Former U.S. Rep. White’s legacy brought to light

From Contributed Reports

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His words shook the nation, 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. On Jan. 26, an exhibit and screening of a new documentary film on the life and legacy of White in Tarboro will be followed by a panel discussion of noted historians discussing the legacy of White and what his life means today.

Later that day in Raleigh, White’s story will be shared during the African American Cultural Celebration at the North Carolina Museum of History.

In Tarboro, the Phoenix Historical Society, welcomes the public to the Edgecombe County Administrative Building auditorium 11 a.m. Saturday, for a George Henry White exhibit and screening of the 15-minute documentary “George Henry White: American Phoenix.” A panel discussion after the film will feature esteemed historians who will share their insights on former U.S. Rep. White’s role in American history. Included on the panel are:

  • Betty White Washington, veteran educator and the great-great niece of George Henry White. A native of Greenville, she taught U.S. history at the high school level in Kinston.
  • Dr. David C. Dennard, director of African American Studies at East Carolina University in Greenville, and director of the East Carolina University Institute for Historical and Cultural Research. His research interests center on the religious life and traditions of African-Americans in the Old South.
  • Dr. John H. Haley, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and author of “Charles N. Hunter and Race Relations in North Carolina” (University of North Carolina Press, 1987). He was also 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.
  • Dr. Al-Tony Gilmore, Historian and Archivist Emeritus of the National Education Association, has also served as a professor of history at Howard University and the University of Maryland, College Park, as well as Visiting Scholar of History at The George Washington University. He is the author of four books including a 1975 biography of controversial heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson (portrayed in Ken Burns’s PBS documentary, “Unforgivable Blackness”), and he was a consultant for the PBS series “American Lives”, produced by Harvard scholar Dr. Henry L. Gates, Jr.
  • Dr. Benjamin Justesen of Alexandria, Va., historian, editor, and author of two books on the life of George H. White: “George Henry White: An Even Chance in the Race of Life” (LSU Press, 2001) and “In his own words: The Writings, Speeches, and Letters of George Henry White” (iUniverse, 2004). He also serves as Adjunct Professor of History at Heritage College in Dunn.

Kate Tsubata, a professional journalist who served as the project manager and producer of the documentary (Lightsmith Productions), will introduce the documentary in Tarboro and participate in the discussion of George White’s life and legacy.

The production of the “American Phoenix” documentary was sponsored by the Benjamin & Edith Spaulding Descendants Foundation Inc., a nonprofit group established for educational, literary, and charitable purposes, among other functions. One of the Benjamin & Edith Spaulding Descendants Foundation Inc. projects includes the promotion of the life and legacy of White out of concern that his courageous stands for racial justice in the face of public apathy not be overlooked in national black history. Benjamin & Edith Spaulding Descendants Foundation Inc. and The Phoenix Historical Society are mutually working together in support of public knowledge of White.

White was the sole African-American serving in Congress at the turn of the century, representing North Carolina’s Second District for two terms (1897–1901) and until 1928, the last African American elected to that body. It was a tumultuous era, when gains in freedoms during Reconstruction were being dismantled by the notorious Jim Crow laws, but White was outspoken in his calls for equality for black American citizens, and made history by proposing a federal law against lynching.

For this stand, his name was vilified in his home state of North Carolina by those who sought to silence this lone voice in the nation’s capital. White’s momentous “farewell” speech, delivered in January 1901, warned Congress of the implications of denying full representation to black Americans; those words rang out once again in the halls of Congress 108 years later, quoted by President Barack Obama in his 2009 address to the Congressional Black Caucus.

All students of history – and of great men and women of character – are invited to the event. For more information, contact James Wrenn at 252-641-0294.