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Christensen: Trying to keep alive NC Rep. George H. White's legacy

By Rob Christensen,

Thursday will be the anniversary of North Carolina Rep. George H. White's famous farewell speech to Congress - a speech filled with history and meaning unlike the C-SPAN blather we get today.

White, a Republican, was the only African-American serving in Congress. But he had decided to not seek re-election in 1900 in the face of the second straight Democratic-led white supremacy campaign that would lead to the disenfranchisement of most black voters in North Carolina and the enactment of Jim Crow laws.

And so, White took to the House floor on Jan. 29, 1901.

"This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negro's temporary farewell to the American Congress; but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise someday and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heartbroken, bruised, and bleeding people, full of potential force."

Not until 1928, when Republican Oscar DePriest was elected from the South Side of Chicago, would another black serve in Congress.

Several groups of North Carolinians are working to make sure that White's legacy is not forgotten. They plan to meet Saturday in Tarboro to work on several projects, including a possible proclamation from President Barack Obama next year to mark the 115th anniversary of White's farewell to Congress, inclusion of a White exhibit in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., a postage stamp honoring White, and wider use of a 15-minute documentary of White's life.

White was a remarkable man, and many of his accomplishments came during a little understood period in North Carolina - after Reconstruction but before the Jim Crow laws were enacted - when there were more possibilities for blacks here than in most of the rest of the South.

White was born in Bladen County in 1852, the son of a mulatto father and a mother who possibly had been a slave. Educated at Howard University, White prospered in everything he did - school principal, lawyer, later entering politics as a district attorney, state legislator and two-term congressman.

As the only African-American in Congress, White saw himself as the spokesman for the country's black population, pushing for anti-lynching legislation, and championing efforts to expand congressional representation in Southern states that disenfranchised blacks. He was the object of tremendous racist abuse, including from this newspaper. White believed the abuse contributed to his wife's early death.

After his term ended, state Rep. A.D. Watts of Iredell, a leading operative in the Democratic machine in Raleigh, stood in the state Capitol to mark the moment.

"George H. White, the insolent Negro, who has so long represented the proud people of North Carolina in Congress of the United States, has retired from office forever," Watts said. "We have a white man's government in every part of the old State, and from this hour no Negro will again disgrace the old State in the council chambers of the nation. For these mercies, thank God."

It was not until 1992, with the election of Democrat Eva Clayton, that another black person was elected to Congress from North Carolina.

Saying he would not be a man and remain in the South, White moved first to Washington and then to Philadelphia, where he engaged in law, banking and real estate - building a black community called Whitesboro near Cape May, N.J. White believed African-Americans had limited opportunities in the Jim Crow South and predicted and encouraged mass migration to the North. He died in 1918.

White has already received some recognition with road markers in New Bern and Tarboro, where he lived at various points in his life. There is also a road marker in Whitesboro, N.J. White was the subject of a 2001 biography by Benjamin R. Justesen called "George Henry White, an Even Chance in the Race of Life."

Obama remembered White at a dinner of the Congressional Black Caucus in 2009. Noting that African-Americans now sit in city halls and state legislatures across the country, Obama said it was a fulfillment of White's prophesy that, Phoenix-like, blacks would rise again.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or

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