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Christensen: A tale of two statesmen

A reversal of reputations is an unpredictable thing, no more so than in the case of Charles Brantley Aycock and George Henry White.

Aycock and White were contemporaries – Eastern North Carolina lawyers, politicians and adversaries. Aycock was a white Democrat, and White was a black Republican.

January 1901 was a significant time for both men. Aycock was sworn in as North Carolina’s governor; White ended his term in Congress – as the last African-American in that body for the next 28 years.

In the ensuing decades, Aycock was hailed as North Carolina’s great education governor. His birthplace in Wayne County would become a historical park, statues of him were erected in the State Capitol and the nation’s Capitol, and school buildings would be named in his honor.

White, essentially forced to leave the state, was nearly a forgotten man.

But the tides of history have turned. More attention is being paid to Aycock’s role in the white supremacist campaigns of 1898 and 1900 that enabled Democrats to seize power in the state, and less to his effort to improve education.

Duke University recently renamed Aycock Residence Hall because of his role in the racist campaigns. It is now East Residence Hall.

And on Friday, Duke will be the site of a banquet, hosted by the Benjamin and Edith Spaulding Descendants Foundation, honoring the 115th anniversary of White’s farewell speech to Congress.

The banquet will feature a speech by Rep. G.K. Butterfield of Wilson, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

It is hard to imagine Duke hosting a banquet honoring Aycock now. The legislature recently voted to replace his statue in the U.S. Capitol with one of evangelist Billy Graham after Graham dies.

But White’s reputation has been on the rise – thanks to the efforts of a collection of activists, historians and others. Tarboro has proclaimed a George White Day. A highway historical marker has been erected, and a post office has been named in his honor. Supporters are lobbying for a postage stamp.

White, who was born in 1852 and died in 1918, succeeded in nearly everything he tried – law, education, banking, real estate, politics. He was a teacher and principal before entering politics. He was the only black prosecutor in the country before being elected to Congress from the 2nd District – called The Black Second because the Democratic legislature gerrymandered as many black voters into the district as possible.

During his four years in the House, 1897-1901, White was the only black in Congress. Among the issues he championed was an anti-lynching law.

During the white supremacy campaigns, White was the target of scurrilous attacks from Democrats and Democratic-leaning newspapers, especially The News and Observer. Among other things, this paper ran a front page article alleging that White’s wife, an Oberlin-educated schoolteacher, received an express package containing rifles – part of a narrative that whites needed to seize power because of the threat of black violence.

In the face of the supremacy campaigns and the pending disenfranchisement of black voters, White announced in 1900 that he would not seek a third term. He said that even if he won, the Democrats would not validate his election. And he said the attacks on his wife were taking a toll on her health.

‘Temporary farewell’

In a farewell address in Congress in January 1901, he said black people were advancing “in the face of lynching, burning at the stake, with the humiliation of Jim Crow (railroad) cars, the disenfranchisement of our male citizens, slander and degradation of our women, with the factories closed against us. ... With all these odds against us, we are forging our way ahead, slowly, perhaps, but surely. ... These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heartbroken, bruised, and bleeding, but God-fearing people, faithful, industrious, loyal, people-rising people, full of potential force. 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 of one-eighth of the entire population of the United States.”

He concluded: “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.”

There was loud applause, and then debate resumed on agriculture appropriations bills.

Back in Raleigh, White’s retirement was met by jeers from the white Democratic establishment.

“George H. White, the insolent Negro who has so long represented the proud people of North Carolina in the Congress of the United States, has retired from office forever,” said state Rep. Aus Watts, one of the Democratic Party’s chief operatives.

“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.”

No other black person was elected to Congress until Republican Oscar DePriest was elected from Chicago in 1928.

None was elected from North Carolina until Eva Clayton and Mel Watt in 1992. Clayton is scheduled to be a special guest at the Duke dinner Friday night.

White left North Carolina, opening a law practice in Washington, D.C., starting the town of Whitesboro in New Jersey and starting a bank in Philadelphia.

Speaking to a Congressional Black Caucus dinner in Washington in September 2009, President Barack Obama retold the George White story.

Obama concluded: “While George Henry White might not have foreseen the exact details of Montgomery and Selma; while he might not have foreseen the precise outlines of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and all the struggles to come, he knew ... that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”