Henry Plummer Cheatham (1857–1935)

Written By Benjamin R. Justesen

Henry Plummer Cheatham was born near Henderson, North Carolina, on December 27, 1857, and died in Oxford, North Carolina, on November 29, 1935.

One of four African Americans elected to represent North Carolina’s Second Congressional district during the nineteenth century (1889-1893), Cheatham was later appointed by President McKinley as Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, one of the highest federal offices then available to black appointees. He held the post from 1897 until 1901.

The son of a house slave on a plantation near Henderson, Cheatham grew up in a relatively privileged position for the period.  His father, never named, was likely the plantation’s owner.  After emancipation, Cheatham was educated in Granville County’s public schools before attending the private Shaw University in Raleigh, where he received both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in the early 1880s; he also studied law, though he never practiced it.  He became a teacher at the state normal school for black schoolteachers in Plymouth, North Carolina; after the death of principal Alexander Hicks, Jr., in early 1883, Cheatham became that school’s principal.  

In 1884, Republicans in the newly created Vance County nominated Cheatham as the black-majority county’s first register of deeds, an office which he held for four years.  In 1888, he was the Republican nominee for Congress from the Second district, widely known as the “Black Second,” for the predominantly black population of its counties.  Cheatham narrowly defeated Democratic incumbent Rep. Furnifold Simmons in the general election in 1888, and was sworn in as a member of the 51st Congress in March 1889, its only black member until 1890, when Virginia’s John Mercer Langston and South Carolina’s Thomas E. Miller took their seats after winning protracted contests.

Reelected in 1890 over Democrat James Mewboorne, Cheatham was the only black member of the 52nd Congress.  During his years in office, Cheatham successfully nominated more than a dozen black postmasters in the Second district, although several were removed from office for various reasons. None of the bills he introduced was passed.  After being renominated for a third term in 1892, Cheatham was narrowly defeated in the general election by white Democrat Frederick A. Woodard of Wilson.  

In 1894, Cheatham again sought the Second district nomination for Congress; his major opponent this time was his brother-in-law, George Henry White of Tarboro.  After a long and acrid campaign, both men claimed to have been nominated by the district convention; the Republican Party’s national congressional committee, forced to intervene, awarded the nomination to Cheatham just weeks before the fall election, which Cheatham lost for a second time to Woodard.  In 1896, White defeated Cheatham decisively for the nomination, in Cheatham’s final attempt at elective office.

In May 1897, President William McKinley selected Cheatham as the next Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, one of the four highest federal posts available to black appointees at that time.  After being confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Cheatham served in the post until December 1901, when President Theodore Roosevelt named John C. Dancy of North Carolina to the post.

After Cheatham returned to North Carolina, he became administrator in 1907 of the Colored Orphanage Asylum of North Carolina, located in Oxford, and now known as the Central Children’s Home of North Carolina.  Under his supervision, the small orphanage established in the early 1880s grew into an impressive facility with many brick buildings, offering a home for nearly 200 black orphans. He held that position until his death in 1935.  

Henry Cheatham was married twice.  His first wife, Louisa S. Cherry Cheatham, was a sister of Cora Lena Cherry White, wife of George Henry White.  The couple had three children: Charlie, Henry Plummer Cheatham, Jr., and Mamie (Wormley).  After Louisa Cheatham’s death in Washington, D.C., in 1899, Henry Cheatham married Laura Joyner in 1901, and had three more children: Robert, James, and Susie.

A state highway historical marker was erected in Oxford in Cheatham’s memory in 1976. He I buried in Oxford.