I want to thank the Phoenix Historical Society for inviting me back to Tarboro. As many of you know, I have been watching your historical society grow from its first days. I have had the privilege to be your guest as a lecturer, a writer and on two of your extraordinary walking tours of Tarboro’s African American past. I can scarcely believe how much you have accomplished in only a few short years. I think you should be so proud of what you have done.
Being here at St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church reminds me especially of a day that you hosted my college students on one of your historical tours. That tour was the highlight of their semester.
I will never forget how my students’ eyes lit up as the choir here at St. Stephen’s sang some of the old spirituals. Or how excited they were when tour guides who were brought into this world by Dr. Milton Quigless gave them a tour of the Quigless Clinic, which as you know was for so many years the region’s only in-patient hospital serving African Americans.
They marveled, too, when you told them that more than a century ago, right here at St. Stephen, black men and women held a Knights of Labor rally as part of their struggle to bring dignity and justice to the local cotton fields.
I still remember how graciously several members of the local Masonic Lodge took a break from flood recovery work on their historic hall to talk with my students. They told the young people about the crucial political role of black Masons during the Reconstruction era.
Rudolph Knight shared stories of the town’s accomplished African-American educators, builders and political leaders as we walked by their former homes. (See my story on Rudolph Knight and Tarboro’s history here.) We visited 19th-century churches where not just any tour guides, but their deacons and elders, discussed the churches’ history and roles in Tarboro’s African American community.
And of course we were all profoundly moved by the monument marking the former sight of St. Paul’s, the historic AME Zion church that ex-slaves founded in the first days of freedom and which was lost in the flood of ’99.
For many of my students, the highlight of the tour was a moving reading of George Henry White’s last speech in the United States Congress. Judge Toby Fitch did the recitation on the steps of White’s former home, and none of us will ever forget his oratory or White’s words.
I will also not soon forget—I might add—the wonderful barbecue dinner served that day by the ladies here at St. Stephen’s. As much as I loved the tour, my students almost had to drag me away from that chicken, collards and cornbread so that I did not miss the tour’s next stop.
This is a region where the African American past is usually most striking for its invisibility. You can visit most eastern North Carolina towns, including ones like Tarboro that were historically home to black majorities, and not see any trace of their black heritage in their historic sites, museums, monuments and—yes—historical tours.
The Black Second
But the Phoenix Historical Society’s tour uniquely brought to life that extraordinary and all too often forgotten historical moment at the end of the nineteenth century when Tarboro was the political and cultural capital of the “Black Second”—the majority-black Second Congressional District.
That tour was only typical of the historical society’s community spirit, professionalism and hospitality. I have no reluctance in saying that, in my humble opinion, you are currently the state’s most exciting local historical society. You are demonstrating to the entire state what dedicated, serious and hardworking volunteers can do to recover and cherish our lost past, to make history come alive for young people today and, above all, how we can rescue from history’s obscurity the downtrodden, the dispossessed, and the voiceless.
You are an inspiration to us all and—on behalf of all here on this stage—I want to thank you for inviting us to be among you today.
I am especially honored to be here for George Henry White Day. White’s story is one of the most exciting, inspiring and ultimately tragic in the state’s history. He has been forgotten far too long, and your efforts—along with the efforts of our other speakers here today—are leading the way in lifting him out of the shadows of our past.
In a few minutes, I will introduce this impressive group of historians who are with us today. I know you are all eager to hear what they have to say. They will discuss Congressman White’s life and times in many different dimensions and contexts. But first, I would like to take a few seconds just to review the basic facts of George Henry White’s life for those of you who might be visitors to Tarboro today or who may not know quite so much about him so that you might appreciate their words all the more.
A Struggle for Bread and a Very Little Butter
Born free of mixed black, white and Indian ancestry in 1852, George Henry White was raised in the pine forests and swamplands of Columbus County, down in the southeast part of the state. He later said that—in his words—“ his early boyhood was a struggle for bread and a very little butter, [and that] his schooling was necessarily neglected.” He worked hard—on farms and in the turpentine woods—and he was no stranger to grief. His first two wives both died before his 30th birthday.
At a time when few African Americans had the opportunity to attend more than a few years of elementary school, White graduated from Howard University in 1877. After this graduation, he moved to New Bern and served as principal of the city’s African American schools. He studied law under a prominent former judge, a renegade Confederate veteran named William Edwards Clarke, and he became one of the state’s first black lawyers when he passed the bar in 1879.
The next year, in 1880, the African American voters of the Black Second elected him to the first of his two terms in the North Carolina General Assembly, where he was best known for his struggles on behalf of African American schools.
In 1886 White was elected district solicitor (basically the prosecuting district attorney) for the Second Judicial District. At that time, he was the only black solicitor in the United States.
That same year he married Cora Cherry, a schoolteacher from here in Tarboro. They moved here to her hometown in 1894, after the state’s General Assembly, in one of its many neat little pieces of racial gerrymandering, removed New Bern from the “Black Second.” As a citizen of Tarboro, White was elected to the United States Congress in 1896, and re-elected in 1898, and was renown there for his steadfast and impassioned work against lynching.
George Henry White was, however, in many ways the last of his kind. In the years since the Civil War, the African American voters of the Black Second (and, in some cases, their white Republican or Populist allies) had elected dozens, probably hundreds, of African Americans to public office—to the U.S. Congress, to the General Assembly, to mayorships (including Franklin Dancy here in Tarboro), to town councils, county commissions and a host of other local offices.
They had collectively created a vision of a society grounded in racial justice and political equality, and one that would treat its poor, its sick, its elderly and least fortunate with dignity and respect.
Theirs was a vision from which we in America today have much that we can learn about what it takes to make a nation truly great.
That Miserable Butchery of Men, Women, and Children
As the political forces of white supremacy swept across the rest of North Carolina, the voters of the Black Second stood fast as long as they could. Increasingly, though, the Black Second was an island in a white supremacist sea.
By the end of the nineteenth century, as White took his seat in the United States Congress, the white supremacists were working for the total political subjugation of African Americans here in North Carolina. It began with the so-called Wilmington race riot in 1898—White called it that “miserable butchery of men, women, and children”—and culminated in 1900 with passage of a constitutional amendment that deprived the state’s African Americans of the right to vote.
By then White was the last black man in the United States Congress. The historical period that we call “Jim Crow” was upon him. It was an age in which Conservatives carved our towns and cities into Apartheid-like zones segregating black and white people. Blacks could not sit down to dinner with whites, could not even look a white man in the eye without risking their lives, and had few if any protections under the law, a fact made all too clear by the waves of lynching and other racial violence that swept the state over the next generation.
Phoenix-like, He Will Rise
George Henry White could not abide living in that North Carolina. He left the U.S. Congress in 1901 and moved out of the state. You here today, who named your historical society for them, know all too well these famous lines from White’s final speech in Congress on the 29th of January, 1901:
“This…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.
White went on to say:
These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised, and bleeding, but God-fearing people, faithful, industrious, loyal people—rising people, full of potential force.
We have come together here today to remember George Henry White. We have come her today to remember those whom he called the “outraged, heart-broken, bruised, and bleeding, but God-fearing people.” We have come here to remember that, once upon a time, in this town, in this very place, those people struggled to build a better America.
This was originally the opening remarks at the Phoenix Historical Society’s commemoration of George Henry White at St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church in Tarboro, N.C., on 29 January 2005.