A story, lesson for Black History Month

Feb 21, 2014
In The News

WELDON — African-Americans in the United States have a long and complicated history, but thanks to the legislative leader of District 1, more is known about their influence in Halifax County.

U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, whose district spans Elizabeth City to Durham and includes Halifax and Northampton counties, touched on these aspects Wednesday afternoon when he spoke at Halifax Community College in Weldon. Several hundred people attended the event at The Centre, which was part of the college’s Black History Month series.

“I didn’t really appreciate history until I became an adult and started to connect the dots,” he said.

The son of a Wilson dentist who fought for civil rights, Butterfield grew up to become an attorney. He said he represented Horace Johnson Sr., a Hollister man who served on the Halifax County Board of Commissioners from 1992 to 2004. Johnson had run for the seat back in the early 1980s and lost by 20 votes.

“One day, (Johnson) walked into my office. He said he had run for the county commission and lost,” Butterfield recalled. “He said, ‘They stole the election from me,’ ... and I said, ‘Prove it.’”

The pair traveled up to the office of the Halifax County Board of Elections and found a table with ballots strewn across it.

“After an election, the ballots are supposed to be locked up,” Butterfield said.

A complaint was filed, which lost in State court and on appeal, he said. The suit was then filed in federal courts and prevailed, Butterfield added. Johnson’s wife, Carolyn C. Johnson, who now serves as a Halifax County commissioner, was one of those who attended Wednesday.

Butterfield said he has seen first-hand the prisons, called “slave castles,” where kidnapped Africans were held before “transportation.” Men and women were separated and slept on hard floors in dank rooms with no sunlight, he added.

“In Africa, their spirits were broken, and afterward, they were taken down a gangplank called the Exit to Nowhere,” Butterfield said. The future slaves were loaded aboard ships and sailed to the Caribbean. From there, they were distributed throughout the coastal South as slaves.

“They were sold to people willing to buy them. Some people had 40 or 60 slaves on their property,” Butterfield said. “They weren’t human beings in the eyes of the law. They were bought, sold, even mortgaged ... it was an awful, awful, awful system.”

Butterfield took his audience up to the Antibellum period from 1830 to 1860, which laid the setting for the Civil War. During the Antibellum period, there were four million slaves in the South and 300,000 in North Carolina.

Butterfield explained the heart-breaking legislation of that era. One law, enacted in 1831, regulated the “conduct of Negroes, slaves or free,” Butterfield said, banning them from preaching in public. Another law forbade teaching slaves to read and write. He explained how Abraham Lincoln’s election platform frightened slave owners in the South, and upon his election as president in November 1860, prompted 11 states to withdraw from the Union.

War commenced at Fort Sumter in South Carolina in 1861, but it wasn’t going well for the Northern Army. On Sept. 22, 1862, Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation.

“He did it as a warning shot over the bow,” Butterfield said.

On Jan. 1, 1863, Lincoln signed the executive order legalizing the final Emancipation Proclamation.