Spotlight on: William S. Powell, editor of the Encyclopedia of North Carolina, and his wife, Virginia, on the creation of a “people’s history” of the state.
Q: Your hometown, Statesville, is like so many other small towns across North Carolina that have seen tremendous changes over the years. What was it like growing up in Statesville?
Bill: The town almost died. The Depression is what I can remember. Cotton mills were the industry of the town. You lived on one side of the railroad or the other side and just giving your address away let people know so much about you—"Oh, cotton mill kid!" they would say.
Q: When you were growing up, do you remember any sort of encyclopedia like the one you created that had an impact on you?
Bill: It was the Lincoln Library. It was amazing to discover there was so much information in this one volume. It was well done but inexpensive, and people who couldn’t afford the Britannica could perhaps afford the Lincoln Library. That was where they sent their children to answer questions.
Q: Were there any other influences on you when you were growing up?
Bill: My teachers in high school. A number of years ago I thought about this and realized I was forgetting things, and so one Saturday afternoon I sat down and made a list of all my teachers—first grade through college. I got to thinking about where these people learned what they were teaching me. This made a chain, and I saw how important it was to get a good start and keep going.
Virginia: And the famous grandmother.
Bill: My grandmother had eleven children and after her husband died, she lived each month with a different child. She would take turns amongst the family. The express company would bring a huge trunk and drop it on the porch and that was how we knew that granny was coming. She would open the trunk, sit us down, and tell us what this was and what that was. I have given many of her things to the Museum of History in Raleigh and to the Johnston County Heritage Center in Smithfield.
Q: Your family has lived in North Carolina since the 17th century. What kinds of stories did you hear over the years about your family?
Virginia: Bill’s grandfather fought in the Civil War battle at Bentonville. He was the youngest boy there. He only died the year before Bill was born, so Bill knows him very well by his writings.
Bill: My great-grandmother was in the kitchen when the battle was going on, washing dishes. She could hear the battle going on, and she knew that her son was fighting. It must have been a tremendous thing to survive.
Virginia: The Yankees came to the house and asked the niece or daughter to play the piano for them to dance, so she played "Dixie." Everybody held their breath because they thought the army would burn down the house, but they didn’t.
Bill: My great-grandfather was a slave owner. In fact, I knew two of my great-grandfather’s former slaves. Most of the slave narratives you read today were recorded in the 1930s, and I can remember a whole lot from the 1930s.
Q: What do you remember about your great-grandfather's slaves?
Bill: One day when coming out of the post office in Smithfield, I remember an elderly black couple coming toward my father and me on the sidewalk. The elderly woman screamed and came running toward us. She called my father by name and hugged and kissed him. They had not seen each other for a number of years, but she had known him when he was a child. I was only about 3 years old (1922) and was frightened at first, but she was glad to see me. She had belonged to my great-grandfather, Ashley Powell.
Q: It sounds like many of your discoveries as a historian give you the same kind of enjoyment you received from hearing stories from your relatives. Is there a particular discovery you remember that was especially exciting?
Bill: It’s hard to say. One find leads to another. Some of them were there waiting to be found by someone who had the knowledge to look. Ananias Dare comes to mind.
Virginia: Ananias Dare had a son named John before he married Eleanor White and had Virginia Dare. Bill found that in the records in the British Museum.
Bill: (Laughing) And I quit work for the day and wandered around London.
Q: How do you hope the Encyclopedia will help people come to enjoy exploring the state’s history in the same way you do?
Bill: There will be a lot of people who come along and discover or rediscover the same type of things that I did. There are some clues there, and they know they just have to analyze those clues—just keep looking, and eventually put two and two together.
Q: As a teacher how did you inspire your students into wanting to learn about North Carolina history?
Bill: I tried to tell them the truth. In many cases, I had known their parents or grandparents, and I told them about the people in their hometown. Every time I read the class roll for the first time in a new class, I asked "Do you know so and so?" It made the history seem real to them, because I knew someone who was related to them. And also, people in history aren’t so different from us today.
Q: Do you think the Encyclopedia is important because North Carolina history is not a modern-day priority in schools?
Virginia: I think people living in the state should understand what took place here in earlier times. There seems to be no easy transition from earlier times to the present. Events in North Carolina are not the same as elsewhere, and newcomers probably have difficulty understanding much of what they discover in the state.
Q: You have taught countless students over the years. How does it feel to know that many of these students are now your colleagues?
Bill: Practically every college or university that teaches North Carolina history has on their staff or faculty one of my former students. They are everywhere.
Virginia: The real shocker is that some of his former students are now retiring.
Q: As a teacher, you must have come across a very wide array of students. What stands out in your mind when you think of your students?
Bill: I almost flunked freshman math at the university my senior year. I went to my professor and told him that "I am about to flunk freshman math, and it’s going to keep me from graduating." I asked, "What should I do?" He told me to do the best I could and he’d give me as a final grade whatever I made on the final. It worked, and I’ve used that approach with some of my students. I had some students who came to me who were physiology majors or pre-med, and I would say the same thing. I've had doctors come back to me and say "you saved my life."
Q: When you were soliciting contributors for the Encyclopedia, you had to teach many of them how to investigate history. How did you go about doing that?
Bill: I would go to a historical society meeting, talk about things, and people wouldn't let me go—they talked and talked, and I listened. I tried to let them know the kinds of things they ought to be looking for. I suggested they talk to the old-timers.
Q: How long do you believe this Encyclopedia will be relevant before needing to be updated?
Virginia: The day after it's published, somebody will find something. Companies buying out other companies. This is something that goes on all the time now. And then new things being found. So, not just new history, but new things about old history.
Bill: I'm constantly on the alert for something new.
Q: Do you think the Encyclopedia of North Carolina completes the triumvirate of works you have produced that explain all facets of the state?
Bill: I envisioned the Encyclopedia as one new entry in a series. The Gazetteer, the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, and now a third one I hope will answer questions that are neither geography nor other things I have tried to cover. To sum it all up, I did a history of North Carolina that is used in the eighth grade and one for college. The one written for college is at the adult level. I hope with these three different sources we have it all covered, and they can leave me alone (laughs)! There's a perfectly good book, you can look it up for yourself!
Q: What changes do you believe North Carolina will experience in the next 20 years?
Bill: I won't be here in 20 years, so that's no concern of mine (laughs). Well, it's one of the leading states for education and industry, and that's what the encyclopedia is all about.
Virginia: I would say, if possible—it's unbelievable, unthinkable—technology is going to be even more complicated for those of us who don't understand it (laughs).
Bill: I can remember as a child whenever an airplane passed over everyone running out to look.
This interview may be reprinted in its entirety with the following credit: An interview with Bill Powell, editor of the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NORTH CAROLINA (University of North Carolina Press, Fall 2006), and his wife Virginia Powell.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NORTH CAROLINA, edited by William S. Powell
The University of North Carolina Press
Published in association with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library
Approx. 1360 pp., 373 illus., 4 tables, 22 maps, references, index
Publication date: November 20, 2006