10/05/07 — Gov. Charles B. Aycock historical perspective

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Gov. Charles B. Aycock historical perspective

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on October 5, 2007 2:19 PM

Gov. Charles B. Aycock was a segregationist.

On that point there seems to be little debate.

However, that's not all the Wayne County native was. He was also North Carolina's education governor -- a fact that Moore seemed to ignore in his attack on Aycock's legacy.

"I personally do not approve of some of the things I have read about Gov. Aycock or some other state and federal leaders of that time frame, but America was a different place and things have changed. Is there room for improvement? Yes. But Gov. Aycock should be honored for his efforts in education if nothing else," said Wayne County Democratic Party Chairman Bronnie Quinn.

The question about Aycock's place in history and in the Democratic Party arose on Monday when Moore began protesting the name of the state Democratic Party's annual Vance-Aycock Dinner, scheduled to be held Saturday.

Accusing Aycock of using "a message of white supremacy, racial segregation and oppression" to win the governor's office in 1900, Moore requested that his name be dropped from the dinner's title.

"We can no longer ignore the fact that many of us grew up being taught a much sanitized -- and inaccurate -- history when it came to Gov. Aycock," Moore wrote in a letter to state party Chairman Jerry Meek. "The truth is very ugly."

However, the truth also might not be quite as clear as Moore is presenting it.

Charles Brantley Aycock, born Nov. 1, 1859, was the son of Benjamin and Serena Aycock of Wayne County.

He began life on a 1,000-acre farm near Fremont and attended Nahunta Academy.

According to the biography "Charles Brantley Aycock," by Oliver H. Orr Jr., his drive to improve the education of North Carolina's residents began rather early in life after seeing his mother unable to sign a land deed because she could not write her name.

"I then and there made a vow that every man and woman in North Carolina should have the chance to read and write," Orr quoted Aycock as saying.

It was a vow he would work toward fulfilling after entering politics -- albeit in an odd way.

Known as a first-class debater and orator, Aycock spent the first decade of his professional life working as a lawyer in Goldsboro and serving as superintendent of the Wayne County school system. He also spent 17 years as chairman of the Goldsboro School Board.

Through that time, as he became more and more established and active in the state Democratic Party, he began to be called upon to speak at various events and at debates against Republican and Populist candidates.

By 1898, Aycock was established as one the party's state leaders, helping head the Democrats' push to regain control of the legislature and governor's seat. His goal was to stir the emotions of the segregationist Democrats.

In his book, Orr wrote that Aycock "instructed them to wear red shirts or carry guns. He encouraged them to believe they must do these things to protect the white race, especially the white women, against the Negro."

But, despite the fact that Aycock's speeches were known to have the ability to raise people's emotions, there is little in Orr's account of the campaign to give rise to the thought that his remarks advocated or contributed to the Wilmington race riots and subsequent coup d'etat, two days after peaceful elections statewide.

When it occurred, though, Aycock was ready to join his counterparts in the coastal city after they cabled Goldsboro asking for help.

"In less than half an hour, there were 500 men at the depot with guns on their shoulders waiting for the train and I was one of them," Orr quoted him as saying.

However, a subsequent telegram said that their help was no longer needed and none of them went.

Later, Orr described Aycock as being "frightened" at what the Democrats' victory might have set off and saying, "I knew that our passions had been aroused and that we were in danger of going too far."

That, however, did not curb Aycock's desire to limit black's participation in politics.

While running for governor in 1900, he used his platform to campaign for a state constitutional amendment that proposed to implement a literacy test for voter registration after 1908.

However, according to Orr, limiting black political participation wasn't Aycock's only motivation. He also saw the amendment as an excuse to force improvements to North Carolina's public education system.

"He went on to secure white supremacy by a suffrage amendment and then to use that amendment as a tool to improve the public school system and to promote the welfare of the entire society, white and Negro," Orr wrote.

He explained that Aycock saw the amendment as affecting poor whites, as well as poor blacks, but in a way that created the need to pull both up -- that it would "change the emphasis of the political campaign from an attack against the Negro as an inferior being, to a criticism of him as a citizen still too poorly trained and poorly educated to vote."

So, with the goal of correcting that situation in mind, Aycock set about building both black and white schools -- 1,100 of them throughout his four-year tenure -- raising teacher requirements, lengthening the school term to 4.5 months and increasing teacher salaries by about 50 percent.

It was, according to Orr, an almost obsessive focus.

In fact, about a year after taking office, Orr quoted Aycock as saying, "If I had the power and the wealth to put a public schoolhouse in every district of North Carolina, I would enter into a guarantee that no child, white or black, in 10 years from now should reach the age of 12 without being able to read and write."

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.