Monthly Archives: December 2012

George Henry White – “Amenable to Reason and Steeped in Compromise” – A Lawyer Spanning Boundaries


Livingstone College

George White, an African American lawyer then living in New Bern, was elected to the North Carolina Senate for the 1885 General Assembly. During that session, he joined with Rowan County’s white Lee Overman (a lawyer and later United States Senator) to introduce companion bills providing for the incorporation of Zion Wesley College, the AME Zion denomination’s school for teachers and ministers, which was later renamed Livingstone College after the explorer, David Livingstone.

Despite the unexceptional nature of the bill and Overman’s support, when White called the bill for its final reading in the Senate, it was opposed because there was concern that the college “would confer degrees on some prominent white men, it being a colored institution.”

Lee Overman

Lee Overman

This triggered a series of maneuvers. First the Senate voted to amend the bill to prohibit granting degrees to white men. Then, the House refused to accept that amendment. Then the Senate rescinded its amendment and sent the bill to a conference committee. A conference report was produced, and the Senate finally approved a compromise bill carefully drafted to skirt the issue of granting degrees to whites.

GH White whitesboro

George Henry White

This episode prompted White’s biographer to observe that:

George White had long believed that politics was the science of the possible, one always amenable to reason and steeped in compromise. He was well aware of the intransigence of many white Democrats – even of some white Republicans, for that matter – on the issue of integrated education, but he had carefully cooperated in advance with Democrats on this bill, if to little apparent avail. Having attended a predominantly black public university from which more than a few white students had graduated, he could hardly have anticipated such a wasteful and time-consuming reaction. In any event, integrating higher education was not the issue here; this involved no use of public funds, and few whites would be interested in attending Zion Wesley. The hidden issue was white supremacy, and as such, it was impervious to reasonable argument. …

Not all of White’s activities as state senator were so politically intricate. Even as a faithful Republican, he was willing to eschew partisan loyalty on occasion by supporting a Democratic candidate for national office, if he felt strongly enough about the man. Toward the end of the first month of the session, he found such an occasion to pay exceedingly warm tribute to one of the state’s most illustrious Democrats, retiring governor Thomas J. Jarvis.

[Benjamin R. Justesen, George Henry White, An Even Chance in the Race of Life (LSU Press 2001) pages 108-9.]

Is this story hard to believe a century later? Yes. But – here was White, a lawyer, getting things done across boundaries. And that is a model for other lawyers and other boundaries.

Repose Not the Destiny of Lawyers


Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

My partner, Mark Prak, first made me aware of the following, which comes from “The Path of Law,” an article Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. published in the Harvard Law Review in 1897. Mark and I have had many occasions to observe that this is the prime fundament underlying law practice  management:

The training of lawyers is a training in logic. The processes of analogy, discrimination, and deduction are those in which they are most at home. … And the logical method and form flatter that longing for certainty and for repose which is in every human mind. But certainty generally is an illusion, and repose is not the destiny of man.

I might add a comment but, already, I see the error of that.

Lawyers Connect Separated Communities — George White & James City NC Controversy

James City is across the river from New Bern (North Carolina). It came into being during the Civil War, when Union soldiers settled runaway slaves on the land.


James City, NC, across river just south of New

Over time, the area developed into an African American enclave with its own school, churches and police station. “Few whites, and no Democrats, dared set foot in the town without an invitation.” In some part, George White established his law practice and reputation on representing residents of James City in claims against the James City Ferry Company, in which he bested an array of better known white lawyers.

Following the war, a complicated real estate dispute developed. The original owner of the land underlying James City transferred his interest to a New Bern purchaser. The Supreme Court confirmed the transferee’s title. Over time though, the black settlers had built residences and other improvements on the land. They paid no rents.

James City residents

James City residents

In 1893, things came to a head. The residents offered to purchase the land. The owner refused to sell, proposing leases instead, which the residents rejected. The Craven County sheriff was dispatched to evict the residents. The residents threatened to “fight to the death.”

The residents appealed to the Governor, and then New Bern’s mayor asked him to send in the Militia, which he did. The Governor himself came to New Bern with the troops, accompanied by journalists and a group of concerned black leaders.

George White, by then maintaining residences in New Bern and Tarboro and serving as District Solicitor for the Second Judicial District, was one of three African American leaders who intervened to mediate the dispute. (The others were former Enfield and then New Bern lawyer and former congressman, James O’Hara; and Dr. Ezra E. Smith, a Goldsboro resident, former head of the normal school in Fayetteville for blacks and former U.S. Ambassador to Liberia.)

Ultimately, with the assistance of these mediators, James City’s residents were persuaded to accept terms proposed for leases and rentals.

White’s biographer observes

It was a difficult moment for George White, who knew the settlers well and probably sympathized with their plight. As a prosecutor, however, he was sworn to uphold the decision of the courts, and as a leader of his race, he was determined to prevent bloodshed at all costs. His proven skills as a legislative leader and mediator were instrumental in accomplishing both tasks. That he was asked to assist at all was a sure sign of his growing stature among fearful white leaders, and the peaceful settlement of the dispute only strengthened his reputation for effectiveness under pressure.

No longer just a good lawyer who happened to be black, George White was now a good man to depend on in almost any situation. He was a seasoned accomplished politician, a veteran public servant. And his dreams were no longer bound by the cautious limits of his youth; at forty-one, he had come of age, and his political future seemed boundless.

[Benjamin R. Justesen, George Henry White, An Even Chance in the Race of Life (LSU Press 2001) pages 148-150.]

To pound the point home: This is a vivid  instance of a lawyer spanning the boundaries between different communities. Forging connections. You can spin out the elements of it for yourself and you can take it as a model or not, but here is the historical raw material to start from. 

The Bar: a Community of Rivals

In the early and mid 19th Century, the North Carolina Bar was a much tighter community than it has become since.


Bishop Joseph Cheshire

Tarboro lawyer (later, Episcopal bishop), Joseph B. Cheshire described the early community of North Carolina lawyers and hinted at the later impact of a  disruptive technology (railroads), as follows:

The old lawyers and judges were more social and lived more together than members of the Bar do now. The country was more thinly settled; there were fewer people and fewer lawyers, less office business, and relatively more litigation and more of forensic controversy. Each lawyer, as a rule, attended all the courts in his district, or at least most of the terms of the Superior Court. And they usually, before the days of railroads, drove in company in their buggies or gigs or rode horseback from one country town to another with much sociability and joviality as they went “jogging along,” or as they lodged together in the old taverns by the roadside or in the county towns.

[Cheshire, Joseph Blount, Nonnulla: memories, stories, traditions, more or less authentic (The University of North Carolina Press 1930) page 41.]

Connections among members of the Bar continued to attenuate steadily throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, both as the result of the vast expansion of “office business”  and reflecting the concomitant rise of law firms and 20th Century technologies (automobiles, telephones) – and that has had its effect on the role and practice of lawyers.

Curiously, the same tools that, today, are driving globalization (and practicing law over greater and greater geographic distances) may also be altering the trend of fewer connections among lawyers. Connections of new kinds are coming into being. 21st Century technologies and practices may be enabling new forms of social and professional collaboration.

Bishop Cheshire’s original 19th Century model matters, though. Understanding law practice as, fundamentally, the conjoint work of a community rather than a ceaseless contest of rivals, will improve our profession’s contribution to the wide world.

How is that done? Well, that’s one of the most interesting facets of what’s happening now. It is happening though – evolving over time –and, if you read all of the earlier posts here, you’ll get some sense of it.