The North Carolina State Capitol is a beautiful Greek Revival-styled building whose construction was completed in 1840. It no longer houses the General Assembly and state Supreme Court, but 1 E. Edenton Street is still used as the office of North Carolina’s governor. Anyone who wanders the beautiful, oak-laden grounds of the Capitol will doubtless run across the bronze statue of one of its former governors — Charles Brantley Aycock, North Carolina’s “Education Governor.”
It’s an appropriate time for Aycock to be at the center of conversation as the General Assembly comes into session in 2023 and considers weighty issues related to the future of education in North Carolina, such as the Leandro lawsuit and the Opportunity Scholarship program.
If we examine the history of Gov. Aycock’s intentions and involvement in public education, would people work so hard to fight educational alternatives today? And what of his educational program still exists in the Old North State’s education system?
Charles Aycock was born in Wayne County, North Carolina, in 1859. He graduated from the University of North Carolina and practiced law in Goldsboro in 1881. Aycock was a rising star in the North Carolina Democratic Party and was elected governor of North Carolina in 1901 at 41. He has historically been lauded as “the Education Governor” for his advocacy for public schools and the many reforms he pushed while in office. While Aycock was governor, the state built more than 1,100 public schools and implemented policies such as district consolidation and teacher training that were the underpinnings of the modern North Carolina education system.
There can be no doubt that millions of North Carolinians have benefited from the public schools for which Aycock labored. However, we live in a political environment where some education “experts” advise lawmakers to expand the Aycock educational complex through the 29-year-long Leandro lawsuit while claiming that school choice programs, like the Opportunity Scholarship Program, are racist.
In a world of such claims from the political left, it’s time to have an honest conversation about the genealogy of Aycock’s system of public schools.
Why? Because while it has benefited many, it has racist underpinnings that were meant to control minorities and, over decades, has left many students behind.
To be very clear, Governor Charles Aycock was a racist. He helped organize and spoke at white supremacy rallies in the days leading up to the 1898 Wilmington coup — the only successful coup in American history — and was a leading proponent of a constitutional amendment requiring a poll tax and literacy test to vote. The philosophy of white supremacy is part of why Aycock advocated for universal public education.
Aycock, though privately educated, believed in the virtues of public education and even taught at a public school in Fremont, N.C., for a time. However, he also viewed it as a vehicle for social power over minorities.
He explained his thinking process on this concept of social control through public education in a 1904 speech to the Democratic State Convention in Greensboro while he was governor. On the need for universal education, Aycock said, “the negro should be taught to realize that while he would not be permitted to govern the State, his rights should be held the more sacred by reason of his weakness.”
Did you catch that? As an argument for public schools for everyone in North Carolina, Aycock argues that black citizens must be taught why they are inferior and why they should not be allowed to vote or be part of civil government.
This is the worst kind of racist indoctrination, and the fruits of this tree created a system of educational inequality for decades afterward.
That is not to say that everything about public schools or education is terrible. On the contrary, a good amount of civic, economic, and social good has come out of North Carolina’s “general and uniform system of free public schools.” However, it has also been used as a means of social control over the students it is supposed to educate. And that is why responsible citizens should be wary of politicians and special interests who continue to want to control how and where students are educated and remove parents and guardians from that process.
Naysayers on the left will read my words and say that I misunderstand history. They’ll regale us with stories about the “conservatives switching parties,” tell us that conservatives are the real problem in public education and that Aycock’s brand of politics was conservative. But there is one glaring problem. Charles Aycock was not a conservative.
While he was running for U.S. Senate in 1912, Aycock said, “I am a Democrat. I am not a conservative or a reactionary Democrat; I am not a progressive Democrat, for the word ‘Democrat’ with me is a noun substantive of so fine and large import that it admits of no addition or diminution of any qualifying word or phrase.”
You see, Aycock was not an ideologue in the modern conservative-to-progressive spectrum. Public education and voting laws were about power politics for the “Education Governor.”
I am not suggesting that Charles Aycock be added to the bonfire of cancel culture and that the state government should rip his statue from its pedestal. I am, however, presenting this part of the history of public education as a cautionary tale. The education establishment decries policies that seek to diversify educational environments in North Carolina, such as vouchers and charter schools, which is a shame because those policies fly in the face of this racist stretch of the genealogy of public education.
As lawmakers consider policies to formulate what education looks like in the Old North State for the next century, I urge them to consider the students at the heart of the question instead of blindly funding systems built on amassing power.