Literacy Test Issues Central to Careers of 2 Ground Breaking NC Lawyers

In 1900, in an election characterized as “grossly fraudulent,” North Carolina’s voters ratified an amendment to the State Constitution that imposed a literacy test for voting. A grandfather clause made an exception to this requirement for persons who could not pass the test, if their fathers or grandfathers could vote before 1867.

Henry E. Frye

The explicit purpose of the amendment was to disenfranchise African Americans. It was the culminating step in the establishment of Jim Crow laws in North Carolina and it effectively eliminated blacks from North Carolina’s voting rolls. Literacy tests remained in place until the mid-1950s. Cf. Allison v. Sharp, 209 N.C. 477, 482 (1936). The literacy requirement was no longer enforced and later repealed after Henry Frye appealed from a “test” administered in Ellerbe in which Frye, a college graduate and returning military officer who later became Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, was found not literate because he misspelled one of the names (Zachary?) of one of five U.S. presidents whose names he was required to spell in order to establish his literacy and right to vote.

George Henry White

At the time of the 1900 election, which established the literacy tests, Tarboro resident George Henry White represented North Carolina’s Second Congressional District. He was the only African American member of Congress.

Following the 1900 election, White decided that he would not run for re-election. The New York Times reported:

One of the most significant results of the race trouble in North Carolina is the announcement by Representative George Henry White of that State that he is compelled to leave the State … because the subjugation of the negro has been carried to such a point that an educated colored man can no longer remain there.

Mr. White declares that in former years he was able to practice law there without being made to feel that he belonged to an inferior race, but that things have now changed. ….

Mr. White says that the disenfranchisement of his race is merely a symptom of what is going on there, and does not merit the attention which has been bestowed  upon it. What is of real importance is the movement for the degredation and subjection of the negro, the political move being merely one aspect.

The Times quoted White directly:

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.

* * * *

I have been made the target for those who have been fighting against the Negro race in North Carolina, and nothing has been too hard to say of me.

In the next Congressional election, White was succeeded by Claude Kitchin from Scotland Neck as the Second District’s Representative. White left North Carolina, moving first to Washington, D.C., and later to Philadelphia.

[Eric Anderson, Race and Politics in North Carolina, 1872–1901: The Black Second (Baton Rouge: LSI Press, 1981), page 307.]

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