Three US presidents had North Carolina roots, but all three reached the White House from Tennessee. Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), the 7th president, was born in an unsurveyed border region, probably in South Carolina, but studied law and was admitted to the bar in North Carolina before moving to frontier Tennessee in 1788. James K. Polk (1795–1849), the 11th president, was born in Mecklenburg County but grew up in Tennessee. Another native North Carolinian, Andrew Johnson (1808–75), was a tailor's apprentice in Raleigh before moving to Tennessee at the age of 18. Johnson served as Abraham Lincoln's vice president for six weeks in 1865 before becoming the nation's 17th president when Lincoln was assassinated. William Rufus King (1786–1853), the other US vice president from North Carolina, also served for only six weeks, dying before he could exercise his duties.
Three native North Carolinians have served as speaker of the US House of Representatives. The first, Nathaniel Macon (1758–1837), occupied the speaker's chair from 1801 to 1807 and served as president pro tem of the US Senate in 1826–27. The other two were James K. Polk and Joseph G. "Uncle Joe" Cannon (1836–1926), who served as speaker of the House from 1903 to 1911, but as a representative from Illinois.
Sir Walter Raleigh (or Ralegh, b.England, 1552?–1618) never came to North Carolina, but his efforts to found a colony there led state lawmakers to give his name to the new state capital in 1792. Raleigh's "Lost Colony" on Roanoke Island was the home of Virginia Dare (1587–?), the first child of English parents to be born in America. More than a century later, the infamous Edward Teach (or Thatch, b.England, ?–1716) made his headquarters at Bath and terrorized coastal waters as the pirate known as Blackbeard.
Principal leaders of the early national period included Richard Caswell (b.Maryland, 1729–89), Revolutionary War governor; William Richardson Davie (b.England, 1756–1820), governor of the state and founder of the University of North Carolina; and Archibald De Bow Murphey (1777–1832), reform advocate, legislator, and judge. Prominent black Americans of the 19th century who were born or who lived in North Carolina were John Chavis (1763–1838), teacher and minister; David Walker (1785–1830), abolitionist; and Hiram Revels (1827–1901), first black member of the US Senate.
North Carolinians prominent in the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction included antislavery author Hinton Rowan Helper (1829–1909), Civil War governor Zebulon B. Vance (1830–94), Reconstruction governor William W. Holden (1818–92), and "carpetbagger" judge Albion Winegar Tourgee (b.Ohio, 1838–1905). Among major politicians of the 20th century are Furnifold McLendell Simmons (1854–1940), US senator from 1901 to 1931; Charles Brantley Aycock (1859–1912), governor from 1901 to 1905; Frank Porter Graham (1886–1972), University of North Carolina president, New Deal adviser, and US senator, 1949–50; Luther H. Hodges (b.Virginia, 1898–1974), governor from 1954 to 1960, US secretary of commerce from 1961 to 1965, and founder of Research Triangle Park; Samuel J. Ervin, Jr. (1896–1985), US senator from 1954 to 1974 and chairman of the Senate Watergate investigation; Terry Sanford (1917–98), governor from 1961 to 1965, US presidential aspirant, and president of Duke University; and Jesse Helms (b.1921), senator since 1973. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson (b.1941) began his career as a student activist in Greensboro. The most famous North Carolinian living today is probably evangelist Billy Graham (b.1918).
James Buchanan Duke (1856–1925) founded the American Tobacco Co. and provided the endowment that transformed Trinity College into Duke University. The most outstanding North Carolina-born inventor was Richard J. Gatling (1818–1903), creator of the "Gatling gun," the first machine gun. The Wright brothers, Wilbur (b.Indiana, 1867–1912) and Orville (b.Ohio, 1871–1948), achieved the first successful powered airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, on the Outer Banks, on 17 December 1903. Psychologist Joseph Banks Rhine (b.Pennsylvania, 1895–1980) was known for his research on extrasensory perception. Kary Mullis (b.1944), 1993 winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry, was born in Lenoir, North Carolina.
A number of North Carolinians have won fame as literary figures. They include Walter Hines Page (1855–1918), editor and diplomat; William Sydney Porter (1862–1910), a short-story writer who used the pseudonym O. Henry; playwright Paul Green (1894–1984); and novelists Thomas Wolfe (1900–38) and Reynolds Price (b.1933). Major scholars associated with the state have included sociologist Howard W. Odum (b.Georgia, 1884–1954) and historians W. J. Cash (1901–41) and John Hope Franklin (b.Oklahoma, 1915). Journalists Edward R. Murrow (1908–65), Tom Wicker (b.1926), and Charles Kuralt (1934–97) were all North Carolina natives. Harry Golden (Harry L. Goldhurst, b.New York, 1903–81), a Jewish humorist, founded the Carolina Israelite.
Jazz artists Thelonious Monk (1918–82), John Coltrane (1926–67), and Nina Simone (b.1933) were born in the state, as were pop singer Roberta Flack (b.1939), folksinger Arthel "Doc" Watson (b.1923), bluegrass banjo artist Earl Scruggs (b.1924), and actor Andy Griffith (b.1926). North Carolina athletes include former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson (b.1935), NASCAR driver Richard Petty (1937–2000), football quarterbacks Sonny Jurgenson (b.1934) and Roman Gabriel (b.1940), baseball pitchers Gaylord Perry (b.1938) and Jim "Catfish" Hunter (1946–99), and basketball player Meadowlark Lemon (b.1932), long a star with the Harlem Globetrotters. Michael Jordan (b.Brooklyn, N.Y., 1963) played college basketball at the University of North Carolina, and went on to fame as a National Basketball Association star.