Little did Martha Blakeney realize when she first visited the North Carolina Governor’s Mansion during the 1940s, that one day she would find herself in residence as the First Lady of the state. One of six daughters of a Monroe, North Carolina, landowner, Martha Blakeney sought higher education at the State Normal and Industrial College (now The University of North Carolina at Greensboro). Planning to pursue a career in medicine, she took science courses and became active in the debate club, graduating with the Class of 1918.
Martha Blakeney attended college at a time when the world was at war. The United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, and the State Normal immediately mobilized the campus, with students taking over many of the tasks previously held by men. One of the most significant ways that the students participated in the war effort was to tend the college farm. Taking the lead from the Land Army of America, ten State Normal students calling themselves the “Farmerettes” stayed at school during the summers of 1918 and 1919 to harvest crops for use by the college. Donning overalls and straw hats, the young women milked cows, fed pigs, and pitched hay, ultimately producing 1100 bushels of wheat, 3000 gallons of beans and tomatoes, and 2000 bushels of corn. Martha Blakeney was one of those Farmerettes.
After graduating from State Normal, she moved to Leaksville, North Carolina, and became a high school teacher and then the principal of Leaksville High School. It was there that she first saw Luther Hartwell Hodges, a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who had returned to his old school to give the commencement speech. Luther Hodges, an American success story, was born in a log cabin in Virginia and rose to vice-president of manufacturing at Marshall Field and Company, before holding public office. He always remembered this significant evening and later remarked, “I looked down in the audience and saw a beautiful girl. I made up my mind that I was going to marry her.”
They married in June of 1922 and spent much of their lives in Leaksville, working to build the state’s textile industry. In 1940, Luther Hodges was transferred to Marshall Field’s New York Office, where his family would spend the next seven years. During World War II, he was director of the textile division of the Office of Price Administration and became a consultant to the Secretary of Agriculture. Martha Blakeney Hodges would once again become active in homefront mobilization, planting her own victory garden and volunteering for civilian war work as an Air Raid Warden and a Block Leader.
After retiring from Marshall Field in 1950, Luther Hodges served with the Marshall Plan Forces in Western Germany as Chief of the Industry Division and his family moved to Europe for several years and traveled extensively. In 1953, he became Lieutenant Governor and subsequently, the sixty-fourth Governor of North Carolina, and Martha Blakeney Hodges returned to the Governor’s Mansion that she had visited many years before.
As the First Lady of North Carolina, Martha Blakeney Hodges was tireless in her role as hostess to a variety of visitors. From local Girl Scout troops to United States presidents and foreign dignitaries, she entertained thousands in both the Governor’s Mansion and her private home. She declared that there was “not a state in the union [that does] more entertaining as we do here. It’s just that everybody expects that famous Southern hospitality in North Carolina.” In addition to her hostessing duties and obligations to her husband and children, Betsy, Nancy, and Luther, Jr., she was an advocate of literacy throughout the state of North Carolina. Once asked if she was fearful of her enormous responsibilities, she commented, “I’m not afraid of anything – I don’t have time to be.”
Described as down to earth, with a warm sense of humor, Martha Blakeney Hodges was a gracious hostess and a successful First Lady of North Carolina. Perhaps one of her most famous guests was the young Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, who was visiting the United States during the fall of 1957. Trying to think of something meaningful to give to the Queen, she remembered seeing a sterling silver statue of Walter Raleigh, which was incorporated into the impressive trophy given by the Historical Book Club to the author of the best fiction in North Carolina. As Sir Walter Raleigh had connections with the state of North Carolina and had once been a favorite of the Queen’s namesake, Elizabeth I, it was thought that this would be an interesting and meaningful gift. She obtained a Raleigh statue and gifted it to the Queen with a special nameplate commemorating the visit.
In 1961, Luther Hodges became the United States Secretary of Commerce under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and the family moved to the nation’s capital. Martha Blakeney Hodges became close to First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, treating her like one of her own children. She considered her years in Washington D.C. as the most exciting of her life.
Maintaining a close relationship with The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Martha Blakeney Hodges visited often for reunions and events. She would strengthen this bond by becoming instrumental in the formation of the Friends of the Library and serving on the Board of Trustees and the Alumnae Association. In addition to working closely with the university, she also enjoyed her hobbies of painting, reading, bridge, gardening, and community volunteer work.
Tragically, Martha Blakeney Hodges lost her life in June of 1969 from injuries sustained in a house fire which occurred at their home in Chapel Hill. In the spring of 1970, her family established the Martha Blakeney Hodges Memorial Fund, earmarked to purchase material in the field of Southern History and biographies to enhance research efforts by graduate and undergraduate students. Each book added to the collection had a specifically designed bookplate.
In 2003, her children further honored her memory by pledging the largest gift ever given to Jackson Library for an endowment benefitting Special Collections and University Archives. In appreciation of this gift, and to honor her life-long dedication to the Library and to the university, the department became known as the “Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives.”
By Kathelene McCarty Smith