H.R. Helper’s Memory Isn’t Held Fondly

Published 8:51 am Thursday, April 12, 2018

One of Davie County’s historic Big Three just doesn’t get any respect, and maybe he shouldn’t. Not to speak ill of the dead, but Hinton Rowan Helper was a loon.

Writer Marcia D. Phillips has released a new book, “Davie County Mavericks,” which notes that not a single town or street or anything bears the name of Hinton Rowan Helper, controversial author of the 1857 book, “The Impending Crisis of the South.”

He wasn’t welcome back to the South. Northerners viewed the North Carolinian with some doubt, but he did sell a lot of books about slavery. Unlike other anti-slavery books, Helper didn’t use morality to advocate an end to slavery. He used economics: Slaves had no incentive to work hard, and didn’t. Free men — workers paid for their labor — would produce more for the plantation owners than slaves.

His ideas made so much sense they were scary to plantation owners vested in slaves.

The late, well-respected Davie County historian James Wall did a lot of research on Helper. He discovered that Helper played fast and loose with his facts, but that didn’t matter much at the time.

The book was earth-shaking, even if it was difficult to read.

He may have been anti-slavery, but he was hardly a humanitarian. By today’s standards, Helper would be branded a severe racist. He made the mistake of revealing too many of his ideas. He should have stopped with the book.

Phillips notes that Helper died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Maryland.  No tombstone was ever erected. A ship during World War II was named in his memory. A historical marker on US 64 west of Mocksville notes his birthplace.

The book also recalls pioneer Daniel Boone, Enola Gay bombardier Tom Ferebee and possible French military commander Peter Stuart Ney.

The childhoods of Boone, Ferebee and Helper are all tied to the Bear Creek area of western Davie County. Ney was a school teacher in Davie and Rowan. People have often speculated about whether he was actually the French calvary leader Marshal Ney who fought for Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. Whoever he was, Ney is buried at Third Creek Presbyterian Church in Rowan.

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This is the week of glory for the lowly dogwood tree. In full flower, the white petals grace the woodlands and lawns. They are beautiful.

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The old editor has a significant birthday this week, one truly fitting of the “old” adjective. I’ve discovered some advantages of aging. Using my new senior citizen national parks pass, I reserved a camping spot in the Great Smokies Mountains this week and received a 50 percent discount.

I decided to stay a couple extra nights.

The senior pass has paid for itself several times over in the six months I’ve had it. We got in free at Yosemite, at the grounds of poet Carl Sandburg’s home and now a camping discount.

Getting old has its perks.

– Dwight Sparks