The Ninth District and the Recurrence of Race
Bladen County election fraud carries echoes of 19th century
On December 19, 1870, 17 legislators representing counties from the eastern half of the state delivered an “Address to the Colored People of North Carolina.” Most, if not all, of the 17 were black, and they’d been through hell that year.
In the months leading up to the fall election, the Ku Klux Klan rode through towns on horseback at night, warning black voters to stay away from the polls. The years since the Civil War had left white conservatives and other former Confederates with worthless bonds and little political clout. More than 300,000 formerly enslaved black people were free, voting, and running for office—and the swift shift in power was most evident out east, where a plantation economy had ruled for more than a century.
“They are mad because their slave property is lost,” the 17 representatives wrote. “They are mad because the Reconstruction measures have triumphed and we are permited (sic) to represent you in this body.”
The Klan wanted to fill the state legislature with Democrats willing to overthrow Governor William Holden. A longtime critic of the Confederacy and fierce anti-Klan lawmaker, Holden’s supporters were diverse—and his opponents saw that as a weakness.
“The political spoil system was in full force. Carpetbaggers, scalawags, and Negroes who voted him into power had to be rewarded,” C. Wingate Reed wrote in his 1962 book Two Centuries of Beaufort County. “There was not enough ability or honesty in the Legislature or the Republican party to provide the capable leadership demanded by the critical times.”
The voter suppression campaign of 1870 worked. Democrats took a two-thirds majority in the legislature that year, and immediately launched a successful impeachment of Holden.
After the election but before Holden’s removal, the 17 legislators gave their solemn address to the black residents of North Carolina, less than a decade after the end of the Civil War.
It avails nothing, that they have got control of the General Assembly, by deception, fraud, and intimidation; so long as the friend of the poor, and protector of the innocent and defenceless, occupies the Chair of State, and you have the right to go to the polls unmolested. They have therefore commenced a system of disenfranchisement, by amending the charters and towns, by allowing but one day for voting, by allowing voters to be challenged at the polls, and by requiring each to vote in the township in which he resides. They have thereby already disenfranchised thousands.
The voter disenfranchisement schemes employed in the controversial Ninth Congressional District race of 2018—a seeming victory by Republican Mark Harris that the N.C. State Board of Elections has refused to certify because of an apparent election fraud scheme—are, in some ways, civilized descendants of those from the 19th century.
No more is the Klan riding through town to intimidate black voters; instead, unwitting and mostly poor workers go door to door to take absentee ballots from black voters, neither giver nor taker wise to the scam. No more is the region trying to build a working economic system in the wake of the Civil War; instead it’s reeling from floods from hurricanes Matthew and Florence, an opioid crisis, and an agricultural industry that’s shifted from small-family tobacco farms to industrial hog farms in a matter of a generation. No more is the Democratic Party the most flagrant suppressor of the voting rights of black and brown people; instead it’s the Republicans, specifically anyone connected to Leslie McCrae Dowless, who allegedly organized the ballot-gathering program for a group paid by Harris, who face investigation.
“It was a thief, a thief in it the whole time!” Fannie Graham, a black woman who retired from the Smithfield meat packing plant, told me earlier this month when I was in Bladen County reporting a story for POLITICO Magazine. “It’s on both sides, but the Republicans are the worst. I don’t care what goes on, they get by with it.
“They keep their foot on the poor people’s necks. As soon as you try to crawl up, they put their foot on your neck, and you never crawl up. Grace to God. That’s all. Nothing else.”
This is how the 17 lawmakers summed up their defeat in 1870:
“The poor people, especially the colored people are the great body of victims appointed for the slaughter. …
“To avert the impending evil we see no power in the arm of flesh. We feel that we have too long neglected to seek aid at that source that never fails. … Justice will not sleep forever. If we call upon God he will hear and answer us.”
The county’s struggles now make it fertile territory for people of considerably more resources and influence to take advantage of them. Throughout the history of this region, the powerful have used politics and race as tools to drive a wedge between poor people, white and black, who otherwise might unite against them.
Racism doesn’t often reveal itself in one-on-one interactions in Bladen County. During my more than a decade reporting in eastern North Carolina, I’ve sat with working-class folks of all races for breakfast and lunches, and I’ve seen people greet strangers with a level of friendliness that might alarm people in a city like Charlotte. But racism is there, standing beside most interactions like a ghost, same as it ever was.
On a recent trip, I met Pat Melvin, whose family started the hamburger joint in Elizabethtown, the county seat, in the 1930s. Pat’s since retired and moved on to start a real-estate business. In his office a few blocks away from the restaurant, a Martin Luther King Jr. portrait hangs on the wall. But he told me his ancestors donated the land to start the town in the 18th century, and the reason he doesn’t run for political office is his family history. “You can go down to the courthouse,” he said, “and see how many slaves we owned.”
In 1876, Democrats elected Zebulon Vance—a former Confederate army officer who was governor during the war—back to the state’s highest office. For many white North Carolinians, Vance’s election was a sign of redemption.
Late in the century, progressive Republicans and Populists joined to form a “Fusion” party that pushed black voter turnout to 87 percent in the 1896 election. The beneficiary was Daniel Russell, a white man who became governor by advocating for black voting rights. But even in victory, many black leaders were skeptical of their new governor’s paternalistic tone. “I entertain a sentiment of deep gratitude to the negroes,” Russell said that year, according to an account in the North Carolina Historical Review. “The negroes do not want control. They only demand, and they ought to have it, every right a white man has.”
Democrats countered the 1896 election with racism and bloodshed. Party chairman Furnifold Simmons’ “White Supremacy Campaign” harnessed the rage of white voters and led directly to the Wilmington Massacre of 1898, in which the black-owned newspaper was burned to the ground and as many as 60 people were murdered.
Soon, Jim Crow laws all but removed black people from the political process. North Carolina instituted “literacy tests” for those who wanted to register. The most widely shared story of these tests is that of Louisburg native Rosanell Eaton, who in 1942 was met by three white administrators when she tried to register. They told her she must recite the Preamble to the Constitution first. She shocked them when she did it. They registered her, then she went on to work as a poll worker and civil rights advocate for more than 40 years. Eaton died this month at 97.
“We’ve not yet won the battle for enfranchisement in NC,” the Rev. William Barber II tweeted after her death. “We must continue this fight in the name of the martyrs of America’s struggle for voting rights.”
In Bladen County, black voters gained traction in local elections in the 1970s and ’80s.
Charles Devane, a 76-year-old white Republican, ticked off the flow of local politics through his lifetime like this:
“At one time there was one party in Bladen County, the white Democratic Party,” he said. “Then it got to be two parties, the white Democratic Party and the black Democratic Party. There were very few Republicans. It started out that blacks weren’t represented at all. And then they got one or two seats through single-shot voting”—when people vote for only one candidate on multi-race ballots; in this case, he means black voters voting only for black candidates. “And then they realized, well, we’ve got something here. We can control the elections. And they have controlled the elections for a long time.”
On December 18, 2018, the eve of the 148th anniversary of the 1870 address, the NAACP and Southern Coalition for Justice held a packed-house town hall forum at First Baptist Church of Bladenboro. People from all over the district came to speak.
“They’re using the word ‘harvest,’” Hakeem Brown, a 28-year-old black Democrat who lost the sheriff’s race to white Republican Jim McVicker by 1,400 votes, said at the meeting. “But the correct word is ‘steal.’”
In rural counties like Bladen, population 30,000, the most important election is usually the sheriff’s race. The Sheriff’s Department here leads efforts to combat opioids in a county where addicts die at a rate nearly 30 percent higher than the state’s; and deputies were the face of resolve and strength in the aftermath of hurricanes Matthew and Florence, blocking off flooded roads and leading rescues.
At the town hall, recent sheriff’s races were as much a part of the discussion as the congressional election. Throughout the county, people believe there’s a link between the 2010 race and the Ninth District mess.
That year, as the Thom Tillis-led Republicans swept to power in the legislature, Democrats somehow won every race in Bladen County. Notably, the county chose its first black sheriff, Prentis Benston. It was then that Republicans, mostly white, organized the get-out-the-vote efforts that apparently mutated into criminal behavior.
Patsy Sheppard, vice chairman of the local Democratic Party, told The New York Times recently that she recalled hearing white people say, “We need a white sheriff.”
The backlash made for a tense election in 2014, when McVicker joined the Republican Party to challenge Benston. Dowless ran an absentee operation for McVicker’s campaign, Dowless would later admit in a signed declaration the state Board of Elections disclosed last week. On the other side, Benston contributed more than $1,000 to the Bladen Improvement Association PAC, and the PAC turned that around into “get the vote out” efforts, campaign finance records show.
That same year, though, Bladen County was the home of a much bigger story with race at its center. On August 29, a 17-year-old black boy named Lennon Lacy was found hanged from a swing set in a mobile home park occupied mostly by white residents. The death was initially ruled a suicide, but after Lacy’s family told The Guardian they suspected foul play, the U.S. Department of Justice re-opened the case. Activists all the way up to Barber visited Bladen County to support Lacy’s family that fall, and their words linger in the halls where people gather to discuss civil rights today.
“Don’t ask these parents to bury their 17-year-old son and then act as though everything is normal. Don’t chastise them for asking the right questions,” Barber said at a memorial service held at Lacy’s family church, First Baptist of Bladenboro. “All they want is the truth.”
That November, McVicker won the sheriff’s race by 349 votes.
Nearly two years later, in June 2016, the justice department released new evidence to the family and concluded that it wouldn’t overturn the medical examiner’s original finding of asphyxiation by suicide.
Still, the mystery and attention surrounding Lacy’s death are steeped in the tortured soul of this complicated, rural county. ESPN’s Outside the Lines ran a story at the time; this January, a documentary about the case will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
And at the town hall forum in Bladenboro earlier this month, the Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, the current president of the North Carolina NAACP, called out Lacy’s name again, this time as a brick along the path toward the election fraud case in the Ninth District.
“The investigation into the stealing of black votes (in 2018),” Spearman said, “would bode well to review the 2014 campaign that was the context for Lennon’s mysterious death in late August just as a racial campaign for sheriff was heating up.”