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DocSouth Celebrates George H. White: African American Civil Rights Pioneer

George H. White, lawyer, orator, and pioneering congressman from North Carolina, served as the sole African American member of the United States House of Representatives from 1896-1901. After White left Congress, it was twenty-seven years until the next African American, Oscar DePriest, was elected from Illinois in 1928.

White, who was born in Bladen County, North Carolina, on December 18, 1852, received his earliest education in the state’s public schools but left during Reconstruction to attend Howard University. He returned to the Tar Heel state to study law under Judge William J. Clark and obtained his own law license in 1879. He launched his political career shortly after, winning a seat in the state house in 1881 and becoming district attorney for the Second Judicial District in 1886. In 1894, White moved to Tarboro, which was in the predominantly African American Second District, in order to run for a Congressional seat. Although he lost a contentious primary battle to his brother-in-law that year, he secured the nomination two years later and successfully captured the seat. In Congress, White often made speeches about the brutality and prejudices plaguing African Americans in the South. Due to widespread black disenfranchisement in North Carolina, White decided it was hopeless to pursue a third term, and for one of his last speeches on the House floor, he delivered his famous "Defense of the Negro Race" address. In this address, White refutes white supremacist claims and reflects on how racial prejudice has influenced the legislative process.

During his tenure, White introduced Congress’ first anti-lynching bill. This bill, however, was stalled by opponents in the Judiciary Committee and never came to a vote before the full House. Over the next half century, the House eventually passed three anti-lynching bills, all of which failed in the Senate. On June 13, 2005, the Senate acknowledged and apologized for this inaction by unanimously approving Resolution 39, which admitted the federal government's failure to address the mob violence that killed thousands of Americans in the first half of the twentieth century.

After leaving Congress, White moved his family to Washington, D.C., where he practiced law until 1905. He later founded an African American bank in Philadelphia and the all-black Whitesboro community in Cape May County, New Jersey. He died December 28, 1915. In 2003, the House voted to name a post office in Tarboro, North Carolina, in White’s honor.

White’s "Defense of the Negro Race" address is part of part of the "North Carolina Experience, Beginnings to 1940" digital collection, which collects books, letters, reports, posters, artifacts, songs, and oral histories about North Carolina, its people, and its history.

Jennifer L. Larson