Black North Carolinians at the Turn of the Century

By Joe A. Mobley

From the conclusion of Reconstruction until the end of World War I, the experiences of African Americans in North Carolina reflected the economic, social, and political changes that were occurring throughout the South. For black North Carolinians, the abolition of slavery and the measures taken by the federal government during Reconstruction held the potential for a promising future. But the restoration of white supremacy when the Democrats regained control of state government and the subsequent departure of federal authority in 1876 led some blacks to conclude that the rights that they had won during Reconstruction were slowly eroding away. Past experience had taught them that they could expect little in the way of justice and fair treatment from southern whites.

Black Business

Whether in the countryside or within the borders of larger white towns and cities, almost every African American community had a growing business and merchant class. In Princeville, a number of retail merchants, barbers, carpenters, shoemakers, brickmasons, bakers, butchers, and blacksmiths operated businesses. The most successful of the town’s merchants was Orren James, who ran a general store and barroom. In James City, Washington Spivey was a successful store owner, as well as a farmer. He also became postmaster in 1888 and served as a justice of the peace for Craven County and as constable for Township 7. At his store, Spivey sometimes took eggs and other farm products in trade for supplies. He purchased cotton from James City farmers and extended them credit until they could bring in a crop.

Durham especially became a center of successful black middle-class business activity. The rise of a sizable African American business class in Durham was due in large part to John Merrick, a former slave who came to the city as a barber around 1880. He soon opened his own shop and within a decade had expanded his business interests to include five establishments, three for whites and two for blacks. As treasurer of the Royal Knights of King David, a fraternal order that provided life insurance, Merrick saw the need for life insurance among black North Carolinians. White insurance companies considered African Americans to be poor risks. In 1900 life expectancy for male and female blacks was only about 33 years. Merrick solicited other African American investors and in 1898 founded the North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association. The company lost some money in its first year, and only Merrick and Dr. Aaron McDuffie Moore, a physician, remained as principal investors. They hired Moore’s cousin Charles Clinton Spaulding to manage the office. In the coming years, Merrick, Moore, and Spaulding turned the renamed North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company into the largest black-owned business in the nation.

Officers of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1911. Pictured left to right are Dr. A. M. Moore, John M. Avery, John Merrick, Ed Merrick, and C. C. Spaulding. Image courtesy of Learn NC
Officers of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1911. Pictured left to right are Dr. A. M. Moore, John M. Avery, John Merrick, Ed Merrick, and C. C. Spaulding. Image courtesy of Learn NC

Other cities throughout North Carolina had African American business and residential districts. By 1890, Raleigh had three black communities: Oberlin on the northwest side, Method on the west side, and an area surrounding St. Augustine’s College and Shaw University on the southeast side of the city. Charlotte contained the largely black Second Ward, which included the African American commercial and residential neighborhoods of Biddle (near Biddle University) and Brooklyn (near the central part of the inner city).

African American students and teacher in front of Professor Jacob's School, early 1900s, Lake Waccamaw Columbus County.  Image courtesy of the North Carolina State Archives.
African American students and teacher in front of Professor Jacob's School, early 1900s, Lake Waccamaw Columbus County.
Image courtesy of the North Carolina State Archives.

Education remained a high priority for black North Carolinians after Reconstruction. In 1877 the State Colored Convention met in Raleigh with 140 delegates from 40 counties and elected James H. Harris president and George L. Mabson vice president. The interest and concern exhibited at the convention eventually led to the formation of the black North Carolina State Teachers Association in 1881. In 1886 this organization, led by its president, the Reverend J. C. Price, petitioned the state for an appropriation to establish a state college for African Americans. The Democrats in the legislature and their supporting newspapers immediately expressed their outrage at such a proposal. They feared that if black North Carolinians had their own state-sponsored college, they might next demand full equality in education and even be “knocking at the doors of the State University at Chapel Hill.”

The North Carolina State Teachers Association also led in the attack on the Dortch Act. In 1883 the white Democratic legislature passed that act, which allowed counties to divide their revenues for public education. This legislation permitted any school district—if petitioned by as few as 10 residents—to call for an election to decide whether white tax money should fund only white schools, and black tax money should support just black schools. If whites called for the election, blacks would not be allowed to vote. Led by the Teachers Association, along with such prominent black leaders as James H. Harris, Noah Newby of Pasquotank County, and even the conservative Charles N. Hunter, black North Carolinians continued to fight for African American education, and Nathan C. Newbold, a white man, became the first state official for black schools. (In 1921 he became the first director of the new office of the Division of Negro Education.) He reported that “the average negro school house is really a disgrace to an independent civilized society” and that the poor condition of African American schools was indicative of “injustice, inhumanity, and neglect on the part of the white people.” In the coming decades, Newbold would labor to improve schools and education for black North Carolinians. Not until 1918 did some counties begin to open secondary schools for African Americans. Few offered a full four years, and many were limited to one or two years.

Higher education for African Americans in North Carolina in the late 19th and early 20th centuries consisted primarily of normal school (teacher) training, religious or theological study, and education in agricultural and mechanical (vocational) arts. In 1877 the state chartered and funded Fayetteville Colored Normal School (present-day Fayetteville State University), the first public African American teacher-training school in the South. In the 1890s, the state also chartered and funded North Carolina Agricultural and Mechanical College for the Colored Race at Greensboro (present-day North Carolina A&T State University), Elizabeth City Colored Normal School (present-day Elizabeth City State University), and Slater State Normal School in Winston-Salem (present-day Winston-Salem State University).

Progress in private higher education among African Americans also took place in North Carolina. The Scotia Seminary for Girls (present-day Barber-Scotia College) and Biddle University (present-day Johnson C. Smith University) graduated black teachers every year. In 1882 the Zion Wesley Institute (present-day Livingstone College) had 30 students enrolled and its second building under construction. In 1888 it graduated nine students from its collegiate school and three from the theological department. In 1902 19-year-old Charlotte Hawkins Brown founded Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, Guilford County. Palmer Institute offered both elementary and secondary education. (In the 1920s it became a junior college.) In 1910 African American educator James F. Shepard founded the National Religious Training School in Durham. He eventually broadened the curriculum, and the school grew to be the state-sponsored North Carolina College for Negroes and then present-day North Carolina Central University.

*Joe A. Mobley teaches history at North Carolina State University and is former administrator of the Historical Publications Section of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History. He is the author of several books, including James City, a Black Community in North Carolina, 1863–1900; Raleigh, NC: A Brief History; and Weary of War: Life on the Confederate Home Front.

Anna Julia Cooper

By Sally Bloom*

Anna Julia Cooper 1892. This image of Cooper  appeared in her book A Voice from the South.

Anna Julia Haywood Cooper was an author, educator, feminist, and civil rights advocate. Cooper’s accomplishments are outstanding for anyone, at any time, but are of particular merit when one realizes she was born into slavery in Raleigh in 1858. Her mother, Hannah Stanley Haywood, was a slave in the household of Dr. Fabius Haywood. Although Hannah refused to discuss the identity of Anna’s father, Anna came to believe that her father was Haywood or his brother George. The Haywoods were a prominent Raleigh family.


Left: Anna Julia Cooper 1892. This image of Cooper appeared in her book A Voice from the South.

Seven years after her birth, Anna and her mother were freed when the Civil War ended. In 1867 Saint Augustine’s Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Saint Augustine’s College), a freedmen’s school supported by the Episcopal Church, opened in Raleigh. Nine-year-old Anna Haywood enrolled as a scholarship student. Her mother earned a living as a domestic worker in order to support Anna and her older brothers. At Saint Augustine’s, Anna excelled, and by the age of 11, she had been hired by the school as a “scholarship-teacher” to tutor other students in math and language. Her intellectual curiosity extended to “male-only” subjects; Anna petitioned the school to study Greek and was allowed to do so. She graduated from the high school in 1877 and continued there as a teacher. That same year, she married George Cooper, a minister and professor at the school.

Widowed two years later, Anna Cooper won a scholarship to Oberlin College in Ohio, where she earned a master’s degree in mathematics in 1887. Moving to Washington, D.C., she began teaching and in 1902 was made principal of the prestigious Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, known as M Street School and later renamed Dunbar High School. At M Street School, she promoted both vocational and college preparatory studies and actively sought college placement for her students. Her belief that her students should prepare for college contradicted the educational philosophy of other African American educators, like Booker T. Washington, who favored vocation-based learning only. Her stance generated much controversy, and eventually the school board removed her as principal. After leaving M Street School, she taught in Missouri while fighting her dismissal. In 1910 she returned to the school as a Latin instructor.

As an author, educator, and speaker, Cooper advocated for racial and gender equality and social progress. In A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South, published in 1892, she wrote about the connections between poverty, the necessity of education and effects of segregation, and the need for woman suffrage. The book also encouraged the study and collection of African American folklore, which led to Cooper’s helping found the Washington Negro Folklore Society.

In her book, Cooper eloquently argued that, while black people faced the huge barriers of social inequality and racism, black females faced even larger hurdles because of gender inequality, particularly the prevailing attitudes toward women of color:

The colored woman of today occupies, one may say, a unique position in this country. In a period of itself transitional and unsettled, her status seems one of the least ascertainable and definitive of all forces which make for our civilization. She is confronted by both a woman question and a race problem, and is as yet an unknown or unacknowledged factor in both.

Soon after the publication of A Voice from the South, Cooper spoke at the World’s Congress of Representative Women at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Addressing a mostly white audience, she persuasively argued that the cause of white women and the cause of “colored” women were the causes not only of all women but of all humankind:

Now, I think if I could crystallize the sentiment of my constituency, and deliver it as a message to this congress of women, it would be something like this: Let woman’s claim be as broad in the concrete as in the abstract. We take our stand on the solidarity of humanity, the oneness of life, and the unnaturalness and injustice of all special favoritisms, whether of sex, race, country, or condition. . . .

We want, then, as toilers for the universal triumph of justice and human rights, to go to our homes from this Congress, demanding an entrance not through a gateway for ourselves, our race, our sex, or our sect, but a grand highway for humanity. The colored woman feels that woman’s cause is one and universal; . . . not till race, color, sex, and condition are seen as the accidents, and not the substance of life; not till the universal title of humanity to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is conceded to be inalienable to all; not till then is woman’s lesson taught and woman’s cause won—not the white woman’s, nor the black woman’s, not the red woman’s, but the cause of every man and of every woman who has writhed silently under a mighty wrong. Woman’s wrongs are thus indissolubly linked with undefended woe, and the acquirement of her “rights” will mean the final triumph of all right over might, the supremacy of the moral forces of reason, and justice, and love in the government of the nations of earth.

In her fifties, Cooper began working on a doctoral degree in romance languages at New York’s Columbia University and writing her dissertation, a college edition of an 11th-century French epic, Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne. Columbia required a yearlong residency as a condition of awarding the degree. Still teaching at Dunbar, Cooper was thinking of taking a leave of absence to fulfill this requirement when in 1915 she learned of the death of her nephew, John Haywood. A widower, Haywood had left five children, whom Cooper adopted. Needing time for both parenting and her job, she looked for other means of finishing her degree. (In due course, her dissertation was published.)

Cooper had taken courses at the Sorbonne in Paris during summer travels, so she transferred her graduate work to that university. Assigned a different thesis topic, she researched and wrote in her spare time for a number of years and eventually traveled to Paris for a 60-day residency, during which she paid for a substitute teacher at Dunbar. She received her doctorate in 1925, the fourth African American woman to earn this degree. Her thesis, in French, examined the racial attitudes of French revolutionaries toward the Caribbean colonies.

Cooper retired from Dunbar High in 1930 and went on to serve as president of Frelinghuysen University, which targeted working people seeking a higher education. In her remaining years, she continued to advocate for social change by speaking, publishing, and organizing.

Anna Julia Cooper state marker. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program.
Anna Julia Cooper state marker. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program.

Anna Julia Haywood Cooper’s achievements embodied her belief in empowerment through education. In a poem written when she was 82, she requested “no flowers please” for her accomplishments and gave thanks for “courage and strength” in “the Struggle we call Life.” In an interview at the age of 100, she aptly noted, “It isn’t what we say about ourselves, it’s what our life stands for.” Cooper stood for commitment to education and freedom for all people. Her contributions were acknowledged with the issuance of a United States Postal Service stamp in her honor. Her words are included in the United States passport: “The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class—it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.”

During her lifetime Cooper experienced the end of slavery, saw women gain the right to vote, witnessed the demise of legal segregation, and heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. She died in 1964 at the age of 105. After a service at Saint Augustine’s College, she was buried in Raleigh City Cemetery.

*Sally Bloom is the distance learning educator at the North Carolina Museum of History.

Wilmington Race Riot

By LeRae Umfleet*

The events in Wilmington, North Carolina, of November 10, 1898, were the result of a long-range campaign strategy by state Democratic Party leaders to regain political control using the concept of white supremacy. The successful 1898 campaign ushered in a period of racial injustice, and the Jim Crow concept of “separate but equal” was solidified until the advent of the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century.

In 1894 a Populist and Republican coalition known as Fusion had won control of the General Assembly, and in 1896 Daniel Russell, the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, was elected. Fusionists made sweeping changes to local and state government in favor of African Americans and middle class whites. Wilmington, the state’s largest city, sustained a complex, wealthy, society for all races, with African Americans holding elected office and working in professional and midrange occupations vital to the economy.

The Democratic Party’s 1898 campaign was led by Furnifold Simmons, who used a three-prong attack to win the election: men who could write, speak, and “ride.” Men who could write generated propaganda for newspapers. Men who could speak, such as Alfred M. Waddell and future governor Charles B. Aycock, gave fiery speeches to inflame white voters. Men who could ride, known as Red Shirts, intimidated blacks and forced whites to vote for Democratic Party candidates. Democrats from across the state took special interest in securing victory in Wilmington. An editorial by Alex Manly, editor of the Daily Record, Wilmington’s African American newspaper, became a touchstone of the campaign. Manly’s article challenged white concepts of interracial relationships, and the Democrats used it as a tool to further anger whites.

Group of Red Shirts pose at the polls. Image courtesy of the North Carolina State Archives.
Group of Red Shirts pose at the polls. Image courtesy of the North Carolina State Archives.

Because their campaign was so successful, Democrats won the election in Wilmington and across the state. The next day a group of Wilmington whites passed a series of resolutions requiring Alex Manly to leave the city and close his paper, and also called for the resignations of the mayor and chief of police. A committee of men led by Waddell was selected to implement the set of resolutions, called the White Declaration of Independence. The committee presented its demands to a Committee of Colored Citizens (CCC)—prominent local African Americans—and required compliance by the next morning, November 10, 1898.

Waddell met a crowd of men at the Wilmington Light Infantry (WLI) Armory the morning of the tenth. Delayed response from the CCC and growing tensions enabled Waddell to organize as many as 2,000 whites to march on the Record printing office, where they broke in and burned the building. By 11:00 a.m., violence had broken out across town at an intersection where groups of blacks and whites argued. Shots rang out and several black men fell dead or wounded. Both sides later claimed the first shot had been fired by the other.

During the ensuing rioting, members of Waddell’s committee and others worked to set in motion a coup d’etat to overthrow the municipal government. By late afternoon Wilmington’s elected officials were forced to resign under pressure and were replaced by men selected by leading Democrats. Waddell was elected mayor by the newly seated board of aldermen. Prominent African Americans and white Republicans were banished from the city over the next days. No official count of dead can be ascertained, due to a lack of records, but at least 14 and perhaps as many as 60 men were murdered.

Democrats solidified their control over city government through a new city charter in January 1899. Waddell and the board of aldermen were officially elected in March 1899 with no Republican resistance. The new legislature enacted the state’s first Jim Crow legislation regarding the separation of races in train passenger cars. A new suffrage amendment that disfranchised black voters was added to the state constitution by voters in 1900. The Democratic legislature overturned Fusion and placed control over county governments in Raleigh. New election laws limited Republican power in the 1900 election. Democrats controlled local and statewide affairs for the next 70 years after victory in 1898.

Inside Wilmington, out-migration following the violence negatively affected the ability of African Americans to recover. Although Wilmington’s out-migration preceded the Great Migration by about 10 years, the reasons were the same—violence and reduced economic stability. African Americans were replaced by white workers, overt and covert violence ensured that blacks did not seek to step outside the bounds established by whites, and a second-class status emerged for African Americans with no hope for a political or economic voice.

Wilmington marked a new epoch in the history of violent race relations in the United States. Several other high-profile riots followed Wilmington, most notably Atlanta (1906), Tulsa (1921), and Rosewood (1923). All four communities dealt with the aftermath of their riots differently. Whites in Tulsa and Atlanta addressed the causes and some effects of violence and destruction soon after their events; Wilmington whites provided compensation only for the loss of the building housing Manly’s press.

*LeRae Umfleet is chief of Collections Management for the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.

The Rise of Jim Crow

By Joe A. Mobley*

This 1904 cartoon by John T. McCutcheon depicts segregated railcars.  It appeared in McCutcheon's book The Mysterious Stranger and Other Cartoons.
This 1904 cartoon by John T. McCutcheon depicts segregated railcars.
It appeared in McCutcheon's book The Mysterious Stranger and Other Cartoons. 

One of the outcomes of the election of 1898 was the enactment of the so-called Jim Crow laws in North Carolina. (The name “Jim Crow” came from a blackface character in white minstrel shows, which became popular in the South in the 19th century. The character was portrayed as an unsophisticated, dull-witted country bumpkin.) These statutes were designed to legitimize a policy of racial segregation by requiring that separate facilities be established for whites and blacks. Southern states used the 1896 separate-but-equal ruling by the United States Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson as legal justification for these restrictive laws. The first such law passed by North Carolina, in 1899, required railroad companies operating in the state to provide separate cars for white and black passengers. After the turn of the century, North Carolina enacted legislation declaring that racial segregation would be observed in neighborhoods, streetcars, and other public facilities. One law even specified that black and white public school students could not handle the same textbooks. In actual practice, racial segregation transcended even the stipulations prescribed by law and became an established social institution in North Carolina for many decades.

Election of 1900

Even more than the 1898 election, the election of 1900 proved devastating for black North Carolinians. White supremacy groups (such as the Red Shirts) employed intimidation and violence to keep African Americans away from the polls. The votes of those few who did venture to the polls were quickly discarded by white election officials in widespread election fraud. Thus, the political influence of black North Carolinians was ended by threats, violence, and extralegal measures that nullified the rights and privileges bestowed by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the United States Constitution. After 1901, when southern blacks no longer had the right to vote, the Republican Party abandoned its efforts to advance black interests. George H. White, from New Bern, would be the South’s last black congressman until after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

World War I

Despite the federal government’s acquiescence in segregation and failure to halt lynching and other outrages against African Americans, a significant number of black North Carolinians enlisted for army service after the United States entered the war in April 1917. Austin Brown, who was born in James City in 1898, remembered that during World War I, some of the local men served in the army. They left from the New Bern train depot, where the Delemar band (in which Brown played trombone) gave them a musical send-off. “Some of them didn’t come back,” Brown recalled, and others, like Sammy Randolph, who was gassed and nearly blinded, suffered from wounds the rest of their lives. Some black North Carolinians, however, saw a bitter irony in a war being fought supposedly to bring democracy to Europe, while it was denied to African Americans at home. At an Emancipation Day celebration in Raleigh in 1919, 3,000 African Americans assembled and passed resolutions stating that they would not be satisfied to fight and perhaps die in a war for democracy and then come home to racism. Their resolutions denounced lynching and called for a boycott of segregated businesses and services.

After World War I

World War I had a lasting impact on African Americans in North Carolina. In response to wartime demands, industry grew at a phenomenal rate in the United States. That growth led large numbers of rural people to leave the countryside to find employment in cities and urban industrial centers. Throughout the South after the war, large numbers of blacks left the region to find jobs in northern cities. They also fled to escape white supremacy and Jim Crow laws. A significant percentage of black North Carolinians also departed farms and moved to cities within the state, such as Charlotte, Greensboro, and Durham, which were growing with new commercial and industrial development. In the two decades after the war, a new, sizable, self-confident, and successful black middle class would arise in those urban environments and begin to lead black North Carolinians out of the shadow of white dominance that had cast itself across North Carolina since Reconstruction.

*Joe A. Mobley teaches history at North Carolina State University and is former administrator of the Historical Publications Section of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History. He is the author of several books, including James City, a Black Community in North Carolina, 1863–1900; Raleigh, NC: A Brief History; and Weary of War: Life on the Confederate Home Front.

Web Links

North Carolina Highway Historical Marker: Anna J. Cooper

North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company history

"The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow" from PBS

"The Experiences of African Americans in World War I," a lesson plan from Ohio State University

“The Colored State Normal Schools” from Learn NC

“African American College Students, 1906” from Learn NC

"The Duty of Colored Citizens to their Country" from Learn NC

“The Third North Carolina Regiment" from Learn NC

“1898 and White Supremacy” from Learn NC

“Jim Crow and Black Wall Street” from Learn NC

The Great Migration and North Carolina" from Tar Heel Junior Historian magazine

“Challenging the Chain Stores” from Tar Heel Junior Historian magazine

“Charlotte Hawkins Brown: The Evolution of a North Carolina Legacy” from Tar Heel Junior Historian magazine

“The African American State Fair” from Tar Heel Junior Historian magazine

Assignment Four

Complete one of the following assignments:

Option 1:
North Carolina is home to 11 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), many of which were founded after the Civil War. Pick one HBCU and write a one-page essay about its history. Include the following information: When was it founded? Who founded it? Where is it located? What kinds of degrees did it originally offer? What degrees does it offer today?

Option 2:
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries in North Carolina, a variety of influential African Americans and events impacted the African American community. Explore three significant people or events not covered in this section and write a brief paragraph on each explaining their impact on the state's African American community.

Option 3: (If you are seeking technology credits for this course, choose this option.)*
Visit two websites listed in this session and submit an evaluation based on the following:
  • What did you learn from visiting these websites? What questions did your visits provoke?
  • How applicable is the information to what you teach in the classroom? How might it better suit your needs?
  • How could you use these websites in your classroom?

Next, find two relevant websites not included in this session. Write an evaluation of these websites, addressing the following questions:

  • What did you learn from visiting these websites? What questions did your visits provoke?
  • How applicable is the information to what you teach in the classroom? How might it better suit your needs?
  • How could you use these websites in your classroom?
*If you are interested in this option, we strongly encourage you to contact your principal or LEA to receive prior approval. Feel free to refer your LEA to Tricia Blakistone (919-807-7977 or if questions arise. The museum will specify on your certificate of participation that you qualify for reading or technology credits.

Submit your completed assignment via e-mail to