A noted labor organizer and popular orator, Abbott was among the most highly regarded African American Republican politicians of the Reconstruction and post-Reconstruction eras in North Carolina. He served as both a New Bern city councilman and state legislator from Craven County, and was twice a candidate for the Republican nomination for Congress from the Second District of North Carolina.
Born of free black parents in 1843, Abbott was raised by his mother, Gracie Maria Abbott, and maternal grandmother, Hanna Rhew, after the death of his father, Israel B. Abbott, in 1844. His mother was married twice more—first to Nelson Brown, later to Rev. Joseph Green, a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Abbott had one sister, Hannah Cora Brown, and two stepbrothers. His maternal grandmother helped finance his early education at a private school in New Bern.
Abbott’s formal education ended at age 10, when he was apprenticed as a carpenter to his stepfather. Abbott practiced that trade on his own until his death, except during a brief conscription into construction work for Confederate coastal fortifications after the Civil War began in 1861, and after intervention by friends, as servant to a Confederate military office, Lt. Alex Miller, of the 2nd North Carolina Regiment. In late 1861, still unhappy with his situation, Abbott escaped on a forged pass to New Bern, where he remained in hiding until after the Union occupation of that city in early 1862.
A natural leader, Abbott excelled as an organizer and speaker, and served as president of the New Bern Council of the equal rights league named for Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. After the war ended, he also emerged as a skillful politician, named to a Republican party state executive committee in 1867 and chosen as assistant doorkeeper for the N.C. House of Representatives in 1868, the first legislature to meet under the state’s new constitution granting freed slaves the right to vote. Republican Gov. William W. Holden recognized his leadership qualities by naming Abbott a second lieutenant in the state militia, under provisions of the Shoffner act.
Abbott was unsuccessful in his first attempt at elective office, to the General Assembly in 1870, but persevered, becoming a deputy sheriff for Craven County, a Superior Court crier, and an opposition candidate at the county’s nominating convention in 1871. In 1872, he was elected by a large majority to the N.C. House of Representatives from Craven County. Among the state’s youngest legislators, Abbott, 29, represented Craven for two sessions—from November 1872 to March 1873, and from November 1873 until March 1874. Among his accomplishments was a legislative charter given to the Young Men’s Intelligent and Enterprising Association, which promoted opportunities for African Americans and which Abbott served as president.
Physically short but powerfully built, Abbott exuded energy and determination in his political activities, and was described by the North Carolina Examiner (19 February 1874) as “a good debater … a sort of political busy-body that cannot be dispensed with, often getting votes where, seemingly, there are none to be had.” Subsequently elected to the New Bern town council, he resigned that post in a political dispute with other members and never held office again. But he remained an active Republican, serving as a state delegate to the party’s national nominating convention in 1880, where he voted to nominate James A. Garfield, and as an alternate delegate to the 1884 convention, after being elected chairman of that year’s state Republican convention.
He was a close friend and political ally of George Henry White, an educator and attorney who moved to New Bern in 1877 as principal of the city’s black public school, and later elected to Congress from the Second District. Abbott and White were both active Freemasons and members of the Good Samaritan Order, whose newspaper they co-edited. In 1881, Abbott was elected statewide president of the Good Samaritans. In that same year, he founded one of the first labor unions in the state with E.E. Tucker and helped organize an unsuccessful strike for higher wages by a number of black servants and laborers in James City, a black settlement across the river from New Bern.
In 1882, Abbott was one of a number of candidates for the Republican nomination for the Congressional race in North Carolina’s Second District, widely known as the “Black Second” for its predominantly black population. Abbott lost that nomination in a bitter battle with influential rival James Edward O’Hara of Enfield, the unsuccessful nominee for the seat four years earlier, whom Abbott detested. O’Hara won the race, and was reelected in 1884, but Abbott vowed to defeat him in 1886, when he ran as an independent Republican candidate in the general election.
Abbott was actually nominated by a minority faction of Second District Republicans in August 1886, but that convention’s decision was quickly reversed by a second vote among “regular” delegates, who preferred O’Hara. Undaunted , Abbott remained in the race and garnered more than 5,000 votes out of more than 33,000 cast in a three-way race against O’Hara and Democrat Furnifold Simmons; Abbott carried two of the district’s 11 counties (Edgecombe and Warren) and tipped the election to Simmons. The New York Times, basing its prediction on very early returns, even briefly declared Abbott the district’s winner soon after the election (“A Colored Representative,” 5 November 1886), correcting its report only in later editions.
Abbott and his wife, Susan, were married about 1863. They had at least three sons and four daughters. He died of Bright’s disease, a kidney disorder, in May 1887, just days before his 44th birthday. The Good Samaritan Lodge obituary, published in New Bern’s Weekly Journal (26 May 1887), described him as “indefatigable in his efforts to advance the Order in the State of North Carolina” and “a devout husband, a kind father, a good citizen and a true Samaritan.” He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, where his tombstone epitaph still stands: “…a loyal and progressive leader of his race.”
Alice Bernstein, “Israel B. Abbott,” in African American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Eric Anderson, Race and Politics in North Carolina 1872-1901: The Black Second (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981; Joe A. Mobley, James City: A Black Community in North Carolina, 1863-1901 (Raleigh: N.C. Division of Archives and History, 1981); Benjamin R. Justesen, George Henry White: An Even Chance in the Race of Life (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2001); “The Colored Members of the General Assembly of North Carolina,” Raleigh, N.C., Daily Examiner, February 19, 1874, clipping in the Hunter Papers, Duke University Special Collections, Perkins Library.
See Also:Related Categories: Political History, African American