The Daily Southerner
A former slave, George Henry White, served two terms (from 1897-1901) in Congress from North Carolina’s Second District. During his tenure, the Tarboro resident faced racial prejudice and white supremacy from his colleagues. Those injustices became so overbearing that White chose not to run for the seat again.
Before leaving Congress, he delivered a farewell speech that has been ranked among the best Freedom Fighters’ speeches of all time. But unlike Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” message, White’s has received little recognition.
The Phoenix Historical Society is doing its part to bring recognition to White’s legacy by presenting an exhibit and screening of a new documentary film on his life and legacy at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 26 in Edgecombe County Administrative Building auditorium.
“His words shook the entire nation, prophetically declaring that Black Americans would rise again from the oppression of segregation and disenfranchisement, yet George Henry White’s story remained lost to generations of North Carolinians for a century after he left Congress,” said Jim Wrenn, president of the historical society. A panel discussion after the film will feature esteemed historians who have studied White’s role in American history.
One of the historians, Dr. Benjamin Justesen, of Alexandria, Va., wrote two books ( “George Henry White: An Even Chance in the Race of Life” and “In his own words: The Writings, Speeches, and Letters of George Henry White” about White. Justesen is not a stranger to Tarboro as he has been involved in the society’s programs to bring notoriety to White since the early 2000s.
One of them included naming the Tarboro Post Office in honor of White, which was approved in 2006. One year prior, a portrait of White was placed in Edgecombe County Superior Court. White’s portrait is the first and only one of an African-American in that courtroom.
Other guests scheduled to attend include White’s great-great niece, Betty White Washington of Greenville, Dr. David C. Dennard, Director of African-American Studies and the ECU Institute for Historical and Cultural Research at East Carolina University; Dr. John H. Haley, professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and a member of the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission, established in 2000 by the N. C. General Assembly to develop a historical record of the event, and Dr. Al -Tony Gilmore, historian and archivist emeritus of the National Education Association.
White was the last African-American to serve in Congress during the post-Civil War reconstruction period. At that time, he was the highest-ranking elected African-American in the United States, serving as the only member of his race during his two terms in office. While serving, he fought against racial barriers and legislation that he deemed not fair to blacks. He introduced the first bill to make lynching and death by mob violence a federal crime equivalent to treason. The bill failed. Those types of actions apparently created displeasure.
“ ... 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,” White said during his farewell speech to Congress. “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 ...
“... I cannot live in North Carolina and be a man,” White said in his farewell speech. ...”
White moved to Tarboro in 1894 from Bladen County and married Tarboro native Cora Lena Cherry. They lived on Granville Street. The house, still standing today, is a historic landmark. White later moved to Philadelphia, where he died Dec. 28, 1905.
The Phoenix Historical Society has honored White in some form or fashion for the past 12 years.