Commentary: The Historical Roots of ‘Send Her Back’

The racially charged chants that President Trump elicited this week in Greenville, North Carolina, didn’t arise in a vacuum. Trump is tapping the remnants of the Jim Crow white supremacy movement that seized power from African Americans and other people of color in the rural east in the late 19th century.

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“Send Her Back! Send Her Back!”

These chants echoed throughout the halls of an arena in Greenvllle, North Carolina, during a rally for President Donald Trump on Wednesday. President Trump, who in recent days has stirred up controversy over racist tweets about Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Talib (D-MI), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), had once again taken shots at Representative Omar and her status as a former refugee from Somalia.

As someone who grew up in the eastern third of North Carolina, the racially charged chants had a particular echo. It took me back to a time when rural Eastern North Carolina was the political base of the white supremacists who took control of the mechanisms of state government in 1898. It also served as a reminder that North Carolina has not yet fully divorced itself from that dark chapter in the state’s political history.

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Eastern North Carolina is a largely rural section of the state, it lies east of Interstate 95 and became famous as a hub of tobacco farming. It is also home to the highest concentration of minorities and the deepest and most persistent poverty in the state.

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North Carolina has 10 “Persistent Poverty” counties, all of which are located in the eastern third of the state. With the exception of Pitt County, the home of Greenville, all of them are nonmetropolitan. The distribution of poverty in North Carolina is best illustrated by looking at this map from the North Carolina Poverty Research Fund. The poorest counties in the state are largely in Eastern North Carolina.

It is also the historic base of the white supremacist Democrats, who entirely controlled the apparatus of state politics from 1898 until the early 1920s and then sparingly afterwards. In 1898, the eastern third of the state was the hub of a white supremacist campaign that sought to repress the minority vote in order to help the Democrats regain control from the Republican/Populist Fusion ticket that had recently started to gain a foothold in state politics. This campaign included a coup in Wilmington, where white supremacists violently overthrew the democratically elected African American-led government and installed former Congressman Alfred Waddell as the city’s mayor. After the Democrats took control of state government, they passed a series of laws that ushered in the Jim Crow era of North Carolina and effectively suppressed minority voices for the next 70 years. The effect is that a lot of rural communities in Eastern North Carolina were now governed by people who made up a minority of the community.

Racial tension in Eastern North Carolina would also play a key role in state politics throughout the 20th century. In the 1950 senatorial primary, former UNC President and incumbent Senator Frank Porter Graham faced off against Willis Smith. It was a campaign of contrasts, Graham’s campaign was progressive for its time, refusing to partake in the race baiting that defined the Southern Democratic Party at the time. Smith’s supporters, however, turned the race into a referendum on racial issues and attacked Graham’s record on the matter. Smith was able to win the primary and ultimately become senator largely on the backs of support from rural Eastern North Carolina.

In a previous post, I detailed the turbulent racial history of the Southeastern North Carolina county where I grew up. Racial tension in the eastern part of the state is a defining feature of the region and its influence in state politics. The chants that greeted President Trump in North Carolina are a simple reminder that those days are not as behind us as we would like them to be. It also serves as a reminder of how important it is to ensure that economically and socially disadvantaged people in rural spaces are represented, heard, and helped.

Christopher Chavis  is  a native of Robeson County, North Carolina, and a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that Willis Smith won the North Carolina gubernatorial race. He was elected U.S. senator. The Daily Yonder regrets the error.

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