Should the history of a mostly forgotten governor from Reconstruction be used to teach people today about the intersection of race and politics?
That’s what Eddie Davis, a former teacher and politician known as Durham’s historian, said Saturday at an event he organized in Raleigh to honor the 200th birthday of William Woods Holden. Holden, as governor from 1868-71, led North Carolina’s ill-fated efforts just after the Civil War to create a society where black and white people would be treated as equals.
William Woods Holden, a North Carolina governor during Reconstruction, was impeached for his progressive views on race.
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Just halfway into his term, Holden was impeached and then removed from office by white-supremacist politicians in the state legislature who opposed his efforts to imprison members of the Ku Klux Klan.
He was the first U.S. governor to be removed from office, and even now nearly 150 years later, state leaders have not yet fully apologized. The N.C. Senate formally apologized in 2011, but the N.C. House of Representatives still has not — and should, Davis said.
It’s one thing the former Durham City Council member said he’ll be watching for next year when the legislature returns to Raleigh for other more routine business, like passing a new budget and re-drawing unconstitutionally gerrymandered election districts.
“It would be a good way for us in 2018 — ’19 by the time they get there — to show that we have bipartisan support for unity, for freedom, for justice,” Davis said Saturday.
After the Civil War ended in 1865, occupying federal troops helped install pro-Union politicians, including some black politician, in offices around the South. That did not sit well with many conservatives, Davis said, nor did the policies of white politicians like Holden who supported black civil rights.
“People just were yearning for the old days and did not want to give up the privilege that some people had — and did not want to make room enough for inclusion of people who in the past had been relegated to servitude,” Davis said. “So it was a new day, and in many ways there are similarities to what’s going on in the United States right now.”
According to the FBI, the number of reported hate crimes has been rising since 2015. In North Carolina, reported hate crimes rose by 12 percent last year, according to a News & Observer report.
“We hope though that people will learn from those lessons of the past and will not resort to violence and intimidation and other things to keep their position of privilege,” Davis said.
The Klan activity that led to Holden’s eventual removal originated in Caswell County, and to this day, the Caswell County town of Pelham remains the home of the Loyal White Knights, one of the country’s larger KKK groups. The Knightsmade headlines in 2016 when they held a victory parade to celebrate Republican President’s Donald Trump’s election win.
In the summer of 1870 the Klan lynched a black Alamance County politician, Wyatt Outlaw, and also murdered a white politican from Caswell County named John Stephens who supported black people’s rights. Holden declared martial law and had several dozen Klan members arrested.
But many of the arrested Klansmen complained of rough treatment, and accused the government of violating their constitutional rights. All of the roughly 100 suspects were released and never charged with any crimes, according to the Documenting The South project at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Within months, Holden was removed from office. According to a biography of Holden by North Carolina historian William S. Powell, the politician who started the impeachment proceedings was a former Klan leader from Orange County named Frederick W. Strudwick.
Afterward, 17 members of the N.C. General Assembly — including the state’s first black lawyer, George Mabson of Wilmington — distributed an open letter they titled “Address to the Colored People of North Carolina.”
In it, they said a main reason the legislature wanted Holden gone was because of his work to ensure black people could vote. And they implored their fellow black people to pray for divine help to counteract the white supremacist leaders who had just reasserted their power, only five years after the end of the Civil War.
“They are mad because their slave property is lost,” the letter said. “They are mad because the Reconstruction measures have triumphed, and we are permitted to represent you in this body. They are mad because we refuse to bow the knee to them.”
History shows they were right to be worried. The same conservative faction in the legislature that impeached Holden almost immediately changed the state constitution to remove many of the rights that black people had been granted just a decade earlier, thus ushering in the Jim Crow Era.
According to a North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources report from 2011: “They amended the constitution in 1873 and again in 1875, concentrating power in Raleigh and ensuring that only white Conservatives would hold local offices through legislative control of county governments. Other amendments, like those that outlawed interracial marriage and prohibited integrated public schools, served to relegate African Americans to a lower level of society and politics.”
The legislature later created laws to keep black people from voting, like poll taxes and literacy tests. The N.C. Constitution actually still has a literacy test requirement — although it’s now unenforceable due to changes in federal law.
The state legislature asked voters to pass a constitutional amendment getting rid of the literacy test rule in 1970, although North Carolinians decided to keep it. Sporadic efforts to remove it since then have gone nowhere, including another failed attempt in 2017.
Will Doran: 919-836-2858; @will_doran