Impeached Governor Not Hero Of His Own Legacy?

It was in 1870 that North Carolina Gov. William Woods Holden was impeached and removed from office. He had used the state militia to quell the Ku Klux Klan. Others have begun to question that legacy, saying that he was no early champion of civil rights, but instead a political opportunist. North Carolina Public Radio's Jessica Jones has the story.

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The North Carolina legislature is working to clear the name of a Reconstruction-era governor. William Holden was cast out of office in 1871 after jailing Klansmen and their sympathizers for intimidating both black and white voters. Historians later portrayed him as a rascal, eager to put down former Confederates. Jessica Jones of North Carolina Public Radio reports.

JESSICA JONES: The shelves in Diane Rodgers home library are stacked with Civil War history books, old photographs and war memorabilia. One of her favorite finds is a soldier's pewter flask she bought at an antique show.

Ms. DIANE RODGER: Now, I don't know if this was just for water or maybe something a little stronger.

JONES: The flask sits under a framed CPF photograph of a solemn-looking, balding man. It's her great, great uncle, Governor William Woods Holden. When Rodger was a junior high school student in the 1950s she took the picture to school for a classroom presentation. Her teacher recognized the former governor immediately.

Ms. RODGER: I remember very clearly just wishing I could slide under the door. I was embarrassed I guess, because she talked about how that he had been impeached and that was what he was known for.

JONES: But the teacher didn't talk about how Holden was known for trying to suppress the Ku Klux Klan, which is why conservative white lawmakers sought to impeach him. Instead, history books focused on the men Holden sent to jail. But now, Rodger is thrilled that modern day lawmakers may finally clear her relative's name.

Ms. RODGER: It's a dream come true. That's what I'd have to say. It really is.

JONES: A distant in-law contacted a state senator to take on Holden's case. But the measure is controversial. The bill's sponsor, Republican State Senator Neal Hunt, says he has received angry calls from descendants of the insurrectionists who were jailed 140 years ago.

State Senator NEAL HUNT (Republican, North Carolina): Governor Holden's militia did some things apparently to some of the folks' families that has been passed down from generation to generation. And so they just remember these stories.

JONES: Another lawmaker temporarily got the bill pulled off the senate's calendar. And a legislative aide was fired recently after he placed unflattering flyers about Holden on state senators' desks.

Fitz Brundage is a southern history professor at the University of North Carolina.

Dr. FITZ BRUNDAGE (Southern History, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill): I could easily imagine how that kind of sense of victimhood would be handed down on both sides of this story. The victimhood of Holden's family, what was done to him; the victimhood of Unionists who were trying to just protect themselves against Klan violence; and the victimhood of white descendants who feel like their ancestors were unfairly stigmatized.

JONES: But Brundage says Holden's actions make sense. State senators think so, too. They voted unanimously earlier this week to pardon the late governor. The measure is now in the North Carolina House.

For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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