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Black History of Charlotte: Slavery and Revolution

A fight for freedom didn’t include the population that built our city

People working on a railroad during the period of slavery in Charlotte
Enslaved people working on the railroad in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

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

On October 21, 1852, the first passenger train of the Charlotte & South Carolina Railroad embarked upon the hundred-mile stretch of 5-foot-gauge iron rails that led from Columbia, South Carolina, to the heart of Charlotte. It steamed to a stop at Charlotte’s newly built depot, on Second Street between College and Brevard. Onlookers erupted in celebration.

City officials had issued “a general invitation to the citizens of North and South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and the ‘rest of mankind’ personally to appear in the town of Charlotte.” They promised an event of Biblical proportions — “the largest Barbecue that has been given since the flood.”

Nearly 20,000 people heeded the call, coming to eat, dance, hear speeches, view fireworks and take in what the local paper called “the most brilliant and glorious day that the history of Charlotte has furnished for seventy-odd years.”

Festivity was in order. The goods and people transported over the rails would eventually turn Charlotte from a hamlet — what George Washington had once termed a “trifling place” — into a major center of trade, finance and manufacturing.   

Absent from the celebration, however, was any acknowledgment of the people whose labor had brought prosperity to town. Most local histories describe Charlotte as shaped by hardworking Scots-Irish Presbyterians, whose thrift and independence helped fuel the American Revolution and laid the foundation for an industrial boom. Numbers tell a different story. By 1850, almost half of the town’s residents — 47% — could trace their ancestry to Africa. The vast majority were enslaved. With unceasing, largely unpaid labor, these men and women did much of the area’s essential work.

Image of a railyard in Virginia during the civil war
A 19th-century railroad yard in City Point, Virginia during the civil war. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Living in slavery required strength, skill, intelligence and often courage. Enslaved railroad workers, for example, chopped trees and cleared brush. They placed dynamite, lit fuses and ran, literally, for their lives. They built trestles over rivers. They dug the wide, even trenches that railroad tracks required, filled them with gravel, positioned the heavy rails and hammered spikes into place. They worked from sunrise to sunset and often beyond. They endured heat, cold, illness and injury. Many of them died.

People survived these hardships by building inner fortitude and forming tight bonds with one another. “I sit here and think of those I loved . . . their hard struggle in life, their unfaltering love and devotion toward myself and [my] Children,” wrote Harriet Jacobs, who had endured enslavement in Edenton, N.C. “I love to sit here and think of them. They have made the few sunny spots in that dark life sacred to me.”

Slavery from the beginning

Slavery was entwined with Charlotte’s history from the start. In the 1600s, almost as soon as the first European colonists took control of North American land, slavery became an integral component of colonial economy and society. The first enslaved Africans reached Virginia in 1619.

Over the next century and a half, they built the tobacco fortunes of Virginia and eastern North Carolina and fueled the rice and indigo economy around the port of Charleston.

In the 1750s, when ambitious colonists began to follow the Great Wagon Road to the newly opened North Carolina Piedmont, those prosperous enough to afford slaves brought them along.

At that time towering oaks, maple and poplar covered the rolling hills, crossed by paths forged by the resident Catawba Indians. The Catawba resisted the influx of Europeans until 1759, when a smallpox epidemic drastically reduced their numbers. Survivors were forced to sign a treaty that restricted them to a small area around present-day Rock Hill, S.C., clearing Mecklenburg County for further settlement. 

The Piedmont’s hilly terrain and rocky, rushing rivers made it far less suited to plantation agriculture than North Carolina’s coastal plain, and most farms started as small family operations. New arrivals began by felling trees and digging rocks. They slept in their covered wagons while they cleared fields and built log homes. They raised sheep, cattle, hogs, geese, corn, and flax. They spun linen and wool for clothes, killed animals for meat, ground corn for bread, and distilled it into whiskey.

Some families were content with self-sufficiency. Others, however, aspired to greater wealth — an ambition that required enslaved labor. Cash crops such as cotton or tobacco required more work than a family could provide. Since hired labor was scarce, local historian D.A. Tompkins later wrote, “each farmer had to do his own work until he could by diligence and economy save enough to buy a slave.”

Those who amassed the means to expand their operations journeyed to the bustling slave markets in Charleston. Many of the people brought back in chains had come straight from Africa, bearing the weight of violent separation from their homes and of the horrific Middle Passage. Survival was an extraordinary achievement. Life in their harsh new world would require similar fortitude.

Over the years, these new North Carolinians came to know their surroundings well. Hunting and fishing were ways of life for most of the colony’s inhabitants, both enslaved and free. Scattered populations also meant that enslaved residents had to travel to see each other and to form families.

Alan Parker of Chowan County recalled a common pattern — his father, Jeff Ellick, lived on a farm 10 miles away from the rest of the family. He “generally came home Saturday nights and now and then would come to us in the night during the week, as a slave did not mind a walk of ten miles after his day’s work if he could have a chance to see his loved ones.” Enslaved Mecklenburg County residents likely did the same.

They also gathered for festivities such as communal corn shuckings, enlivened by music, dancing and flirtation, and for religious ceremonies that transcended the version of the gospel preached by slaveholding whites. Carey Freeman, who grew up in Mecklenburg County, told her daughter, Eliza Washington, about a minister who “used to preach to the colored people that if they would be good . . . and not steal their master’s eggs and chickens and things, that they might go to the kitchen of heaven when they died.”

Freeman and her companions did their own praying at night, often using a large, strategically positioned iron wash pot to muffle their voices: “[They] had to turn the pots down to keep their voices from sounding,” Washington explained, “and they couldn’t sing at all.”

But while enslaved North Carolinians found ways to snatch a few moments for themselves, they remained largely at the mercy of their enslavers, with virtually no legal rights. Their marriages had no legal standing, and North Carolina laws placed almost no limits on punishments they might receive. Whippings were common, administered by enslavers, by overseers, and by North Carolina courts, which specified that an enslaved person convicted for actions that ranged from setting fires to playing cards to teaching someone else to read should receive “a whipping on his or her bare back, not exceeding thirty-nine lashes.”

This precarious legal state had particular consequences for women. “The slave girl is reared in an atmosphere of licentiousness and fear,” Harriet Jacobs wrote. “When she is fourteen or fifteen, her owner, or his sons, or the overseer, or perhaps all of them, begin to bribe her with presents. If these fail to accomplish their purpose, she is whipped or starved into submission to their will.”

Revolution for whom?

By the 1770s, as American colonists began to chafe at British political and economic restrictions, Mecklenburg’s white residents leapt to the forefront. On May 31, 1775, they voiced their dissatisfaction with British rule in a set of declarations called the Mecklenburg Resolves. Participants would later assert that a week or so earlier, on May 20, they had drawn up an even more audacious Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence — the first full declaration of independence in the North American colonies.

The “Meck Dec” and its invocation of “a free and independent people” would become a cornerstone of white Charlotte identity, and May 20 an occasion for celebration.

Across the colonies, Black residents also warmed to words of freedom and independence. “Liberty is a Jewel which was handed down to man from the cabinet of heaven,” free Black soldier Lemuel Haynes wrote in 1776, adding that “Liberty is Equally as precious to a Black man, as it is to a white one, and Bondage Equally as intolerable to the one as it is to the other.”

But in the end, the lofty rhetoric of the American Revolution offered little to enslaved Americans. For more than a century and a half, North American colonists had reconciled the divide between their celebration of liberty and their dependence on enslaved labor by defining Africans as an “inferior” race, unworthy of the rights and privileges white men sought for themselves.

African Americans who aspired to freedom had to take matters into their own hands. When the Revolution came to Charlotte, local whites harassed the British troops, prompting General Lord Charles Cornwallis to call the town “a hornet’s nest.” Enslaved residents had other priorities. As  D.A. Tompkins put it: “A great number took advantage of the exciting times and endeavored to escape.”

Some of those who left joined the British forces, who offered freedom to men who fought with them. Across the course of the war, as many as 20,000 men of African descent fought with the British army.

Slaveholding Republic

After the Revolution, Southern whites refused to consider abolishing slavery. While Northern states began to end the practice, neither the Constitution nor the Bill of Rights offered hope for emancipation in the South. Instead, restrictions tightened.

Slaveowners had always feared rebellion — North Carolina’s slave code of 1741 was enacted in response to the bloody but unsuccessful Stono Rebellion outside of Charleston in 1739. The Haitian Revolution of 1791, in which an enslaved population overthrew French colonists and established a Black republic, heightened those concerns.

In 1793, the Mecklenburg County court ordered officers to arrest all enslaved persons “ranging at large during public meetings in the town of Charlotte except such as carried passes from their masters.” In 1809 “six patrols were appointed for the Charlotte militia district, and these patrols were of much service in preventing troubles among slaves and in apprehending the runaways.”

Illustration of plantation police checking passes
Plantation police or home-guard examining Negro passes on a levee road. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Such militias became an ever-present threat not only to potential rebels and escapees, but to the many people who ventured out to hunt or fish, to visit family members or to attend clandestine religious services.

“They would go two, or three together mounted on horseback, and generally accompanied by one or more dogs.” Alan Parker recalled of the Chowan County militias. “They were also armed with guns, and carried great whips, made of raw-hide or leather.”

If a militia sighted someone without the required pass, the traveler began a mad dash for home.

“Being on foot he could take to the woods, which he was sure to do if hard-pressed,” Parker explained. “Once in the woods he might be obliged to hide unless [they] had dogs with them, but even in that case he might manage to give them the slip, for if he came to a stream of water he would wade or swim across it, or he might walk in it for a little way . . . In this way he often managed to evade his pursuers.”

If someone was caught, “he would be tied to the nearest tree, what few clothes he had on would be taken off, and he would be given thirty-nine lashes on his bare back.”

Fear of rebellion, however, did little to dampen interest in an institution that built wealth. By 1800, census takers counted 10,439 residents in Mecklenburg County. Of those, 1,988 — 19% — were enslaved African Americans. As the century advanced, their numbers and significance would grow.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Black History of Charlotte: Slavery and Revolution.


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