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OPINION

Black History Month - Are Rep. White and Rep. Franks Cousins?

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AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

I did not realize that Rep. George White, R-N.C., the last Black Member of Congress in the 19th Century, was very likely my cousin. It is my Black History Month surprise.

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George White and I have had a common mission. In his last speech on the House Floor which was titled, "The Negro's Farewell to Congress," he complained about Black people not being allowed to hold certain jobs by law. Today I argue that some bad white people in powerful positions are doing the same in a de facto manner.

Here is an excerpt from White's speech:

"We have done it in the face of lynching, burning at the stake, with the humiliation of "Jim Crow" laws, the disfranchisement of our male citizens, slander and degradation of our women, with the factories closed against us, no Negro permitted to be a conductor on the railway cars...no Negro permitted to run as an engineer on a locomotive, most of the mines closed against us. Labor unions - carpenters, painters, brick masons, machinists, hackmen, and those supplying nearly every conceivable avocation for livelihood - have banded themselves together to better their condition, but, with few exceptions, the black face has been left out. The Negroes are seldom employed in our mercantile stores..."

Today finding mid-level managers and upper-level executives of color is rare.

Decades later George White's cousin (me) would work for 10 years in Labor Relations/Human Resources for Fortune 500 companies. Among my other duties, every day I fought for people of all hues to have an opportunity to compete for employment at the company and advance as their skills and achievements would warrant. But of equal importance were the overall employment practices of the managers at the company.

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Whenever a manager would even think about doing something from an employment perspective that was outside the policies and procedures of the company - rules established by the board of directors - I was instructed to treat it as an illegal action. When Black people were involved it was a possible violation of the Civil Rights law of 1964.

For example, you could not pay a person of color below the salary range. Another problem was when a minority would break quantifiable monetary goals, but that would not be good enough for a promotion, while for a white person that was the main reason for a promotion. These practices entailed double standards - like two restrooms or two water fountains. Only Jim Crow lovers would embrace them.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is supposed to be the enforcement agency to protect the employment rights of African-Americans. Today the EEOC is a shell of itself from the 1980s. It has experienced deep cuts (been "defunded") with staffing reductions of nearly 45% over the last 40 years, while the American workplace has grown by over 50% during that same period. The EEOC lacks the teeth to properly wage the fight against those who are determined to discriminate against African-Americans. When it can be funded better and has the manpower to do its job, we will see more fairness in the workplace.

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A few years ago, I was invited to attend a ceremony to recognize my great-grandfather George Washington Petteway and his wife, my great-grandmother Cecilia Ann White Petteway. In 1870 they were the founders of one of the first schools for freed slaves in North Carolina. G.W., a pastor, was allowed to read when reading was against the law for most slaves. He convinced the white county leaders to give him the land to build a church and school for former slaves. The church is still active. The school stayed active until the mid-20th century and is a historical landmark in the state.

As a child traveling with my mother, I spent time during the summers in New Bern, N.C. because that is where my great-grandmother, Cecilia Ann "White" (maiden name) Petteway was from. I, therefore, had several relatives in that area. I did not make the connection until very recently when I learned that George White was a Congressman from New Bern (he served two terms from 1897 to 1901).

While teaching at Georgetown, Hampton, and the University of Virginia, I made Congressman White's last speech on the House Floor an integral part of my class. Little did I know we were likely cousins.

When White departed from Congress, it took nearly 30 years to elect another Black person to Congress. That was Oscar DePriest. Both were Republicans. However, there would not be another Black Republican elected to Congress again until I was elected in 1990.

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In addition to White and my great grandparents, I had remarkable parents who worked hard to raise six children - two doctors, a colonel, an attorney, and a coach/teacher.

I will always remember - Put God first, work hard, and be thankful to God for your achievements. And, look in the mirror when you hit a bump in the road. Don't blame others.

I have been blessed.

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