At a Crossroads Once Again

Henry Louis Gates. Jr

Our Community Spotlight for Fall 2014, edited by Jackie Booker (Benedict College), focuses on North Carolina, home to one of the most active, independent, and accomplished black populations in the country. The network of rural and urban communities participated not only in the African American struggle for equality, but also in the ideological conflicts within the Civil Rights Movement. Not surprisingly, North Carolina is at the center of the major political debates of the 21st century, contributing to the national conversation on economic development, voter ID laws, the so-called culture wars, and the policies of Barack Obama.

North Carolina's unique path was greatly influenced by its complex relationship with the institution of slavery. Unlike neighboring states, North Carolina did not experience a cotton boom. Thus, while the slave population grew, the notorious plantation system was not as prevalent as it was elsewhere. The courts routinely heard and sometimes granted requests for manumission, as in the cases of James Hostler of Wilmington and John C. Stanly of New Bern. As a result, the free population rose from 5,000 in 1790 to over 20,000 by 1830. Some of these former slaves were involved in the national effort to protest the institution. In 1797, for example, four men— Job Albert, Jupiter Nicholson, Jacob Nicholson, and Thomas Pritchet—filed a petition with the US Congress to repeal a state law that required manumitted slaves to leave the state. Another free man, David Walker of Wilmington, relocated to Boston and wrote the powerful 1829 antislavery tract An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World. Indeed, North Carolina was the southernmost state that still had an active manumission society as late as the 1830s. The legislature passed several laws aimed at protecting slaves from abuse and, for a brief time, free blacks even had the right to vote.

Like other states on the eve of the Civil War, North Carolina enacted a number of oppressive laws intended to restrict the rights of both free and enslaved African Americans. But, by then, blacks made up nearly a third of the population, and had already begun the long and difficult task of building a civil society that would survive the Jim Crow era and produce some of the finest contributors to American culture. During Reconstruction, a number of African Americans from the state served in Congress, and North Carolina managed to be the last former Confederate state to send a black representative before the long era of segregation forced out all African Americans for two generations. In addition, the state had over 30 historically black colleges by 1900, and boasted several pioneering scholars, including Robert Robinson Taylor, the first black graduate of MIT, and the first black university-trained architect. Thus, North Carolina found itself at the center of the political debate between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, with the former seeing opportunity for black laborers to improve their lot, especially through the state's growing agricultural sector and other industries. For a while, the innovative spirit of African American entrepreneurs seemed to support Washington's theories. The North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association, to give one example, was the most profitable black-owned business in the country. But, as with Atlanta, Houston, and so many other communities, the political atmosphere shifted after racial tensions boiled over into violence. For North Carolina, this episode occurred in Wilmington race riot of 1898. In the aftermath, the state implemented poll taxes, literacy tests, and other means of disenfranchising blacks, a system that would remain in place for decades.

Ironically, black North Carolinians proved so adept at forming their own communities that the end of segregation undermined some of their most celebrated institutions. Among these was the Allen School—the alma mater of Civil Rights icon Nina Simone—which was so well-respected that it began recruiting white students in the 1950s. A federal judge ordered the school closed in 1973 in order to facilitate integration. By then, many of the historically black colleges had closed, but African Americans were beginning to participate in the political life of the state once again.

In the 21st century, the emboldened opponents of the Obama administration have made the state a laboratory for some of the most regressive economic and social policies in the country. As a relatively progressive state in a conservative region, North Carolina has experienced an intense political conflict as of late, most notably over the controversial voter ID law that critics say harks back to the days of overt segregation. Obama narrowly won the state in 2008, but lost to Mitt Romney in the following cycle, making North Carolina perhaps the most "purple" state in the Union. Despite the progress made and obstacles overcome, the African American population here remains entrenched in the long struggle over the soul of this country.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
September 2014

New Subject Articles

The Allen School
Black Migration from North Carolina, 1870—1945
Charlotte, North Carolina
Fusion Politics in North Carolina
Hyde County School Boycott of 1969
Montford Point Marines
Rosenwald Schools
Swann v. Charlotte Mecklenberg Board of Education
Western North Carolina, African Americans in
The Wilmington Ten

Primary Source Documents

Anonymous Message Sent to Hugh Brown of Robeson County, North Carolina (1821)
Hiring-out Bond for a Slave in Jones County, North Carolina (1857)
John Chavis Announces Segregated Classes at His Raleigh School (1808)
Land Transaction in Craven County, North Carolina (1833)
Petition for the Manumission of James Hostler (1855)
Reward Offered for Two Escaped Slaves (1745)
Sharecropping Contract from North Carolina (1882)
Statement Issued by Warren Clay Coleman (1896)

Archived Material

North Carolina
North Carolina
North Carolina A&T State University
North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company
Durham, North Carolina
North Carolina: State Population by Race, 1790 to 1990

Wilmington, NC Riot