Many historians refer to the years between 1890 and 1950 —commonly known as the “Jim Crow era” — as the nadir of race relations in the United States. Segregation was enshrined in law in the South, and de-facto segregation was culturally accepted in the North.
Even in this hostile atmosphere, though, many African-American entrepreneurs — some former slaves — discovered economic niches, built businesses, and amassed sizeable fortunes.
“These African-Americans were creating wealth and providing jobs,” said Troy Kickler, Founding Director of the North Carolina History Project, in describing his February 2013 series on entrepreneurship among African-Americans during slavery and the Jim Crow years. “How much wealth and how many jobs could they have created if they had been allowed to fully participate in the market?”
This is one of many historical observations made by Troy, and one of many reasons why his initiative housed at the free-market think tank the John Locke Foundation has proved so valuable.
The John Locke Foundation launched the North Carolina History Project in 2005 with Troy at the helm. Originally envisioned as an online encyclopedia of North Carolina history and public presentations, the project grew to encompass more scholarly and public-history pursuits: a lecture series, living history events, presentations at academic conferences, contributions to major academic journals, constitutional workshops and symposia, and a satellite office in Edenton, N.C.
Many important historical stories — such as the entrepreneurial life of Lunsford Lane — wouldn’t be presented were it not for the History Project.
“More people need to tell these stories. We’re trying to fill that void,” Troy said.
Troy gained a love for history at an early age. Born in Richmond, Va., he and his family moved to North Carolina when he was 7 years old.
“Life was sometimes lean,” Troy said. “My mother worked minimum wage in a hosiery mill. My dad worked minimum wage for a while. There were times when both saved their checks for two weeks, and the total amount was rent money.”
To help make ends meet, Troy’s dad started a part-time lawn-mowing business. He always brought Troy along to help.
“When I was done with my part of the work, especially when I was younger, I would sit in the truck while waiting for him to finish and read about the Civil War,” Troy said.
Whenever his dad had the opportunity, he would buy history books or take Troy to battlefields to keep cultivating an appreciation for history.
Although they operated on a shoestring budget, it was still important to Troy’s parents that he attended a private Christian school. That experience played a significant role in shaping his faith and values.
“My parents taught me the value of hard work, to never give up, and that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” he said. “Always be respectful of other people, I was told, but remember ‘that they put their pants on the same way that you do in the morning.’ Don’t think that you’re inferior.”
In college, Troy worked his way through school. He had to sit out a year-and-a-half to pay down his undergraduate tuition, working at a furniture factory assembling furniture and loading trucks.
He taught high school for several years while earning his master’s degree. His efforts eventually culminated in a Ph.D. in history before he joined the John Locke Foundation.
To help North Carolinians better understand the history of their state, Troy is in the process of editing and annotating a book on the collected letters and selected speeches of Nathaniel Macon. It’s one of Troy’s many on-going projects.
“In the early 1800s, Macon’s name was synonymous with North Carolina,” Troy said. “He was Speaker of the U.S. House from 1801 to 1807. He was in national politics for 30 years, whether in the U.S. House or U.S. Senate. Some people called him the Jefferson of North Carolina, because he embodied the republican ideal of virtue and the Jeffersonian idea of liberty.”
What motivates Troy in his work? Although we live our lives forward, he believes that the past is the only thing we can truly know. The past is important because it can help foster an identity and offers valuable insights into how to solve current problems and avoid future ones. The History Project fulfills that mission.
“We ensure that certain questions of the past are asked, and certain stories are told,” he said. “We show how the private sector, for one, rather than government, solved many of North Carolina’s problems.”
To learn more about the John William Pope Foundation’s support for public-policy charities like the North Carolina History Project, click here.