by Thad Woodard, president and CEO, N.C. Bankers Association
School children gather before the statue on the Capitol grounds in Raleigh every day to admire the three presidents noted as North Carolinians by birth: James Polk, Andrew Jackson, and Andrew Johnson. But modern-day North Carolinians don’t know much about Johnson, a Raleigh native and our 17th president.
I wanted to know more about him. A man who was born here in 1808, became president when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, who oversaw Reconstruction and was the first president to be impeached. My curiosity led me on a quest that began with the National Park Service, which administers the Andrew Johnson National Monument at his burial site in Greeneville, Tenn. I thought they might have information worth learning about.
As a result, I was able to establish contact with Johnson’s two closest living descendants, Corinne and Emily Null, who live in New Hampshire. My wife Jan and I met for lunch with this mother and daughter near their home there. A friendship began, and the Nulls visited Raleigh in May. It was their first visit to the home of their great, great, great (and great) grandfather.
The Nulls knew that Andrew Johnson had come from lowly beginnings and never attended school. They had heard stories about his parents working for Casso’s Tavern and Inn. When they went to visit that location, just across the street from where the Wells Fargo tower now stands, and not far from the Capitol and legislature, the Nulls realized that Johnson was likely exposed to politicians and legislators who probably debated issues over their meals and drinks. Surely that was a major influence upon the young man who sprang from meager beginnings to the highest office in the land.
When the Nulls visited Johnson’s birthplace and early childhood home, now on the grounds of Mordecai Historic Park, they were deeply moved. The curator gave them the keys so they could open the door and walk in as if it were their own residence. When the Nulls stepped inside, both thought it was a nice little place, but then realized that the Johnsons lived on the lofted second floor, above the kitchen and laundry facilities for what was once a working inn. It wasn’t until they ventured up the staircase that they were able to grasp just how far their ancestor came in his lifetime.
Later on their tour, Corrine and Emily visited Raleigh City Cemetery, where Andrew Johnson’s father is buried. Jane Thurmon, chairman of the board of Raleigh City Cemeteries Preservation, guided the ladies around as if they were foreign dignitaries.
At Historic Oakwood Cemetery, under the guidance of director Robin Simonton and historian Bruce Miller, President Johnson’s relatives had a chance to hear stories about Raleigh’s most influential politicians and residents, many of whom Johnson knew and interacted with during his time in Raleigh or afterward in his national political career.
These delightful ladies from New Hampshire – with a deep North Carolina heritage they had previously known little about – were struck by the connection that Andrew Johnson had to Raleigh during his developmental years, and as he served throughout his career.
When the Nulls bade farewell to the hometown of their ancestor, they thanked the people of this city, then and now, for the preservation of so many important portions of Andrew Johnson’s history. Before they left, the two placed a wreath at the historic statue on Capitol Square that honors their ancestor.