COURT HOUSE – George Henry White was the last black Republican Representative in Congress elected after the Civil War and his term ended in 1901. He was the Representative from North Carolina’s 55th Congressional District. So why is he important to Cape May County?
On Feb. 1, Pary Tell and Lindsay Rowland, Culture and Heritage Representatives, welcomed visitors to the Beesley House on Route 9 to see an exhibit and hear a presentation regarding White’s life and accomplishments.
White was born in North Carolina in 1852. He was born free. His family had never been slaves. One of his grandmothers was Irish and another was Waccamaw-Siouan Indian. His family worked hard making turpentine from pine trees. They knew the necessity of hard work and the value of education, and White studied hard when his day’s work in the fields and woods was done.
White attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. After that he “read for the law” (this is how people used to become lawyers; law school was not required). Before being admitted to the Bar he worked as a teacher and a principal. Under the sponsorship of North Carolina attorney William J. Clark he was the only black applicant for the North Carolina Bar in 1879.
White was also a successful businessman. As the saying goes “Lucky in business unlucky in love” proved true for White’s first two marriages. Both of his wives died. But then he found lasting love with Cora Cherry.
In 1885, White was elected to the North Carolina state senate. In 1898, White ran for Congress on a national ticket that featured popular Republican William McKinley, who was elected. But catastrophe struck White’s Congressional district when, in that same year, the only coup d’état to ever occur in the U.S. happened in the city of Wilmington. That year, the voters of Wilmington elected a Republican mayor and a Republican city council. It was also bi-racial. The Democrat party, which was an exclusively white party, was unhappy with the election. Agitated by supremacist newspaper editor Josephus Daniels, they formed an armed force and marched through the streets of the city harassing and intimidating black residents. They surrounded the city government buildings and violently forced the Republican elected officials to flee for their lives. The Democrats then put their own people into office.
White, a Congressman, begged President McKinley to send federal troops to restore order. But the best McKinley did was urge Governor Russell to call out the militia. Finally Russell did, but they not only attacked the Ku Klux Klan and the Red Shirts, both paramilitary arms of the Democrat Party, they attacked the beleaguered black population as well. Hundreds of blacks and whites were wounded and 100 African Americans were killed. In addition, 2,100 black residents left the city permanently, conceding power to the Democrats.
White spoke out strongly but he had seen the writing on the wall. North Carolina was the last state to introduce segregation but White knew he could no longer live there. In 1900, the Democrats won a landslide. White’s congressional career ended in 1901.
His farewell speech on the floor of the House was known as the Phoenix speech, for the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes. "This is perhaps the Negroes' temporary farewell to the American Congress,” White said. “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."
White's forecast was correct and it was not until 1928 that another African American, Oscar De Priest of Illinois, was elected to Congress.
White preached the Gospel of self-sufficiency and economic power a.k.a. free enterprise. He saw it as a way to raise the condition of the disenfranchised Freemen.
Sheryl Davis Spaulding, who married into the historic family, has taken an active part in preserving and publicizing White’s legacy. A short film to which she contributed, “George Henry White, An American Phoenix,” was shown at the event. It will be shown again on Feb. 12 and Feb. 28 at 7 p.m.
A principal, politician, proprietor and prophet, White moved to Philadelphia in 1905. There, he successfully practiced law and established the People's Saving Bank at 1508 Lombard Street. This bank was able to help African Americans purchase homes and start businesses. But White’s enduring legacy was to establish Whitesboro, a community for migrating African Americans from the Deep South.
Whitesboro was to be a refuge and economic chance for the victims of Jim Crow legislation flooding the Deep South. Luke Alexander told the assembled group at the Beesley House that although White had four children he has no direct descendants. But he does have hundreds of collateral ones, including Alexander and many of the well-known families of Cape May County. They include the Spauldings the Vassers, the Grahams, the Mitchells, the Moores, the Blanks, the Vicks, the Cherrys and the Vances.
“We are his descendants and must champion his memory,” said Alexander.
George Henry White died in 1918 in Philadelphia.
The Exhibition is sponsored by the Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro and the Cape May County Division of Culture and Heritage. It will be open until Feb. 28, Thursdays through Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. There is no charge for admission.
To contact Helen McCaffrey, email firstname.lastname@example.org.