Free People of Color

Studio shots, no. 197: Sylvania Simmons Sutton.

Sylvania Simmons Sutton (1853-1916).

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In the 1860 census of Indian Springs district, Wayne County: cooper George Simmons, 40; wife Axey J., 38; and children Riley B., 19, Simon, 15, Susan A., 17, Zach, 10, Silvania, 9, Bryant, 7, H.B., 5, and Gen. Washington, 2.

In the 1870 census of Brogden township, Wayne County: farmer Geo. Simmons, 52; wife Annie, 47; and children George, 24, shoemaking shoes, Zachariah, 22, Silavant, 20, Bryant C., 18, Hillary B., 16, and Washington, 12.

On 23 December 1875, Calvin Sutton, 21, married Sylvania Simmons, 22, in Wayne County.

In the 1880 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: farmer Calvin Sutton, 25; wife Silvania, 26; children Hattie, 3, and twins Joel B. and Josephin, 1; mother Dolly, 55; brothers Dallow, 18, and Henry, 16; and sister Mary, 12.

In the 1900 census of Springhill township, Wilson County: Calvin Sutton, 45; wife Silvania, 49; and children George, 18, Walter, 16, Mary, 13, and Roscoe, 10.

In the 1910 census of Springhill township, Wilson County: on Upper Black Creek Road, farmer Calvin Sutton, 54; wife Sylvania, 58; daughter Hattie Taylor, 33; and grandchildren Olivia, 9, Viola, 7, Lillie M., 5, Georgiana, 4, and Mittie, 2; plus adopted grandson Frank McNeal, 16.

Sylvania Sutton died 4 August 1916 in Springhill township, Wilson County. Per her death certificate, she was about 65 years old; was married; her father was George Simmons; and she was buried in Watson graveyard.

Detail of portrait, courtesy of Ancestry user cjjsinc.

Rachel Lassiter provides for her daughter.

Deed Book 1, page 657. Wilson County Register of Deeds Office, Wilson.

This Indenture made this the 27th day of decr 1860 one thousand eight hundred & sixty between Rachel Lassiter of the county of Wilson & State of North Carolina of the first part & Matthew Lassiter of the county & state aforesaid of second part witnessed: That the said party of the first part for & in consideration of the sum of ten Dollars to her in hand paid by the said Matthew Lassiter for the [illegible] & [illegible] the trust, hereinafter mentioned at & before the sealing & delivery hereof the receipt whereof he does hereby acknowledge have given, granted, bargained & sold & by these presents doth grant, bargain sell & convey unto the said Matthew Lassiter his heirs & assigns forever all my personal property including her whole estate say 3 head of Cattle one bed & furniture household & Kitchen furniture & about eighty dollars in bonds or notes to have & to hold unto the said Matthew Lassiter his heirs & assigns & for the following & none other that is to say for the sole & separate use of my child Zelphia Lassiter & any other heirs I may hereafter have & the issues & profits thereof shall be for their use & benefit. In testimony whereof I hereunto set my hand & seal this 27th day of Dcr 1860    Rachel X Lassiter  Matthew X Lassiter

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In the 1850 census of Edgecombe County: Hardy Laster, 73, wife Beady, 54, and children Mathew, 26, Silas, 26, Green, 25, Hardy, 21, and Rachel, 20; all described as mulatto. Hardy reported owning $650 of real property.

In the 1860 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Green Lassiter, 36; [his wife] Mary, 24; [and his siblings] Matthew, 37; and Rachel Lassiter, 30. [Where was Zilpha?]

On 29 December 1860, Rachael Lassiter married Daniell [actually, David] Read in Wilson County.

This marriage surely precipitated the transfer of Rachel Lassiter’s assets to her brother Matthew Lassiter three days prior. David Reid was a widower with children. When Rachel Lassiter married, her personal property would in effect become her husband’s property. In order to preserve her assets for her own daughter’s benefit, Rachel Lassiter sold everything she had to Matthew Lassiter in trust for Zelphia Lassiter. 

In the 1870 census of Otter Creek township, Edgecombe County, N.C.: farm laborer David Reid, 58; wife Rachel, 40; and children Gustin E., 18, Nancy A., 16, and Zylpha, 17.

I have not found anything further about Rachel Lassiter Reid or Zelphia Lassiter, alias Reid, but note that David Reid’s 1910 estate papers do not list either of them.

[Update, 16 March 2022: Bernard Patterson, a descendant of Rachel Lassiter’s sister Penelope Lassiter Woodard, immediately went looking for Zilphia Lassiter and found this: on 23 March 1876, Amandiburt Mills, 30, married Sylphy Lassiter, 22, in No. 9 township, Edgecombe County. 

With that information, I found: in the 1880 census of Roxabel township, Bertie County, N.C.: Mandaburt Mills, 35; wife Zilpha A., 25; and son Thadius, 12; plus servant Francis Clark, 18.

in the Death Register of Greensville County, Virginia: Zilphia Mills died 15 March 1892 of dropsy She was reported as 25 years of age; was born in Wilson, N.C., to Rachel Lussiter; and was married to M.B. Mills. In the 1900 census of Belfield township, Greensville County: Mandyburt Mills, 53, widower, farmer.] 

Wilson County, North Carolina County Marriages 1762-1979, http://www.familysearch.org.

Hardy Lassiter’s estate sale.

Hardy Lassiter died in Wilson County in the spring of 1853. On 16 August 1855, as the settlement of his estate wound down, administrator William L. Farmer sold off Lassiter’s personal property to two of his children Rachel Lassiter and Green Lassiter. The sale account offers a singular look at a free Black man’s most intimate effects — his clothing.

The sale netted $17.44 for one lot of old clothes; twelve other old clothes; five pairs of pants; a lot of clothes; two coats; a lot of stockings; four handkerchiefs; an overcoat; five more coats; a cravat; two brushes; a knife and razor; a razor strop; two hats; one pair of shoes; one umbrella(?); a satchel; one “pocket & pas”; a watch; and a stick.

Hardy Lassiter, North Carolina, U.S. Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998, http://www.ancestry.com.

Coley v. Artis, pt. 1: He never said he had any claims on the land.

The first in an occasional series excerpting testimony from the transcript of the trial in J.F. Coley v. Tom Artis, Wayne County Superior Court, November 1908. The dispute centered on 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. Hagans died in 1896, and the land passed to his sons Henry and William S. Hagans. In 1899, Henry sold his interest to his brother William, who sold the 30 acres in 1908 to J. Frank Coley, a young white farmer. Tom Artis laid claim to the property, arguing that Napoleon Hagans had sold it to him. Coley filed suit and, after hearing the testimony of more than a dozen witnesses, the court decided in his favor. (Paragraph breaks and some punctuation have been inserted for better readability.)

The Plaintiff introduces W.S. [William S.] Hagans, who being duly sworn testifies as follows:

I sold this land, the 30 acre, 24 acre, and the 9 1/3 acre pieces to Mr. [J. Frank] Coley. Mr. [J. Wright] Cook had been negotiating with me for the purchase of the 30 acre tract and the 24 acre tract. He did not want the 9 1/3 acre tract. I met Mr. Cook on several different occasions, until finally we met at Eureka one afternoon, he was considering it, and we finally decided on the deal. Mr. Cook was to give me $40.00 per acre for the the 30 acre tract, and the 24 acre tract. Before Mr. Cook did this however, he informed me that there was a missing link in the title, that he had found after investigating it. I told him that that was perfectly alright, as there had never been any question about it.

After our conference at Eureka, the day was set for me to meet him in Goldsboro, where he was to pay me the consideration, the price of the land, and I in turn to give him a deed for the land. He did not come on that day, but ‘phoned me at Fremont that he did not succeed in raising the money, but to please hold it open until tomorrow.

Early tomorrow morning, before sunrise, a bitter cold morning, the Defendant [Tom Artis] came to my house in Goldsboro. I asked him what brought him to town on such a cold morning, he said he came to bring a message from Mr. J.F. Coley, that Mr. Coley said that he wanted to buy that land, and would take all three of the tracts instead of two, said the Defendant to me, “that will be to your advantage.” The Defendant stated to me that Mr. Cook’s time was out yesterday. I expressed surprise that the Defendant should be familiar with those circumstances. Afterwards I said to the Defendant, that while Mr. Cook’s time was out yesterday, that Mr. Cook had phoned me yesterday & said he had a great effort to reach me, and finally did so asking me to hold the matter open until tomorrow. I told him that I would feel honor bound if Mr. Cook should come to me with the purchase price for the two tracts of land, to let him have it, although I would prefer selling the three tracts together. The Defendant said to me that if Mr. Cook got possession of this place that he the Defendant would not be able to stay there as Mr. Cook was a very disagreeable man to get along with. I told the Defendant that I would not deed this property to Mr. Cook, or to any one else until they made the same promise to me in reference to the Defendant’s staying where he was, that I made to my father in the presence of the Defendant.

The Defendant remained in shooting distance of me all of the day, waiting for me to see Mr. Cook that he might get from me a final message to take back to Mr. Coley. I saw Mr. Cook, and he informed me that the reason he couldn’t take it was that he had experienced great difficulty in raising that money. That money was hard. I was really glad of this, and so informed the Defendant, for I wanted to sell the three tracts if possible, together. Then I asked the Defendant to say to Mr. Coley on his return home, that I would meet him at the Defendant’s house on Friday, I think it was, but having business out there, I drove past, and got the Defendant and took him out to the Plaintiff’s place of business that was on Thursday, I went the day before the time set, and stated to the Defendant the object of my going down there, and asked him to go with me.

We went down there and Mr. Coley and I had a talk aside from the Defendant, and finally wound up in the Defendant’s presence. The conversation we had in the presence of Tom was Mr. Coley might have the three pieces of land, in consideration of $3250, and I take his paper. This was said in the Defendant’s immediate presence, he sitting on the buggy beside me. We left, the Defendant expressing himself as highly pleased that Mr. Coley had bought the three pieces of land, said he thought I had made a fine trade. He made no objection at any time to the sale of the land. He encouraged it all the while. He never intimated to me that he had any claims on this land of any kind. None whatever.

I got the land about 1899, deed of partition between my brother [Henry E. Hagans] and myself. After I got the land I rented that to the Defendant. The first year I think, I charged him 850 lb. of lint cotton, thinking all the while that my brother having acted for us both got 850 lb. for the two places, the 30 and the 24 acre lot.The Defendant informed me that my brother had been charging only 800 lb., and I agreed to the 800 lb. He did not at any time when delivering this cotton say that he was paying it as interest and taxes. (Defendant objects.) He has never said anything about paying it as any way than rent. He has never mentioned taxes to me on that property. I listed that land and paid the taxes.

I had some work done on that house since I came in possession. The Defendant patched the roof and also built a porch. I do not wish to state that I had it built. I paid for the lumber. The Defendant did the work himself.

The Defendant came to my place in front of the gin house last fall, and said to me that he had understood that I was going to sell those three pieces of land down there, we called it the Tom Pig place, the Calv Pig place and the Adam [Artis] place. He said he wanted to buy the Tom Pig place or the 30 acre. He asked me if I would prefer selling it all together. I asked him what he would want to give me for the 30 acre tract piece, and he said he would give me $800.00 for it. I told him I couldn’t take that, as I had already been offered $40.00 an acre, or $2160 for the two places. He asked me to give him time that he might hear from his boys in Norfolk, that he was confident that he could raise the purchase price for the 30 acre tract, if not for it all. The Defendant and Durden Fort were present at the time. Durden Fort has since died. In payment of this land, Mr. Coley’s notes were security fort this property. Mr. Coley’s home place I think. 60 some odd acres in addition to what I sold was given as security. One note is due in January.

CROSS-EXAMINED.

Tom said to me, “I think you sold those three pieces of land well.” He said that on the buggy. Mr. Coley and I behind the barn talked about this land. He wanted to get the land for $3000. I had an idea that Mr. Coley was a pretty good trader, and wanted to get it as cheap as possible, and I told him behind the barn what three pieces I wanted to sell him them for. I didn’t have to go through any particular form, we didn’t close the thing out, we continued the conversation until we separated. The pieces of land were all understood. He said in the presence of Tom, “For the three pieces of land I will give you $3250.00.” I thought it was necessary to innumerate the three pieces so he would see what he was getting.

Tom has lived on that place ever since I had it. I don’t know to my personal knowledge if he lived off of it. I was in school at the time, or at any rate away from home. Durden Fort was present at the conversation we had. He died in the summer. I had him as a witness. I did not rent my land at the same price every year to every body, not necessarily, to some I did, some I didn’t. The reason I charged him 800 lb. was because my brother rented it to him for 800, and I thought it was all he was able to pay, and there were other considerations. There were other considerations that induced me to charge only 800 lb. of lint cotton for the land. (Plaintiff objects.) It arose out of a conversation I had with my father [Napoleon Hagans] and Tom. My father was in feeble health in 1896. He called my brother and myself under the cart shelter at the home place and said to us that he was not going to live long, and he did not know to which one of us, that is his two sons, would fall heir to that property. Tom was present. That was the land in controversy. (Plaintiff objects), but as long as the Defendant, whom he called “Pig” paid his rent, let him remain. We promised. He did not say how much rent. I did not know as far as I remember that Tom paid to my father 800 lb. of lint cotton. I don’t know. I would rather believe he did. (Plaintiff objects.)

The cart shelter under which the Haganses met with Thomas Artis to discuss the land he farmed may have looked something like this structure, photographed recently in Mississippi.

“Nothing could swerve him”: The extraordinary life of Napoleon Hagans.

Please join me February 10 to hear about the extraordinary life of Napoleon Hagans of Wayne County, North Carolina, who went from involuntary apprenticeship as a free child of color to testifying before the United States Senate to Honorary Commissioner of the 1884 World Industrial and Cotton Centennial in New Orleans.

To register for this virtual event: https://forms.gle/jwhzzpCCakVpRVaGA

Wayne County Public Library presents …

Wayne County Public Library always has a great line-up for Black History Month, and I’m thankful to have been invited again to present. On February 10, I’ll be talking about the extraordinary life Napoleon Hagans, who went from involuntary apprenticeship as a free child of color to testifying before the United States Senate to Honorary Commissioner of the 1884 World Industrial and Cotton Centennial in New Orleans. 

To register for this virtual event: https://forms.gle/jwhzzpCCakVpRVaGA

Green Lassiter buys land in 1855.

Green Lassiter, a free man of color, bought just over fifty acres from William L. Farmer in December 1855 and registered the deed for his purchase about six weeks later. Wilson County formed in 1855, and this is the first registered purchase of real property by a free person of color in the county. (The land Lassiter bought just north of the town of Wilson had been in Edgecombe County before Wilson County was established, and certainly free people of color had owned land — though they did not often register their deeds — in the parts of Edgecombe, Nash, Wayne, and Johnston Counties that later formed Wilson County.)

Lassiter had a close business relationship with William L. Farmer (who had been the administrator of Green’s father Hardy Lassiter‘s estate), and Farmer’s 1856 estate records show that he had extended Lassiter a number of small loans. 

Deed book 1, page 123, Wilson County Register of Deeds Office.

This Indenture made the 22nd day of December A.D. 1855 between Wm. L. Farmer of the first part & Green Lassiter of the second part all the county of Wilson State of North Carolina witnesseth that for and in consideration of the sum of Four Hundred Dollars the receipt whereof is hereby acknowledged that said Wm. L. Farmer has given granted bargained sold & conveyed & by these presents does give grant bargain sell & convey unto the said Green Lassiter his heirs & assigns a certain tract or parcel of land lying in the County of Wilson adjoining the lands of Watson Rountree Washington Ruffin & others containing fifty & a half acres more or less to have & to hold the said Land with the said Green Lassiter his heirs & assigns and the said Wm. L. Farmer does hereby covenant & agree to for himself & his heirs executors & administrators to forever covenant & defend the title hereby conveyed to the said Green Lassiter his heirs & assigns forever In testimony whereof we hereunto set our hands & seals this the day & date above written       W.L. Farmer {seal}

Witness  Isaiah Farmer

Wilson County Feb 5th 1856 The Execution of the foregoing Deed is duly proven by the oat of Isaiah Farmer before me W. Barnes Clerk let it be Registered   W. Barnes Clerk

Received for registration this foregoing Deed the 6th day of Feb 1856  L.T. Sauls Registrar

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In the 1850 census of Edgecombe County: Hardy Laster, 73, wife Beady, 54, and children Mathew, 26, Silas, 26, Green, 25, Hardy, 21, and Rachel, 20; all described as mulatto. Hardy reported owning $650 of real property.

In the 1860 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: Green Lassiter, 36, farmer, and his siblings Mary Lassiter, 24, Matthew Lassiter, 37, and Rachel Lassiter, 30, farm laborers. Green reported $750 in real estate.

Green Lassiter married Mary Ann Powell on 19 January 1860 in Wilson County at Dempsey Powell‘s residence. 

In the 1870 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farm laborer Green Lassiter, 46; wife Mary, 31; and children Henry, 10, Sallie, 8, Hardy, 6, and John G., 1 month. Lassiter reported owning $500 in real property and $125 in personal property.

In the 1880 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farmer Green Lassiter, 55; wife Mary Ann, 42; and children Henry, 19, Sally Ann, 17, Hardy, 15, John Green, 10, Dempsey S., 5, and Mary C., 2.

Mary Mercer died 27 February 1912 in Wilson. Per her death certificate, she was 31 years old; was born in Wilson County to Green Lester and Mary Powell; was married; and engaged in domestic work. Beadie Blackwell was informant.

Hardy Lassiter died 24 June 1928 in Pine Bluff, Jefferson County, Arkansas. Per his death certificate, he was 55 years old; was born in Wilson, N.C., to Green Lassiter; lived at 1601 Texas, Pine Bluff; was a laborer at a heading factory; and was married. Julius Lassiter was informant.

Dempsey Lassiter died 17 July 1946 at his home at 106 South East Street, Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was 68 years old; was born in Wilson County to Green Lassiter and Mary Ann Powell; was engaged in farming; was married to Mary J. Lassiter; and was buried in Rountree [actually Odd Fellows] Cemetery.

An interesting heritage.

We have read here of Kingsberry and Charity Jones Taylor, who migrated to Indiana in the 1840s. The pages below are excerpted from “My Grandmother, Sarah Ann Taylor Maxwell,” a transcribed memoir by the Taylors’ great-granddaughter Bessie Chandler Van Dyke (1907-1994). As with many such recorded recollections, some of the details are off, but others provide incredibly rich insight into the lives of two free people of color with roots in what is now Wilson County.

Per Europe Ahmad Farmer, the principal historian and genealogist of the Locus/Lucas family and related free families of color of Nash and Wilson Counties, Kingsberry Taylor’s mother was Zelphia Taylor Brantley, who was white, and his father was a free man of color who was a Locus. Kingsberry was not enslaved, though he likely was indentured as an apprentice until he was 21. He did not live in Randolph County, but in Nash County, and he married Charity Jones (who lived in what is now Wilson County) prior to their migration to Indiana.

The Taylor family in the 1850 census of Madison County, Indiana.

Transcript courtesy of Ancestry.com user samjoyatk.

The apprenticeship of the Hagans siblings.

On 4 December 1869, a Wilson County Probate Court judge ordered 15 year-old Joseph Hagans, described as an orphan, to serve James S. Barnes until he was 21 years of age. Joseph’s siblings Penny, 13, Edwin, 11, George, and Sarah Hagans, 6, were placed under Barnes’ control the same day.

The Haganses were the children of Robert and Sarah Hagans. In the 1860 census of Fields district, Greene County: day laborer Robert Hagans, 31; wife Sarah, 30; and children Mary, 12, Joseph, 8, Penelope, 5, and Edwin, 1. Robert and Sarah Hagans apparently died between 1864 and 1869.

In the 1870 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: siblings Joseph, 15, Penelope, 12, Edwin, 11, Sarah, 8, and George Hagans, 6, all described as “farmer’s apprentices.” Their household is listed next to James R. Barnes, a wealthy farmer who reported owning $18,000 in real property. (This is a different James Barnes from the one who apprenticed the Hagans children. James S. Barnes died in 1871. With the exception of Penny — see link above — I have not found the Hagans siblings after 1870.)

United States, Indenture and Manumission Records, 1780-1939, database at https://familysearch.org.

Family ties, no. 1: a shoebox full of food.

Wilson’s emergence as a leading tobacco market town drew hundreds of African-American migrants in the decades after the 1890s. Many left family behind in their home counties, perhaps never to be seen again. Others maintained ties the best way they could.

Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver and her husband Jesse A. Jacobs Jr. left Dudley, in southern Wayne County, North Carolina, around 1905. They came to Wilson presumably for better opportunities off the farm. Each remained firmly linked, however, to parents and children and siblings back in Wayne County as well as in the Great Migration north. This post is the first in a series of excerpts from interviews with Hattie Henderson Ricks, their adoptive daughter (and Sarah’s great-niece), revealing the ways her Wilson family stayed connected to their far-flung kin. (Or didn’t.)

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Sarah Henderson Jacobs Silver, born in 1872, was the eighth of nine children. By time she moved to Wilson, only her brothers James Lucian Henderson, born 1859, and Caswell C. Henderson, born 1865, were living. (Hattie was her sister Loudie Henderson’s grandchild.) Caswell had migrated to New York City by about 1890, but Lucian remained in Dudley to farm. He and his wife, Susan McCollum Henderson, had only one child, who died in early adulthood without a spouse or children.

Susie Henderson had long been sickly and, by the late 1920s, Lucian Henderson’s health had begun to fail. Jesse Jacobs’ nephew, John Wesley Carter, lived nearby. He had developed a close relation with the Hendersons, but could not be expected to assume complete responsibility for their care.

The family turned to the Atlantic Coast Line Rail Road for a solution:

“Mama Sarah [would] fix dinner and send it down to Dudley on the train. The man that run the whatchacallit — engine?  Up there, where stokes the fire or whatever is on the train. He would take it.  But she would tell what day she was gon send it. And so somebody’d be up there to the train station to get it.  And the train, ‘cause a lot of time the train didn’t stop in Dudley. But anyway, the man, the conductor, he would pull the thing, whatever, for the train to stop long enough for him to drop off this package.  … Somebody she’d have be out there when the train come through, and then the porter on the train — Mama knew him —  and so then Johnnie and them or somebody be out there to take the package. It’d be a shoebox full of food, already cooked and ready to eat. So that’s the way they helped Uncle Lucian and A’nt Susie, like that. Until they died, and so that was the end of trying to feed them and take care of them.”

Look closely at this snippet of a 1936 map of the Atlantic Coast Line’s routes. Wilson is just above the center point. Lucian and Susie Henderson’s care packages traveled south through Goldsboro to the whistle stop at Dudley’s platform, nine miles below and just above Mount Olive.

Adapted from interviews of Hattie H. Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, 1996 and 1998. All rights reserved.