Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Celebrating Black (Republican) History Month

Congressman John Hyman
R-NC2  1875-1877
An interested reader in North Carolina can scour social and print media all month long and not come across a single reference tying the Grand Old Party, the Republican Party, to citizenship for former slaves after the Civil War.

Until now, that is.

There is not much black history in the South other than slavery until the intervention of Republicans in the early-to-mid 19th century. Anti-slavery activists were National Republicans before 1832 when Henry Clay formed the Whig Party in opposition to President Andrew Jackson’s “imperial presidency.” 

The Whigs carried the abolition banner until 1854 when Abraham Lincoln helped regenerate the Republican Party as an anti-slavery party. Abolitionists in the North were Radical Republicans. A large majority of the 2 million Union soldiers who saw action in the war voted Republican in 1864 as they fought and died to finish the war, which they knew would result in freedom and citizenship for 3 million slaves.

After the South’s surrender in April of 1865, newly freed slaves registered to vote as Republicans in a tidal wave that shifted political power in Congress and the electoral college to the South. Every one of the 391,650 black citizens of North Carolina as of 1870 who voted was a Republican. Blacks voted overwhelmingly for Republican candidates until World War I. It wasn’t until the economic devastation of the Great Depression that black citizens started voting for Democrats in large majorities, which mirrored the change in white voting patterns as well.

Every black elected official in North Carolina was a Republican between 1868 and 1901. Four black Republican US Congressmen were sent to Washington from the “Black Second” Congressional District: John Hyman (1875), James O’Hara (1883), Henry Cheatham (1889) and George White (1897). One-hundred-twenty-seven black Republicans served in the N.C. General Assembly — 101 in the House and 26 in the Senate — during the latter part of the 19th century.

If the genealogy of any living black resident of North Carolina can be traced back to a former slave, that former slave was a Republican, not a Democrat.

I ran for Congress in 1984 in the aforementioned Second Congressional District. One newspaper editor in a rural county said he agreed with most everything I said but he wouldn’t endorse my candidacy for Congress. When asked why, he said, “Because of what the Republicans did to North Carolina!”

I thought he meant Hoover and the Depression. After thinking about it awhile, it occurred to me that he was talking about Lincoln and the carpetbaggers during Reconstruction.

He was 93 years old at the time. He had grown up listening to his dad and grandpa curse Republicans for ruining North Carolina. As a result, he was a “mossy-back Democrat,” because he “was so old he had moss growing on his back.”

Despite ferocious opposition and personal physical attack from white Southern Democrats, brave black and white Republicans banded together to control North Carolina politics, education, business and industry for most of the last 30 years of the 19th century. Wilmington was North Carolina’s largest and most prosperous city at the time and was home to the largest amount of wealth creation by black businessmen in the state.

It wasn’t until the heinous murders of scores of blacks in Wilmington and a subsequent coup of state government by Southern Democrats in 1898 that Republicans, both black and white, were disenfranchised and relegated to an insignificant role in state politics until almost a century later when Reagan won the White House in 1980.

There is a historical umbilical cord joining free black citizens in the South and Republicans. Revisionists may try to cut it from history books, but erasing history doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. 

Celebrating the bravery of black elected leaders and businessmen who prospered in North Carolina after the Civil War has to include the crucial role of Republican ideals, policies and politicians, or else it is untrue and incomplete.

Republicans today believe in the same core values as the GOP did in 1854: freedom of speech, thought and faith; equality of opportunity; limited government; and the rule of law regardless of skin color, background or socio-economic situation. When black Republican candidates embrace those core Republican values and principles, they get elected by Republicans — Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson of North Carolina and U.S. Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina are two prominent examples.

The bravery of black Republicans in North Carolina after the Civil War is almost beyond comprehension. It needs to be remembered and saluted as such during Black History Month.

(first published North State Journal 2/24/21)

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