Charles B. Aycock was born in rural Wayne County before the Civil War. After a rise in state politics, he became governor of North Carolina in 1901. Aycock was a lifelong Democrat during a time when the Democratic Party’s membership included many former Confederates and supporters of White supremacy and segregation. As governor, Aycock promised to create equal education environments for Black and White students. However, state funding for non-White schools paled compared to funds for White schools, and Aycock also supported measures to eliminate Black voters and segregate public spaces.
"Equal! That is the word! On that word I plant myself and my party - the equal right of every child born on earth to have the opportunity to burgeon out all there is within him." - Charles B. Aycock
“Let the negro learn once for all that there is unending separation of the races, that the two peoples may develop side by side to the fullest but that they cannot intermingle; let the white man determine that no man shall by act or thought or speech cross this line, and the race problem will be at an end.” - Charles B. Aycock, Baltimore, December 18, 1903
Though Aycock was and continues to be often solely remembered as the “Education Governor,” his upbringing in a family that included enslavers and Confederates influenced the White supremacy focus of his later politics. His life shows that the White children of the Civil War and Reconstruction era politics often became the policymakers of Jim Crow segregation.
Charles Brantley Aycock was born on November 1, 1859 in northern Wayne County, near Fremont (then called Nahunta). He was the youngest of ten children, and his parents were from prominent families. His mother, Serena Hooks Aycock, had relatives with large-scale plantations. His father, Benjamin Aycock, inherited land near Aycock Birthplace in the 1830s and moved there sometime in the 1840s.
Over his life, Benjamin’s land holdings increased exponentially, from 380 acres in the 1850s to over a thousand in the 1860s. As a prominent local farmer, Benjamin made money through the sale of crops like corn, sweet potatoes, and winter wheat. He sold timber and raised livestock. Benjamin also participated in local politics and law, serving as Clerk of Wayne County Court in the 1850s. He supported local structures of slavery and enslaved at least thirteen people. The Aycock family placed emphasis on educating their children, and young Charles Aycock attended private schools in Wilson, Fremont, and Kinston - later becoming the only child of his family to attend university.
While the Aycock family members assisted in farm work, they did not tend their land alone. Their success depended on unpaid laborers. They took advantage of a system of court-assigned indentured apprentices as early as 1845. Courts drew indentured apprentices most often from low-income free Black and mixed-race families. By the time of Charles B. Aycock’s birth, North Carolina law required all mixed-race children to be bound out as apprentices. Apprenticeship allowed wealthy planters to profit from and control a non-enslaved segment of the Black community. To participate in the indentured apprenticeship system, the Aycocks paid a bond to the court; if their indentured apprentices were removed from the county or abused, the Aycocks would lose their deposit.
Two local African American boys, Gilbert and Elbert Artis, were on the Aycock’s property as indentured apprentices from 1845 until they each turned 21 in 1853 and 1855. The Aycocks were responsible for feeding, housing, and “training” the Artises in “the art and mystery of farming.” The Artises probably handled general farm work - ground preparation like clearing trees and roots, plowing, planting, weeding, harvesting - and cared for the Aycock's livestock. The Artises also potentially tended a garden (either their own, the household garden, or both). The Aycocks also enslaved numerous people. The 1850 slave schedule accompanying the census listed four enslaved people on Benjamin's property: a woman, two men, and a five-year-old girl. By 1860, this number had grown to thirteen enslaved people, including several children and an infant. During the Civil War, Benjamin hired out two enslaved men, Prismus and Steven, as laborers building Confederate defenses of the Neuse River. At various times the family also paid local men and women to increase farm output.
Three of Charles Aycock’s older brothers served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. After the war, they participated in a local paramilitary group called the Blue Season Rangers. This group harassed Reconstruction-era authorities and law enforcement, particularly agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau, which sought to provide aid to Freed Black people and refugees after the war’s end.
By 1870 Benjamin Aycock had the seventh wealthiest household in the township. He served as a clerk of the Wayne County Court and as a state senator. Charles Aycock’s family and upbringing shaped many of his political beliefs. His brothers’ involvement in the Confederacy and paramilitary groups, coupled with the family’s enslavement of Black people and their participation in indentured apprenticeships that subordinated free Black people, profoundly influenced young Charles. He saw a system of White racial superiority and saw himself within a class of people designated to rule over races deemed inferior. Aycock also respected the work of farmers but was more interested in his father's involvement in local politics.
Rise in Politics
“We had a white man for governor in 1898, when negroes became intolerably insolent; when ladies were insulted on the public streets; when burglary in our chief city became an every-night occurrence; [...] when more guns and pistols were sold in the State than had been in the twenty preceding years; when [...] the Governor and our two Senators were afraid to speak in a city of 25,000 inhabitants. It is the negro behind the officer, and not the officer only, that constitutes negro government.” - Charles B. Aycock
After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1880, Charles Aycock opened a law practice in Goldsboro, NC. In 1881, he married Varina Woodard. They had three children together - two sons and a daughter. His sons died in childhood. During the 1880s, Aycock began to make speeches and campaign on behalf of the Democratic Party, then home to former Confederates and White supremacists. From 1888, Aycock’s speeches increasingly used racist and White nationalist language. He revered the Confederacy and upheld a common southern view of the time - that loyal White southerners should rise up and “redeem” North Carolina after the Civil War.
By the 1890s, “Fusion” - cooperation between the Republican and Populist parties - held a majority in North Carolina politics. The Populist or “the People’s Party” was primarily home to poor White farmers, while the Republican party was chiefly built on the state's Black voter base. Also included in the Republican party membership were former “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags,” politically active Whites who had been vocal opponents of Southern Democrat politics since the days of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The Democratic Party, seeking to divide the coalition created by Fusionist cooperation and win over rural White voters, accused Fusionists of supporting “negro rule” in North Carolina. In 1896 the North Carolina Democratic Party reorganized under its chairman, Furnifold Simmons. While the party’s platform included improved public schools, new election law, railroad reform, and higher state support for charitable institutions, Simmons focused the party’s campaign primarily on White supremacy in order to unite White voters. He summarized this in 1898, saying, “North Carolina is a WHITE MAN'S State, and WHITE MEN will rule it, and they will crush the party of negro domination beneath a majority so overwhelming that no other party will ever again dare to attempt to establish negro rule here.”
Simmons advocated a three-pronged attack for Democratic success in the 1898 election: men who could ride, write, or speak. Organizations such as the White Government Union and the Red Shirts, a White supremacist paramilitary group, recruited men who could ride. These groups sought to intimidate Black people and press White voters to support the Democratic Party. Those who could write included men like Josephus Daniels, friend to Charles Aycock and owner of the Raleigh News & Observer. Daniels’ paper ran inflammatory political cartoons and editorials. It published racist lies, including stories implying an onslaught of Black violence against White people. An example headline from September 1898 read, “More Negro Scoundrelism: Black Beasts Attempt to Outrage the Young Daughter of a Respectable Farmer.” Daniels later wrote, “The News and Observer was relied upon to carry the Democratic message and to be the militant voice of White Supremacy, and it did not fail in what was expected, sometimes going to extremes in its partisanship.” Aycock was a leader among those who could speak - orators sent throughout the state to inflame White voters.
On May 12th, 1898, Aycock delivered the keynote speech at the “first grand rally” of the 1898 White supremacy campaign. The next day, the Wilmington Messenger reported that an enraptured crowd listened to the speeches for two hours, as Aycock “appealed to white men to stand together and redeem the state from her present position of degradation and shame, calling upon all to cast their votes for the protection of purity and virtue.” The Raleigh Morning Post reported that the speakers “stood forth nobly and bravely championing a fight for white man’s supremacy in North Carolina - a white man’s government.” Throughout his campaign speeches in 1898, Aycock also called upon Democrats and voters to organize “White government” clubs and to support paramilitary groups like the Red Shirts.
The efforts of the state’s Democratic Party to agitate White voters escalated tensions in Wilmington, NC. In October 1898, Democrats staged a political rally in Wilmington’s Thalian Hall. An enthusiastic crowd listened to orators, including Aycock, speak on White supremacy. Four days later a “White Man’s Mass Meeting” was held in Goldsboro, where thousands assembled, and Aycock again was a speaker. In the election on November 7th, 1898, Democrats swept Republicans and Fusionists from offices statewide. Democrats focused on Wilmington, a city with a Black population majority and a rising and influential Black middle class. After the election, Wilmington also had a biracial Fusionist government - as neither the mayor nor the city’s board of aldermen had been up for reelection. Three days after the election, on November 10, 1898, a mob of White men, led by Red Shirts, violently overthrew Wilmington’s legitimately elected government. The White mob marched to the office of The Daily Record, a local Black newspaper, and set it on fire. They then marched into the city’s Black neighborhoods, wounding and murdering Black citizens. White supremacists replaced local elected officials, who were forced to resign their positions. Black citizens fled the city, leaving their homes and businesses, as White vigilantes continued to patrol the streets. In the aftermath of what is now known as the Wilmington Massacre and Coup d'état, Aycock praised organizers of the violence, saying, “This was not an act of rowdy or lawless men. [...] It was an act of merchants, of manufacturers, of railroad men [...] an act in which every man worthy of the name joined.” (Read more about the Wilmington Massacre & Coup here.)
“In dealing with the question of eliminating the negro vote, I did say that I knew of but three ways in which a minority of whites could rule a majority of negroes - by force, by fraud, or by law.” - Charles B. Aycock, written in a letter to the editor of the Alamance Gleaner, June 28, 1900
By 1899, the General Assembly passed the “suffrage amendment,” a proposed amendment to the North Carolina state constitution. This amendment adhered to the requirements of federal Reconstruction amendments that prevented voting discrimination based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” The state amendment added a literacy test and a poll tax to voting requirements – measures not technically illegal and specifically designed to eliminate African Americans from voting. The Richmond Times reported, "The whites make no secret of the fact that the amendment to the Constitution to be voted on, if adopted, disfranchises only black men. They state this openly at all their meetings, and it proves a very effective argument in winning over the whites who cannot read or write." To build support for the amendment, White supremacists held rallies across the state. Aycock was a frequent speaker, always accompanied by the Red Shirts.
“At Kenansville to-day there will be a grand ovation to Hon. C.B. Aycock, North Carolina’s next governor, who speaks there to-day. [...] Those in charge of the preliminary arrangements say that a procession of at least 1,000 red shirts will meet him on the road [...] and serve as an escort to the town.” - The Semi-Weekly Messenger, Wilmington, July 27, 1900
When Aycock spoke at rallies in Duplin and Robeson counties, the guns used to murder Black citizens during the Wilmington Massacre were on display. On July 20, 1900, the Richmond Times reported, "The rapid-fire guns which did service at Wilmington during the [massacre] two years ago occupied a conspicuous place."
“When we [the Democrats] say that the negro is unfit to rule we carry it one step further and convey the correct idea when we declare that he is unfit to vote. To do this we must disfranchise the negro. This movement comes from the people. Politicians have been afraid of it and have hesitated, but the great mass of white men in the State are now demanding and have demanded that the matter be settled once and for all.” - Charles B. Aycock, Address Accepting the Democratic Nomination for Governor, April 11, 1900
After proving himself to be a charismatic leader and powerful orator for the Democratic Party, Aycock ran for governor in 1900. He campaigned widely, making over one hundred speeches, and addressing as many as 100,000 people. His speaking strategy worked, and he was elected governor. That year, Democrats and White supremacists were also elected to positions in the legislature and the courts. The “suffrage amendment” - designed to keep African American men from voting and a central point of Aycock’s campaign for governor - passed by a huge majority of voters, due in large part to intimidation tactics against Black voters and their White supporters.
Like other Democrats at the time who saw an opportunity in promoting education, Aycock championed public education. His supporters called him the “Education Governor.” Before the Civil War, private institutions, and academies available to only the wealthy were often the primary schooling available in North Carolina. Several legislative acts set up a public education system in the 1800s, with local “common schools” formed during the war. The 1868 North Carolina State Constitution established a public school system, free to children and funded by tax dollars. However, this funding was often insufficient - especially money to school the nearly 100,000 children of formerly enslaved people in the state. When Aycock took office, North Carolina’s public schools were underfunded, and the state’s mills employed children, as the state enforced no child labor laws. Aycock encouraged people to support education locally and stimulated the construction of over 1,100 schools in North Carolina, many of them in rural communities. He supported higher budgets for education, higher salaries for teachers, and longer school years. Though he knew these changes would mean higher taxes, he urged people to support them.
“Appropriations alone cannot remove illiteracy from our State. With the appropriations must come also an increased interest in this cause which shall not cease until every child can read and write. The preachers, the teachers, the newspapers and the mothers of North Carolina must be unceasing in their efforts to arouse the indifferent and compel by the force of public opinion the attendance of every child upon the schools.” - Charles B. Aycock, 1901
While Aycock believed in equal access to education, he also believed in segregated public schools and did not think that education had to be alike in quality between Black and White children. He constructed schools for Black children, but funding for White and non-White institutions was uneven. Schools for African Americans often had limited books, supplies, and resources. In 1901 Black Congressman George Henry White of North Carolina stated that he would never send his children to public schools. Aycock also believed that segregated education would show the inherent superiority of White people. He maintained that he liked and worked with Black people, but also said, “There flows in my veins the blood of the dominant race; that race that has conquered the earth and seeks out the mysteries of the heights and depths.”
As governor, Aycock supported the expansion of the state’s railroads, which he considered essential in both the development of industry and education across the state. He also supported more funding for the state’s board of health, the building of public roads and bridges, and the management of a state penitentiary. Aycock was 45 when he left the governorship in 1905, and he returned to practicing law in Goldsboro. He announced his intention to run for US Senate in 1911. However, he died of a heart attack during a speaking engagement in Birmingham, Alabama, on April 4, 1912. His speech was on universal education and his last words were “...sometimes on Sundays they would ask me down to the churches to talk, and I always talked about education.”
“Though Aycock was in favor of an amendment to take the vote away from illiterate Negroes, he had no ill feeling toward their race. In fact, he was one of the best friends that the colored people had in the state and was anxious to restore good will between them and the whites. [...] He was interested in the welfare of all classes of people, and he pleaded for public improvements of all kinds.” - The Story of North Carolina, a textbook describing Aycock’s legacy in 1933
For decades after his death, White leaders, heritage groups, and historians celebrated Aycock as a hero of the “Redemption” movement, which claimed to want to “redeem” North Carolina after the Civil War. The Aycock Memorial Association formed in 1912. State leaders sought to honor Aycock, naming buildings and schools for him. Many of the individuals initially involved in memorializing Aycock were his close colleagues or associates. In 1924, the General Assembly, in partnership with the Aycock Memorial Association, erected a monument to him on the grounds of the North Carolina State Capitol. In placing Aycock, civic leaders held him up as a figure to be emulated and revered. Newspapers reporting on the monument’s unveiling called Aycock “education embodied and evangelized.” In 1932, North Carolina placed a statue of Aycock in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, representing the state alongside another Redemption hero, Confederate governor Zebulon B. Vance. Leaders meant monuments of Aycock to shape and reinforce the public’s positive perception of him. In 1949, North Carolina created the Charles B. Aycock Memorial Commission and appointed famed suffragist Gertrude Weil, who was from Goldsboro, to the board. Weil worked on the Aycock Commission for over ten years, raising funds to turn property donated by Aycock descendants into a museum. In 1958, Aycock's birthplace became a North Carolina State Historic Site. Opening day for the site was the centennial of Aycock’s birth - November 1, 1959.
Initially, the site interpreted Aycock’s rural beginnings and his devotion to education. As the Democratic party maintained political power in North Carolina for most of the twentieth century, Aycock was a popular figure. In recent years, leaders and historians have reexamined Aycock’s life and legacy, as well as his involvement with segregation and violent White supremacy campaigns. Buildings, middle schools, and streets across the state previously named for Aycock have been renamed since the turn of the twenty-first century. In 2014, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro removed Aycock’s name from their primary auditorium. Since 2014, university leaders have removed Aycock’s name from residence halls at Duke University, East Carolina University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Aycock’s alma mater). In 2018, NC Governor Roy Cooper requested Aycock’s statue in the US Capitol be returned to NC. According to legislation passed in 2015, a statue of Rev. Billy Graham will replace it. A discussion continues in 2023 to rename Charles B. Aycock High School in Wayne County.
Both during and after his life Charles B. Aycock was a symbol of progress and an idealized past. Talking about Aycock as the “Education Governor” shows the value he placed on education. However, his educational policies benefited primarily White children and White teachers; non-White schools received unequal funding. His focus on education can also not be separated from the passage of the suffrage amendment during Aycock’s gubernatorial campaign. Tax dollars toward White schools meant White children would be literate, ensuring the right to vote under the stipulations outlined in the suffrage amendment. The effects of the suffrage amendment continued into the twentieth century; civil rights legislation in the 1960s overturned voting restrictions in North Carolina. Aycock and his contemporaries believed separation of the races and segregated public spaces would solve “the race problem.” Considering him, his upbringing, and his motivations reveals this focus on White supremacy.