Opinion: The Man The Legend and the Legacy
By Benjamin R. Justesen, Ph.D.
Author of George Henry White: An Even Chance in the Race of Life (2001) and
In His Own Words: The Writings, Speeches, and Letters of George Henry White (2004)
Seminar questions to consider:
What did he do that is worth remembering?
If his life is worth remembering, why have so few people ever heard of him?
What kept him from gaining and keeping the recognition given other black leaders?
What does his legacy mean for the 21st century?
1) Who was George Henry White?
➢ George Henry White (1852–1918) held public office as an elected Republican official for the last two decades of the 19th century.
➢ The last African American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in the 19th century, he was also the first to serve during the 20th century.
➢ Through his stepmother, he was a member of the extended family of former slave Benjamin Spaulding and his wife Edith, of Columbus County, N.C.
➢ He proudly claimed the blood of three races—black, white, and Native American.
➢ Born before the Civil War, and raised as a free child by his father and adopted family, he rose from rural poverty to national political influence.
➢ He gained a university-level education and served for a time as a schoolteacher and school principal in New Bern, NC.
➢ After reading the law under a white attorney in New Bern, he passed the state bar exam and established a law practice.
➢ He entered politics as a Republican in 1880, serving in both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly and two terms (8 years) as the nation’s only elected African American district solicitor (prosecutor).
➢ In 1896, he was elected to Congress from North Carolina’s Second District, serving two terms (1897–1901) as the only African American in the U.S. House of Representatives.
2) What did he do that is worth remembering?
➢ In an era when black citizens were widely disfranchised—stripped of legal rights to vote—across the South, George White provided 7,000,000 black Southerners with a national voice in Congress.
➢ He sponsored the first federal law—never passed—that sought to make lynching an offense punishable by death.
➢ He served as a state delegate to Republican national conventions in 1896 and 1900, twice voting to nominate William McKinley for the U.S. presidency.
➢ He was a trusted confidant of President McKinley (1897–1901).
➢ After choosing to retire undefeated in 1900, he left office in 1901, the last African American in Congress until 1929.
➢ His January 1901 “farewell speech” to the U.S. House has long been considered a superb example of political rhetoric.
➢ In that speech, he pleaded for equal justice for black Americans, and predicted their eventual return to Congress.
➢ After leaving Congress, he practiced law in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, Pa., where he founded the first black-owned commercial savings bank.
➢ He also founded a land development company that created the small town of Whitesboro, N.J., as a refuge for African Americans fleeing Jim Crow segregation and disfranchisement in the South.
➢ He was an early national vice president in the National Afro-American Council—the largest civil rights organization of the era, created in 1898.
➢ George White was also active in the Council’s successor group, which became known as the NAACP, and helped to found Philadelphia’s first NAACP chapter in 1913.
➢ He was a lifelong supporter of education, serving on the boards of trustees at several historically black colleges.
➢ He also held honorary degrees from Howard University, Livingstone College, Biddle University (Johnson C. Smith), and Alabama A & M College.
➢ George White died in Philadelphia in 1918, and is buried in Eden Cemetery nearby.
3) If his life is worth remembering, why have so few people ever heard of him?
➢ George White was a household name in North Carolina–and much of the nation—until 1901, when he declined to return there to live.
➢ He was highly critical of the state’s Democratic leaders—who espoused white supremacy, Jim Crow laws, disfranchisement, and legal segregation—and of lily-white Republicans who collaborated with Democrats.
➢ The News and Observer and other newspapers publicly ridiculed White and called for his defeat for reelection in 1898.
➢ His public campaign speeches were reported inaccurately as demanding social equality for black citizens, and he was unfairly branded as a militant troublemaker.
➢ A conservative Republican, White had, in fact, insisted only on political equality—preserving the right to vote and hold public office—although his frank language won him few allies.
➢ Unable to defeat White in 1898, Democratic leaders—now in control of the General Assembly—proposed amending the state’s constitution to disfranchise black voters.
➢ “I cannot live here and be treated as a man,” he told national newspapers after state voters agreed in 1900 to disfranchise illiterates—a move aimed specifically at North Carolina’s 100,000 black voters, almost all Republicans.
➢ He never returned to live in North Carolina.
➢ After his departure, George White was quietly ignored, and no longer mentioned by state newspapers or history books.
➢ History books written after 1900 generally omitted the names and accomplishments of White, other black congressmen, and more than 150 black legislators elected in North Carolina (1868-1898).
➢ The few historians who discussed White at all downplayed his long and admirable career, instead dismissing him as a radical militant and ineffective official.
➢ His public rehabilitation began only in 1975, when the N.C. Museum of History included him and 19th-century congressmen John Hyman, James O’Hara, and Henry Cheatham in historical exhibits.
4) What kept him from gaining and keeping the recognition given other black leaders?
➢ Almost all black voters in North Carolina in the 19th century were Republicans, including White and other congressmen and state legislators.
➢ George White became the public face of the state’s Republican party during the so-called “fusion era” (1894–1901), as well as a national symbol: the nation’s only black congressman.
➢ Southern Democrats had unsuccessfully targeted him for defeat in 1898.
➢ Unable to defeat him outright, Josephus Daniels and others decided to marginalize his importance—first by ridiculing him, later by ignoring him, and finally by exiling him.
➢ He was regularly caricatured in ludicrous cartoons printed in the News and Observer and other Democratic newspapers.
➢ Because he refused to stop speaking out against injustices facing black American citizens, White was characterized, unfairly, as a militant troublemaker by Democratic leaders.
➢ After the racial massacre in Wilmington, N.C. (November 1898), George White made speeches in Washington, D.C., Boston, and Canada, publicizing the killings of black citizens by armed whites who overthrew the city’s elected Republican government.
➢ He continued for years to criticize Josephus Daniels and other Democratic white supremacists, and later criticized lily-white Republicans who favored prohibitions on black officeholders.
➢ George White was one of the few black leaders of his era who openly criticized Daniels and North Carolina Democrats: an example of “speaking truth to power.”
➢ Other black leaders who declined to speak out publicly on the Wilmington massacre and similar lynchings elsewhere were able to maintain their positions of relative public influence for far longer: Booker T. Washington, John C. Dancy, and Judson W. Lyons, for instance.
➢ Critics on both ends of the political spectrum, even within his own race, attacked him.
➢ He was linked by many to Booker T. Washington, a friend whose accommodationist philosophy he certainly did not share.
➢ He refused, characteristically, to compromise. For reasons of his own—both philosophical and psychological—White was unwilling or unable, perhaps both, to stop making such statements, either in Congress or elsewhere.
➢ By leaving North Carolina, he effectively lost his home base—and was never able to recover from that loss or build another political base elsewhere.
➢ Angry at his defeat by Bishop Alexander Walters for the presidency of the National Afro-American Council in 1901, White left the group, distancing himself from many former allies.
➢ The combination of his frankness, his stubbornness, and his naïveté led to his eventual exclusion from national political power circles.
➢ He remained an influential political figure only in Philadelphia, where he moved in family in 1906, and where he died in 1918.
5) What does his legacy mean for the 21st century?
➢ In the era of the nation’s first elected African American president, George White’s legacy should be remembered as helping pave the way for the resumption of black political power on a national level, from 1929-present.
➢ As a staunch Republican—like almost 90 percent of black voters in the 19th century, and a majority until the 1930s—George White’s memory is an important reminder of the changing political landscape of American politics.
➢ As a self-made man who fought hard to educate himself and rose from poverty to relative wealth and political influence—based entirely on his own efforts—George White’s life provides an important counterpoint to the sleazy image many people have of modern politicians.
➢ As scrupulously ethical public official, George White’s stubborn honesty and unfailing determination make him an excellent example for those seeking a historical figure to admire.
➢ As an orator and statesman, his record remains all but unmatched.
➢ His farewell address in 1901 deserves to be read both as literature and as a fascinating expression of personal philosophy and commitment to justice.
➢ For both his accomplishments and his flaws—including a complex temperament that made it difficult for him to compromise, even at the cost of his career—George White deserves to be remembered as an unusual human being and rare public servant.