The Wilmington massacre and coup d’etat occurred on Nov. 10, 1898. This is the 4th in a series about the white supremacy movement of 1898-1900 in other parts of North Carolina.
On July 26, 1900, an old Confederate general stood before a white supremacy rally of thousands in a hamlet on the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp. His name was William Paul (W. P.) Roberts. The place was Gatesville, the county seat of Gates County, N.C., 150 miles northeast of Raleigh.
Several newspapers estimated that 3,000 people attended the rally. One said more. Much of the crowd was mounted. Many were armed. They carried banners that read “White Supremacy,” “Save North Carolina” and “All Coons Look Alike.”
“It was an inspiring scene,” a correspondent for the Virginian-Pilot (27 July 1900) wrote. “As far as one’s eye could reach there were men, men, nothing but men and banners and streamers and floaters bearing sentiments that carried enthusiasm to the great crowd.”
Only 200 to 300 people resided in Gatesville in 1900. The total population of Gates County was barely more than 10,000. The county was very rural and agricultural, and much of it was swamplands. African Americans and Native Americans made up nearly half the population.
With that information in mind, we can tentatively say that a majority of the county’s white adult population was at the rally, even if we assume that the rally drew some visitors from other counties.
“A beautiful chorus of young women”
As the white supremacy rally began, a brass band from Suffolk, Va., the nearest town of any size, played in front of the Gates County Courthouse. A parade with floats moved through downtown.
“A beautiful chorus of young women, all of whom were attired in white,” sang “Red, White and Blue,” the Virginian-Pilot noted.
The old Confederate was grand marshal for the day. By 1900 Gen. Roberts was a legendary figure, renowned both for having been the Confederacy’s youngest general and for the role that he had played in preserving white supremacy in North Carolina after the Civil War.
Many credited him in particular with singlehandedly swinging North Carolina’s Constitutional Convention of 1875 to the cause of white supremacy. It was a turning point in the state’s history.
Welcoming the crowd to Gatesville, Gen. Roberts began the day by extolling the heroes of the Civil War, proclaiming the cause of white supremacy and referring to “the blood which will be spilled if necessary.” (Virginian-Pilot, 27 July 1900).
“White supremacy is the motto,” he replied when the Virginian-Pilot’s correspondent asked him the rally’s purpose.
Land of Love and Sweet Liberty
Gen. Roberts next introduced the first guest speaker of the day. That speaker was Daniel Hugh McLean, a fiery, former state senator from Lillington, N.C. McLean congratulated the crowd “for getting in line for the establishment of white supremacy forever.”
When McClean finished, the band played again and “the young women in white marched on the front of the platform and sang `Ho for Carolina.’”
“Oh it is a land of love and sweet liberty!
A member of Gates County’s school board, Leroy L. Smith, then introduced W. H. “Buck” Kitchin, an attorney and former U.S. Congressman from Halifax County. A Confederate veteran, he was well known for his outspoken defense of white supremacy.
In his speech, Kitchin urged the men in the crowd “to vote the white man’s ticket for the sake of their children, their sisters, their wives and their mothers . . . [and] for the sake of God and the sake of patriotism.”
Kitchin also encouraged the men in the audience not to tolerate dissent from their fellow white citizens. “If a [white] man takes [the side of] negro equality in Halifax [County], the worms must eat his body,” he goaded the great crowd of white people arrayed around him.
The band then broke out in “Dixie” and the young ladies in white came back out on the stage and sang “The Old North State.”
Hurrah! Hurrah! The Old North State forever!
Hurrah! Hurrah! The good Old North State!
The Right to a Ballot
James H. Pou of Raleigh was the rally’s last speaker. A former state legislator, Pou was a relentless campaigner for white supremacy. In a not very veiled threat, he declared that “if voting would not keep negroes from holding office, something else would,” the Virginian-Pilot quoted him.
After moving to Raleigh in 1898, James H. Pou became a well-known corporate attorney and land developer. He played a central role in the development of several of Raleigh’s first suburban neighborhoods, including the white enclaves of Glenwood and Hayes-Barton. He was the Carolina Power & Light Co.’s first general counsel, and his corporate clients included Standard Oil of New Jersey.
As was the case with the rally overall, Pou’s words were geared toward building support for two goals. The first was the success of a white supremacy ticket headed by Goldsboro attorney Charles B. Aycock, the candidate for governor in the state election on August 2, 1900.
The second was ratification of a constitutional amendment that was also on the ballot on August 2nd. That referendum would take the right to vote away from the state’s black citizens.
“A negro has no more right with a ballot than a two-year-old with a pistol,” Pou said in his speech in Gatesville. (Daily Times, Richmond, Va., 27 July 1900)
The day concluded with cheers for the speakers, cheers for the band, cheers for the young women’s choir and cheers for “for Aycock and white supremacy.” The local organizers then treated the crowd to a dinner on the grounds before everybody headed back to their homes.
The Gates County Confederate Monument
The white supremacists prevailed in Gates County and in the statewide election on August 2, 1900. Aycock became the new governor. The disfranchisement amendment passed. African Americans lost the right to vote. White supremacists took control of the state legislature and the courts.
Gen. Roberts would continue to reside in Gatesville for the rest of his life. He spent much of his time attending Confederate reunions, speaking at the dedications of Confederate monuments and participating in a statewide association of Civil War veterans.
He was also the grand marshal of the State Fair in Raleigh in 1901, dined with Pres. Teddy Roosevelt in 1905 and twice ran unsuccessfully for elected office.
When he ran for Congress in 1902, Roberts emphasized his opposition to public support for African American education, which he felt was a waste of money and would result in making black workers indisposed to hard labor. “Educate [the black man],” Roberts wrote, “and he becomes alienated from the white race and worthless as a rule.” (Tar Heel, Elizabeth City, N.C., 30 May 1902)
Gen. Roberts died at the age of 69 on March 27, 1910, after a fall at his home in Gatesville. The Gates County Confederate Soldiers Monument, which is still standing, includes this memorial to him:
GATES CO FURNISHED THE/YOUNGEST GENERAL IN
THE CONFEDERATE STATES ARMY.
WM. P. ROBERTS, WITHOUT
MILITARY TRAINING WAS UPON
COMMISSIONED BRIG. GEN. AT THE AGE OF 23.