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Courtroom portraits removed

JACKSON – The walls of the Superior Courtroom inside the Northampton County Courthouse are now bare.

Following a closed session on June 29, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners returned to open session to unanimously vote to remove all the portraits that previously adorned the walls inside the courtroom, to include the English nobleman for whom the county was named in 1741.

The motion was made by Commissioner Nicole Boone and seconded by Commissioner Kelvin Edwards.

A public statement released after the decision noted that “while the Board acknowledges the historical significance of the portraits, it believes they do not appropriately reflect and honor the current diversity of Northampton’s citizens and judiciary.”

Board Chair Charles Tyner told the News Herald in a brief interview that some of the subjects of those portraits were supportive of slavery. He also pointed out that there were no Black or minority portraits hanging in the courtroom.

“We wanted to make sure that we understand that courthouse is for all people, and we cannot dwell on the past,” he said.

The portraits, which were removed on June 30 by the Public Works Department, include Governor Thomas Bragg, Jr., Judge W.H.S. Burgwyn Sr., James Crompton (Earl of Northampton), Judge Ballard S. Gay, Judge Thomas W. Mason, Judge Garland E. Midyette, Judge Raymond G. Parker, and Senator Matt W. Ransom.

An online search (www.ncpedia.org) of the men featured in those portraits revealed the following:

Bragg (Nov. 9, 1810 – Jan. 21, 1872), a native of Warren County, established a successful law practice in Jackson. He was elected in 1842 to the NC House of Representatives. He was elected North Carolina Governor in 1854 and followed in 1859 with his election to the U.S. Senate. He withdrew from that position on March 6, 1861 shortly before North Carolina’s secession from the Union. He returned to his native state where he helped prepare North Carolina’s military forces for the looming conflict in the Civil War. He was appointed as the Attorney General of the Confederacy on Nov. 22, 1861 by Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Burgwyn (Jan. 22, 1886 – Jan. 24, 1977) was an attorney in Woodland. He represented Northampton, Bertie and Hertford counties in the NC Senate from 1917-1921 and again in 1925 at which time he was the President Pro Tem. He represented Northampton County in the NC House in 1923; served 17 years on the UNC Board of Trustees; and was President of Farmers Bank of Woodland. He was the Solicitor of the Third Judicial District from 1932-37. He was appointed a special Superior Court Judge in 1937, serving until 1953. During that time on the bench he held court in 88 of the state’s 100 counties.

Compton: Earl of Northampton (Aug. 19, 1622 – Dec. 15, 1681) was an English peer, soldier and politician. He sat as a member of the English Parliament form 1640-42. He commanded a regiment of cavalry at the First Battle of Newbury in 1643 and later served as Constable of the Tower of London from 1675-79.

Mason (Jan. 3, 1839 – April 15, 1921), a native of Brunswick County, VA, graduated from the University of Virginia’s law school in 1860 and shortly thereafter married Betty Gray of Longview Plantation in Northampton County. He served on the staff of Confederate Brigadier General Robert Ransome in several battles, and his brigade later joined with General Robert E. Lee’s forces near Petersburg, VA in 1864. After the war, Mason returned to Northampton County, helping oversee farming operations at Longview. He served as a Judge in Northampton County from 1877-1885. He also served terms in the NC Senate and NC House as well as serving as a member of the NC Railroad Commission.

Ransom (Oct. 8, 1826 – Oct. 8, 1904), a native of Warren County, graduated in 1847 from UNC where he studied law. He served three years (1852-55) as North Carolina’s Attorney General. He married Martha Anne Exum of Northampton County on Jan. 19, 1853 and moved to her plantation – “Verona” on the Roanoke River. He represented Northampton County in the NC House from 1858-1861. He joined the Confederate Army as a private, and two years later had risen to the rank of Brigadier General. After the war, Ransom returned to Northampton County as a farmer and an attorney. He won a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1872 and served continuously until 1895. President Grover Cleveland then appointed him minister to Mexico, a post he held for two years.

Midyette (Source: Obituary published Sept. 21, 1932 in the Daily Times News of Burlington, NC). The obit noted that Midyette died of a sudden heart attack after he quickly called for a recess of a Superior Court session he was conducting in Elizabeth City. A native of Hyde County, he was appointed to the Superior Court bench in 1923 by Governor Cameron Morrison. His obit noted a son that was an attorney in Jackson, and a daughter living in Rich Square.

There were no online references to Judge Gay or Judge Parker.

Tyner said the portraits will either be donated for display in the Northampton County Museum or returned to the families.

In the meantime, according to County Attorney Scott McKellar, the portraits have been carefully wrapped and are being stored by the Public Works Department in a climate-controlled room with no windows and no direct sunlight.

The News Herald asked County Manager Charles Jackson if there was any plan in place to either hang new portraits or leave the walls bare, and he reported that no definitive plans have been finalized yet.