Charles B. Aycock’s Education Moment

This article is part of a series of articles on Charles Brantley Aycock, his legacy, and the tricky way to cope with two sides of an influential man. This series of three parts was requested as a portion of a body of commissioned work over the next 12 months. This series was commissioned by a colleague and friend.

  • Part I, on Charles B. Aycock’s race violence moment, here.

Charles Brantley Aycock

As I mentioned before, Charles B. Aycock was born of simple beginnings. He was the youngest of 10 children.

Charles’ father died when Charles was a boy. His family did not have much money and claimed no status, but Charles’ mother and siblings recognized his abilities. They sent him off to study.

Aycock’s colleagues and superiors recognized him as a skilled orator and debater. This would lead to his two major careers as a NC attorney and later as a political leader in his home state.

As a sixteen-year-old, Charles B. Aycock taught a term of public school in North Carolina. He was privately educated at the time, but there is no doubt that he recognized the importance of public education.

He attended UNC Chapel Hill and graduated in 1880 with honors. Shortly thereafter, he began his practice of law in Goldsboro, where he also taught school. Aycock would later become the superintendent of Wayne County schools and join the school board of Goldsboro. This was his first dip in to politics, but was only the beginning of a successful career in the field.

In 1888, the party chose Aycock as a presidential elector for Cleveland. Ten years later, Aycock would become the voice of white supremacy in North Carolina and indeed much of the South, but before that he would return to work as a US attorney in North Carolina.

In 1900, NC elected Aycock to the governor’s seat in an easy election, in good part due to his great involvement in the 1898 election before. Even his acceptance speech was undeniably racist, but there would be more to his term than just vile race statements (though they were plentiful).

In his inaugural speech to the General Assembly of North Carolina, Aycock praised new provisions to expand the budget for public schools of NC. In his speech, he even mentioned that new taxes may be necessary, but would be well worth it. In his speech, he referenced the universality of education he supported, saying,

Appropriations alone cannot remove illiteracy from our State. With the appropriations must come also an increased interest in this cause which shall not cease until every child can read and write. The preachers, the teachers, the newspapers and the mothers of North Carolina must be unceasing in their efforts to arouse the indifferent and compel by the force of public opinion the attendance of every child upon the schools.

Unfortunately some of this meant literacy tests at the polls, but Aycock did seem genuinely interested in creating a more educated state.

Charles B. Aycock was known as the “Education Governor” of NC, and for good reason. While he was in office, on average one school was built for each day Aycock remained in office. Nearly 700 new schools were built, though under 100 of those were for non-white students. The number of schools built for black students, this new attention to education for non-whites in North Carolina was a pretty new idea. The final intention of this education may have been a little twisted, but he did seem to believe in some part that even non-white citizens had a right to education.

More than just building schools, Aycock also increased salaries for teachers. North Carolina, like many states today, currently struggles regarding teacher pay. It is impressive that Aycock had the foresight over 100 years ago to increase the pay of some of the most critical workers in his state.

Aycock also advocated for longer school terms while he was in office. I’m sure many students were sad to lose more of their breaks, but longer terms at the time helped to allow students to learn more during the school year. It also helped them to not forget as much during breaks.

Aycock did endorse segregated schools, and was unable to remove some of his grosser political beliefs from his views on schools. He brokered what was an interesting compromise at the time: that white taxes would fund white schools and black taxes would fund black schools. The mainstream view at the time was that all taxes would support solely white schools. So while this was a compromise at the time and not the worst possible policy, it did eventually lead to some of the worst inequities that still remain in education in North Carolina.

Regardless of his views on people of a skin tone different from his, Aycock supported public education for everyone, believing it a key way to create a North Carolina citizenry that was the envy of other states. Besides the inherent value in an educated populace, Aycock believed that education would lead to more lucrative careers for all North Carolinians and therefore lead to a more prosperous state.

In 1905, Aycock left the governor’s office and returned to law. 7 years later, Aycock would run for Senate. Aycock would die of a heart attack before he could be nominated to his party’s ticket.

Aycock was in Birmingham, AL on April 4, 1912, making a speech to the Alabama Education Association. He was talking about the value of education, and allegedly died after saying his last word:

Thank you for reading the second excerpt of a three-part series on Charles B. Aycock’s mixed life.

Here is the third part, a quick reflection on Aycock’s legacy.