William Kerr Scott (1896-1958)

Written By Kellie Slappey

W. Kerr Scott was born on April 17, 1896, in Alamance County.  The young Scott pursued an agriculture degree from N.C. State College.  After his 1917 graduation, Scott joined the Army and served as a private in Field Artillery during the First World War.  Afterward in 1919, Scott married Mary Elizabeth White, and they had three children.  One child, Robert Walter Scott, later became governor of North Carolina in 1969.

Scott continued pursuing his interests in farming and dairy and was elected as the North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner in 1936.   In this position, Scott led what historian Michael Hill calls a “successful fight to end Bangs disease” (an infection in cattle, also called Brucellosis of cattle, that causes miscarriages or premature calving most often between the fifth and eight month of pregnancy). In 1948 Scott resigned from his position as  Commissioner and took on what historians have called the  “Democratic party machine” by running for governor.  In the primary Scott defeated six other Democratic candidates.  One candidate, Charles Johnson, even had the endorsement of O. Max Gardner’s political machine.  Without trouble, Scott defeated the Republican candidate, George Pritchard, in the general election.  Scott’s victory, writes Hill, ended “almost “fifty years of Democratic politics in North Carolina [being] dominated first by the organization of Furnifold Simmons and then by that of Gardner.”  Scott was known as a farmer-governor–the first since Elias Carr in 1892.  

As governor of North Carolina from 1949 to 1953, the Alamance County native initiated the “Go Forward” program.  Scott believed that surplus funds in state banks could be used.  The legislature initially resisted his ideas for spending programs.  But popular referenda approved bonds to be used for schools and roads.  Scott wanted, in particular, to pave rural roads.  In a little over one year, thousands of miles (4,658, over one-third of Scott’s goal) of North Carolina’s country roads were paved. Scott also urged utility companies to provide  electrical and telephone services to rural areas.  It was reported that after one year 83,000 telephones had been installed and eighty-eight percent of farmers had electricity.  During Scott’s administration, the state legislature also appropriated money, writes historian William S. Powell, “to improve facilities for oceangoing ships at the state ports of Wilmington and Morehead City.”

Governor Scott was known for being progressive. He appointed not only Harold Trigg to the State Board of Education, the first African American member, but also the first female superior court judge, Susie Sharp.  The farmer-governor also eliminated salary discrimination between white and black staff members at the state mental hospital.  Also according to Powell, Scott recommended “lowering the voting age to eighteen, a statewide liquor referendum, stream pollution control, minimum wage legislation, and restoring a motor vehicle inspection law.”  He was also known for encouraging the General Assembly to appropriate matching funds to buy pieces for the NC Museum of Art.  The goal was to have a top-notch and nationally known museum.  

Scott was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1954.  He served in this capacity until his death on April 16, 1958.  He is buried in Hawfields Presbyterian Church Cemetery near Mebane.