High school student halts Holden's pardon

It looks like a 17-year-old high school student is behind the delay of the N.C. Senate's proposed pardon of former Governor William Holden.

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Laura Leslie

It looks like a 17-year-old high school student is part of the reason for the delay of the Senate’s proposed pardon of former Gov. William Holden.

An email chain recently forwarded to @NCCapitol sheds a bit more light on this week’s delay of Senate Joint Resolution 256.

Holden, a Republican, was impeached by the Democratic-held legislature in 1871 for sending the state militia into Caswell and Alamance counties, where racial violence had been spurred by the Ku Klux Klan. He was only the second U.S. governor to be impeached and the first to be removed from office.

Monday night, Sen. Rick Gunn, R-Alamance, received an email from Sterling Carter, a historian on the board of the Caswell County Historical Association. Carter protested that the resolution “contains false facts that put Caswell County to shame.”

According to Carter, Holden suspended habeas corpus for Caswell’s citizens, “hired a band of illegal renegades to pull off the rebellion” and “never truly convicted anyone of being a member in the Ku Klux Klan.”

“If you allow this resolution to pass without voicing the truth,” Carter warned Gunn, “you will condemn Caswell’s history on the state level and put us all to shame and glorify Governor Holden, making rights truly wrongs.” 

Gunn forwarded Carter’s message to several fellow senators with the question, “Don’t we owe it to ourselves and all North Carolinians to confirm the facts associated with this Resolution prior to a vote?” 

Gunn confirmed the correspondence today, adding that it isn’t the only email or call he’s received from constituents who don’t agree with the pardon.

Who is Sterling Carter?

Carter, as it turns out, is a senior at Bartlett-Yancey High school in Yanceyville. He’s been the student representative on the historical association board since 2007, serving as a tour guide on weekends and researching the county’s history.

"I'm considered a historian in Caswell County," he explained.

Carter says he’s done extensive research into oral history, documents, and letters from the “Kirk-Holden War.” He says "it's a solid fact" that Holden hired soldiers out of Tennessee, not the state militia, to come into Caswell County in 1870 and oppress its citizens.

He knows historians don't agree with him, but adds, "I don't know if historians who are not from Caswell County have access to those letters and oral histories."

"Holden's impeachment proved justice to Caswell County," he said.

Still, he’s not completely opposed to the pardon.

"I'm not solidly against it. I don't see a solid wrong," he said. "I just think they need more evaluation and research. You should get your facts together before you put it to paper."


Caswell County Historical Association President Karen Oestreicher confirms Carter is speaking for the group on this issue. She too believes Holden’s actions against the county were illegal.

“From everything I’ve read,” she said, “I think it was a justifiable impeachment.”

“Our mission as a historical association is to preserve and promote the history of Caswell County, and the Kirk-Holden War is part of that history,” Oestreicher said. “Somebody getting a wild hair to pardon Gov. Holden – I don’t think it’s a good thing to go back in history and second-guess people who were involved in that history. I’m sure it wasn’t done lightly.”

Oestreicher doesn’t believe, as many historians do, that Holden’s impeachment was spurred by racial tension during Reconstruction.

“I think it was more, he had done a bad thing and continued to do unpopular things. I don’t think it was the Klan coming in and saying we’re going to impeach this guy,” she said. “I don’t think we should rewrite history to suit ourselves.”

Berger: Deja vu
Sen. Doug Berger, D-Franklin, is one of the measure’s co-sponsors. He too sent an email about Holden to Gunn, following it up with a letter from noted North Carolina historian Bill Harris supporting the proposed pardon.

Berger says there’s really no debate among scholars that Holden’s impeachment was “a political trial that was racially motivated. I don’t think any reputable historian would disagree with that.”

Berger is still hopeful the pardon resolution might be brought back up for debate.

“If Sen. Gunn wants a hearing on the historical facts," Berger said, “we’ll give him a hearing. But it’ll be the Civil War being fought all over again.”

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