The Search for the Next Phoenix

This piece was reported in partnership with Axios. A shorter version appeared on their site.

***

G. K. Butterfield Jr. pauses our conversation about the past to return a call about the future.

“Yes, sir! ... I’m in between meetings so I gotta do it real quick,” he says into his phone on a January Thursday in his district headquarters in Wilson, North Carolina. 

Butterfield, now 74 and one of North Carolina’s last connections to the civil rights era still serving, will soon retire after nine terms in Congress. His phone is as busy as ever with candidates wanting his blessing in the ever-shifting 2022 primaries. 

He listens, nods, says a lot of uh-huhs, then wraps it up and tells me who he was talking to.

“Heath Shuler,” he says with a laugh about the former congressman and NFL quarterback’s request. “Wanting me to endorse a candidate in Asheville.”

Across the street from Butterfield’s district office, foot traffic is steady at the Dollar General store with people counting out coins for junk food in a city surrounded by farms. A few blocks away, the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park twirls with used parts made pretty. A visiting artist from France is taking photos for the city’s popular Eyes on Main Street exhibit.

Inside Butterfield’s office, he too has pictures. Most prominent are portraits of four men he’s never met, on the wall overlooking the lobby: the Black congressmen from Reconstruction who served in this district, including George H. White.

It’s been more than a century since North Carolina’s literacy test and grandfather clause forced White from office, making him the last Black congressman in America for nearly three decades. White’s famous farewell address on the House floor in January 1901 still whispers through the soybean fields that cover this rural, diverse district.

This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the negro’s temporary farewell to the American Congress, but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up someday and come again.

Butterfield is who White had in mind when he spoke of the Phoenix: a young boy who watched his dad register Black voters in the 1950s; a teenager who led a 48-mile voter registration march from Raleigh to Wilson in the 1960s; a state Supreme Court associate justice in the 2000s; chair of the Congressional Black Caucus in the 2010s. 

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Congressman G.K. Butterfield inside his offices in Wilson, NC // Photo by Travis Dove

But as Butterfield retires this year, his party finds itself with a reality-check moment. North Carolina is 22 percent Black and 37 percent people of color, but it has only one incumbent of color among 15 federal midterm races (14 for the House and one for the Senate), and she will end her current term at age 76. 

Who is ready to fill the void?

***

Democrats entered this election season sounding alarms. But after an intense legal back-and-forth in North Carolina, the conversation shifted. 

For at least this year, under the interim congressional maps, the division of Republican-leaning seats versus Democrat-leaning seats versus toss-up districts appears to be 7-6-1. That’s a far cry from the 10-3-1 breakdown from November that hastened Butterfield’s goodbye.

North Carolina has a notable set of Black elected leaders, including the House and Senate minority leaders, but it has long struggled to elect candidates of color to statewide and federal office. (Republican Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson is a notable, and widely discussed, exception.) 

Just five people of color have been sent to Congress since White’s Phoenix speech of 1901; that’s only one more representative of color in the modern era than during the short Reconstruction era. 

In the 12 years since Republicans gained control of North Carolina’s legislature, Democrats and voting rights groups have argued that gerrymandering hurts not only Democratic representation but also Black and brown representation. 

“I'm concerned about African American representation, but I'm also concerned about Democratic representation,” Butterfield told me in January. “And if we get fair Democratic representation, then African American representation will naturally follow. Right?”

That argument is now being put to the test and if the more equitable map doesn’t produce a more diverse delegation after this election, Democrats likely have no one to blame but themselves.

“We’re at the stage where for Democrats in North Carolina, at what level of urgency are we going to act with?” says Nida Allam, a 28-year-old progressive and daughter of Indian and Pakistani immigrants who’s served on the Durham County commission. She’s one of the front-runners to become the Democratic nominee to replace longtime Rep. David Price — a white man retiring after 30 years — in the state’s ultra-liberal 4th congressional district around Durham and Chapel Hill. 

“The short answer being yes,” state representative Brian Turner, the campaign co-chair for the Democratic House caucus, tells me when I ask if there’s pressure on the party. Turner is a white man who represents a district in the mountains, some 225 miles west of Durham, but he’s been a vocal supporter of Allam, one of nearly 20 Democrats of color who filed for congressional contests this spring. 

“​​I realize she would not be my congressperson, but I think it matters when you look at the composite photo of our congressional delegation that it better reflect North Carolina.”

Still, for all of the shuffling and excitement, the safe bet is that the state will have three elected officials of color in Washington after this election, two of them new. Any more than that is statistically unlikely.

Alma Adams’ seat in Charlotte is safe—roughly 64 percent of the district voted for Joe Biden in 2020.

In Butterfield’s district, which now leans Democratic by about 7 percentage points, all four primary candidates are Black.

The district Price is retiring from, the 4th, which has a nearly 30-point Democratic majority, has a loaded primary. Five of eight primary candidates are people of color, including leaders Allam, a progressive and daughter of Indian and Pakistani immigrants who’s served on the Durham County commission, and Valerie Foushee, a Black state senator who has long represented Orange County.

But of the three other Democratic-leaning districts, two have white incumbents in Kathy Manning and Deborah Ross. And in the other, the 14th District, Jeff Jackson will be hard to beat. A white state senator, Jackson has about $830,000 in the bank from a yearlong bid for U.S. Senate. 

He stepped down from that race, as it happens, to clear a path for former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, a Black woman, to cruise to the Democratic nomination. But now, Jackson appears to be a lock to be in Congress after November, while Beasley’s race is a toss-up. 

***

On a recent morning at the Chew ’n Chat, a little diner near the Tar River in Rocky Mount, state Sen. Erica Smith bypassed both the PaPa’s Breakfast (two eggs, a meat, a side, and toast or a biscuit) and the Hobo Breakfast Sandwich (egg-meat-cheese) for a breakfast bowl (grits topped with an egg and meat).

Smith is a Black woman, dressed in business attire, in a restaurant where most folks are in jeans. She considers herself a “dirt-road Democrat” and says she regularly finds common ground in discussions Trump voters in her district on topics like faith, hunting and farming. 

“Rural doesn’t mean white,” she said. “It means rural, Black, white, and brown. ... Democrats, the only way we're going to be able to win nationally and hold on to majorities in the House is if we can get rural Democrats elected.”

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State Senator Erica Smith in Rocky Mount, NC. Smith is one of the candidates looking to fill the void left by Representative G.K. Butterfield // Photo by Travis Dove

This has been true since Reconstruction: Part of the challenge for any party that assumes the responsibility of diversity is the diversity itself. People of color aren’t a single voting group bound to a party’s ideas and ideals, and the candidates don’t fit into boxes. 

In Butterfield’s district, there’s a progressive Green New Deal supporter in Smith, and there’s her opponent, state Sen. Don Davis, a former Air Force officer and small-town mayor. 

Davis fell out of favor with some in his party when he joined Republicans to override Cooper’s veto of the “born alive” bill in 2019.

In the week since filing, the primary has gotten unfriendly, with Smith’s campaign attacking Davis as an anti-choice Democrat. Davis denies that characterization. He told The Charlotte Observer last week that he would vote to codify Roe v. Wade if it ever came to a vote in Congress. 

“I want to be perfectly clear: I’m not going to have any opponent define my record,” he told the paper.

Elsewhere in North Carolina, there are a range of Democrats of color. There’s Charles Graham, a Lumbee Indian whose campaign video went viral last year but who’s considered one of the most conservative Democrats in the legislature. 

Or Ben Clark, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who’s the only Democrat running in the 9th, but who’s a long shot in a Republican-leaning district with a Republican incumbent, Richard Hudson.

In the 4th District there’s Valerie Foushee, who worked with the Chapel Hill police department for years and has a lot of support among older Black Democrats in Durham. There’s Clay Aiken, the former American Idol contestant who says he wants to become the South’s first gay congressman. And there’s Allam, a 28-year-old Muslim and rising star who’s spent most of her life in the Triangle. 

Allam remembers being in the third grade on 9/11, remembers her teacher asking her to stand in front of the class and “explain Islam,” and then answer, “Why did Muslims commit 9/11?”

And she remembers Feb. 10, 2015, the day she was taking an exam during her last semester at N.C. State University when three of her closest friends, all Muslim, were killed in what relatives and community leaders believe was a hate crime in Chapel Hill. 

In a phone conversation with me earlier this month, she broke down when talking about that day and remembering her unanswered calls to Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. She said she chose politics after that to ensure no kid who worships like she does has to grow up and endure that.

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Nida Allam in Durham, NC. Allam is one of the candidates running to replace outgoing Congressman David Price // Photo by Peyton Sickles

When I asked if she’d thought of similarities and differences between her generation and Butterfield’s, she said, “He paved the path for me to be able to run for Congress. There really is no comparison. He really has created that path.

“I walk in his shadow.”

Foushee, Allam’s primary opponent, carried that metaphor forward in my call with her.

“It’s a shadow of legacy,” she said. Then she went on, “He has never represented me, but he has never failed to call me back over the years. ... Something I learned as a commissioner, people say this a lot: ‘Have you talked to G. K. Butterfield?’”

Foushee grew up poor during segregation. Her mother was a custodian who worked at the Carolina Inn and, later, the university; her father did everything from cooking at a burger joint to driving taxis.

Foushee and her husband worked multiple jobs early in their careers. For five years, they cleaned office buildings on top of day jobs. One experience stands out: When they were applying for a loan to buy a modular home in 1983, the banker asked if they had anyone in their family who could help them with a $10,000 down payment. Now she laughs: “I’m thinking, ‘Who in my family has 10,000 dollars?’”

She later served on Orange County’s school board, then became the county’s first Black female commissioner. When she talks about why people should vote for her, she uses the phrase “lived experiences,” and uses it in a way that speaks broadly about the importance of adding diversity to the delegation.

When I asked her about Allam, Foushee said she didn’t know her personally. She said, “While our lived experiences are different, what isn’t different is discrimination.”

***

There’s also, of course, Alma Adams, the only Black incumbent running in a federal race this year. 

Adams is a 75-year-old former educator who enrolled at North Carolina A&T in 1965, four years after the sit-in movement launched there.

Adams has seen various forms of voter suppression in her career, back to the 1980s when she lost her seat on the Guilford County school board following a change in district elections there. She wonders if the 2022 version of disenfranchisement might be a more passive one, caused in part by her own party’s relentless litigation: voter confusion and fatigue.

There have been so many gerrymandering challenges over the past dozen years, it’s been hard to follow for even plugged-in observers. Some congressional maps this winter had a shorter shelf life than a gallon of milk. 

In a country where only about half of Americans can name the political party of their representative, let alone their names or voting record, the biggest challenge for candidates this year may be education: telling voters when the primary is (May 17, with early voting beginning April 28), who the candidates are, why their representative might be a different person, and why the district number isn’t the same.

Adams upended her life chasing her district boundaries. She was first elected in 2014 in a 12th District that looks a lot different now than it did then. You may remember the old 12th—it was the river-shaped district that twisted and turned from Greensboro to Charlotte, picking up most of the Black neighborhoods in towns along the I-85 corridor.

“I’m an artist. I didn’t have a problem with the shape of it,” Adams said jokingly in a recent Zoom call with me, her background filled with bright paintings.

Back then, in 2014, Butterfield’s district had some of the same characteristics. He still has that district map hanging in his office, actually; it’s shaped like a crab, with one pincer cutting down through predominantly Black parts of Goldsboro and Kinston and New Bern, the other reaching all the way up to Elizabeth City.

“That is packing,” Butterfield told me, his finger tracing the map. “It drove me crazy: I had 24 counties.”

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Representative G.K. Butterfield points out district changes on an outdated map inside a board room at his Wilson, NC office // Photo by Travis Dove

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Representative G.K. Butterfield draws a demonstration of redistricting inside a board room at his Wilson, NC office // Photo by Travis Dove

Point being, if you were a person of color seeking a House seat, you had two very good options in Adams’ district or Butterfield’s, but not much else throughout the state. And if you were a Black citizen who wanted to be represented by a Black person, you had to move to either northeastern North Carolina or somewhere along I-85.

Jarvis Hall, an associate professor of political science at North Carolina Central University, says there are mixed views on packing. On one hand, it guarantees minority representation; on the other, it takes away opportunity for African Americans who live in neighboring districts.

“It raises the question: Is geography the best way to determine representation?” Hall said.

Adams’ district was so long, she decided to open two district offices, a northern and southern. One night in February 2016, Adams was having a celebration for the Greensboro office’s opening when she got a call, just weeks before the primary: A federal court had ruled North Carolina’s congressional map unconstitutional

Specifically, the judges ruled that Adams’ 12th District and Butterfield’s 1st District were racially gerrymandered to dilute Black votes. 

State leaders quickly redrew the maps. The 12th was completely remade and fit entirely within the boundaries of Mecklenburg County, and the primary was moved to June. Coming at the start of beach season and graduation time for families, the primary brought only a 7 percent turnout.

Adams moved to Charlotte, first to Fourth Ward and then into a house in the Elizabeth neighborhood in the summer of 2017. In a dose of irony that will make some Charlotte folks twitch: She moved into a home right next to the notorious Hawthorne Lane bridge just weeks before it shut down for construction. The project was supposed to last 18 to 20 months, but it took 40. That entire time, the congresswoman whose political life is defined by lines was cut off from the rest of the neighborhood.

After several more years of changes to the map, Adams’ district stayed mostly intact. But the redrawn maps this year split Mecklenburg County in half. Now her home is in the 14th District, with the 12th District line only a couple of miles away. She’s elected to stick with the 12th anyway. (By law, representatives don’t have to live in their district, just in the state.)

Since the Feb. 23 redraw, Adams says she’s gotten calls from people who are confused by the changing district numbers. But the former Guilford County School Board member says that she simply puts on her educator cap, which is one of many caps.

“It's been very taxing on people to not know who represents them, what their district is at this point and so forth,” she said. “I don't think any of this disruption and moving around has really been fair. 

“I've [always] believed that as a representative, I shouldn't be picking my people; my people should be picking me.”

***

As strange as the 12th District has been, though, perhaps no congressional district in the country better captures the complexity of the struggle that African American voters and politicians have faced since the Civil War than the 1st.

George H. White was a Republican, back when Republicans were considered progressives. Democrats actually drew the first frame of the district back in 1872 as a way to clump Black political power into one seat. The “Black Second,” as it was called, incorporated 10 counties, eight of which had Black majority populations. Three of the counties were more than two-thirds Black.

“The second congressional district is a masterpiece,” the Republican Wilmington Post wrote during Reconstruction. “It takes in Craven then wanders clean to the Virginia line, and turns a sharp corner around Nash and grasps Warren.” Then-Governor Tod Caldwell called it "Extraordinary, inconvenient and most grotesque."

Throughout the tenures of those four men whose portraits hang in Butterfield’s lobby, Democrats used the district as an example of what would happen under “radical rule.”

But the reality of the Republican Party, and of the Black vote, was more complicated.

After North Carolina voters in 1900 passed the combination punch of the literacy test and the grandfather clause—which said that anyone whose father or grandfather voted before 1868 didn’t have to take the literacy test—George H. White gave an interview to The New York Times explaining his decision to step aside.

Much of his frustration, as it turns out, wasn’t directed at the overt white supremacists, but at his own party for using him.

“The fact is, the white Republicans of North Carolina are Republicans in order to get the negro vote to maintain them in office,” he told the paper, “but they do not want the negroes to hold office.”

White’s words are still poignant. Political parties don’t have lifetime rights to diversity or votes of people of color. Things change. The modern Democrats I talked to wouldn’t go so far as to say they had similar sentiments toward their party today as White did then, but they all made it clear that asking for their patience was no longer an option.

“I don’t know that I would say there’s pressure, but I do believe there’s more awareness,” said Foushee, the candidate in the 4th District.

Said Allam, her opponent: “It’s about the future of our party. Are we going to continue down the same path?”

For his part, White wound up moving out of North Carolina and founded the town of Whitesboro in New Jersey because, as he put it, “I cannot live in North Carolina and be treated as a man.”

It would be 27 years before another Black person served in Congress in the U.S. It would be 92 years before another Black person from North Carolina did. 

In between there were, of course, Black people elected in local races.

One of them has a familiar name.

***

At noon on May 6, 1953, a blindfolded 3-year-old with blond hair slid her hand into a hat to decide the future of representation in North Carolina.

The local race for Wilson’s Third Ward alderman between G. K. Butterfield Sr., a Black dentist, and H.H. Harris, a white incumbent, had resulted in a tie at 382 votes each. The city charter at the time declared ties would be decided by a lottery.

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Top: A truck passes on a rural road outside Wilson, NC; Bottom: The sun sets on the Wilson County Courthouse // Photos by Travis Dove

Election officials wrote the two candidates’ names on separate pieces of paper, which they slipped into capsules, dropped into a hat, and covered with a handkerchief. 

Then they asked young Debbie Watson to determine the will of the people. 

Her hand carried the weight of history. Dr. Butterfield was vying to become the first Black elected official of any sort in this part of eastern North Carolina since White stepped down from Congress 52 years earlier.

Dr. Butterfield had spent nearly a decade painstakingly helping Black people study for the so-called “literacy test” that stood between them and registration.

White people helped register Dr. Butterfield to vote when he moved to Wilson and married his wife, Maddie, an educator and the granddaughter of an enslaved woman. They figured a dentist should be able to vote. But those same white people got upset when they found out Dr. Butterfield was helping his patients do the same. 

Dr. Butterfield and Maddie’s brother Fred started the local NAACP. Fred was the face of the organization to give Butterfield cover. 

One day in 1949, Fred asked Maddie for a ride, but she couldn’t give it to him, because she had a 2-year-old boy at home named George Kenneth Jr. So, Fred decided to walk. He got hit by a car on U.S. 301. A Black doctor was too busy to help and a white doctor refused to help, leaving Fred for dead.

The trauma inspired G. K. Sr. to give less of a damn what the white folks thought about his efforts to register Black voters. So he did it publicly and started holding classes in his living room.

G. K. Jr. was just six at the time, but he’d poke his head in: “It was, ‘This is the Constitution. These are the Bill of Rights. They’re gonna ask you some real tough questions in this way. You need to answer, and you’ve got to be respectful. You can't, you know, can't get upset.’”

Maybe White’s ghost steered young Debbie’s hand, or maybe it was just good luck. Whatever the case, when she pulled her capsule from the hat, the little girl unknowingly anointed the Butterfield name the Phoenix of Wilson. 

Through Dr. Butterfield’s two terms as alderman, his son watched him fight for paved streets in Black neighborhoods, a recreation center for Black kids. “Very radical, QAnon stuff,” G. K. Jr. quips today.

Even those simple requests triggered backlash.

In 1957, Dr. Butterfield and his family were on vacation in New York when the white aldermen called an emergency meeting to change the way voters selected the board. They would make every seat at-large—no more districts. 

Butterfield Sr. rushed home, but the white guys were already toasting to their genius. They changed the way people voted, so that people who looked like him would be voted out. Wilson’s local board became all white once again. 

G. K. Jr. was 10 years old at the time, a young witness to the fluctuating distance between fair and unfair in the United States, and it propelled him into politics and civil rights. 

Listening to G. K. Butterfield tell these stories now, in his office full of pictures—there’s one of him with John Lewis, another with Obama, another of dirt streets in east Wilson in the late 20th century—the past feels very close. A current U.S. congressman whose dad was the first Black elected official in this part of the state since George White. Like his father, and like White, Butterfield’s time as an elected official is ending not because he’s been voted out but because of shifting lines and laws that he believes are aimed at minimizing Black voters.

And again, like with White, the modern Phoenix casts a shadow so long it makes it hard to spot a future one. Is it Smith or Davis, both of whom are eagerly hoping for his endorsement, and who’ve already taken their campaign to replace him negative? Is it one of the dozens of people who dial Butterfield’s phone each week?

One thing is for certain: Nobody is ready to replace him as a storyteller. In our nearly three hours with him, he was funny and ruminative, but always felt light. (He started the interview by joking that his staff had prepped for our visit by telling him, “Two white guys are driving up from Charlotte.” He laughed hard at that one.)

Which makes his next act all the more important: He’s working on a book, mostly about Wilson and surrounding areas, to preserve the stories of the politicians and educators and postal carriers and businesspeople who made this place that made him.

One section will undoubtedly be about this here:

For most of the past 60-plus years, G. K. Butterfield Jr. has only known Debbie Watson as the “little white girl” who pulled his father’s name and changed the direction of this family. A little moment like that was the genesis of his political life.

So a few months ago, Butterfield set out to find her. And he did. 

They talked only briefly, in part because Debbie was confused.

She had no recollection of pulling the capsules from the hat, no understanding that had she selected the other name that day in 1953, there wouldn’t have been a city alderman G. K. Butterfield Sr., and possibly no Congressman G. K. Butterfield Jr., and that someone else would probably be sitting here taking calls for endorsements.

“She knew nothing about this,” the congressman told me. “Very polite. She didn’t even recognize my name, didn’t know who her congressperson was. Just a hardworking white lady. And I said, ‘Let me tell you a little more about your history.’”

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A U.S. House of Representatives floor mat greats visitors in the doorway of Congressman G.K. Butterfield’s office // Photo by Travis Dove

***

Michael Graff is the Southern bureau chief for Axios Local, overseeing Charlotte, Atlanta, Nashville and Raleigh. He’s also the co-author of The Vote Collectors, which further explores the history of racism and electioneering in North Carolina.

This piece was reported in partnership with Axios. A shorter version appeared on their site.