Johnetta Webb Spilman Papers

Manuscript Collection #97
Spilman, Johnetta Webb
Physical description
0.65 Cubic Feet, 684 items , consisting of newspaper clippings, correspondence, speeches, photographs, programs, press releases, invitations, scrapbooks, and miscellaneous items.
Preferred Citation
Johnetta Webb Spilman Papers (#97), East Carolina Manuscript Collection, J. Y. Joyner Library, East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina, USA.
ECU Manuscript Collection
No restrictions

Papers (1890-1977, undated) including clippings, correspondence, speeches, photographs, programs, clipping documents of public life, invitations, scrapbooks, biographical information, letter of recommendations, etc.

Biographical/historical information

Johnetta Webb Spilman (1888-1982) was born in Chowan County and educated at Elm Creek Academy in Chowan County, Franklin Institute in Franklin, Virginia, and Strayer's Business College in Baltimore, Maryland. After completing her education, she taught in her own business school and then became assistant treasurer of East Carolina Teachers College, where her husband John Barham Spilman (whom she married in 1917) was business manager. Mrs. Spilman became active in the North Carolina Democratic party as a precinct chairman in 1924; she ran as a candidate for the North Carolina Senate in 1932. Her first state-wide duties included coordinating activities of Democratic women in the 1936 Clyde R. Hoey gubernatorial campaign and assuming the vice-chairmanship of the North Carolina Democratic party in August 1936. After Governor Hoey's election, he appointed Mrs. Spilman to the North Carolina Unemployment Compensation Commission; she was, until her resignation in 1941 (when she again ran for the office of state senator), the only full-time female Unemployment Compensation Commissioner in the United States. Mrs. Spilman subsequently served as manager of the Greenville (N.C.) Employment Security Commission (1942-1944), assistant director of the 1950 Census for the First Congressional District, executive director of the Pitt County Tuberculosis Association (1950-1957), director of theNorth Carolina Mental Health Association (1957-1968), director of the Greenville Council on Aging, and member of the Governor's Council for the Aging. For additional biographical information and related material, see Carol Tyer's sketch on Mrs. Spilman in Elizabeth H. Copeland, ed., Chronicles of Pitt County, North Carolina, 1982, pp. 636-637; and Oral History Collection, Interview #12, in this repository.

Scope and arrangement

The collection's correspondence series documents many aspects of Spilman's professional and personal life. The series contains, for the most part, letters written to Spilman about private and public matters, although some outgoing correspondence pertaining to her official duties is also included.

Early correspondence (1932-June 1935) concerns Spilman's initial forays into Democratic party politics, and includes a letter from Franklin D. Roosevelt thanking her for political advice and assistance. Letters of December 1935 through March 1936 pertain largely to the illness and death of John Barham Spilman. Among them are reminiscences from Josiah W. Bailey (Dec. 31, 1935) about Mr. Spilman's career as a student at Wake Forest College.

Beginning with correspondence of February 1936, when Clyde R. Hoey wrote to Spilman requesting a meeting, items in this series document more fully Spilman's increasing activity on behalf of North Carolina Democrats. Letters of July to September 1936 acknowledge her crucial role in bringing more Democratic women into the current campaign and discuss the possibility of Spilman assuming the vice-chairmanship of the North Carolina State Democratic Executive Committee, a position previously held by Gladys A. Tillett. Mrs. Tillett herself describes (July 22, 1936) aspects of the job, including women's support for the Democratic party, expenses, and trips that Spilman should take prior to the November election. Correspondence of August through September 1936 pertains chiefly to Spilman's work and travels as vice-chairman, including her handling of requests for appointments to committees, presenting speeches and radio broadcasts, planning meetings for Democratic women in North Carolina, and negotiating with speakers such as Frances Perkins for women's meetings. These letters also reveal Spilman's attitudes toward her work, party concerns, and women's role in North Carolina politics. Also of interest is a letter which comments on the effects of the Depression and New Deal on Democratic families (Sept. 1, 1936).

Items for October to November 1936 also reveal Spilman's political activities. Several letters discuss aspects of feminine involvement in Democratic activities, including Spilman's attitudes about "proper" behavior for female political figures, activities of Democratic women at the precinct level, the appearance of Judge Camille Kelley in Raleigh to speak to Democratic women, and the nationally recognized role of North Carolina women in Democratic politics. Other letters concern the North Carolina "Donkey banks" project, the question of giving Spilman additional responsibilities in the Democratic party, and a patronage position obtained with Spilman's assistance.

Correspondence of December 1936 through July 1941 details Spilman's appointment to and work on the North Carolina Unemployment Compensation Commission. Of interest is a letter to Governor-elect Hoey (Dec. 5, 1936) in which he is advised to encourage eastern North Carolina support for his programs by finding a post for Spilman in his administration. Letters from 1937-1940 discuss many aspects of Spilman's activities as a commissioner, including her business and social engagements, speeches, and the patronage she could dispense as a commission member. Among specific topics mentioned are bi-racial support of her December 1938 reappointment to the commission, her rapport with female U.C.C. members, an invitation to the launching of the USS NORTH CAROLINA, and a controversy over poor housing for U.C.C. employees (June 23, 1939). Also noted is Spilman's talent for maintaining "womanly" virtues while opening new doors in the public arena for North Carolina women. Many correspondents express concern over Spilman's resignation from the U.C.C. (Mar.-July 1941), and recommend to Governor Hoey that he find another government post for her. Her hopes for a position in the offices of the Democratic National Committee are documented in letters of 1942-1944.

Scattered letters and invitations for 1948-1961 concern the 1949 inaugural ceremony, the 1951 North Carolina Conference on Aging, Greenville's Pilot International Club (1960), and mental health activities (1961). Aspects of Spilman's tenure in the North Carolina Mental Health Association are also revealed in letters of 1965-1968, which include an invitation to the White House to witness the signing of HR-6431. Another group of letters (Mar. 1968) concerns proposed additions to the East Carolina University Psychology Department. Letters for 1968-1977 document Spilman's continued work with the aging and her services as honorary chairman of Mental Health month. In the political realm, correspondence reveals her support of George McGovern in the 1972 presidential campaign, the Ervin committee's investigation of the Watergate break-in, and the Equal Rights Amendment. Other items deal with Spilman's local and family-related activities, including her tenure as deacon at Memorial Baptist Church (Nov. 4, Nov. 28, 1971; Sept. 4, 1975), her publication of an article in the Biblical Recorder, and the dedication of a building at the Ridgecrest Baptist assembly grounds to John Barham Spilman. One undated letter comments on ECU President Leo Jenkins's political activities and the decision to open a medical school at East Carolina University.

Speeches delivered by Spilman (1936-1940) cover a variety of topics dealing with her activities on the Unemployment Compensation Commission. Topics for 1936 and 1937 include the role of women in politics and the public sphere; they especially note women's role in promoting world peace, men's attitudes towards women, Spilman's contention that women should remain in the background of public life (Nov. 16, 1937), and inequalities between the sexes, with men being the superior sex (Nov. 19, 1937). Other speeches discuss the ills of the Depression, the need for and operation of Social Security and other types of New Deal legislation, the Unemployment Compensation Commission, Governor Hoey's talents, and U.S. Supreme Court decisions. In commenting on the U.C.C., Spilman notes the purposes for which the agency was created, how it operates, eligibility requirements, and business and legalaspects of the U.C.C. The labor movement in the U.S. and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Girl Scouts of America are also discussed.

Speeches given by Spilman in 1938 reflect her continued political concerns, including the career of Robert Doughton and celebrations of President Roosevelt's birthday involving the campaign against infantile paralysis. Several speeches refer to women's role in American society and politics, and discuss suitable careers for women over forty, women's and men's roles in business and other occupations outside the home, men's role as heads of families, the variety of organizations that women have supported throughout American history, stereotypes of Southern women, men's opposition to the education of women, and a 1900 report on American women by the Canadian Margaret Polson Murray. Spilman also comments on the successes and growing pains of the U.C.C., unemployment among the middle-aged, the need to avoid labor-capital conflicts in the U.S., automobile use in Germany and North Carolina, and the activities of the Business and Professional Women's Club.

Many of the concerns of earlier speeches are voiced in Spilman's presentations of 1939-1940. Also, she discusses the implications of Social Security for homemakers, health statistics for Pitt County, Democratic party strength in Bertie County, and the slowness with which North Carolina is placing women in positions of importance in government and business.

Clippings document many aspects of Spilman's public life and provide much useful information about the social life of prominent North Carolina women in the 1930s. Material is most extensive for 1938-1941; after 1941 the collection is much less complete. Noteworthy items include references to the visit of Governor O. Max Gardner to East Carolina Teachers College (1932), Spilman's candidacy for the office of state senator (1934, 1941), deepening the Tar River (1936-1938?), Spilman's service as North Carolina representative to the International Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs (1938), Frances Perkins's visit to Chapel Hill (1939), Spilman's call for Civilian Conservation Corps camps for women (1939), the attitudes of Governor Hoey and Spilman towards Roosevelt's 1940 reelection bid, and preparedness (1940-1941).

Most of the collection's press releases date from the period of Spilman's tenure on the Unemployment Compensation Commission and document her activities while a commissioner. Many of the topics discussed echo concerns voiced in her speeches and clippings. Other items deal with Spilman's prowess as a public speaker and her money-raising activities (1937, 1938); facts and figures on the North Carolina Unemployment Compensation Commission (1937-1938); women's "duty" as homemakers (1939); and enactment of progressive legislation in the fields of wages and hours, alcohol, public health, and other social concerns (1941). Later releases (1967-1968) pertain to Spilman's activities in mental health.

Publications collected by Spilman (1937-1977) include scattered numbers of the Democratic Digest, the Carolina-Virginia Retailer, North Carolina Employment SecurityInformation, Employment Security News, Action on Aging, and the Pilot Reflector. These items contain articles documenting aspects of Spilman's varied political and public service activities.

Also in the collection are folders of programs and certificates (1933-1977) related to Spilman's professional, social, and church-related activities. Among these are materials concerning ECTC, the Democratic party, the Women's Missionary Union, the Sans Souci Book Club, mental health, the National Organization for Women, and Greenville's Memorial Baptist Church.

Items pertaining to members of Spilman's family include letters of recommendation and testimonials (1890-1904) for John Barham Spilman's teaching abilities; tributes written on the deaths of Mr. Spilman and the Spilman's son Bernard, who died in World War II (1935-1953); items concerning the unveiling of a portrait of Mr. Spilman, and a scholarship offered in his name (1966); and biographical information on Mr. Spilman (undated).

Photographs of Mrs. Spilman and an autographed photograph of Josiah W. Bailey (1936-1968) are also contained in the collection. Miscellaneous material (1898-1975, undated) includes lists and a memorandum pertaining to political and U.C.C. activities; poems; information on the "Roosevelt First Voters League" ; political buttons and other ephemera; an account of the tradition of "Poppy Day" ; biographical information on the tributes to Spilman; and information on the "New Pitt County Hospital Memorial Gifts Committee."

Three scrapbooks, containing clippings, programs, handbooks, correspondence, and other memorabilia, document Spilman's political, social, and club-related activities of the 1930s. For purposes of conservation, each of these scrapbooks has been microfilmed, and items of special importance or fragility (such as correspondence and publications) have been removed or photocopied from the books. Notable among items in the 1932-1939 scrapbook are letters from such prominent North Carolina politicians as Clyde R. Hoey and Robert L. Doughton and a program from the "Green Pasture" rally in Charlotte, at which President Roosevelt spoke. A second scrapbook (1936-1939) contains materials concerning the U.C.C. and Spilman's participation in the Business and Professional Women's Club and End-of-the-Century Book Club. A third book (1938-1939) consists largely of clippings reporting on Spilman's speeches as an U.C.C. commissioner and telegrams congratulating her on her reappointment to that body.

Oversized materials consist of several items from and issues of the following newspapers: the Hertford County Herald (Ahoskie); the Ayden Dispatch; the Burlington, N.C., Daily Times-News; the Greenville Daily Reflector; and the Greenville News-Leader.

Administrative information
Custodial History

September 30, 1969, ca. 330 items; Papers of Mrs. John B. Spilman of Greenville, N.C., including correspondence, speeches, press releases, clippings, photographs, invitations, programs, a scrapbook, and miscellaneous items.

January 6, 1970, 127 items; Papers (1932-1969), including correspondence, speeches, clippings, newspapers, a scrapbook, and miscellaneous.

August 7, 1973, 27 items; Correspondence (1960-1972), clippings, a tribute, minutes, and miscellaneous.

September 12, 1978, 27 items; Papers (1933-1972), including correspondence, clippings, reports, and a scrapbook.

August 31, 1977, 147 items; Papers (1890-1904, 1937-1938, 1965-1977), consisting of correspondence, testimonials for J. B. Spilman, newspaper clippings, speeches, and miscellaneous. Gift of Mrs. John B. Spilman, Greenville, N.C.

Source of acquisition

Gift of Mrs. John B. Spilman

Processing information

Processed by R. Weaver; J. Hesson, November 1984

Encoded by Apex Data Services

Copyright notice

Literary rights to specific documents are retained by the authors or their descendants in accordance with U.S. copyright law.

Key terms
Personal Names
Hoey, Clyde Roark, 1877-1954--Correspondence
Roosevelt, Franklin D. (Franklin Delano), 1882-1945--Correspondence
Spilman, John Barham
Spilman, Johnetta Webb, 1888-1982
Corporate Names
Democratic Party (N.C.)
East Carolina Teachers College--Administration
East Carolina University. Dept. of Psychology
North Carolina Mental Health Association
Unemployment Compensation Commission of North Carolina
Women civic leaders--North Carolina--History--20th century
Women in politics--North Carolina
Women--North Carolina--History--20th century
Women--Societies and clubs
North Carolina--Politics and government--20th century

Container list
Box 1 Correspondence, 1932-1968
Box 2 Folder a Correspondence, 1969-1977
Box 2 Folder b-d Speeches, 1936-1940
Box 3 Folder a-c Newspaper Clippings, 1932-1977
Box 3 Folder d Press Releases, 1937-1968
Box 4 Folder a-b Publications, 1937-1977
Box 4 Folder c Programs, Certificates, etc., 1933-1977
Box 4 Folder d Spilman Family Materials, 1890-1971
Box 4 Folder e Photographs, 1936-1968
Box 4 Folder f Miscellaneous, 1898-1975
Box 5 Scrapbook, 1932-1939
Box 6 Scrapbook, 1936-1939
Box 7 Scrapbook, 1938-1939
Folder os1 Miscellaneous Newspapers