Setting Inequality in Stone: Race and “Good Roads”

HARRIET M. BERRY (1877-1940) Champion of good roads. Her intensive lobbying led to 1921 law creating modern state highway system. Born 8 mi. N. North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 1986Driving south along NC Highway 86—just as the road leaves the forests and fields between Hillsborough and Chapel Hill and enters city traffic over I-40—there is a small historical marker commemorating Harriet M. Berry, one of the leaders of North Carolina’s early 20th century “Good Roads” movement. Beyond this relatively inconspicuous sign (as a native of Hillsborough, I’ve probably driven past it thousands of times), the average Orange County resident will encounter few legible markers of this pivotal Progressive Era project. The state highways and county roads that we drive on every day, however, are themselves a material archive, physically embodying a set of distinctly political and racialized decisions made in the 1910s and 20s about which roads to fix more permanently on the map.

As I’ve oriented myself to the Backways project as a new Field Scholar this fall, I’ve spent some time in another kind of archive: the Southern Historical Collections in UNC’s Wilson Library. Working my way through Harriet Berry’s personal collection, I’ve sought to better understand how North Carolina’s Good Roads movement helped shape the landscape of rural segregation. One of the greatest challenges of doing this kind critical historical work of public infrastructure is uncovering the power structures and social relations embedded in policies that are conceived and promoted as scientifically objective and socially neutral. Rather than an explicitly racially-motivated practice of disinvestment from black roads and communities, the Good Roads archives tell a story of strategic neglect, a process couched in a narrative of equality that nonetheless had distinctly racialized consequences: literally concretizing the interests of a white political and economic elite in an emerging infrastructural landscape that persists to this day.

At the beginning of the 20th century, roads in North Carolina were maintained on the county level through a system of periodic mandatory labor by local residents. Most roads were dirt or gravel, and in the Piedmont the iconic red clay gave way to florid rivers of impassable mud with each rain. Culvert technology was next to nonexistent, and early roads were primarily constructed along ridges to avoid the most extreme sites of erosion. Harriet Berry—and the other citizens, politicians, and highway engineers who rallied behind the Good Roads movement—sought to uplift the state’s residents and economy by surmounting these barriers to transportation and commerce through a new, “modern” system of road maintenance. They joined together to establish the first State Highway Commission and secure federal funding to build hard-topped roads throughout the state. Though they faced multiple political hurdles, the Good Roads advocates achieved ambitious goals in a relatively short period of time, creating a vast network of new and improved roads before the arrival of the Great Depression.

good roads convention

“Make the World Safe for Democracy” – 1918 Good Roads Convention

Much of the key historical documentation from North Carolina’s Good Roads movement can be found in the records of the Good Roads Institute, an annual conference held throughout the 1910s. Perusing the transcribed speeches, I was immediately struck by the grandiose rhetoric of the presenters. The impassioned advocates frame road development as the key advancement necessary to bring a region “lagging behind” into its full “birthright” as part of the nation’s future.[1] The wartime context is evident in the prevalent language of Empire, as the speakers describe domestic infrastructure as one front on which America’s campaign to establish itself as a global power can be waged. Additionally, road development is explicitly framed as a populist campaign that will positively impact all the state’s residents: “Highways constructed and maintained by the State mean ‘equal rights to all, special privileges to none.’”[2]

How can we reconcile the Good Road movements’ language of equality with the numerous interviews in the Backways collection that attest to the systematic exclusion of black communities from public road development projects throughout the 20th century? Is it possible to pinpoint the systematic nature of neglect in the public record? The Backways project continually confronts this challenge as we work to integrate oral histories and archival research.

Perhaps the simplest way to begin to answer this question is to examine who assumed leadership positions within the Good Roads movement, as well as who was considered a citizen worthy of equal protection in the eyes of the state during this era. The NC Good Roads Association was primarily composed of property-owning whites in positions of political and economic power, documented in Harriet Berry’s personal letters inviting delegates from boards of trade and chambers of commerce to attend the Institute.[3] In Orange County, the law that established a Good Roads Commission specified that this board would be composed of “nine qualified voters” from the county[4]—a category that would have largely excluded black North Carolinians during the height of Jim Crow when poll taxes and other forms of voter intimidation had effectively reinstated disenfranchisement.

While the proponents of this program strove to create a scientific and objective system of determining which roads would receive renewed investment (based primarily on population size and various metrics of economic significance), the reality was much messier—and much more political. The Harriet Berry archive contains numerous letters from local politicians and citizens written to the newly formed state agency, advocating for the improvement or closure of particular roads. In a letter to the Governor advocating for the improvement of a road in McDowell County, Berry herself acknowledges that the allegedly scientific measures established by the commission are subject to revision and exception for roads with particular significance due to their “scenic” attributes or other qualities.[5] The archive suggests that the issue was not (or not only) that white leaders intentionally wrote black roads off the emerging highway maintenance maps, but that black communities were largely prevented from advocating that they be put on in the first place.


Road construction chain gang (from Ingram, Tammy. Dixie Highway: Road Building and the Making of the Modern South, 1900-1930. UNC Press Books, 2014.)

The fact that many black roads were excluded from the Good Roads modernization process is thrown into particularly harsh relief by the fact that black North Carolinians provided the vast majority of the labor that built the new roads. In the early 20th century, vagrancy laws and other Jim Crow attempts at re-enslavement had filled the prisons with black men, and the early Good Roads documents attest to an intentional centrality of convict labor in the construction process. This institutional marriage of “corrections” and transportation reached it height when the State Highway Commission and State Prison were merged into a single department between 1933 and 1957.

What the Backways collection tells us, however, is that while the relationship between race and roads in North Carolina is a story of both neglect and more explicit forms of violence and exploitation, it is also much more than that. In “off-the-map” spaces, black communities carved out places for congregation, survival, and resistance, circumnavigating the violent gaze of white supremacist vigilantes and the Jim Crow state. As I move forward with collecting additional oral histories for the Backways archive, I’m working to hold both these realities in tension: the worlds of possibility that black folks forged out of these acts of overlooking, as well as the brutal reality that the exclusion of black roads from the new landscape of “modern” infrastructure literally paved inequality into the red clay soil of our state.


Close-up of a 1925 Orange County road map – with hand-drawn colors indicating which “class” roads would be designated for maintenance purposes (Moore, Coyle. Map of Orange County [1925]. North Carolina Collection Maps, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)


Map key – colors for Class A, B, & C


[1] Good Roads Institute Proceedings, 1918, folder 44, in the H. M. Berry Papers #2259, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


[3] Good Roads Institute Proceedings, 1918, folder 44, in the H. M. Berry Papers #2259, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

[4] North Carolina General Assembly. 1911. For Good Roads in Orange : Chapter 600 of the Public Laws of North Carolina. Raleigh, North Carolina.

[5] Letter to Governor Doughton, folder 33, in the H. M. Berry Papers #2259, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

About Rachel Cotterman

Study of American South
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