RALEIGH — The City of Oaks played host to a unique event this week that has its roots in an oak tree that used to stand there.
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest has hosted an annual Henry Clay Day each year since 2014 where he inducts a new member in to The Order of the Henry Clay Oak. Recipients are selected for their service to the Old North State based on principle over party, and Forest limits new inductees to one per year. Beginning in 2014, the inductees have been former Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner, former governor and U.S. Sen. J. Melville Broughton, former N.C. Attorney General and Secretary of State Rufus Edmisten and N.C. Hall of Fame broadcaster Tom Campbell.
The Order of the Henry Clay Oak takes its name from the eponymous white oak that stood, by some estimates, for more than 200 years in downtown Raleigh. The oak stood in the yard of the home of Revolutionary War hero and Raleigh resident William Polk. It was under this oak that Tarheel lore tells us that Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay wrote his famous “Raleigh Letter” advocating against the annexation of Texas and certain war with Mexico.
The Henry Clay Oak outlasted its namesake by almost 140 years as weather damage and disease finally resulted in the tree’s demise in October 1991. Since then, a bronze marker — earlier erected in 1939 by the Daughters of the American Revolution — has been the only fixture on Blount Street to commemorate the event. (The William Polk House was moved in 1872 to accommodate the expansion of Blount Street). The Clay oak also lived on through seedlings distributed by the state to the 100 schools in Wake County.
Forest, whose office in the Hawkins-Hartness House is across the street from the marker and former site of the oak, has continued to promote Clay’s legacy as “The Great Compromiser” by recognizing leaders he sees as putting principles over politics. This year, Forest selected High Point native Dr. Robert “Bob” J. Brown as the newest inductee into The Order of the Henry Clay Oak.
Brown’s career includes working with Martin Luther King Jr. and serving on the board of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, working for U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy, and serving as a direct report and adviser to President Richard Nixon.
An alumnus of N.C. A&T, Brown founded B&C International in the 1960s and remains CEO of the company which is now one of the oldest minority-owned consulting firms in the U.S.
In recognizing Brown, Forest said The Order of the Henry Clay Oak serves to “honor people who have made a significant impact in our state,” particularly, individuals who have “stood by their principles and their convictions regardless of the consequences of doing that.”
Before presenting Brown with a plaque, Forest detailed Brown’s lengthy resume and noted that he had just returned from Africa where he attended the funeral of Winnie Mandela. “The stuff that was written in history books, he’s actually been a part of,” said Forest.
“To receive an award like this is a high honor and I’m grateful,” said Brown. “North Carolina is a place that I love. I live here by choice. I was born here, raised here and never want to live anywhere else. I’ve worked my whole life to lift this state up to the potential I know it has.”
State and local leaders joined Forest for the event and were treated to Cheerwine, MoonPies and Henry Clay cigars.