“The battle for white supremacy has been fought and won.”
The Eastern Courier, Edenton, N.C., Aug. 9, 1900
This essay was originally a livestream lecture sponsored by the Edenton Racial Reconciliation Group, the Shepard-Pruden Memorial Library and the Edenton Historical Commission on May 6, 2021. You can find that lecture on the library’s YouTube channel here.
On the 15th of March 1900, Edenton’s weekly newspaper, The Eastern Courier, published a front-page article calling for the state’s white citizens to organize “white supremacy clubs.” The article’s author, an attorney named Furnifold Simmons, had been a leader in the white supremacy campaign that had culminated in the massacre of black citizens in Wilmington, N.C. 16 months earlier, in November of 1898. Now he was focused on taking the right to vote away from the state’s African American citizens.
In his appeal to the state’s white citizens, Simmons hoped to inspire the formation of hundreds of local white supremacy clubs that would lead a battle to end black voting rights. In that article that appeared in Edenton’s newspaper, he laid out the mission of those clubs.
“The purpose of the organization shall be to fully restore and to make permanent in North Carolina the SUPREMACY of the WHITE RACE,” Simmons wrote, and “to develop in the state’s citizens a belief in the necessity of establishing and maintaining WHITE SUPREMACY, as the only hope for the preservation of our civilization.”
The white citizens of Edenton did not immediately answer Simmons’ call to organize a white supremacy club. During the white supremacy campaign of 1898, they had formed a similar group called the White Government Union, but it was apparently no longer active.
The spark came later that spring. On May 7th, the state’s most popular white supremacist leader, a charismatic attorney named Charles B. Aycock, visited Pasquotank County. He was the Democratic Party’s candidate for governor and was visiting the county in order to speak at a white supremacy rally. By all accounts, he was a mesmerizing orator and a sizable number of Edenton’s white leaders attended the rally.
“Never in the history of this place has there ever been such an ovation …,” one newspaper [The North Carolinian, 10 May 1900] gushed of Aycock’s speech in Pasquotank. “The ladies were out in full force with smiles of encouragement to the masses of white men all over the state, to make permanent white supremacy for all future time….”
An Aycock rally was a spectacle. Thousands of white people attended them, possibly as many as 100,000 total in the summer of 1900. A white nationalist militia group called the Red Shirts often accompanied him. Its members dressed in red and carried red banners that proclaimed “white supremacy.” At other times, they terrorized Aycock’s political opponents.
In some towns, Aycock rode in parades behind the Gatling gun that was reportedly used to kill black citizens in Wilmington.
Later that summer, at another white supremacy rally, this time in Gatesville, a former Confederate general named William Paul Roberts described why the Red Shirts wore red. “The red-shirt men and red-ribboned women who appear at the big meetings come in that color because it is emblematical of the blood which will be spilled if necessary,” he declared.
At the time, Roberts stood before a crowd of 3,000 white citizens. [The Virginian-Pilot, 27 July 1900].
For more on the Red Shirts in 1900, see my recent essay “Summer of the Red Shirts.”
The Birth of a White Supremacy Club
In Pasquotank County, the visitors from Edenton evidently found Aycock inspiring. A few days later, on the 24th of May 1900, one of them, a local attorney and future superior court judge named William Marion Bond, put a call out in The Eastern Courier to organize a white supremacy club in Edenton.
Two days later, on May 26, a group of white citizens met at the Chowan County Courthouse and organized the white supremacy club. It was one of hundreds across North Carolina—Furnifold Simmons claimed there were nearly a thousand of them.
At that meeting in the courthouse, Edenton’s white leaders elected Heywood C. Privott, a director of the Edenton Cotton Mill, the town’s largest employer, as the white supremacy club’s president.
They also elected C. H. Horton, The Eastern Courier’s editor and publisher, as the club’s vice-president. They elected one of the town’s former mayors, William Dossey Pruden, as the club’s secretary.The goal of all the white supremacy clubs was the same: to insure that local white citizens stood together and did their part to pass an amendment to the Constitution of the State of North Carolina that would take the right to vote away from the state’s African American citizens. The state legislature had passed the amendment in 1899 and it was coming before the voters to be ratified at a state election scheduled for August 2, 1900.
Shortly after the white supremacy club’s formation, Chowan County’s Democrats met and picked local candidates for the election in August. (We have to remember that at that time, unlike today, the state’s Democratic Party called itself “The Party of White Supremacy.”) The party’s local slate of candidates soon appeared in The Eastern Courier under a banner that read, “FOR WHITE SUPREMACY.” No other part of the party’s platform was mentioned.
The slate of white supremacist candidates was a Who’s Who of Chowan County’s leading white citizens. Among them was John M. Forehand, soon to be the owner of Bandon, a 1,600-acre plantation on Rocky Hock Creek. Dr. T. J. Hoskins was another. He was a highly respected local physician who resided in an Edenton house that had formerly belonged to James Iredell, Jr., one of the state’s early governors.
Another was Frank Wood, president of the Edenton Cotton Mill. As I know many of you know, Wood was raised at Hayes Plantation, just across Queen Anne’s Creek from Edenton. He was the owner of The Homestead in Edenton, as well as the man behind the town’s most famous symbol, the Edenton Teapot.
Lemonade and White Supremacy Badges
I was not able to find an account of the Democratic convention in Chowan County that put forward that slate of candidates. However, I did find a brief description of the party’s convention next door in Perquimans County. I imagine that they were very similar.
What strikes me most forcefully about this description of the convention in Perquimans County, and I imagine what will strike you, is the ordinariness of the devotion to white supremacy and the way that no other issue seemed to matter to those in attendance.
The convention was held in the town of Hertford on May 29th. A correspondent for The Virginian-Pilot was there. He described how a former U.S. Congressman, Thomas G. Skinner, gave a rousing speech extolling white supremacy. Then everyone sat down to a sumptuous dinner.
When they had finished eating, and I quote, “lemonade and white supremacy badges were brought forth, and while the young men were attending to the drinks the young ladies made their way through the crowds, pinning a `White Supremacy’ [badge] on every lapel.”
Later in the day, a young attorney named W. G. Cox gave a speech in which he used language to describe African Americans that I do not think that I can bring myself to re-print here.
I will not reprint any excerpts of W. G. Cox’s speech in Hertford, but I do feel that I should provide a link to The Virginian-Pilot’s story in case you want to read his words for yourself. You can find the newspaper’s coverage of Cox’s speech and the rest of the Perquimans County gathering here.
A White Man’s Country
Throughout that summer, C. H. Horton, gave The Eastern Courier over heart and soul to the cause of white supremacy. Week after week, he printed a cascade of articles decrying the unfitness of African Americans for being part of the state’s political life and calling for the end of black voting rights.
“This is a white man’s country and white men must and shall rule it…,” a typical front-page article read on June 14th. “We propose to put an end to Negro officeholding in North Carolina now and forever…. “
Horton was tireless. “How do you like the idea of North Carolina becoming a Black Hayti?” he chided Edenton’s white citizens on July 19. Imagine the ignominy, he warned, if the Old North State became “the Black State on the map of the United States.”
Of course, in reality, black citizens made up only a tiny percentage of the elected leaders in North Carolina in 1900 and there had never been a black man elected to statewide office in the state’s history.
Whenever possible, Horton sought to bring reluctant white voters into the white supremacy fold gently. This was a real issue: many local white citizens had been part of a coalition of Republicans (mostly black) and Populists (mostly white) that had governed Chowan County and most of the rest of North Carolina for four years earlier in the 1890s.
Along with the rest of Edenton’s white supremacy club, Horton sought to bring those white voters to the side of the state’s Democratic Party.
Most importantly, he sought to assuage the fears that many poor and working-class whites had about the constitutional amendment’s literacy test. The literacy test was one component of the disfranchisement amendment and was one of the ways that the amendment’s sponsors meant to disqualify African Americans from voting.
However, because it theoretically hinged on a potential voter’s ability to read and write, many uneducated whites feared that the literacy test would disqualify them from voting.
To address that fear, Horton repeatedly promised white citizens that the literacy test would never be used to disqualify white voters, no matter how poorly they could read or write, while disqualifying blacks citizens from voting, no matter how well they could read or write.
“The Worms Must Eat His Body”
Horton published one of his most interesting articles in The Eastern Courier on “White Supremacy Day,” which the state’s white supremacists celebrated on July 26, 1900.
His front-page headline read: “Cotton Mill Operatives: Of all people they should stand firmly by the amendment and `Vote White.’” At the time, the Edenton Cotton Mill’s managers had a policy of only hiring white workers, except perhaps for jobs as janitors and other menial labor. Horton warned the town’s mill workers that only passage of the constitutional amendment would insure that it stayed that way.
Horton also reminded working-class white men that many of the women and children in their families worked at the cotton mill. He asked them to imagine their wives and daughters standing side-by-side with black men.
In the pages of The Eastern Courier, Horton cajoled the mill workers not to abandon their families or their race. He wrote, “I believe there are no whiter men in the South than the honest, sturdy white men who man our cotton mills.”
Horton sought to foster an almost tribal sense of whiteness among Chowan County’s white citizens. As part of that effort, he also attempted to shame any white man that continued to cross racial lines or who wanted to make common cause of any kind with their African American neighbors. As did the white supremacists throughout the state, he insisted that such behavior was a betrayal of their race and their manhood.
The shaming of white men who crossed racial lines was widespread. In their speeches and writings, the white supremacists repeatedly called such men racial epithets and threatened their lives.
At that white supremacy rally in Gatesville that I mentioned earlier, for instance, the crowd heard William “Buck” Kitchen, an ex-U.S. Congressman from Halifax County, say:
“If you are a heathen or savage, go and vote against the amendment and eat and drink and sleep with the negro, but I am sorry for the negro. A white negro is ten thousand times worse than a black one.” [Daily Times, Richmond, Va., 27 July 1900]
That day in Gatesville, Kitchin also made clear that if the white supremacists could not shame a white man into voting for the amendment, they were willing to resort to other tactics.
“If a [white] man takes [the side of] negro equality in Halifax [County], the worms must eat his body,” Kitchin told the crowd. Everybody knew what had happened in Wilmington in 1898. Everybody knew that such declarations were not idle threats.
“White Supremacy Now and Forever”
The last public event for Edenton’s white supremacy club before the election was at the end of July, when an estimated 1,500 white citizens attended a rally at Bennett’s Millpond.
Of the event at Bennett’s Millpond, the Raleigh News & Observer (29 July 1900) reported, “The Edenton White Supremacy Club came up in full force, accompanied by the brass band, and a large number of ladies graced the occasion with their presence.”
All that was left was Election Day—August 2, 1900. I found few details about what Edenton’s white supremacy club did that day, but I think we can get a pretty good idea from historical accounts that describe white supremacy clubs in other parts of northeastern North Carolina, including those in Windsor, Elizabeth City, Plymouth and Columbia.
Based on those accounts, we can expect that Edenton’s white supremacy club patrolled the town, armed with rifles, on Election Day. One of the club’s committees probably attempted to keep political opponents away from the polls, while another monitored polling sites. That latter committee presumably challenged the eligibility of the other side’s voters on a variety of pretexts.
In addition, as they observed polling places, they would have made sure that white voters knew that they would be held accountable if they failed to support the white supremacy ticket. At that time, secret balloting was not yet the law in North Carolina. Employers could often watch their employees voting, and landowners could often see their tenant farmers fill out their ballots.
The victory of the white supremacists was overwhelming. In Chowan County, 56 percent of the population was African American, but the disfranchisement amendment still passed by a safe margin. In North Carolina as a whole, the amendment passed in a landslide.
Across the state, the white supremacists took control of the state’s government—the governorship, the legislature and the courts. Charles Aycock, the white supremacists’ most popular leader, was the new governor. Furnifold Simmons, the mastermind behind the white supremacy clubs, was chosen that year to become a U.S. senator.
All three of the state’s major political parties—the Democrats, Republicans and Populists—embraced white supremacy and expelled the state’s black citizens from all aspects of political participation by the end of 1900.
If I was going to pick a single moment in history that shaped North Carolina’s current racial dilemmas, or explains how we came to be so torn apart as a society, or provides the greatest insights into how we became so tribal in our politics, I would choose that summer day in 1900.
“The battle for white supremacy has been fought and won,” C. H. Horton told Edenton’s people on Aug. 9, 1900. And he added, in an article two weeks later, “White supremacy now and forever.”