Tilley, Nannie May (1899–1988)

By: Debbie Mauldin Cottrell

Type: Biography

Published: August 1, 1995

Nannie May Tilley, historian and teacher, was born on a tobacco farm in Bahama, North Carolina, on May 29, 1899. After finishing high school, she earned a bachelor's degree in English at the North Carolina College for Women (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro) in 1922, and subsequently served as principal of an elementary school in Durham County and taught in the North Carolina public schools and at Western Carolina Teachers College. In 1935 Tilley began the history graduate program at Duke University, where she ultimately earned her master's and doctoral degrees. She merged her personal knowledge of tobacco farming with her academic pursuits, choosing a history of the tobacco industry as her dissertation topic. While at Duke, from 1935 to 1947, she also served as head of manuscript collections for the university. She moved to Texas in 1947 to accept a professorship in history at East Texas State Teachers College (now East Texas State University) in Commerce, and there chaired the history department from 1950 to 1958. Tilley left East Texas in 1958 to join the faculty of Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, where she taught for one year. From 1959 to 1964 she worked as historian for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. A specialist in southern history, she wrote and edited several books, including The Bright-Tobacco Industry, 1860–1929 (1948), Federals on the Frontier: The Diary of Benjamin F. McIntyre, 1862–1864 (1963), and The R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (1985). This last work, a volume of more than 700 pages, was the first history of a major tobacco company based primarily on company records. A lifelong Democrat, Tilley was also a longtime member of the Southern Historical Association and served on its executive council; she was also a member of the American Historical Association, the Agricultural Historical Society, the Texas State Historical Association, and the American Association of University Women. Tilley, who never married, was known for her scholarly pursuits as well as her fierce loyalties and exacting standards. After leaving East Texas, she maintained her home in Commerce and died there on October 4, 1988. Memorials in her name were used to buy books for the Commerce Public Library.

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Commerce Journal, October 23, 1988. Greenville Herald Banner, May 3, 1959. Journal of Southern History, May 1989.

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Debbie Mauldin Cottrell, “Tilley, Nannie May,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 19, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/tilley-nannie-may.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 1, 1995

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