Tag Archives: North Carolina

The Greatest Epic Failure

creole-bitters1

The Bitter Truth is Often Sweet to Swallow!

A month or so back I signed up, via Coursera, to take a 10 week long class at the University of Pennsylvania on the “History of the Slave South”. Since this is one of my favorite subjects of study – a passion, no less – I’ve been anxiously awaiting the start of the class. It began today and I was absolutely astonished to find that there are people from all over the world taking this course. Folks from Australia, New Zealand, German, Spain, and England all enrolled in class dealing exclusively with the unique flavor of slavery that flourished in the Southern Colonies (and later States) of North America. Fascinating!

Today I completed my first assignment; write a brief piece in response to the question, “How was your nation or region shaped by the slave trade?

Here’s my response:

CH Jones – Resident of Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S.A. / Native of Southside Virginia, Nottoway & Roanoke River Valley Region.

My home region was not only shaped by the Transatlantic slave trade, it was and in many respects, still is, completely defined by antebellum slavery – socially, politically, economically, and culturally. Volumes have been written – with many more yet to be written – about the specifics of economics and historical impact on the region. In regards to social and cultural impact, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

In the latter part of the 18th century and early 19th century, issues of race and class distinction began to take on great significance in Virginia and North Carolina. In this period there emerged a great fear of “free” blacks – often highly skilled, moderately well educated, and surprisingly autonomous in their physical as well as social movement – “mixing with” and exciting the upward ambitions of both enslaved blacks and lower class (often indentured, or nearly so)  whites.

Upper class whites; those who most directly benefitted from a hardened, legally legitimized institution of slavery, in combination with a rigid, near-feudal caste system which kept most whites equally outside the civil and economic sphere of decision making and economic power, saw themselves as a “pure” and superior race who were destined by God to rule. They saw the mixing of races and the aspirations of lower class whites as a direct threat to their divinely ordained place at the top of society.

And yet, despite myriad laws and regulations passed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries to separate both races, classes, and even sexes, despite sophisticated “divide and conquer” psychologies used to pit poor-whites against free and enslaved blacks, despite entrenched religious justifications used to perpetuate slavery and the social caste status-quo – the “aristocracy” of the south failed to maintain and perpetuate a stratified society in which silos of race, gender, and class coexisted, separately.

Their failure is evident in every respect of the “southern antebellum” culture that arose in the 19th century, matured in the years immediately before and after the Civil War, went underground during the closing decades of Reconstruction, and then began to openly flourish beginning in the years immediately following WWI – and which thrives today openly and unapologetically, despite the lack of self-awareness of many of its most enthusiastic practitioners and beneficiaries – or its most ardent opponents.

I am a white descendant of Planation owning slaveholders. This morning my alarm clock shook me awake to the sound of Aretha Franklin belting out her now famous, and hardly demurring “Respect”; a song which, at every level, flies in the face of what the upper class, white, male social engineers of 18th and 19th century Virginia attempted to institutionalize.

When I arose from bed I showered – alone. There was no servant there to bath me, dress me, or do my hair. In fact my hair requires very little “doing”, as I wear it very short – much like the female slaves of the 19th century were required to do, as their masters found African hair unruly and offensive. So I find my own hair when it gets too long. I crop it close.

My clothing includes indigo blue dyed denim jeans (indigo being a hugely profitable crop in the plantation south, it’s cultivation, production, and application imported to the Colonies by slaves in the 19th century) – not silk or lace or taffeta. I wear flat soled work boots – not slippers or heels. I make my own coffee and I take out my own garbage.

The language I use is infused with regionalisms informed by generation upon generation of exchange between white and black and mixed race neighbors. For breakfast I’ll “crack a guinnea into my pone” (eggs & grits.) For dinner I will “cook up a mess of collards.” When I go to work I won’t leave until “I’ve hoed to the end of the row.” When I get in trouble I’m “in the stripes” (a reference to flogging or whipping.) When I’m almost done with a monolithic task, I’m, “working the short rows.” When I’m unexpectedly fortunate, I’m “shittin’ in high cotton.”

When I head out for an evening’s entertainment in Raleigh, I’ll likely venture downtown to the City Market area. There, surrounded by street musicians of every color and creed, I’ll hear strains of blues, reggae, “beach music” (a unique North/South Carolina blend of African inspired blues combined with country “dance” music), rap and hip-hop, all played out in the open air on cobbled sidewalks and streets that once hosted the weekly slave market auctions, held in this place, more than one hundred years before I was born.

Depending upon my mood, I can step into any number of restaurants offering Caribbean fare, soul-food, or low-country Creole. Inside these establishments patrons – black, white, Latino, and otherwise – mix and comingle without the least awareness of the “failed” culture in which they live.

They eat, sleep, dance, and make love together. They work side by side. They love and hate one another with undifferentiated passion – rarely based on skin color or even class – usually having to do with more common human complaints of ambition, desire, and greed.

Meanwhile, a mixed race man of half-African, continental descent sits in the “White House” (which was built entirely by slaves), and contemplates how to heal a deeply divided, racist nation that can’t seem to work through its racist history. Despite his concerns, the movie “12 Years a Slave” sits poised to sweep the academy awards, demonstrating that America may finally be paying attention to its past, after all.

The culture that thrives in my community demonstrates that Virginia, the South, and the nation as a whole – despite its many successes and social, civil advances – is the Greatest Epic Failure in the history of the western world.

Thank God.

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160 year-old Documents Intentionally Destroyed in Franklin County, N.C.

This is one of a countless number of 19th century records seized by the North Carolina Archives and burned on December 6, 2013

This is one of a countless number of 19th century records seized by the North Carolina Archives and burned on December 6, 2013

I rarely re-blog, but this one deserves being spread far and wide.

Timeline of the Destruction of 100 Year Old Franklin County, NC Records

Please read the whole post included above – but the gist is as follows:

– This summer a new Clerk of Court in Franklin County discovered a trove (an entire roomful) of documents, some dating back to 1840, in a previously sealed room in the Franklin County, North Carolina Court House.

– Recognizing the historical value of these materials, she contacted the local historical society to assist in reviewing the materials, preserving them, and inventorying the materials.

– The Local historical group enthusiastically poured themselves into the project, mobilizing volunteers and the whole community – securing space to work, materials, and finances – in order to catalog and preserve the bounty of record books, photographs, deeds, chattel records, land grants, deeds, wills, personal correspondence, and countless other materials from a wide variety of government departments throughout the county. (This room had apparently become the “graveyard” for old records, and no one bothered to investigate it for many, many decades.)

– In August of this year, the Local Historians – realizing they may be beyond their depth in regard to the value of some of these materials, contacted the North Carolina Department of Archives, seeking guidance on proper preservation techniques and value assessment.

And that’s when things went hinky. The NC Archives group stepped in, pulled rank, and immediately halted all work on the project, stating that they were going to study the challenge and come up with “Next Steps”. Months passed and nothing got done, while the documents languished in the basement of the courthouse.

Then, on Friday, December 6, 2013, at 6:00 in the evening (after all the county workers had left, and with no notice to the local historical group involved in the project), a team from the North Carolina Archives swept in and confiscated ALL the materials – with the cover of Law Enforcement! They took the documents to the County Incinerator, and methodically burned EVERYTHING. They did this while a few locals stood by, not understanding why or precisely what was happening.

[CORRECTION: Added 01/06/2014 – The folks who swept in to claim and destroy the documents were NOT from the NC Archives. A team from the NC Archives did seize many boxes of documents from a workroom managed by the Franklin County Historical Society – but they were NOT directly involved in the destruction of the materials in the basement.

ADDENDUM TO THE CORRECTION: Added 01/06/2014 – A number of people have posted/emailed asking if I know what County Agency was responsible. I do not know for certain. So far conjecture leads me to the Franklin County Manager’s office – but until I hear her side of the story – my opinion is uninformed except by silence. Sorry.]

Every book, deed, will – every photograph – every piece of paper in that room was incinerated that night. No explanation has been given, and no media attention has asked any questions.

Boxes of documents from the Franklin County Courthouse seized and burned by the North Carolina State Archives.

Boxes of documents from the Franklin County Courthouse seized and burned by the North Carolina State Archives.

HERE’S WHAT I THINK:
After the Civil War (after emancipation), a lot of large land-owners deeded out substantial tracts of land to their former slaves. These former slaves had demonstrated to their masters that they were loyal, hard-working, and would continue to farm and contribute to the plantation collective as they always had. The only difference is that they would own the land they worked, and earn a somewhat larger income as a result of their efforts.

During reconstruction, a lot of land holders, both black and white, had difficulty paying very high property taxes imposed by Federal Occupiers. In swept speculators and investors from up North (these people have come to be known as “Carpet Baggers”.) They often forced white land owners to sell out at a fraction of the actual value of their property. In the case of black land-owners, sometimes all the Carpet Baggers offered was threats. The effect was the same – a vast transfer of wealth from titled property owners to new people who became, in the decades of the late 19th and early 20th century, among the wealthiest people in the South.

How do I know this? Some of my own ancestors were Carpet Baggers from Maryland. They made a small fortune after the war, stealing land, setting up mills, and effectively re-enslaving two or three generations of both poor-white and black natives of Halifax County, North Carolina.

My suspicion is that in and amongst all those now destroyed records, was a paper trail associated with one or more now-prominent, politically connected NC families that found its wealth and success through theft, intimidation, and outrageous corruption.

Prove me wrong. You can’t. They destroyed the records.

Shelves of record books from the Franklin County Courthouse seized and burned by the North Carolina State Archives.

Shelves of record books from the Franklin County Courthouse seized and burned in December, 2013.


Slave Account; Isham Crews, Born into Bondage and Transferred to the Property of James A. Crews

This is a transcription of an article that first appeared in a Louisburg, North Carolina newspaper article, June 25, 1943.

Slave Account – Isham Crews, born into slavery; the property of either the Hunts or the Wrights in Franklin County, was transferred to Tar River Plantation and the control of “Mist’ Jimmie Crews” about 1845.

Aging Slave Portrait

A man born into slavery, somewhere in the South.

Washington could use a man like Isham Crews, 96 year-old ex-slave who’s living through his fourth American war.

The aged Franklin County Negro speaks cautiously, sometimes pausing a second in the middle of a sentence, but he goes directly to the point.

“Trouble with these times,” he says, “is that some people need to be made to work.”

Isham could tell the occupied countries a thing or two about hiding valuables, food, and livestock. He vividly remembers when ‘de Yankee’s’ came through North Carolina.

He was born in Franklin County, a Wright, and taken to Granville County at the age of six weeks. His mother’s young mistress, Martha Wright, married “Mist’ Jimmy Crews” and thereby Isham, whose mother and other Negroes were given the young bride by her father, became a Crews.

[Ed Note: James A. “Jimmy” Crews wife was actually Martha Hunt, from Person County, North Carolina. They were married on August 11, 1834. Isham would have been 109 years-old when he gave this interview, if he actually came to the farm with his mothers’ “young mistress” – which isn’t entirely out of the question.]

He was sixteen when Sherman’s army came through the state. His master’s wheat was hidden in a large hollow column on the porch, the silver and gold placed in a large iron pot and buried, and the mules hidden in a swamp bottom.*

[Ed. Note: If Isham came to farm at six weeks old in 1834, then he would have been about 31 years old when Sherman’s army came and camped on the farm in the spring of 1865. What is much more likely is that Isham came to the farm with a bride of one of James A. Crews’ children – though none of those women were “Wright’s” by maiden name, and the dates don’t jibe – or arrived another way entirely (recall that he was just six weeks old when he was transferred.) If he was sixteen when Sherman came, this would place his date of birth about 1849, which would have made him about sixteen or seventeen when Sherman marched though, and about 96 years old when he gave the interview. He reported his age at the time as 96 years old.]

Before the army came through, groups of men “came and sneaked aroun’, bought food from us and gave us silver money to tell where the master hid his things.” Isham said.

They took the money, but never told anything, except one man who told where the mules were hidden, Isham added. Then, chuckling, he recalled “that money won’t no good.”

He still has one of the pieces of money, a Spanish coin minted in 1737.

The Yankee’s took all of his master’s mules except one blind one, Isham said, and pulled up everything that was growing. They raided the corn crib and confiscated all the chickens, cows, and pigs.

Some of the slaves went freely with the Yankees, he said, while others stayed on with their masters. Isham stayed.

Negroes were sent to the “bressel” (breast) works, built to keep the Yankees from “stealin’” the white children, and in many instances Negroes were hidden in underground passage ways and fed for months by their masters to “keep the Yankees from gittin’ them.”

Isham said that “in the old days” the slaves had houses built in rows back of the master’s house. Every woman had to spin three pounds of cotton each night, except Saturday night, at which time all the children’s clothes were washed. Each child had two long shirts for summer and two for winter, but had no shoes (no 18 stamps, possibly). Only the grown-ups had shoes – the men’s had wooden soles, the women’s all leather.

The men, of course, worked in the fields.

No baths were ever given or heads combed, only among the “favorite” children, Isham recalled. The children were fed 12 at a time out of a trough dug out of a tree trunk. “Mushroom” shells (apparently mussel) were used by each child to eat peas and beans with and each child had a gourd dipper to drink from. The food was mostly pot-liquor, corn bread, peas, turnip salad and meat skins.

The slaves couldn’t go from one plantation to another without a “furlough” because the patteroes” would punish them. The “patteroes”, Isham explained, were poor white people hired by the plantation owners apparently as guards or patrols. The slaves and patteroes seemed to have a healthy dislike for each other, because Isham smilingly recalled that the Negroes would string grape vines across the road to trip the patteroes’ mules.

His master treated the slaves pretty well, Isham said, and never whipped them much – because his wife wouldn’t let him. He never sold any of them, either. In fact, he couldn’t, as they were owned by his wife.

Isham said that the flat woodland in Granville County had never been hunted, so when he was 14 he begged permission of his master to allow him to go hunting. Permission granted, Isham set out, taking his master’s young son, Edgar, with him. (Ed. Note: Edgar Crews was the son of David Goodman Crews and his wife, Louisa Flemming Crews. They married in 1866 and Edgar was born in 1867, when Isham would have been about seventeen. If Edgar was old enough to ride along (perhaps four years old), this would have put Isham at 21 years old.) Despite having to carry Edgar seated astraddle his neck, Isham returned to the plantation with two ‘possums.

After that, his master gave him two dogs and allowed him to go hunting regularly – the master apparently agreeing with those who think ‘possum and sweet potatoes can’t be beat.

Isham, who’s pretty spry for a young lad of 96, spends most of his time sitting in the shade these hot days. He doesn’t have much to say about this new war – the real fight was in the 1860’s as far as he’s concerned.

But times are worse now, he says. He still thinks there are too many people who “need to be made to work”.

—————————–

[Ed Notes:
1. Many of the dates and names associated with this account do not add up, and I have made notes in content where I find factual conflict. That said, I feel strongly that the gist of his account is quite true, as I have heard similar recollections passed down through generational family lore. Where this occurs, I have noted the text with a “*”.
2. My source for this account is: “Granville County Heritage, North Carolina, Vol. I”, pp. 164 – 165. ©2002, Granville County Heritage Book Committee & County Heritage, Inc., located at the Richard H. Thornton Library, Oxford, North Carolina.
3. This account first appeared in the Louisburg newspaper, June 25, 1943, and may have appeared simultaneously on the same date in the Raleigh, News and Observer; although I have been unable to verify this. My belief is based upon a reference to this slave account in a biography of James A. Crews and his Wife Martha Ann Hunt Crews that appears in “Granville County Heritage”, on page 165.]

UPDATE 12/10/2013:

My cousin, Dan (who is a far better researcher than me!) read my blog post and then came up with a death certificate for one Isham Crews, of Franklin County, N.C. This document clarifies a lot of the details that didn’t quite synch in the original article. So let’s set the record straight in regards to Isham Crews age and how/when he came to Tar River Plantation.

Isham Crews was born on July 22, 1847. He was not yet born when Martha Hunt married Jimmie Crews in 1834. It’s likely that Isham’s mother, Jennie Hunt, belonged to Martha’s father, David Hunt, and was transferred to Martha shortly before Isham was born. Isham would have been eighteen years old when Sherman’s Army marched through Granville County and camped out on the plantation. He would have been almost ninety-six years old when he gave this interview in 1943. Isham Crews died on August 30, 1950, at the age of 103 years old.

Isham Crews Death Cerificate

Death certificate of Isham Crews, 103 years old at his passing.


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