George Henry White
|George Henry White|
|Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from North Carolina's 2nd district
March 4, 1897 – March 3, 1901
|Preceded by||Frederick A. Woodard|
|Succeeded by||Claude Kitchin|
December 18, 1852|
Rosindale, North Carolina
|Died||December 28, 1918
George Henry White (December 18, 1852 – December 28, 1918) was an attorney, Republican U.S. Congressman from North Carolina between 1897 and 1901, and a banker. He is considered the last African-American Congressman of the Jim Crow era, one of twenty to be elected in the late nineteenth century from the South.
The Democrats had regained power in the state legislature in the 1870s, but black candidates continued to be elected from some districts. After disfranchisement was achieved in new state constitutions at the turn of the century, no African American would be elected from the South until 1972, after the Civil Rights Movement and passage of federal legislation in the mid-1960s to enforce integration and protection of voting rights.
In North Carolina, "fusion politics" between the Populist and Republican parties led to a brief period of renewed Republican and African-American political success from 1894 to 1900. After White left office, no other black American would serve in Congress until Oscar De Priest was elected in 1928. No African American was elected to Congress from North Carolina until 1992.
Early life and education
White was born in Rosindale, Bladen County, North Carolina, where his natural mother may have been a slave. His father Wiley Franklin White was a free person of color, of Scots-Irish and African ancestry, who was a laborer in a turpentine camp. George had an older brother John, and their father may have purchased their freedom.
In 1857 their father married Mary Anna Spaulding, a young local woman of mixed race, who was the granddaughter of Benjamin Spaulding. Born into slavery as the son of a white plantation owner, he had been freed as a young man and worked to acquire more than 2300 acres of pine woods, which he apportioned to his own large family. In 1860 the Whites' household was a farm in Welches Creek township, Columbus County. George always thought of Mary Anna as his mother. The Whites had more children together.
George White probably first attended an "old field school", paid for by subscription. After the American Civil War, the Reconstruction era state legislature established the first public schools for black children in the state. At Welches Creek in 1870, White met the teacher David P. Allen, who encouraged him. Allen moved to Lumberton, North Carolina, where he established the Whitin Normal School. White studied academic courses there for a couple of years, including Latin, and boarded with Allen and his family. He saved money by running the family farm for a year for his father. Wiley left the family for Washington, D.C., in 1872 and worked for nearly two decades as a laborer at the Treasury Department.
White next studied at Howard University, a historically black college open to men and women of all races in Washington, D.C., starting in 1874. He studied classical subjects to be certified as a schoolteacher. In addition to his experiences at the college, he worked for five months at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which had visitors from around the world, and got to see something of its thriving black community.
White finished at Howard in 1877 and was hired as a principal at a school in New Bern. He studied law in the city as a legal apprentice under former Superior Court Judge William J. Clarke, who had become a Republican after the war, and also established a newspaper. In 1879 White was admitted to the North Carolina bar.
Marriage and family
White married Fannie B. Randolph in 1879; she died in 1880 soon after the birth of their daughter Della. In 1882 he married Nancy J. Scott, who died the same year.
Four years later, he married Cora Lena Cherry, whose sister Louisa was married to Henry Plummer Cheatham, a future political rival. White and Cora had three children: Mary Adelyne, called "Mamie," Beatrice Odessa (who died young), and George Henry White, Jr. Three of his children survived to adulthood. Della died in 1916 in Washington, D.C., followed by George Jr., who died in Pittsburgh in 1927. Mamie died in New York City in 1974.
Cora Lena White died in 1905. In 1915, George White married Ellen Avant Macdonald of North Carolina, who survived him.
In 1880 White ran as a Republican candidate from New Bern and was elected to a single term in the North Carolina House of Representatives. He helped pass a law creating four state normal schools for African Americans, and was appointed as the principal of one in New Bern in 1881. He helped develop the school in its early years and encourage students to go into teaching.
In 1884 White returned to politics, winning election to the North Carolina Senate from Craven County. In 1886, he was elected solicitor and prosecuting attorney for the second judicial district of North Carolina, a post he held for eight years until 1894. While considering running for Congress, he deferred to his brother-in-law Henry Plummer Cheatham, who was elected to the US House in 1890.
White was a delegate to the 1896 and 1900 Republican National Conventions. In 1896 he was elected to the U.S. Congress representing the predominantly black Second District from his residence in Tarboro. He defeated the white Democratic incumbent Frederick A. Woodard. The Republican president William McKinley carried many on his coattails, but White also benefited because a Democratic-Populist fusionist candidate had drawn off votes from Woodard. In addition, the 1894 legislature had repealed some laws which Democrats had used to restrict black voting, and the turnout in 1896 among black voters was 85 percent.
In 1898 White was re-elected in a three-way race. In a period of increasing disfranchisement of blacks in the South, he was the last of five African Americans in Congress during the Jim Crow era of the later nineteenth century. There were two from South Carolina, Cheatham before him from North Carolina, and one from Virginia. After them, no African Americans would be elected from the South until 1972, after federal civil rights legislation was passed to enforce constitutional rights for citizens. No African Americans were elected to Congress from North Carolina until 1992.
Republicans since the 1880s had been calling for federal oversight of elections, to try to halt the discriminatory abuses in the South. Representative Henry Cabot Lodge and Senator George Hoar led a renewed effort in early 1890, when Lodge introduced a Federal Elections Bill to enforce provisions of the 15th Amendment giving citizens the right to vote. Henry Cheatham was the only black Congressman at the time and never gave a speech while the House considered the bill. It narrowly passed the House in July but languished in the Senate; it was eventually filibustered, overwhelmed by debate on silver coinage to relieve economic strain in rural areas.
During his tenure, White worked for African-American civil rights and consistently highlighted issues of justice, relating discussions on the economy, foreign policy and colonization to the treatment of blacks in the South. He supported an effort for reduction legislation derived from the 14th Amendment, to reduce Congressional delegations in proportion to the voting population that states were illegally disfranchising. He challenged the House in 1899 and again after the 1900 census to proceed with reduction legislation.
Representative Edgar Dean Crumpacker of Indiana, who was on the Select Committee of the Census, had introduced a reduction measure that got the most attention, but it was reported out of committee in 1899 too late for action. In 1901 he introduced another measure. His bill proposed to penalize Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, and South Carolina, which had approved state constitutions disfranchising blacks. (They were followed by other southern states through 1910.) He proposed a plan based on reducing representation based on total state illiteracy rates, as he believed that illiterates would fail the education or literacy tests. While his plan earned much discussion, his bill was tabled. A reduction effort in 1902 also failed.
White used the power of his office to appoint several African-American postmasters across his district, with the assistance of the state's Republican senator, Jeter C. Pritchard. They were able to make patronage hires, as did other postmasters. Following the actions of North Carolina Democrats in 1899, who changed the state constitution to disfranchise blacks, White chose not to seek a third term. He told the Chicago Tribune, "I cannot live in North Carolina and be a man and be treated as a man." He announced plans to leave his home state and start a law practice in Washington, DC at the end of his term.
On January 20, 1900, White introduced the first bill in Congress to make lynching a federal crime to be prosecuted by federal courts; it died in committee. A month later, as the House was debating issues of territorial expansion, White defended his bill by giving examples of crimes in the South. He said that conditions in the region had to "provoke questions about ...national and international policy." He said,
"Should not a nation be just to all her citizens, protect them alike in all their rights, on every foot of her soil, in a word, show herself capable of governing all within her domain before she undertakes to exercise sovereign authority over those of a foreign land—with foreign notions and habits not at all in harmony with our American system of government? Or, to be more explicit, should not charity first begin at home?"
White delivered his final speech in the House on January 29, 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. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people; faithful, industrious, loyal, rising people – full of potential force."
White returned to law and entered banking, moving his family permanently to Washington, DC.
In 1906 they moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which had a well-established black community. The city began to attract more blacks as it had industrial jobs; it was a destination in the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South in the early twentieth century. White founded a commercial savings bank as well as practicing law. White was wealthy with a net worth of $30,000 in 1902. He also founded the town of Whitesboro in southern New Jersey as a planned community developed for African Americans, together with prominent investors such as Booker T. Washington, the educator, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the poet, along with two daughters of Judge Mifflin W. Gibbs: Ida Gibbs Hunt and Harriet Gibbs Marshall.
White was an early officer in the National Afro-American Council, a nationwide civil rights organization created in 1898. He served several terms as one of nine national vice presidents, and was twice an unsuccessful candidate for the Council's presidency. After the Council dissolved in 1908, he became an early member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People founded that year. It formed a Philadelphia chapter in 1913.
In 1912, White was an unsuccessful candidate for the Republican nomination for Congress from Philadelphia's First district, following the death of the incumbent congressman. In 1916, he became the first African American to be selected as an alternate delegate at large from Pennsylvania to the Republican National Convention. In 1917, White was appointed assistant city solicitor for Philadelphia.
Legacy and honors
- 2002, the town of Tarboro, where White lived during his tenure in Congress, established "George White Day" and has celebrated it annually.
- On September 26, 2009, President Barack Obama referred to White's farewell speech in his remarks at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Awards Dinner in Washington, DC.
- 2010, a state highway historical marker in White's honor was dedicated in Tarboro.
- 2012 George Henry White: American Phoenix, a documentary about George Henry White's life and legacy. 115 mins. Produced by LightSmith Productions.
- African Americans in the United States Congress
- Henry P. Cheatham
- John Mercer Langston
- Thomas E. Miller
- George Washington Murray
- Benjamin R. Justesen, George Henry White: An Even Chance in the Race of Life (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001): 2–3.
- Justesen (2001), George Henry White, pp. 2-7
- Eric Anderson, "White, George Henry," American National Biography 23 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 205–206
- Justesen (2001), George Henry White, pp. 8-12
- Justesen (2001), George Henry White, pp. 17-20
- Justesen (2001), George Henry White, pp. 30-33
- Justesen (2001), George Henry White, p. 23
- "George Henry White", Black Americans in Congress, US Congress
- "The Negroes’ Temporary Farewell: Jim Crow and the Exclusion of African Americans from Congress, 1887–1929", Black Americans in Congress, US Congress, accessed 5 June 2012
- Historical Essay: "Legislative Interests"/ "The Negroes’ Temporary Farewell: Jim Crow and the Exclusion of African Americans from Congress, 1887–1929", Black Americans in Congress, US Congress
- "Marker honors black Southern congressman from NC", WRAL-News, 29 January 2011, accessed 5 June 2012
- "Defense of the Negro Race--Charges Answered", Speech of Hon. George H. White, of North Carolina, in the House of Representatives, January 29, 1901, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina
- Culp, Daniel Wallace (1902). Twentieth century Negro literature; or, A cyclopedia of thought on the vital topics relating to the American Negro. Atlanta: J.L. Nichols & Co. p. 224.
- "George Henry White", Triangle Tribune
- George Henry White at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress
- "Defense of the Negro Race--Charges Answered" Speech of Hon. George H. White, of North Carolina, in the House of Representatives, January 29, 1901.
- Fusion Politics in 1890s North Carolina
- North Carolina Election of 1898
- George Henry White at Find a Grave