov. 8, 2016). Under Aycock's administration many public schools were built in North Carolina, earning him the name "The Education Governor".

As far as I have been able to find out, Charles B. Aycock has no historical connection to our neighborhood apart from his name being given to the school in our already-existing neighborhood.

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