Poor Naomi Wise: spurned by her lover, fished lifeless from a river, the crime of her North Carolina murder unpunished.
The story of her violent end in the spring of 1807 has been told and retold millions of times through one of America’s best-known folk songs, with varying themes. Was she killed by the father of her unborn child so that he wouldn’t have to marry her or support the baby? Was she trying to extort money from a man to raise a child that wasn’t his?
Whatever the truth is about her sordid end, Randolph County claims Naomi still. Her name is on an old cotton mill and village near Randleman, on a street, a bridge, and a set of falls in the Deep River where she died.
So when the New York-based William G. Pomeroy Foundation offered to erect highway signs commemorating local stories from communities around the country, Randolph Countians quickly offered up the tale of how Jonathan Lewis likely killed Naomi Wise, and one of the state’s oldest murder ballads became one of the first markers in the Legends & Lore program.
“In this modern day of everything being fast and quick, a highway marker is one way that — if people will take the time to read it — they can glean a little bit of history,” said Hal Pugh, a potter in the New Salem community near Randleman who, with his wife, Eleanor, has spent years researching “The Ballad of Naomi Wise” and the people who were involved in the case more two centuries ago.
The shortened Naomi Wise story
Different forms of the ballad have been recorded by dozens of singers, including Doc Watson and Bob Dylan.
The Pughs have written a book about the murder they hope to have published this year, so it was a challenge to distill the story into two sentences, but they managed. The marker reads:
DROWNED IN DEEP RIVER BY
HER LOVER IN 1807. BECAME
SUBJECT OF WELL-KNOWN
NORTH CAROLINA BALLAD
BEARING HER NAME.
It’s not much, Pugh knows, “Because if it’s real long, people are not going to take the time. But with a short marker like that, maybe they’ll read it and it will stimulate enough interest to where they’ll go home and delve into it more. It stirs the imagination.”
New marker programs in NC
So far, North Carolina has planned 11 red Legends & Lore markers, one of three marker programs the Pomeroy Foundation has funded that include North Carolina history.
One marker also was placed in the state last year as part of the foundation’s partnership with the National Votes for Women Trail, which includes a digital map of more than 2,100 important people, places or moments in the women’s suffrage movement. Eventually 250 U.S. sites will be commemorated with a purple highway marker like the one installed last year in Greensboro to remember the life of Gertrude Weil, who mobilized women across the state to fight for the right to vote.
In the next several months, just as people begin to travel again after being restricted by rules designed to curb the spread of COVID-19, the first three markers in the North Carolina Civil Rights Trail will be erected, funded also by the Pomeroy Foundation, which expects to place up to 50 markers in that program.
All the Pomeroy-funded markers are distinct from the N.C. Highway Historical Marker Program, the nation’s oldest, run by the state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and the Department of Transportation.
That one, launched in 1935, paused in 2019 when DOT was unable to fund any of its annual $60,000 budget. It won’t resume until money is allocated for it. When it does restart, that program has a backlog of maintenance and repairs to make on the 1,618 markers already in the system, and has another 13 markers that have been forged and still need to be erected.
While waiting to hear whether the state will reinstate funding for the familiar silver-and-black plaques sometimes referred to as “history on a stick,” the Historical Highway Marker program and the state Literary and Historical Association have launched an endowment fund seeking private donations to repair or replace damaged or stolen markers.
The fund will highlight rotating groups of markers in need of repair. At least through the month of April, it’s raising money to replace the Ella Baker marker in Halifax County, Squire and Sarah Boone’s marker in Davie County, and the Torhunta marker in Wayne County.
‘Stories worth remembering’
Ansley Wegner, who administers the state Highway Historical Marker Program, said she welcomes the three new marker programs funded by the Pomeroy Foundation because they highlight people, places and events that might not meet the threshold of “statewide significance” required for DOT-funded plaques.
“They all serve to highlight North Carolina history,” Wegner said. “We can’t do it all, and there will be things that fall through the cracks, but they’re still people worth remembering, stories worth remembering. These other programs will sort of fill in the gaps.”
Wegner says those who work with the program describe highway markers as being “like museum labels on the landscape. They just serve to tie an event or person to a place, so you sort of make that mental connection. This happened here, this person was from here. It can be a source of pride, or it can be something bad. It’s tying people and events to a place and helping us to remember.”
Wegner has helped the Pomeroy Foundation connect with organizations in the state familiar with the themes of the three new programs.
Deryn Pomeroy said the foundation her father launched pursues two of his passions: helping defeat cancers of the blood, and promoting historic preservation and research.
Pomeroy said her dad got interested in highway markers while on the road with his own father, a traveling salesman who peddled air conditioners and vacuum cleaners and who would pull to the shoulder to read a plaque whenever he spotted one.
After installing markers around New York, the foundation branched out to other states.
“We feel this helps educate the public,” Pomeroy said. “At dedication ceremonies, we’ll hear from folks that they had no idea this event happened in their town, or this piece of folklore was significant. It encourages pride of place.”
‘Old-fashioned version of a Tweet’
Pomeroy said the concise text on the markers could be considered “an old-fashioned version of a Tweet. You can only put so much information on there, but we hope it inspires the kind of curiosity that we have in our family, and you’ll go online and search for more information.”
During the pandemic, Pomeroy said, some people have used highway marker programs to build driving trails, following a theme for miles and connecting stories using Pomeroy’s website and maps.
The first three highway markers connected to the N.C. African American History Trail, which will be installed this summer, were chosen with the help of the state African American Heritage Commission. Adrienne Nirde, associate director of the commission, said that while people may be familiar with big events such as the sit-ins at the lunch counter of the Greensboro Woolworth store, Black people struggled for equality in cities and towns across the state in events that may be known only in the communities where they happened.
The markers getting installed this year will commemorate the high school student-led sit-ins in uptown Shelby in February 1960; New Ahoskie Baptist Church in Ahoskie, whose members pushed for access to public offices, resources and jobs for Black people; and Kinston’s all-Black Adkin High School, whose students held a walkout in 1951 to push the school board to upgrade buildings and facilities on the campus.
Nirde said at least 10 of the 50 markers will go into “Hometown Strong” communities, identified as being in need of economic development.
“Our long-term goal is to create travel itineraries,” Nirde said. “So maybe you come on down to the Ahoskie area, see a couple of historic sites, visit some local businesses. If someone wants to learn about civil rights history, they could literally drive around the state and get acquainted with these events.”
In the same way, visitors might learn from the Legends & Lore markers, which are less interested in straightforward history than traditional folk tales, tall tales, myths, folk songs, superstitions, dances, arts and crafts.They can involve the divine or the supernatural.
One marker already standing in the program recalls the “aeroplane” built and flown — sort of — by Henry Gatling, brother of Richard Gatling, inventor of the machine gun. Henry Gatling broke his leg when he crashed his plane in 1873, and never rebuilt it. But Hertford County locals say that with some refinements he would have taken flight decades before the Wright Brothers succeeded in 1903.
Another marker celebrates the life of Hertford County’s “Conjure Doctor,” Jim Jordan, whose healing powers attracted sick people from all over the country. Jordan used roots, herbs, a crystal ball and, some said, a little magic to help make people well for nearly 50 years.
Naomi Wise’s marker stands in the town square in Randleman, 75 miles west of Raleigh, a reminder of the thin line separating devotion and violence and of the power of a good story set to music.
Sarah Bryan, executive director of the N.C. Folklife Institute, which works with the Pomeroy Foundation on the Legends & Lore markers, said, “I think to an extent, every state has these stories, but there is something special about North Carolina. Every community here has enough local stories and traditions for many markers.
“The markers will show a side of what North Carolina is and who North Carolinians are that is largely inaccessible to people who aren’t from here,” Bryan said. “If you’re traveling through, you’re not going to be here long enough to hear somebody tell the stories of Naomi Wise or Gatlings ‘aeroplane.’ The markers just give a glimpse of the deeper traditions of the place.”
Want a highway marker in your community?
The William G. Pomeroy Foundation is taking online applications for its marker programs. The foundation covers the cost of manufacturing markers and poles, and shipping. Grant recipients are responsible for installation, including getting access from property owners where needed.
Instructions on how to apply for a Legends & Lore marker are are on the N.C. Folklife Institute’s website (www.ncfolk.org/legends-lore-application-directions/). Applications are accepted on a rolling basis. To be considered for the current round, applications must be received by May 3.
The N.C. African American Heritage Commission is working with the Pomeroy Foundation to place up to 50 markers for a Civil Rights Trail through the state. The commission is taking applications for the second round of the program through October. Applications can be made through the commission’s website. (aahc.nc.gov/programs/civil-rights-trail)
The foundation is no longer accepting applications for markers for the National Votes for Women Trail. Applications from North Carolina already made could still be approved.