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William Bradley Umstead, 1895-1954

Source: From DICTIONARY OF NORTH CAROLINA BIOGRAPHY edited by William S. Powell. Copyright (c) 1979-1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

William Bradley Umstead (13 May 1895-7 Nov. 1954), attorney, congressman,and North Carolina governor, was born on a farm in Mangum Township,Durham County. His mother, Lulie Lunsford Umstead, the daughter ofa prosperous farmer, was active in civic and religious affairs inher community. His father, John W., was a farmer, legislator, andlongtime member of the Durham County Board of Education. William B.Umstead spent his early childhood on a farm, where he performed allthe duties expected of the average country boy. His prizedpossession was a black mare named Robbie, whom he raised and keptuntil her death at age thirty-three.

After completing nine years at Mangum School, he attended DurhamHigh School. In 1916 he was graduated from The University of NorthCarolina, where his fellow students recognized his debatingprowess, skill in campus politics, and fondness for quoting poetry.From his undergraduate days until his death, Umstead loved theuniversity and was never happier than when in its service. Inrecognition of this interest, he was chosen president of TheUniversity of North Carolina Alumni Association and a trustee ofthe Consolidated University.

Umstead taught school in Kinston for one year before beginningactive duty in the army. As a second lieutenant in the 317thMachine Gun Battalion, a part of the "Wild Cat" Division, he servedoverseas for almost a year during World War I. A few months afterhis discharge in March 1919, he entered law school at TrinityCollege (now Duke University). Receiving a license to practice lawin August 1920, he launched his legal career in Durham in July1921.

He entered politics in 1922, when he was elected prosecutingattorney of the Durham County Recorder's Court. After serving forfour years, Umstead won the office of solicitor for the TenthJudicial District. His popularity with voters in the SixthCongressional District earned him a seat in the U.S. House ofRepresentatives in November 1932. In Washington he took a specialinterest in rural electrification, soil conservation, and the FarmHome Administration. He was instrumental in securing passage of abill appropriating funds for enlarging facilities at the TobaccoExperiment Station in Oxford, N.C., for the study of tobacco wiltand other diseases. As chairman of the subcommittee onappropriations for the Navy Department, he introduced severalappropriations measures and led the fight for their passage on theHouse floor.

At the end of his third term Umstead resigned his seat andresumed his law practice in Durham. In 1944 he returned to thepolitical arena as manager of the gubernatorial campaign of R.Gregg Cherry of Gastonia. Following Cherry's election, Umsteadaccepted the chairmanship of the state Democratic executivecommittee, a position he held until November 1946. Early the nextyear Governor Cherry appointed him to serve the unexpired term ofthe late senator Josiah W. Bailey. Seeking a full Senate term in1948, Umstead faced a formidable opponent in former governor J.Melville Broughton. Umstead's loss by a small margin was the firstand only defeat of his political career.

Returning to Durham in November 1948, he practiced law until thespring of 1952, when he received the Democratic nomination forgovernor. Elected by an overwhelming majority, he took the oath ofoffice on 8 Jan. 1953. In his inaugural address he submittedseveral recommendations to the General Assembly: a 10 percentsalary increase for public school teachers and administratorsretroactive to 1 July 1952, passage of a bill requiring mechanicalinspection of all motor vehicles in the state and establishment ofa drivers' training program in every public high school, submissionof bond issues to construct facilities for the treatment andeducation of the mentally ill and to build additional schoolfacilities, and a statewide referendum on whether to legalize thesale of intoxicating liquor.

One of Umstead's chief interests was reorganization of the StateBoard of Paroles, a recommendation approved by the 1953 GeneralAssembly. He lost no time in appointing the three-member board andconferred with it frequently on the adoption of new policies thatstressed uniform and fair parole consideration for prisoners in thestate's penal institutions.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Brown v.Board of Education decision of 17 May 1954 that "the doctrineof separate but equal has no place in the field of publiceducation," Umstead's calm reaction was in the state's tradition ofreasoned moderation. He reluctantly accepted the decision andappointed a nineteen-member commission, chaired by Thomas J.Pearsall of Rocky Mount, to study the school situation and submitits recommendations to the 1955 General Assembly. Largely becauseof Umstead's leadership on this issue, irresponsible andintemperate actions were averted.

Probably his most significant appointment as governor was thatof Sam J. Ervin, Jr., of Morganton, a University of North Carolinaclassmate who was then an associate justice of the North CarolinaSupreme Court, to fill the unexpired term of Senator Clyde R. Hoeywhen he died in May 1954. Ervin held his Senate seat for twentyyears, gaining national prominence as chairman of the Senate SelectCommittee on Presidential Campaign Activities, which investigatedthe widely publicized Watergate affair in 1973 and 1974. Earlier inhis term Umstead had appointed Alton A. Lennon of Wilmington tocomplete the unexpired term of U.S. senator Willis Smith of Raleighfollowing his death on 26 June 1953.

Physically frail, Umstead spent several months of hisabbreviated term as governor in a hospital bed. Two days after hisinauguration he suffered a heart attack and had deep chestcongestion verging on pneumonia. Admitted to Watts Hospital inDurham on 10 January, he was unable to return to his office until21 May. Against the advice of physicians and friends, he doggedlydischarged his responsibilities as chief executive, oftendiscussing issues of state with legislative leaders and executivedepartment heads from his bed in the Executive Mansion. After threeweeks' hospitalization in October 1954, Umstead returned to Raleighon the twenty-fifth. When a severe cold failed to respond totreatment, he was again hospitalized. His cold quickly turned topneumonia, and he died of congestive heart failure. Funeral riteswere held on 9 November at Trinity Methodist Church, Durham, whereUmstead had been an active lay leader; burial was in the MountTabor Methodist Church cemetery near his home community of Bahamain Mangum Township.

Although Umstead lacked the charisma and boldness of a colorfulleader, his courageous devotion to duty and his intense concern forthe state's welfare served as a commendable example for hissuccessors.

He married Merle Davis of Rutherford County on 5 Sept. 1929, andthey had a daughter, Merle Bradley. A portrait of Umstead hangs inthe Executive Mansion.

SEE: David L. Corbitt, ed., Public Addresses, Letters, andPapers of William Bradley Umstead, Governor of North Carolina,1953-54 (1957); Durham Morning Herald, 8 Nov.1954; New York Times, 8 Nov. 1954; North Carolina GeneralAssembly, Joint Session of the General Assembly of NorthCarolina Honoring the Memory of the Late Governor William B.Umstead, March 15, 1955 (1955).

A. W. Stewart

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