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 Then the Senate rescinded its amendment and sent the bill to a conference committee.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.

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