A newspaper career destined to last more than 40 years was nearly terminated in its infancy by the relatively simple act of latching a door between a print shop and office. So says J.A. Sharpe, editor and publisher of The Robesonian, who on July 1, 1947 observed the 40th anniversary of his connection with Robeson County’s only daily newspaper.
Too few men are recognized and honored while they are yet living and active, but Sharpe had such an experience on June 17 when local civic leaders and friends assembled to do him honor at a testimonial dinner held at a Lumberton hotel.
Back of the recognition is a whole storehouse of experience accumulated throughout the years. Sharpe has seen issues of gravest import in Robeson County both wax and wane; he has been in the midst of them, taking sides, throwing the weight of his editorial influence into a balance that often determined the outcome of the immediate question.
Like other editors, he has been opposed openly and in secret, threatened, alternately abused and praised, even offered bribes — all depending upon the warmth of feeling which the particular issue roused. He has had a part in politics, movements, growth and change. He has seen personalities walk calmly or burst dramatically upon the stage of his adopted county, and has helped them to rise or to fall.
Becomes an institution
Back in July of 1907 the young newspaperman, then in his early 30s, found in Lumberton his particular niche. Despite the door-latching episode at the very beginning, Sharpe stuck with The Robesonian. He became The Robesonian, so that now the two are synonymous in the minds of subscribers, only a few of whom can remember when there was anyone else as editor and publisher of the 77-year-old newspaper founded by the late W. S. McDiarmid.
This son of a Methodist minister was accustomed to living in many different places. His father, the Rev. Van Buren Albright Sharpe, was preaching at Lincolnton when John Allen was born. Later the family lived in Reidsville, Yancyville, Greensboro, Thomasville and other places. During several years of this time the Rev. Sharpe was presiding elder of the Randolph District of the Methodist Conference. At one period the minister and his wife, Mrs. Annie McDavid Sharpe, had three daughters enrolled at Greensboro College and one son at Trinity College.
At Trinity, John Allen Sharpe was a member of Alpha Tau Omega fraternity and in his senior year, 1897-98, edited The Archive. It was in 1920 when the Beta chapter of Phi Beta Kappa was instituted at Trinity, that he was selected as one of a number of alumnus members.
Just out of college, he turned to teaching at Elkin. But that career was short-lived, just one year. Following an idea then popular — that the best opening for a young man was in the cotton mill business — he went with a fraternity mate to Bessemer City, where they planned to work up to a superintendency. After about a year he received a better offer in similar work at Hillsboro, Texas.
Eighteen months in Texas convinced him that he wasn’t “cut out for the textile industry.” He came back to North Carolina and went into the insurance business for a time in Charlotte and Reidsville, until he heard of an opening as a reporter at The Statesville Landmark.
“I had always had a hankering to try my hand at reporting,” Sharpe said, “though it didn’t offer much inducement financially in those days.” He started to work on The Landmark under the late Rufus R. Clark for the handsome salary of $7 per week. At the end of a year he accepted a position as editor of The Textile Excelsior, a cotton mill paper published in Charlotte and later renamed Textile Bulletin.
Lands in Lumberton
Tiring of this after 18 months, Sharpe followed the suggestion of his good friend, John Charles McNeill, to apply for the editorship of The Robesonian, which Pegram Bryant was relinquishing. He was accepted by the publishing company, then headed by Gilchrist McCormick as president and E. J. Britt, vice-president, with A.W. McLean (who later became Governor of North Carolina), A.E. White and Col. N. A. McLean as principal stockholders.
By 1912 Sharpe had bought out most of the stockholders and with the purchase in 1923 of several shares owned by W.K. Bethune, became sole owner and publisher. Only Britt and Bethune of the original company are living now.
The editor’s desk was located then in a small brick building owned by A.E. White on West 4th Street where it remained until the brick building now housing The Robesonian was erected on West Fifth Street in 1924.
The near-disastrous door-latching episode took place that first summer 40 years ago. It seems that one door then separated the print shop from the outer office, where Sharpe and his sole assistant, Miss Alma Rancke, worked. Here W.S. Wishart, whose connection with the newspaper dated back even then nearly 30 years and who was Lumberton’s foremost historian (until his death a few months ago), held sway as shop foreman.
Through that door all copy had to pass from editor to printer for the laborious hand-setting then in practice. One day the wind kept slamming the door back and forth so that the new editor couldn’t keep his mind on his work; whereupon, he got up and latched the door. The printers, unable to get copy any other way but to walk outside the building, come in through the front door and go back to the shop the same way, figured that this new fellow was either trying to shut himself off from their presence or at any rate was causing them entirely too much trouble. So Foreman Wishart registered a complaint with Vice-President E.J. Britt.
The vice-president forthwith “waited upon” the editor, and advised him of the grievance. The editor, quick to react, stated that if he were to be made accountable to the stockholders for every small incident inside the shop, he was ready to quit right then. Britt assured him that henceforth he would be solely in charge. The matter was dropped, Sharpe stayed on and he and the printers became good friends.
A friend of 40 years’ standing is W.K. Bethune, whose connection with The Robesonian dates back almost as far as that of the editor. In January 1908, Bethune started work as a successor to Miss Rancke and bought some stock. During his 15-year association, he and Sharpe entered several cooperative ventures apart from printing a newspaper.
One such was the promotion of train excursions. Bethune chartered the trains and solicited the passengers — in those good old days when the railroad station was the hub of activity in every town — while The Robesonian gave publicity and advertised the excursions. Sharpe recalls his sense of foreboding as to financial loss when on one day set for an unusually well-ballyhooed excursion to Newport News, Va., rain fell in torrents. Sitting in Lumberton waiting for the bad news that many people had canceled their reservations, he was delighted to receive the heart-warming message from Bethune at the end of the day: “Just checked up. We cleared 19 cents apiece today.”
In Lumberton Sharpe met and married Miss Daisy Courtney, whose native home was Baltimore, and together they reared two sons and a daughter. John Allen Sharpe Jr., a graduate of Duke University and veteran of World War II, was associated with his father (and became editor when Mr. Sharpe Sr. died in 1947). Mrs. Courtney Sharpe Ward is the wife of the Rev. A.F. Ward Jr., and lives in Williamsburg, Va. She, too, graduated at Duke. Albert M. Sharpe, a graduate of Duke and a veteran of World War II, is circulation manager of The Robesonian. Mrs. Sharpe died in 1945.
Prevented county division
Many a fight over issues developed for the editor through the years. Foremost among these, come election time every two years from 1908 to 1920, was the matter of dividing Robeson into two or even three counties. Sharpe consistently fought division. Chief talking point of the divisionists was the deplorable condition of county roads (all dirt at that time) and the difficulty of traveling to the county seat at Lumberton from the remote sections.
During election years the anti-divisionists made every effort to have men nominated for the state legislature who would pledge not to vote for division.
At every session of the general assembly, Sharpe recalled, a bill would be introduced to divide Robeson County. A public hearing would be held before the proper committee in Raleigh, and droves of citizens would go up to appear for or against the measure, which was always killed (except when Hoke was formed in 1911).
The last big fight over division was in the 1920 election, when the late Gilbert Patterson, a distinguished Maxton citizen who served a term in Congress, campaigned vigorously for division of Robeson into three counties, with courthouses to be located in St. Pauls, Maxton and Lumberton.
His leading opponents in this particular campaign were attorneys R.C. Lawrence, Stephen McIntyre and Sharpe. After the publication in The Robesonian of a four-page article by Lawrence, setting forth arguments against dividing the county, Sharpe received a number of abusive letters. One day, when the campaign was waxing its hottest, the newspaper force found a mysterious package in the office addressed to the editor. Fearing that it might be an “infernal machine” timed to blow up the office and kill its occupants, the staff gingerly opened the package — to find inside the anonymous gift of a can of Red Devil lye, to which was attached the admonition to “Clean up The Robesonian.”
Not only The Robesonian but also the long-time issue of the county division itself seems to have been “cleaned up” in that campaign. Cameron Morrison was elected Governor of North Carolina in 1920 and soon launched his “Good Roads Program.” As the vast network of paved highways wended its welcome way into every county of the state, Robeson got her share, and the chief contention for division became a dead issue.
It was in the 1912 U.S. Senate race between W.W. Kitchin and F.M. Simmons that Sharpe, supporting the latter, got in the last word over the opposition. Claude Kitchin, speaking at the courthouse here on behalf of his brother, noticed editor-reporter Sharpe taking notes on the speech. Kitchin kept driving home his point and then saying aside to the reporter, “Now put that down.” When election day finally came and returns showed Simmons far ahead in the county, Sharpe sent this telegram to Claude Kitchin:
“Robeson County today gave Simmons a majority of 1500 votes. Now put that down.”
The Robesonian editor came to full maturity in the ‘20s after having cut his teeth on the county’s politics, and he was ready to play a prominent role in the Ku Klux Klan furor of the era. Many citizens joined the Klan’s recruiting efforts.
Sharpe, however, was determined not to be taken in by this organization and later fought it tooth and nail as he saw results of its violent methods. When he refused to accept an advertisement for the fledgling Klan and returned the $5 sent to cover cost, a man telephoned and warned him that he would live to regret this act.
As his editorials against the movement grew more frequent, so did threats against the editor by letter and telephone. Things came to such a pass that his wife really feared for his life.
Then came one of the most famous and widely publicized trials ever held in the Robeson Courthouse — that of three men charged with kidnapping and beating two Proctorville women on the night of April 14, 1923. This alleged “handiwork” of the Ku Klux “white-robed terror” climaxed a series of at least 14 outrages allegedly perpetrated by the hooded gang in Robeson over a period of 10 months. Trial of the three men was heard before Judge N.A. Sinclair at the July term of court and lasted for five days.
The late Stephen McIntyre ably assisted Solicitor T.A. McNeill in the prosecution. On the fifth day, July 21, the jury brought in a verdict of not guilty, but the tactics of secrecy, lawlessness and revenge employed by the Klan received such wide spread publicity and scathing denunciation that the Klan’s ugly purpose was revealed.
Ben Dixon McNeill, in a feature story published in The News and Observer on July 29, 1923, had this to say about Sharpe’s part in the fight against the Ku Klux Klan:
“First to take up the challenge of the hooded terror was J.A. Sharpe, owner and editor of the Lumberton Robesonian, a fearless and able country newspaperman. His paper goes into every corner of the county and is read by practically the entire literate population. Sharpe took up the cudgels against the menace and called upon the law to exert itself.
“Many of his friends trembled at the boldness of the country editor. He was threatened with destruction if he did not discontinue his assault upon the threatenings, the banishments and the beatings of the night riders. He paid them no heed and continued to demand that they be suppressed. The sordid details of the outrage against the two women were carried into every home in the county through The Robesonian.”
During the intervening years the editor has “taken up the cudgels” in many another progressive programs: for a countywide library system, for civic improvements, for numerous measures seeking to raise the standard of rural life in Robeson.
Conservative in national politics, he has yet remained liberal in regards to reforms in his own adopted county. With the passing of the years, his tolerance and understanding — not as abstract ideals but as actual qualities demonstrated in his relations with his employees, “the force” — have grown stronger. Now past the proverbial three score years and ten, he can truly say with Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be — the last of life, for which the first was made.”
Not only was Sharpe’s ability recognized by Robeson leaders; but his colleagues in the field of journalism recognized him to the extent that he was named president of the North Carolina Press Association in 1919.
Sharpe believed in Robeson County and its potentialities. He was instrumental in organizing the Robeson County club before World War II. In an editorial Feb. 26, 1941, after the first meeting had been held he wrote:
“Within Robeson County’s 990 square miles is a region of fine human stock, great traditions and abundant resources. But there can be promoted better balanced agriculture and industry, better housing, better health, higher average incomes, more adequate circulation of books, more adequate vocational skills.
"The Robeson County club can make Robeson County an even better land of economic and social well-being. To that task it will be devoted.”
Gave much to life
The editor succumbed to a heart attack in October of 1947 and Rev. Edgar B. Fisher, a former pastor of Chestnut Street Methodist Church, in which Sharpe had served as steward for many years, said:
“Our friend was one who recognized not only that he had received much, but also that he had a responsibility to give much.”