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Proposed pardon of former governor reopens old wounds

Posted March 24, 2011 6:02 p.m. EDT
Updated March 24, 2011 8:47 p.m. EDT

— Some lawmakers are trying to heal what they call a black eye in North Carolina's history by pardoning a former governor who was impeached during the Reconstruction for taking a stand against racial violence.

But some residents in Caswell County have raised questions about Holden's actions, blocking the pardon.

Gov. William Holden was impeached 140 years ago this week. His supporters say the Ku Klux Klan adopted terrorist tactics in Alamance and Caswell counties, killing people at will, and they say Holden sent in troops to quell the violence.

"He was impeached for no good reason other than the fact that he fought the Klan and he advocated equality for recently freed slaves," said Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake.

Blue is one of three senators sponsoring legislation to pardon Holden.

"I said, 'Who could possibly be opposed to this?'" said Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Wake. "I thought it was something that needed to be done."

Shortly before the Senate was scheduled to vote on the resolution on Tuesday, an anonymous letter was found on senators' desks. It described Holden as an arrogant demagogue and scalawag.

"It certainly did maybe throw a little fuel on the fire," Hunt said.

The resolution, now suddenly controversial, stopped in its tracks. After moving the vote to Wednesday, the proposal was pulled off the floor and sent to the Rules Committee, and it's unclear whether it will ever come up for a vote.

The eight cameras inside the Senate chamber didn't record video of who put the letters there because of a technical problem, and officials are investigating the incident.

"Our sergeant-at-arms is top notch – a former FBI agent and Navy Seal – and he's all over this. So, it's being worked actively," said Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson.

Republican Sen. Rick Gunn, who represents Alamance and Caswell counties, has heard a different opinion of Holden, and he asked that the Senate double-check the history surrounding Holden before voting on the resolution.

"I feel like it's very important we make decisions here in the General Assembly based on all the facts and all the knowledge," Gunn said.

A Bartlett-Yancey High School student emailed Gunn with information about Holden, claiming that the governor held many residents of the county captive inside the county courthouse and that he "hired a band of illegal renegade soldiers" to patrol the area.

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

Carter, 17, is a board member of the Caswell County Historical Association, and he said he has researched documents and oral histories from the era. The resolution “contains false facts that put Caswell County to shame” and needs to be reworked before lawmakers vote on it, he said.

"They need more evaluation and research. You should get your facts together before you put it to paper," he said.

Sen. Doug Berger, D-Franklin, a co-sponsor of the resolution, said other North Carolina historians stand behind the proposed pardon as written.

Blue said he is concerned the facts surrounding Holden are being distorted.

"If they're in agreement and sympathize with that, then that's a sign that they sympathize with the Klan activities and the disparate treatment of 140 years ago," he said.