Umstead, William Bradley, 1895-1954

Alternative names
Birth 1895-05-13
Death 1954-11-07

Biographical notes:

William Bradley Umstead of Durham, N.C., served as a member of the United States House of Representatives from North Carolina, 1932-1938; as a United States senator, 1946-1948; and as governor of North Carolina, 1952-1954.

From the description of William Bradley and Merle Davis Umstead papers, 1863-1978 [manuscript]. (Oceanside Free Library). WorldCat record id: 26243142

William Bradley Umstead

William Bradley Umstead served North Carolina as a United States representative, a United States senator, and as governor. Prior to his election as the first representative from the newly formed sixth North Carolina district (Durham, Orange, Guilford, and Alamance counties) in 1932, Umstead was a practicing lawyer in Durham, and he continued his legal work during the gaps in his political career. Umstead chose to leave Congress in 1938 after his third term. He returned to practicing law, and served in various Democratic Party posts until his appointment to the United States Senate in 1946 by Governor R. Gregg Cherry to fill the seat of Josiah Bailey, who had died in office. Umstead was defeated in his attempt to succeed himself by J. Melville Broughton in the Democratic primary in 1948. In both houses of Congress, Umstead was an advocate of farmers and the tobacco industry. He was a moderate Democrat, supporting most of Roosevelt's New Deal legislation, but opposing Truman-era civil rights initiatives.

Umstead chose not to run for the Senate in 1950, citing poor health. In 1952 he successfully campaigned for governor as a friend of the farmer and as an opponent of desegregation. He suffered a heart attack on his third day in office and remained in poor health throughout his administration. In 1954 he suffered a second heart attack and died on 7 November 1954 from pneumonia and other complications at Watts Hospital in Durham.

  • 13 May 1895: Born in Mangum Township, Durham County, N.C., son of Lulie Lunsford and John W. Umstead.
  • 1912 - 1916 : Attended the University of North Carolina, where he excelled in debate and received the A.B. in history.
  • 1916 - 1917 : Taught high school history in Kinston, N.C.
  • May 1917 - April 1919 : Served in the United States Army as lieutenant.
  • 1919 - 1921 : Studied law at Trinity College (now Duke University).
  • 1920: Passed North Carolina bar examination.
  • 1 July 1921: Began practicing law.
  • 1922: Elected to the post of prosecuting attorney, Durham County Recorder's Court.
  • 1926: Elected solicitor, 10th North Carolina Judicial District, consisting of Durham, Orange, Granville, Person, and Alamance counties.
  • 1929: Married Merle Davis.
  • 1930: Reelected to post as solicitor.
  • 1932: Elected to 73rd United States Congress as representative for the new 6th North Carolina district (Durham, Orange, Alamance, and Guilford counties).
  • 1933: Appointed to the committees on Elections, Merchant Marine Radio and Fisheries, and War Claims.
  • 1934: Reelected.
  • 1935: Appointed to the Appropriations Committee and its subcommittees for the Departments of Agriculture and the Navy.
  • 1936: Reelected.
  • 1937: Reappointed to previous subcommittees, chosen chair of Naval Appropriations Subcommittee.
  • 1938: Chose not to run for reelection. Returned to private legal practice in Durham.
  • 1942: Served as an appeals agent for the state draft board in Durham. Daughter Merle born.
  • 1944: Appointed chair of the North Carolina Democratic Executive Committee.
  • 1945: Appointed to the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina.
  • 18 December 1946: Appointed to the United States Senate by Governor R. Gregg Cherry. Appointed to Committee on Civil Service.
  • May 1948: Defeated in Democratic Senate primary by J. Melville Broughton by 24,000 votes.
  • 1950: Withdrew from Senate campaign (for the other North Carolina seat) before officially announcing his candidacy following throat surgery.
  • 31 May 1952: Won Democratic gubernatorial primary.
  • 4 November 1952: Elected governor.
  • 5 January 1953: Inaugurated.
  • 8 January 1953: Suffered first heart attack.
  • 1954: Suffered second heart attack.
  • 7 November 1954: Died, Watts Hospital, Durham, N.C.

Merle Davis Umstead

Merle Davis Umstead spent much of her public life as a political wife, seeing to the social and charity duties of the wife of a congressman, senator, and governor. As first lady of North Carolina from 1953 to 1954, during her husband's convalescence, Merle Davis Umstead managed most of the social events at the Governor's Mansion.

  • 11 July 1901: Born in Bostic, Rutherford County, N.C, daughter of Charles D. and Daisy Washburn Davis
  • 1914 - 1919 : Attended Asheville (N.C.) Normal and Collegiate Institute.
  • 1919 - 1920 : Attended Trinity College (now Duke University).
  • 1920 - 1921 : Principal, Sunshine (N.C.) School, Rutherford County.
  • 1921 - 1923 : Worked in the office of the Collector of Internal Revenue, Raleigh.
  • 1923 - 1925 : Returned to Trinity College.
  • 1925 - 1926 : Principal, Washburn School, Rutherford County.
  • 1926: Received B.A. in English, Duke University.
  • 1927 - 1929 : Math teacher and librarian, Central High School, Rutherfordton, Rutherford County.
  • 5 September 1929: Married William Bradley Umstead.
  • 1942: Daughter Merle born.
  • January 1953 - 1954 : North Carolina's first lady.
  • July 1955: Appointed to Board of Trustees, East Carolina College, Greenville, N.C.
  • March 1958: Elected to the executive committee of the North Carolina Democratic Party.
  • 1978: Honorary chairperson of Ladies for Jesse [Helms] and member of Democrats for Jesse.
  • 14 April 1988: Died.

Washburn Family and Washburn Family Stores

Originally from Worcestershire, England, the Washburn family settled in Rutherford County, N.C., in the early 1830s and set up a tavern and inn. After the Civil War, the youngest brother, Reverend Reuben Washburn (1829-1904), took over the family business. He ran it for about 35 years until his sons, Edgar Nollie Washburn (1874-1935) and William Adney Washburn (1868-1931), took over in 1904. By this time, the business had evolved into a dry goods store located in a large wood-framed building on Main Street in Bostic, N.C. The two brothers greatly expanded the family business, building in 1928 a brick store building and opening two other stores, one of which was located at Sunshine, N.C. Known as the Sunshine Cash Store and Service Station, this store was managed for many years by the parents of Merle Davis Umstead, Charles D. Davis (ca. 1880-1936) and Daisy Washburn Davis (1882-1961), sister of E. N. and W. A. Washburn.

From the guide to the William Bradley Umstead and Merle Davis Umstead Papers (#4529), 1863-1987, (Southern Historical Collection)


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  • Families--Social life and customs
  • Merchants
  • Women--Social life and customs
  • Governors--Election
  • Political campaigns--History
  • Politicians--History--20th century
  • Legislators--Biography


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  • Rutherford County (N.C.) (as recorded)
  • North Carolina (as recorded)
  • North Carolina (as recorded)