RICHARD HARRISON SPEIGHT
Dr. Speight is a product of North Carolina country life. Born and reared in the country, he has given his life, professionally and personally, to country work and country people. Whatever is best in him he has given out to the country; and whatever is best in the country he has absorbed into himself. In him the progressive spirit of the New South, which takes its color from the modern city, has kept faith with the noble traditions of the Old South, which drew its inspiration from the plantation. He was born on a farm in Edgecombe County, January 5, 1847. From his father, John Francis Speight, a minister of the Methodist Protestant Church, he inherited the talents which have made him a successful man of business, and the inclinations which have led him throughout his career to take an active interest in public affairs. His mother was Emma Lewis, a woman of strong religious convictions, whose influence on the religious and spiritual life of her son has been a constant source of strength to him since his childhood. From childhood he has been a member of the Methodist Protestant Church.
Dr. Speight was a delicate child and consequently was not given the regular tasks which usually fall to the lot of the country boy. His great delight was running about the farm and roaming in the woods, where he fell in love with nature and learned the language and habits of the flowers and birds. At home his hours were chiefly devoted to reading, a habit which, becoming stronger as he advanced in life, has had no little to do with his success.
His early school life was interrupted by the war between the States. At the age of seventeen he laid aside his books to assume the musket. In April, 1864, he entered the Army as a corporal in Company K., Seventy-first North Carolina Regiment. His regiment participated in the battle of South West Creek, below Kinston, and in the battle of Bentonsville. Typhoid fever prevented his being present at the surrender of General Johnston.
Upon his recovery from the fever, Dr. Speight resumed his preparatory studies, and, after completing them, entered the University of North Carolina. Here he spent one and a half years and then entered upon his professional studies at the University of Maryland. He received his degree in 1870, returned to North Carolina and settled on Swift Creek, in Edgecombe County, in the midst of a fine farming section and delightful social life. The next year he was married to Miss Margaret Powell, daughter of Mr. Jesse Powell, a prominent citizen of the county and one of Dr. Speight’s neighbors. Their home, famous for its charming hospitality, soon became the centre of a delightful social life.
Dr. Speight has led an active, arduous life as a practicing physician, and has earned well-deserved success in his profession, of which he is a close and constant student. No drive is too long, no weather too severe, for him to attend to its exacting duties, and no patient is too humble to receive his most careful attention. He is a member of the Edgecombe County Medical Society, of which he has been several times president; an honorary member of the Wilson County Medical Society, and a member of the State Society, of which he has been vice-president and a member of its board of censors.
Dr. Speight has large farming interests. His farms lie on Swift Creek and are among the most fertile, as well as among the best cultivated in the State. Cotton, corn, tobacco and peanuts are produced in large quantities. He brings the same degree of intelligence and study into his farming that he does into the practice of his profession, and consequently realizes large dividends from his investments.
As president of the Edgecombe County Farmers’ Alliance, and as a prominent and active member of the State Farmers’ Alliance, he has contributed no little to the development of the agricultural interests of North Carolina. His associates have recognized his services to the agricultural interests of the State by electing him in August, 1905, vice-president of the North Carolina Farmers’ Alliance, and a delegate to the National Farmers’ Congress at its annual meeting in Richmond. He is president of a cotton seed oil mill located near his farm, and has managed it with a considerable degree of success. The mill was erected largely through his influence and energy and has proved a successful enterprise, contributing much to the upbuilding of the immediate section in which it is operated.
But if there is anything in which Dr. Speight finds more interest than in the practice of medicine, it is in politics. In his political career he has done signal service to his county and to his State. An ardent Democrat in the larger meaning of the word, as well as in its party significance, his ardor finds vent in political service to the whole people regardless of party affiliation. He made his first essay into political life in 1885, when he was nominated by his party as a candidate for the State Senate from Edgecombe County. Defeated at the polls, he returned again to the contest in 1890 and was elected to the Senate by a majority of three hundred. His services in the Legislature were creditable to himself and acceptable to his constituents, so that in 1898 when political conditions in the State called her very best talent to the General Assembly, they rallied around Dr. Speight and sent him again to represent them. During this session he added greatly to his reputation as a wise and conscientious representative. Among the important services he rendered the State, two deserve especial mention. As chairman of the committee on Insane Asylums, he prepared and introduced the bill to revise, amend and consolidate the insanity laws of the State, a much needed measure, which, after considerable debate, passed both houses by large majorities. During the discussion, Dr. Speight’s work received hearty commendation from his associates. The other service mentioned was the introduction of the bill to erect a memorial to Senator Vance. Dr. Speight’s bill carried an appropriation of $3,000 for the erection of a statue of the great war governor in the capitol square, but with his consent it was amended so as to increase the sum appropriated to $5,000. The bill as amended passed both Houses by rising votes. The president of the Senate appointed Senator Speight a member of the committee to select the statue. The visitor to Raleigh cannot fail to be impressed with the good taste and fidelity with which the committee fulfilled its duty. If the example thus set by Dr. Speight and his associates in honoring the memory of one of North Carolina’s great sons shall be followed by future legislatures, this service will entitle him and them to the gratitude of the patriotic citizens of the State. Few, if any, States have been more backward in erecting memorials to their distinguished leaders than North Carolina; yet there is no other way in which a State can so effectively stimulate in her sons a worthy and proper ambition to patriotic public service, a sentiment which is the true foundation of success in a Republican Government. The people of his county showed their appreciation of his service in the Senate by reelecting Dr. Speight to the General Assembly of 1901. During this session he again served as chairman of the committee on Insane Asylums.
Dr. Speight’s services to the State have not been confined to his legislative career. He was appointed by Governor Elias Carr a director of the North Carolina Insane Asylum and served on the board for six years. In 1900 he was reappointed by Governor Russell, but, as he was a member of the General Assembly, declined to serve. In the spring of 1905 he was appointed a member of the board of directors of the State Prison.
In 1890 he was a delegate from North Carolina to the National Convention of the Democratic Party.
Dr. Speight’s private life has been singularly happy. He is father of a large family, twelve children having been born to him, eleven of whom are living. These are the children of his first wife, whom he lost after a married life of twenty-three years. In 1896 he was married to Miss Margaret Whitefield, daughter of George W. Whitefield, who was a prominent lawyer of Edgecombe, and later of Wilson County. They have no children. Their home is one of those ideal Southern homes that one rarely finds except in novels. A large, roomy, rambling house, situated in a beautiful grove, surrounded by green pastures and broad fields, it is known far and wide for its open and enticing hospitality.
Dr. Speight is fond of outdoor life. His favorite sport is following the hounds, and he keeps a pack constantly about him. His open-air life has developed the delicate boy into a robust man of great physical endurance, active, energetic, persevering and determined. It has taught him the value of close and accurate observation, so that he is well versed in the habits of nature. But with it all, he is very uncommunicative, a fact that produces a little surprise when one discovers behind his silence a fund of quiet humor, none the less striking because it is altogether unexpected. He takes an active but not officious interest in the welfare of his neighbors, to whom he is always ready to extend a helping hand whenever he can be of service. These habits of life and qualities of character coupled with a strong love of home and home-life have been the foundation upon which his success has been built.
R. D. W. Connor.
Transcription from the book, Biographical History of North Carolina, volume IV, edited by Samuel A. Ashe, published in 1906, pages 406-410, found on the website, Hathitrust Digital Library (http://www.hathitrust.org), accessed 31 January 2021.