On November 9, 1909, President William Howard Taft came to town. The day was declared “Taft Day” by the community. President Taft’s visit to Wilmington was the second-to-last stop on a months-long tour across the country. Taft was the first sitting president to visit Wilmington since the Civil War. As of 2019, he is the last sitting president to make an official visit to Wilmington, although presidential candidates such as Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama have made stops in the Port City while they were on the campaign trail.
William Howard Taft was elected president in November of 1908, and he was inaugurated in March of 1909. As the Republican Party candidate, he lost North Carolina and the rest of what had become known as the “Solid South.” Republican candidates began to lose in the South as the vast majority of African American men lost the right to vote in the 1890s and 1900s. In North Carolina, the Democratic Party launched a state-wide White Supremacy campaign in 1898 which led to the passage of a 1900 disfranchisement law. And so by the 1908 election, there was little doubt the Democratic Party candidate would win in the state. Still, the day after the 1908 election the Wilmington Morning Star declared approvingly that local voters had stayed “true to white supremacy” at the ballot box.
Even though New Hanover County’s electorate did not vote for President Taft in 1908, the next year the city pulled out all the stops for their Taft Day. A committee worked for months to prepare for the event, and the city festooned the streets in Taft’s honor. Miniature pine trees adorned Front Street. Water Street and other areas were decorated with bunting. Local businesses decorated their store windows in Taft’s honor. One candy store displayed a 100 pound stick of candy as part of their homage to the president. Electrical lights were specially installed to illuminate Front Street – at the time, electricity was a newfangled invention, and street lights were considered the height of modernity and sophistication. And, a “splendid welcome arch” was built and placed on Front Street, near the post office.
Everything, including the weather, which was warm, seemed to cooperate to make Taft Day a success. Looking back on the visit, the Morning Star declared “…the president was genial, jovial, and kindly; he liked Wilmington and Wilmington liked him.” In fact, more than Wilmington liked Taft – the city’s population of 35,000 people swelled by about 10,000 as visitors from around the region flocked to town see the president. Special trains brought visiting throngs from Raleigh, Rocky Mount, Kinston and Florence, South Carolina. And the Taft Day committee worked hard to find accommodations for people at local boarding houses and in private homes.
President Taft’s visit to Wilmington was jam packed with activity. His train arrived in the early hours of Tuesday morning. The president was ceremoniously welcomed to the city at 8 AM and taken on a short automobile journey to a breakfast hosted by James Sprunt at his town house (the Governor Dudley Mansion at 400 S. Front Street). After the breakfast, bowing to segregation, the president visited local whites and blacks separately. The city’s white school children formed a “living flag” at Third and Market streets and sang the national anthem for the crowds. Taft then traveled across town, spoke at St. Stephen A.M.E. church, and addressed the African American population in Peabody School’s yard. Then, Taft and his party boarded the U.S. Revenue Cutter Seminole with 80 state and local dignitaries. They cruised the Cape Fear River and ate lunch on board the ship. Returning to land, Taft watched a military parade. There was more speechifying in front of City Hall. And finally, the president attended an evening banquet at a masonic lodge.
When this long day was over, President Taft re-boarded his train car and left town. After Wilmington, Taft stopped in Richmond, VA on November 10th, and headed back to Washington. When he arrived back at the White House, he’d spent 56 days on the road, traveling 13,000 miles through 33 states. It’s no wonder, then, that, on November 10, the New York Times reported that the president was “tired of traveling” and planned to stay in D.C. for the foreseeable future.
To view more images from Taft Day, click here.
October: The Daily Record, October 20, 1898
September: September 15, 1990
August: Honoring “Hi Buddy” Wade on his 90th Birthday
July: July 15, 1977, One Short March, One Long Journey
June: The USS North Carolina lands a Kingfisher, June 25, 1971
May: May is Prom Season, May 12, 1962
April: Income Tax Deadline Day
March: Women’s History Month, March 8
February: A February Fundraiser, 2008
January 2019: Voting for Liquor by the Drink, January 12, 1979
December: A Day’s News, December 12, 1936
November: November 10, 1898
October: Halloween, October 31
September: Getting a Car Fixed: September 3, 1929
August: “Two Hundred Years of Light by the Light”: August 5, 1989
July: Tommies Parading in Wilmington: July 17, 1943
June: Williston is Closed: June 26, 1968
May: May 13, 1919: Traveling Home from War
April: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated: April 4, 1968
March: Sending Victory Mail Home
February: Human Relations Month
January 2018: Galloway’s Sick Note