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George Henry White: Tribute to a great American
Tuesday, January 31, 2012
TARBORO — Why isn’t George Henry White a household name? If Vincent Spalding has anything to do with it, that will soon change.
Long ignored in African American history books and recognitions, George Henry White of North Carolina was elected to Congress in 1896, and re-elected in 1898, becoming the last African American elected to Congress after Reconstruction, and the first to serve in the 20th century.
On Saturday, January 28th, representatives of the Phoenix Society of Tarboro and the Benjamin and Edith Spalding Descendants Foundation, Inc., came together to launch a mutually supportive effort to honor Congressman George Henry White. Vincent Spalding, President and COO of the Foundation, spoke during the landmark event honoring White, and his enduring legacy. Spalding, speaking before members of the Phoenix Historical Society and invited guests, related his personal experience with George Henry White through his reading of a major biography that was published by Benjamin R. Justesen in 2001. That book, “George Henry White: an even chance in the race of life,” made Spalding aware of the amazing accomplishments of White. In short, once Spading started reading White’s biography, he said he “could not put it down. Later, in 2011, Spalding had a chance to contact the author, who agreed to sit on the steering committee for Spalding’s foundation.
Plaque commissioned. Having Benjamin Justesen on the steering committee is just one of the many initiatives that are certain to bring the recognition to George Henry White that he so richly earns. According to a press release by the Spalding Foundation, having a plaque commissioned was one of the festivities held during this year’s celebration of George Henry White Day. The plaque, presented by the Spalding Foundation to the Phoenix Historical Society, reads: “Presented to the Phoenix Historical Society, Inc., in appreciation of your diligent and ongoing efforts to promote public knowledge of the life and enduring legacy of a landmark person and political figure, and our esteemed family member, U. S. Congressman George Henry White (1852-1918), Edgecombe County, Tarboro, North Carolina – January 28, 2012.”
Also present at the conference on Saturday was Stephen Spalding, Public Relations representative from the Spalding Foundation. Stephen Spalding held up George Henry White as a great example of the Quaker credo of “Truth to Power” when it “was much harder to do than it is today.”
Spalding elaborated, “If George Henry White were alive today, he would be just as valid as he was then. We need him as much today as we ever did. Let’s ALL be students of George Henry White.”
Presidential Proclamation. Last year, President Barack Obama issued “A Proclamation” in recognition of National African American History Month, which is celebrated during the month of February. The President referred to the “great abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass who told us, ‘if there is no struggle, there is no progress.’ Progress in America has not come easily, but has resulted from the collective efforts of generations. For centuries, African American men and women have persevered to enrich our national life and bend the arc of history toward justice…During National African American History Month, we celebrate the vast contributions of African Americans to our Nation’s history and identity…These brave Americans gave their energy, their spirit, and sometimes their lives for the noble cause of liberty…Though Jim Crow segregation slowed the onward march of history and expansion of the American dream, African Americans braved bigotry and violence to organize schools, churches, and neighborhood organizations. Bolstered by strong values of faith and community, black men and women have launched businesses, fueled scientific advances, served our Nation in the Armed Forces, sought public office, taught our children, and created groundbreaking works of art and entertainment…Though we inherit the extraordinary progress won by the tears and toil of our predecessors, we know barriers still remain on the road to equal opportunity. Knowledge is our strongest tool against injustice, and it is our responsibility to empower every child in America with a world-class education from cradle to career. We must continue to build on our Nation’s foundation of freedom and ensure equal opportunity, economic security, and civil rights for all Americans. After a historic recession has devastated many American families, and particularly African Americans, we must continue to create jobs, support our middle class, and strengthen pathways for families to climb out of poverty…Now, therefore, I Barack Obama, President of the United States of America…do hereby proclaim February 2011 as National African American History Month. I call upon public officials, educators, librarians, and all the people of the United States to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities…”
The President’s call for educators to recognize the contributions of black Americans was reflected in the comments of several people at the conference on Saturday, who regretted not knowing about George Henry White until recently. Viola Harris, Edgecombe County native, and an Edgecombe County Commissioner, stated: “When the Commission got ready to do the Resolution [for George Henry White Day], it was the first we had heard of George Henry White.”
She continued, “in fact, I lived for several years on Granville Street, and never knew that George Henry White had lived across the street from where I lived. You know, it is amazing to me how that block of time has just been released to only a small group of people, when people should have that as one of their models, just like Martin Luther King, Jr., and everyone else.
Harris elaborated on the need for more black history to be taught in our schools. She stated: “We no longer have an African American class in high school. When my children were there in the 90’s, it was a popular class, and it bothered me that, as soon as they graduated in 2000, it disappeared. When the teacher retired, so did the class. So now, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, about those people. So how are they going to hear about George Henry White, when there’s nothing in the textbook? But at least, they had that one teacher who branched out, to bring that kind of atmosphere to our young people.”
Who was George Henry White? And what did he do that is worth remembering? According to Benjamin Justesen, author of White’s autobiography, George Henry White provided 7 million black Southerners with a voice in Congress. He passed the first national law, which was never passed, that sought to make lynching an offense punishable by death. While in Congress, White was a trusted friend of President McKinley. And after retiring from Congress, White gave a “last farewell” that is recorded permanently in the Congressional Record.
Who aided in George Henry White’s path to greatness? Through his stepmother, White was a member of the extended family of former slave Benjamin Spalding and his wife, Edith Spalding, of Columbus County, North Carolina. Through his family, White proudly claimed the blood of three races –- black, white, and Native American. White’s strong ties to his step-mother, Edith Spalding, created the inner strength for him to rise from poverty, obtain a university education (from Howard University), and to work as a teacher and principal in New Bern, North Carolina. As preparation for a career in law, White studied the law under a white attorney in New Bern, passed his bar exam, and established a law practice. Entering politics as a Republican in 1880, he served in both houses of the North Carolina General Assembly, then two terms as the country’s only elected prosecutor. In 1896, he was elected to the United States Congress as a representative from North Carolina’s famous Second District. He served two terms (1897-1901), as the only African American in the United States House of Representatives.
But perhaps White is best known for his oratorical skills, and his eloquence with the English language. In his farewell speech to Congress, he referred to his hope for the future of his people: “Let me say, Phoenix-like, he will rise up someday, and come again.”
While George Henry White was a household name until 1901, he decided not to return to North Carolina to live. Highly critical of the state’s political leaders of the time, his speeches were often not reported correctly. Upon leaving North Carolina, White said: “I can no longer live here and be treated as a man.” After leaving Congress, he lived in Philadelphia, where he founded the first commercial black-owned commercial savings bank. He also founded a land development company that led to the founding of Whitesboro, New Jersey, where his name is honored today.
White died in 1918, and was buried in Eden Cemetery in Philadelphia. Until 1975, his name was largely forgotten in North Carolina. His revival began when the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh included him and other 19th century Congressmen in historical exhibits. The efforts of the Spalding Foundation and the Phoenix Society will ensure that White is never again forgotten.