Point Taken: Fifty years of N.C. changes

 In January 2021

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North Carolina has changed mightily since 1971 — for the most part.


You forget how quickly time passes. It has been 50 years since I celebrated the new year in 1971, which seems impossible, but the calendar and mirror don’t lie.

Folks my age remember being high school seniors when it turned ’71. We are reminded of how long ago this was when we encounter 40-year-olds who weren’t born by the end of the seventies, for goodness sakes.

You think that Research Triangle Park is shiny and new, but by 1971, it was 12 years old. It had already landed its biggest trophy, IBM, and Big Blue’s RTP employees were part of the influx of newcomers who would transform the Raleigh region.

Every industry recruiter in North Carolina should name their first child after Willis Carrier, the father of modern air conditioning, which made it possible for northerners like me to live here. Fortunately, you could go down to Sears in 1971 and buy a central air system for $650, suitable for a 1,200-square-foot house.

The North Carolina that was welcoming, sort of, to the influx of Yankees 50 years ago was still evolving when it came to gender and race.

Culture and the want ads

For a close-up look at the culture of 1971, browse the employment classifieds in what was then considered a progressive newspaper, The News & Observer of Raleigh, my employer of more than two decades. Some of us may have this notion that the ’60s happened and everything changed, but no, not everywhere.

In Raleigh, the help wanteds were divided between jobs that were seeking men and jobs that were seeking women. The male jobs were technical, manufacturing and managerial.

“Need a man who can dry clean and press, to work full time,” read one ad.

The female jobs were looking for waitresses, dental hygienists, receptionists and secretaries.

Racial preferences were similarly right up in your face.
“Wanted: White lady companion with driver’s license,” read one ad.

Another: “Settled white lady, to live in as housekeeper companion.”

The Klan

And in some places, the racism was right up there in big letters. If you were driving on U.S. 70 in Smithfield in 1971, you saw a massive Ku Klux Klan billboard towering over the road. The sign, which went up in 1967, would stand for a decade, off and on, in this town just a couple dozen miles southeast of Raleigh. It wasn’t the only one in North Carolina.

To those of you reading this and saying, “Oh, that was just a bunch of isolated crackpots,” listen to Milton Ready, a retired UNC Asheville historian.

“Don’t ever forget the KKK in North Carolina,” says Ready, who recently updated his 2005 history book of the state. “There were more KKK members in North Carolina in the ’60s and up through the mid-’70s than in all the rest of the South combined.”

The impact of the Hispanic community

One of the biggest differences between today and 1971 is the Hispanic population. It grew from fewer than 50,000 to 1 million, nearly 10% of the current population. Ready likens it in significance to the 18th-century arrival of the Scots-Irish in western North Carolina and the Piedmont. Hispanics have started up half of the state’s new small businesses since 2010, Ready says.

“And yet, I’m not quite sure that a great many chambers of commerce and business organizations pay attention to them as much as they should.”

The dramatic increase in the Hispanic population is one reason why North Carolina has doubled in population since 1971.

There were more than 5 million North Carolinians 50 years ago. Latest estimates put us now at about 10.5 million.

The metropolitan surge

North Carolina developed over the centuries as a collection of small towns, without a dominant urban center like Atlanta. When the 1970s dawned, Mecklenburg County had about 350,000 residents, and Wake County had fewer than 230,000. Today, each has 1.1 million.

When UNC Chapel Hill plays N.C. State University in the regular season, there are a lot of people in the office who don’t have a dog in that fight because they aren’t from here. But that changes around ACC Tournament time, because the conference now extends from south Florida to upstate New York and points west, with 15 teams (for basketball, including Notre Dame), not the seven after the South Carolina divorce 50 years ago. It still surprises me that some folks around here get excited to watch Syracuse play Pitt on the ACC Network.

All this population growth led to the arrival of major league teams. In 1971, Charlotte did not have the NFL or NBA, and Raleigh did not have the NHL. We did have the Carolina Cougars of the American Basketball Association, coached by the colorful Bones McKinney at sparkling venues such as Dorton Arena at the state fairgrounds in Raleigh.

The old economy

North Carolina was beginning to change 50 years ago in many ways, and whether these changes were good or bad depended on who you were and where you lived. In 1971, we had a lot of manufacturing jobs, a third of the workforce. Textiles were coming under foreign pressure, but the mills still operated in dozens of towns. Politicians complained that these were low-paying jobs that kept North Carolina near the bottom in wages nationally, but they were jobs you could easily get with a high school education or less.

Because those jobs were still here, there weren’t as many incentives to get an education. People mostly didn’t.

Fifty years ago, only 19% of North Carolina adults ages 25 to 64 had some education after high school. This made North Carolinians employed in textiles and furniture particularly vulnerable to the twin hammer blows of lower-wage foreign competition and job-eliminating technology. The consequences were witnessed by the next generations, who learned from this wrenching transformation.

Today, more than 60% of North Carolina adults have post-secondary education and the community college system, which was in its first decade in 1971, now enrolls about 700,000 full- and part-time students.

Tobacco was still thriving 50 years ago, with more than twice the acreage of today’s post-buyout industry and tens of thousands more farms growing the crop. The handwriting, however, was on the wall. The government ban on cigarette advertising was taking effect, and the last big buys on TV were the New Year’s Day bowl games and Johnny Carson.

Kmart shoppers

The big discount retailer in 1971 was Kmart. Walmart was a small regional chain in a handful of states. Jeff Bezos turned 7 that January. The Belk stores were just starting to move to the new malls such as Charlotte’s SouthPark. Sears would not only sell central air but nearly everything, including an 18-inch portable TV for $248, which, in today’s dollars, would buy a 75-inch Samsung, maybe two.

In 1971, we had more than 300,000 troops in the southern half of Vietnam, and Green Berets from Fayetteville were handing over their last two camps to the South Vietnamese army and preparing to return to Fort Bragg. In four years, Saigon would fall to the Communists.

Vietnam is making our TVs now. Time passes, things change.

But some things don’t really change that much. Racism isn’t on billboards anymore. Instead, we are debating about statues that are offensive to a sizable portion of residents and about the names of Army installations that, like Fort Bragg, honor generals who fought for a Confederacy that enslaved 4 million.

An October march to the polls in the Alamance County town of Graham ended in pepper spray and arrests when police attempted to clear the racially diverse crowd from the street. Marchers, who started at a nearby African Methodist Episcopal church, had stopped at the courthouse for a moment of silence for George Floyd. The episode has a throwback feel to it — a pastor/march leader charged with felonies — that may be disturbingly familiar to old-timers of my generation.

It’s been 50 years since 1971, and senior year, and that was a long time ago. But, as Nobel Prize laureate William Faulkner wrote, the past is never dead. It’s not even past. ■

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