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Bill Hand: Thursday marks historic congressman's birthday

By Bill Hand, Sun Journal Staff | Published: Sunday, December 14, 2014 at 17:24 PM.

This Thursday is the birthday of George H. White.

You may not know who he is, but you ought to. I do believe there is one of those little historical markers downtown stating where his house is. But this guy merits a full-blown billboard.

George H. White was the last black congressman before Jim Crow (locally authored by New Bern’s own Sen. Furnifold M. Simmons) removed the black race from N.C. politics for something like 60 years.

He was born a slave on Dec. 18, 1852, in Rosindale, which is in Bladen County. And rising up from that trumps Honest Abe’s log cabin, in my book. His father was a freedman, but his mother was not, and in those days a child’s freedom was determined by its matriarchal ties.

I don’t know how George gained his freedom. Possibly his father purchased it. So, as a freedman, he was able to pursue an education, something strictly against the law for a man in chains.

In 1874, he studied law at Howard University, was admitted to the North Carolina Bar and took up his profession in New Bern. He also became principal of the New Bern State Normal School, which had been set up as a training institution for African-American teachers.

Under the Grand Old Party, he won a seat in the state house in 1880, then the state senate in 1884. Running for office in the black-dominated 2nd Congressional District (which included New Bern), he defeated two-term incumbent Democrat Frederick A. Woodard to capture a 56th U.S. Congressional seat in 1898. It was a short, but glorious, term.

Already, at home, the state’s constitution was being altered to silence the black race in politics. This did not deter White from fighting for his people. He introduced a bill to make lynching a federal and capital crime, pointing out how it had become a weapon of terror used by whites in the South to control the black populace. (In 1899, 87 of the 109 people lynched had been African-American.) The bill was easily defeated.

He also pressed for the reduction of representation in Congress for those states that denied minorities the right to vote, as called for in the Fourteenth Amendment’s second section.

North Carolina was in the process of doing just that: By the election of 1900, rules had been implemented denying the right of illiterate blacks to vote (but still preserving the rights of illiterate whites). Knowing he could not possibly carry another election, he declined to run for another term, leaving the door open for Simmons to enter his era of power, a reward promised him by the Democratic Party when he penned those Jim Crow laws.

White made a forceful final speech before Congress in January 1901, noting: “This, Mr. Chairman, 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 people — rising people of potential force.”

Contact Bill Hand at or 252-635-5677.

Source: Sun Journal

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