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KKK costumes in N.C., 1870. Engraving by US Marshall JG Hester. NY Public Library.

KKK costumes in N.C., 1870. Engraving by US Marshall JG Hester. NY Public Library.

Some time ago, I posted an essay about the Ku Klux Klan’s terrorization of Orange County, North Carolina, in the years following the Civil War. Recently, I recovered from my files evidence of the Klan’s rampages through neighboring Granville County as well. 

The following petitions, sent in 1868 and 1869 to North Carolina’s Republican governor, William W. Holden, include the names of numerous Granville County men of color who were free from slavery long before the Civil War. Silas L. Curtis, Terral Curtis, Cuffee Mayo, William Tyler, and A. B. Kerzy lived in the Tally Ho township of Granville County. Having grown up before the war, they were forbidden by law to learn to read or write; thus, most of the men were semi-literate or illiterate. Silas Curtis, who wrote both the petitions, was an exception.

The 1868 petitioners belonged to a local branch of the Republican Union Leagues (also called Loyal Leagues) which were under assault by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan, determined to turn back Reconstruction, drive Republicans from power, and reassert dominance over African Americans, functioned as a terrorist arm of the pro-Confederate southern wing of the Democratic Party.

The petition is blunt in describing the violence wreaked upon the community, and includes details of the sexual humiliation of a woman of color and the attempted murder of another. The petitioners are adamant in declaring their rights and their need for state assistance. In signing or allowing their names to be placed on such a petition, they risked great personal danger. A note at the bottom asks its deliverer to hand the petition directly to Governor Holden to prevent the “Rebels” from destroying it.

I recognize many of the men’s names from the extensive research I conducted in county records while writing my first book, Unruly Women. In that book, I discussed A. B. Kerzy (Archibald Kearsey), at some length for his participation in underground trading during the war; others are mentioned as well. Although I also briefly mentioned the petitions, they are published below in their entirety.

In transcribing the letters, I have added paragraph breaks and used common punctuation and grammar, but endeavored to spell words exactly as they appear on the originals. (The originals of both petitions are contained in the Governors’ Papers, W.W. Holden, N.C. Department of Archives and History)

Vikki Bynum

 

Oct 11, 1868

Our Governor–Dear Sir:

I take the privilige of writing to you on this occasion for this reason, not because we are scared out, but in the first place, you are our State Executive. And when we are having outrages comitted among us, you are our only refuge to which we have to flee for advice and protection.

Therefor I take the privilige to inform you of some outrages comitted amoung us. And it is not only now and then—it is geting to be a genrel thing. On Saturday night last, the Ku Klux were raging in Oxford and Tally Ho. They first formed themselves in line in front of the Colored School Room, thinking the Leagues men were at lodge in there. And failing to find them, went off to other places and don the same, tho as it happen the leagues had adjoined [adjourned] before they came out and they watched them.

And they now say they intend to brake up the Leagues before the Election. Col. Aimey, in a speech on Friday last at Oxford, [said] that if we would stop the Leagues he would stop the KuKlux. And if not, he could not do nothing with them.

On Thursday night last they went to a Colored man’s house and got him out and Beet him cruley, beet his wife and cut her dress open and tied her to a tree—then told them if ever they told it, or told who it was, they would kill them. They then went to another one’s house and comence to tarring the top of his house off and some of them at the door. I broke in [and] got hold of his wife—he got out of the way—and got her out and she got loose and ran and they shot her in the back and by the side of the face and she now lies in a low state of helth. And a few nights ago they went to another colored man’s house and treated him the same.

I will now give you the colored mens names: Ned Mallory, Parson Jones, and Pressley Herndon. Those white men was John C. Hugen, William Stem, John Wheeler, John Day, William Boles, Hay Stem, and one by the name Bishop, Jack Boothe, Flay[?] Moor, Sam Boothe, Henry Hasken, Flucher [Fletcher?] Moor, Tom Jones, Wm. Jones, and others–that are comiting these outrages. And I have not told near all they have and are doing.

We appeal to you–for some protection in some way. Such men oght to be stoped in their outrages.

Sir, I hope to hear from you soon. We don’t want a malissia [militia] here among us. But God in heaven knows we must have something—otherwise we will have to give up Gen. Grant and take Seymour.* And if I have to do that I am going to take me a rope and go to the woods.      Your obedent Servant,

Silas L. Curtis

Cuffee Mayo

Jordan Trevan

J. Macaver

Granderson Russell

Jack Jefferson

Antoney Philpott

James Anderson

Burry Williams

Charles Curtis

Terral Curtis

James Hunt

Josep R. Halley

W. S. Boon

Wm. Tyler

A. B. Kerzy

*Ulysses S. Grant, Republican, and Horatio Seymour, Democrat, were the 1868 candidates for the U.S. Presidency.

 

The second petition, 1869, protests Tally Ho’s township election, claiming that Democrats deliberately miscounted votes in order to claim victory for their own candidate.

This petition, also written by Silas Curtis, contains similar but fewer names and appears to have been written in much greater haste. One of the appended names, “Lunchford Wiliford” (Lunsford Williford), caught my eye immediately. Lunsford was the son of Susan Williford, a poor white woman who appears prominently in chapter four of Unruly Women. Antebellum North Carolina laws against interracial marriage forbade Susan to marry Peter Curtis, who, like Silas L. Curtis, belonged to one of Granville County’s most prominent free families of color. Susan had several children by Peter Curtis, though it’s not clear whether Curtis also fathered Lunsford. Nevertheless, Lunsford became part of the Curtis family when he married Harriet Curtis, the daughter of Peter’s sister, Nancy Curtis.

Note that this petition proclaims an alliance between “the colored race and the labering class of white people,” reflective of kinship ties that created vibrant communities of mixed-race people in North Carolina. 

August 11, 1869

Your Exencilence Governor W.W. Holden,

Dear Sir, We the Republicans of Granville County most respetifully protest against the township election of Tally Ho in consequence of the way it was conducted. And do earnestly believe that it oght to be remoddled, and a fair and square election given.

We most recollect that the Democrats will—and do—do all and everything they can to get in power. And they think if they can fool the Republicans, as they have already done at Tally Ho and other places, and get in power in the townships. By that means, after awhile, they can get the county offices and from that to the state’s offices and United states offices. And then they can nullify the republican form of government and place the colored race, and labering class of white people, in the same position—only wors—as they were before.

And please your honor, Sir, if you cannot grant us a re-election—which we honestly believe that we oght to have—what must we do in such a case? And we can also prove by a colored man, a responsible one—that the Democrat candidate told him that they had beet them. And if the Republicans had had as meny more as they did have, we would have beet them. And as it was, they only beet [by] about thirty.

What must we do? Must we put up with sunch [such], when we know there are frode [fraud?]. Know we will die first.

Recollect that dividing into townships all of the counties makes a consitable difference—among the colored people—egnorent as they are.

And meny and numbers are dissatisfied at the Election except [if] it had bin don fair, and we appeal to our Superior—our Surpream, for refuge.

Most respectfully Your obedient Servents

Hoping to here from you soon.

Silas L. Curtis (sig)

Cuffee Mayo (sig)

Solomon Green (sig)

John Norwood

James Harris

Thomas Curtis

Lunchford Wiliford

Benjamon Allen

Esaw Lassiter

Robert Ridley

And many others—too tedious to mention, both white and colored.

Answer to S. L Curtis

Oxford, N.C.

NOTE: For more on violence against freedmen in post Civil War North Carolina, “The Death of a Freedman,” also on Renegade South.

Vikki Bynum

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By Vikki Bynum, Moderator

In recent weeks, The Family Origins of Vernon Dahmer, Civil Rights Activist, by Yvonne Bivins and Wilmer Watts Backstrom, published December 6, 2009 on Renegade South, has received increased attention and interesting comments from readers. I’m pleased that Tiffany Jones even republished it on her blog, Mulatto Diaries.

A few readers of Renegade South posed interesting questions after reading the Dahmer history.  “Ms T. A.”, for example, wondered what caused Vernon Dahmer, a man of limited African ancestry, to identify as “black,” and ultimately sacrifice his life working for black civil rights. Also, in regard to racial identification, A.D. Powell (author of Passing for Who You Really Are: Studies in Support of Multiracial Whiteness), drew attention to two instances in which the mixed-race infants of unmarried white women were reportedly given to mulatto families to be raised.

To better understand the ways in which economic class as well as race have historically shaped multiracial communities, I returned to my research files on mixed-race people, and also to a few books on my shelf.  In her 1986 history of the Horne family, for example, Gail Lumet Buckley illuminated the “old black bourgeoisie” from which her mother, Lena Horne, descended. That elite group, writes Buckley, was comprised of “three segments of black society in existence before the Civil War: free northern blacks, free southern blacks, and ‘favored’ slaves.” (The Hornes: An American Family, p. 4)*

Of course, most mixed-race people were not part of this black bourgeoisie. Two classic autobiographies proved especially helpful in understanding less elite families : Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861), and Pauli Murray’s Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (1956, 1978). Both the authors were defined legally as “black” despite having greater degrees of European than African ancestry.  White appearance notwithstanding, Harriet was born and raised a slave. Pauli, born after slavery was abolished, was the great-granddaughter of an enslaved woman who was impregnated by the sons of her master. On Pauli’s great-grandfather’s side, she was descended from a northern interracial marriage between a white woman and a mixed race man.

Both Harriet and Pauli had advantages denied to most people defined as black by white society.  Harriet’s father was not only mixed-race, but a skilled carpenter; her grandmother on her mother’s side was the daughter of a white planter who managed through her connections to white society to gain her freedom (but not her children’s).

Pauli’s southern ancestors were likewise slaves. Her grandmother and her grandmother’s sisters, however, were removed from their mother’s slave cabin by Mary Ruffin Smith, the sister of their wealthy white fathers, and raised in the “Big House.” Although Mary never publicly admitted that the four sisters were the daughters of her brothers (and therefore her nieces), she could not bring herself to treat them as chattel slaves.

My point in discussing Harriet Jacobs and Pauli Murray is not to retell their fascinating life stories, but to explore how white connections might mitigate the disadvantages of race, particularly among light-skinned people of African ancestry. Despite their white ancestry and advantageous connections, Harriet and Pauli, like Vernon Dahmer, identified first and foremost with their African American kinfolk. And why wouldn’t they? Despite light skin and interracial connections, Harriet was nonetheless a slave; Pauli was subjected to segregation. And, of course, both women witnessed abuse and discrimination against people of African ancestry all their lives. It was the cultural rather than biological experience of race that shaped their consciousness.

The lives of mixed-race children who had no favored place or acknowledged kinship with wealthy or influential whites were, of course, much different. Here, my research into North Carolina court records is most revealing. Not only were most mixed-race slaves raised in the quarters rather than in the Big House, but records indicate that being the mixed-race offspring of a single white woman or a free black woman often brought unwelcome attention from the courts, as such children were born free in a slaveholding society.

In chapter four of my book, Unruly Women (1992), “Punishing Deviant Women: The State as Patriarch,” pp. 88-110, I covered in some detail the multiracial communities of Orange and Granville Counties in North Carolina. Susan Williford of Granville County provided a particularly vivid example of the ways in which southern lawmakers punished poor white women for crossing the color line.  Although Susan, a white woman, remained in a stable relationship with Peter Curtis, a free man of color, for most of her adult life (the two were forbidden by law to marry), all of their mixed-race children were removed by the courts from their home and apprenticed to white farmers or planters of the community. The children were forced to live and work for these “masters” until they reached adulthood.

Free women of color were likewise forbidden to marry across the color line, or to marry slave men. By law, any child born to a free woman was also free, regardless of the woman’s race or the father’s status.  Therefore, if free women of color bore children to either white or enslaved men, those children were also subject to being apprenticed by the courts to white families.

In North Carolina, the pre-Civil War system of apprenticeship thus supplemented slavery in controlling the mobility and labor of free people of mixed ancestry. It also served to create the fiction of a society divided between “white” and “black” people, when in fact many free “blacks” (and a good many slaves) had more European and Indian than African ancestry.

Reviewing historical records and autobiographies makes it clear that economic class and gender, as well as heritage and physical appearance, played an integral part in shaping one’s racial identity. This was true in the North as well as the South, where even among Northern abolitionists racial discrimination was commonly practiced. For example, after escaping to the North, Harriet Jacobs wrote that she “found the same cruel manifestations of that cruel prejudice which so discourages the feelings and represses the energies of the colored people,” as in the South (p. 176).

Harriet E. Wilson’s 1859 autobiographical novel, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, highlighted the racial hypocrisy of white northerners who viewed slavery as only a southern problem. This Harriet, who was the abandoned mixed-race daughter of a poor white woman of New England, expressed contempt for white abolitionists “who didn’t want slaves at the South,” but also did not want people of color in their homes: “Faugh!” she wrote,  “to lodge one; to eat with one; to admit one through the front door; to sit next to one–awful!” (129)

A final word about “passing”. This term might best be eliminated from our vocabulary, as it legitimizes the basis for the “one drop rule” of race. To “pass” implies that even though people might look at you and believe that you are “white,” you are nonetheless “black”–and should identify yourself as such–if you have an African ancestor lurking in your past. The assumption is not only that race is an objective biological category of distinction, but furthermore that African “blood” somehow overwhelms all other “blood” in determining who a person really is.  The late Mae Street Kidd, a former “black” representive from Kentucky, exposed the absurdity of the one drop rule and the concept of “passing” when she said, “I’ve been passing for black all my life because I’m almost 90 percent white. . . . It’s so very obvious that I’m so much whiter than I am black that I have to pretend to be black.”  (Wade Hall, Passing for Black: The Life and Careers of Mae Street Kidd (1997), p. 177)

The Dahmer family history certainly raises provocative questions and provides tantalizing insights into mixed-race or multiracial communities.  For those interested in exploring the topic further, I recommend visiting Mixed Race Studies and  Study of Racialism, both great bibliographic resources for both online and printed sources.

And here’s a hopeful sign, brought to my attention by A.D. Powell, that we are moving beyond simplistic and dualistic notions of race:

Emerging Paradigms in Critical Mixed Race Studies,” the first annual Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference, will be held at DePaul University in Chicago on November 5-6, 2010.

http://las.depaul.edu/aas/About/CMRSConference/index.asp

* Note: To view a tribute to Lena Horne’s life and work, see the webpage posted by the Institute of Jazz Studies, a special collections unit of the John Cotton Dana Library on the Rutgers University Newark Campus:
http://newarkwww.rutgers.edu/IJS/

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