Famous North Carolinians: Top Ten

by | October 9, 2018 |

When I land in a new country I like to ask the locals who their famous sons and daughters are, if I don’t already know them. Well, I just returned home to North Carolina after being abroad for 4 months, and it occurred to me to make a list of famous North Carolinians.

Famous North Carolinians: Off the Top of My Head

Here’s the thing: I could think of only two, namely Michael Jordan and James Taylor. The title image for this blog is the famous Nike Air Jordan sneaker ad of MJ in flight, so he’s my #1 famous North Carolinian.

famous North Carolinians

Michael Jordan is from Kinston, played basketball at UNC, Chapel Hill and then went on to an illustrious career in the National Basketball Association playing for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s and early 2000s. He currently lives in Charlotte, NC and is owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. Hardly more needs to be said. He’s an international superstar.

My #2 is signer-songwriter is James Taylor . He grew up in Chapel Hill and has been touring nationally and internationally since 1970. He has sold millions and millions of albums worldwide.

famous North Carolinians

Here he is, way back when, with Carly Simon to whom he was married from 1972-1983.

Listen to: Carolina in My Mind

Now I’ve hit a wall, so I try to open my mind by thinking in categories, like writers and politicians.

For writers, I’ll add Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) as my #3.

famous North Carolinians

His first novel, Look Homeward Angel (1929), was an international bestseller, and his work is considered to be at the top of modern American fiction

For politicians I googled to see if any U.S. Presidents were from North Carolina and expected to come up with zero. I was kind of amazed to find three. Now I have #4, #5 and #6.

Famous North Carolinians: U.S. Presidents

Andrew Jackson was born in Union County and was the 7th President (1829-1837).

famous North Carolinians

He stands out in my mind for two reasons: 1) his Indian removal policy forced the Cherokee to leave their land east of the Mississippi and settle in Oklahoma, thereby creating what is known as The Trail of Tears; and 2) his portrait currently hangs in the Oval Office.

James Knox Polk was born in Mecklenburg County and was the 11th President (1845-1849).

famous North Carolinians

Since I didn’t know anything about him, I looked him up and discovered that, among other things, he was once Governor of Tennessee (1839-1841), but I’ll still keep him in the NC column. He also won the victory of the Mexican-American War that gave the U.S. the American Southwest.

Andrew Johnson was born in Wake County and was the 17th President (1865-1869)

famous North Carolinians

His claims to fame? He was the Vice President when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and he was the first president to be impeached in U.S. history.

Time to ask my fellow locals to round out my list of ten.

Famous North Carolinians: By Consultation

My friend Joe suggested legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-1967) who was born in Hamlet and grew up in High Point.

famous North Carolinians

Frank suggested 7-time NASCAR champion Richard Petty. Check out his twitter at: RPMotorsports

famous North Carolinians

His nickname is The King and he is considered the most accomplished driver in NASCAR history

Vanessa suggested rapper J. Cole. A quick search told me he was born on a military base in Germany but he grew up in Fayetteville (an NC military town), so I can include him here.

famous North Carolinians

He rose to prominence with his debut mixtape The Come Up in 2007. His most recent album is KOD in 2018

Listen to his Apparently.

Finally, a waiter I happened to ask gave me comedian-actor Zach Galifinakis.

famous North Carolinians

I loved him in The Hangover and watched his awkward interviews in Between Two Ferns, but I had no idea Zach was from NC. So he, along with the U.S. Presidents, were the surprises for me.

Of course, I knew about John Coltrane, Richard Petty and J. Cole (just barely, I admit), but I didn’t think of them on my own.

Final question: Where are the women? (I’m working on answering that.)

See also: Ten Famous Portuguese


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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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