“Excuse me, sir, can you give us directions to the corner of Broad and Metcalf streets?” I asked the man with the New Jersey accent behind the counter at the Pepsi’s birthplace in New Bern.
“Yeah, you see that street right there? Turn right; go two blocks,” he answered a bit distractedly. He was helping a lady maneuver a couple of trays of fountain drinks.
“What’s at the corner of Metcalf that you want to see?” Jock asked.
“It’s the NC Highway historic marker for Congressman White,” I answered. “Alex and Carrie Manley were married in his living room in Washington D.C. after she got back from Europe. When Alex and Frank left Wilmington after 1898, Alex got a job working for Congressman White.”
I finished off the last of the popcorn before asking, “Do you mind if we go see it? It says his home still stands.”
“It’s your birthday! We can do whatever your want.”
“I know chasing down a highway historic marker for a dead U.S. congressman is not what you expected for a birthday celebration,” I apologized.
Jock shook his head and smiled. “No, darlin’, it is exactly what I expect. Happy birthday.”
My birthday this year was on the 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Though I very much would liked to have spent it at Bethel Woods in New York, it was just not in the cards for us time-wise or money-wise. After a lot of hemming and hawing, I finally asked Jock for a very specific birthday present: drive the VW Van we have been restoring for almost five years on its first out-of-town trip. It could be a day trip, but I wanted to have an adventure with him in the van. New Bern seemed like an attainable goal.
I have such a fascination with North Carolina history, especially the colonial period and revolution. I wanted to see Tryon Palace and do recon for the possibility of bringing Hilda back on several walking tours. But Tryon Palace does not allow dogs, so this would need to be a humans-only trip.
The last time I visited Tryon Palace I was 7 years old and part of a rather disastrous elementary school field trip. For weeks Mrs. Higgins had built up the excitement about our trip to Tryon Palace. Now, if there is one thing 6- and 7-year-olds are experts on, it is what a palace or a castle should look like. This was not a palace; it was a large house. It did not have a proper moat, drawbridge, tower, or dungeon. It was clearly misnamed. Whoever built it had never seen a palace. Clearly, no princesses lived there. We knew princesses. This was not a princess palace. Our list of complaints went on and on throughout the tour and the entire drive home.
Thirty years later, I felt better prepared to soak in the structure that was considered a major tipping point for the revolution in the Carolinas. But here’s the thing: Tryon Palace actually disappeared. The area was turned into a 19th-century housing development.
In the first half of the 20th century, a group of ladies got together and decided North Carolina needed to rebuild Tryon Palace. After some major fundraising and incredible force of will, as only Southern matriarchs can exert, ‘lo and behold is the rebuilt palace.
The tour, which lasted roughly an hour, explained the daily functioning of the household and significance of the Royal Governor in Colonial life. The kitchen makes food from the period and is functional. In spite of all the pretty things to look at, there was remarkably little discussion about how the governor moved to New Bern from Brunswick Town, and why the palace seriously was a sore spot with the colonists. I mean, it is not like the American Revolution came out of nowhere. This opulent house was built on taxes of the working and farming classes and it was not well-received—especially since large land owners were not taxed the way little guys were.
“Did you correct them?” Rachel asked me later with a wry smile.
“No, I behaved myself; it was a very nice tour.” I responded. “Just insufficient. I know what it is like to be a tour guide; I kept my counsel.”
At about 2:30 p.m. Jock hit the point in the day when he needed a cup of coffee in order to maintain vertical shape “Can we visit the birthplace of Pepsi?” I asked. “I’ve been meaning to do a story on it for a while. You know, North Carolina heritage and small business spreading across the globe and all that.”
“Sure.” Jock sipped, prepared to agree to anything now that he had caffeine coursing through his veins. The lovely young barista gave us directions to the birthplace of Pepsi and we set off on our way.
Though I was disappointed with the soda excursion, the idea of finding Congressman White’s marker was like a bolt of electricity. He was born in Bladen County before the Civil War. His father was a free person of color; his birth mother is believed to have been enslaved. He rose to represent North Carolina in U.S. Congress. In my mind, he is associated always with the Manley family (Alex and Carrrie), who owned and operated The Wilmington Daily Record. The daily was the African-American-owned newspaper in Wilmington and at the center of the events of the coup of 1898.
When White left Congress, he was the last African-American elected to represent North Carolina until the election of Eva Clayton in 1992. That is almost 100 years. The impact of the coup and disenfranchisement of African-American voters and representatives was so successful in North Carolina that, for almost a century, we did not elect another African-American to U.S. Congress.
Think about that.
While he was in Congress, White introduced the first bill to make lynching a federal crime: January 20, 1900, according to the United States House of Representatives archives. On December 19, 2018, the US Senate finally passed a bill that would make lynching a federal crime.
Since, it has been sent to the U.S. House of Representatives, and no further action has been taken on the bill as of press. Just to be clear: Almost 120 years after a North Carolina congressman introduced the first anti-lynching bill, we still have not passed it as law in the our country. Lynching is not a federal crime, nor is it recognized and classified as a federal hate crime. Lynching—the public act of hanging a person and publicly torturing them, an activity that has been primarily used to terrorize African-Americans in this country for almost two centuries—is still not recognized as a hate crime.
After the events of 1898, Congressman White retired, moved out of North Carolina and eventually settled in Philadelphia. In interviews with The New York Times and Chicago Tribune, he made it clear how in North Carolina he could not live life of a fully independent person. Rather than submit to degradation, he chose to live elsewhere. The Manleys also settled in Philadelphia.
The two families always have seemed so linked in my mind. When we talk about 1898, so often we talk only about the events leading up to the coup and then the coup itself. The aftermath is really important, and the role Congressman White played in the Manley family was essential to helping them move forward.
So I found myself searching for White’s NC highway marker as an opportunity to take a moment to pay homage to him. To thank him for taking Alex and Carrie in. To thank him for his efforts to move our state and country into a civilized world.
Searching for his marker and trying to identify which house had been his while he lived in New Bern, when he taught school and built his law practice, brought me face to face with another part of his narrative—which has nothing to do with Alex Manley or Wilmington. As a young man, White built a career for himself against incredible odds. It is where he raised his young family, and from New Bern, he went on to serve in both the NC House and NC Senate. His role in the Manleys’ lives is not even a footnote here.
We finally located the marker (much farther away than the gentleman had directed us). After the first flush of excitement, I stopped in my tracks and caught my breath. It is that penultimate sentence on the marker: “Born into slavery.”
His story is so inspiring, all he accomplished would be worthy of praise even now: small town, African-American man breaks the color barrier again and again, and uses his achievements to work for the betterment of his community. In so many ways, I tend to focus on his accomplishments, and forget, in his life span, nearly 360,000 people were emancipated from slavery in North Carolina during the Civil War. His parents grew up when it was illegal for them to learn to read and write. Their son became a U.S. congressman.
We will never know the full magnitude of what we lost in 1898—how many lives were cut short, how many people left here willingly or otherwise. We will never fully appreciate what we lost by not having them here with us, working, living and making our community better.
When we look at Congressman White—who “self-deported” out of North Carolina because the banners being waved made it clear he was no longer welcome—we should see how the loss was ours, not his.