Tarboro Lawyer George White: Most Prominent Black Leader in America in His Day

Tarboro lawyer George Henry White was the fourth black man to represent North Carolina’s Second Congressional District. He took office on March 15, 1897.  He was the only African American in the 55th Congress.

Before his election to Congress, White had been a leading educator, a religious leader in the Presbyterian Church, a successful lawyer, and successively a member of the North Carolina House of Representatives a member of the North Carolina Senate, and the District Solicitor for North Carolina’s Second Judicial District. He was the only black prosecutor in the United States when he served in that role. He was consistently acknowledged by friends and adversaries alike to be an excellent lawyer and a man of high character. (Later in his career, he was attacked and ultimately brought down for what was said to be his aggressive insistence on “social equality” for African Americans. That however, is a story for another time.)

Upon election to Congress, White became the holder of the highest national political position of any black American and “the first black superstar.”

Black newspapers [state and national] began to carry longer stories about him, emphasizing his personal charisma and exaggerating his impact on the national scene; he was the first black superstar; the political savior of his race, and nearly every word that he uttered quickly appeared on the printed pages before hundreds of eager readers, often picked up and reprinted in other black publications. … For the white community, White was generally less of a lasting phenomenon than an irritant; the less said, the sooner he might fade away.

White’s “most famous phrase,” delivered in “many iterations” was first delivered in a speech before Congress on March 7, 1898, in which he advocated for the creation of a black artillery regiment in the United States Army and, more broadly, for “the equal rights of all black citizens under law in America.”

You have two hundred and fifty years the start of us; and if you are honest, if you are fair, if you are not cowards, and of course you are not, you certainly will be willing to accord to us at this late day all the rights of American citizens enjoyed by you. An even chance in the race of life is all that we ask; and then if we cannot reach the goal, let the devil take the hindmost one.

This speech is reported to have drawn “loud and prolonged applause,” although White’s legislation was not adopted.

[Benjamin R. Justesen, George Henry White, An Even Chance in the Race of Life (LSU Press 2001), pages 223-24.]

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