Born on May 31, 1834, in Wilmington, North Carolina, William H. McLaurin was a veteran of the Union Navy during the Civil War, and served one term in the N.C. House of Representatives as a Republican from New Hanover County from 1872 until 1874.
McLaurin was also among the first African Americans to serve as a U.S. postmaster in North Carolina. He was appointed postmaster at Warsaw in Duplin County in December 1875.
Born a slave, McLaurin was educated as a youth by his owner’s family, whose surname he later adopted. After the outbreak of the Civil War, McLaurin escaped Wilmington aboard the Union gunboat Penobscot, lying just off the North Carolina coast as part of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. McLaurin later enlisted briefly in the U.S. Navy.
Discharged from the Navy at the end of 1863 in Brooklyn, New York, McLaurin remained in Brooklyn until the end of the Civil War. He returned to Wilmington in July 1865 with assistance from the American Freedmen’s Aid Association, and worked for several years as a schoolteacher and relief worker. As a military veteran, he took part in activities sponsored by the Grand Army of the Republic Post No. 3, including ceremonies to mark Emancipation Day on January 1 (Wilmington Morning Star, 2 January 1869) and in Memorial Day ceremonies at the city’s National Cemetery (Morning Star, 31 May 1870).
After passage of the 1868 state constitution which allowed blacks to register and vote, McLaurin became active in Republican politics, serving as clerk of the market in Wilmington before being named recording secretary of the party’s New Hanover County executive committee at the end of 1869. New Hanover County’s population and its Republican party were both predominantly black, and until 1898, New Hanover voters regularly elected black legislators, despite factional squabbles within the Republican party.
During the 1870 statewide elections, which were dominated by Republicans, McLaurin was an election judge and registrar but declined to accept the party’s nomination that year for one of New Hanover’s three seats in the N.C. House of Representatives, in an attempt to prevent a party split. Though not an active candidate, he nonetheless received more than 1,300 votes from those who refused to vote for anyone else (N.C. Daily Examiner, 19 February 1874).
McLaurin’s grocery business and farming gave him a measure of prosperity by 1870, when he was reported by that year’s census as owning $400 in real estate. In 1871, he was named as a county magistrate, a post he held until his resignation in 1873. He was active in his church, becoming a lay minister and twice serving as the superintendent of the Sunday school at St. Stephen’s AME Zion Church. He was also an officer in Zerubabel Royal Arch Chapter No. 14.
In 1872, McLaurin accepted the Republican nomination for one of 3 New Hanover seats in the N.C. House. A popular speaker and effective campaigner, he was elected in August 1872 by an impressive majority, along with black Republican Alfred Lloyd and white Republican James A. Heaton. All three took served for two sessions, from November 1872–March 1873, and from November 1873–February 1874. McLaurin introduced at least one successful bill—incorporating an Odd Fellows fraternal chapter—but otherwise played a minor role in the Democratic-dominated House.
After his single term, he apparently declined to seek public office again, although he was mentioned briefly as a candidate for appointment as Wilmington’s city treasurer in 1873. He remained active in local politics, serving as a local election judge in 1873 and 1874, and later as a justice of the peace in Wilmington’s Harnett Township. He also remained active in his church and in local fraternal affairs, including the York Masons. As a member of Giblem Lodge, he helped lay the lodge building’s cornerstone in December1871, and was a delegate to state Masonic gatherings.
After leaving the N.C. House in 1874, McLaurin briefly moved to neighboring Duplin County, where he was appointed in 1875 by President Ulysses S. Grant as the U.S. postmaster in Warsaw. One of the first African Americans to serve as a postmaster in North Carolina, McLaurin held that office for a year. He resigned in November 1876, returning to the family’s farm on Masonboro Sound, which his wife Betty had purchased in 1874 (Reaves, 436), and where they raised daughter Eunice and their five sons: Thomas L., Amos, Henry A., John H., and James.
In 1876, McLaurin helped organize Wilmington’s second Industrial Fair, which later became a statewide event in Raleigh. William McLaurin was still listed as an active farmer in Branson’s Directory in 1889, but little else is known about his life in later years. Perhaps because of poor health, he took no part in efforts by African American leaders to negotiate with armed whites during the racial violence of November 1898, in which a number of black citizens were killed and the city’s Republican-dominated government was overthrown by Democrats.
McLaurin died at his home in New Hanover County on August 29, 1902, and is buried in Wilmington’s Pine Forest Cemetery. His brief obituary in the Wilmington Morning Star described him as “an old colored man who once represented New Hanover in the Legislature during the days of Republicanism” (Morning Star, 31 August 1902).
Eric Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 146; William M. Reaves, Strength Through Struggle: The Chronological and Historical Record of the African-American Community in Wilmington, North Carolina, 1865-1950 (Wilmington, N.C.: New Hanover County Public Library, 1998); “The Colored Members of the General Assembly of North Carolina,” N.C. Daily Examiner, February 19, 1874, Hunter Papers, Duke University, Perkins Library Special Collections.