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The 'Berry' True Story Of How One Bill Became A Law

State symbols are the official somethings of North Carolina. Like, North Carolina's official state bird is the cardinal, the official state flower in the dogwood, and so on. Those ones you might know, but there are plenty more that you may never have heard of - like an official state herring festival, an official state trout, and, an official state fossil.

In all, more than 51 laws have been passed declaring state symbols, with several more on the way right now. And it turns out fourth-grade classes are behind a lot of them.

As part of our collaboration with Our State magazine, Jeremy Markovich found out how one group of students tried to create an official state fruit, and got a lot more than they bargained for.

In North Carolina, fourth grade is a big deal. That is the grade when you get a heavy dose of North Carolina civics. You learn state symbols and you learn how a bill becomes law. And, in 2001, some fourth graders in eastern North Carolina got an idea.

"And so at that time the sweet potato was a symbol that was created by a group of students," says Manning Musgrave, a former teacher at Tommy's Road Elementary School in Goldsboro.

Back in 2001, her students got a visit from Carolyn Russell, who was then a state representative. And they asked her: If other students can get the sweet potato named as the state vegetable, why can't we name the strawberry as the state fruit?

"And I thought, you know what? Why not," said Carolyn Russell.

"I have seen stupid bills introduced before. This is a whole lot better than some of them and I said, 'Sure you can and this is how it is done.' And it started from there."

Russell introduces a bill to make the strawberry into North Carolina's state fruit. At first, it's smooth sailing.

"It passed the House. Yeah. And they thought, 'oh that was wonderful.' Till it hit the Senate," Russell laughed.

In the Senate, the bill stalls, which gives another fourth grade class an opening.

Out on the Outer Banks, some students in Manteo decide the scuppernong grape should be the official state fruit. It's got a lot of history here. The oldest grapevine in North America is here in Manteo.

And it just so happens that the state senator from Manteo was actually the president pro tem, the most powerful man in the chamber at the time.

And so what happens?

All of a sudden, as if by magic, the Senate comes up with a new version of the bill. And in that bill, the scuppernong is the state fruit. Not the strawberry.

And that's not all.

By Russell's memory, Bladen County lawmaker John Karr, now deceased, got involved. Karr wanted his county's fruit, the blueberry, in contention for state fruit.

"I think, you know, Bladen County is a big blueberry grower. It's a fine fruit. But I think what happened was the bill deadline passed. But what you can do is amend a bill. And that's what they did to it," recalled Russell.

North Carolina's red berry and blue berry.
Jason Chenier / Our State
North Carolina's red berry and blue berry.

And so the strawberry goes from being the state berry to being the state red berry. And the blueberry ends up being the state blue berry. And that bill passes in the Senate.

Mrs. Musgrave has to go back to her students - they're now in fifth grade, and tell them about all of the changes to their bill.

"You know, the boys are like, 'We're not gonna let this happen and then, you know, I just remember one girl, one blonde headed little girl on the back who was just crying."

The students voted: 44-to-3, to support their original, strawberry-only bill as opposed to the three-fruit bill. And so Russell says she'll try.

"I mean, you could not have stood before those children and said, 'Look I know this ain't going anywhere,' and walked out. No, you'd have gone to hell straight away," said Russell.

But it's too late. A conference committee approves the three fruit bill and sends it to the governor. And Mrs. Musgrave's students try one last thing. They write a letter, asking the governor to veto their own bill. And they got a letter back.

A form letter.

On December 16, 2001, Governor Mike Easley signs it into law. And that is how North Carolina got a state fruit, a state red berry, and a state blue berry.

"That's the way sausage is made, dear," said Carolyn Russell.

Emily Northington was a student in Mrs. Musgrave's class back in 2001. She's now in her late 20s.

"I actually think about it. Not every day. I said I've thought about it a good amount over the past years."

She was upset at the time. But now, she gets it.

"I remember being a little frustrated but I think that's because I thought when we came up with the idea that it would just work out. Maybe that's a little fourth grade naive mind of mine but it was certainly a first real exposure into politics and sort of how compromises are important and I mean that's what ended up happening."

And if you think about it that way, that class project was a huge success. The students got involved. They helped introduce a bill to make the strawberry into an official state symbol, and that is exactly what happened. And along the way, they learned something, that right now, seems easy to forget.

"Well, maybe we should look at the other part to it, Jeremy. The red berry and the blueberry. The red states, the blue states. If they can come together based on the efforts of a fourth-grade class, when they cared about it so much. I have a feeling that adults ought to be able to follow their example," Russell said.

And sometimes they do. Back in March, some students from Gaston Day School introduced a bill to make ice cream North Carolina's official state frozen treat.

And in the North Carolina House, it passed. Unanimously.

That bill is now in the senate. And, of course, you know what can happen there.

This story was adapted from the season premiere of Away Message, a podcast about North Carolina from Our State magazine. You can hear even more strange stories about state symbols, and find out why one state senator voted against every single one of them. Just search for "Away Message" wherever you get your podcasts.

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