“Laws Are Silent Amid Arms:” Remembering Elizabeth City, N.C., in 1898

In recent weeks, I’ve been writing here about the history of the white supremacy movement of 1898-1900 in parts of the North Carolina coast that were not Wilmington. Last week I wrote about New Bern, and the week before I wrote about Edenton.

Today I want to focus on another coastal town, Elizabeth City, in Pasquotank County, N.C. Twenty years ago, Tim Tyson and I mentioned events there very briefly in a footnote to our book Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot and Its Legacy. At the time, we knew only a little of the story, though. Today I want to take a closer look at what happened in Elizabeth City in 1898.

Pasquotank County is in the northeast corner of North Carolina, on the north side of the Albemarle Sound. Elizabeth City is the county seat. Courtesy, Wikipedia

Pasquotank County is in the northeast corner of North Carolina, on the north side of the Albemarle Sound. Elizabeth City is the county seat. Courtesy, Wikipedia

As I looked at historical accounts these past few weeks, two things about the white supremacy movement in Elizabeth City struck me most forcefully. One was the local white supremacists’ looming, almost apocalyptic sense of doom and dread at what the future held if they could not win the election of November 1898 and regain the power that they had prior to 1894.

Throughout the fall of 1898, the town’s white supremacists seemed deeply shaken, almost terrified, at any prospect of losing the place in society that came with their whiteness.

The second thing that struck me was how they constantly highlighted the threat of violence, even horrific violence, if they lost the election of 1898. As Richard Benbury Creecy, one of the town’s leading white supremacists, wrote, “We are standing on the edge of a race conflict that will shock humanity.” (The Weekly Economist, 30 Sept. 1898)

“Our Streets Will be Red with Blood”

Richard Benbury Creecy was a key figure in the white supremacy movement in Elizabeth City. He was the editor and publisher of The Weekly Economist, a local newspaper that had been a strong voice for white supremacy since he, Edward Wood and Thomas J. Jarvis (later one of the state’s governors) founded the paper in the 1870s.

Richard Benbury Creecy (1813-1908). From Grandfather's Tales of North Carolina (Raleigh, 1901)

Richard Benbury Creecy (1813-1908). From Grandfather’s Tales of North Carolina (Raleigh, 1901)

Born and raised at Greenfield, a plantation on the Albemarle Sound southwest of Elizabeth City, Creecy was also an attorney, farmer and a beloved writer of folksy stories about the life and history of that north side of the Albemarle Sound.

When he died in 1908, an obituary called him Elizabeth City’s “oldest and most honored and revered citizen.” (Roanoke-Chowan Times, 29 Oct. 1908)

In the pages of The Weekly Economist, we can get a good sense of both that apocalyptic fear of whiteness’s downfall and the expectation that the white supremacists would resort to violence if they lost the election of 1898 and remained in the minority.

“Our peace is in peril, our civilization is threatened, our wives and daughters are insulted [and] our manhood is humiliated,” Creecy wrote in The Weekly Economist on September 30.

Two weeks earlier, on the 16th of September, he had implored local white men to gird themselves for battle. “The Christian civilization of the Anglo Saxon race … is now in imminent peril,” he warned.

Creecy continued:

“Bare your brawny arms to the battle of the ballots on the 8th of November, [but] if you do not as a united white phalanx, then, bare your bosoms to the battle of the bullets, which will surely follow.”

At the end of September, The Weekly Economist reported that 200 local white men had organized a “White Government Union” in Elizabeth City. The WGU was dedicated to galvanizing white citizens to support the white supremacy ticket. It was one of many in the state in 1898.

The WGU’s president was attorney J. B. Leigh. Other notable leaders included Superior Court Judge J. W. Albertson, rival newspaper publisher A. H. Mitchell, bank executive and attorney E. F. Aydlett and at least three other attorneys—Roscoe W. Turner, W. Heywood Sawyer and P. W. McMullun.

White Government Union button, 1898. Courtesy, Cape Fear Museum of History and Science

White Government Union button, 1898. Courtesy, Cape Fear Museum of History and Science

Another important figure in the WGU was William M. Hinton, a noted educator in Camden and Pasquotank counties. He later served as the long-time superintendent of the Pasquotank County schools.

The White Government Union’s president, J. B. Leigh, was elected to the state senate in 1898. He was later mayor of Elizabeth City and was a founding trustee of the East Carolina Teachers Training School (now East Carolina University).

Throughout the fall of 1898, Creecy employed The Weekly Economist as a mouthpiece for the WGU. He also did more than his share to create a dystopian sense of what would happen if the white supremacists did not prevail in the November 8th elections.

As he wrote, “As God is our witness, a future awaits us that will subjugate the Anglo-Saxon race under the heels of dirty white men and negroes, or our streets will be red with blood.”

The Waters of the Pasquotank

As election day approached, the rhetoric of the white supremacists grew darker. Creecy referred to a political opponent as “Beelzebub.” He called white citizens that did not support the white supremacy ticket “traitors to their race” and “white negros.” Talk of violence and retribution was everywhere.

I was not able to confirm it, but the editor of The North Carolinian, a rival newspaper, later recalled an especially appalling scene that he had witnessed in Elizabeth City in 1898.

J. B. Leigh, ca. 1925. He was the president of the "white government union" in Elizabeth City. , From <em>The Tecoan </em>(Greenville: East Carolina Teachers College, 1925)

J. B. Leigh, ca. 1925. He was the president of the White Government Union in Elizabeth City. From The Tecoan (Greenville: East Carolina Teachers College, 1925)

Four years later, at a time when many black citizens were leaving Pasquotank County and local farmers were experiencing a labor shortage, that editor described a local white supremacist’s speech during the fall of 1898 as indicative of the kind of abuses that led to their flight.

According to The North Carolinian’s editor, the unnamed orator had said the following:

“That if the `white supremacy’ crowd was not successful at the ballot-box it would appeal to the arbitrament of the shotgun and that the waters of the Pasquotank would be choked with the bodies of `dead niggers.’”

His speech reminds us of the words of Alfred Moore Waddell in Wilmington, just before the massacre and coup d’etat there.

“We will not live under these intolerable conditions.  No society can stand it. We intend to change it, if we have to choke the current of the Cape Fear River with carcasses.”

A darkness of the soul had fallen over the land, and it was growing deeper. I don’t know another way to put it.

As the election grew even nearer, The Baltimore Sun reported that white citizens in North Carolina were preparing for “race war.” According to the Sun’s story (3 Nov. 1898), Baltimore’s merchants had been receiving large orders for rifles and revolvers. At least one order for “six dozen hammerless 32 calibre revolvers of the new Colt type” came from Elizabeth City.

Across the state, the kind of apocalyptic language that Richard Benbury Creecy had used in Elizabeth City earlier that fall had grown commonplace among the leaders of white supremacy.

William A. Guthrie (1846-1916) was a leading tobacco industry attorney in Durham, N.C., and the Populist Party's candidate for governor in 1896. From Raleigh News & Observer, 14 Aug. 1896.

William A. Guthrie (1846-1916) was a leading tobacco industry attorney in Durham, N.C., and the Populist Party’s candidate for governor in 1896. From Raleigh News & Observer, 14 Aug. 1896.

On October 28, William A. Guthrie, a leading tobacco industry attorney, said this at a statewide gathering in Goldsboro, N.C., that was called a “White Supremacy Convention:”

“The Anglo Saxon planted civilization on this continent and wherever this race has been in conflict with another race, it has asserted its supremacy and either conquered or exterminated the foe. This great race has carried the Bible in one hand and the sword [in the other]. Resist our march of progress and civilization and we will wipe you off the face of the earth.”

At the time, Guthrie was addressing a crowd of an estimated 8,000 white citizens from all over North Carolina. I imagine that a number of Elizabeth City’s WGU members were there. Again, a great shadow seemed to be moving across the land.

Victory

When the white supremacists declared victory, Richard Benbury Creecy was exultant.

Three days later, on November 11, the day after the massacre of black citizens in Wilmington, The Weekly Economist’s headline read:

NORTH CAROLINA, GOD BLESS HER,

FIRST IN WAR, FIRST IN PEACE,

FIRST IN THE HEARTS OF ITS TRUE WHITE SONS

“The true Anglo-Saxon sons of Pasquotank have done their whole duty,” Creecy exclaimed. He also provided a few details about how the victory was accomplished.

“There are over a thousand true white men voters in this town. There are somewhere about 50 white traitors.”

The Weekly Economist (Elizabeth City, N.C.), 11 Nov. 1898

The Weekly Economist (Elizabeth City, N.C.), 11 Nov. 1898

By “white traitors,” Creecy meant white voters that refused to support the “white supremacy ticket” and continued to support the coalition of black voters and white voters that had been in office since 1894.

Creecy continued:

“Of that about one thousand white voters we are sure 800 were armed and ready to do effective work if the crisis came. In being armed they were not law abiding, but an old classic proverb says laws are silent amid arms. … “

What role, if any, the armed white men played in preventing their political opponents from getting to the polls or in intimidating black or white voters at the polls, we do not know.

In that November 11th edition of The Weekly Economist, Creecy also mentioned that there had been a brief altercation involving a single opposition voter at one of the city’s precinct stations on election day. Evidently the voter backed down and left the building.

If the voter had not backed down, Creecy wrote, “a match would have been struck that would [have] caused the speedy burial of about at least 30 white negro leaders.” (He meant white voters that supported the political coalition of white voters and black voters).

When the voter retreated, Creecy said, he “saved us from scenes that would have made humanity shudder.”

A Dear Old State

In the aftermath of their victory, the White Government Union (actually calling itself the “White Man’s Union) gave thanks to the city’s white citizens, to Furnifold Simmons, to white womanhood and to God.

The Weekly Economist (Elizabeth City, N.C.), 11 Nov. 1898

The Weekly Economist (Elizabeth City, N.C.), 11 Nov. 1898.

In a resolution printed in The Weekly Economist on November 18, the group’s leaders announced:

“We the members of the White Man’s Union embracing most all of the white men of Elizabeth City, [are] grateful to Almighty God, the Sovereign Ruler of nations, for His recent interposition in behalf of white supremacy in the state of North Carolina….”

A week later, also in The Weekly Economist, Creecy breathed a sigh of relief, saying, “We can all take a rest. North Carolina is a dear old state to live in. Our civilization is safe.”

9 thoughts on ““Laws Are Silent Amid Arms:” Remembering Elizabeth City, N.C., in 1898

  1. Dr. Cecelski, thank you so much for this historical context to today’s events. Elizabeth City is a fine town and I’ve met many wonderful people there through my own work, but the history of the White Supremacy Campaign cannot be ignored. It’s tragic in every way, and gave rise to other tragedies that no one might have foreseen in 1898. That’s what I discovered in writing my own book, “The Senator’s Son.” It’s about Kenneth Beasley, the 8-year-old son of a White Supremacist state Senator from neighboring Currituck County. The boy disappeared in 1905, and likely was kidnapped — possibly murdered — by a political rival of his father’s. It stemmed from lingering resentments due to the 1898 campaign. These people took power through violence, and then the violence was visited back upon them, so that an innocent child paid the price. It’s a sad story, but I think it a fascinating one, for anyone interested. https://beachglassbooks.com/books/the-senators-son

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Joel Finsel, whom you probably know, directed me to your recent articles, several of which I have read this morning. I admire what you are doing and should probably start researching Washtenaw County here in Michigan. Anyway, thank you and do persist in the good work.

    Ted Reynolds (white, as if it mattered)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I have written a history of Elizabeth City State University, and In my research, the 1898 election came up (of course). It was important enough to warrant some discussion in an institutional history. You discovered some points that I missed (especially the Baltimore Sun bit). I remember looking carefully to see if any violence did take place in Elizabeth City, as it did in Wilmington. I never found any evidence that any did take place, but the potential was clearly there, as you accurately point out.

    Please allow me to connect some of the dots here.

    A.W. Mitchell’s Fisherman and Farmer, like Creecy’s publication, was also a supporter of White Supremacy. That publication reached other area town, including Edenton.

    Minor correction: J.B. Leigh was a HOUSE member, not a State Senator. In the 1898 election he defeated businessman, real estate owner, and past House member Hugh Cale, the founder of Elizabeth City State Colored Normal School (now Elizabeth City State University). A Black legislator serving in the “Farmer’s Legislature,” he wrote a House bill that, once passed on March 3, 1891, authorized the opening of that school.

    Another member of the WGU, Roscoe Turner, served in the State Senate in the early 1900’s. He actually helped EC SNS receive a bump in state appropriations in 1907.

    Indeed, several White Supremacists served on the Board of Managers of Elizabeth City State, including the publisher of the Elizabeth City Tar Heel, who wrote a 1902 editorial defending lynching! Just ponder the thought for a moment. No doubt, such Board members made certain that EC SNS principal Peter W. Moore offered an education that taught students to :know their place.” As James Yadkin Joyner put it (the same Joyner whose name graces ECU’s library), the state needed to control education of Blacks, for if it lost control over education, it would lose control over the people.

    Future governor Charles Aycock visited Elizabeth City in the summer of 1898 in the weeks before the election and was one of the featured speakers of the White Supremacy movement. Joyner served as SSDPI for nearly 20 years starting in Aycock’s term and completely bought into White Supremacy, as his own biennial reports point out.

    E.F. Aydlett, when he died in 1931 (either 1930 or 1931), left an estate of several hundred thousand dollars, which in today’s money would represent many, many millions. Much of this came from owning slums which he rented to poor citizens, many of whom were African American. An attorney originally from Camden, he made his mark in the famous Cropsey murder trial. In the early 1920’s, he was embroiled in a public dispute with Nathan Carter Newbold, a Pasquotank County native who served as the first director of the state Division of Negro Education. Basically Newbold shamed Aydlett, who for the most part ruled the EC Board of Education as if it were his private fiefdom, into opening a public high school for Blacks in 1923. The Elizabeth City Independent, W.O. Saunders’s paper, actually reprinted correspondence between the two. Aydlett and Saunders despised each other and came to blows at least once (Aydlett came to Saunders’ office to give him a thrashing for some comments he had printed).

    And as for Willian Mott Hinton, he became one of the Albemarle’s leading Progressives. His daughter later became the first woman on Elizabeth City’s Board of Trustees. Unlike the white supremacists of a prior era, she was actually a positive force and showed great respect to EC SNS executives Moore and, later, John Henry Bias.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing this. All the best.

    Liked by 1 person

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