Butterfield bill would honor George Henry White

Washington, D.C. — On the anniversary of former U.S. Rep. George Henry White’s last speech before Congress, Congressman G. K. Butterfield today offered legislation that would create a postage stamp commemorating White’s life and accomplishments.

“George Henry White fearlessly and consistently stirred the conscience of America to embrace racial justice and equality for all people,” Butterfield said. “It was a life worthy of remembering.”

Butterfield said that he wanted to offer the bill to try to speed the process of honor White with a stamp produced by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). Last year, Butterfield sent a written request to the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee (CSAC) asking that White be honored with a stamp as part of the popular Black Heritage stamp series. The request was co-signed by all 42 House members of the Congressional Black Caucus and all but one of North Carolina’s 13 House members. That request is still pending. Additionally, Butterfield previously succeeded in naming the Tarboro Post Office in White’s honor.

The 15-member CSAC makes recommendations to the U.S. Postmaster General on which stamp proposals merit consideration. The Committee meets four times a year in Washington, D.C. At the meetings, the members review all proposals that have been received since the previous meeting.

Butterfield said that White, one of 22 black members who served in Congress between Reconstruction and 1901, gave a powerful final speech before Congress on January 29, 1901. In his speech, White predicted, “This 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, rising people – full of potential force.”

Butterfield also has a bill directing the Architect of the Capitol to create exhibits which depict the Congressional careers, accomplishments and contributions of the 22 African-American Members of Congress who served during the Reconstruction Era, beginning with Congressman Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina and ending with White. Butterfield has a meeting scheduled with the Architect of the Capitol to discuss the bill later this week.

Butterfield said that his strong personal interest in history as well as White’s connection to the district spurred the legislation.

Running in North Carolina’s Second District, White was elected to Congress in 1896 and re-elected in 1898. He was the last former slave to serve in Congress and by 1898 he was the only black member of the House.

Butterfield said that White was a forceful figure in Congress, advocating that the federal government become more aggressive in stopping widespread lynching in the South. Toward that ends, White authored a bill making lynching a federal crime punishable by death. Butterfield said that 1,856 African-Americans are documented by the Library of Congress as having been lynched during the Reconstruction.

“As the political forces of white supremacy swept across North Carolina and the South, voters of the ‘Black Second’ stood fast as long as they could.,” Butterfield said. “But a lethal blow to voting was delivered to the black community in 1900. In order to vote, they had to be able to read and write, and their grandfather must have voted. This essentially eliminated political participation by the black community in eastern North Carolina.”

Born a slave in Bladen County, N.C. in 1852, White graduated from Howard University before returning to North Carolina to become a school principal in 1877. There he began to study law under a prominent former judge, a renegade Confederate veteran named William Edwards Clarke. Passing the state bar, he became one of North Carolina’s first black lawyers in 1879. The next year voters elected White to the first of two terms in the North Carolina General Assembly where he was best known for his struggles on behalf of African-American schools.

In 1886, White was elected district solicitor – essentially, district attorney – for the Second Judicial District. At that time, he was the only black solicitor in the United States. That same year he married Cora Cherry, a teacher from here in Tarboro. The couple moved to Tarboro in 1894 after the General Assembly removed New Bern from the Second Congressional District to help prevent him from running for Congress in the predominately-black district.

In 1905, White moved to Philadelphia where he successfully practiced law and established the People’s Saving Bank on Lombard Street. The bank helped blacks to buy homes and start businesses. White also helped to establish Whitesboro, N.J., a community for blacks migrating north from the Deep South. White died on December 28, 1918.

“George Henry White’s life exemplifies the true spirit of America,” Butterfield said.