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.
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).