Exactly 150 years after North Carolina legislators ratified the constitutional amendment ending slavery, state leaders gathered in the same room to recognize the anniversary.
The 100-4 House vote at the state Capitol on Dec. 4, 1865, made North Carolina the next-to-last state to approve the Thirteenth Amendment.
“Today we are gathered here to mark the moment when a generation of North Carolinians did their part, however imperfectly, to make our union more perfect,” said N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Martin, who spoke at Friday’s anniversary ceremony in the old state House chamber.
Martin highlighted the rapid change the amendment brought to North Carolina after years of Civil War. “Just three years after ratification, 16 African-Americans were elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives, and three were elected to the state Senate,” he said. “We must mark this occasion by renewing our commitment to the goals of justice, tranquility and liberty.”
The State Archives put North Carolina’s copy of the amendment on display for a few hours. It’s hardly ever shown publicly because the 150-year-old paper is sensitive to light.
Also making a rare appearance: Gov. William Woods Holden, who led the state in the years following the Civil War. He was portrayed by Capitol docent Rick Walton, who reenacted Holden’s speech to the legislature supporting the amendment.
“It is the wish of our best friend, the president of the United States, that this be done,” a bespectacled Walton said.
Friday’s speakers didn’t mention another action the 1865 N.C. House took at the same time. A separate resolution stated that the Thirteenth Amendment “does not enlarge powers of Congress to legislate on the subject of freedmen within the States.”
The legislators added the resolution because they worried the amendment might allow the federal government to legislate civil rights. And according to William S. Powell’s “Encyclopedia of North Carolina,” the amendment got support because state lawmakers had little choice – rejecting it would have meant federal control over the state would continue.
Friday’s speeches focused more on the practical impact of the Thirteenth Amendment – the successes of North Carolina’s black residents in the decades following the end of slavery.
Judy Kay Jefferson, director of community and constituent affairs for Gov. Pat McCrory, listed several: The founding of multiple black colleges in the state and the rise of Thomas Stith – the former Durham City Councilman who serves as chief of staff for McCrory.
“This, all because of the freedom given by the Thirteenth Amendment,” Jefferson said.