First female U.S. Senator was unabashed white supremacist

Rebecca Latimer Felton was the last slave-owning member of the U.S. Congress and outspoken advocate of lynching.

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Senator for a day Rebecca L. Felton
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Felton historical marker in DeKalb County, Georgia. Sanitized for our protection

Life

Felton was born in 1835 on a 725-acre plantation in Decatur, Georgia to a wealthy slave-owning family. She lived a relatively easy life as the oldest and an admitted “daddy’s girl” until she graduated at age 17 from Madison Female School, where she learned chemistry, business and fine arts. In 1853 she married William Felton, a physician and Methodist minister, and they lived on a farm with several slaves of their own in Cartersville, where they raised a daughter and four sons. Their farm was heavily damaged during the Civil War, so afterward she taught school to help pay for repairs.

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William Felton. Wiki Commons
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Leased Georgia convicts. Wiki Commons

World’s Fair

Because of her stature and influence, she was asked to help oversee Georgia’s exhibits at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The official U.S. House of Representatives history archives benignly states that “It was her participation in managing Georgia’s exhibits … that sparked her interest in national politics.”

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Columbian Exposition, 1893. Wiki Commons

The Speech

Felton’s racial arrogance was fully highlighted in a jaw-dropping speech to the Georgia Agricultural Society at Tybee Island on August 11, 1897. In it, Felton conflated her racism with women’s suffrage, stating that farm wives faced many dangers but none greater than “the threat of black rapists.” She argued that the use of liquor to purchase black votes contributed to an increase in threats to southern womanhood, since blacks presumably became even more out-of-control when drunk. She also claimed that charitable donations for missionaries overseas would be better spent educating virtuous young white ladies who had been left unprotected by poor white southern men from the drunken black rapists.

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Alexander Manley. Courtesy Blackpast.org

coup d’état

Only two days after the election, and with the security of federal troops gone, thousands of Wilmington whites rioted in what became the only coup d’état in United States history, today called the Wilmington insurrection or Wilmington race riot of 1898.

“Less sympathy than a rabid dog”

Felton further cemented her shameless, vengeful racism in 1899, after a crowd of thousands of white Georgians tortured, mutilated and burned to death a black man, Sam Hose, who allegedly was paid $12 by a Baptist preacher to kill his white employer, Alfred Cranford, over a wage dispute. He was also accused of attacking Cranford’s wife, although separate investigations by Ida B. Wells and a white detective both disproved that allegation.

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Conclusion of Felton’s letter condemning Andrew Sledd.

No apologies

In her 1911 book “My Memoirs of Georgia Politics” Felton never apologized for any pain or suffering she caused, but did try to deflect her earlier attitudes, particularly about slavery:

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Written by

Anti-death penalty advocate, cultural archaeologist, “American Grotesk” historyteller and author of 11 books. More at www.dalebrumfield.net.

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