American National Biography Online
Cheatham, Henry Plummer (27 Dec. 1857-29 Nov. 1935), congressman
and public official, was born near Henderson, Granville (now
Vance) County, North Carolina, the son of a house slave about
whom little is known. He attended local public schools and worked
on farms during the 1860s and 1870s before graduating with honors
from Shaw University in 1882. He became principal of the Plymouth
Normal School for Negroes, a state-supported institution, and
held this position from 1882 until 1884. He returned to Henderson
and, after the retirement of the white Republican incumbent,
won election as Vance County registrar of deeds, serving in this
capacity from 1885 to 1888. During this time he also studied
law, though he never established a practice.
Cheatham's career in national politics began in 1888. Unable
to agree on a single candidate, delegates to the Republican convention
for the Second Congressional District, the so-called "Black Second,"
nominated both Cheatham and George A. Mebane, another African
American, for the U.S. House of Representatives. After Mebane's
subsequent withdrawal, Cheatham had the edge over his Democratic
opponent, Furnifold M. Simmons, because the district's African
Americans and Republicans still voted in great numbers. Cheatham
enjoyed a reputation as being responsible and courteous, but
during the campaign he warned black constituents that local Democrats
wanted to reestablish slavery. He narrowly won the election with
16,704 votes to Simmons's 16,051.
Cheatham took his seat in the Fifty-first Congress, which was
controlled by Republicans. A member of the Education Committee,
he introduced a bill for federal aid to education that received
a favorable report but never reached the floor for debate. Supporting
the interests of Carolina tobacco farmers, he endorsed the protectionist
McKinley Tariff of 1890 and served on a House-Senate conference
committee considering the proposal. Cheatham also favored the
Federal Elections Bill, introduced by Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts,
to safeguard the voting rights of African Americans, especially
in southern states. Preferring personal contact in the committee
room to delivering speeches, Cheatham did not speak in behalf
of the measure on the floor but did address the House Republican
caucus on the subject. The Lodge bill passed the House but died in the Senate.
As a first-term congressman desiring reelection, Cheatham took
special interest in federal patronage in his district, securing
more than eighty appointments for his constituents. These were
chiefly postal jobs, but he also helped to fill internal revenue,
customs, and judicial positions in eastern North Carolina and
secured appointment of African Americans as census enumerators
and clerks in the nation's capital. His hard work did not really
pay off, however. Not all his appointees performed ably, and
some were arrested for fraud and embezzlement. His parceling
out of patronage alienated both whites, who complained of black
domination, and certain African Americans, who believed he had
not secured enough of the spoils for his own people.
By 1890 agricultural depression in the South had caused a decline
in the proportion of black voters in Cheatham's district as African
Americans sought opportunity elsewhere. It also increased demands
from farmers for government aid. Accordingly Cheatham, addressing
a primarily white audience in Wilson during the campaign, discussed
neither the Federal Elections Bill nor the tariff but devoted
himself mainly to depressed agricultural conditions. He also
defended his patronage record in a manner calculated to avoid
offending whites or exciting blacks, but at the same time he
condemned steel magnate Andrew Carnegie for importing laborers
while neglecting to hire African Americans. His successful appeal
to white farmers helped to offset the black exodus from his district,
allowing Cheatham, who had relocated to Littleton because of
reapportionment, to defeat his last-minute Democratic challenger,
James M. Mewborne, with 16,943 votes to 15,713.
Cheatham's victory in 1890, the year of a Democratic landslide
in House contests, earned for him the distinction of being the
only African American elected to the Fifty-second Congress. With
Democrats in control, however, his influence diminished considerably.
Nevertheless, Cheatham remained active. He persuaded a New Jersey
Republican to propose an amendment to an appropriation bill to
provide money for a black progress exhibit at the World's Columbian
Exposition. Cheatham also introduced a bill, killed in committee,
that proposed appropriating $100,000 "for the purpose of collecting,
preparing, and publishing facts and statistics pertaining to
the moral, industrial, and intellectual development and progress
of the colored people of African descent residing in the United
States." The fate of such endeavors led Cheatham to conclude
that "whenever the colored people of this country ask for anything,
something unfortunate intervenes to hinder their getting what they ask."
Cheatham won renomination by acclamation in 1892 and at that
year's Republican National Convention seconded President Benjamin
Harrison's renomination in a brief speech. But the congressman's
political base had been weakened by the general assembly's revisions
of the state election law, which reduced the African-American
vote, and by the redrawing of political boundaries, which, in
effect, destroyed the "Black Second," a citadel of Republican
strength. As a result, Cheatham lost the race to Democrat Frederick
A. Woodard, a Wilson lawyer and banker who drew the color line
during the campaign and captured 13,925 votes to Cheatham's 11,812.
Fraudulent election practices and the black discontent over patronage
issues also hurt Cheatham, as did the presence of a Populist
candidate who split the non-Democratic vote. The Raleigh Signal,
a Republican newspaper, praised the defeated congressman as a
"faithful public servant who has done all that he could for the
whole state" and who "reflected great credit on his race, the
Republican party and himself."
Cheatham tried for a political comeback in 1894. After a prolonged
and bitter battle for the Republican congressional nomination,
he lost the hotly contested general election to Woodard by a
vote of 9,413 to 14,721. As before, a Populist took a portion
of the non-Democratic vote. Cheatham sought the congressional
nomination again in 1896 but lost to his more militant brother-in-law,
George H. White, a lawyer and former state legislator, who defeated
Woodard in the general election. Cheatham never again sought
elective office but continued his political activity. President
William McKinley in 1897 appointed him registrar of deeds for
the District of Columbia, a position he held until 1901, when
he returned to Littleton. There he farmed and helped found a local hospital.
In 1907 Cheatham relocated to Oxford, North Carolina, and became
superintendent of the North Carolina Orphanage for Negroes, which
he had been instrumental in establishing in 1882. He held this
post for the next twenty-eight years. Cheatham transformed the
orphanage by means of more effective administration and the construction
of seven brick buildings with modern designs and facilities.
He functioned as a benevolent father figure, disciplining the
children and assigning each tasks to perform in the cottages
and on the farm operated by the orphanage. "No success without
labor" was the creed by which Cheatham managed his orphanage
and training school.
Cheatham was married twice and had three children with Louise
Cherry and three with Laura Joyner. He died in Oxford. Cheatham
was one of North Carolina's most distinguished African-American
citizens. An educated, discreet, and diplomatic man, he impressed
even white Democrat Josephus Daniels, who remarked that he had
regarded Cheatham highly as a man who had gained the confidence
of both races.
Cheatham left no personal papers. The Matt W. Ransom Papers,
Cyrus Thompson Papers, and Marion Butler Papers in the Southern
Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill; and the Elias Carr Papers at East Carolina University in
Greenville have some letters relating to Cheatham's career. His
speeches and votes are in the Congressional Record (1889-1893).
Some detailed information about Cheatham is in Frenise A. Logan,
The Negro in North Carolina, 1876-1894 (1964); Eric Anderson,
Race and Politics in North Carolina, 1872-1901: The Black Second
(1981); and Contested Election Case of "Cheatham v. Woodard"
(1896). See also Maurine Christopher, Black Americans in Congress
(1976); Samuel D. Smith, The Negro in Congress, 1870-1901 (1940);
and George W. Reid, "A Biography of George Henry White, 1852-1918"
(Ph.D. diss., Howard Univ., 1974). An obituary is in the Oxford
Public Ledger, 3 Dec. 1935.
Back to the top
Leonard Schlup, . "Cheatham, Henry Plummer";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published
by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Note: This email has been sent in plain text format so that it may be
read with the standard ASCII character set. Special characters and
formatting have been normalized.
Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of the
American National Biography of the Day and Sample Biographies provided
that the following statement is preserved on all copies:
From American National Biography, published by Oxford University
Press, Inc., copyright 2000 American Council of Learned Societies.
Further information is available at http://www.anb.org.
American National Biography articles may not be published commercially
(in print or electronic form), edited, reproduced or otherwise altered
without the written permission of Oxford University Press which acts as
an agent in these matters for the copyright holder, the American Council
of Learned Societies. Contact: Permissions Department, Oxford University
Press, 198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016; fax: 212-726-6444.