More than half a century before Martin Luther King vied for a world in which Black and white children could live together in harmony, a single photo was taken in Union County depicting three older white women, a young white girl and a young Black girl sitting side by side in front of a large house.
That photo, shot in what is now the small western Union County village of Marvin, sums up what started Gene Stowe on a long search, after his initial discovery of the original transcript of a historic but forgotten court case that involved the women in the photo.
Stowe spent many years researching and writing about the Ross family and Mittie Bell Houston, the young Black girl in the photo, chronicling their story in a book called Inherit the Land: Jim Crow Meets Miss Maggie’s Will.
In the book, Stowe tells the story of how Maggie and Sallie Ross, once the richest women living in Union County, gave away their inheritance to a Black man and his daughter who had grown up alongside them. Despite challenges from the Ross’ would-be inheritors, an all-white jury in 1921 ruled in favor of Houston and her father.
For a new documentary about the case, which recently wrapped after filming in and around Union County, Stowe enlisted the help of award-winning director Cylk Cozart, producer Jim Johnson, co-producer Lorayn DeLuca, and a handful of actors — many of whom are direct descendants of the people they’re portraying — to create a historical retelling of the fateful court case onscreen.
Along with the ancestral connections, parts of Inherit the Land were filmed in the same Monroe courthouse where Houston affirmed her rightful ownership of 800 acres of land left to her by the two Ross sisters.
Two worlds, one family
Under North Carolina’s Reconstruction-era apprenticeship law, Bob Ross, a Black boy living in Union County, began working under Susan Burleyson Ross in 1875.
After Susan’s daughters, Maggie and Sallie, grew past childbearing age, she knew an heir for her fortune was no longer in the cards. She taught Bob everything there was to know about managing the property.
Bob and his daughter Mittie remained a part of the Ross family after Susan passed. By that point, the Rosses had taught Bob to read, write and cipher. They gave Bob power over their 800-acre homestead and a community of Black and white tenant farmers. They treated his daughter as their own.
After her parents passed, Maggie left her family’s property to Bob and Mittie. As the richest woman in Union County, Maggie’s choice to leave her family’s estate to a Black man and his child came as a surprise to her white relatives, who felt entitled to the property.
The decision went against the wishes and expectations of her family, but was also seen as an affront to white, affluent society in general.
Ross’ cousins contested Maggie’s will, but against all odds, they lost their case against Houston, then in her mid-30s, in a dramatic court ruling.
Putting the pieces together
Now a full-time author, Gene Stowe previously worked as a journalist for the Charlotte Observer.
In 1992, he covered a community festival that included congregations from Banks Presbyterian Church, Marvin Methodist Church and the nearby Marvin A.M.E. Zion Church. Stowe pulled up to the event and was surprised by the diversity he saw in the crowd.
“I had covered certain interracial festivals before and thought I knew what they looked like,” Stowe explained. “Nobody in the same room — pretty much Black people at these tables and whites at these tables.”
At the time, Black and white neighbors in Union County kept to themselves, especially in Stowe’s hometown of Monroe, he says. “There was a lot of politeness, but you know, they weren’t usually close friends that knew each other.”
And yet, at the Banks Presbyterian community festival, Stowe witnessed something he hadn’t imagined possible during his upbringing in the county. Curious to learn more, he sat down with folks attending the festival, and that’s where he first learned about the Ross family home. He scoured historic archives, photos and documents related to the story for nearly a decade until, in 2001, he found the original transcript of the trial involving Maggie Ross’ contested will.
The trial was filled with dramatic moments, as when neighbor George Sutton testified for the validity of the will, then learned the family was Black and attempted to recant. Stowe shared Sutton’s quote to his Facebook page on April 2: “For the benefit of the Country, I want this will to be broken,” Sutton said. “I do not want these Negroes to have this property in our community. If the Ross women had the sense that I have got they would not make a will like that; if they had seen things as I do.”
Stowe published his book in 2006, then continued with his research. The more information he found regarding the family and its ties to Union County history, the more interested he grew in turning the book into a documentary.
Tell it on the screen
After coming across Stowe’s work while serving as a member of the Union County Arts Council, Lorayn DeLuca was able to use the insight and connections she had built in the southeast film community during her career as an actress and writer to help Stowe get his film project off the ground.
“I called Gene because I found out he’s my neighbor,” DeLuca said.
Meeting for the first time at Alice Jules Coffee House in downtown Monroe, the two sat for hours discussing what potential the book had as a documentary, capitalizing on Gene’s understanding of the story and DeLuca’s grasp on film production.
After Stowe’s original director didn’t pan out, a friend’s daughter recommended her father-in-law, Jim Johnson.
“When I read Gene’s book, I could hardly put it down,” Johnson said. “I could envision what this production would look like even by reading the book.”
Johnson insisted that if he was going to work on this project, it had to be with the help of his best friend, Cylk Cozart.
No stranger to the film industry, Cozart is recognizable in roles like Robert in White Men Can’t Jump or Agent Lowry in Conspiracy Theory. Though he’s done directing work, he says Inherit the Land offered a new experience.
“I think the main difference is that once we assembled the team, I’ve never had everybody on the exact same page to tell the story,” Cozart explained, comparing the lack of harmony in past work to the cast and crew of Inherit the Land.
Stowe first met up with Cozart and Johnson at a Cheesecake Factory in Knoxville in August 2019 to pitch the idea and discuss the steps it would take to see the project through to the end. DeLuca was recruited as an actor and co-producer in the film after Stowe introduced her to Cozart and Johnson.
The starting cost of filming was around $25,000, one-third of Stowe’s entire life savings.
“I said ‘Okay, who do I make the check out to?’” Stowe recalled.
After spending decades of his life researching and putting the story together, filming for Inherit the Land has finally wrapped and the film is slated to premiere in the fall.
During the process, it became clear to Stowe that the documentary will act as the crucial culmination of the work he’s done over all those years, bringing more eyes to a piece of history that most Union County residents never learn about.