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Greensboro: History


City Named for Revolutionary Hero

Greensboro is the county seat of Guilford County, which was founded in 1771 and named after England's first Earl of Guilford, Lord Francis North. Perhaps the first thing that newcomers notice about Greensboro is how green the city is. They are often surprised to learn that Greensboro is named for a man—not its lush landscape.

They soon hear the story of Nathanael Greene, a Revolutionary War general, who in 1781 played a major role in the colonists' fight for independence at a battlefield called Guilford Courthouse just north of present-day Greensboro. Greene lost the battle to Britain's Lord Charles Cornwallis, but historians credit him with so weakening Cornwallis's army that surrender soon followed.

More than 25 years later, the settlers of Guilford County decided to replace their county seat of Martinville with a more central city. They measured out the exact center of the county, and in 1808, a new 42-acre city was created. It was named Greensborough (meaning town of Greene) to honor Nathanael Greene. By 1895 Greensborough had become Greensboro.

City Rises to the Confederate Call

The city grew slowly at first, but by the mid-1800s the seeds for its future as a textile, insurance, and transportation center had been planted. In 1828 the first textile mill opened, and in 1850, the first insurance company. In 1851 men began laying railroad tracks. The progressiveness of the county's educational community was showing, too. A log college for men had been operated there since 1767, and in 1837 the first coeducational institution in North Carolina opened. Called the New Garden Boarding School, it continues today as Guilford College.

The founders of the school were Quakers, many of English and Welsh descent, who were among Guilford County's first permanent settlers. Other early arrivals were a group of Germans who settled in the eastern portion of the county, and a number of Pennsylvanians of Scots-Irish descent who traveled south in search of land and opportunity.

The peace-loving nature of the Quakers influenced the area and its development. Quakers established the first Underground Railroad in Greensboro in the 1830s. When the Civil War was at hand, Guilford County citizens voted 2,771 to 113 against a state convention to consider secession from the union, writes local author Gayle Hicks Fripp in her history, Greensboro: A Chosen Center. North Carolina eventually became the last state to secede on May 20, 1861, and Guilford County citizens accepted the decision. They turned churches into hospitals and melted church bells for ammunition. For a few days in April 1865, Greensboro even was the seat of the Confederate government as President Jefferson Davis contemplated surrender in a meeting with his military leaders.

Transportation and Textiles Spur Growth

The turn of the nineteenth century brought tremendous growth to Greensboro. Much of the prosperity then and now can be traced to one man and the moving of a line. The man was John Motley Morehead, state governor from 1841–1845. He used his influence to curve an east-west line of railroad tracks miles north so it would pass through his hometown of Greensboro. The city soon became known as the Gate City for its busy train station (60 running daily), and ever since, transportation has remained a key to the city's development.

In 1892 two Maryland salesmen, the Cone brothers, chose Greensboro as the site for the first textile-finishing plant in the South. Thus began an enterprise called Cone Mills, which would become one of the largest makers of denim and corduroy in the world. By 1920 Blue Bell was making bib overalls there, and Burlington Mills, which later became Burlington Industries, had moved to Greensboro by 1935. Both companies added to the textile industry's influence on the economy.

Modern Era Sees Racial Problems; Skyline Changes

The influence of the insurance industry showed on Greens-boro's skyline in 1923, when the city became the site of the tallest building between Atlanta and Washington, D.C. The 17-story Jefferson Standard Building still stands beside the 20-story Jefferson-Pilot Tower, today the tallest building in Greensboro; it was built in 1990.

The 1940s brought people from all over the country to Greensboro. During World War II, the military located an Overseas Replacement Depot in the city in 1944, and more than 300,000 men and women were processed or trained for service there.

The 1960s to the mid 1990s brought immense change to the city socially, cosmetically, and economically. In 1960 Greensboro was the site of the first Civil Rights-era sit-in when four African American students refused to accept a lunch-counter color bar; their actions led to the collapse of segregation in the American South. A new face—a blend of old character and new maturity—was put on downtown. Modern office buildings and a government center were built; The Carolina Theatre, founded in 1927, was saved and restored; arts events downtown breathed new life into the inner city; and a campaign was launched to save a turn-ofthe-century area called Old Greensborough.

Economic Diversification Spurs Growth

The civil rights movement brought economic change to Greensboro. Tradition and innovation mixed, as high-technology electronics manufacturers and international firms, like the CIBA-GEIGY Corporation (later CIBA Corp. and now Novartis), moved in alongside the city's textile and tobacco plants. The U.S. Postal Service opened one of the nation's 21 bulk-mail centers, a huge facility spanning 7 acres. Kmart and Polo-Ralph Lauren chose the Greensboro area for their major distribution centers. In 2002 Powell Co., a home furniture importer/distributor, moved into the 300,000-square-foot location formerly occupied by Sears' distribution center. The opening of the Piedmont Triad International Airport (PTIA) terminal in 1996 to serve Greensboro and its Triad neighbors set off a spurt of industrial growth there and united the cities more closely than ever. This will be enhanced when FedEx completes the building of its cargo hub for $500 million on 1,000 acres of the eastern side of the airport. The spring of 2005 brought a brand-new $20 million stadium for the Class A Grasshoppers (formerly Bats). City financial officials projected in 2005 steady to moderate gains in revenue that would parlay into a solid economic forecast. The continued influx of new businesses (75 in 2004) and the expansion of existing businesses (759 in 2004) in a variety of fields translates to an overall general prosperity for the area's workforce and the city as a whole.

Historical Information: Greensboro Historical Museum, 130 Summit Ave., Greensboro, NC 27401; telephone (336)373-2043; fax (336)373-2204


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