north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 
 

 
 
 

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Essay:
The fifty-year public career of Cameron Morrison, governor and United States Senator and Representative, illustrates the duality of North Carolina’s reputation during the coinciding Progressive and Jim Crow eras. On the one hand, Morrison was long celebrated for internal improvements which earned North Carolina a reputation as the most progressive Southern state in the 1920s and earned him the nickname of the “Good Roads Governor.” On the other hand, Morrison was also a participant in, and career beneficiary of, the state’s brutal white supremacist campaigns of the turn of the century which marked the backwardness of racial relations in the region and in much of the country as a whole.

Born in 1869, Morrison was the son of a Confederate veteran who had joined the Republican Party after the war. He attended school in his native Richmond County. He did not attend college but in 1892 studied law with Judge Robert Dick of Greensboro. That same year he passed the bar and returned to Rockingham to practice.

Morrison switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party in 1891. As a leader of the “Red Shirts” movement during the white supremacist political campaigns of 1898 and 1900, he promoted tactics that included harassment and threats of violence against African Americans. Morrison, as mayor of Rockingham, was defeated in a bid for the state senate in 1896 but was elected to a single term in 1900. With the support of party leader Furnifold Simmons and his lieutenant A. D. Watts, Morrison won the Democratic nomination for governor in 1920 over Lieutenant Governor O. Max Gardner. Gardner was a supporter of women’s suffrage, and Watts devised a series of pro-Morrison pamphlets that suggested if white women were given the vote, that suffrage for black women would follow. Morrison repeated the idea in his own speeches. The tactic work and Morrison won in a close primary; he then easily defeated Republican candidate John J. Parker in the general election. As a reward for Watts’s assistance, Morrison appointed him revenue commissioner.

Morrison devoted himself to internal improvements, endorsing practically all of the goals of the Good Roads movement. By generating widespread grassroots support, Morrison prompted the 1921 legislature to fund construction of 5,500 miles of hard-surface roads. Swift action and fiscal daring shocked Morrison’s conservative backers, who warned that the plan would bankrupt the state. Morrison also persuaded the legislature to fund improvements for higher education and the state’s charitable institutions. Despite his earlier history, Morrison sought to improve race relations, but did so within a context that took the continuation of white supremacy for granted. His most notable achievement in this area was his successful use of force to all but suppress lynching in the state. In 1928 he split with his former supporter Simmons when the latter rejected the presidential candidacy of Alfred A. Smith of New York. A Presbyterian, Morrison was a traditionalist on social issues, endorsing Prohibition and opposing the teaching of evolution in the public schools while ignoring such traditional Progressive reform ideas as workman’s compensation and the ending of child labor laws.

Morrison returned to private life in Charlotte and in 1930 his old opponent Gardner, now governor himself, appointed him to fill an unexpired U.S. Senate term. Two years later, Robert R. Reynolds defeated Morrison’s bid for a full term in a campaign where the political novice ridiculed the veteran for his wealth acquired through marriage. In 1942 Morrison was elected to the U.S. House but two years later he was defeated by Clyde R. Hoey in another bid for the Senate. Morrison died in Quebec on August 20, 1953, and is buried in Charlotte’s Elmwood Cemetery.

References:
Cecil K. Brown, The State Highway System of North Carolina: Its Evolution and Present Status (1931) Frank Porter Graham, “Cameron Morrison: An Address” (1955)
Rob Christensen, “What the Obituary Didn’t Say,” News and Observer (Raleigh)
Howard E. Covington Jr. and Marion A. Ellis, eds., The North Carolina Century: Tar Heels Who Made a Difference, 1900-2000 (2002)
Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (1996)
Nathaniel F. Magruder, "The Administration of Governor Cameron Morrison of North Carolina, 1921-1925” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1968)
Nathaniel F. Magruder, “Morrison, Cameron.” In William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, IV (1991), 328-330
Elmer L. Puryear, Democratic Party Dissension in North Carolina, 1928-1936 (1962)
William H. Richardson, comp., and D. L. Corbitt, ed., Public Papers and Letters of Cameron Morrison, Governor of North Carolina, 1921-1925 (1927)
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Gov. Cameron Morrison

© 2008 North Carolina Office of Archives & History — Department of Cultural Resources