On December 14, 1930, the Brooklyn Eagle Magazine carried a full-page article describing the remarkable career of Fannie Yarborough Bickett, a native of Franklin County and the widow of Governor Thomas Walter Bickett (1869-1921). Noting that she was currently serving as the president of the North Carolina Railroad Company—the first woman to hold that position and the only one in the United States then serving as head of a railroad—the author outlined her devotion to a variety of charitable causes. The article quoted Josephus Daniels, publisher of the Raleigh News and Observer and Secretary of the Navy during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson. “Mrs. Bickett is a real woman,” he wrote, “being possessed with unusual ability and confidence, and she gives herself freely to social welfare work. . . . She is a motherly woman, with an instinct for helping unfortunates, and goes wherever she feels her personal touch or public ministration will help and heal.”
Mrs. Bickett’s family background and education contributed to her success. She was born on October 11, 1870, to William Henry Yarborough, a prominent farmer in Cypress Creek Township (and later merchant in Louisburg), and Lucy Davis Yarborough. Fannie attended Louisburg Female College and in 1889 was graduated from Saint Mary’s School in Raleigh. She later took classes at Harvard University, the University of Chicago, and the University of North Carolina. She studied law at Wake Forest College and in 1930, at the age of sixty, obtained her license to practice. Her marriage in 1898 to an attorney in Louisburg, Thomas W. Bickett, afforded her the opportunity to use her considerable talents to serve a variety of organizations and causes.
Thomas Bickett won the governorship in 1916 and thus served as the state’s chief executive during World War I. Mrs. Bickett made significant contributions to the war effort. She furthered the work of the North Carolina Council of Defense and in 1918 traveled to France to assist American servicemen on behalf of the National War Work Council of the Young Men’s Christian Association.
Following Governer Bickett’s term as governor, Mrs. Bickett maintained a heavy schedule as she undertook meaningful work to promote better race relations and care for the underprivileged. She served on the Women’s Continuation Committee of the Commission on Inter-Racial Cooperation and actively supported the North Carolina Industrial Home for Colored Girls, an institution founded by the North Carolina Federation of Negro Women. In 1922, after her husband died, she took a position as director of the educational section of the North Carolina State Board of Health’s Bureau of Maternity and Infancy. In this capacity she traveled throughout the state to promote better health care for mothers and their infants. In November 1924 she became Superintendent of Public Welfare for Wake County, a position she held until her death.
Full-time employment did not prevent Mrs. Bickett from pursuing outside endeavors. She served on the executive council of the Episcopal Church’s Province of Sewanee and as president, in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, of the Women’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions. Saint Mary’s School and the Bishop Tuttle School, a national center for the training of young African-American women in Christian leadership and social work, benefitted from her service as a trustee. Governor John C. B. Ehringhaus appointed Mrs. Bickett to the State Capitol Centennial Commission, which planned the commemoration of the laying on July 4, 1833, of the building’s cornerstone. She actively participated in such patriotic organizations as the Colonial Dames and the Daughters of the American Revolution. All of this she did, according to the author of the Brooklyn Eagle Magazine piece, with “unusual grace and charm.”
Mrs. Bickett died in Raleigh on July 2, 1941, after suffering a heart attack. Her funeral service was held at Christ Church in Raleigh. She was buried in the Oakwood Cemetery in Louisburg.
Photo credit: Governor and Mrs. Bickett in J. R. Graham, Tar-Heel War Record (In the Great World War) (Charlotte: World Publishing Co., ), courtesy of Documenting the American South (http://docsouth.unc.edu/wwi/graham/ill1.html).
Published in The Franklin Times on March 31, 2016.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He wishes to thank Ainsley Powell of the Saint Mary’s School Archives, Raleigh, N.C., for her assistance.