Born in poverty during slavery; raised in hard work; educated through sacrifice; and elected to offices that eventually included the U.S. Congress. George White’s rise to power was like the flight of a phoenix, and, like the phoenix, his career in politics was consumed in flames of racial hatred. Yet, from those ashes, White started a whole new life, creating economic power and self-sufficiency for black Americans. Now, his full story can finally be told.
At the turn of the 20th Century, George Henry White was a household name. Despite 35 years of reconstruction, black representation in Congress had been whittled down to this single congressman from North Carolina. From 1897 to 1901, his was the sole voice crying out against lynching, against hate crimes, and for voting rights in the nation’s legislature. He called for federal legislation to protect civil rights and a federal agency to prosecute rights abuses. He took the floor of Congress to protest the violent takeover of Wilmington’s government by a white mob. His courageous stance attracted the anger of segregationists, who engineered his ouster. Manipulating state law to nullify the U.S. Constitution’s promise of equal voting rights, his enemies succeeded in denying votes to black constituents. North Carolina’s black citizens lost their vote, and George Henry White lost his seat.
With the door to political power closed, White recognized that economic power would be the path to equality for black Americans. He embarked upon a new effort–to create self-sufficiency and financial growth for his race. He believed that success was possible when all people were allowed “an even chance in the race of life.” These beliefs were instilled in him early, through his family.
The son of Wiley Franklin White, George was born Dec. 18, 1852. His birth mother died early, and his father married Mary Anna Spaulding, who raised George according to the values of the self-sufficient Spaulding family. Although they were free, George’s family survived through hard work of distilling turpentine from the pine trees on their land. As George described his childhood: “It was a struggle for bread and a very little butter, at hard labor … from early morn till late at night … in the turpentine forest.”
Schooling was “necessarily neglected” most of the year, but his parents encouraged learning. George was an apt pupil, first attending the Freedmen’s Bureau school at Rehobeth Church, then a private teacher training school in Lumberton, run by David P. Allen. Graduating from The Whitin School in 1872, George set his sights on the nation’s first public university for students of all races: Howard University, in Washington, D.C.
In 1874, George enrolled at Howard, where he encountered many of the influential figures of the Reconstruction era, including South Carolina Congressmen Robert Smalls and Robert Brown Elliott—whose speech endorsing the 1875 civil rights law doubtless inspired George to enter politics. John Mercer Langston, dean of Howard’s law department, was to later be elected to Congress from Virginia.
George White taught during the summers to earn money, but read Blackstone and studied law. In 1876 he worked at Philadelphia’s Centennial exhibition, where he met distinguished international visitors—and gazed daily at the symbolic torch of freedom from the still-unfinished Statue of Liberty.
After receiving his teacher’s degree at Howard in 1877, George White became principal of the black public school system in New Bern, North Carolina, and headed the black Presbyterian parochial school. After hours, he “read the law” under Republican attorney William John Clarke passing the state bar exam in 1879, as the only black applicant.
A career in politics followed; by 1885, he had served North Carolina in both the state House and Senate as a Republican. Despite personal tragedy—he was widowed twice during this period—he helped expand the state system of teacher training schools and became principal of New Bern’s state-run normal school He was a respected church leader and he also served six consecutive terms as North Carolina’s Grand Master of the black Masons.
In 1886, George White won election as state solicitor—serving superior courts in six counties, and the nation’s only elected black prosecutor. His work ethic earned him respect of white lawyers and judges, and he was reelected in 1890. He married his third wife, Cora Lena Cherry of Tarboro, and by 1893, had four children—Della; Mary Adelyne, or Mamie; Beatrice Odessa; and George, Jr., his only son.
In 1894, his growing family moved to Tarboro. Two years later, George White ran for Congress from the “Black Second” district, defeating a Democratic incumbent and a Populist opponent, to become the district’s fourth black congressman—and the only black member of the 55th Congress. His first DC residence was the former home of abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. In Congress, White was quickly recognized for his ringing speeches and advocacy. Congressman White nominated many black postmasters— three dozen in 1897 alone—with the approval of party elders, including Republican Senator Jeter C. Pritchard and President William McKinley.
But, across the country, the political climate was changing. Black political gains since Reconstruction were under attack. Lynchings became commonplace with over 2,500 incidents reported by 1900; in 1899 alone, 187 lynchings took place. Congressman White introduced an unprecedented anti-lynching bill that would make lynching a federal crime, subjecting those who participated in mob violence to potential capital punishment. His bill was sent to the Judiciary Committee, where it died.
Meanwhile, throughout the South, state legislatures were reversing black voting rights promised by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. A web of new laws was being spun to create segregation and restrict black citizens’ rights, even as black soldiers served valiantly in the Spanish American War. As such Jim Crow legislation spread, George Henry White’s presence in Congress became a special target of white supremacists. Raleigh newspaper publisher Josephus Daniels led the attack in the press, publishing ugly and false allegations against White. Despite these slurs, White was re-elected to Congress in November 1898. Just days after his re-election, however, tragedy struck. A deadly racial massacre took place in Wilmington, in which an armed mob overthrew the elected Republican city government and killed many black citizens. Alex Manly, the black editor of Wilmington Daily Record, was a prime target; the news office was burned to the ground. In Washington, Congressman White’s pleas to his fellow congressmen and to the president for federal intervention were unheeded. North Carolina’s Democratic-controlled legislature saw the chance to propose so-called literacy tests for black voters—a way to circumvent the federal constitution and cut blacks from the voting rolls.
Congressman White refused to believe that his home state would allow this travesty of justice—but in August 1900, the referendum passed. “I cannot live in North Carolina and be treated as a man,” he told the New York Times. Rather than submit to those who sought to destroy him, White decided to start over in the North.
From Washington, he expanded his law work to Philadelphia, moving his family there in 1906. He now saw that economic empowerment of black citizens would be the most urgent task, so he began creating structures to help them attain success. In Philadelphia, White established the People’s Savings Bank—the city’s first black-owned commercial bank in 1906—which helped the black community start businesses, save for education and finance land purchases. But that was only the start.
White had a vision of a model community where black families could own land, build businesses, be independent farmers, and educate their children. This dream was realized with the establishment of the town of Whitesboro in New Jersey. This town was to become George White’s most enduring legacy. Many of the early settlers came from North Carolina, such as Henry “Willie” Spaulding, who laid the town’s foundation and became its first postmaster, and many others from White’s family and friends, as well as those answering ads. The White family built the Odessa Inn, a hotel in Whitesboro, where like many others, they could enjoy summer holidays. In 1908, White completed construction of the town’s first school, beginning a long tradition of educational and professional development there that has produced many successful individuals.
During his post congressional career, George Henry White served as honorary trustee for Howard University; on the board of Berean Manual Training Institute, and as trustee of North Carolina’s Biddle University. He also served on the Board of Directors of Frederick Douglass Hospital and as a director of the Home for the Protection of Colored Women. An early leader in the NAACP, he stayed active in Republican politics, and became assistant city solicitor for Philadelphia in 1917.
On Dec. 28, 1918, George Henry White died in his sleep after a life of constant service. He was interred in Philadelphia’s Eden Cemetery–joined later by his daughter Mamie, Whitesboro’s first schoolteacher, and George, Jr., a Pittsburgh attorney.
Today, the town of Whitesboro remains George White’s living legacy, home to many individuals who inherited his passion for vision, servant leadership, entrepreneurship and family unity.
In 2010, the Benjamin and Edith Spaulding Descendants Foundation instituted the George H. White Pioneer Award to honor individuals manifesting these qualities in public life. President Barack Obama became the first recipient in 2010. In 2012, the award is being presented to Ms. Oprah Winfrey.
Nearly forgotten for more than a century, George Henry White’s stirring words rang out to Congress once more in 2009; In a speech before the Congressional Black Caucus, President Barack Obama quoted White’s farewell address to Congress, not only for himself, but for his entire race. Recalling the prophetic promise White made at that bleak moment when hopes for black representation seemed all but extinguished, President Obama recited his final words:
“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. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people; faithful, industrious, loyal people; rising people, full of potential force.”
George Henry White’s powerful story, silenced for so long, can finally be told in the 2001 biography by Benjamin R. Justesen – George Henry White: An Even Chance in the Race of Life.
He was truly “An American Phoenix.”