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The Construction of Race and Power in North Carolina

In the realm of sexuality, a political, social, and economic Southern culture holistically relied on the subordination of Black bodies to white gentility. Indeed, slavery in North Carolina, which ultimately allowed white supremacists to maintain a racial hierarchy that gave whites power over Blacks through forced unpaid labor and physical ownership of Black bodies, was racialized through illicit sexual relations between white colonists in the later 17th century and enslaved Africans [1].

When the colony was established in the late 17th century, the North Carolinian Lords Proprietors struggled to assert control over insolent settlers who had no interest in paying taxes, and as such, the Lord Proprietors began to intentionally institutionalize normative notions of female propriety and paternalistic gender relations in an effort to create a social order that would result in the respect of the colonists [2]. Through these efforts, the colony began to “transition from a relatively fluid social structure to a firm stratified slave system,” enforced by the racialized sexual subjugation of the enslaved population of North Carolina [3]. The slaveholding elite in North Carolina directly linked power to the honor they denied their slaves, and their paternalistic ideology denied adult status to all Blacks – “it denied the rights of manhood to Black men and the rights of womanhood to Black women" [4]. Thus, following Emancipation in 1863, newly freed Black communities began their work toward dismantling this power dynamic and obtaining white paternalistic notions of honor [5].

Following Emancipation, Black communities in North Carolina took strides toward perceived equality within the white supremacist heteronormative societal structures in place, and white elites brutally retaliated. For example, in Wilmington, North Carolina’s largest city at the time, a coalition government between the People’s Party and Black Republicans supported Blacks, who outnumbered whites 11,324 to 8,731, owned ten of eleven eating houses and 20 of its 22 barbershops, and Black men had a higher literacy rate than that of whites [6]. That is to say, the Black population of Wilmington thrived following Emancipation with governmental support. This presented both economic and political threats to the white Democratic Party, which intensified white supremacist and racist views [7]. Thus, in 1898, a white supremacist campaign to violently oust the Fusionist government swept the city, and they were successful in doing so: death counts for Wilmington’s Black population exceed three-hundred, and fourteen hundred fled [8]. The new white Democratic government instituted school segregation and pushed through the disenfranchisement of its Black constituents to prevent “low-born scum and quondam slaves” from threatening elite white rule [9]. As a result, in 1896, 85.4 percent of North Carolina’s electorate cast a ballot, but by 1904, less than 50 percent voted [10]. State-wide disenfranchisement began the institutionalization of Jim Crow in North Carolina, which ultimately institutionalized the race hatred that pervades race relations in North Carolina today.

While the Civil Rights Movement worked to dismantle the legal institutions of Jim Crow, the social implications of slavery, Emancipation, and Jim Crow remained. In fact, the 1965 Voting Rights Act placed the entirety of North Carolina under preclearence due to its discriminatory voting practices put into place to keep what happened in Wilmington from happening again. 


[1] Southern proslavery ideologue William Harper regarded black women as a “class of women who set little value on chastity” and believed that granting white men sexual ownership of black women’s bodies would prevent them from “debauching” pure white women. Victoria E. Bynum, Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 9; Kirsten Fischer, Suspect Relations: Sex, Race, and Resistance in Colonial North Carolina (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 1.
[2] To gain respect of the colonists, the Lords Proprietors instituted a social order that placed Proprietors at the top, but placed white land-owning colonists above the racialized labor force. Fischer, 8-9.
[3] Fischer, 7.
[4] Bynum, 4.
[5] Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 3.
[6] Rob Christensen, The Paradox of Tarheel Politics: The Personalities, Elections, and Events that Shaped Modern North Carolina (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 23; Timothy B. Tyson, “The Ghosts of 1898: Wilmington’s Race Riot and the Rise of White Supremacy,” The News & Observer (Raleigh: November 17, 2006); North Carolina elected 5 black representatives to the house between 1875 and 1899, and none after until 1991. “Black-American Representatives and Senators by State and Territory, 1870-Present,” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, accessed November 10, 2018, https://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/BAIC/Historical-Data/Black-American-Representatives-and-Senators-by-State-and-Territory/.
[7] Tyson, “The Ghosts of 1898.”
[8] Tyson, “The Ghosts of 1898.” See also Christensen, 23-27.
[9] Tyson illustrates the specific measures taken to disenfranchise black votes: “The Democrats introduced a constitutional amendment that created literacy tests for voting and placed a poll tax on aspiring voters. The “grandfather clause” protected illiterate whites for a time; any lineal descendant of a man eligible to vote before 1867 – a white man – need not prove his literacy.” Tyson, “The Ghosts of 1898.” See also Christensen, 23-27.
[10] Tyson, “The Ghosts of 1898.”