William B. Umstead (1895-1954)

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

As governor of North Carolina from 1953 to 1954, William B. Umstead spent much of his administration bed-ridden, yet he continued working to implement his ideas for what he called a “better tomorrow.”

Umstead had diverse childhood and early professional experiences.  Born in Durham County in 1895, the young Umstead grew up on a farm and performed various chores.  After graduating from Durham High School, he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and earned his history undergraduate degree in 1916.  He taught high school for one year.  When the United States actively participated in the Great War in 1917, Umstead volunteered and served in Europe with the 317th Machine Gun Battalion.  After the war, he started attending Trinity Law School (now Duke University) in 1919, and started practicing law in 1920.

Umstead soon became a political favorite in his community.  Voters elected him as Durham County prosecutor in 1922 and in 1926 they voted him as solicitor (now called District Attorney).  Starting in 1932, he served three terms as a U.S. Congressman.  In this role, he worked to protect the tobacco industry and use national dollars to benefit his district and state by securing funds for rural electrification, soil conservation, Farm Home Administration, and the Tobacco Experiment Station.  In 1938, he returned to his law practice, but he returned to Washington, D.C., when Governor R. Gregg Cherry appointed him to a U.S. Senate seat after Josiah Bailey died.   He served in this position for two years.

Popular in the Democratic Party ranks, Umstead ran successfully for governor in 1952 and started working to create a “better tomorrow” by increasing government spending and regulation and tackling controversial issues.  According to biographer A. W. Stewart, his plans included a ten-percent salary increase for teachers, motor vehicle inspections, and high school driver’s training programs.  He wanted the state to build more schools and more programs and facilities for the mentally ill.   He encouraged the state to diversify its economy and called for a referendum regarding the sale of liquor in the state.  He also restructured the State Board of Paroles: a three-member board ensured that paroles were issued in a consistent and fair manner.

Umstead is more famous for his 1954 leadership, however.  That year, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the Brown v. Board of Education decision and required public school integration.  Umstead worked to avoid racial conflict in the Tar Heel State.   He appointed a nineteen, member commission to study how integration might best be accomplished in North Carolina schools.  The biracial panel made their recommendations to the General Assembly in 1955, and historians credit Umstead for his leadership decisions that eliminated “intemperate actions” among Tar Heels and the legislators.  Later that year, Hurricane Hazel, with winds reaching 150 mph, destroyed $136 million in property and took 19 lives. Umstead called on the national government to declare North Carolina to be a disaster state and to provide relief for its citizens.  (Many consider it the worst storm in the state’s history.)  Umstead also appointed two influential Senators: Willis Smith and Sam Ervin.

After battling bad health throughout his administration, Umstead died from congestive heart failure.   Two days after giving his “better tomorrow” speech, Umstead suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized for nearly four months.  Once returning to the Executive Mansion, Umstead conducted meetings with government leaders while bed-ridden.  His dedication to his gubernatorial work no doubt contributed to his sickliness and lack of recovery.   Two more times, Umstead was hospitalized during his short administration. On November 4, he died.  He was buried in Durham County.