Despite Racism, Craig Worked Toward Better State - TribPapers

Despite Racism, Craig Worked Toward Better State

Bain News Service, publisher - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Public Domain.

Asheville – His historical marker should reads, “Locke Craig: 1860–1924, Governor, 1913–1917. He created the state highway & fisheries commissions, est. Mt. Mitchell State Park. Lived 1/2 mi. W,” that is if it was there. According to a 2019 article the marker might have been taken out by a wreck. Whatever the reason, the location of his marker is suppose to be at Broadway Street at Chestnut Street in north Asheville. But who was Locke Graig?

According to a sketch about the marker, Locke Craig, originally from Bertie County and later a resident of Buncombe, left an indelible mark as North Carolina’s governor from 1860 to 1924. Notably, he became the first mountain region governor since Zebulon B. Vance. Born on August 16, 1860, in Bertie County, Craig was the son of Andrew Murdock Craig, a Baptist minister of Scottish descent, and Clarissa Gilliam.

Original location of Locke Craig marker before its removal. Photo by Clint Parker.
Original location of Locke Craig marker before its removal. Photo by Clint Parker.

His early education included local schools and enrollment at the Horner Military School in Henderson. Following his father’s passing shortly after the Civil War, Craig and his widowed mother relocated to Chapel Hill, where he began his studies at the age of fifteen. He later graduated in 1880 and initially pursued teaching chemistry at the University.

However, teaching was not his passion. After delving into legal studies, Craig was admitted to the bar in 1882. He then established his law practice in Asheville, his hometown, for the rest of his life, except during his tenure as governor. In 1891, he married Annie Burgin from McDowell County, with whom he had four sons.

In 1892 and 1896, Craig’s involvement as a presidential elector for William Jennings Bryan ignited his political aspirations. This experience led to his election to the state House during the significant sessions of 1899–1900 and 1901. Locke Craig’s connection to Charles B. Aycock from their college days in Chapel Hill forged a significant partnership in the political arena. Their relationship, rooted in shared experiences and ideological alignment, would play a pivotal role in shaping the state’s history, particularly in the context of the white supremacy campaign of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Both Craig and Aycock were products of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where they not only received their education but also imbibed the prevailing political and social attitudes of the time. This shared collegiate background established a firm bond between the two men, and they would go on to collaborate closely in their political careers with in the Democrat Party.

The white supremacy campaign, a dark chapter in the state’s history, sought to establish and perpetuate white dominance over black Americans and suppress their political participation. Locke Craig, deeply influenced by Aycock’s leadership and the prevailing political climate, became a staunch advocate for the white supremacy movement. His involvement was not limited to rhetoric; he actively participated in the strategies designed to disenfranchise black voters and maintain white control over the state’s political institutions.

Despite his active engagement in politics, Craig faced setbacks. He lost the Democratic nomination for the US Senate in 1902 to Lee Overman and was defeated in a three-way race for the party’s gubernatorial nomination in 1908. The latter contest was intensely competitive, spanning sixty-one ballots at the Charlotte convention. However, four years later, Craig became the party’s nominee by acclamation and triumphed in the 1912 election.

Upon assuming office, Craig’s inaugural address introduced his “Pledge of Progress,” pledging to advance education reforms. In the same speech, he criticized North Carolina’s discriminatory railroad freight rate structure, which imposed higher rates within the state compared to neighboring states. Under his leadership, the rates were restructured in 1915, driving economic growth and becoming a hallmark achievement of his administration.

His term also witnessed significant transportation and conservation initiatives. The State Highway Commission was formed in 1915, establishing a foundation for the road system’s expansion. The state’s road mileage surged from 5,000 in 1913 to 15,000 within four years. The construction of the Central Highway (later Old Hickory Highway) was a key accomplishment, traversing the state, including the section through Swannanoa Gap, built with convict labor.

Governor Craig demonstrated concern for the victims of the 1916 floods in western North Carolina, coordinating relief efforts. He also mobilized the National Guard for border service along the US-Mexico border and worked towards resolving Cuba’s claim for a reconstruction bond payment.

An active figure in the Appalachian Park Association, Craig played a central role in the creation of Pisgah National Forest. In 1915, he advocated for the state’s acquisition of 600 acres atop Mount Mitchell, which became the foundation for North Carolina’s first state park.

Following the conclusion of his gubernatorial term, Craig resumed his law practice and returned to his home by the Swannanoa River in Asheville. He passed away on June 9, 1924, and was interred at Riverside Cemetery in the same city.