About 40 people braved winds and rain on Nov. 16 to attend the Phoenix Historical Society’s educational program at the Carmon Auditorium in Tarboro.
UNC doctoral candidate in history Lucas P. Kelley delivered a presentation on the historical origins of the 1871 Nash-Edgecombe county line change, when the boundary was moved from its original line at the Falls of the Tar River to the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad tracks.
Based on the historical record, the boundary was moved by act of the white majority in the General Assembly to reduce the political and economic power of majority black Edgecombe County following freed slaves gaining the right to vote and elect representatives in the 1868 state Constitution. This followed the statewide terror campaign of the Ku Klux Klan in 1870 to retaliate against the progress for blacks under Reconstruction.
This act divided the Edgecombe County towns of Whitakers, Battleboro, Rocky Mount and Sharpsburg and transferred several hundred black voters from Edgecombe, which had elected African-Americans to office, into majority white Nash County, which had never elected African-Americans. This move also placed Rocky Mount Mills, Edgecombe’s major industry and top taxpayer, into Nash County and also took away half of Edgecombe’s tax revenue from the railroad. Both the mill and the railroad were important for marketing Edgecombe’s cotton, still picked by black farmworkers who now cast votes at the ballot box.
On Feb. 6, 1871, the Edgecombe Board of Commissioners, which included black commissioners, resolved that “... there is a scheme afoot in the legislature to change the county line between Edgecombe and Nash; the passage of such bill ... would be very unjust on a large portion of the people of this county” and ordered “our senator and representatives ... to use all influence against the passage of such a bill.”
Kelley presented how Edgecombe’s black state Reps. Richard Johnson and Willis Bunn vigorously opposed the bill and called for a referendum. The General Assembly rejected an amendment to submit the question to the affected voters of Edgecombe County.
Phoenix Historical Society Vice President James Wrenn guided the audience down the original county line projected on the screen, pointing out what industry would be in Edgecombe County under the original pre-1871 county line, such as Cummins, Pfizer, Honeywell, N.C. Wesleyan College, Rocky Mount Mills, the former Imperial & China American tobacco plants, former Hardee’s Food Systems, RBC Centura (now PNC) Bank and former Caramount/Burlington Mills, as well as the African-American neighborhoods of Happy Hill and Little Raleigh.
Kelley presented copies of a petition of protest signed by hundreds of Edgecombe citizens as well as an article from The Daily Southerner of Tarboro, which called the move “unjust” and reported that 90 percent of Edgecombe citizens opposed the move. In 1870, Edgecombe’ s population was about 15,000 black and 8,000 white, while Nash was about 4,500 black and just over 6,000 white. Then, Edgecombe was a wealthier county than Nash. That began to change after the county line was moved to the railroad tracks.
Black state senators opposed the bill, noting “there is more than one thousand miles of railroad running through different sections of North Carolina, and yet there is not another single mile of railroad in the state that is made the dividing line between two counties.”
This is still true to this day. They further stated that the Senate refused to “allow the question to be submitted to the qualified voters who are thus transferred from one county to another like stock or dumb beasts on a farm.” Kelley noted that the railroad track county line dividing Nash and Edgecombe continues to be a political issue, such as in recent debates on school funding.
Rocky Mount attorney and community activist Susan Perry Cole delivered the community response to Kelley’s presentation. Cole highlighted the acclaimed Atlantic article from 2014 by Ta-Neishi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” and noted that this year, U.S. Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee has chaired congressional hearings on reparations.
Cole noted the continued opposition from some Nash County residents to political power and economic development for the black majority Edgecombe County. She said the voices of the representatives from 1871 are calling on us to take action. Cole called for public hearings.
One question from the audience asked how to calculate the tax revenue Edgecombe has lost to Nash in the past 148 years.
One person in the audience recalled a quote by Southern novelist William Faulkner: “The past is not dead. In fact, it is not even past.”