The Lost Colony of North Carolina
By Donna Dyer and Frank Adams
Vol. 4, No. 3, 1982, pp. 3-11
“We don’t have poverty in Hertford County. People live like that because they want to. They don’t want it any other way”–L.M. “Mutt” Brinkley, Hertford County Commissioner.
In speaking of the rural poor of Northeastern North Carolina, Sister Mary Genino, a Catholic nun who has worked in the region for three years, acknowledges a bewildering configuration of powerlessness: “They are bound,” she says, “by a social structure that has not changed for hundreds of years. It has affected their economic freedom, their political freedom and their social freedom. They don’t vote–though no one comes around with a gun or turns them away from the voting polls. They drop out of school–because education doesn’t get them anywhere. And although there are no written laws that say ‘blacks and ‘while,’ the mores of past generations are still rigidly adhered to.”
Seldom since William Byrd staked the Virginia–North Carolina boundary in 1728 has there been so much discussion within and without the region about conditions of life in the “Northeast.” Some have begun to call the area east and north of Interstate 95 the state’s “lost colony.” Colonies exist when a region’s people or natural resources are under the sway of outside individuals and institutions. A colony is subordinate to and dependent upon outside sources of accumulated capital, upon the “superior training” of outsiders or their agents, upon the outsiders’ control and manipulation of privileged information, or some combination of these factors.
Advantage over the colonized or peripheral region is preserved through manipulation of wages and labor markets, through continued or increased levels of outside ownership over resources, and through the thousand and one ways in which wealth and concentrated power make themselves felt. There are also the advantages which are played through in discriminations of sex, race, religion or culture. And when necessary, there can be a show of force. Poor people are usually numerous in dependent regions (witness Sister Genino’s comments), and passions over racial attitudes, sexual traditions or religious beliefs often divide them, further preventing effective challenges to the causers and causes of poverty and quiescence. Appalachia is one such colony in the United States.
Is Northeastern North Carolina another one?
In August 1981, Governor James B. Hunt, Jr., spoke at an “economic summit” arranged by the Department of Commerce in Edenton, once the state’s capital. The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot announced the event saying the Northeast’s governmental and commercial leaders were being invited “to continue a process of focusing bureaucratic, political, and economic attention on the region.”
Later that month, either spurred by the governor’s zeal or unimpressed by what they heard, sixteen counties formed a coalition calling itself Northeastern North Carolina Tomorrow to promote a regional agenda for economic growth. In October, they met with a delegation of Virginians to plea for help in pushing tourism, industrialization, links with the thriving Tidewater, and markets for new products. The area’s feelings of being a stepchild were underscored by talk of secession. State senator Melvin R. Daniels, Jr., a Democratic Party stalwart and influential banker, told the Virginians, “If things don’t go right with redistricting in Raleigh, we might petition Virginia to take us back in–everything from the Roanoke River through the Chowan River Basin.” Whether ploy or facetious warning, Daniel’s remarks drew swift rebuttal from equally powerful state senator J.J. “Monk” Harrington, a Lewiston manufacturer, who bluntly defended the state’s efforts to spur development. He said, “I think Northeastern North Carolina has been looked out for quite well by North Carolina officials. I have never known them-Virginians–to give us anything. We give and they take.”
Governor Hunt’s Balanced Growth Policy stirred some faint hopes for economic growth in the Northeast, a land of productive farms, endless timber tracts, pocosins, slow moving rivers and small towns. But the highly visible policy debate during the governor’s first administration spawned more rhetoric than results. The coalition’s leaders, pushed by Ahoskie newspaper publisher, Joe Parker, were agreed in their determination to see some change in the region’s bleak economic status. They arranged public meetings and held symposia at community colleges and offices of Chambers of Commerce. However, despite the region-wide, public nature of all the talk, very few of the debate’s participants offered more than a glimpse into the Northeast’s economy, or provided an analytical framework for discussing the region’s severe economic ills.
For instance, there are shifting definitions of which counties are to be included, or more accurately, are willing to be tarred as “underdeveloped.” The Governor’s Task Force on Northeastern North Carolina, the group responsible for the Edenton Summit, included Beaufort, Bertie, Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Dare, Gates, Halifax, Hertford, Hyde, Martin, Northampton, Pasquotank, Perquimans, Tyrrell and Washington. Their list coincided with the sixteen-county coalition. Other observers, particularly a few municipal, regional planners, and University of North Carolina professor of planning Ed Bergman, argue the entire First Congressional District shares the common demoninator of an agrarian-based economy with the lowest per capita income in the state. In accepting Bergman’s position, we include Carteret, Craven, Greene, Lenoir, Pamlico and Pitt counties in our analysis.
Too, the debate has been blurred by a division as to the reasons for persistent underdevelopment. Some point to myriad human deficiencies; others blame the lack of roads, schools or bridges. The first camp attributes the region’s plight to ills they say are inherently a part of the Northeast’s people and their culture. In circular fashion, they claim that the often shocking statistics of poverty, poor health, inadequate diet, ignorance, rotting housing, or lack of participation in the electoral process characteristic of the First Congressional District, explains the origins and causes of underdevelopment. Another camp, perhaps the majority, holds that the lack of adequate roads, incentives for investors, shortages of skilled labor, and inadequate tools for capital formation prevent regional modernization.
Both camps ignore several essential questions: Who owns or controls the land in this sprawling region? Who owns the region’s jobs? Where do profits go? How are governmental services distributed, or taxes levied? These key questions are at the base of any regional analysis. And while the Governor and the coalition have let them go begging, some of the citizenry has not.
Dr. Eugene G. Purcell, a minister and professor of philosophy at Atlantic Christian College, spoke at a regional development seminar organized by Elizabeth City’s College of the Albemarle on November 17, 1981. He drew knowing, approving nods from listeners when he declared that growth is difficult because people “realize the critical decisions that affect them most are made by people they cannot see and do not know.” Purcell continued: “The economic future of small towns is determined in a corporate boardroom in a distant city.
Impersonal bureaucrats make decisions about state or federal funding and control of the schools, the quality and availability of medical care, who gets a slice of the welfare pie, what interest rates you pay for borrowed money, and even the quality of the air you breathe or the water you drink.”
Intellectuals are certainly not the only persons asking who prospers from the region’s people and resources. In 1979, before the present debate became public, a popular bumpersticker was sold at many Northeast restaurants, grocery and hardware stores. The message? “Welcome to North Eastern North Carolina: Owned and Operated by VEPCO.” The bumpersticker reflected the successful drive by twenty-one Northeast municipalities to terminate contracts with Virginia Electric and Power Company (VEPCO), headquartered in Richmond, and then buy power from Carolina Power and Light Company, based in Raleigh, saving, they predicted, $1.1 billion over a twenty-one year period.
Who Owns the Land?
According to the Sixth Edition of the Profile of North Carolina Counties, published in 1981,thereare5,783,500 arable acres in the District. Farmers till 24.9 percent of the land, or 1,400,700 acres. Timber is grown on 61.8 percent, or 3,572,200 acres. The federal government owns 233,909 acres, or 2.5 percent, using that land principally for military bases or parks. The remainder is taken up by roads, towns, trailer parks, shopping centers, junkyards, schools or prison camps.
All told, according to the 1978 U.S. Census of Agriculture, there are 10,658 farms in the District. They produced twenty percent of the state’s agriculture receipts, or $657,204,000, averaging about $62,000 per farm. The majority are small, inherited, family-held operations whose number is declining.
North Carolina State University’s Dr. Leon E. Danielson found in a 1981 study that about a third of all the state’s farmland was owned by retired persons, or by white- and blue-collar workers who farmed part-time and worked other jobs. The average size of a North Carolina farm was forty-two acres. The patterns he found hold in the Northeast, especially because tobacco is grown in abundance, and is labor intensive, and can be done part-time. But changes in farming practices, operating costs, interest rates and labor costs are wiping out the small family farm. Black farmers in the District have been particularly hard hit. Their number declined from 2,570 full-time farmers tilling 111,888 acres in 1954 to 529 full-time farmers working 26,876 acres in 1979, a drop of seventy-nine percent, causing the N.C. Division of Policy Development in June 1981 to predict that by the end of the century “there will be no black-owned farms,” in the state.
As small farms vanish, larger farms and “superfarms”–requiring huge capital resources and extensive management skills, have taken their place, adapting new technologies and taking in previously unused or marginally productive land. This trend started in 1973 when Malcolm P. McLean, the one-time Winston-Salem trucking magnate, paid $60 million for 581 square miles c land or about one third of the entire Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula, and appropriately called what he’d bought (the state’s largest farm), First Colony Farms. Since then, dozens of other investors, all but two from outside the region, have bought and developed land, cleared and drained the property, then leased or resold the farms to absentee owners or corporations. Mostly corn, soybeans and hogs are raised on these farms. A partial list of the Northeast’s superfarms includes the 44,000acre Open Grounds farm in Carteret County, owned by an Italian grain merchant; the 35,000acre Mattamuskeet Farms in Hyde County, owned by John Hancock Mutual Insurance Co. of Boston, which has another $70 million in invested farm mortages elsewhere in North Carolina; a 7,500-acre farm along the Roanoke River in Halifax County, owned by ten New York City investors; and two Washington County farms–one totalling 9,400 acres and the other 4,700 acres–owned by foreign investors hidden so completely by corporate veils that even the resident managers don’t know for whom they till. Only two of these megafarms are held by North Carolinians: Rich Farms, a 13,000-acre operation east of Belhaven, and the 15,000acre farm operated by the relatives of A.D. Swindell around Pantego.
Decisions about the daily operations on these are made locally, but management policies are set elsewhere. Profits and tax advantages accumulate elsewhere, too. Further, local control over land use policy is eroded, if not lost, as a result of absentee farm operations. Even the state’s Environmental Management Commission found their reins a bit short. They voted to assess the impact of the superfarms on the ecology because “no one knows now what effect the ‘gigantic denudations’ of large farms . . . will have in the long run on weather, water, and wildlife . . .” First Colony managers pooh-poohed the study as having little value other than “keeping a few state bureaucrats off the street.”
Who Controls the Water?
Water, so vital to farming and seemingly so abundant in the Northeast, is also becoming scarce as a result of industrial activity controlled by absentee owners, or interests outside North Carolina. The superfarms profoundly alter water distribution patterns. Thousands of pounds of farm chemicals run off into swamps and rivers, and have had a devasting impact on fish and shrimp in the
sounds. Meanwhile, underground cones of depression traced to huge industrial withdrawals daily in Virginia have begun to diminish the underground water supply in Hertford, Northampton and Gates counties. Union Camp Corporation, operating in Franklin but headquartered in New York City, pumps about forty million gallons out of the ground daily, dropping the ground water level at least eighteen feet annually. To the south near Aurora, Texasgulf, Inc., headquartered in Stamford, Connecticut, but owned by the Government of France, pumps over nine million gallons of water daily to keep its subsurface phosphate mines dry. These withdrawals, combined with the ground water pumped by municipalities or by other industries, has caused the Northeast’s ground water level to drop nearly forty feet in ten years, according to Robert Cheek of the N.C. Department of Natural Resources. Private wells from Wanchese to Rich Square have dried up as a result of the depleted artesian aquifier. Already, fishermen net crabs in the Chowan River as far upstream as Winton.
Who Controls the Forests?
The region’s timberlands are held primarily by hundreds of private landholders in small tracts. This is the pattern across the state. There are some 245,000 non-industrial forest landowners in North Carolina, more than in any other state in America. They control about eighty percent of the commercial forest production–which yields over three billion dollars annually, if the furniture industry is included. In North Carolina, only twelve percent of the forests are held by all corporations, but in the First Congressional District, five giant forest product firms own twenty-one percent of the forests, or 746,322 acres. None of them are headquartered in the Northeast although each has a regional office there, and one, Weyerhaeuser, operates a mill in Plymouth employing nearly 2,300 persons to replant trees, run its nursery, haul logs, and run the complex, sprawling mill itself.
Weyerhaeuser illustrates how firms outside the region directly influence the life inside. The Tacoma, Washington, corporation owns or manages 660,000 North Carolina acres, mostly in the First Congressional District. Even with all these holdings, Weyerhaeuser-owned timber accounts for only twenty-five percent of its production needs. Nearly three-fourths of the timber it processes must come from smaller landholders, many of whom are unable to afford investing an average of $120 per acre to replant and then wait twenty to forty years for a return on their investment. To insure that its needs are met, Weyerhaeuser constantly buys up more timberland. Also, the company sponsors reforestation programs which enable the family timberowner to hold onto land, but puts hundreds of Northeast acres under its indirect control, or under the indirect control of the handful of other companies. For they are the only buyers available.
The giant firm influences the region’s social economy even more directly. At the end of October 1981, Weyerhaeuser settled a four-year-old suit brought by black employees at its Plymouth mill. They had alleged that the company assigned blacks in disproportionate numbers to its wood products division rather than the higher paying
fiber division. No blacks worked in the nursery, they said, and only a handful in salaried positions. Some seventy-eight percent of the work force in Plymouth (1,800 persons) was black, and the counties from which the firm drew the majority of its workers have large black population. Weyerhaeuser agreed to divide $700,000 in back pay among approximately 725 workers and pledged no further discrimination in job transfers, hiring, or promotions. Discriminatory wage patterns–to say nothing of hiring policies–provide a major reason why the region’s poverty is widespread and enduring and why the term “colony” is accurate.
Race has not been openly a part of the current debate about the region’s economic future. Black participation has been marked by its absence. Only after the sixteen-county coalition’s preliminary plans were well laid were any blacks invited to join what had been an all white, mostly male group.
An ad hoc committee of the N.C. Department of Commerce reported on March 19, 1979, on “the minority concentration issue.” Its authors, many of whom lived in the Northeast, sought to “dispel the myth that areas populated by high concentrations of minority individuals are to be avoided as possible locations in industrial facilities.” Some potential industrial clients, they noted, spurned the region because of its lack of water, sewer services, poor roads, or their low regard for its schools, shopping centers, cultural activities and recreation. Others frankly balked at the Northeast because of race. “Some . . . cite higher minority concentrations in the population and labor force as an additional factor adding to the lack of client interest . . . Some have stated a firm will not look at an area which has over thirty or forty percent minority concentration. The explanation is given that, in general, due to the lack of economic and educational opportunity, the Southern rural Black worker is perceived as having a poorer work ethic and is more easily organized by union efforts.” According to the 1980 Census, blacks are the majority of the population in four of the Northeast’s twenty-two counties and a third or more in eleven others.
Who Controls the Jobs?
Long periods of unemployment or long daily commutes for workers are another regional characteristic. Sixteen Northeast counties reported unemployment rates above the state’s average in 1980. Tyrrell County had the highest unemployment rate in the state–11.5 percent. Aggregate figures do not account for seasonal employment in the tourist industry (a major factor in Dare, Pamlico and Carteret counties) nor farming, making it likely that real unemployment during some months may be much higher than official averages reveal. For hundreds of persons, the option is commuting. Between 2,200 and three thousand North Carolinians drive daily into Virginia to work at Tidewater shipyards, or the meat packing and food processing plants in Suffolk and Smithfield. As the prices of fuel, autos and vans increase more rapidly than general inflation and the real incomes earned at these distant jobs, the region’s economy is further weakened by reducing the actual amount of money available to be spent or saved in Northeast.
The work which is available in the Northeast is characteristic of jobs to be found in other colonies–apparel sewing and manufacturing, timbering, mining, or food processing–which pay the lowest wages and characterize first-stage, primitive industrialization.
Even a casual look at available employment in the Northeast explains why workers choose to commute such long distances. Jobs are scarce. In twelve of the twenty-two counties, less than thirty percent of the nonagricultural workforce is employed in manufacturing. The state’s average is 34.6 percent. In the nine counties where more than thirty percent of the work force is employed in manufacturing, jobs in food, apparel and lumber dominate. By considering Beaufort, Craven, Lenoir and Pitt as “metropolitan centers” among the other overwhelmingly rural counties, work in those three categories accounts for fifty-six percent of the District’s jobs. Across the state, the average is twenty percent. These low-paying, low skill industrial sector job categories quickly feel the nation’s cyclical economic lurches. When building permits drop nationally, the Northeast’s trees do not. When clothing sales decline, sewing machine operators are laid off.
In only two of the Northeast’s twenty-two counties do average weekly wages exceed or approach the statewide average of $222.56. Seven counties reported weekly wages of less than two-thirds the state’s 1979 average. During that year, North Carolina, which became the nation’s eighth most industrialized state, ranked fiftieth in average weekly industrial wages. Hyde County workers labored for the lowest wage in the state, if not the U.S.,–$85.66 a week.
There is a parallel scarcity of unions. In nine Northeast counties there isn’t a union local at all; in the others only three locals are listed in telephone directories. Recent efforts by the United Food and Commercial Workers, a progressive union with an emphasis on organizing among the poorest paid sectors of the labor market, failed to overcome widespread fear among poultry processors in two huge, profitable factories. Even those unpleasant jobs were precious to people who know other work isn’t available. One veteran UFCW organizer, a native of Williamston who is based in Asheville, says, “Organizing back home is as tough as any place in the South I know of.”
Low wages, the large number of unemployed, plus the lack of unions dull any prospect for immediate change in
wage patterns. When new firms do locate in the Northeast, pay levels remain low despite increased competition for labor. For example, a British-owned elastic manufacturing firm in 1981 took over a Jamesville building which had housed a zipper factory also owned by absentee investors. As an official from the elastic firm cut a ribbon to reopen the once-abandonded plant, he told Martin County boosters, “Pay scales at the company will be commensurate at least with those of the region of the state.”
By subtracting the public sector portion of the non-agricultural jobs, an even gloomier picture of the region’s real wage level emerges. Persons in government employ tend to be paid at higher hourly wage rates than persons in the private sector. Government employees comprise about twenty-five percent of all jobs in the Northeast and thirty-five percent of the non-manufacturing jobs in the region. Across North Carolina, the public sector averages only sixteen percent of the total work force, and twenty-five percent in non-manufacturing. In some Northeastern counties, Gates, for instance, public schools are the largest single employer. And while county government exercises control over a few jobs, most government workers are managed, hired, and fired by policies or regulations set in Raleigh, Atlanta, or Washington.
In December 1981, Governor Hunt told a Military Appreciation Day ceremony that the armed forces were more important to the state’s economy than tobacco. “The military pays out about $1.7 billion dollars annually in North Carolina,” he said, “while tobacco generated about $1.3 billion dollars in wages and salaries in 1981–one of the best yet for our number one crop.” In 1980, the military pumped $230 million into the Northeast, primarily to run the Cherry Point Marine Air Station, the New River Marine Air Corps Station, Camp LeJeune, Johnson Air Force Base, the Fifth District Coast Guard Station in Elizabeth City, and the demolition training center operated by the Central Intelligence Agency outside tiny Hertford. Over 41,000 persons are employed at those installations. Higher than average levels of government employment, plus the large concentration of military bases, further characterize a colony.
Who Controls the Capital?
Determining the final resting place for profits gained from the region’s workers and resources helps to explain why the Northeast has a severely limited capacity to form a local capital base. According to the 1981-1982 N.C. Directory of Manufacturing Firms, there are 103 manufacturers employing one hundred or more persons in the First Congressional District; only thirty-four of these are headquartered within the region. The rest make their decisions and count their profits elsewhere, usually far from North Carolina. Of these absentee firms, thirty-five, or one-half, are either textile, apparel, or lumber producers. And while the 103 firms employ nearly 23,000 persons, sixty-nine of them, or the majority, control the jobs of 18,000 persons, according to N.C. Department of Commerce figures. Every one of those sixty-nine firms is headquartered outside the Northeast. One is a foreign government.
Still another measure of how the region’s resources are drained away by absentee capitalists is seen in expenditures for new plants or machinery. These capital investments translate into tax revenue for local government, indicate a firm’s solvency, stability, and, importantly, potential for additional jobs. They hint of continued plans for operation. Only four of the twenty-two counties are within ten percent of the state’s average per establishment capital investment levels. They are the most urban counties–Beaufort, Craven, Lenoir and Pitt. In the rest of the Northeast, capital investments ranged from seventy-five to five percent below North Carolina’s average. Industrial development has paid off less than handsomely for local tax coffers. When Peat Methanol Associates announced plans to build a $250-million plant on forty acres south of Lake Phelps, Washington County officials crowed, “It would be a terrific iprovement of our tax base,” but were unable to tell “how much of the finished plant would be subject to county taxes.”
The Northeast’s low-wage, low-skill manufacturers produce goods with low added-value above the costs of raw materials plus labor. According to The 1977 Census of Manufacturing, only firms in Pitt and Lenoir approached or exceeded the state’s average value-added statistics. Thus, industrialization has neither translated into prosperity for individual workers nor substantial additional tax revenue for local governments.
Tax laws add to the region’s impoverishment. The property tax is a chief source of funds for North Carolina’s schools, human services, and some local roads. The Northeast’s county and municipal governments rely on ad valorem taxes for revenue. These taxes are disproportionately paid by small farmers, or homeowners, and storekeepers, rather than owners of the superfarms or the forestry industry relative to their profits per acre. Farms and forests are taxed according to “use values” instead of “market values,” the measures used to assess homes, trailers, autos or personal property. Land used for farm forestry usually carries a lower assessed value than residential, commercial or industrial land use.
For years, North Carolina tax law has exempted timber companies from paying taxes on cut-over land for ten years after re-seeding or replanting. In 1973, the General Assembly went a step further by exempting all
standing timber from the tax base. The impact of their decision can be seen in tiny Gates County where 165,000 acres, or 75.5 percent of all its arable 219,300 acres, is used for forestry. Three timber companies owned 57,752 acres in Gates the year the exemption bill passed. The previous year, they had paid $7,823.73 on standing timber alone, and a total of $21,124 to the tax-poor county which had no industry at the time, and can boast only of one small sewing factory now. In a single legislative stroke, Gates lost nearly a third of the taxes paid by the timber companies. Yet the human problems faced by county government persisted. According to the 1980 Census, over twenty-four percent of the population was poor, twenty-two percent of the houses were substandard, and the unemployment rate fluctuated between five and eighteen percent annually.
How valuable was the timber harvested in Gates County that year? On one seventy-four acre tract the timber sold for over $302,000. Seven yers later–as the tax burden grew heavier as a result of the forestry exemptions–Gates County farmers sought relief. They claimed four hundred farmers, farm laborers and the county’s few businesses paid for seventy-five percent of the county revenue needs. Nor was Gates by itself. Throughout the region, the ad valorem tax rate is higher than the state average. Greene County has the highest rate in North Carolina, at $1.39 per hundred dollars of valuation, followed closely by Pamlico and Tyrrell with rates of $1.25 per hundred.
As tax rates increase, the incentives for industrial development decrease. This forces individual property tax rates to continue to climb, making it ever increasingly difficult for small property owners to hang onto their land. Adding to this self-perpetuating cycle is the regressive state sales tax. One cent of every four collected by the state in sales taxes is returned to the counties from which the revenue derived. Only a handful of the Northeast’s counties possess significant trading centers. Elizabeth City, Edenton, Williamston, Greenville, New Bern and Kinston qualify, as do Little Washington and Roanoke Rapids. However, market magnets such as Fayetteville, Raleigh and Durham–even Richmond and Tidewater, Virginia–regularly attract the Northeast’s shoppers. Rural counties with limited retail sales fail to benefit from the sales tax revenues to the degree “market” counties enjoy, thus increasing the pressure to tax rural county property at higher rates.
How are Government Services Delivered in the Northeast?
Consider the following: According to the Eastern Carolina Health Systems Agency in Greenville, the region’s health planning organization which has the largest geographic area to serve of any agency of its kind in North Carolina, sixteen counties are “medically under-served and have health manpower shortages.” Regarding emergency medical care only, the agency found that fourteen of the region’s hospitals had no twenty-four-hour physician coverage. Eight of them did not have registered nurses on duty twenty-four hours daily in emergency rooms. Only half the region’s ambulances–132 of 264–met Department of Transportation standards, and the region was short 513 ambulance attendants. Partly as a result, the agency noted, the region’s stroke mortality rates are twelve percent above state averages. Motor vehicle deaths are ten percent above state averages. Heart attack victims run a ten percent greater risk of dying before getting medical attention in the Northeast than elsewhere in North Carolina. Getting to hospitals is further complicated by the fact that nearly a third of the region’s roads are unpaved. In eleven counties, the average number of miles of unpaved roads outstrips the statewide average of 33.8 percent. In sprawling Beaufort County, for instance, over 44.3 percent of the roads are unpaved.
In a 1979 study of the Department of Human Resources listing of every county’s human service agencies, which included sheriffs’ departments, jails and prison camps, as well as hospitals, Red Cross agencies, or Departments of Social Services, a relationship between a county’s poverty and scarcity of resources appeared. In Camden County, where twenty-one percent of the 5,829 citizens were poor, there were thirty-one state or federal agencies, the fewest in North Carolina, to provide the available range of services open to other North Carolinians. Gates County, which had thirty-two listings, the next fewest in the state, had, as has been noted, nearly a quarter of its 8,876 citizens impoverished. In Hyde County, with thirty-four agencies, thirty-seven percent of the 5,875 citizens were poor. There was no public housing authority listed in these three counties, yet in Camden, nineteen percent of the housing was substandard, in Gates, twenty-two percent was below par, and in Hyde County, twenty-three percent was substandard. By contrast, in Wake County, seat of state government and one point in the affluent Research Triangle, and where less than ten percent of the citizens are poor, there are 876 agencies, the state’s highest number. In second place was Guilford County with 483, then Forsyth with 412 and Mecklenburg with 353.
Schools are often at the core of citizens’ expectations from local governments, and they frequently reflect the degree to which governments can or will finance human services. Across the region, dozens of schools have been left in the lurch and are falling to pieces. A Raleigh newspaper found that Bertie County’s only high school held fifty-four classes daily in three World War II quonset huts. Classrooms flooded regularly during rains. Two other Bertie County schools had been condemned as unsafe but continued to be used.
For the region’s older citizens, the picture is hardly brighter. In North Carolina, an average of sixty-eight dollars per person was spent on Medicaid in 1980. Fourteen of the Northeast’s counties spent less than the state average, and Northampton spent only thirty-eight dollars annually. This dismal listing could continue, but the point seems clear: Human services are scarce and supported at levels lower than available elsewhere in North Carolina.
Some Conclusions and Prospects.
There is not a single Northeast county in which the per capita income equals or exceeds the state’s average, which was $7,382 in 1979. In Hyde County, the figure was one half the state’s average; in Greene, it reached ninety-five percent. In the decade between 1970 and 1980, the Northeast’s citizens made no real gains in per capita
income if their wages were measured against those of fellow North Carolinians. In real terms, adjusted for inflation, the gap remained about thirty percent lower. Thus, it is not surprising that nineteen of the twenty-one counties reported higher-than-average levels of poverty, and in four counties, the number of poor was double the state average.
The internal colony metaphor provides insights into some aspects of reality, distorts others, but forces attention on a set of questions. Some of the Northeast’s citizens want to know who controls development, and how. A growing number want to regain control of their jobs and land.
Long before the state’s policymakers told black farmers they were an endangered species, those farmers were struggling to survive despite predictions, policies and practices bent on eliminating their way of life. Decades of planning by the state for a unique seafood industrial park in Wanchese–at costs estimated at over $100 million in state and federal funds–raised fears among Dare County fishermen. “I’ve always said that the project will destroy us,” one fisherman told a Raleigh newspaper. “We’ll have no control over the large corporation which can absorb losses our small operation can’t stand.”
Two lines of strategy have characterized official response to the plight of the Northeast. One tack, ever since William Byrd set down the eighteenth century dividing line, has been to send in missionaries to correct deficiencies thought to be inherently a part of the local population’s own waywardness. Byrd noted in his famous journal, ” . . . sometimes the Society for Propagating the Gospel has had the Charity to send over Missionaries . . . ” to Edenton, whose residents, he wrote were “too lewd for the Priest . . . “, lacking ambition “enough to aspire to a Brick chimney,” wanting in religious devotion, and without “the least taint of Hypocrisy, or superstition, acting very frankly and above-board in all their excesses.” Helping people get used to or accept their deprivations continues to this day as the chief means which many well-intentioned persons use in Northeastern North Carolina.
Others, uneasy about blaming the victims but equally concerned about regional shortcomings, have substituted the term “progress” for the patronizing “backward.” To cure ills, these capitalists argue, a modernizing corps must be posted to the region to bolster schools, lure new industry, build roads, negotiate tax incentives. The Northeastern North Carolina Tomorrow coalition would bring into the region scores of professionally-trained persons: experts in hog and black dirt farming, medicine, community development specialists, economists, and lawyers experienced in corporate finance.
These elite approaches ignore the talents, energies and questions of the Northeast’s citizens who don’t own the banks, newspapers, or manage the superfarms. Without local, democratic control over the region’s resources and the capital needed to develop them, the colonial circle will go unbroken. Nonetheless, there are things which can be done.
In offering the following suggestions, we recognize the resistance posed by the visible and active dimensions of power and also those which, as Sister Genino suggested at the beginning of this essay, result from generations o. powerlessness. Northeastern North Carolina awaits a more thorough going analysis than that which we have provided. In the absence of such a regional analysis, as the debate goes on, we suggest some possible next steps.
First, small scale, labor intensive farming should be fostered, particularly for minority farmers or the young who are virtually prohibited from entering farming unless land is inherited. A family farm development authority similar to one established recently in South Carolina should be created by the Legislature for the Northeast. The authority would make long-term, low interest loans to persons who earn sixty percent or more of their annual income from farming, or who have adjusted incomes of less than $25,000. Absentee landownership should be halted as one step in a long-range land reform program.
Second, markets should be guaranteed for crop alternatives to tobacco, peanuts and corn, particularly the wide range of vegetable crops which can be grown profitably in the Northeast but which are as often as not imported. One U.S. Department of Agriculture study reported that North Carolinians import three fourths of all the fresh vegetables they consume.
Third, the timber industry, or N.C. State University, should take existing forest management programs into Elizabeth City State University and East Carolina University or the region’s community or technical colleges. The aim would be to upgrade the husbandry skills of small-tract timberowners, and to search for alternative marketing sources for wood products.
Fourth, the managers and employees of small businesses should be provided opportunities to upgrade skills in all phases of their businesses at state subsidized training centers at no cost to the individuals or businesses. No firm with more than one hundred employees would be eligible; nor would any absentee-owned firm.
During the past two decades, small businesses have generated sixty-six percent of all the region’s new jobs. The state should abandon its touted industrial recruitment program and concentrate instead on development of enterprises directly related to the region’s economic needs, the skills of its people, and those marketable uses of the region’s resources. The state should establish a revolving loan fund for democratically managed businesses. This would provide working capital or start-up funds for small businesses owned and managed by workers themselves.
Fifth, state and local governments should re-examine the impact of tax policy, law and formulae on timber, farming, fishing, and small businesses; absentee ownership of both land or industry should be discouraged through higher taxation. The guiding aim of any review would be to insure rural counties a fair share of tax revenues, and to insure they are not unfairly drained of resources vital to maintain schools and human services, while seeking to spur indigenous economic activity.
Sixth, the state should encourage the growth of small scale, locally control led energy development through continued solar tax credits, demonstrations to small farmers of alternative energy options, home insulation rebates, or energy efficiency audits at large and small industry sites.
Seventh, the state should provide the necessary technical assistance for local county officials seeking to adopt industrial development policies which take into account appropriate technology, small-scale and locally controlled enterprises, or with qualifications which include firm size, ownership, waste discharge, energy efficiency, and, particularly, production links with local resources.
In the final analysis, however, we residents of Northeastern North Carolina must ourselves organize the means to autonomy. We should apply pressure on absentee owners, state politicians, county administrators, and policymakers at every level. We must close the gap between the “lost colony” and the state to which we pledge allegiance and pay taxes.
Donna Dyer and Frank Adams are natives of eastern North Carolina. Ms. Dyer is a principal with Triangle Planners Network, Inc., a nonprofit corporation offering planning and technical assistance to community groups. Mr. Adams is the author of Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander and is a community educator who now lives in Gatesville. Maps and illustrative materials for this article were prepared by Marge Manderson of the SRC staff.