First Black Congresswoman from North Carolina continues to make an impact: 'Part of who I am'

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Wednesday, February 14, 2024
Eva Clayton continues to make an impact
Nearly two decades after formally leaving public service, the first Black Congresswoman from North Carolina continues to speak out on issues.

WARREN COUNTY, N.C. (WTVD) -- Before our interview even started, Eva Clayton was already discussing ongoing issues, namely next week's state Supreme Court hearing about the Leandro case.

"It's part of who I am," said Clayton.

The history-making lawmaker, nearly two decades after formally leaving public service, continues to speak out - whether it's about education or rural development.

"I would like to see those schools do better because to the extent they do better, rural areas do better because when the talented ones are educated, they go away, they don't come back. There's nothing to employ them," said Clayton.

Clayton grew up and attended schools during a time of segregation.

"I went to a school that received handout books that had been in the white schools. I went to a school that had no lunchroom. I interested that I had no lunch room and that a student from that ended up on the Agriculture Committee and being an advocate for lunch policy for the whole United States and then later UN for the whole world feeding people," said Clayton, who credited the care and support of her teachers in aiding with her educational pursuits.

After largely attending private school during high school, she attended Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte where she met her future husband, Theaoseus.

After Theaoseus graduated from NC Central Law School, a white lawyer approached the school's dean saying he was interested in partnering with a Black lawyer.

"He came down and he started practicing and was the first integrated law firm in North Carolina. And you would think that in rural areas poor area that would happen, right," said Clayton about the career move, which brought them to Warren County.

In 1968, famed civil rights lawyer Vernon Jordan held a meeting in Rocky Mount to recruit candidates to run for political office, which Eva attended.

"He said, 'We really are looking for someone who's going make a sacrifice to run.' No man raised a hand ever did. And that's how I ran in 1968," Clayton explained.

She viewed the unsuccessful run as a teaching experience, though noted voter registration efforts made an impact in other races during the cycle.

"We could see how our effort in doing that made a difference," Clayton said.

In 1977, Clayton was named Assistant Secretary of Community Development for the Department of Natural Resources and Community Development, a position she held until 1981.

"(The role included encouraging) small cities that they could apply for funds for infrastructure like water and sewage and housing," said Jordan.

In 1982, she joined the Warren County Board of Commissioners, where she ultimately became Board Chair.

With state and local experience, and the urging of community members, Clayton made the decision to seek Congress again in 1992, first running in a special election to complete the term of Walter B. Jones.

Clayton, a Democrat, would win a run-off in the special election after no candidate initially cleared 50% of the vote, a victory that made her the state's first Black Congresswoman, and first Black Congressperson since 1901. Soon after, she would win the general election for a full term.

"The desire was in me, right? And I knew that I, as a Black woman, had every right to do that. But aside from me just being Black and being a woman, I had a personality, I had an inner being that I could do that I was blessed with the will to do something, and I was blessed with the determination to do it," said Clayton, who also served as the Democratic party's freshman president.

While she initially planned to focus on education upon entering Congress, she would shift her attention to agriculture, where she sat on the House Agriculture Committee. During that time, she worked with Black farmers both in her district and nationally.

"They educated me right about the disadvantage when they would go try to borrow money, they wouldn't get it, get it late you know? And we listened, we learned. We were inspired," Clayton explained.

"By the time she left Congress, there was not a farmer in the first Congressional district who didn't love and respect Eva Clayton," said Dollie Burwell, an environmental activist who worked on Clayton's campaign.

Burwell credits Clayton's efforts in helping inspire her own political journey.

"She was just a role model for all of us," said Burwell.

Clayton would serve 10 years in Congress, before announcing she would not seek another term in 2001.

"I had said I would be there ten years, and I kept that promise," Clayton said.

Her timing ultimately proved fortuitous, as it aligned with an opening at the United Nations where she could continue working on agriculture-related issues.

In 2003, she was appointed Assistant Director General and Special Advisor to the Director General with the Food Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, a role that enabled her to travel the world, meet global and civic leaders, and take measures to combat food insecurity as part of a three-year tenure.

Today, she continues to track developments out of Congress, as she expressed frustration over gridlock on Capitol Hill.

"Just the disrespect, just the callousness. There are some who did that to make sure it doesn't function, it doesn't function. It's not for their views that then they can put their views in if they have any views. The show demonstrates more destruction than anything else, but we don't have to agree. But what we have to value is that the people who sent us there have a right for that entity to function when it fails to function. We fail to represent that," said Clayton.

She's also dismayed over new Congressional voting maps, which political analysts believe have left just one competitive race.

"There is an undermining effort to curtail the voter's participation that adds to their representation. And what do I mean by that? That's a whole redistricting process where people are trying to determine who their voters will be rather than the voters determine who their representative will be," said Clayton.

Today, Clayton continues to push for change.

"To much is given, much is required."

Since Clayton's victory, there have been two other Black Congresswomen, Alma Adams and Valerie Foushee, both of whom are currently serving.