Tag Archives: George H. White

Tarboro & Greensboro lawyers at center of the story of Jim Crow & voting rights from start & now

fryeSome time back MidLaw pointed out the centrality of the voting rights laws to the careers of legendary Tarboro lawyer George Henry White and legendary Greensboro lawyer, Henry Frye.

Last week, the New York Times Magazine published a major article, “A Dream Undone, Inside the 50-year campaign to roll back the Voting Rights Act” in which it reported that the story goes on.

The Times put Brooks Pierce’s Henry Frye  right at the center of its report for his role in rolling back the Jim Crow system fifty years ago. But two years ago, North Carolina rewrote its voting laws again and now the North Carolina voter ID law is referred to as one of the “most restrictive voting rights laws since the Jim Crow era.”

gwh-photoAnd, it falls to MidLaw to recall that Tarboro lawyer George Henry White was at the center of the story when Jim Crow laws began in 1900. When North Carolina enacted its Literacy Test effectively eliminating African Americans from the voting rolls, George White decided not to run for re-election to Congress from Tarboro and the Second District. That marked the beginning of the Jim Crow era. White’s decision was reported in a Times article at the time, and the Times printed his famous farewell speech in Congress on page one.

White’s biographer says that the closing lines of White’s speech “were among the most widely remembered and widely quoted lines from any speech by a black American for the next half century.”

This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress; but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised, and bleeding, but God-fearing people, industrious, loyal people – rising people, full of potential force.

book ghwRaleigh’s News & Observer also marked White’s departure from Congress and hailed the new era, quoting a North Carolina legislator to a much different effect:

Geo. H. White, the insolent negro, who has so long represented the proud people of North Carolina in the Congress of the United States, has retired from office forever. We have a white man’s government in every part of the old State, and from this hour no negro will again disgrace the old State in the council chambers of the nation. For these mercies, thank God.

Benjamin R. Justesen, George Henry White, An Even Chance in the Race of Life (LSU Press 2001).

Tarboro’s George White was central to the story in 1900. Fifty years later, Henry Frye was central to dismantling them. Now, after another fifty years, the fight goes on.

The Times wrapped up its article last week by quoting Frye on where we are today:

It’s not quite what it was a long time ago. It’s more sophisticated now.

 

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

livingstoncollege2

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.

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. 

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.]

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.]

Tarboro Lawyer George White: Most Prominent Black Leader in America in His Day

Tarboro lawyer George Henry White was the fourth black man to represent North Carolina’s Second Congressional District. He took office on March 15, 1897.  He was the only African American in the 55th Congress.

Before his election to Congress, White had been a leading educator, a religious leader in the Presbyterian Church, a successful lawyer, and successively a member of the North Carolina House of Representatives a member of the North Carolina Senate, and the District Solicitor for North Carolina’s Second Judicial District. He was the only black prosecutor in the United States when he served in that role. He was consistently acknowledged by friends and adversaries alike to be an excellent lawyer and a man of high character. (Later in his career, he was attacked and ultimately brought down for what was said to be his aggressive insistence on “social equality” for African Americans. That however, is a story for another time.)

Upon election to Congress, White became the holder of the highest national political position of any black American and “the first black superstar.”

Black newspapers [state and national] began to carry longer stories about him, emphasizing his personal charisma and exaggerating his impact on the national scene; he was the first black superstar; the political savior of his race, and nearly every word that he uttered quickly appeared on the printed pages before hundreds of eager readers, often picked up and reprinted in other black publications. … For the white community, White was generally less of a lasting phenomenon than an irritant; the less said, the sooner he might fade away.

White’s “most famous phrase,” delivered in “many iterations” was first delivered in a speech before Congress on March 7, 1898, in which he advocated for the creation of a black artillery regiment in the United States Army and, more broadly, for “the equal rights of all black citizens under law in America.”

You have two hundred and fifty years the start of us; and if you are honest, if you are fair, if you are not cowards, and of course you are not, you certainly will be willing to accord to us at this late day all the rights of American citizens enjoyed by you. An even chance in the race of life is all that we ask; and then if we cannot reach the goal, let the devil take the hindmost one.

This speech is reported to have drawn “loud and prolonged applause,” although White’s legislation was not adopted.

[Benjamin R. Justesen, George Henry White, An Even Chance in the Race of Life (LSU Press 2001), pages 223-24.]