Lillian Exum Clement Stafford Papers, PC.2084

[This blog post was written by Fran Tracy-Walls, Private Manuscripts Archivist in the Special Collections Section.]

Announcement of Lillian Exum Clement Stafford Papers, PC.2084, and Tribute to Exum, the American South’s First Female State Representative, and to her Father

Exum and George Clement at in a field, Buncombe County, ca. 1916.

Exum and George Clement in a field, Buncombe County, ca. 1916.

I am very pleased to announce that the Lillian Exum Clement Stafford Papers, PC.2084, are now processed and available for research. These papers are particularly valued because Lillian, known within her family and by most others as Exum, has had a significant legacy as the first female state representative in North Carolina. Notably, she was also the first female legislator in the American South. Following her election in November 1920, Exum has often been quoted as telling a reporter, “I am by nature, very conservative, but I am firm in my convictions. I want to blaze a trail for other women. I know that years from now there will be many other women in politics, but you have to start a thing.” [News and Observer. Jan. 7, 1921].

Much has already been written about Exum, her life and public service. Naturally, a comprehensive history and documentation of her accomplishments goes far beyond the scope of this piece. Instead, I will narrow my focus to what has recently evoked my curiosity about who and what inspired her success. Since Father’s Day is celebrated this month, I thought it would be revealing to shed some light on Exum, alongside her father, George Washington Clement (ca. June 17, 1852–Dec. 1942). And thankfully, the papers do contain a few items that illustrate a strong father and daughter connection. Additionally, a study of the lives of George and his daughter suggests that both shared similar traits. These include very strong determination and a work ethic, along with convictions, faith, and ideals, such as dedication to family, church, and community–surely among the profound influences in her life.

Exum and George Clement at the intake of the North Fork of the Swannanoa River, ca. 1916

Exum and George Clement at the intake of the North Fork of the Swannanoa River, ca. 1916.

Admittedly, the early life of George Washington Clement (GWC) is challenging to comment upon because of the dearth of convincing documentation. The earliest clues in public records consist of his parent’s marriage bond and the 1850 U.S. Federal Census. His father, George G. Clement, is shown by the enumerator as living in Orange County, North Carolina, a man born in approximately 1812 in Massachusetts. His much younger wife was Martha, born around 1825. Their marriage bond was signed 13 Feb 1850, and GWC was born around two years later in 1852.

For this researcher, the trail is lost on GWC’s parents, who apparently died during the 1860s, if not before. He was only nine to ten years old when the Civil War commenced. It is thought that young George had to shoulder large burdens during the war and its aftermath. One account suggests, plausibly, that the railroad provided a means to escape threats of local skirmishes, and he found his way to North Fork Valley, near the Swannanoa River in Buncombe County. In the course of working as a carpenter in the area, GWC met Sarah Elizabeth (b. ca. 1855), a daughter of North Fork natives, Alfred and Nancy Burnett. The couple married around 1878, and their first child of ten, Bertha, was born in March of 1880. Exum was their fourth child born 1885 or possibly 1886. [Source: All Souls Episcopal Church Register] Two more children were born before GWC moved his family some 25 miles away to the outskirts of Asheville. This was around 1893, the same time that a remarkable new community was being formed called Biltmore Village, replacing Best, named for one of the owners of the Western North Carolina Railroad. For the George Clement family, George Vanderbilt’s plans for the village and his estate were indeed life-changing.

The Biltmore Estate was completed in 1895, yet projects continued. George was undoubtedly highly skilled as a carpenter, belonged to the local carpenters’ union, and could easily find gainful employment in the village, estate, and vicinity. The family also found a place in the wider community. All Souls Episcopal Church, also built by Vanderbilt, and designed by the famed Richard Morris Hunt (d. 1895) was consecrated in 1896. George Clement, his wife Elizabeth, and Bertha were confirmed at the church in 1899, and their younger children, including Exum, were all baptized and confirmed there during the years 1898 to 1925.

Exum and her siblings attended the parish school and were involved in the Biltmore Enterprises center. Her sister, Nancy, and possibly other siblings, took classes in wood carving, etc. at the center, and Nancy became a professional wood carver. Certainly, GWC and his growing family became known to George Vanderbilt, as well as Edith and daughter, Cornelia.

Letter of January 11, 1921 from George Clement to Exum.

Letter of January 11, 1921 from George Clement to Exum.

In 1914, the year of George Vanderbilt’s death, George Clement built a house for his family at 34 Hollywood Street, near central Asheville. From that home base, Exum’s next years were especially full––from her studying and earning high marks on her law exam in 1916 and practicing law; followed by becoming engaged to Elias Eller Stafford (1892–1933); and running for, then being elected as North Carolina’s first female legislator. It was a proud father who wrote his daughter that he was “glad to see in the papers that you were appointed on an important committee. Your friends here are talking of running you for Congress in the next election.”

There is no doubt that the entire Clement and Stafford families were shaken in 1925 by Exum’s premature death from complications from influenza and pneumonia. This was less than four years after her marriage to Elias Eller Stafford and less than two years after giving birth to their daughter, Nancie Lillian Stafford. Still grieving, the ever solid and loving father and grandfather, GWC wrote daughter Bertha on December 22, 1926 that little Nancy was a “little Peach“ and that she had said that “old Santy is the best Santy she ever saw.”

Exum’s death meant a radical change for GWC, compounded when his wife, Sarah Elizabeth, passed away in 1927. He remained the main provider, continuing his position with the City of Asheville as the chief building inspector, and maintaining the family home for his daughter, Nancy, and her namesake, his young granddaughter. The latter, Nancie Stafford Anders, recalled in the interview in 2002 (see sources at the end) that despite all [deaths and losses], she had had a good childhood. For example, her family owned the only phone in the neighborhood and the only radio, at least for a while, and she had fun playing games outside on summer nights with other children. Then came the Great Depression of 1929, but there were even good memories associated with those times: “I remember when the banks failed . . . [W]e looked out one morning and Grandpa was plowing the back yard . . . And Aunt Nancy was out there yelling about them tearing up her flower bed. But he planted vegetables. He said I’ve been through this once before . . . and somebody asked him, ‘Oh, after WWI?’ and he said, ‘No, between the states.’ We helped feed the neighborhood I guess.”

Letter of Dec. 22, 1924 from George Clement to Bertha Clement praising Exum’s daughter

Letter of Dec. 22, 1924 from George Clement to Bertha Clement praising Exum’s daughter

Could Exum have seen beyond her premature death in 1925, she surely would have been very proud and grateful for her father. The 1930 census shows him as providing a home for her daughter, Nancie, then approximately seven years of age, also cared for in the home by Aunt Nancy. Whether by choice or financial necessity, or both, GWC continued his employment as a building inspector for the city. By 1930, Exum’s husband, Elias Eller Stafford, had remarried and was working as a newspaperman in Winston-Salem for the News & Sentinel. He apparently was involved in his young daughter’s life, but not to the extent of Exum’s father. Tragically, in 1933 Eller Stafford drowned in a boating accident. Grandfather Clement (GWC) continued as the father-figure for young Nancie. He remained the solid head of the household at 34 Hollywood Street, until his death at 90 years of age on Christmas Day 1942. He may not have blazed a trail, but build and set an example he surely did.

Note: See additional photographs of Exum and family in album on the State Archives Flickr site.

Sources consulted: U.S. Census Records, 1840–1940; North Carolina Death Certificates, 1909-1976; North Carolina, Marriage Records Index, 1741–2011; Copy of email from Lorna Dorr, Cathedral of All Souls Office Volunteer to Elizabeth Cox: Subject: Clement family at All Souls [names and dates entered into the church parish register, Oct 9, 2013; “Lillian Exum Clement Stafford History,” as told by Nancie Stafford Anders.” Oral history published by D. H. Ramsey Library Special Collections, University of North Carolina at Asheville, N.C. viewed on 12/5/2013 at

Family home built by George Clement in 1914. Photo credit: Fran Tracy-Walls, May 2017.

Family home built by George Clement in 1914. Photo credit: Fran Tracy-Walls, May 2017.