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Slavery in Mecklenburg County

Dr. Dan L. Morrill

 

     One fact is undeniable.  Slavery was a fundamental component of the social hierarchy of pre-Civil War Mecklenburg County.  In 1860, slaves composed approximately 40 percent of the local population (6800 of 17,000), making Mecklenburg County one of the highest in terms of the number of bondspeople in the North Carolina Piedmont.  This writer encounters many individuals who wrongly believe that Mecklenburg County was never part of the Cotton Kingdom of the Old South.  It most assuredly was.  Indeed, some of the most imposing plantation houses in all of the North Carolina Piedmont are located in Mecklenburg County.  Each bears incontestable testimony to the fundamental importance of slavery to this region's ante-bellum way of life.

      Anyone who doubts the impact of the institution of human bondage upon Charlotte-Mecklenburg in the years before and during the Civil War need only examine the historical record.  In Charlotte, for example, where 44 percent of the people were slaves in 1850, town officials passed ordinances that closely circumscribed the behavior of blacks.  Bondspeople were not allowed to be out on the streets after 9:30 P.M without written permission of their owners.  They could not buy or sell alcohol or even smoke a pipe or a cigar in public.  Slaves could not leave their plantations without a pass or assemble without the permission of their owners. Slaves could not hold worship services and were forced to go to the white man's churches.  A town guard roamed the streets of Charlotte from 9:00 P.M. until dawn and had the authority to "visit all suspected Negro houses," including those occupied by free blacks, most of whom were artisans.  Any black who defied these ordinances was harshly punished.  "A severe lashing awaited blacks found guilty of breaking any of these ordinances," writes historian Janette Greenwood.

This is a slave collar.  The inscription reads:  "Levy M. Rankin, Dealer Of Fine Mules & Negroes.  Charlotte, N.C. 1853."

       There is no denying that the institution of human bondage rested ultimately upon coercion.  The great majority of whites, who prided themselves on having been the first to declare themselves independent from British rule in 1775, had no qualms about enslaving their black brethren. Slavery was entirely legal and protected by the U.S. Constitution. The United States, despite outlawing the importation of slaves in 1808, witnessed a massive expansion of the institution of human bondage in the 75 years following the American Revolutionary War.  There were 697,897 slaves in the United States in 1790.  The number had increased to 3,953,760 in 1860. 

   Bondspeople represented a major financial investment on the part of their owners, so it is not surprising that their masters exerted great effort to capture runaways.  In 1860, the average sales price for a healthy, young bondsmen was equivalent to the price of an average house.  Admittedly with deflated Confederate dollars, slaves sold in Charlotte in August 1864 brought the following prices.  "Boy 18 years old $5,150, boy 11 years $4,100, girl 16 years $4,300, woman 35 years $3,035, girl 16 years (very likely) $5,000, boy 21 years $5,200, man and wife and 2 children aged 2 and 4 years (the man with one eye) $6,500."

     Advertisements seeking assistance in capturing escapees appeared frequently in Charlotte newspapers during the Civil War. 

$300 Reward.
I will give the above reward to any person who will take up my boy SAM, if captured without serious injury and delivered to me or confined in Jail so that I can get him. He has been lying out over twelve months ranging from near Charlotte to Reedy Creek. He is 22 years old, medium size, and has a scar on his forehead. Address me at Charlotte, N.C.
Feb. 24, 1863
Jno. Wolfe

$20 REWARD
Runaway from my plantation, nine miles from Charlotte, on the Statesville Railroad, a negro boy named DANIEL. The boy is about 22 years old, five feet one or two inches high, right or left foot cut off by a railroad car, and walks with a stick. I will give the above reward if the boy is brought to my plantation or confined in any jail so that I can get him. The boy was raised in Petersburg, Va., and was purchased in Richmond last winter.
Aug. 24, 1863
R. P. Poindexter

      One slave house, the Stafford Plantation Slave Cabin, survives in Mecklenburg County.  The physical record of human bondage is also present in several slave cemeteries.  Perhaps the most evocative is the McCoy Slave Burial Ground  off McCoy Road just east of Beatties Ford Road.  A rock monument, most likely erected in the 1920s, contains the following inscription.

ERECTED BY

ALBERT McCOY'S

 CHILDREN TO HIS SLAVES

UNCLE JIM AND HIS WIFE

LIZZIE

UNCLE CHARLES & FAMILY

 

Some visitors to this site are offended by the marker's language.  They consider it to be paternalistic and demeaning.  Others are touched by what they regard as a gesture of gratitude on the part of the descendants of the slave owner.  Regardless, there is certainly no question about the sincerity of the McCoy family's motives.  They remember Jim and Lizzie  with great affection and have even handed down one of the many stories Lizzie used to tell the McCoy children.

     Here is one of Lizzie's favorite tales.    It's about a little boy who had three dogs -- Junga, German, and Ring.  To entice the dogs to run to him, the boy would play this song on his horn: "Tu to, my Junga, Tu tu my German, Poor Ring, long time a comin', they want me to die, they want me to die. "  One day the boy's mother told him to lock the dogs in the smokehouse and take two bags of wheat to the mill to get the contents ground into flour.  After meeting and talking with a squirrel, a possum, and a coon, the boy encountered the "Old Bad Man," who grabbed the little boy and carried him into the forest and chained his arms and legs to a wall in his house. "Human bones were scattered all around the room and a large stone sharpening wheel sat in the middle," Lizzie would tell her enthralled audience.

      Then the "Old Bad Man" took out a knife and asked the little boy if he had one wish before he died.  The little boy said that he wanted to play a tune on his horn.  "Tu to, my Junga, Tu tu my German, Poor Ring, long time a comin', they want me to die, they want me to die. "  The loyal canines, Lizzie explained, responded as expected.  They dug their way out of the smokehouse, scampered to their master, and ate the "Old Bad Man."

      The Neely Slave Cemetery  is another poignant reminder of the days when human bondage held sway in Mecklenburg County.  It is situated in a small grove of trees in an office park near Carowinds Amusement Park in the Steele Creek community. Thomas Neely , who had arrived in southwestern Mecklenburg in 1754 and who owned fewer than ten slaves at the time of his death in 1795, was a generous, kind-hearted, and compassionate master.  He made special provisions in his will for the welfare of his chattel labor. He stipulated that  "our negro Joe . . . to be taught to read" and wanted his son to give “our negro wench Susy two days every week for the purpose of providing herself in clothing." Neely ordered that the "negro child Dinah . . .to be learned to read,"  and even insisted that "none of my legatees may sell any of my negroes out of the family under penalty of losing their inheritance.”

      Sarah Frew Davidson , the mistress at Rosedale  Plantation near Charlotte,  encouraged some of her slaves to become literate.  Her motive was religious.  "After tea attended to the instruction of our young servants," Sarah recorded in her journal on February 7, 1837.  "Being much troubled and perplexed relative to my duty on this subject and believing that religious instruction can not be well communicated without some knowledge of letters, about six weeks ago I commenced learning them to read."

Rosedale Plantation

      Slaves in the South placed great emphasis upon performing "a good burial," because death was an act of liberation, a breaking of the chains of bondage.  “The slave funeral was at once a ‘religious ritual, a major social event, and a community pageant,’ drawing upon a mixture of cherished traditions,” explains historian Emily Ramsey.  Customs brought from Africa mixed with habits learned on the plantation to produce a dramatic amalgam of funerary traditions.  “After the death of a slave, a coffin would usually be made by a slave carpenter while the body was laid out on a cooling board” writes Ramsey.  “Since a corpse would decay quickly in the stifling Southern heat, slaves adopted the practice of sitting up all night to guard the body from prowling animals, often ‘singing and praying through the night.’” 

     Typically, the funeral began after sunset.  A procession of mourners, carrying torches to light the pathway, would leave the slave houses and proceed across the fields and meadows toward the burial ground, which was usually located in a far corner of the plantation.  The coffin and the pallbearers would go first, followed by the dead person’s family, then the master and his family, and finally the members of the slave community.  Mournful spirituals accompanied the entire proceedings, and sobbing and lamentations were acceptable behavior throughout the ceremony.  Simple fieldstones mark the burial sites in the Neely Slave Cemetery .  The ground is covered with periwinkle.  Archeologists have identified 42 graves.   

          The Neely Family Bible reveals a lot about the nature of the personal relationship that existed between the Neely family and their bondsmen and bondswomen.  John Starr Neely , the last member of the family to own chattel laborers, meticulously recorded the birth date of all his slaves who were  born on the farm in the 1850s and 1860s.  “Louisa was born August 25th, 1854,”  Neely inscribed.  “Henry Jackson was born July 10th, 1856."

       One of the most confounding aspects of the institution of human bondage was its capriciousness.  Masters were in total control and could distribute rewards or punishments as they saw fit.  Indeed, their influence extended even beyond death.  George Elliot , a Mecklenburg County planter who died in 1804, stipulated in his will that two of his slaves would be set free.  "For the many faithful, honest, and meritorious labors and services which I have received for near forty years from my honest slaves . . . Tom and Bet, I hereby liberate them and each of them from slavery." He gave Tom and Bet money and even the use of part of his plantation for their lifetimes.  The same master, however, withheld freedom from his other slaves and gave them instead to members of his family.  "I will give and bequeath to my son Richard Elliot one Negro boy named Zena, to him, his heirs and assigns forever," George's will proclaimed.  "I will give and bequeath to my daughter Jane Dun, to her, her heirs and assigns one Negro girl named Patsey forever."

        The largest known surviving slave cemetery in Mecklenburg County was once part of the Alexander Plantation on Mallard Creek Church Road.  It contains more than seventy graves.  Sadly, it is now situated in a gated apartment community and is not easily accessible.  This writer first visited the Alexander Slave Burial Ground  in the mid-1970s with William Tasse Alexander , a direct descendant of the slave owners.  We walked through bramble and thicket to reach the hallowed spot.  Rows of rock-marked graves amid a lush blanket of periwinkle told us that we had arrived.  Standing near the middle of the cemetery was an inscribed tombstone erected after the Civil War by the children of former slaves.  "Our Father & Mother.  Soloman Alexander .  Died May 18, 1864.  Aged 64 Years.  Violet Alexander .  Died Aug. 10, 1888.  Aged 83 Years."

This marker is on the fence surrounding the W. T. Alexander Slave Burial Ground

     The system of human bondage that held sway in the Old South is obviously repugnant from the perspective of the prevailing values of today.  However, one should  consider slavery within the context of the time in which it existed.  While it is undeniable that some bondspeople were whipped and otherwise mistreated, others were treated quite well, such as those who belonged to John Starr Neely  or William Tasse Alexander .  The great grandparents of a descendant of some of the bondsmen and bondswomen buried in the Alexander Slave Burial Ground  told William Tasse Alexander that the Alexanders were kind and fostered close-knit slave-non-slave relationships. The Alexanders bought shoes for their slaves, allowed them to visit other plantations, and even permitted them to marry bondsmen and bondswomen who lived elsewhere.  Do not forget that Sarah Frew Davidson  taught the slave children on her plantation to read and write.

Sugar Creek Academy (1837)

      It is also worth noting that slaves were not alone in being beaten in ante-bellum Mecklenburg County.   Early nineteenth century disciplinary customs dictated that unruly white youngsters be whipped.  White parents had no compunctions about beating their children.  Indeed, their children expected to be whipped  -- often and severely.  "Spare the rod and spoil the child" was a popular dictum of the day.  There is a small brick building near the intersection of Sugar Creek Road and North Tryon Street.  It was once a school.   The sons of slave owners started coming here in  1837 to prepare for higher education.  The first full-time teacher was Robert I. McDowell , an honor graduate of Hampton-Sydney College.  He would have readily whipped any student who deviated from accepted norms of behavior in the classroom.

     The evidence is clear.  As a labor system, slavery was fundamental to the operations of the economic system that brought great wealth to some residents of Mecklenburg County in the first half of the nineteenth century.   The cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney  in 1793, enabled farmers to ship about twelve times as much cotton to market than they could before, and the world price decreased by approximately one half.  This meant that industrious individuals who owned substantial amounts of land and the requisite labor supply could increase their annual income by 600 percent.  "The machine allowed cotton to be cheaply cleaned so that it could be spun into thread. All over the South a plantation economy quickly developed to produce short-staple cotton to fill the new demand," historian Tom Hanchett explains. In 1790, the United States produced about 3,000 bales of cotton.  The figure increased to 178,000 in 1810 and ballooned to more than 4 million bales on the eve of the Civil War.