Southern Cultures 9.1 (2003) 104-105
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George Henry White: An Even Chance in the Race of Life. By Benjamin R. Justesen. Louisiana State University Press, 2001. 471 pp. Cloth $45.00
In July 1900, George Henry White allegedly stated, "May God damn North Carolina, the state of my birth." If true, what prompted this comment? In 1896 White attained the highest public office of any African American at the time when he was elected to the United States House of Representatives. As the only African American in Congress, White thought of himself as a national leader and the political spokesman for his race. Conversely, white supremacists in North Carolina saw him as an embarrassment to their state. The violent white supremacy campaign of 1898 allowed the "most vicious element of the white race" to gain control of the state. Jim Crow laws were enacted, disfranchisement of the masses of black voters was almost a certainty, and White believed that his third wife's health was permanently impaired due to the invectives and innuendoes aimed at her during political contests. Simply put, white supremacists had virtually destroyed White's life. His reputation, public esteem, and livelihood were seriously damaged, there were threats on his life, and he was a lame duck Republican congressman who would "not go home again" because he no longer felt able to live like a man in North Carolina.
White's life is a poignant reminder of how institutionalized white supremacy curtailed the opportunities for advancement open to African Americans in North Carolina. Born in Bladen County in 1852, White emerged from relative obscurity to become America's "first black superstar, the political savior of his race." Justesen promises to rescue White from near oblivion by reconstructing his life and presenting a "complete portrait of him to others." The result is an intertwining of two stories that approximates the "life and times" genre: a chronological narrative that attempts to reconstruct White's political career, and an analytical narrative that relates primarily to his character, emotions, motivations, and family and personal relationships. Unfortunately, this narrative is often speculative [End Page 104] or it springs mainly from the author's imagination, and, regardless of the extensive notes, the text frequently lacks creditable documentation.
We still know nothing substantive of the formative years of White's life, or the first two decades of his existence—periods that are crucial to biographers' understanding of their subjects. After receiving a normal certificate from Howard University in 1877, he moved to New Bern where he was employed as a school principal. Meanwhile, he read law under William John Clark, and in 1880 he was licensed to practice law. His reputation as a respected prosperous attorney, his membership in a host of civic and fraternal organizations, his charisma, and skill at oratory all enhanced his "natural affinity for politics." Regretfully, Justesen primarily focuses on elite personalities and offers little explanation of White's appeal or his relationship with the masses of voters. Before serving in the United States Congress, White had won election to the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1881, the Senate in 1884, and to the position of Solicitor of the Second Judicial District in 1886 and 1890. As was the case in the General Assembly of North Carolina, White's minority status prevented him from becoming an effective U.S. Congressman. He was important, though, because he gave voice to a wide range of issues of significance to his race. White insisted that African Americans would not be satisfied with anything less than equal treatment under the law, and the removal of all legal barriers erected against them. "An equal chance in the race of life is all we ask." When disfranchisement decimated the ranks of black voters in North Carolina, White and his family moved to Washington, D.C., where he soon discovered that he was expendable to the Republican Party. Unable to secure a government position, White practiced law, invested in a brick manufacturing company, and in 1906 moved to Philadelphia, where he established...