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.
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 http://www.learnnc.org/lp/multimedia/10719.
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.
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.