The story is the second part of an occasional series on the historical roots of North Carolina’s racial divisions. You can find the first part, “Summer of the Red Shirts,” here.
In 1956 Dr. Frenise A. Logan, a history professor at N.C. A&T, published a groundbreaking article that remains an essential piece of reading for those who seek to understand more fully how we came to be such a divided people, why our racial divisions run so deep and why our country remains the land that James Baldwin once called “these yet-to-be-United States.”
Dr. Logan’s article was called “The Movement of Negroes from North Carolina, 1876 to 1894” and was published in the January 1956 edition of the North Carolina Historical Review.
The article is short, studious and dispassionate. It focuses on one fairly narrow historical topic– the mass exodus of black farmers and farmworkers from eastern North Carolina in the late 19th century.
Yet Dr. Logan’s article is kind of a wrecking ball: it was one of the first scholarly articles that totally disregarded the myth of North Carolina’s racial moderation and progressivism.
That pervasive myth was created by the generation of white supremacists that rose to power and influence in North Carolina after the Wilmington massacre of 1898 and the victory of the white supremacy campaigns of 1898-1900. (See my “Summer of the Red Shirts.”)
Of the historians that promulgated that myth, the most influential taught at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
When I was growing up, that myth was a central theme in North Carolina history books. In my career as a historian, I have repeatedly heard variations of that myth when I give lectures to white audiences whose members were taught that version of North Carolina history, as I was.
“Things weren’t so bad here,” I’d hear again and again. “We weren’t as bad as those people in Mississippi and Alabama.” “We all just got along.”
There is no evidence to support such a view of the state’s racial moderation and progressivism. There is, on the other hand, a great deal of evidence against it. White political and intellectual leaders routinely boasted of the state’s racial progressivism, but I rarely find references to that kind of racial moderation in African American historical accounts.
Of course, comparing race relations here to those in Mississippi or Alabama is neither here nor there anyway– we can, after all, always find worse sins elsewhere if we don’t want to think about our own.
One of the things that fascinates me about Dr. Logan’s article is that he didn’t even bother to address that issue. As an African American educated outside of the South and a professor at an historically black college, he neither worked nor lived in a place where that self-congratulatory myth of racial progressivism prevailed– unlike, say, a white professor or student at Chapel Hill.
If he was like most of the state’s African American scholars in that era, that myth did not correspond with what he saw and experienced personally or what he discovered in historical accounts. In his article, Dr. Logan may simply have felt that it was not even worth addressing.
On the other hand, he may just have just decided to let the facts speak for themselves.
The Burning of the Hackney Carriage Factory
I re-visited Dr. Logan’s article recently because I wanted to understand better why black insurgents had burned down the Hackney carriage factory in Rocky Mount, N.C., in February of 1890. I was working with the Hackney company’s historical papers and photographs at Barton College’s library and came across a series of references and newspaper clippings related to the fire.
With a little research, I learned that the fire was part of a much larger and very bitter struggle. That struggle was between black farmworkers who were seeking to overcome debt peonage and other oppressive conditions that were an enduring legacy of slavery and, to quote the white editor of The Wilson Advance, “the best white people of that section.”
That struggle led to the torching of the Hackney Co.’s carriage factory and a series of other white-owned buildings in Rocky Mount. The loss of the Hackney family’s factory was an especially grave blow for the town. At the time, the company was one of the largest makers of wagons and horse-drawn buggies in the southern states and the town’s second largest employer.
The Hackneys did not rebuild in Rocky Mount. After the fire, they instead consolidated their carriage and buggy manufacturing in the town of Wilson, 20 miles to the south, where they also had a factory.
The struggle between black workers and “the best white people of the section” led to more than an arson spree. It led to brawls in the city streets, vituperative debates in the state legislature, lots of bad blood and an estimated 50,000 disenchanted black workers lining up at railroad stations and leaving Rocky Mount and other towns in that part of eastern North Carolina for good.
“The Colored Sons of Toil”
Dr. Logan’s article doesn’t discuss the torching of the Hackney carriage factory. However, it tells us most of what we need to know to understand that incident and how things had come to such a bitter and violent confrontation between blacks and whites in Rocky Mount.
Dr. Logan’s article focuses on the Exodusters. When historians refer to the “Exodusters,” they typically mean the estimated 40,000 African Americans that fled the Deep South and relocated to Kansas in 1879– it was the first great migration of black rural people out of the South since the Civil War.
In reality though, African Americans also abandoned eastern North Carolina and much of the rest of the American South in that time period.
In the aftermath of the Compromise of 1877, a new wave of white racial violence swept the southern states. No longer hamstrung even by what had been a relatively weak federal commitment to black civil rights, southern white legislators immediately began passing laws bent on reducing black farmers and farmworkers to an even deeper state of peonage and to stripping all African Americans of many of their most basic rights of citizenship.
North Carolina was no different. In amending the Landlord and Tenant Act of 1877 and passing the infamous county government act (which then, as now, centralized power over municipal and county governments in Raleigh), the white supremacists in the state legislature sought to put an end to the political and economic gains that African Americans had made since the Civil War.
They especially targeted the majority-black First Congressional District, where Rocky Mount was. The “Black Second,” as it was often called, was the state’s only congressional district where African Americans had managed to hold onto significant political power after the white supremacists who led the Democratic Party at that time had come back into power in 1870.
To quote a gathering of the state’s black leaders in Raleigh in 1880, the new laws were “sucking the life’s blood from the colored sons of toil.” (They weren’t great for the “colored daughters of toil” either.)
Among the state’s black leaders, no question was more hotly debated in the late 1870s than emigration. The two sides of the debate were simple: should African Americans stay in North Carolina and pray for the best? Or should they give up on North Carolina and go?
The answer was complex. Many stayed, but many left, too. In the first wave of Exodusters, thousands of African Americans fled North Carolina in 1879-80. Some followed the Exodusters from the Deep South to Kansas, but according to Dr. Logan’s research, more black Carolinians moved to Indiana and other states.
On January 15, 1880, the Wilmington Morning Star reported that as many as 6,000 black farmworkers had fled Johnson and Wayne counties, which are near Rocky Mount, and had gone to Indiana. A few weeks earlier, on Dec. 4, 1879, the Kinston Journal had reported that “exodus feeling is worked up to a fever heat, and in some sections nearly all are leaving.”
A second wave of Exodusters fled eastern North Carolina a decade later in 1889. According to Dr. Logan, the conditions that led to the 1879-80 Exoduster movement all contributed to this second period of black emigration as well: oppressive landlord/tenant laws, a crippling agricultural depression and a growing erosion of African American civil rights.
Dr. Logan argued, however, that the single most important factor was the N.C. General Assembly’s passage of an 1889 election law that was intended to suppress African American voting.
In the election law’s specifics, it had remarkable similarities to the wave of voter suppression laws that white conservative leaders recently passed in Georgia and Texas. Like those voter suppression bills, they included stricter voter ID laws and the bestowal of greater power on local officials appointed by Raleigh to determine who was and was not eligible to vote.
Dr. Logan quotes a Raleigh newspaper, warning Democratic leaders in the General Assembly “to think twice before committing the State to a policy which may strip the land of its best, most reliable, most peaceable laborers.” That newspaper, the Raleigh Signal, repeated the warning on the morning that the bill was ratified: “if this bill becomes a law, many thousands of colored people will leave the state during the next two years.”
The Signal got that right. In his article, Dr. Logan chronicled what happened next: six weeks later, a large gathering of the state’s pro-emigration black citizens convened in Raleigh. Many attendees came from eastern North Carolina. “The colored populace was present in battalions,” The News & Observer in Raleigh, reported, noting also that “the old women and children were there, too.”
“The Negroes to all appearances are preparing to sweep the whole population of their race from the State and land them in the far west,” The News & Observer claimed.
The Knights of Labor
To a large degree, the exodus out of Rocky Mount and other parts of eastern North Carolina was a revolt of black farmers and farmworkers. Many sought their freedom by looking to emigration, but thousands of others had also sought to improve their lot by joining together and organizing labor unions.
Desperately seeking to overcome the enduring legacies of slavery and debt peonage, thousands of black farmers and farmworkers had joined the Knights of Labor, a national labor movement.
The Knights had phenomenal growth in Rocky Mount and the surrounding parts of eastern North Carolina between 1886 and 1890. Rocky Mount is located partly in Edgecombe County and partly in Nash County and in Edgecombe County alone the Knights of Labor organized at least 18 chapters.
White supremacists in the N.C. General Assembly responded to the meteoric rise of the Knights of Labor by passing yet more oppressive laws. By 1889, many African American farmers and farmworkers had concluded that things would never change for the better in North Carolina– they just wanted out.
According to Dr. Logan’s research, an estimated 50,000 black farmers and farmworkers fled that part of eastern North Carolina in 1889 alone. In this second wave, they relocated largely to Kansas, Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma. They left in droves, sometimes thousands from a single town in just a few days.
On November 14, 1889, for instance, a newspaper reporter described the scene in a town 50 miles south of Rocky Mount.
“At Kinston yesterday the town was crowded with negroes anxious to shake the North Carolina dust off their shoes and try their fortunes in some other state. It is said that there were about 1,500 enthusiastic “exodusters” in the town.
Writing for the New Bern Daily Reporter, he went on say:
“At the depot an interesting spectacle presented itself in the huge mass of baggage piled on the platform.”
Similar scenes were reported in Tarboro, Rocky Mount, Goldsboro and other towns in eastern North Carolina. A rather astonishing number of black emigrants even decided that they were willing to try Mississippi and Louisiana if it meant that they could get out of eastern North Carolina.
Some white leaders were glad to see them go. In majority-black Edgecombe County, for instance, at least a few white leaders were happy at the prospect that black emigration would reduce the potential number of black voters.
The region’s agricultural economy depended on black labor, however. As a result, most white leaders feared the consequences of black emigration. They worried that emigration would lead to labor shortages and might compel them to offer better terms in the labor contracts that laid out the conditions under which sharecroppers and tenant farmers worked.
To stem emigration, many landowners promulgated horror stories about the conditions that awaited black emigrations in other states. White newspapers followed suit. They regularly featured articles on the supposed nightmarish conditions that black emigrants faced in states such as Indiana and Kansas.
The North Carolina General Assembly did its part as well. Conservative white legislators first entertained bills discouraging black emigration in the early 1880s and in 1891 passed a law imposing a prohibitively large licensing fee on the labor agents who recruited emigrants to leave eastern North Carolina.
In his article in the North Carolina Historical Review, Dr. Logan noted, however, that the law was rarely if ever enforced effectively. The state supreme court ruled it unconstitutional in 1893.
The Fires in Rocky Mount
That is basically the end of Dr. Logan’s article. His account of the flight of the Exodusters from eastern North Carolina and white efforts to keep them on the land gives us the big picture. Now we can return to Rocky Mount and hone in on the burning of the Hackney carriage company’s factory in 1890.
According to local newspaper coverage of the fire, Rocky Mount’s white leaders had not sat around and waited for the N.C. General Assembly to keep labor agents from enticing “their” black farmworkers away.
The Hackney carriage factory burned on the night of February 18, 1890. Immediately after the fire, one of the editors of The Wilson Advance, a newspaper in Wilson, N.C., where the Hackney Co. was based, came to Rocky Mount in order to investigate the fire.
For better and for worse, we have to rely on that editor’s accounts of what happened next.
That editor, by the way, was either Josephus Daniels or Charles Cleaves (“C. C.”) Daniels, a pair of brothers that were co-publishers and co-editors of The Wilson Advance at that time. They would later be among the state’s leading progressive political leaders (especially Josephus).
I can’t tell who wrote the articles about the fire in Rocky Mount because the author only refers to himself as “the editor” of The Wilson Advance and does not specify if he was Josephus or Charles.
Josephus Daniels’ brother, C. C. Daniels, is best remembered today for supporting Ford Motor Co. founder Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic activities in the 1920s. At Ford’s direction, Daniels ran a secretive bureau that fed anti-Semitic stories to Ford’s newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, one of the most widely read newspapers in the U. S. at the time.
Whichever Daniels brother it was, when he arrived in Rocky Mount he discovered a complex and thorny story.
He found that a few days prior to the fire, to quote his story in The Wilson Advance, “a number of the best white people of that section” threatened emigration agents (probably African American) that were recruiting local black farmworkers to relocate to other states. Those white leaders “warned the emigration agents that they must leave Rocky Mount and stay away.”
I do not know the exact nature of the threat, but I think we can be assured that it would not have been left in the hands of the law.
On February 20, 1890, The Wilson Advance reported:
“They told these men that the negroes they were inducing to leave were nearly all under contract for the year and that their efforts to secure emigrants was demoralizing the labor of that section and that they would permit them to disorganize labor no longer. There was some little disturbance at that time and one negroe [sic] was knocked down. Threats of revenge were heard and subsequent events shows that those threats meant something.”
The Wilson Advance’s editor learned that the Exodusters’ revenge had come quickly and was not limited to the Hackney carriage factory.
The night before the fire at the Hackney factory, unknown arsonists had torched the Armstrong Warehouse, which was being leased by the Wilmington Oil Co. That could not have been an inconsequential blaze. It must have left white Rocky Mount in a state of deep disquiet.
The Hackney carriage factory burned down the next night. So did the Sorsby & Ricks Co.’s warehouse, the Muse, Daughtridge & Co.’s warehouse, John Parker’s livery stables and several houses. The town’s Methodist church also caught fire, but did not burn to the ground.
That wasn’t the end of it. The next night, armed guards of white men patrolled Rocky Mount, but the arsonists struck again– this time burning Floral Hall at the local fairgrounds.
In a February 20, 1890 article, The Wilson Advance observed that black resentment of the crackdown on emigration agents was far from limited to a few militant incendiaries. At that time, Rocky Mount did not yet even have a thousand residents. Every able-bodied man, white and black, would usually have responded to a large fire, but not that winter.
“The most of the negroes stood by and saw property destroyed and would do nothing to help stop the fire or save property.”
That is what it had come down to: a hundred strands of history all coming together on those winter nights in 1890 and a society in a death spiral of its own making, so much did it pit tribe against tribe, race against race, all made visible, at least for a brief moment, by the light of those flames.
No wonder Dr. Logan did not bother discussing racial moderation and his adopted state’s progressivism when he wrote about the Exodusters. What he found was different: the smothering oppression of the cotton fields, the white supremacists determined to keep African Americans down, no matter what the cost, the flames rising in the night sky and thousands of black citizens crowding onto trains, desperate to go anywhere else in the world.