ABRIDGING THE VOTE:
TRUE THE VOTE IN NORTH CAROLINA
By Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind
Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights
Preface: Remembering George H. White, Congressman from North Carolina’s Second District
After the end of the Reconstruction Era in 1876, a violent campaign by former Confederate soldiers re-established white supremacy and whites-only rule throughout the South. There were a few notable exceptions, where black men held on to voting rights until the dawn of the 20th century. In North Carolina, Freedmen and other black men born after the Civil War’s end held on to the right to vote through the 1890s. And the last black North Carolina congressman to win election in the 19th century was George Henry White.
He was born in 1852 to a father who was a free farmer of mixed race and a mother who was a slave. After the Civil War, George White attended a Freedmen’s Bureau school, a normal school in Lumberton and graduated from Howard University in 1877. He became a lawyer, and was elected to both the North Carolina House of Representatives and the Senate.
He won election to congress in 1896 as a “fusion” candidate, according to his biography on a government website. A black Republican, he adopted the Populist Party’s platform plank calling for “free silver,” a term used to describe a program that would help poor farmers. Thus he won votes from both Populists and Republicans. He was re-elected in 1898.
According to the aforementioned government profile, “his bold legislative proposals combatting disfranchisement and mob violence in the South distinguished him.”
George White proposed legislation which made lynching a federal crime. The measure died in committee. He also unsuccessfully pursued federal funds for an exhibit on black achievement at the Paris Expo in 1900. And he was proud of his appointment of black men to patronage positions as postmasters, despite the claim by white supremacists that he sought black “domination.”
As the white supremacists’ drive to end black voting rights gained power, Rep. White understood that they would not allow him to be re-elected to a third term in 1900.
In Wilmington, North Carolina white supremacists organized a coup d’état in 1898, overthrowing by force a recently elected multi-racial city government. A mob of 2,000 white men then set upon the relatively prosperous black community of Wilmington in a riot: robbing, burning and murdering in order to drive black people out of the city.
Then in 1900, the North Carolina state legislature took the final steps to disenfranchise black voters. It passed a constitutional amendment that required a poll tax be paid and that a literacy test be passed in order to vote. Since such measures would likely disenfranchise poor whites as well as black men, a Grandfather Clause was added, “which stated that no one could be denied the right to register and vote” if they had an ancestor eligible to vote on January 1, 1867—well before voting rights for Freedmen were enshrined in the Fifteenth Amendment.
After this measure was passed, George White left North Carolina, and continued his effort to win democracy and justice in other states. Six-decades of legalized apartheid and oppression followed until it was broken by the bravery of the black freedom movement at Greensboro and elsewhere. The closed society began to open up for all. Now there are those who are trying to close it down again.