Font Size: AAA

Henry Eppes (1831-1917)

Elected five times to the N.C. Senate, Eppes’s political career spanned 20 years, beginning as a statewide speaker for the Republican Party in 1867 and ending with his final legislative term in the 1887 General Assembly.  He also represented the Halifax district in the Senate for three consecutive terms from 1868 until 1874, and again in the 1879–1880 session, as one of a handful of blacks in the 50-member body during both Reconstruction and the post-Reconstruction era.   

Little is known about his family or his early life, except that he was born into slavery decades before the Civil War and apparently taught himself to read and write.  At war’s end, Eppes quickly emerged as a trusted spokesman for his race in predominantly-black Halifax County, and was chosen as a delegate to the 1866 statewide convention for freedmen.  In 1867, he was chosen as a campaign speaker by Republican organizers in the state, and was then selected as a Halifax delegate to the state’s 1868 constitutional convention.  

At the convention in Raleigh, Eppes took an active role in advocating suffrage for newly-emancipated blacks.  He was then elected to the Senate in the first election held under the new constitution, which permitted blacks to vote for the first time since 1835.  Eppes was one of 14 black legislators to sign a public statement endorsing President-elect Ulysses S. Grant in late 1868.  “Our cause has triumphed,” the group declared in the North Carolina Standard (December 2, 1868).  “By his election his status is settled.  We are men!”  Four years later, Eppes became one of the first black Republicans from North Carolina to be elected as a delegate to a national nominating convention, journeying to Philadelphia in 1872 to cast his vote to nominate Grant for a second term.

During his long tenure in the Senate, Eppes served on a number of committees, including those on Privileges and Elections; Propositions and Grievances; Corporations; Agriculture; and the Special Senate Committee on Roads.  He was also a member of the 1868 legislative committee named to select a new site for the state penitentiary in Raleigh. In 1869 was named a justice of the peace in Halifax County, and in March of that year, introduced an unsuccessful bill to protect the rights of all citizens traveling on public conveyances (Balanoff, p. 41).

Like most, though not all, of his black colleagues, Eppes supported the controversial reorganization of the state militia, an anti-terrorist measure—aimed at the Ku Klux Klan—that was passed by the legislature in 1870.  The new law ironically contributed to the impeachment and removal from office in 1871 of Republican Gov. William W. Holden, after Democrats charged Holden with misusing the reorganized militia.

Eppes was married to Lavinia Knight of Halifax County; they had 13 children, seven of whom lived to adulthood, including distinguished educator Charles Montgomery Eppes (1857–1942) of Greenville, North Carolina.  Despite having no formal schooling himself, the senior Eppes was widely read, and a strong proponent of education for his race.

In 1887, he sponsored an unsuccessful bill to create a statewide normal and collegiate institution for black students.  According to historian John Haley, Eppes “reassured his fellow solons that the black of intelligence and character ‘spurns knocking at the door of any college or university where he is not wanted and opposes mixed schools and Negro supremacy.’”  Aware of widespread opposition to his proposal—even within his own party—Eppes predicted, philosophically, that “we will come again bye and bye” (Haley, pp. 65–66).

In the end, Eppes’s bill was overwhelmingly defeated by the Senate in 1887.  But a similar bill sponsored four years later by Representative Hugh Cale of Pasquotank County, another veteran black Republican, vindicated Eppes’s prediction by creating the State Colored Normal School at Elizabeth City, now known as Elizabeth City State University.

A brick mason and plasterer by trade, Eppes was active in the Methodist Church, serving as a presiding elder and minister.  He also served as a delegate to Methodist General Conference conventions in Baltimore, Maryland, and Atlanta, Georgia.

Eppes died at the age of 86 in Halifax County, and is buried there.


Sources:

Elizabeth Balanoff, “Negro Legislators in the North Carolina General Assembly, July 1868–February 1872,” in North Carolina Historical Review 49 (1972, 21–55);  Eric Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); John Haley, Charles N. Hunter and Race Relations in North Carolina (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1987); John S. Tomlinson, Tar Heel Sketch-book: A brief biographical sketch of the life and public acts of the members of the General Assembly of North Carolina, Session of 1879 (Raleigh, 1879).

By Benjamin R. Justesen,


See Also:

Related Categories: Civil War, African American
Related Encyclopedia Entries: John W. Ellis (1820-1862), Bunker Hill Covered Bridge, Secession, Salem Brass Band, Confederate States Navy (in North Carolina), United States Navy (Civil War activity), James Iredell Waddell (1824-1886), CSS Neuse, USS Underwriter, Warren Winslow (1810-1862), Prelude to the Battle of Averasboro, The Battle of Averasboro-Day One, Louis Froelich and Company, Louis Froelich (1817-1873), North Carolina Button Factory, CSA Arms Factory, Ratification Debates, Peace Party (American Civil War), Braxton Bragg (1817-1876), Daniel Harvey Hill (1821-1889), Battle of Bentonville, Bryan Grimes (1828-1880), Fort Hatteras, Fort Fisher, Fort Clark, Fort Macon, Daniel Russell (1845-1908), The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, Union League, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Levi Coffin (1798 – 1877), Battle of Forks Road, Aaron McDuffie Moore (1863-1923), Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) , Fort Anderson (Confederate), Battle of Deep Gully and Fort Anderson (Federal), James T. Leach (1805-1883), Sarah Malinda Pritchard Blalock (1839-1903), Thomas Bragg (1810-1872), Curtis Hooks Brogden (1816-1901), John Motley Morehead (1796-1866), David Lowry Swain (1801-1868), Zebulon Baird Vance (1830-1894), Alamance County (1849), Gates County (1779), Clay County (1861), Lenoir County (1791), Union County (1842), Teague Band (Civil War), Fort Hamby Gang (Civil War), Shelton Laurel Massacre , Parker David Robbins (1834-1917), Washington County (1799), Hertford County (1759), Rutherford County (1779), Granville County (1746), Salisbury Prison (Civil War), Stoneman's Raid, James City, Fort York, Asa Biggs (1811 - 1878), Thomas Clingman (1812 - 1897), Matt W. Ransom (1826 - 1904), St. Augustine's College, Peace College, Election Case of Joseph Abbott and Zebulon Vance, Stephen Dodson Ramseur (1837 - 1864) , Vance Birthplace, Matthew Calbraith Butler (1836-1909), Wade Hampton III (1818-1902), The Battle of Monroe's Crossroads (March 10, 1865), Carolinas Campaign (January 1865-April 1865), William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891), Confederate Surrender at Bennett's Place (April 17-26, 1865), Hugh Judson Kilpatrick (1836-1881) and the Carolinas Campaign, Joseph Eggleston Johnston (1807-1891) and the Carolinas Campaign, Freedmen's Bank, John Pool (1826-1884), Andrew Johnson (1808-1875), Lieutenant Governor, Henry Toole Clark, Holden Impeachment, Thomas Jordan Jarvis (1836-1915), George Henry White (1852–1918), James Turner (1766-1824), William Woods Holden (1818-1892), Israel Braddock Abbott (1840–1887), Wilson Carey (1831-1905?), William H. McLaurin (1834-1902) , Augustus S. Merrimon (1830 - 1892), Hiram Rhodes Revels (1827 - 1901), Reconstruction Bibliography, The Spanish - American War, Edward Vail (1717-1777), Braxton Bragg (Mexican War) (1817-1876), James K. Polk (1795-1849), Hillsborough Confrontation (1768), William Hawkins (1777-1819), Otway Burns (1775-1850), Johnston Blakely (1781-1814), George E. Preddy (1919-1944), The Battle of Averasboro- Day Two, Civil War, Lance Incorporated, Archibald Maclaine (1728-1790), House in the Horseshoe, Philip Alston, Battle of Alamance, David Fanning (1755-1825), Battle of Guilford Court House, The Walton War, James Reilly ( ? - 1894), Howell Gilliam Trogdon (1840 - 1894), Battle at the Mouth of Sandy Creek, Battle of Plymouth (1864), Gatling Gun, Battle of Moore's Creek Bridge, Rutherford's Campaign, Royal Governor Josiah Martin (1737 - 1786), David “Carbine” Williams (1900 - 1975), The Battle of Ramsour’s Mill (June 20, 1780), Josephus Daniels (1862 - 1948)
Related Commentary: Toward an Inclusive History of the Civil War: Society and the Home Front, Edward Bonekemper on the Cowardice of General McClellan, Freedmen’s Bank Served Blacks in Post-Civil War Economy, Reconstruction Bibliography
Related Lesson Plans: Discussion of the Lunsford Lane Narrative, Civil War in North Carolina
Timeline: 1776-1835 , 1836-1865 , 1866-1915 , 1916-1945
Region: Coastal Plain , Piedmont Plateau

© 2014 John Locke Foundation | 200 West Morgan St., Raleigh, NC 27601, Voice: (919) 828-3876
Website design & development by DesignHammer Media Group, LLC. Building Smarter Websites.