Plato Durham, Reconstruction-era legislator, was born on September 20, 1840, in Rutherford County, the son of Micajah and Elizabeth Baxter Durham. Although his family was well off, he was one of fourteen children, and received an education described by his son as “at the county schools and plow handles.” At the age of eighteen, he began reading law in Rutherfordton, and continued his studies with an uncle in Knoxville.
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Micajah Durham served as an enthusiastic member of the state’s Secession Convention of 1861. Upon the outbreak of war, Plato enlisted as a private in Company E, 12th North Carolina Infantry, citing his occupation as law student. Several of his brothers served alongside him while their father enlisted in Company E, 18th North Carolina Infantry. On November 1, 1862, Plato was elected 3rd Lieutenant, and subsequently was promoted to captain of his company. He served through the war without injury despite participating in some of the war’s bloodiest battles such as Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, and Spotsylvania, before surrendering at Appomattox Courthouse. Two of his brothers, as well as their father, died in the conflict.
Following the war, Durham attended the University of North Carolina and was admitted to the bar in Shelby in 1866. That year he was elected to the legislature representing Cleveland County, and subsequently took part in the Constitutional Convention of 1868 as the leader of the minority Democrat party. He advocated the inviolability of state debt, the removal of political duress on ex-Confederates, and the barring of blacks from holding political offices.
Durham ran for Congress in 1868, and was elected by a margin of eighteen votes, but the election was set aside by General E. R. S. Canby, the United States army officer in charge of the district on account of fraud. On recount the election was given to Durham’s Republican opponent, A. H. Jones. Durham received his party’s nomination to Congress in 1870, but never fully entered the race. Denied the nomination in 1874, he ran unsuccessfully as an independent.
A member of the Ku Klux Klan, Durham was arrested during the Kirk-Holden War by Federal authorities for his role in the group’s uncontrolled attacks on Republican supporters and African Americans in the area. He was never brought to trial. However he served numerous Klan members as a defense counsel, often posted their bail, and sought out executive clemency for them.
During the Constitutional Convention of 1875, Durham was one of the leaders in the Democratic resurgence that followed Radical Reconstruction. However, before he could attain any higher public office, his life was cut short by pneumonia at age 35 on November 9, 1875. Durham left a widow and three children.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, II (1986), 126-127—sketch by Allen W. Trelease
Walter Clark, ed., Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina (1901)
Louis Manarin and Weymouth T. Jordan Jr., eds., North Carolina Troops, 1861-1865: A Roster (1963-present), V
Plato Durham Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill