Union League

Written By North Carolina History Project

Started in Philadelphia in 1862, the Union League was organized to publicize Southern outrages and to promote Radical Republican policies. After the Civil War, the League mobilized newly enfranchised African American voters (all men) and used secrecy and promoted gun ownership as means of protecting the African-American population.  According to historian Steven Hahn, League meetings provided blacks with opportunities to debate political and societal issues, negotiate labor contracts, and plan how to care for the sick among them.

The first president of the Union League in North Carolina, Governor William Woods Holden, advocated African American political equality. In 1867, the Republican Party was started in North Carolina, coinciding with the creation on the Union League. The Ku Klux Klan, an adversary of the League, accused the organization of murder, rape, arson, and other crimes against League members or its sympathizers.  It is unlikely, however, that the League committed such crimes or on the scale alleged by the Klan.  The organization worked primarily to ensure that blacks remained loyal to the Republican Party.

The Klan’s violent actions against white and black Union Leaguers revealed a deep fear of Republican dominance in North Carolina. In 1870 Wyatt Outlaw, a black Republican from Alamance County, was taken from his bed and hanged in the central square in the town of Graham. Also, John W. Stephens, a white Republican and active member of the League, was tied up and stabbed to death in Yanceyville.

Following the impeachment of Holden, Union League membership decreased because the Klan intimidation efforts were becoming successful.