On January 29, 1901, Republican Representative George Henry White (1852-1918) of North Carolina, the only black member of Congress at the time, delivers a speech that would come to be known as the “Phoenix Speech”, which he concluded with,
“Now, Mr. Chairman, before concluding my remarks I want to submit a brief recipe for the solution of the so-called American negro problem. He asks no special favors, but simply demands that he be given the same chance for existence, for earning a livelihood, for raising himself in the scales of manhood and womanhood that are accorded to kindred nationalities. Treat him as a man; go into his home and learn of his social conditions; learn of his cares, his troubles, and his hopes for the future; gain his confidence; open the doors of industry to him; let the word “negro,”, “colored,” and “black” be stricken from all the organizations enumerated in the federation of labor.
Help him to overcome his weaknesses, punish the crime-committing class by the courts of the land, measure the standard of the race by its best material, cease to mold prejudicial and unjust public sentiment against him, and my word for it, he will learn to support, hold up the hands of, and join in with that political party, that institution, whether secular or religious, in every community where he lives, which is destined to do the greatest good for the greatest number. Obliterate race hatred, party prejudice, and help us to achieve nobler ends, greater results, and become more satisfactory citizens to our brother in white.
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” (White).
White had declined to seek reelection in 1900, as in the year before an amendment had been adopted to the state’s constitution that served to disenfranchise most blacks. No blacks would serve in Congress from White’s departure until Oscar De Priest’s election in 1928. He would be succeeded by white Democrat Claude Kitchin, who was involved in the deadly Wilmington insurrection of 1898 and said over a week before it, “We cannot outnumber the negroes…And so we must either outcheat, outcount, or outshoot them” (Zucchino, 137). This man would later become House Majority Leader from 1915 to 1919, and Minority Leader from 1921 to 1923. In a sweep of violence and white identity politics, the Republican-Populist coalition’s power was destroyed. This was the context in which black political power in North Carolina was extinguished.
Born on December 18, 1852, whether White was born into slavery or not is disputable, but he did grow up in poverty. He attended the Freedman’s Bureau school at Rehobeth Church in North Carolina and in 1877 graduated from Howard University. After studying law under Judge William J. Clarke, he began practicing law. Although White entered politics in 1881, he was entering in a time in which black political participation was being increasingly marginalized but was able to win respect from whites and blacks alike. He had served a stint in the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1881 as well as district solicitor of the Second Judicial District from 1886 to 1890.
Given that black political power was largely restricted to the majority black 2nd district, White moved there to advance his career. In 1894, White challenged his brother-in-law, Republican Henry P. Cheatham, for the House seat. Cheatham had lost reelection in 1892 to Democrat Frederick A. Woodard after a Populist candidate had siphoned votes from him. Although White lost the primary this time, Cheatham lost the election, and the Republican primary voters opted to change tracks and pick White in 1896.
That year, with the election of President William McKinley came the elections of Republicans Daniel Lindsay Russell as governor, Senator Jeter C. Pritchard, and White. White established a largely conservative record, favoring Hawaiian annexation and supporting the gold standard, but made a few exceptions, such as opposing a bankruptcy bill that favored creditors. However, he would be best known for his efforts for civil rights and pleading with President McKinley to intervene in North Carolina over political violence, but to no avail. The coalition that had taken hold in North Carolina, the Republican-Populist fusion, was in truth bound together by an opposition to Democratic rule and they had many policy differences that couldn’t be reconciled, including Republicans wanting to have a light-handed approach to business while Populists wanted a heavy-handed approach, and Republicans supporting a gold standard while Populists wanted free silver. The coalition being vulnerable, the Democrats were able to run a white supremacy campaign that won them the state legislature, and they proceeded to amend the constitution to impose a literacy test which would be administered discriminatorily at the local level. In 1900, White introduced the first anti-lynching bill, but Congress never voted on it. He also with Edgar Crumpacker (R-Ind.) advocated for legislation penalizing Southern states for discriminatory literacy tests by reducing representation based on total illiteracy rates, but this effort failed. In addition to not running for reelection he also moved out of North Carolina, stating that “I cannot live in North Carolina and be treated as a man” (George Henry White). White moved to Washington D.C. where he became a successful banker and served as the driving force for the founding of the town of Whitesboro, New Jersey, a community where black people could thrive. He subsequently moved to Philadelphia, where he founded the first black-run bank in the city and became active in the city’s Republican politics was serving as Philadelphia’s assistant city solicitor until he died in sleep on December 28, 1918. In 2002 the town ot Tarboro, where he maintained his residence while representing North Carolina’s 2nd district, created a George White Day on January 29th, marking the anniversary of his “Phoenix Speech”.
Schenck, W.Z. (1994). White, George Henry. NCPedia.
Smith, A. (2021, October 21). Senator Pritchard’s Letter. Western North Carolina Historical Association.
October 21, 1898 – Senator Pritchard’s Letter
White, G.H. (1901, January 29). Defense of the Negro Race — Charges Answered. Congressional Record.
Zucchino, D. (2020). Wilmington’s lie: The murderous coup of 1898 and the rise of white supremacy. Atlantic Monthly Press.