19th Century Black Practitioner’s Vision of NC Lawyers

Tarboro lawyer George Henry White was one of only a handful of African American lawyers in North Carolina during the entire time he practiced here (1879 to 1900). He was the only black member of Congress in the 55th and 56th Congresses (1898 and 1900), representing North Carolina’s Second District.

In 1899, White was two years away from leaving Congress and moving out of North Carolina, having famously concluded that he could no longer remain in North Carolina and “be treated as a man.” His decisions to leave came as the result of the 1900 election in which voters approved amending the North Carolina Constitution to impose literacy tests as preconditions of voting.

The 1900 election is now generally viewed as having been “grossly fraudulent.” It followed a campaign in which White himself, and his family, were attacked based on false, racially inflammatory charges advanced by political opponents including many North Carolina newspapers led by Josephus Daniels and the Raleigh News and Observer. Amending the Constitution marked a final step in the disenfranchisement of North Carolina blacks and the establishment of white supremacy. White decided in response to leave the state, and publicly advised that other African Americans do the same.

Understanding that White’s entire career as a lawyer until 1900 had been as one of only a handful of black practitioners in North Carolina and the country – and knowing what was to come – makes White’s observations about the role and character of lawyers compelling, if not inspiring. Speaking to Howard University law students in March, 1899, he said,

The lawyers in every community are the leading lights, the moulders of public sentiment. This is true in the common councils of the cities, and also abundantly true in the management of state affairs.

[Lawyers tend to become legislators because of their training, but also because of their desire to serve the community.  A lawyer is a] useful, intelligent and industrious citizen, [who] in order to succeed permanently, must be an honest and admirable man; must deal fairly and squarely with his clients.

Following the 1900 election, White was interviewed by the New York Times. He explained his decision to leave North Carolina and also invoked his experience as a North Carolina lawyer.

I cannot live in North Carolina and be treated as a man. In my intercourse with the bar of North Carolina in the past I was never made to feel that I was on a different plane to anyone else because I was a colored man, but I cannot feel so any longer.

It takes some digging, but how good to be able to extract from this sorry story an essentially uplifting vision of the profession.

[Quotation from George Henry White, An Even Chance in the Race of Life, Benjamin R. Justesen (LSU Press 2001), pages 50-51. Also see Eric Anderson, Race and Politics in North Carolina, 1872–1901: The Black Second (Baton Rouge: LSI Press, 1981), page 307.]

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