George Henry White.

by Lisa Y. Henderson

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GEORGE HENRY WHITE (December 18, 1852 – December 28, 1918) was an attorney, the Republican U.S. Congressman from North Carolina between 1897 and 1901, and a banker. He is considered the last African-American Congressman of the Jim Crow era, one of twenty to be elected in the late nineteenth century from the South.

White was born in Rosindale, Bladen County, North Carolina, where his natural mother may have been a slave.  His father Wiley Franklin White was a free person of color of Scots-Irish and African ancestry, who was a laborer in a turpentine camp. George had an older brother, John, and their father may have purchased their freedom.  In 1857 Wiley White married Mary Anna Spaulding, a granddaughter of Benjamin Spaulding. Born into slavery as the son of a white plantation owner, Spaulding had been freed as a young man and worked to acquire more than 2300 acres of pine woods, which he apportioned to his own large family.

White studied at Howard University. He graduated in 1877 and was hired as a principal at a school in New Bern. He studied law in the city as an apprentice under former Superior Court Judge William J. Clarke and was admitted to the North Carolina bar in 1879.

In 1880 White ran as a Republican candidate from New Bern and was elected to a single term in the North Carolina House of Representatives. He returned to politics in 1884, winning election to the North Carolina Senate from Craven County. In 1886, he was elected solicitor and prosecuting attorney for the second judicial district of North Carolina, a post he held for eight years. Though he considered running for Congress, he deferred to his brother-in-law Henry Plummer Cheatham, who was elected to the US House in 1890.

White was a delegate to the 1896 and 1900 Republican National Conventions. In 1896 he was elected to the U.S. Congress representing the predominantly black Second District from his residence in Tarboro, defeating white Democratic incumbent Frederick A. Woodard of Wilson. In 1898 White was re-elected in a three-way race. In a period of increasing disfranchisement of blacks in the South, he was the last of five African Americans in Congress during the Jim Crow era.

On January 20, 1900, White introduced the first bill in Congress to make lynching a federal crime to be prosecuted by federal courts; it died in committee. A month later, as the House was debating issues of territorial expansion, White defended his bill by giving examples of crimes in the South. Arguing that conditions in the region had to “provoke questions about …national and international policy,” he said, “Should not a nation be just to all her citizens, protect them alike in all their rights, on every foot of her soil, in a word, show herself capable of governing all within her domain before she undertakes to exercise sovereign authority over those of a foreign land—with foreign notions and habits not at all in harmony with our American system of government? Or, to be more explicit, should not charity first begin at home?”

White delivered his final speech in the House on January 29, 1901: “This 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, rising people – full of potential force.”

After White left office, no other black American would serve in Congress until Oscar De Priest was elected in 1928. No African-American was elected to Congress from North Carolina until 1992.

Adapted from Wikipedia. Photo courtesy of http://www.lib.unc.edu.

In the 1860 census of Columbus County: Willey F. White, 39, farmer, born Pitt County; wife M.A., 20, and children John W., 14, and W.F., 7, plus W.T. Freeman, 7.

[Sidenotes: (1) George H. White’s secretary during his Washington years was William S. Hagans, son of Napoleon Hagans and nephew of my great-great-grandmother Louvicey Artis Aldridge.  (2) My junior high school in Wilson NC was named after Frederick A. Woodard. — LYH]