William B. Umstead, North Carolina Governor for 22 Months

William B. Umstead

On November 7, 1954, attorney, teacher, congressman and North Carolina Governor William B. Umstead died of heart failure.

Born on a Durham County farm in 1895, Umstead served as a lieutenant in the 81st “Wildcat” Division during World War I before being elected to Congress. During his three terms in the House of Representatives and a single term in the Senate, Umstead focused mostly on rural issues, including soil conservation and rural electrification.

Elected governor in 1952, Umstead suffered a heart attack just two days after his 1953 inauguration and spent most of his term as governor confined to his bed, forcing him to run meetings and conduct other state business in the Executive Mansion.

A political moderate, Umstead advocated for fair parole for prisoners, bonds for school construction and better conditions in mental institutions during his time in the state’s top job. He also oversaw school desegregation after the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, creating a biracial panel to study the process and make recommendations to the General Assembly to ensure it was rolled out as smoothly as possible.

Umstead died in 1954, and was the first North Carolina governor to die in office in more than 50 years.

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