Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The African-American Political Phoenix in North Carolina

This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the negroes’ temporary
farewell to the American Congress,
but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up someday and come again.
George H. White (1852-1918) --
The only African American in the 55th Congress.

George Henry White was born in Rosindale, Bladen County, North Carolina, on December 18, 1852. His mother was a slave, his father a free farmer. White had one sister. He went on to marry three times, and have four children. With African, Native-American and Irish ancestors, White's life was one true to the ideal of the American melting pot.

Mr. White graduated from Howard University in 1877 and joined the North Carolina Bar in 1879. He began law practice in New Bern. His political career began in 1880 with his election to the North Carolina House of Representatives. He went to the State Senate in 1885. Mr. White championed legislation pertaining to education, particularly laws securing funding and authorization to open black schools and provide training for black teachers. White served as solicitor and prosecuting attorney in North Carolina's second judicial district from 1886-1894.

In 1896, Mr. White was elected to Congress from what was known as the "Black Second" district, a boot-shaped area in eastern North Carolina with a large black majority that stretched from the southern coastal region to the Virginia border (see illustration). The only African American in the 55th Congress (1897–1899), George White was part of a large Republican majority swept into office riding the coattails of presidential winner William McKinley. [The North Carolina History Project website provides an excellent overview of fusion politics in North Carolina: Fusion Politics/George White]

Upon election to the 56th Congress (1899–1901), Congressman White’s second term focused on anti-lynching legislation. He introduced a bill to make lynching a federal crime, subjecting those who participated in lynch mob violence with possible capital punishment. Some saw the measure as radical. The bill died in committee. Nearing the turn of the century, many parts of the American South began to pass Jim Crow legislation designed to disenfranchise black voters and eliminate black government officials. White became the primary target of white supremacist politicians who feared African-American political influence.

In 1898, white supremacists in the City of Wilmington in New Hanover County (then the largest city in the state) incited race riots and seized power from an integrated fusion city government [See: 1898 Wilmington Riot Timeline].   The rioting resulted in the numerous deaths and extensive property damage. The black owned Wilmington Journal newspaper was burned to the ground (see above).

Congressman White would return to Washington and vent his frustration with racists elements in government in his first substantive floor speech. On January 26, 1899, during a debate to extend the standing army after victory against Spain, White abruptly changed the subject to disfranchisement, arguing in favor of the bold proposal that states with discriminatory laws should have decreased representation in the U.S. House proportionate to the number of eligible voters they prevented from going to the polls. "If we are unworthy of suffrage, if it is necessary to maintain white supremacy," White chastised his colleagues, "then you ought to have the benefit only of those who are allowed to vote, and the poor men, whether they be black or white, who are disfranchised ought not go into representation of the district of the state."

Also in 1899, the North Carolina General Assembly followed the trend among neighboring states and enacted new registration laws to restrict black voters. On June 30, 1900, Congressman White announced his intention not to seek reelection to the 57th Congress (1901–1903). On January 29, 1901, Congressman White delivered his famous valedictory address to the 56th Congress, predicting the return of blacks to Congress. The speech, which spanned over four pages of the Congressional Record, championed respect and equality for African-Americans.

In 1901, Mr. White began a second successful career in Washington, DC, and then later in Philadelphia, PA, engaging in banking and practicing law. He organized a town for African Americans in southern New Jersey along with Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Booker T. Washington. The Town of Whitesboro was erected on 1,700 acres of land near Cape May. By 1906, its population had grown to over 800 inhabitants.

George H. White, Sr., died in Philadelphia on December 28, 1918. Twenty eight years would pass before the next black Representative was seated at the U.S. Capitol.

Personal Note -- Some of Law Writer's relatives departed from North Carolina following George Henry White by migrating from the Wilmington area to Whitesboro, New Jersey.  Growing up decades later, Law Writer spent many a summer day in Cape May, Wildwood and the surrounding quaint towns visiting with relatives who continue to live in and near Whitesboro. Law Writer can attest personally to the natural beauty of coastal southern New Jersey and the Cape May area (maps shown at left), the many similarities to North Carolina's Cape Fear Coast, and the independence and strong sense of heritage embraced by the people of both scenic and historically significant areas.

JAMES EDWARD O'HARA -- In 1868, James Edward O'Hara became the first African American to be admitted to the North Carolina Bar. In 1882, Mr. O'Hara was elected to represent the Second Congressional District. He served two terms.


Black Americans in Congress, by the Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representative. Black Americans In Congress

Irving Joyner, The African American Lawyer in North Carolina,  The North Carolina State Bar Quarterly, Spring 1992.

No comments:

Post a Comment