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From eugenics to voter ID laws: Thomas Farr's connections to the Pioneer Fund

Over the summer, President Donald Trump nominated Thomas Alvin Farr to be a federal judge for the Eastern District of North Carolina. For good reason, his nomination has earned universal opposition from the civil rights community.

In a September letter to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, of the North Carolina National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), argued that Farr "does not possess the temperament necessary to serve in an impartial judicial position.” What Farr does possess, according to Barber, “is a long record as an advocate for hyper-partisan, segregationist causes.”

Farr’s record of fighting advances in black political participation spans decades. It includes his involvement in drafting and then defending the 2013 North Carolina “monster” voter restriction law struck down by a federal court because it targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision.” “Because of race, the Legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history,” the court ruled.

And just recently, Farr was reported to have misrepresented his role in voter suppression activity directed at black voters conducted by the Jesse Helms Senate campaign in 1990 against Charlotte’s first black mayor, Harvey Gantt. A former Justice Department lawyer placed Farr in the center of the unlawful conduct.  

This record should be disqualifying on its own. What’s missing and more disquieting in Farr’s story, however, is his early connections to one of the most influential racist hate groups of the 20th century: the Pioneer Fund. Founded in 1937 to pursue “race betterment” for those “deemed to be descended predominantly from white persons who settled in the original thirteen states prior to the adoption of the Constitution,” the Pioneer Fund was the “primary source for scientific racism” well into the 2000s and one of the key funders of the fight against civil rights in the South from the 1950s onward.

Farr’s connection to the Pioneer Fund comes principally through his longtime boss and mentor, Thomas Ellis, the political mastermind behind the arch-segregationist Senator Jesse Helms. Ellis was a Pioneer Fund director, grantee and close associate of the hate group’s president, Harry Frederick Weyher, Jr., for over 60 years. In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of dollars flowed from the Pioneer Fund to a tax-exempt foundation called the Coalition For Freedom that was under Ellis’ control and represented by Farr.

Thomas Ellis (left) was a Pioneer Fund director, grantee, and close associate of the hate group’s president, Harry Frederick Weyher, Jr., for over 60 years. Ellis hired Thomas Farr (right) at his law firm in 1983 where they both worked until 2003 before leaving together for another firm where Farr is currently a shareholder.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder ruling that gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act — a ruling that gave Farr and his allies a free hand to introduce their “monster” law — Jelani Cobb of The New Yorker wrote that “Americans tend to imagine that the racial history of their nation is a steady line sloping upward; in truth, it looks more like an EKG.”

Americans also tend to imagine organized racism as the province of hooded Klansmen. In reality, Farr stands as a direct descendant of one of the most sophisticated segregationist projects in American history. 

The Pioneer Fund

The Pioneer Fund was founded in 1937 by Wickliffe Preston Draper, a reclusive heir to a textile fortune. The Pioneer Fund’s first president Harry S. Laughlin was the most prominent American eugenicist of his era. One of Draper’s early investments was in the work of white supremacist Earnest Sevier Cox, who helped draft an amendment to Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act that outlawed interracial marriage. Cox wrote that he was seeking to prevent “near-white negroids” from being able to “marry into the white race.”

William H. Tucker described the Pioneer Fund’s legacy in his definitive 2002 history of the hate group:

Despite attempts to sanitize Pioneer’s image, it is undeniable that the fund was established to use science to pursue the goals of its founder: the preservation of white supremacy and white racial purity from the threat posed by blacks and undesirable immigrants, especially Jews…

For decades, the Pioneer Fund did this by supporting like-minded scholars; publishing or republishing racist tracts and research and sending them to opinion leaders, institutions of higher learning, and elected officials; and bankrolling lobbying efforts against civil rights legislation and affirmative action policies.

Aside from Draper, the most important figure at the Pioneer Fund was Harry Frederick Weyher, Jr., who first became friends with Ellis when they were both undergraduates at the University of North Carolina.

“[A]ll the segregationists’ projects intersected on Harry Weyher’s desk,” wrote Tucker, and Weyher decided which projects received funding. After Draper’s death in 1972, Weyher ran the Pioneer Fund until his own death in 2002, as Tucker summarized:

Weyher would make Draper’s cause his own, heading the Pioneer Fund through the rest of the [20th] century, disbursing his mentor’s acknowledged and unacknowledged donations to the campaign against equality for blacks, organizing many of these efforts, monitoring their results, and becoming the heir not just to much of the Colonel’s fortune but also to his social policy agenda. If Pioneer was originally “Draper’s Fund,” it was to become Weyher’s.

One example of Ellis and Weyher collaborating occurred in the 1950s. According to Tucker, Ellis likely sent Weyher the work of University of North Carolina professor Wesley Critz George, including a pamphlet titled “The Race Problem from the Standpoint of One Who Is Concerned with the Evils of Miscegenation.” In it, George decried the “protoplasmic mixing of the races” which would “destroy our race and civilization” because African Americans were “genetically unacceptable.” Weyher would fund George on the basis of this recommendation. 

Around the same time, Ellis echoed George in his role opposing integration as special counsel to the Pearsall Committee, set up by the North Carolina governor to circumvent the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. “[T]he present integration movement in the public schools is but a part of a planned social revolution in the South, fostered, directed and financed by non-southern whites...[whose] eventual goal…is racial intermarriage and the disappearance of the Negro race by fusing into the white,” Ellis said.

Ellis and Weyher were both deeply involved in the fight against integration throughout the 1960s. The Pioneer Fund dumped millions into the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, which The New Republic called “the largest state-level spying effort in U.S. history,” while Ellis in North Carolina considered legislation that would eliminate the tax-exempt status of black churches in order to target the spaces where the NAACP met to strategize integration efforts.

Pioneer Fund grantees were just as hostile to the idea of extending voting rights to African Americans as they were to the desegregation of public schools and interracial marriage. For instance, one major grantee, Carelton Putnam, wrote in 1967 that “the unlimited suffrage concept is marginal [even for] an advanced and experienced race like the Anglo-American [but] to apply it to states or communities with high percentages of a retarded race is suicidal.”

Farr Joins the Ellis Network

By 1973, Ellis officially joined the Pioneer Fund as a director on an invitation from Weyher. This fact only became public following a New York Times exposé in 1977 which revealed a number of grant recipients, including Stanford University Professor William Shockley and Dr. Arthur R. Jensen of the University of California — two towers of scientific racism — as well as Dr. Roger Pearson, a racist extremist who maintained ties with former Nazis.

Ellis recruited Helms to run for Senate in 1972 and remained a top aide into the 1990s.

At the same time, Ellis and North Carolina’s new Senator Jesse Helms, were creating a powerful political empire designed to influence both politics and policy against the rising tide of integration and civil rights. That venture further extended the reach of the Pioneer Fund in the political world. While a Pioneer director, Ellis developed a set of interlocking directorates and associations that shared leadership with the Pioneer Fund and relied, in part, on its funding. These relationships would continue even after Ellis resigned from the Pioneer Fund after his association was made public. 

Ellis and Helms first met as aides during a 1950 North Carolina Senate campaign that was notorious for its racism and included ads that stated, “White people, wake up before it’s too late.” After Helms’ first senate victory in 1972, a campaign which Ellis managed, Ellis created and chaired the North Carolina Congressional Club, a vehicle initially designed to retire the campaign’s debt. Ellis turned the state-based organization into the National Congressional Club, an incredibly powerful national political action committee that served the conservative movement for decades. A longstanding director of the Congressional Club, Marion Arendell Parrott, also served as a director of the Pioneer Fund. 

(Left) Ellis at the North Carolina Congressional Club headquarters in 1979. (Right) Ellis and Helms first met working as aides for a 1950 North Carolina Senate campaign notorious for its racist appeals including this "White People Wake Up" flyer. Ellis would perfect racist appeals in campaigning over the decades.

By the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Ellis had developed a suite of organizations — both for-profit and tax-exempt — to complement the National Congressional Club and perform functions that it could not without running afoul of campaign finance or tax laws. These entities provided research and analysis to support legislative proposals, raised political money to elect like-minded candidates and developed messaging and communications.    

In 1983, Farr became intricately engaged with this network of organizations when he joined the Raleigh, North Carolina-based law firm that bore Ellis’ name, Maupin, Taylor & Ellis. (William W. Taylor, Jr. worked with Ellis to staff the Pearsall Committee).

Farr worked with Ellis at Maupin, Taylor & Ellis until 2003, and then followed Ellis to another firm where Farr is still a shareholder.

Only months before Farr joined Ellis’ firm, Ellis’ connections to the Pioneer Fund resurfaced following his nomination to the Board for International Broadcasting. When asked during his hearing before a Senate Committee if the concept of racial inferiority intellectually offended him, Ellis first replied, “I don’t know how to answer that question.” Ellis added "I do not believe in my heart that I'm a racist." His Pioneer Fund association and other strong indicators of Ellis’s racist views forced Ellis to withdraw his nomination.

After his racist associations and political activities were examined by a Senate committee, Ellis withdrew his nomination to the Board for International Broadcasting in 1983, the same year Farr joined his law firm.

Despite national condemnation of his ties to the group, Ellis was shortly back in business with Weyher, and the money he controlled through the Pioneer Fund. Upon joining Maupin, Ellis & Taylor, Farr assumed the role of lawyer for many of Helms’ organizations, including those either bankrolled by the Pioneer Fund or, in the case of Marion Parrott, one that shared a board member. Farr’s answers to the Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire lists his representation for the Helms for Senate Committee in 1984 and 1990 and the National Congressional Club for the same years.    

Farr also represented the component organizations of the network, although he failed to list these on his Senate Judiciary questionnaire.  Jefferson Marketing, Inc. was a political advertising and consulting for-profit corporation that generated direct mail fundraising solicitations and performed consulting services for right-wing candidates. Ellis served as director, and Douglas Davidson — who would later join forces with Farr in the 1990 Helms campaign’s voter suppression activity — was president. In the 1980s, Jefferson Marketing and the National Congressional Club were the subjects of a complaint by the Federal Elections Commission alleging that they operated as one organization in violation of campaign finance laws. Farr represented Jefferson Marketing and the National Congressional Club in defending the complaint, which resulted in financial penalties and a restructuring of the companies. 

In 1985, Farr represented both Jefferson Marketing and the National Congressional Club after the FEC alleged that the organizations had violated campaign finance laws. That same year, Pioneer Fund director Marion Parrott—who had joined the Pioneer Fund at the same time as Ellis in the early 70s—was also on the board of the National Congressional Club.

Farr’s law firm also represented the Coalition For Freedom, a tax-exempt organization within the network. Ellis was its principal director. This organization received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Pioneer Fund throughout the 1980s.

The Coalition For Freedom relied on Farr’s law firm for organizing the interlocking entities to maximize their monetary and political influence. The Coalition For Freedom ended up making the contributions, resulting in an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service about whether the tax-exempt organization served a private interest to Jesse Helms, the Helms for Senate Committee and the National Congressional Club. The IRS ultimately revoked Coalition For Freedom’s tax-exempt status because it had engaged in political campaign activities and provided a private benefit to the group's "insiders."  

The network had other ties to the Pioneer Fund. After President Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election in 1984, Ellis organized an attempted conservative shareholder takeover of the CBS television network with a new front group called Fairness In Media. Ellis enlisted Weyher to serve as its lawyer. Helms sent letters to his base across the nation urging them to purchase CBS stock, which garnered the senator enormous publicity. When CBS fought back, it pointed to Ellis and Weyher’s connections to the Pioneer Fund and noted Ellis’ opposition to racial integration in North Carolina.

"[Weyher] and Tom Ellis have been acquaintances for years, and we were interested in legal counsel [Weyher] who was one, competent, and second, even more importantly, understood what our concerns were philosophically," said another member of Fairness in Media in 1985.

Farr’s Success in Racist Politics and Suppressing the Black Vote

In 1984, Helms, Ellis and Farr used their vast political network to suppress African American votes and scare up white resentment in Helms’ campaigns for senate. With Farr as lead counsel, the campaign circulated photos of opponent Governor Jim Hunt with African American leaders such as Jesse Jackson and cited Hunt’s support of voter registration, the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday — the vote for which Helms infamously filibustered in the Senate — and the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act. The campaign was even mentioned by the Supreme Court in a redistricting case, Gingles v. Edmisten, as evidence of continued racism in North Carolina politics.

Farr also served as lead counsel for Helms’ senate campaign in 1990. The opponent was Harvey Gantt, the first black mayor of Charlotte. In its final days, the campaign ran an ad showing white hands crumpling a rejection letter with the announcer stating: “You needed that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.” Farr’s mentor Ellis was credited with authoring the ad.  

Farr’s mentor Ellis was credited with authoring the notorious "white hands" ad.

That same campaign engaged in voter suppression so egregious that the Justice Department under President George H.W. Bush filed a complaint for intimidating black voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act. Specifically, the campaign mailed over 100,000 postcards to mostly black voters in North Carolina one week before the election. The postcards suggested the voters were ineligible to vote and threatened jail time. The Justice Department complaint found that the mailing was undertaken to influence the senate election and had the purpose and effect of intimidating and threatening black voters from exercising their right to vote. A North Carolina voter who received the postcard recently told a reporter: “We were looking at it, and it just seemed like you would basically be afraid to go vote, in case you would do something wrong…And the wording on the card just gave you a chill.”

The Justice Department’s voting rights complaint identified familiar faces within the organizations and persons connected to Helms and Ellis’ empire. Among those named as defendants were the Helms for Senate Committee; Jefferson Marketing and three of its wholly owned subsidiaries; and Douglas Davidson who had served as president of Jefferson Marketing and was identified as an agent of the Helms for Senate Committee and having supervisory control over Jefferson Marketing company personnel. 

The complaint alleged that in the summer of 1990 representatives of defendant Helms for Senate Committee and the North Carolina Republican Party had discussed whether to conduct a “so-called ballot security program,” in conjunction with the 1990 general election.                  

The complaint continued:

“On or about October 16 and 17, 1990, Defendant Locke attended a series of meetings at which the 1990 ballot security program was discussed. Among those attending such meetings were defendant Davidson; Peter Moore, the campaign manager of Helms for Senate Committee; Mark Stephens, president of Jefferson Marketing; and an attorney who had been involved in past ballot security efforts on behalf of Senator Helms and/or defendant North Carolina Republican Party. During the meeting, some of the participants formed a tentative outline for the 1990 ballot security program, which included a mailing targeted to voters who may have changed residences.” [Emphasis added]

The postcards were mailed on October 26 and 29 to selected households using voter registration lists maintained by Jefferson Marketing and utilized by the Helms for Senate Committee.

During his hearing this fall, Farr told the Senate Judiciary Committee he had no role in the mailing and heard about it only after being contacted by the Justice Department. Ranking member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) asked Farr: “Did you provide any counsel, or were you consulted in any way, about the content of or the decision to end these postcards?” Farr responded, “No.”

But a former Justice Department lawyer, Gerald Hebert, who worked on the case, places Farr squarely in the center of the activity. According to Hebert’s contemporaneous notes, Farr was the unnamed attorney who was also the primary "ballot security" person for the 1984 campaign. “I don’t think [Farr] can really claim that the first he heard of it was from a Justice Department letter,” Hebert said. 

Farr’s Praise for his Mentor: An Unrepentant Racist

William H. Tucker, the author of the history of the Pioneer Fund, uncovered correspondence between Senator Jesse Helms, Pioneer Fund president Harry Weyher and Marion Parrott, a board member of both Pioneer and Helms’ Congressional Club, yucking it up as late as the 1990s:

More contemporary correspondence in the genealogy indicated that even in the 1990s, in the clubby atmosphere characterizing the exchanges between North Carolina political insiders, Weyher and his friends — Senator Jesse Helms and fellow Pioneer board member Marion Parrott, a relative of Weyher’s — still referred to white Southerners who voted for a black candidate as “scalawags” and, only partially in jest, joked about how “the Indians didn’t get enough of them.”

Helms never apologized for his crusade against civil rights. In fact, his crusade never stopped. Helms fought until nearly the end of his time in the Senate to resist the appointment of a black judge to U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The same can be said of Helms' right-hand man and Farr’s mentor, Thomas Ellis. In 2001, Ellis was interviewed by The New York Times following the news that Helms was retiring from the senate. Asked about his time at the Pioneer Fund, Ellis was unmoved:

He has been pilloried for serving in the 1970s as a director of the Pioneer Fund, which financed research on the relationship between race and intelligence. He said it remained an open question in his mind whether one race was genetically superior. ''I have no idea,'' he said, seated beneath a portrait of Robert E. Lee. ''I've never tested it, don't know whether it's a valid argument or not. Because there is such a huge cry about the thing, you can't have a legitimate, intelligent argument about it.''

Six years later, in 2007, Farr spoke at a private event at the North Carolina Museum of Art “in honor of Tom Ellis.” The occasion was Ellis receiving the Freedom Leadership Award from Farr’s alma mater Hillsdale College, a deeply conservative college located in Michigan which long ago decided to forgo federal funding to avoid compliance with civil rights laws. A short reflection from the late Christian Right leader Howard Phillips is all that exists as a record of the event and notes that Farr and the Hillsdale College president delivered remarks. In his Senate questionnaire, Farr said he did not have a copy of his speech to share with the committee.

For more than 30 years Farr worked side-by-side with Ellis in an escalating war against voting and labor rights that predominantly targeted black North Carolinians. Together they fought on behalf of Helms, and perfected the potent political appeal to white racial grievance. Their North Carolina network included people like the Pioneer Fund’s Weyher and Parrott, men who provided funding and guidance to their efforts for decades. It served them well. And for Ellis and Helms, neither paid a price.

Indeed, with the election of President Trump, the Ellis and Helms approach to politics returned and with it came a resurgent white nationalist movement. Ideas long relegated to the fringe, especially those kept alive by groups and individuals supported by the Pioneer Fund, found massive new audiences on social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube.  

The legacy of the Pioneer Fund, however, is not best measured by the number of white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville this past August. Rather, it should be measured by the legal and policy approaches that, like the “monster” voter suppression law in North Carolina, target black voters “with almost surgical precision.”

Farr was groomed as part of a project long in the making. In a low irony, if Farr is confirmed to the bench, it will extend the record to 143 years that the Eastern District of North Carolina has been without a black judge.

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