By Vikki Bynum
In October, 1868, and August, 1869, Rep. Cuffee Mayo of Granville County, North Carolina, gathered with a group of mostly mixed-race men to sign petitions that implored Governor William Holden to come to their aid. The first petition protested community outrages by the Ku Klux Klan; the second, local election fraud by the state’s Democrats. Mayo, a prominent Baptist minister in his mixed-race community and delegate to North Carolina’s state convention, had recently been elected to the North Carolina State legislature. (1)
An important political as well as religious figure in the town of Oxford, Cuffee Mayo hailed from North Carolina’s most cohesive community of “people of color,” one that included numerous intermarried families of diverse ancestry whose kinship ties extended well beyond Granville County into neighboring and sometimes distant counties and states.
Native American ancestry was especially strong in the Bass, Pettiford, Boon, Kearsey, Tyler, and Anderson lines with whom the Mayos were associated. As Kianga Lucas, administrator of Native American Roots, recently commented, Granville County boasted “Tuscarora, Saponi, Occaneechi, Meherrin, Nansemond, Nottoway, Tutelo, Conestoga (Susquehanna) tribal histories” that even today are “interwoven in the landscape of Granville.” (2)
Like many of Granville’s mixed-race people, the Mayos’ roots were deep in colonial Virginia, where the mixing of Native Americans, white colonizers, and African Americans emanated from English invaders dispossession of indigenous peoples, forced importation of Africans, and enslavement of both. In 1780, Virginia slaveholder Joseph Mayo filed a will in Henrico County that freed numerous slaves; among them was Cuffee Mayo’s father, also named Cuffee. In 1802, in Mecklenburg County, Virginia, Cuffee Mayo Sr. married Celey Stewart, a descendant of the many free, mixed-race Stewarts of Virginia. By 1808, the Mayos lived in Warren County, North Carolina, with their first two children, Cuffee Jr. and Elizabeth. By 1840, several Mayo families, including the households of both Cuffee Mayo senior and junior, had settled in Granville County. (3)
Within the South’s court system and in the minds of most Southern whites, the complex Native American, African, and European heritage of Granville’s mixed people meant little; no matter their heritage, they were assigned to the caste labeled “free people of color.” On that basis, they were subjected to rules and regulations that governed people who were assumed to have any degree of “Negro” blood. As slavery expanded, the citizenship rights of free mixed-race people were stripped away one-by-one until little more than the right to own property remained.
Then came the Civil War, brought on by political conflicts over the expansion of slavery into the United States’s western territories. The Northern Republican Party (with the exception of its abolitionist wing) did not originally propose to abolish slavery, but did seek to contain it within its current boundaries. Yet, after four years of bloody war during which black Union army soldiers turned the tide toward defeat of the Confederacy, and after thousands of slaves (defined as contraband) fled to Union lines, Republicans abolished slavery by passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. In the aftermath, as Congress strove to determine the status of four million freed people, former slaveholders moved quickly to regain control over the labor and mobility of formerly enslaved people in state courts that passed “black codes” to deny fundamental rights of citizenship to both freed and freeborn African Americans. Courts also rewrote apprenticeship laws to enable white “masters” to seize formerly enslaved children from their parents.
The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified by North Carolina on 4 July 1868, prevented pro-slavery Southerners from creating a new system of racial bondage. Granting citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” the Amendment inflamed white Southerners, who unleashed their wrath on mixed-race communities such as those in Granville County. These were dangerous time for anyone who had opposed the Confederacy in the Civil War, especially those of African ancestry. Through acts of terror and political corruption—detailed in the Granville County petitions—former Confederates sought to drive the Republican Party out of the South and return newly-empowered people of color to positions of servility.
In this volatile era of Reconstruction, Cuffee Mayo was nominated to the Radical ticket of candidates for the North Carolina state legislature. As a literate, respected Baptist preacher from a largely propertied community of mixed people, he was a logical choice. Born
free, he likely had voted as a young man before North Carolina withdrew voting rights from free people of color. Now in his sixties, Mayo witnessed the revolutionary end to slavery and the re-enfranchisement of men of African ancestry. He was eager to further advance the cause of racial progress.
In April, 1868, before Mayo won office, his conservative opponents accused him of stealing a pistol from the Oxford store of white merchant James T. Hunt. In newspaper pieces brimming with the usual racist slurs, this unsubstantiated charge followed Mayo for the rest of his life, even into death. After the initial accusations, the Weekly North Carolinian expressed indignation that the “old darkey” delegate and “thief” was permitted to sign “the new parchment constitution of North Carolina.” Three days later, the Raleigh Sentinel repeated that candidate Mayo was “detected in the act of stealing a pistol!” (4)
Mayo may well have stolen a pistol in the murderous environment of Reconstruction, but my extensive research into crimes charged against Granville’s free people of color finds no evidence that Mayo was ever charged with any crime, either before or after the war. What is certain is that most North Carolina whites opposed gun ownership by men of color as much as they opposed their holding political office, both of which were forbidden by law before Republican Reconstruction.
Cuffee Mayo’s political enemies seemed eager to derail his election to Congress by tapping into one of white people’s greatest fears: black men armed with guns. Whatever the truth of the matter, their accusations did not prevent Mayo from winning his election.
The only interview of Rep. Mayo that I’ve located occurred when Pennsylvania Democrat John B. Bratton, editor of the newspaper, American Volunteer, traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina, to assess Reconstruction first hand. Bratton, however, was no objective observer. Before the Civil War, he had opposed Republican efforts to contain slavery, instead favoring “popular sovereignty” (i.e., allowing territorial voters to decide the issue of slavery without federal interference). Not surprisingly, then, Bratton’s published account of his visit South denounced Republican Reconstruction in terms as intemperate and racist as any written by a white Southerner. After denigrating the intelligence and character of the members of North Carolina’s 1868 legislature, he described its colored faction as “full-blooded Africans, many just from the cotton and rice fields.” Presumably, Bratton brought those assumptions to North Carolina when he briefly questioned Rep. Mayo, whose ancestry and personal history fully contradicted them. When Bratton asked him what “occupied” him before the abolition of slavery, Mayo ignored the implication that he’d been a slave. Mayo replied that he had worked as a blacksmith, but added—in an obvious reference to his career as a minister—that he’d “put in a good portion of my time urging colored men to be good.” In his article, Bratton opined that Mayo was more intelligent than his colored colleagues, but joked about the lack of “wool” on the “old Darkey’s” head. (5)
In the meantime, North Carolina journalists continued to print their gun story. Even as they delivered the final death knell to Radical Reconstruction in 1872, the Raleigh News reminded readers that Mayo had once been “accused” of stealing a pistol. Two years later, an editorial in the Wilmington Morning Star objected to the former representative being addressed as the “Honorable Cuffee Mayo” since he had once “stole a pistol.”
Shortly after Mayo’s death in 1896, an aged and disgruntled white Unionist expressed weariness with North Carolina Democrats’ never-ending denunciations of the 1868 legislature. This self-styled “Old Fashion Scalawag” admitted having voted for Mayo in 1868, and seemed hopeful that since “Cuffy Mayo has mingled with the dust,” so also has “the pistol so long associated with his name . . . crumbled into rust.” (6)
Tragically, despite the efforts of Mayo and other pro-Union men to defeat resurgent Confederate forces, those forces shattered the promise of Reconstruction. In southern state after southern state, white supremacists successfully fomented their counter-revolution, ushering in racial segregation and race-based citizenship. The landmark Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), gave national sanction to segregation and was not overturned until the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Cuffee Mayo’s long life spanned almost the entire nineteenth century! Between his birth in 1802 and his death in 1896, he witnessed the expansion of slavery, the eruption of the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, the brief promise of Reconstruction, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the violent overthrow of Reconstruction, and the imposition of racial segregation.
When he died, the Oxford Public Ledger wished “peace” to the ashes of the “venerable Cuffy Mayo, a colored member of the great legislature of 1868,” noting that Mayo had reached the age of 96 (more likely, 94) when God’s “summons” arrived. Mayo’s death, the Ledger noted, occurred at his Oxford home, where he’d long lived a quiet life and in later years was “little heard from.” (7)
“Little heard from.” My mind flinches at those words. I’m grateful that the Oxford Public Ledger published a respectful obituary for this man of color who participated in his nation’s herculean effort to reconstruct itself after four years of civil war and two-plus centuries of slavery. But I’m sickened to realize that at the very moment of Cuffee Mayo’s death, history was being furiously rewritten by Confederate partisans who falsely framed Southern secession from the United States as a noble “Lost Cause” disconnected from slavery, who falsely presented Reconstruction as a “Tragic Era”—not because of Klan terror and Democratic fraud, but because “brutish” black men were empowered to “rule” over a once great white civilization that was in fact a slave empire. In the face of that emergent “New South,” can we wonder that no journalist, Northern or Southern, felt compelled to interview this historic figure as he approached the end of his life? Of course not. Their faces were already turned toward the erection of monuments to the Confederate Cause that had only just begun.
Special thanks to Ellicia Chau, a descendant of Cuffee Mayo, for contacting me with information about Mayo’s service in the North Carolina House of Representatives, 1868, and for directing me to the legislature’s official group photo.
- For an overview of the 1868-1872 NC Legislature, see Balanoff, Elizabeth. “Negro Legislators in the North Carolina General Assembly, July, 1868-February, 1872.” The North Carolina Historical Review 49, no. 1 (1972): 22-55. http://www.jstor.org.libproxy.txstate.edu/stable/23529002.
- Kianga Lucas, Facebook post, 3 July 2019
- “Mayo family,” http://www.freeafricanamericans.com/Mason_Month.htm
- Weekly North Carolinian, 15 April, 1868; Raleigh Sentinel, 18 April 1868
- John B. Bratton, American Volunteer (Carlisle, PA), 20 January 1870. Bratton published under his initials, J. B. B. An excerpt from this article was posted on Ancestry.com, 7 Feb. 2017.
- Raleigh News, 13 June 1872; Wilmington Morning Star, 15 November 1876; Letter to the Editor, Oxford Public Ledger, 7 August 1896
- Oxford Public Ledger, 17 January 1896. On February 26, 1892, the same newspaper reported that Cuffee Mayo lived near Belltown in Granville County.