The Capitol in the 20th Century and Beyond

Throughout the twentieth century, downtown Raleigh and the Capitol saw much change. African Americans fought for enfranchisement and voting rights against the harsh backdrop of Jim Crow. Women fought for suffrage and full political rights during the first years of the century.

Following World War I, supporters of women’s suffrage re-organized. Women had supported the war effort, filling new industrial jobs left vacant by men departing for war. Secretary of the Navy and N.C. native Josephus Daniels hired women as Naval clerks and bookkeepers. He even insisted women “who [work] as well as a man ought to receive the same pay.” Though men reclaimed many of these positions as they returned from military service, women visibly occupying non-traditional roles outside the home aided the push for women’s rights. The 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, was ratified in 1920. President Wilson in 1918 said: “we have made partners of the women in this war… Shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”


Lillian Exum Clement
Lillian Exum Clement was the
first woman to serve in the NC
House of Representatives

Lillian Exum Clement was born in Buncombe County in 1894. She studied law and became the first woman to practice law in North Carolina without male partners. In 1920, the Buncombe County Democratic Party asked 26-year-old Clement to run for a seat in the NC House. She defeated two male opponents in the primary election, and won the general election in a landslide, 10,368 to 41. When Clement won, she became the first woman to serve in any state legislature in the South. While in office, she fought for women, introducing a bill shortening the amount of time before abandoned women could file for divorce. After her marriage, she chose to no longer serve in the House. She died of pneumonia in 1924. 

Gertrude Dills McKee
In 1931, Gertrude Dills McKee became
the first woman to serve in North
Carolina’s Senate.

After World War II, civil rights protests garnered increasing and more organized support. This pressured the Federal government to eliminate systematic segregation, especially in the areas of education, public accommodations, and voter suppression. Literacy tests were required for voting registration and varied wildly from state to state. Within the states there was no standard application of the tests; they could be administered completely differently from applicant to applicant. White applicants, if they received the test at all, were often given much easier versions of the test than applicants of color. Under Jim Crow laws in North Carolina, citizens of color had to pass a literacy test that included writing a portion of the Constitution in order to obtain their voting registration.

During the Civil Rights Era, the Capitol saw sit-ins and marches, as activists struggled to convince legislators to overturn Jim Crow laws which segregated the races. Such protests helped transform Southern culture, which had once relegated African Americans to second-class citizens. In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act making discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, color, sex, or religion illegal in public areas, voting, workplaces, and schools. 

Protesters on Fayetteville Street
Protestors on Fayetteville Street, blocks from
the Capitol, circa 1960s Photo courtesy of the
State Archives of North Carolina

Today, the Capitol still holds its active status within the state. The Governor of North Carolina maintains his or her office in the Capitol and for this and other reasons history continues to be made at the Capitol daily!