The Biltmore community mourns the passing of Marie Jaquelin Watters Colton, who died September 25 at her Deerfield Episcopal Retirement Community home in Asheville. Colton ran as the Democratic Party candidate for the North Carolina House of Representatives. She won in 1978, served eight terms in office, and was the first female Speaker Pro Tempore of the House, serving in that role from 1991 through 1994.
Note: This report is drawn principally from two interviews in the University of North Carolina Wilson Library special collections’ Southern Oral History Program interview database. Suefan Wellons (A-0375) and Joe Mosnier (G-0098) conducted the interviews with Marie Colton in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Colton retired from the General Assembly in 1994.
Colton was born October 20, 1922, in Charlotte, NC, and described her childhood as traditional. “The Great Depression was just descending when I was in grammar school, and it had an effect on my family as it did on everybody in the world actually,” she said.
In the late 1920s her father had the first Ford dealership in Edenton, a charming little colonial, coastal town. He took a job as an insurance adjuster in Raleigh in 1930 when she was in the third grade, and he died the following year leaving Marie Colton (then Watters) and her brother alone with their widowed mother. They went to Charlotte and moved in with her widowed grandmother, her maternal aunt, and an unmarried companion who served as a nurse to her grandmother.
Soon after that they rented a country place outside of Charlotte on the Catawba River. For the next two years they made the best of the worst years of the Depression living a “wonderful farm life.” A black tenant family that included children she and her brother played with also occupied the property. “I’m not going into any of the sociological aspects of the tenant farm system. But when you really think about it, it was survival for those families, those very poor black families. They ate well, and they had a place to live. They had horses and mules and a tractor, and the children went to school,” Colton said.
They attended the little country school in Steele Creek, except for a couple of weeks in the fall when all the children stayed home to pick cotton. These years were a time for floating down the river with her brother in a boat made by her uncle, piano lessons, and moonlit sleigh rides in the winter. After her grandmother died, Colton’s mother took a summer job in public relations at Kanuga, a conference center in Hendersonville affiliated with the Episcopal Church. Colton’s mother who had studied journalism at Columbia University, also edited the Kanuga daily newspaper, The Bugle.
Colton said a woman they met at Kanuga asked her mother to come to Chapel Hill to run her boarding house on Rosemary Lane. Colton’s mother would still return with her children to her summer job at Kanuga for the next decade, but Chapel Hill proved to be a good move for Colton because she felt especially well received. “They thought I was the silliest girl and they were very impressed with me, so that was fine,” she said. But Colton’s mother insisted that being a landlady wasn’t for her, so she took a job as secretary for Dr. Joseph Gregoire de Roulhac Hamilton at the UNC Chapel Hill Wilson Library where she helped him establish the Southern Historical Collection.
Colton graduated from Chapel Hill High School, went to St. Mary's College in Raleigh for her freshman year, and then attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The class of 1943 was advanced and graduated in December of 1942 because of World War II. This enabled the men to enlist sooner.
Immediately upon graduation Colton was recruited by the United States Army Signal Corps at Arlington Hall in Virginia to work as a code breaker and Spanish translator. “But by then I was in love,” said Colton. “I hadn’t planned on getting married until later. My mother was twenty-nine when she married. My father was thirty-one. So I’d always kind of had that as my plan. I was going to have a career for a long time, and then marry.”
Colton said she just got caught a lot of up in the whole of mystique of the war, the romance of it. “Although, I certainly no longer think there’s any romance to war, but I had. I mean all the guys look so good in uniforms, I just went out with lots of them. I had beaus, and one or two proposals. You know, it was fun.”
She met Henry Elliott Colton, Jr. on Christmas Eve in 1942. “We had both graduated from college early. When Henry finished at Yale he enlisted with the Naval Air Force. He came to train at pre-flight school in Chapel Hill, and entered the war the following year. We were married by the time he went,”Marie Colton said. Henry Colton enlisted in December of 1942, and served with the Naval Air Force through October 1945.
In December of 1945 they returned to Chapel Hill, and in January Henry Colton enrolled in Law School and practiced law in Morganton. In 1950 he began working in the life insurance business. In 1953 they moved to Asheville where he founded what is today Colton Groome and Company. They had three daughters, starting with Elizabeth in August 1945, Marie, and Sarah, and a son, Walter. Henry Colton was the first Chartered Life Underwriter in Western North Carolina.
“I didn’t really think that I would ever amount to much with a career after that. Motherhood was a wonderful career for me. I just loved being a homemaker and I didn’t work,” she said. “I was a PTA president, and I did Sunday school and church work, but that was it, and we lived a very rewarding life with my four interesting, delightful children.”
Colton had an awareness of civil rights from an early age. “We ordained a black minister when I was a little girl, and that in itself was kind of unusual. We had a barbecue and they brought some black families in, and that was an enormous deal. They had to screen the staff to see who would be willing to wait on the bishop, and the black guests, so they got all the bishops’ children and they were all waiting on the tables. There were lots of white bishops and other clergy, and they got all of them to sign up to be the table staff that day for the barbecue and the ordination. That impressed me,” Colton said.
In the 1960s the emerging women’s movement, Vietnam War protests and civil rights were becoming critical issues. “We were here when they integrated the luncheon counters. Our Episcopal bishop who lived just up the street was close friends with our kids. He called on a lot of us church members to just go down to Woolworths in Asheville and sit at the lunch counter and order coffee, and the blacks would come and sit too theoretically,” but not many did.
Colton recalled learning that integration had been a topic of conversation in the third grade classroom of their daughter, Liz, and Marie Colton asked what she thought. “Liz said, ‘Well, I think it will make our country more like we say we are.’” Liz’s younger sister and brother attended integrated schools, “but Liz, our oldest one, was very much in the forefront of all these kind of issues.” After college, Liz Colton went to Kenya with the Peace Corps, and later the fieldwork for her PhD was done in the Maldives.
Marie Colton credited her daughter Liz more than others with helping bring about an awareness of the women’s movement. “It was easier for the younger children because she had already kind of crushed our resistance, you might say, or raised our consciousness. She was always protesting. She just still fights the system and life so hard,” Marie Colton said in the 1995 interview. She said, as a child Liz had the kind of tenacity and drive not usually observed in a girl her age.
From 1969 to 1975 Henry Colton served on the Asheville City Council. The first black elected to the Asheville City Council, Ruben Daley, was elected along with him. “It was the first time there’d been any open city council elections in a generation because we had a despotic kind of city manager who along with a few people, the bankers and all the establishment, kind of chose who would go on council. It was cut and dried, all Democrats,” Marie Colton said.
“The council soon went to the control of the Republicans. Henry and Ruben were the only two Democrats who were elected, and there was one incumbent Democrat who stayed. So that was four to three I guess.” Marie Colton said she and Henry became good friends with the Daleys and learned what the black precincts were like, who the leaders were, worked with them very comfortably, and always had their best interest at heart.
Henry Colton decided in 1976 not to run for city council again, and Marie Colton ran as the Democratic Party candidate for the North Carolina House of Representatives. She won in 1978, served eight terms in office, and was the first female Speaker Pro Tempore of the House, serving in that role from 1991 to 1994.
Even before she was elected and while she was campaigning, Colton had already become interested in daycare. “The Appalachian Regional Commission had given a big grant to Western North Carolina to develop its daycare resources and Jim Hunt, the new governor, was saying that it was not fair for us to have it only in the western part of the state. He was going to slice it up and distribute it all over. Well, a lot of us were just furious. I had some friends who were pioneers, some doing their work in college, and all in daycare. So I remember going to a meeting with the governor, and we were asking him why he would destroy or weaken a wonderful system. Just find money for the rest of the state, but don’t weaken it in WNC because we needed it so desperately.”
Navigating a political world dominated by men was not always easy for Colton. “Well, I think it was a matter of the degree of consciousness on the part of the men. They must see that we (women) don’t mess up. We can do our jobs, comport ourselves well most of the time, and we really do our homework,” Colton said. She found herself embedded in a “good old boys club.” Colton soon ruled out the idea of going against the system because she wanted to get some things done, and there were some things she knew she had to just accept. “My place in the scheme of things was one of them,” she said.
Other key legislative concerns Colton championed while in Raleigh included environmental efforts, child welfare, infant mortality, and repeated efforts to have corporal punishment in schools eliminated. She also supported the funding of a state abortion fund for poor women. If it appears that many of her concerns were gender biased, there was a reason for it. “These are a range of concerns that are not traditionally known as being at the front of the attention of men in the legislature,” she said.
Another thing Colton took on was the medical community when she introduced a bill that was going to put a moratorium on the prohibition against what was then considered alternative medicine. “They had run two very fine doctors out of Asheville, one practicing homeopathy and the other practicing chelation therapy. I was so incensed at the arrogance of the denial of alternative medicine in this state, just on the stroke of the pen on the North Carolina Board of Medical Examiners, so I introduced a bill that would put a moratorium on prohibiting these types of medical practices.”
Colton was just trying to get them to include medical doctors who were going beyond traditional practice with alternative therapists like chiropractors. Regulation at that time limited them to “accepted practice.” She wanted chiropractors to get hospital privileges, and admitting privileges, which they already had in some states. “We didn’t succeed in the moratorium, but I turned it into a study commission, which is what you do when your bill’s about to fail, and so I was co-chairman in the senate with the late Mary Seymour.” They came out with recommendations to the next session. “The burden of proof is now upon the medical board, not on the doctor,” Colton said. “We are now licensing acupuncturists, which we were not doing before.”
Colton thought the state’s sodomy laws were unfair. “I think it’s just outrageous, particularly because it’s administered in such a restrictive way against homosexuals. I think it’s regrettable because no matter how one feels about that lifestyle, I’m convinced they’re born that way. I’ve got some good friends who are practicing homosexuals and in a nice unions. I think it’s outrageous that we’ve allowed some in the right wing movement to usurp the word ‘Christian’ as uniquely theirs. The ‘Christian community’ has just kind of caved in on that,” Colton said in 1995.
Mosnier in his interview alluded to six votes in North Carolina pertaining to the Equal Rights Amendment from 1973 through 1982. Colton remembered the issue was being hotly debated in Raleigh. “It was socially a very touchy thing, it was considered so outrageous and sinful to pass the Equal Rights Amendment because of all the things that were said it would bring about. And so when I got there the issue was still very much alive. People would get in heated arguments,” Colton said.
“Some people cannot handle change. They don’t understand what’s happening in the world. They feel threatened by immigrants. They feel threatened by homosexuals. They feel threatened by blacks, by disease. They feel threatened by the economy, and all you have to do is make somebody look bad. The Democratic Party reminds me of the Episcopal Church of which I’m a lifelong member for many generations of my family.”
Colton said the Episcopal Church includes all kinds of people, men and women. I’m not saying it is that outstanding, but we, just like the Democratic Party, take care of the poor people. We include them. We take care of the blacks. We include the homosexuals. In the process we sometimes shoot ourselves in the foot with the public because those are the hot button issues. People are scared to death, why? Seriously I don’t know.”
When asked in 1995 what Colton felt her greatest accomplishment was, she answered, “Getting a woman elected to an office in the General Assembly (first female Speaker Pro Tempore). I said over and over again after I was elected, I don't want it to be a novelty. I want it to be a normality. I want it to be a normal thing that women are right there. I feel like I've promoted the cause of women in office, and I think I've done a good service in that way to the state and to women.”