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  • W. Terry Smith

George Henry White Day 2011

TARBORO — Tarboro, Edgecombe County and North Carolina honored former black Congressman George Henry White again Saturday by unveiling a North Carolina Highway Historical Marker in his name at the corner of Main and Granville streets downtown. It is about a block away from where White lived when he was elected to two terms in the U.S. Congress in 1896 and 1898, making him at the time the only black member in Congress.

The post office in Tarboro is named after White; his portrait hangs in the county courthouse.

"I am a student of George Henry White," U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-1st District, told the 100 or so folks who came out for the program sponsored by the Phoenix Historical Society in the County Administration Building and walked to the corner for the unveiling of the marker. "I have enjoyed every minute reading about this remarkable man."

Before the Civil War, there were 14,000 slaves in Edgecombe County, more slaves than white people, Butterfield said. When Wilson County was formed from Edgecombe in 1855, some 4,000 slaves lived in Wilson.

After the War Between the States ended in 1865, Butterfield said the 10,000 slaves in Edgecombe built churches, some of which are still standing today.

"Then they built schools to educate their children and got involved in civic activities," he said.

Every black was a registered voter, said Butterfield, who made remarks about White last week on the floor on Congress.

However by 1900, voting laws were changed and voters were required to convince the registrar you could read and write. All 10,000 blacks in Edgecombe were off the rolls until 1965 when the Voting Rights was passed.

In 1968, a mother of four children who was married to a prominent black attorney in Littleton was persuaded to run. Eva Clayton "did reasonably well" but lost that race.

In 1992 she was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Walter Jones Sr. and was elected in November 1992. Clayton and Mel Watt were the first black North Carolinians elected to Congress since White.

"Today we have 42 in the House and one in the White House," Clayton said.

Clayton, who retired after five terms, thanked the Phoenix Historical Society "for reminding us of African Americans who have made contributions to Edgecombe County."

She commended the town (in 2002) and county (in 2003) for passing resolutions declaring Jan. 29 as George Henry White Day. Tarboro Mayor Donald Morris and Edgecombe County Board of Commissioners Chairman Leonard Wiggins read their resolutions during the program.

Clayton said White was a self-made man. His focus was defending civil rights. He introduced anti-lynching legislation. Although the anti-lynching effort failed "he taught us about standing up for what you believe," Clayton said.

Dr. David Dennard, director of African American Studies at East Carolina University, said White was "a man of enormous talent."

He referred to White's famous farewell speech and said, "You can come home, Mr. White, after the honorable, commendable service you rendered 100 years ago."

Dr. Ben Justesen, the author of "George H. White: An Even Chance in the Race of Life" and many articles on the congressman, was presented with the Helen Quigless Jr. Award for his work.

Justesen said White remained very active in civil rights when he moved to Philadelphia after he quit Congress.

White declined to run for a third term after a state law was passed that disenfranchised black voters. A black lawmaker wasn’t elected to Congress from the South again until after Jim Crow in 1972.

Afterwards, Justesen said White inspired him when he saw an exhibit on White in the N.C. Museum of History in 1975.

"He was long overlooked," Justesen said.

Clayton and Betty White Washington of Kinston, a great-great niece of White, unveiled the marker. It is the 75th in the state and 17th in Edgecombe County.

Among the crowd was Tarboro Councilmen Al Hull and Taro Knight and County Commissioner Viola Harris.

Read the original article on The Daily Southerner.

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