Franklin County Honors Civil Rights Activist Rosanell Eaton For Bravery

By Jordan Meadows - Staff Writer

On Saturday, residents of Franklin County gathered in downtown Louisburg to pay tribute to Rosanell Eaton, a revered civil rights figure, during a building dedication ceremony. The event was hosted by Mr. and Mrs. Michael Liter and Armenta Eaton, daughter of the honoree.

Eaton, who was born on a farm in Franklin County, made an eight-mile trip daily to attend Albion Academy in Franklinton, where she graduated at the top of her class in 1939. She furthered her education with two years at Vance Granville Community College in Henderson and one year at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Ms. Eaton served as a teacher’s assistant in Youngsville until her retirement in 1991.

Throughout her life, Eaton was a staunch advocate for voting rights, having experienced firsthand the hardships of the Jim Crow era. She attended segregated schools, used segregated facilities including bathrooms and public accommodations, and even drank from a designated “colored” water fountain in her hometown of Louisburg.

At the age of 21, she journeyed eight miles by mule and wagon to the Franklin County Courthouse in Louisburg, where she was confronted by three white men demanding to know her purpose.

“I’m here to register to vote,” she said.

They informed her that she could register only if she could recite from memory the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. This requirement, masquerading as a literacy test, was a common tactic used to disenfranchise black voters. Despite the challenge, as the valedictorian of her high school class, she promptly complied.

In 1942, she registered and cast her ballot, becoming one of the first black voters in North Carolina since Reconstruction. She continued to vote in nearly every election thereafter. Over four decades, she served as a county poll worker and special registrar commissioner, assisting approximately 4,000 people in registering to vote.

Joining the NAACP in 1950, she remained an active participant in protests against racial discrimination for more than 60 years, including the historic 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

Amid the civil rights upheaval of the 1960s, she and her family faced repeated threats from night riders. She woke multiple times to the sight of burning crosses outside her home. One night, farm equipment was damaged, and bullets were fired into both a shed and their farmhouse, narrowly missing her bedroom window.

“Mother Rosanell Eaton was a warrior for justice who gave the most for her people in an utterly selfless way,” Dr. Spearman who succeeded Dr. Barber last year as president of the North Carolina NAACP. “She was wise to a fault, and extremely sensitive to the vitriolic climate of our times. She rose up to champion voting rights and her people.”

In response to North Carolina’s push for restrictive voting laws, Ms. Eaton participated in a peaceful protest outside the Legislature in Raleigh in 2013. Moving slowly with a walker, her friend Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, then president of the North Carolina NAACP, expressed gratitude for her dedication but suggested it was unnecessary for her, in her advanced age, to take part.

Eaton was celebrated by President Barack Obama as a symbol of civil rights for her leadership as a lead plaintiff in a lawsuit challenging a restrictive North Carolina voting law, a case that reached the Supreme Court in 2016.

“I was inspired to read about unsung American heroes like Rosanell Eaton in Jim Rutenberg’s ‘A Dream Undone: Inside the 50-year campaign to roll back the Voting Rights Act,’ ” President Barack Obama wrote in a letter to the New York Times in 2015. “I am where I am today only because men and women like Rosanell Eaton refused to accept anything less than a full measure of equality.”

Democratic Rep. Don Davis, representing much of northeastern North Carolina in the U.S. Congress, attended the ceremony. Rosanell Eaton passed away in Louisburg in 2018 at the age of 97.

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