images of the Old South are clothed in romantic myths.
Some people draw their inspiration from movies like "Gone With
The Wind" or "Song Of The South."
To their way of thinking, Dixie was a land filled with stately,
white mansions, with luxuriant magnolia trees and manicured lawns, with
chivalrous gentlemen wearing spiffy suits, with elegant damsels in
sweeping gowns, with seemingly endless fields of cotton, and, of course,
with obedient, content, devoted slaves.
Others see the Old South in darker hues.
Largely because of its being intertwined with the institution of
human bondage, the ante-bellum South for folks of this persuasion was a
region filled almost exclusively with exploitation and unfairness.
Images of cruel slave masters twirling their mustaches as they
prepare to flog their bondsmen or take sexual advantage of their demure
bondswomen are uppermost in the imaginations of the most vitriolic critics
of the ante-bellum South. The
reality of the Old South, however, was more complex, subtler, and more
muted than either of these caricatures suggests.
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.
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.
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
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
TO HIS SLAVES
AND HIS WIFE
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.
|Location of McCoy Slave Cemetery
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:
to, my Junga, Tu tu my German, Poor Ring, long time a comin', they want me
to die, they want me to die. "
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.
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."
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
The Grove Plantation, the home of her father William Davidson,
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."
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
. The ground is covered
with periwinkle. Archeologists
have identified 42 graves.
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."
|Location of Neely Slave Cemetery
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.
, 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.
. Died May 18, 1864. Aged
64 Years. Violet Alexander
. Died Aug. 10, 1888. Aged
This marker is on the fence surrounding the W. T.
Alexander Slave Burial Ground
|Location of W. T. Alexander
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.
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.
The planters (anyone owning 20 or more
slaves) and prosperous farmers had a virtual stranglehold on political
influence in North Carolina. A
white man had to own 50 acres of land to be able to vote for State
senators and 100 acres of land to serve in the legislature.
85 percent of the members of the General Assembly were slave owners
in 1860, while 72 percent of the white families in North Carolina owned no
bondspeople. Free blacks were
totally excluded from the electoral process after 1835.
Oligarchy held sway at the local level as
well. The most powerful
County officials, the Justices of the Peace, were recommended by the local
delegation to the State legislature and appointed by the governor, not
elected by the people. Justices of the Peace constituted a court that set
the tax rate, decided where roads were to be built, made provisions for
education and poor relief, settled boundary disputes, and rendered
judgments in law suits. "It
was a cozy system," writes historian Paul D. Escott in his book, Many
Excellent People. Power and Privilege in North Carolina 1850-1900.
Not surprisingly, the most successful of Mecklenburg's cotton
farmers made their enhanced economic status known by building fancy, new
houses. These ante-bellum
plantation mansions still adorn the Mecklenburg landscape. "The model
for much of the architecture of the early nineteenth century was directly
or indirectly that of ancient Greece and Rome," one scholar asserts.
The Federal style
was the most popular. Devised
by the Adam brothers in Great Britain and sometimes called the Adam style
, buildings of this genre most commonly have small entry porches, windows
aligned horizontally and vertically in symmetrical rows, cornices
decorated with tooth-like dentils, side-gabled roofs, and semi-circular or
W. T. Alexander House, most likely built
between 1820 and 1825, is one of Mecklenburg County's finder Federal
style plantation houses.
An excellent example of the Federal style
, Sarah Frew Davidson
's home at 3427 North Tryon Street in Charlotte.
Built shortly after 1800 and for many years the centerpiece of the
Plantation, Rosedale has exquisite interior appointments.
mantels, cornices, and ornamental blinds exhibit a correctness
unique in Mecklenburg County, where vernacular interpretations of
Adamesque interior detail were more usual in houses of the Federal
period," writes Charlotte architect Jack O. Boyte.
Other imposing Federal style houses in Mecklenburg County include
, the W. T. Alexander House and Holly Bend
The grandest Federal style
house in Mecklenburg County is Cedar Grove
. It is part of a series of structures on the Torance
on Gilead Road near Huntersville.
These buildings illustrate how the local built or man-made
environment of the late 18th and early 19th
centuries evolved in response to changing economic conditions and
practices. Hugh Torance
, a peddler originally from Salisbury, erected a humble log home on this
land in 1779 but had to wait until Cornwallis's British and Tory army
marched away from Mecklenburg County in 1781 before he could move in.
Soon thereafter, Torance married Isabella Falls
, whose first husband had been killed in the American Revolutionary War.
Isabella and Hugh Torance
had a single son, James, who was born in 1784.
made his livelihood mainly from farming. He struggled during the early years to eke out an adequate
living. After the invention
of the cotton gin, however, Hugh began to prosper.
His wealth enabled him to transform his home into an imposing
two-story Federal style
house in 1796. If
you visit the Hugh Torance
House, you will notice that it has two chimneys.
One is built of rock and the other of brick.
The rock chimney is the older and was on the western end of the
original log cabin. The brick chimney dates from 1796, when the front of
the house was reoriented to face west.
and his family vacated his first abode on the Torance
in 1800 and set up housekeeping in a larger brick home he
built next door. James, his
son, had been living with an uncle in Salisbury and attending school but
returned to the plantation in 1805. He
established a store in his father and mother's old house.
Again, by visiting the Torance House you will see a one-story
addition that extends eastward from the main block of the structure.
That is where James Torance
operated his mercantile business.
Torance House and Store
The account books from
's store have been passed down over the generations.
They provide a fascinating glimpse into the lifestyles of the
people of northern Mecklenburg County in the early 1800s.
"Debts at the store were often settled in the fall with
cotton, and some customers paid by freighting cotton and farm produce from
the store to Camden and Charleston," says historian Christina Wright. "But Mecklenburg," Wright continues, "was
still the frontier; settlers were still trading in fur and indigo, and
buying powder and flints, as late as the 1820s."
James did sell an impressive array of goods from his store,
including farm implements, medicine, spinning wheels, looms, clothing,
medicines, and even "little
luxuries like coffee, tea, and spices."
Hugh and Isabella Torance died in 1816,
leaving their son a sizeable estate that included 33 slaves.
Like his father, James was an industrious and adroit businessman
and made lots of money raising cotton for shipment chiefly to the South
Carolina port cities of Charleston and Georgetown.
Always looking for ways to enrich himself, James also erected a
large watered-powered grist and saw mill on his plantation in 1824-25.
Soon thereafter, farmers began coming from the surrounding
plantations to have their grain ground into flour and the timber sawn into
lumber. Only the massive rock
foundation walls of the Torance Mill
In 1831, James Torance
decided to build a new home for him and his third wife,
, at the site of his mother and father's house.
The massive red brick structure, named Cedar Grove
, was the largest and grandest home in ante-bellum Mecklenburg County.
James traveled to Charleston to buy the knocker for the front door.
Tin, copper, sash cord, wood screws, and locks were shipped from
New York City. Pipe arrived
from Philadelphia. The lumber
and brick were produced on the plantation. Cedar Grove survives virtually
are 5,000 feet of floor space, the first-floor ceilings are thirteen feet
high, and the cellar walls are twenty-two inches thick," says Wright
about Cedar Grove. An elegant
spiral staircase ascends from the entry hall, down which Southern belles
no doubt made their spectacular entrances at the gala festivities.
was a member of Hopewell Presbyterian Church
, still an active congregation on Beatties Ford Road. Nowhere in Mecklenburg County does the aura of the Old South
linger with greater impact than in the sanctuary of this venerable house
of worship. Sometime before
1760 the Hopewell congregation erected its first meetinghouse. It was a simple log structure. During the Revolutionary War
this log edifice gave way to a frame building, which served as the
meetinghouse or church until the 1830's.
In 1833, or shortly thereafter, Rev. John Thomson
guided the Hopewell congregation through the rigors of
building a brick meetinghouse that according to one estimate cost $3000 to
Hopewell Presbyterian Church
the congregation selected the Federal Style for its new house of worship
is not surprising. After all, this was the architectural motif that the
plantation owners of the Hopewell community -- the Lattas, the Torances,
and the Davidsons -- had selected for their imposing homes.
The brick meetinghouse was altered in the late 1850's. The brick
floor was removed, and a vestibule was added. The people of Hopewell
even installed a pulpit.
Finally, an exterior door on the east side of the expanded house of
worship led to the slave gallery.
Imagine what attending a service in Hopewell
in the 1850s would have been like. The hierarchical social order of ante-bellum Mecklenburg
would have been apparent to even the most casual observer. Seats were rented to raise money to pay the minister's salary
and to meet other church expenses. Downstairs
the slave owners and their families would have sat in their subscribed
pews. The wealthiest planters
would have sat near the front, and their less fortunate compatriots would
have occupied pews toward the rear. The
poorest whites would have had to sit in the balcony, their seats separated
from those occupied by the slaves only by a wooden divider.
Juliana Margaret Conner
, a Charleston belle who visited Hopewell Presbyterian Church
in 1827, was not overly
impressed by even the wealthiest and most politically powerful people she
met She called
Charlotte a "place not offering anything worthy of note or
interest" and remarked that none of the women at Hopewell was
properly attired for church. "There
were not two bonnets which differed in shape and color in the whole
congregation," she exclaimed.
Conner described the backcountry gentry as an essentially a boring
lot who lived a humdrum, "almost primitive" existence of
"no excitement." The
Piedmont planters knew nothing of culinary delicacies, feasting instead
upon foods like "ham and chickens, vegetables, tarts, custards and
sweetmeats, . . . . corn or wheat cakes and coffee."
The minister at Hopewell would have
preached with great emotional fervor, his sermon emphasizing the depraved
nature of mankind and the absolute necessity of God's grace for salvation. Each fall and spring Hopewell Presbyterian Church
would have celebrated
"Communion Season." All
members, including the slaves, would have come forward to sit at a table
where the minister or an elder would have served each individual bread and
wine out of a common cup. To
the leaders of the Hopewell community there was no conflict between
slavery and the lessons of the Bible. To their way of thinking, most
slaves lacked discipline and culture and had to be treated like children
but always within a system of strictures based upon God's law. "For
centuries, a wide range of social thinkers had seen the institution as
fully compatible with human progress and felicity," writes Peter
Kolchin in his book, American
Slavery 1619 - 1877. Jeff
Lowrance, the present minister at Hopewell Presbyterian Church, told this
writer that he is "embarrassed" that the members of his
congregation once followed this misguided line of thinking.
Most slave owners in Mecklenburg
County, like their counterparts elsewhere in the South, owned relatively
small numbers of bondsmen and bondswomen. "In rough terms,"
states Peter Kolchin, "about one-quarter of Southern slaves lived on
very small holdings of 1 to 9."
The percentage in such peripheral cotton growing areas as
Mecklenburg County was even higher. The
majority of Mecklenburg farmers simply did not have enough money to
compete with the likes of James Torance
or W. T. Alexander.
Representative of this sizeable group was Thomas T. Sandifer
, a physician, whose house still stands on Moore's Chapel Road. In 1860,
Sandifer's "personal estate was worth $7,000.00, and he held three
slaves," writes historian Frances P. Alexander.
"Sandifer's slaves included two men, ages 33 and 20, and one
woman age 31." The
relationship of Sandifer and his slaves would have been personal and
intimate. "On farms with
fewer than ten slaves," says Kolchin, "masters could typically
be found in the field, toiling alongside their slaves while bossing them
and casually interacting with them."
There were a few Mecklenburg farmers
who eschewed slavery and refused to participate in it.
Such was the case with George Martin Oehler
, who along with many of his relatives migrated from Germany to northern
Mecklenburg County and neighboring Cabarrus County in the early 1840s.
Oehler became an elder of Ramah
Presbyterian Church in 1856
but was asked to leave at the outbreak of the Civil War because of his “Northern sympathies.”
Oehler's house is hidden deep in the woods just north of the
intersection of Asbury Chapel Road and Huntersville-Concord Road east of