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How one man's vote brought East Carolina to Greenville

He is not well-known in the East Carolina community today, but Benjamin Franklin Dixon played a pivotal role in the state’s decision to locate a new teacher training school in Greenville.

That occurred on July 10, 1907, when the State Board of Education assembled in Raleigh to choose one of six eastern towns competing to host the new school. At that time the board of education was composed of the governor, lieutenant governor and five other statewide officials, similar to the current Council of State. As state auditor, Dixon had a vote on the board.

Benjamin Franklin Dixon
Courtesy N.C. Museum of History
In their final pitches to the board, officials from Kinston and Washington raised their offers to match or exceed the support pledged by Greenville. Kinston emerged as the favorite, based on its enhanced financial incentives and the strong support of State Superintendent of Public Instruction J.Y. Joyner, a native of Lenoir County.

On the first ballot by the six board members present (Attorney General Robert Gilmer was absent), Greenville received just one vote, from native son Bryan Grimes, the secretary of state. Rocky Mount got two votes and Kinston had three.

But three is not a majority of six, so a second ballot was required. Dixon switched his vote from Kinston to Greenville, giving the three towns two votes each.

On the third ballot, Lt. Gov. Francis Winston and State Treasurer Benjamin Lacy joined Grimes and Dixon in voting for Greenville, giving it a 4-2 winning majority. With that decided, the board then turned to choosing one of the two tracts offered by Greenville as the site of the school—property along Dickinson Avenue or the current site south of Fifth Street.

For reasons not understood, the lieutenant governor then moved to reconsider the winning vote for Greenville. The board rescinded its selection and broke for lunch.

Reconvening at 3 p.m., the board took a fourth vote. Winston and Grimes stuck with Greenville, and Joyner remained staunchly with Kinston. Dixon and two others switched their votes to Washington, giving it a plurality but not a majority.

On the fifth ballot, Lacy switched from Washington to Greenville while Glenn and Dixon changed from Washington to Kinston. That eliminated Washington and created a 3-3 tie between Kinston and Greenville.

“We are not here to destroy the old and accept only the new, but to build upon the past…”

—Robert H. Wright, Nov. 12, 1909
From his inaugural address and installation as East Carolina’s first president

On the sixth ballot, everyone else stood pat, but Dixon switched his vote from Kinston back to Greenville. For the second time that day his vote made Greenville a 4-2 winner. The selection became official moments later when Gov. Robert B. Glenn announced the outcome to a crowd waiting on the Capitol lawn.

A native of Cleveland County, Dixon was a man of many accomplishments. He was a captain in the Civil War, a Methodist minister, a teacher and a doctor. He left medicine to become superintendent of Oxford Orphanage then became president of Greensboro Female College, now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He was 51 when he left the college to serve as a major in the Spanish-American War. Later he served in the General Assembly and from there rose in 1900 to become state auditor. He served through 1908.

Dixon was known as an entertaining orator. When the State Board of Education was touring the six towns to judge their fitness for hosting the new school, the Eastern Reflector reported that he drew laughs from Greenville citizens with this yarn:

He said Rocky Mount had offered him a town lot to vote for it, and Tarboro topped that by offering him 10 acres and a mule. Dixon said it would be improper to accept such bribes, but he told the crowd he would vote for Greenville if the city agreed to change the name of Dickinson Avenue to Dixon Avenue.

The city never took him up on the offer, but memories of Dixon’s crucial votes remained alive as the new training school in Greenville took root and grew. When East Carolina Teacher Training School—about to become East Carolina Teachers College—expanded in 1920 by acquiring the acreage east of the fountain, part of an existing street was renamed Dixon Drive.

—Steve Tuttle