Coley v. Artis: an introduction.

Though Coley v. Artis arose just over the county line in Wayne County’s Nahunta township, many of the men and women caught up in its scope had close links to Wilson County. The transcript of the trial proceeding is fascinating not only for its glimpses into their lives, but for the portrait it paints of a rural farming community that would have been immediately recognizable by anyone living just north of the line in Wilson County.

Detail, 1904 topographic map of Wilson Quadrangle, which includes northern Wayne County.

At the heart of Wayne County Superior Court proceedings stemming from the suit in J.F. Coley v. Tom Artis (1908) was a dispute over 30 acres of land. Thomas “Tom Pig” Artis began renting the property in 1881 from William J. Exum, a wealthy white farmer. In 1892, Exum’s widow Mary sold the land to Napoleon Hagans. In 1896, after Napoleon’s death, the land passed to his sons Henry and William S. Hagans and, in 1899, Henry sold his interest to his brother. In 1908, William S. Hagans sold the 30 acres to J. Frank Coley, a young white farmer. Tom Artis laid claim to the property, arguing that Napoleon Hagans had sold it to him. Tom claimed that the 800 pounds of cotton he yearly tendered to Napoleon Hagans (and later, his son William) was interest on a mortgage, but William Hagans and other witnesses maintained that the payment was rent. J.F. Coley filed suit and, after hearing the testimony of more than a dozen witnesses, the court decided in his favor.

The trial transcript is replete with testimony revealing the social and familial relationships among witnesses. Tom Artis testified that he rented the “Adam Artis place.” William Hagans testified that his father was in feeble health in 1896 when he called him and Henry together “under the cart shelter” to tell them he would not live long and did not know to whom the land would fall. William testified that Pole asked them to let “Pig” stay on as long as he paid rent, and they promised to do so. Tom Franks testified that “Pole was a first-rate business man.” Jonah Williams, Adam Artis’ brother, testified that he borrowed money from Napoleon to open a brickyard in the spring of 1893 and had preached his funeral. He also noted that “Tom married my sister [Loumiza Williams Artis].  He is not a member of my church. I turned him out. He is a Primitive Baptist. I preached Napoleon Hagans’ funeral.” Jesse Artis, another of Adam Artis’ brothers, testified that he had worked on Hagans’ property as a carpenter for 18 years and noted, “I don’t know that Tom and I are any kin, just by marriage.”  John Rountree testified that he was a tenant renting from Hagans on thirds. Simon Exum testified: “I am no kin to Tom [Artis] as far as I know, except by Adam.  His first wife was my wife [Delilah Artis Exum]’s sister.”  H.S. Reid testified that he was Tom Artis’ son-in-law.

Thomas Artis was a son of a free woman of color, Celia Artis, and her enslaved husband, Simon Pig. Though nearly all free colored Artises were descended from a common ancestor in southside Virginia, by the late 1800s clear understanding of their remote kinship links had faded. There were dozens of Artis families in Wayne County during the antebellum period, and the relationships between them are unknown. Celia Artis was a close neighbor of Adam Artis, but the families apparently did not regard themselves as kin. Still, they were inextricably intertwined. The Artises were also closely linked to other free families of color, including the Haganses and Reids, who had been neighbors in the Eureka area for generations. Celia Artis and Rhoda Reid — grandmother of Elijah L. Reid, J.D. Reid, and other Wilson residents — were the wealthiest free women of color in Wayne County. Adam Artis married Napoleon Hagans’ half-sister Frances Seaberry, whose father hailed from another free family of color. Another of Rhoda Reid’s grandsons, Henry S. Reid, married Tom Artis’ daughter. Henry’s first cousin Henry Reid married Adam Artis’ daughter Georgianna Artis. Adam Artis’ son William Marshall Artis and grandson Leslie Artis married Tom Artis’ nieces, Etta and Minnie Diggs. And on and on.

Documents found in file of the Estate of Thomas Artis (1911), Wayne County, North Carolina Estate Files, 1663-1979,



  1. Coley’s Artis and Dawson were my fathers ppl from Wayne Co, Peter Coley was my grandfather.

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