The “Black Second” Congressional District, 1872-1901

Written By North Carolina History Project

North Carolina’s Second Congressional District, widely known as the “Black Second” during the late 19th century, became the state’s first black-majority district in 1872.  As reconfigured by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, based on the 1870 census, the Second District encompassed many of the state’s black-majority counties in the northeastern region, and its Republican voters elected four African American congressmen to a total of seven terms between 1874 and 1898.

Democrats had intended to neutralize the Republican threat in the state’s eastern counties by grouping together as many of the state’s eastern Republican voters into one district, and spreading out other Republican-leaning counties into adjacent majority-Democratic districts.  The oddly-shaped Second District, as gerrymandered by Democratic lawmakers, now included ten counties, stretching from Craven and Jones counties along the Atlantic coast northward to Halifax, Northampton, and Warren counties, along the Virginia border.  Between these two poles of the new district lay Edgecombe, Greene, Lenoir, Wayne, and Wilson counties.

All the new district’s counties except Wayne and Wilson contained populations that were predominantly black, with four counties—Edgecombe, Halifax, Northampton, and Warren—more than 60 percent black.  The district’s population was overwhelmingly rural, with just six significant towns, none with as many as 10,000 residents.  The largest town in the new district was New Bern; other urban areas included Goldsboro, Kinston, Rocky Mount, Tarboro, and Wilson, with county seats or large villages at Halifax Court House, Jackson, Scotland Neck, Snow Hill, Trenton, and Warrenton.

Most of the counties in the “Black Second” district also elected black state legislators between 1868 and 1898, in some cases exclusively so.  Almost from the beginning, black candidates were thus strong contenders for the new Second District’s Republican nomination, which was generally tantamount to election.  The first nominee from the redrawn district was incumbent Rep. Charles R. Thomas, who won reelection in 1872.  In 1874, State Sen. John Adams Hyman of Warren County won the nomination, overwhelmingly defeating a Democratic challenger to become North Carolina’s first black congressman.  Hyman served one term (1875–1877), before failing to win renomination in 1876.  

The district’s overwhelming Republican registration was generally, though not always, a guarantee of election; over the next two decades after 1876, black Republicans won the nomination 10 more times and won the general election six times.  Black nominees included James Edward O’Hara of Enfield (1878, 1882, 1884, and 1886); Henry Plummer Cheatham of Littleton (1888, 1890, 1892, and 1894); and George Henry White of Tarboro (1896 and 1898).  Each man served two terms in Congress: O’Hara from 1883–1887, Cheatham from 1889–1893, and White from1897–1901.  

On two occasions, white Republicans represented the district: Curtis H. Brogden, elected in 1876, and Orlando Hubbs, elected in 1880. On two other occasions, voter fraud and a split in Republican ranks—including the presence of a black independent candidate—led to one-term Democratic victories, in 1878 (William H. “Buck” Kitchin) and 1886 (Furnifold M. Simmons), both against O’Hara.  After 1890, new legislative restrictions on voter registration led to consecutive Democratic victories in 1892 and 1894 by Frederick A. Woodard, who defeated Cheatham in both elections.

The Second District’s boundaries were redrawn significantly in redistricting actions after both the 1880 and 1890 censuses.  In 1883, the newly-created black-majority Vance County and its county seat, Henderson, were added to the district, along with Bertie (Windsor), while marginally-white Wayne County was removed.  In an 1891 effort to weaken Republican strength in the Second District, Wayne County was returned, and two counties were removed: Jones and predominantly-black Craven.  

The “Black Second” was effectively dismantled in the early 1900s, after most black voters were disfranchised by an 1902 state constitutional amendment—as approved by state voters in August 1900—that prohibited illiterates from voting.  Under terms of a new “grandfather clause,” illiterate white voters with ancestors who had voted before 1868 were exempted from the ban, an exemption not available to most black voters.  The last Republican to carry the “Black Second” district in a Congressional race was George Henry White (1898), who declined renomination in 1900, convinced that no black candidate could now win in the district.

For the next nine decades, that remained true.  In 1992, voters in a newly-drawn First District—now containing all or parts of Bertie, Edgecombe, Greene, Halifax, Jones, Northampton, Vance, Warren, and Wilson counties, among others—elected Democrat Eva Clayton of Warren County as North Carolina’s first African American member of Congress since White in 1901.