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Black History of Charlotte: Slavery & Revolution Part 2

From the cotton gin to the Civil War

enslaved people in charlotte
An illustration of African Americans joining the Union Army in New Bern. (Frank Leslie’s Illusstrirte Zeitung, 5 March 1864)

The following is a continuation of Pamela Grundy’s original five-part series Black History of Charlotte and touches on the treatment of enslaved people in Charlotte and the impact of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. You can read the entire Black History of Charlotte series here

In November 1839, the editors of the Charlotte Journal filled their paper with all sorts of news: announcements of militia musters, reports on the price of bacon, rope and nails, a diatribe against the “train of evils” that would follow a decline in support for the state’s banks.

They also printed a brief advertisement:

RANAWAY from the subscriber, on the 25th of October, a negro man named ROBBIN, about 45 years old, five feet 8 or 10 inches high, dark complected and heavy made, has on his right hand some severe scars, having been torn by a Cotton Gin. He is a shrewd smart fellow and no doubt will endeavor to get in with some white man to assist him along. I think it probable he will make for Ohio or Indiana.

Dozens of similar notices appeared in North Carolina papers in the first decades of the 19th century — thousands of North Carolina “runaway” notices can be found here offering tantalizing clues to the lives of the state’s enslaved African Americans.

Tom, who left in 1816, was “about 16 or 17 years old, with a scar on his left arm, occasioned by a burn.” He was “born of African parents and can speak their language.”

Nancy, described as “remarkably likely and of a pleasant expression of countenance” was supposedly “enticed away by her husband” in 1825. Nicodemus, a 29-year-old described as “5 feet, 6 or 7 inches high, dark complexion, a scar on one of his cheeks,” escaped from Capp’s Gold Mine in 1829.

Armisted, “a first rate Tanner and Harness Maker,” departed the tanning shop of Peter Brown in 1849, possibly using “free papers belonging to a free boy of Charlotte by the name of Isaac Adams.”

The 19th century brought dramatic change to Mecklenburg County. The cotton gin that scarred Robbin’s hand was patented in 1794 and sparked a massive expansion in cotton farming — and demand for enslaved labor — across the South.

The discovery of gold in 1799 created a robust mining industry and brought a branch of the U.S. Mint to town.

Charlotte’s neat grid of streets began to fill with homes, shops and workplaces at a pace that quickened after the first railroad line arrived in 1852.

Enslaved African Americans formed the backbone of this growth. By 1850, 5,473 of Mecklenburg County’s 13,914 residents (39%) were enslaved, and it was “no uncommon thing to find the finest blacksmiths, carpenters, tanners, shoemakers and in fact all kinds of mechanics” among them.

Enslaved men made and likely laid the bricks for institutions such as Davidson College, the Mecklenburg County Courthouse and the Charlotte Mint — now the Mint Museum-Randolph. They labored on farms, in workshops, in mines and in mills. They positioned the rail lines that would transform the region, maintained the tracks, hauled wood and water for the big steam engines.

Enslaved women worked the fields alongside their male counterparts — Carey Freeman, her daughter later recalled, “could lift one end of a log with any man.” They cared for children, cooked, cleaned, gardened, spun thread, wove cloth and made bedding and clothes.

They also looked after each other. “They were remarkably true,” noted J.B. Alexander. “They would never give away one of their color. It was a noted fact that they would submit to the lash rather than tell on each other.”

The first half of the 19th century saw the start of Mecklenburg County industry — blacksmith forges, brickmaking operations, small textile mills, iron and gold mines. Ambitious entrepreneurs found ways to profit from enslaved labor in all of them. Slaveholders frequently enhanced their income by “hiring out” enslaved workers.

“I will send you up Bill, one of my blacksmiths,” John Springs of York County, S.C., wrote to son-in-law A.B. Davidson in 1836. “You can hire him out or work him at home. I have had three or four applications [and] could get $250 next year for him without any trouble.”

Gold mines provided one such opportunity. The discovery of gold in a Cabarrus County stream in 1799 sparked a rush of exploration. Enslaved workers were part of the endeavor from the start — one report described as many as 3,000 enslaved people assigned to sift through gravel deposits in a particularly productive streambed near Rutherford County. One later assessment suggested that a third of mine workers were enslaved.

Gold mining in Mecklenburg County picked up when focus shifted from streambed mining to underground excavation. Enslaved men and women joined local whites and recent immigrants in mining operations around the county. In 1838, for example, the Capps Hill Mine employed 28 enslaved men and 10 enslaved women. It was dirty, dangerous work, but it did hold possibilities. Miners were often paid in gold, and at times enslaved miners were able to keep some of it, by contract or sleight of hand. An English geologist who visited North Carolina in the 1840s noted of the enslaved workers that they “appeared to be submissive in their manners and to work very hard,” but that they secreted gold for themselves whenever they could.

enslaved people in charlotte
A young Black boy, probably enslaved, uses a “rocker” to separate grit from gold-bearing gravel. (North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill)

For those attempting to flee slavery, bustling mine camps and underground mining tunnels could be good hiding places, as well as potential sources of income. “Runaway” advertisements frequently suggested that fugitive individuals might be found near particular gold mines.

Free people of color

The practice of “hiring out” helped some African Americans forge paths to freedom. At times, enslaved workers were allowed to keep part of their wages and use them to “buy” freedom for themselves and other family members.

Emerging from slavery was an extraordinary experience. “When, at length, I had . . . got my free papers, so that my freedom was quite secure, my feelings were greatly excited,” wrote boat pilot Moses Grandy of Camden County. “I felt to myself so light, that I almost thought I could fly, and in my sleep I was always dreaming of flying over woods and rivers.”

The presence of free Blacks in North Carolina exposed several of the contradictions in the state’s racial hierarchies. John Schenck, a Cleveland County native who would become one of Charlotte’s most prominent post-Civil War leaders, offers one example.

Schenck trained as a carpenter and used the wages he earned to purchase freedom for himself and his wife, Pauline. But in addition to his multiple talents, he had another advantage — his enslaver was also his father.

As slavery expanded, relationships between slaveholders and enslaved women — usually coerced — became common. Mixed-race individuals, known as mulattoes, became a growing share of North Carolina’s population. Many of the people whom slaveholders chose to emancipate were their direct descendants.

The 1850 census enumerated 156 free Blacks in Mecklenburg County. Residents of one Charlotte neighborhood included Isaac Adams, the Virginia-born saddlemaker whose free papers the fugitive tanner Armisted had supposedly acquired; brickmason Thomas Reid; and Mary Pethel, who lived with her 6-year-old twins James and Elizabeth.

In the salt-and-pepper pattern common to the era, they had plenty of white neighbors, including the families of stonecutter James Biggerly and U.S. Mint “refiner” Andrew Erwin, as well as the carpentry establishment of Jonas Rudisill and the tannery of Peter Brown.

Family separation

Most African Americans, however, remained at the mercy of enslavers, their fates dependent on the fluctuating rhythms of marriage and death, profit and loss. The transfer of Bill the blacksmith from John Springs to A.B. Davidson was part of one such shift. Davidson had just married Springs’ daughter Mary, and Springs’ wedding gift included a plantation in Lincoln County, half a dozen heifers and steers, three horses, a “full set of knives and forks compleat [sic],” and 20 enslaved individuals, among them 51-year-old Bill, 21-year-old Fanny, 50-year-old Peggy, and 42-year-old Ann.

The transaction marked a hard fact of enslaved life — family separation. Following a common practice, Ann was married to a man who was enslaved on a different plantation, and her husband was not part of the group.

Springs informed Davidson that he had “an expectation of getting” the man, and that if successful he would send him to the Davidsons and take Ann’s oldest son, 15-year-old Wilbert, in return. Neither Ann, her husband or Wilbert had any legal say in the matter.

Springs carefully recorded the transfer in his accounts. As was typical of the time, the price placed on the people exceeded that of the land they worked.

Account of gifts to A.B. and Mary Davidson, 1936. (Davidson Family Papers #204, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

By 1836, family separations were becoming more common, driven once again by the search for wealth. In the first decades of the century, U.S. troops pushed the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminoles out of their rich lands in Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas. Enterprising planters sought new fortunes in those areas, primarily by growing the cotton that had become the driver of the worldwide Industrial Revolution.

This expanding plantation system required new labor. North Carolina slaveholders began to pay their debts and supplement their incomes by moving to these new areas, or by selling enslaved workers “down South,” far beyond the reach of friends and family.

Moses Grandy was at work on a Camden County canal one morning when he “heard a noise behind me.” He looked up and saw a line of people being led out of the county by a trader. Hearing one call his name, he went over to them. “I wondered who among them should know me, and found it was my wife,” he later wrote. “She cried out to me, ‘I am gone.’”

The trader gave the couple a few minutes to talk. “My heart was so full, that I could say very little,” Grandy later recounted.” I gave her the little money I had in my pocket, and bid her farewell. I have never seen or heard of her from that day to this. I loved her as I loved my life.”

Two enslaved North Carolina miners use the “double jacking” method to bore a hole for explosives. (Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, August 1857)

Carey Freeman’s life was also shaped by this quest for wealth – she was forced to leave Mecklenburg County for Tennessee as a teenager, and then to leave Tennessee for Arkansas as a new mother. “The white folks separated my mother and father when I was a little baby in their arms,” Freeman’s daughter, Eliza Washington, later explained.

In Arkansas, when Carrie and Eliza gathered with other displaced African Americans for corn shuckings, the traditionally festive occasion included songs that “were pitiful and sad,” Eliza noted. One began: “The speculator bought my wife and child/And carried her clear away.”

The rise in separations prompted growing numbers of people to run away – to seek out lost loved ones or to flee slavery altogether. Such endeavors were aided by a growing abolition movement in the North, which included a network of assistance run by whites and African Americans known as the Underground Railroad.

Hints of the Railroad’s operation surfaced in the 1839 advertisement that surmised that “shrewd smart” Robbin might “endeavor to get in with some white man” in an effort to reach Ohio or Indiana. Those relatively new states were free territory and home to many families whose opposition to slavery had prompted them to leave the South. Among them was Greensboro-born Quaker Levi Coffin, whose family had been helping people escape slavery since he was a boy. Coffin moved his family out of the state in 1826, and soon set up an important Underground Railroad station along the Indiana-Ohio border.

Tightening restrictions

As national tensions over slavery grew, escape was not the only act whites feared.

In 1829, Wilmington native David A. Walker published a pamphlet titled “An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World.” The pamphlet, which circulated widely in North Carolina, sharply denounced slavery and urged fellow African Americans to fight the institution in any way they could — including force.

Two years later, enslaved preacher Nat Turner led a violent revolt at the North Carolina-Virginia border, in which participants killed more than 60 whites. The uprising struck terror into whites across both states. Carey Freeman, who was still in Mecklenburg County at the time, told her daughter that “the white folks called all the slaves up to the big house and kept them there a few days. There wasn’t no trouble but they had heard that there was an uprising among the slaves . . . They didn’t do nothin’ to them. They just called them up to the house, and kept them there. It all passed over soon.”

The uprising may have passed, but it was not forgotten. North Carolina legislators responded by passing new, more restrictive laws that made it much harder to free an enslaved person and instituted harsh penalties for teaching enslaved people to read. Free Black men, who had been allowed to vote since the Revolution, were officially stripped of that right.

Like their counterparts across the state, white Charlotteans were keenly aware that the very existence of free African Americans challenged a system built on the idea that whites should rule and Blacks should obey. In September of 1852, a month before the city celebrated the arrival of the Charlotte & South Carolina Railroad, white leaders lamented the “general and growing spirit of insubordination among our slaves,” especially as seen in a “bold attempt” by some “to make their way to the free States under forged free papers.” They called for all free African Americans to be banished from North Carolina, arguing that such actions “would not only elevate and improve their own social condition, but would also render that of our slaves more happy, contented, and tolerable.”

Civil War

In the spring of 1861, the national divide over slavery led to war. Union forces quickly seized much of North Carolina’s strategic coast, and hundreds of the enslaved people who lived near captured coastal towns made their way to Union lines. These once-enslaved North Carolinians would aid the Union in many ways, serving as soldiers, cooks, guides and spies. In 1863, several thousand Black North Carolina soldiers recruited by Wilmington native Abraham Galloway formed regiments that would become known as the African Brigade. 

In Charlotte, far from the front lines, freedom seemed less close to hand. Businesses hummed with new activity, producing gunpowder, clothing, cannon and other goods for Confederate troops. Charlotte’s railroad connections, combined with Wilmington’s blockade-running ships, created a major route for moving goods into and out of the region.

In 1862 the Confederacy moved its naval production yard to Charlotte from the beleaguered port of Norfolk, employing several hundred ironworkers to cast propellers, anchors, gun carriages, ammunition and other items for Confederate ships. Enslaved African Americans continued to play essential roles in all these endeavors.

An 1864 advertisement calling for the capture and return of 29-year-old Dick noted that he had worked as a railroad brakeman on the North Carolina Railroad, and had spent the previous summer employed by “the Navy Yard in Charlotte.” He might well be “lurking” around Charlotte, the ad continued, because his wife had been hired to work there.

When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, early in 1863, white Charlotteans did their best to ignore it. “We do not think it prudent to publish such stuff, and we hope that southern papers will take as little notice of it as possible,” wrote the Charlotte-based Western Democrat. A few months later, however, the paper’s editors lamented that Mecklenburg County had seen a surge in escapes, which they attributed to “devilishness or improper influences.”

Fighting drew closer as the war neared its end. At the start of 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman and his troops cut a path of destruction through South Carolina, attracting a growing crowd of liberated African Americans. White Charlotte residents fearfully tracked Sherman’s approach, breathing a sigh of relief when he decided to veer east towards Raleigh.

General George Stoneman’s Raiders swept through the western Piedmont, wreaking havoc in Greensboro, Salisbury, Statesville, Lincolnton and Gaston County. They burned the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad’s Catawba River bridge, but they did not come to Charlotte.

Events moved swiftly after that. On April 9, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. On April 14, John Wilkes Booth shot and killed President Abraham Lincoln. On April 19, fleeing Confederate President Jefferson Davis arrived in Charlotte, where he held his final Cabinet meetings. He left town on April 26 and was captured in Georgia on May 10.

That same day a group of Black North Carolinians made it clear that they expected the full rights of citizenship. In a petition addressed to President Andrew Johnson, they proclaimed that “We want the privilege of voting. It seems to us that men who are willing on the field of danger to carry the muskets of a republic, in the days of Peace ought to be permitted to carry its ballots.”

A new world — and new struggles — lay ahead.

Resources

Interview with Eliza Washington, in Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States, Volume II, Arkansas Narratives, Part 7 (Library of Congress, 1941), 49-56.

J.B. Alexander, The History of Mecklenburg County (Charlotte: Observer Printing House, 1902).

David Cecelski, The Fire of Freedom: Abraham Galloway and the Slaves’ Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

Jeff Forret, “Slave Labor in North Carolina’s Antebellum Gold Mines,” North Carolina Historical Review 76 (April 1999), 135-162.

Moses Grandy, Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America (London: C. Gilpin, 1843).

Tera Hunter, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2017). 


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