Born on August 1, 1831, in Amelia County, Virginia, Wilson Carey was one of the first African Americans elected to the N. C. General Assembly under the new constitution of 1868, which granted blacks the right to vote.
Carey served five terms in the state House of Representatives as a Republican. He also served briefly as the state’s first black postmaster, appointed to the Yanceyville post office by the Grant administration in mid-1869.
Born to free parents in Amelia County, Virginia, Carey was initially educated in the common schools of Richmond, Virginia, before moving to Caswell County, North Carolina in 1855. A farmer by trade, he became a schoolteacher after the Civil War ended. He also became active in the Republican Party and served as one of two Caswell delegates to the 1868 constitutional convention. Carey was the overwhelming choice among Caswell candidates and received more than 1,400 votes—nearly twice as many as Conservative Philip Hodnett, the other delegate selected, and eight times the total received by William Long.
During the convention, he spoke against proposals to attract white immigrants to North Carolina: “The Negro planted the wilderness, built up the state to what it was; therefore, if anything was to be given, the Negro was entitled to it.” (Foner, p. 40)
The Republican Party mirrored Caswell County’s population—about 60 percent black in 1870— both at the state and local level. But white resistance to the emerging Republican influence in Caswell was stubborn. As the Republican candidate for the N.C. House from Caswell in April 1868, Carey lost the initial election to Conservative opponent William Long. Long, however, held the seat only two months into the 1868 General Assembly; Carey’s successful contest claimed that Long’s Confederate service made him ineligible under the newly-enacted 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and the House agreed on August 20, 1868, declaring the seat vacant. Carey was sworn in as Long’s replacement the following day, and served until the special session adjourned on August 24.
When the General Assembly convened in regular session on November 16, 1868, Carey was appointed to the House Committee on Corporations, along with black colleagues John S. Leary of Cumberland County and Parker D. Robbins of Bertie County. One of seventeen black House members to serve in the General Assembly’s 1868–1869 and 1869–1870 sessions, Carey joined thirteen other black legislators to sign a public letter congratulating President-elect Ulysses S. Grant on his recent victory (North Carolina Standard, 2 December 1868). “Our cause has triumphed. By his election our status is settled,” the signers declared. “We are men!”
Carey served in that session until its adjournment on April 12, 1869, and again in the second regular session (November 1869–March 1870). In between those sessions, the General Assembly appointed him as Yanceyville postmaster and thereby Carey became the first African American to hold such a post in North Carolina. His term lasted just three months; in November he resigned the postmastership, perhaps to avoid relinquishing his seat in the N.C. House. His successor as postmaster was Thomas J. Brown, another of his onetime opponents in the 1868 delegate race.
The political situation in Caswell County was increasingly chaotic and violent. Ku Klux Klan activity, apparently widespread, culminated in the stabbing death of State Sen. John Walter “Chicken” Stephens at the Caswell courthouse in May 1870. The Klan was blamed. Long a controversial figure in Caswell politics, Stephens had won the seat in a special election; he had replaced Conservative Bedford Brown, a former U.S. senator (1829–1840), ousted by order of Republican Gov. William W. Holden in 1868.
After Stephens’s death, Holden sent state militia troops into Caswell County, claiming that the county was in rebellion. Combined with a similar occupation of Alamance County, triggered by the murder of Wyatt Outlaw, the military action was dubbed the Kirk-Holden “war”—named for Holden and militia leader George Washington Kirk, who marched on Yanceyville in July 1870 and began arresting local citizens.
The town was still under military occupation when statewide legislative elections were held in early August. Carey, the Republican nominee for the N.C. Senate from the 24th District (Caswell County) to succeed Stephens, defeated his Conservative opponent, Livingston Brown—son of Bedford Brown and brother of Thomas J. Brown. Carey’s victory was short-lived, however. When the Senate convened, it voted to award the seat to Livingston Brown. Many believed that the military occupation of Caswell County had prevented a fair election.
According to some reports, Carey was forced into exile briefly by Ku Klux Klan intimidation. By mid-1872, he had returned to Yanceyville to resume his political career; in that year he was elected as a Caswell County commissioner, again in company with Conservative Philip Hodnett. Carey also served as a local magistrate, and in 1874, won back his old House seat.
Nicknamed the “Archives of Gravity,” Carey’s reputation for wit was the stuff of local legend. His ill-fated colleague, John Stephens, was widely reputed to be a chicken thief, hence his nickname. Before Stephens’s death, Carey reportedly quipped: “Mr. Stephens stole a chicken and was sent to the state senate, and if he’d steal a gobbler he’d be sent to Congress” (McIver, 14).
In 1875, he served as a Caswell delegate to the state constitutional convention, one of just six black delegates selected statewide, including future congressman James E. O’Hara of Halifax and New Hanover County’s John H. Smythe, soon to become the U.S. minister to Liberia. Carey was the only black delegate to both the 1868 and 1875 conventions. In 1875, though in the minority, he actively participated as a member of the committee on suffrage and eligibility. His amendment seeking to exempt disfranchised voters from paying public taxes (poll taxes), however, was defeated in floor votes on two occasions.
Caswell voters reelected Carey to the N.C. House in 1876, 1878, and 1888. His service in the 1889 General Assembly, however, was his last public office.
In 1857, Carey married Frances Kimbrough of Caswell County. They had 15 children, of whom 8 lived to adulthood. According to the 1870 census, he was reasonably prosperous, listed as owning $500 in real estate and $150 in personal property.
Sometime before 1900, the Careys moved to Washington, D.C., where they were listed as living with family members in the 1900 census. Wilson Carey was listed in the directory for Washington, D.C., until 1905, the year he is believed to have died.
Elizabeth Balanoff, “Negro Legislators in the North Carolina General Assembly, July 1868-February 1872,” North Carolina Historical Review 49 (1972); Eric Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction (New York, 1995); Earl I. James, “African American Political Pioneers,” Tar Heel Junior Historian 48: 1 (Fall 2008); Robert C. Kenzer, Enterprising Southerners: Black Economic Success in North Carolina, 1865-1915 (Charlottesville, 1997); Stuart McIver, “The Murder of a Scalawag,” American History Illustrated (April 1973); Jeannine D. Whitlow, ed., The Heritage of Caswell County, North Carolina (Yanceyville, 1985); Journal of the House of Representatives of the General Assembly of the State of North Carolina at its Session of 1868, pp. 26, 205, 209–210.