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

James City, NC, across river just south of New
Berm

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. 

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