1875: When Robeson was 'held' and the South changed
By Scott Bigelow
In 1875, Robeson County played a pivotal role in North Carolina’s post-Civil War political history.
Voting for delegates to a constitutional convention was extremely close between Republicans, the party in power after the Civil War, and the Democrats, the resurgent party of the Lost Cause. Robeson provided the difference for Democrats.
This episode in county history is examined in several books in the Museum’s collection: “Away Down Home” by Maud Thomas (1967); and “Historical Sketches of Robeson County” by Henry McKinnon Jr. (2001). Other sources include The Robesonian’s historical edition (1951) and “The Great State of Robeson.”
The museum is not in possession of “The Great State of Robeson” (1924) by R.C. Lawrence, although Judge McKinnon cites it. The Museum is searching for a copy, and a donation from the public would be welcome.
The Robeson County History Museum has many important historical and literary publications, and there is much to be learned from them. Visitors are welcome to look them over and members may check the out.
The plan was for the convention to rewrite North Carolina’s 1868 constitution, which was forced on the state after the Civil War. Adoption of the 1868 constitution was a requirement for states of the former Confederacy to rejoin the Union.
The convention was a power play by Democrats, who had gained a slim majority in the General Assembly and would elect a governor in the next election.
On election night, officials in Lumberton declared victory for the two Robeson Democrat delegates. To accomplish this, the results from four voting districts, that evidently would have changed the outcome, were disallowed based on rumors of voter fraud and a technicality.
The fraud allegations were unproven, but election roll books were not returned to the county seat on election night, a violation of the rules. Rules are rules, the commissioners maintained.
Or are they? If the votes in question had been the decisive margin for the Democrats, what would the commissioners have done?
When protests broke out, the county commissioners held firm. The famous telegram from state Democratic leaders that would become a rallying cry for years after -- “As you love your state, hold Robeson” -- was believed to have arrived to inspire the commissioners.
This is how legends are made, or manufactured. Judge McKinnon, who wrote a chapter on the election, said the legend was manufactured.
McKinnon’s research revealed that the telegram arrived several days after the commissioner’s final decision. He cites an article in The Robesonian, written in 1905 by Col. W.F. French, a state senator and Democratic party leader in 1875, who set the record straight.
Statewide, Democrats were desperate for votes, and when the dust settled, they held a one vote margin. It is no small irony that the new constitution changed little, but it was a step toward ushering in a Democratic Party monopoly of Southern politics and, ultimately, the disenfranchisement of a large portion of the population.
The solid Democratic South, fueled by the Lost Cause, would rule for the next 85 years.
Historian Maude Thomas celebrated the election of 1875 as the return of “white supremacy.” Preeminent North Carolina historian William Powell proclaimed that “racism” became a fact of life and, later, written into law.
A seemingly stolen election is an unsettling aspect of the 1875 election, but what followed was even more reprehensible and there is no nice way to write it. Voter suppression became a weapon of white, Democratic control as former slaves were barred from voting and other basic rights.
The history of this era is veiled, but armed thugs intimidated and sometimes murdered those who stood in their way. Elected officials, law enforcement, the justice system, business interests and the media were complicit, mostly.
The election of 1875 is long forgotten, but it may hold lessons for the future as North Carolina weighs new requirements for voting and restrictions of the rights of many.