1883 Election and Ouster of Black Aldermen

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Just after the Emancipation Proclamation, black America suddenly flourished as freedmen gained access to paid jobs, education, and land and business ownership. Freedmen who led the march towards equal rights were largely those who had been freed or were able to buy their freedom before the Civil War and then went on to pursue their educations at institutions like Oberlin College in Ohio, which had admitted blacks since 1834.

Along with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, black (men) were also permitted to go to the polls for the first time after the Reconstruction Act of 1867. Raleigh’s first elected black politician was James Henry Harris, who was a member of the 1868 North Carolina constitutional convention. But as Abraham Lincoln’s Republican party grew and expanded with numerous black members entering the fold during the Reconstruction-era, their rivals, the Democrats, were cooking up ways to lash back at African American’s newly granted liberties. Our capital city was all too often the scene of such injustice.

One of the most egregious examples of the Democrat’s backlash was the May 1883 election of the Raleigh Board of Alderman. Of the seventeen seats, eleven elected were white Republicans, and six were Democrats, one white and five black.  All seventeen were sworn in and seated the very next day. But because of changes that a majority-Democrat city government had made back in 1875, the diversity of the 1883 Board of Alderman was not going to last.

In 1875, the Raleigh city government was completely dominated by Democrats. In fact, all seventeen seats on the Board of Alderman were held by Dems. That board decided to revise the Raleigh city charter to make it more difficult for freedmen to vote, and to make the position of mayor electable by only the Board of Alderman and not the general public (convenient for the Dems, since about half of Raleigh’s population was African American). They also fired all of Raleigh’s black policeman, and left it so the only city job an African American could hold was the caretaker of Mt. Hope Cemetery. That would be the black cemetery, of course.

So having secured all that power back in 1875, the majority-Democrat Board of Alderman in 1883 decided the day after they had been sworn in to kick out as many of the black Republicans as they could. They asked the North Carolina Attorney General to decide if four of the black Republicans were ineligible since they already held government positions with the federal government. The attorney general’s office agreed with the Dems, and four black alderman, Stewart Ellison, James E. Hamlin, Armenius Hunter and James H. Young, plus one white alderman, James Doyle, were removed from office.

That decision left only one black alderman, Republican Charles W. Hoover. The white alderman who was kicked out, James Doyle, was quickly reinstated because it was decided that his position as night watchman for the U.S. Post Office was not a government title. Both Hoover and Doyle refused to attend any alderman meetings that year, waiting until they were re-elected the following year to serve on the board.

The “government offices or titles” that the black Republicans held making them ineligible according to the Democrats and the Attorney General were as follows; Stewart Ellison, post office custodian, James E. Hamlin, post office clerk, Armenius Hunter, mail collector, and James H. Young, clerk for the U.S. Revenue Department.