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Paul Green

Paul Green

Circa 1970: Paul Green

Paul Green (1894-1981) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist, author, teacher, and deeply-committed human rights advocate. Born near Lillington in Harnett County, N.C., Green grew up on his father's farm and enrolled at the University of North Carolina in 1916. In April 1917, before finishing his first year at the University, Green enlisted in the United States Army for service in World War I. After his return from service, Green graduated from the university in 1921 and began to write plays in earnest. In 1927 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for In Abraham's Bosom produced at the Garrick Theater in New York. His other major dramatic works include: Tread the Green Grass (1931), Roll Sweet Chariot (1931), Shroud My Body Down (1935), andJohnny Johnson (1937). Green also became well-known as the author of critically-acclaimed outdoor dramas, most notably The Lost Colony, which premiered in 1937.

Throughout his long career, Paul Green supported human rights causes in person, in print, and financially. He wrote and spoke out against such issues as political oppression, war, lynching, chain gangs, prejudice, and superstition. Green's opposition to the death penalty in North Carolina remains perhaps his best-known social justice effort.

Green's views on the death penalty evolved over time, from ambivalence in the 1920s to a full-on attack against capital punishment as a "barbaric outrage of the human instinct" during the 1960s and beyond. His opinions grew more and more forceful as he became increasingly involved with the cases of individual condemned inmates.

Green's first significant direct involvement with a death penalty case occurred in 1934 when he became interested in the plight of condemned inmate Emmanuel Bittings. Green wrote letters to North Carolina Governor J. C. B. Ehringhaus and other state officials on Bittings's behalf. (See Green to Ehringhaus below.) After this experience, Green became involved in a series of similar cases through the 1930s and 1940s, often arguing against what he saw as racially-motivated miscarriages of justice. Green's opposition to the death penalty expanded in the 1960s when he joined with the newly formed North Carolinians Against the Death Penalty to lobby the North Carolina General Assembly for abolition of capital punishment in the state. The following items demonstrate the development of Green's lifelong personal struggle with capital punishment.

All items from Paul Green Papers, Collection #3693, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library. Click image or document title to enlarge (opens in a new window).

5 May 1934: Paul Green to A.P. Kephart.

5 May 1934: Paul Green to A.P. Kephart.
During the 1920s and 1930s Paul Green was not unequivocably opposed to the death penalty. Green biographer Laurence G. Avery points out in his book, A Paul Green Reader, that Green's views began to shift in the mid-1930s as he began to feel that "no absolute punishment should be based on less than absolute knowledge." (Avery, 237) In this letter from 1934, Green expresses his views at the time, writing, "I am not entirely against capital punishment as such, for from the true horticulturist point of view there are evil members to be pruned out, but I am absolutely opposed to it is carried out in North Carolina."

20 May 1934: Paul Green to Governor J.C.B. Ehringhaus

20 May 1934: Paul Green to Governor J.C.B. Ehringhaus.
In September 1933, Emanuel Bittings (or Biddings), a black tenant farmer and World War I veteran, shot his landlord T.M. Clayton in an argument apparently over Clayton's ordering Bittings to move some tobacco into a packhouse. Bittings testified that he shot Clayton only after Clayton threatened his life and then reached for a pistol. In January 1934, Bittings was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death in Roxboro. Later in this letter, Green writes to Governor Ehringhaus, "I am making a plea for clemency for the negro in case he is not granted a new trial....only public sentiment and your executive power can save Biddings from the electric chair." Bittings was executed on September 28, 1934.

18 November 1942: Paul Green to E.M. Land.

18 November 1942: Paul Green to E.M. Land.
E.M. Land was the prosecuting attorney in the trial of William Mason Wellmon, a black laborer who was convicted and sentenced to die in 1941 for the rape of sixty-seven-year-old white farmer Cora Sowers. In his defense, Wellmon stated that he was at work on a construction project in nearby Fort Belvoir, Va., at the time of the rape, and that he had proof that he could not have been present (in the form of an envelope for his wages that he had signed that same day at the construction site). In this letter to Prosecuting Attorney Land, Green points out a number of unsettling inconsistencies in the case such as the missing signed envelope and the fact that the victim failed to identify Wellmon from a lineup. Green later convinced Governor J. Melville Broughton to investigate Wellmon's claims of innocence. Wellmon was held in Central Prison for nearly two years before Governor Broughton pardoned him on 15 April 1943.


17 May 1945: Paul Green to Governor R. Gregg Cherry.
In May 1945, Green wrote to North Carolina Governor R. Gregg Cherry supporting Cherry's decision to commute the sentence of condemned inmate William Dunheen from death to life in prison. Dunheen, eighteen at the time, was given a medical discharge from the army in 1944. Soon thereafter, Dunheen shot and killed his girlfriend. In a statement following the commutation, Governor Cherry stated that he believed that the murder was brought on by a mental illness caused by Dunheen's epilepsy. Green writes, "I will not live to see it, but perhaps my children will -- the relegation of such instruments as the electric chair, the gas chamber (the pellet and the bowl) relegated to the museum as an inspiration to a new age and a warning to our young people as to the blindness in which a former generation walked." In August 2000, as Green had predicted, the gas chamber was removed from Central Prison and the execution chairs were later given to the North Carolina Museum of History, where they are housed today.


1953: "Letters from boys condemned to die..."
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Paul Green compiled excerpts from these letters from condemned death row prisoners which, as the document states, were "usually written on the night before their execution the next morning." The excerpt shown here is a letter from condemned inmate Lloyd Daniels to his mother.

17 November 1953: W.A. Stanbury to Paul Green.

17 November 1953: W.A. Stanbury to Paul Green.
Following an editorial written by Paul Green, published in the Greensboro Daily News, Reverend W.A. Stanbury of Asheboro, N.C., writes to Green, "More than a quarter of a century ago, when serving as pastor of a church in Raleigh, I walked down the last mile with the Stewarts, father and son...If ever men deserved the ultimate in punishment, they did; but I came back from that experience with the firm conviction which has never been shaken, that capital punishment is an unspeakably primitive method of dealing with criminals..."

21 June 1961: Jeanne E. Marion to Paul Green.

21 June 1961: Jeanne E. Marion to Paul Green.
Green often received letters challenging his public opposition to capital punishment. Here Jeanne Marion writes, "I know from reading your writings that you are a brilliant and educated man, but are you really honest and sincere in your stance on capital punishment? Would you feel the same if members of your family were among these killed by vicious, irresponsible men? I can't believe you would."

2 January 1962: Ruby McArthur to Paul Green

2 January 1963: Ruby E. McArthur to Paul Green.
Among the most poignant items in Green's correspondence concerning the death penalty is this eleven-page letter from the widow of a man murdered in 1961, and Green's response. Ms. McArthur writes to Green in response to a newspaper column he had written calling for an end to the death penalty. McArthur shares her painful experience with Green and explains why she supports capital punishment.

25 January 1963: Paul Green to Ruby E. McArthur.

25 January 1963: Paul Green to Ruby E. McArthur
Paul Green's response to Ruby McArthur's letter shown above. His response is characteristically personal and empathetic.