North Carolina is first in these 12 things

Thought we were just first in flight? Think again.

North Carolinians can claim a number of firsts, from all the way back in 1775 right up to today.

1. Freedom


Image credit: Artist Dan Nance via Scott Syfert.

Before it was changed to “First in Flight,” North Carolina’s license plate read “First in Freedom,” referring to the signing of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence on May 20, 1775. That date has been on the North Carolina flag and seal since the 1800s, although most residents of the Tarheel state don’t have a clue as to why it’s there.

1inFreedomLPMiss being able to poke ol’ George III in the eye from your back bumper? You’re in luck. North Carolina is once again offering a First in Freedom license plate. So chug some Cheerwine this summer and show crazy King Blue Pee what you think of his taxation without representation.


2. Public higher education

Old Well at UNC

The Old Well at UNC Chapel Hill. Image credit: Flickr via zach_mullen

In 1795, the University of North Carolina became the first state university to open its doors when the first student, Hinton James, arrived on foot from Wilmington.

Plaque at Old East

Old East at UNC Chapel Hill. Image credit: Flickr via Madrigals

While best known for its flagship campus at Chapel Hill and sister school N.C. State University in Raleigh, the UNC system encompasses 16 universities across the state, from Western Carolina University in Cullowhee to Elizabeth City State University on the coast.

Bonus: It’s no surprise that the first state university also boasts the first state university building in the United States. The cornerstone for Old East, originally a classroom building and dormitory, was laid on October 12, 1793 by Revolutionary War hero and governor William Richardson Davie.



3.  Flight

The Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk. Image credit: Flickr via trentroche

The Wright Brothers Memorial at Kitty Hawk. Image credit: Flickr via trentroche

You knew this one. The Wright brothers, intrepid bicycle mechanics who wished to fly free of a world in which they had to walk around being called “Wilbur” and “Orville,” launched the first successful heavier-than-air flight at Kill Devil Hills, N.C. on Dec. 17, 1903.


4.  ACC tournament championships

ACC_logoWith 50 tournament championships combined, the Big Four schools of Duke (19), Carolina (17), N.C. State (10) and Wake Forest (4) blow away the field. Maryland (3, all University Maryland) and Georgia (3, all Georgia Tech) are next closest. For all its basketball success overall, the University of Virginia has won only two ACC tournaments, bringing the grand total for the Commonwealth of Virginia to two, since Virginia Tech has never cut down the nets.


5.  Nursing

In 1903, the North Carolina legislature passed a law that required nurses register with their county, and in July 1903 either Josephine Burton Bradham of Craven County or nursing champion Mary Rose Batterham of Watauga County became the first Registered Nurse in the nation.

Of course, the state was not the first to have nurses. England’s Florence Nightingale is generally acknowledged as the mother of modern nursing. And nurse sharks have been around for millennia.

BONUS:  Another medical profession has its roots in North Carolina. Duke University enrolled the first-ever class of Physician Assistants in 1965.


6.  Union-free percentage

USAFlagHoriz_OWNNorth Carolina’s workforce is 98.1 percent union-free, first in the nation. States with low union membership and strong right-to-work laws are gaining more population. And according to NPR, “income and job growth have increased faster in right-to-work states” since 1945.


7.  Cajun chicken-and-biscuit restaurant started by men named Jack Fulk and Richard Thomas


Image credit: Flickr via gerrydincher

North Carolina is home to BoJangles, the first and only Cajun chicken-and-biscuit restaurant started by men named Jack Fulk and Richard Thomas. OK, we realize that’s a very narrow category. But how could we have a list about North Carolina and not include BoJangles? (We also mentioned Cheerwine in Number 1 above, so we’re covered there too.) And does any native of the Old North State need to ask why we made a list that totals out to an even dozen?

8.  Impeaching and removing governor

Gov. William Woods Holden

Gov. William Woods Holden. Image from

It’s not a very proud moment in North Carolina history, but in 1870 the North Carolina House of Representatives impeached Governor William Holden and the state Senate voted to remove him from office, the first time that a U.S. governor had been removed from office through impeachment.

Why is it not a proud moment? Holden, a Republican, was reviled by white supremacists because he tried to oppose the Ku Klux Klan in the state. The Invisible Empire struck back, and Holden was removed after a seven-week trial that resulted in a 36-13 vote for removal.

In 2011 the North Carolina Senate voted to pardon Governor Holden.


9.  At Big Bethel

Henry Lawson Wyatt is memorialized with a statue on the grounds of the N.C. Capitol.

North Carolina’s role in the Civil War has been called that of an “Unwilling Hercules” because the state was reluctant to secede from the Union but contributed an outsized amount of blood and treasure to the Confederate cause.

Following the war the phrase “First at Bethel, farthest to the front at Gettysburg and Chickamauga, and last at Appomattox” was often heard. “First at Bethel” refers to the battle of Big Bethel, where N.C. troops helped secure a victory for the South. Another first for North Carolina also happened at Bethel – Tarboro’s Henry Lawson Wyatt, serving with the Edgecombe Guards, became the first Confederate killed in battle.


10.  English settlement in America

A postcard shows the baptism of Virginia Dare -- A scene in Paul Green's "The Lost Colony" -- Roanoke Island, N.C.

A postcard shows the baptism of Virginia Dare — A scene in Paul Green’s “The Lost Colony” — Roanoke Island, N.C. Image from the Boston Public Library.

Before Plymouth (1620) and Jamestown (1607), Sir Walter Raleigh settled the first English colony in America on Roanoke Island in 1587. On August 18, 1587, Virginia Dare became the first English child born in America. But as every Tarheel schoolchild knows, it was a lost colony. When John White returned with supplies in 1590 the colony had vanished, the only clue being the word “Croatoan” carved into a tree.


11.  NASCAR championships

Richard Petty stands in front of Dale Earnhardt's car in 1984.

Richard Petty stands in front of Dale Earnhardt’s car in 1984. Image credit: Flickr via Ted Van Pelt

North Carolina natives have won 25 NASCAR premier series championships. That’s not surprising, considering that the sport was born in the North Carolina foothills. Sons of the next state on the list, California, can claim only 11 wins of stock car racing’s top series.

Level Cross native Richard Petty and Kannapolis-born Dale Earnhardt won seven series titles each, and Petty’s father Lee Petty of Randleman won three. Two Tarheel drivers won two cups each: Herb Thomas and “Gentleman” Ned Jarrett. And North Carolina natives Rex White, Bobby Isaac, Benny Parsons, and Dale Jarrett each claimed a single championship.JJMM

BONUS:  While Wilkes County native Junior Johnson never won a championship, he did win 50 races, and he was famously pardoned in 1986 by Ronald Reagan for a 1956 conviction for running moonshine.


12.  Tobacco and sweet potatoes

SweetPotatoesNCFMWhile tobacco is not the king crop it once was for the state, North Carolina still produced 454 million pounds in 2014, the most in the nation by far. (Next closest is Kentucky at 214 million.)

In sweet potatoes, it’s not even a race: According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, North Carolina produces more sweet potatoes than all other states combined.