North Carolina 1920: 100 Years Later

By Fay Mitchell

North Carolina is not what it used to be. In 1920 the state was 75 percent rural, largely illiterate, and experiencing a shift from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy. There were 2.5 million residents then and there are 10.5 million today. The state now is often seen as a great place to live, having a good business climate, great universities, natural and cultural resources, and a modest cost of living.

Growth of the textile, tobacco, and furniture industries helped propel North Carolina from a largely agricultural to a manufacturing economy. While James B. Duke grew great wealth through the American Tobacco Company, J. Spencer Love through Burlington Mills, and Bernard Cone through Cone Mills, today’s North Carolina billionaires are James Goodnight and John Sall, co-founders of software company SAS Institute; Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic Games; and Dennis Gillings, founder of pharmaceutical company Quintiles.

The state’s economy is diverse with leading industries of aerospace and defense; automotive, truck and heavy machinery; biotechnology and pharmaceuticals; business and financial services; and energy. Food processing and manufacturing are important, and while textiles and furniture remain strong, new industries of information technology and plastics and chemicals, and important tourism industry, add to a varied mix of jobs. Agriculture still contributes as well.

Radio was just being introduced and two stations were licensed in the state in 1922, whereas today communications, information, and technology are common. More than 85 percent of households have a computer, and more than 75 percent have an internet subscription, neither of which existed 100 years ago. Radio and TV services are just as likely to be received on electronic devices that did not then exist. Neither did television.

While the Roaring ’20s saw the rise of the jazz age, rap music is the most popular genre in America today and North Carolina’s prominent performers include J Cole, DaBaby, and Rapsody. Popular folk and alternative artists include Tift Merritt, Rhiannon Giddens, the Avett Brothers, and the Ben Folds Five. North Carolina embraces and celebrates many genres of expression with Come Hear NC.

Baseball was the most popular sport with many community teams in 1920, and basketball was in its infancy. Still, the University of North Carolina and Duke played their first basketball game that year. Professional sports also have found a home in the state, with professional basketball, football, hockey, and soccer all available in North Carolina.

North Carolina is more diverse than it was 100 years ago when the population was 69.7 percent white, 29.8 percent black, .046 percent American Indian and .01 percent other. The 2019 population was 69.01 percent white, 21.48 percent black, 3.09 percent other, 2.68 percent Asian, 2.5 percent two or more races, 1.17 percent American Indian and .06 percent Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.

In the 1920s a huge out-migration of African Americans was underway to escape restrictive Jim Crow laws and find better economic and educational opportunities. Today African Americans are returning to North Carolina and the South. Additionally, a large Hispanic population has migrated into North Carolina in recent decades so that currently 9.6 percent of the state’s population is Hispanic.

North Carolina women also have made advances since gaining the vote in 1920. North Carolina has had a woman governor, a woman leader of the University of North Carolina System, and the current chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court is a woman.

In 100 years, a lot of gains have occurred but the progress has been uneven. The relative prosperity and growth of urban areas has not reached much of rural North Carolina. There is work to do on K-12 education and economic development statewide. Kiplinger predicts moderate economic growth for the state in 2020 and continued in-migration.

Given the many technological and societal changes, one can but wonder what 2120 will be like.

Source: The North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

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