By Dr. Glen Bowman | The Daily Advance (Elizabeth, NC)
Throughout its history, the institution now called Elizabeth City State University has brought in renowned commencement speakers — for example, W.E.B. DuBois, Gov. Terry Sanford, and Gov. Pat McCrory, who will be addressing the graduates on May 9.
George Henry White, the bravest of all such luminaries, spoke in 1896. There were only seven graduates — but that number was seven more than Fayetteville, Winston-Salem, and Plymouth normals had combined.
Born in Bladen County in 1852, White was a successful educator and lawyer before turning 30. He won a seat in the North Carolina House in 1880, helping pass a law opening black normal schools in Franklinton, New Bern, Salisbury, and Plymouth.
He also served in the state Senate. In 1896 voters from North Carolina’s Second District sent him to Congress.
He quickly gained a reputation for telling it like it was. An articulate defender of equal justice under the law, he introduced a bill making lynching a federal crime, and the aiding of and abetting in it treason. It failed, and he endured personal attacks for daring to put forward such legislation.
Although African-Americans comprised the majority of lynching victims, some poor whites and Jews also suffered. In March 1898, he pled “not for special privileges for my people...we want and have a right to expect...all the privileges of an American citizen. We will be content with nothing less.”
After the election of 1898, which was fueled by a white supremacy campaign, White was the only African-American left in Congress. He relished the chance to serve as such, saying that the “the only apology that I have to make for the earnestness with which I have spoken is that I am pleading for the life, the liberty, the future happiness, and manhood suffrage for one-eighth of the entire population of the United States.”
During the summer of 1900, state voters approved a referendum that disenfranchised the majority of African-Americans. Knowing that he had no chance, he chose not to stand for reelection.
He took the floor of the House one last time on Jan. 29, 1901, admitting that while the 1900 election marked “perhaps the Negro’s temporary farewell” from Congress, “Phoenix-like he will rise someday and come again.” White left North Carolina and politics forever, choosing instead to settle permanently in Philadelphia, where he passed in 1918.
After White’s departure, no African-American anywhere was elected to Congress until 1928, when Republican Oscar DePriest, who once spoke in Elizabeth City, was elected from Chicago. The next African-American to represent North Carolina was Eva Clayton, elected in 1992.
White’s passion for civil rights and equal opportunity reached future generations, and one day his paternal grandson Kermit E. White would be the first African-American chair of the ECSU Board of Trustees. In January 2015, a meeting was held in Tarboro to make plans to push for a postage stamp recognizing the Honorable George Henry White, a great American.
Next time we will look at a local leader who served this area for over 55 years.
Glen Bowman Ph.D., is a professor of history at Elizabeth City State University