Discover more from A page back in time ...
A memorial to George White in his birth county
The community health and education center preaches a former congressman's "life gospel"
It lies off the beaten path near Clarkton, in North Carolina’s Bladen County, where many residents still struggle for economic empowerment more than 170 years after the birth of George Henry White. Much like the abandoned railroad track which once ran past west from Wilmington through Rosindale, where White was born, the largely-impoverished rural area lags far behind the booming economy of urban North Carolina.
But the good news for local residents is that the common-sense “life gospel” of economic advancement preached by the former congressman (1897-1901)—a Republican elected as the last African American from the South in the nineteenth century, and the first to serve in Congress in the twentieth century—is making a comeback in the county where he was born in 1852, a decade before the Civil War.
The new George Henry White Memorial Health and Education Center, located near the small town of Clarkton, is housed in a quaint, century-old farmhouse that typifies the rural homes where so many residents of Bladen and Columbus County, next door, grew up after White left Congress.
The George Henry White Memorial Health and Education Center, near Clarkton, N.C.
But less than a decade after its acquisition by a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving White’s legacy, the center has become a bustling model for groups that seek to encourage self-help and entrepreneurship among long-overlooked disadvantaged residents. And the future is considerably brighter for those who are making diligent use of its many programs.
Free classes are currently being offered in basic computer skills, networking essentials, land management and income, and wellness to local residents. State-of-the-art computers are available on-site. Vaccinations and advice on healthy living are regularly available by visiting health professionals. A neighborhood watch program uses the center as its headquarters, while visiting lecturers offer stimulating presentations. There is more in development.
Rep. George H. White (R-NC)
The programs all symbolize the simple vision of the former Congressman, who sought a century ago to point the way for advancement of his race, through education and entrepreneurship. If political action was increasingly less likely in the age of disfranchisement, there were still other options for African Americans — both those who remained in the South, and those who left. His new town of Whitesboro, New Jersey, was only one model.
Much of what was contained in his common-sense “gospel” was what he had learned long ago, instilled in him by his Columbus County stepmother, Mary Anna Spaulding White, granddaughter of freed slave Benjamin Spaulding.
The Benjamin and Edith Spaulding Descendants Foundation (BESDF), Inc., a 501 ( c ) 3 nonprofit, has since raised more than $100,000 to rebuild and refurbish the farmhouse, once owned by the grandmother of the BESDF president, Dr. Milton Campbell. The process is ongoing—a much-needed new roof was recently being installed, with assistance from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, according to the website (www.ghwmemorialcenter.com).
Project leader for the transformation is Vince Spaulding, a retired architect and longtime figure in the BESDF leadership, who has often said it was time for George White to “have a memorial in his birth county.” Thus it was on Spaulding’s initiative that the center became BESDF’s top priority, and he has tirelessly solicited funds from any business, individual, or foundation to make the dream come true. I call Vince the Energizer bunny of fund-raising … he just chuckles, and keeps going.
He could not do all the work himself. Without the dedication of a talented team of local volunteers, led by Center superintendent Ocie Jones, the once-crumbling farmhouse might never have survived into its own second century. Instead, George White pointed the way to its new future. He has that effect on people…
(To view a recent PBS documentary on the life of George White, visit the following website: https://www.pbs.org/video/george-h-white-searching-for-freedom-ukfdy8/ .)
* * * * * *
More than 50 years ago, fresh out of UNC-Chapel Hill, I was a fledgling reporter for the Whiteville News Reporter, a semiweekly newspaper, when I first spent time in the Hallsboro-Lake Waccamaw area of Columbus County, not far from the site of the new GHW center. I had recently worked as summer editor for a smaller weekly paper in nearby Shallotte, the Brunswick Beacon, which was printed in Whiteville, where I often traveled on business, past Lake Waccamaw.
So far I knew nothing about George White—he had no relation to Whiteville—but after I moved to Whiteville, I did spend many happy hours with friends (and my future wife) at Lake Waccamaw, near where he was raised, in Welches Creek Township.
In my year at the News Reporter, I met at least one Spaulding family member, a schoolteacher in the Whiteville City system. A year later, I cemented my ties to Columbus County by marrying the daughter of a Whiteville high school guidance counselor, also a schoolteacher. We began a new life elsewhere before moving back, temporarily, in 1974, to help look after her mother, who was now gravely ill.
I then moved on to the larger Fayetteville Observer, a daily afternoon newspaper with a coverage area including Columbus and Bladen Counties. I still knew nothing about George White, until one day my managing editor handed me a press release, with clear instructions to play up the local angle—without missing that day’s noon deadline. I think I had two hours, par for the course.
It was during the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement—the first modern-day Black congressmen from the South since George White had retired were quite visible in those days, including Georgia’s Andrew Young, who visited Fayetteville while I was still at the newspaper—and I was an avid student of history, or so I thought. But the subject of the press release from Raleigh’s North Carolina Museum of History was an exhibit on White and three other African Americans who had served North Carolina’s Second Congressional District—the so-called “Black Second”— in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1874 and 1901.
And this history buff had never heard of any of them. My North Carolina history courses, apparently, had selectively overlooked them all. So what else did I not know about George White? As it turned out, a lot. That the Howard University-trained teacher and lawyer had served two terms in the N.C. General Assembly—representing Craven County, in another part of the state—and then, astoundingly, had become an elected solicitor—district prosecutor—for eight years, before moving from New Bern to Tarboro, in Edgecombe County, and being elected to Congress in 1896 and reelected in 1898.
And as I dug even deeper, I found out he was not alone. Eventually I learned that many dozens of Black legislators had actually served—some for as many as five terms—in my state’s General Assembly between 1868 and 1900.
Hold that thought. For my story then, only George White had a local connection—born in Bladen County, raised in Columbus—and naturally, became the focus of my lead. In my haste to meet the deadline, I got one of my details wrong: the tiny town of Rosindale, which I said “no longer exists,” was very much alive, if still tiny, as one reader took pains to point out within days. (It was hard to find, but years later, I visited the former railroad stop on N.C. Highway 211, east of Clarkton, and confirmed the sign at the crossroads!)
But at least most of what was in my story was accurate. It all struck me as “alternate” history—more exciting, in most cases, than the history I’d actually studied. And although I left active journalism just a few months later—seconded into running a family business in Fayetteville after my father became ill—I was apparently infected with an incurable, lifelong case of curiosity for more details about an era that deserved far more thorough exploration. Maybe someone, someday would tell his story—and the lives of others …
Fast forward through years of graduate school—with voluminous notes for a master’s thesis, never written—and the U.S. Foreign Service, when those notes traveled around the world in a footlocker. When I decided to leave the U.S. State Department at the end of 1997, I cast around for something intellectually constructive to do—and decided to write a comprehensive, academically documented biography of George White. It became a real detective story—piecing together a puzzle from far-flung sources, including his Congressional speeches, but no real trove of private papers, and only a few of his letters.
If the project took longer than I expected, eventually George Henry White: An Even Chance in the Race of Life emerged, thanks to the thoughtful editorship of Bertram Wyatt-Brown and the Southern Biography Series at Louisiana State University Press. It was published in February 2001, even nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in biography, an honor for both of us. To me, George White was once again standing on a national stage—a real historical figure again, 100 years after his last speech in Congress, his legacy no longer lost in the shadows.
* * * * * *
More than 20 years later, I am still writing about him—now into my fifth book on the subject—and I am still finding out new things about him and his contemporaries. My latest book project, a history of the town he founded for black settlers in Cape May County, New Jersey, after leaving Congress, is one more attempt to provide context for his remarkable life, and reinforce his relevance to the twenty-first century.
Since 2001, I have spoken at many venues about him and his legacy, none more satisfying than the biennial Spaulding family reunions—promoted by the BESDF—at one of which I met Vince Spaulding. I also met the fine folks at the new Phoenix Historical Society in Tarboro, led by Mavis Stith and Jim Wrenn, who heard about my first book and invited me to speak there—and have relentlessly promoted “hidden” African American history in Edgecombe County, including that of George White, ever since.
In 2004, I self-published a follow-up to Even Chance—a compilation of George White’s speeches, letters, and writings (In His Own Words). My long-delayed Ph.D. research finally produced a dissertation on a little-known civil rights group of which he was national vice president, founded while he was in Congress—and a third book (Broken Brotherhood: The Rise and Fall of the National Afro-American Council, Southern Illinois University Press, 2008).
Vince and I began cross-pollinating all things George White, and I ended up writing the script for a short documentary which the BESDF produced in 2012, American Phoenix, with help from another new colleague and friend—Kate Tsubata of Lightsmith Productions. The rest is, as they say, history—down to the BESDF website named for him: at www.georgehenrywhite.com.
In August 2021, I had the distinct pleasure to speak to a small but enthusiastic audience at the new GHW Community Center—not yet dedicated—about my most recent book, Forgotten Legacy: William McKinley, George Henry White, and the Struggle for Black Equality, another LSU Press publication (2020). It was a thrill to sign books for the community—and to donate a set to the Center’s little library.
And to bring the circle back to its beginning, my traveling companion, an 11-year-old poodle named Benji, and I then left the Center to visit my daughter and my three grandchildren, who were vacationing that weekend at my now-former wife’s summer home at—wait for it—Lake Waccamaw, before driving back to Florida.
Fifty years after arriving, I was back with a new mission, with George White along for the ride. Life is certainly stranger than fiction—and infinitely more fulfilling.
Next time: What do 125 nineteenth-century African American men from North Carolina have in common with George White?
Thanks for reading A page back in time ... ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.