North Carolina Supreme Court

Williamson v. Williamson, 57 N.C. 272 (1858).

This case was filed in Wilson County Court of Equity by Garry Williamson and Jesse Fulgham, executors of the will of Thomas Williamson, concerning the distribution of certain enslaved people for whom Williamson claimed ownership. The principle question posed to the North Carolina Supreme Court was whether enslaved children, born before Williamson died, passed with their mothers to the designated legatees. “The general rule is clearly settled that the bequest simply of a female slave and her increase passes the mother only, and not the increase which she may have had before the will was executed, or between that time and the death of the testator.” An exception would be where the testator’s intent to include the children can be inferred from a reference to the enslaved woman having previously been in the possession of the legatee. Otherwise, the children become part of the “residue,” i.e. property to be liquidated and the proceeds equally divided among legatees.

The chart below summarizes the fates of 26 of the enslaved people — all women and children — that Thomas Williamson owned. It is a stark encapsulation of the devastating impact of slavery on African-American families. And where were their men? An examination of Williamson’s will, drafted in August 1852, reveals further separation. Turner, Patrick and Dennis were bequeathed to his wife Keziah Williamson, and Jack was passed to son Garry Williamson.

 

No Negro blood allowed.

Though James Lamm emerged victorious in his fight to educate his children in white schools, others were not as fortunate.

JOHNSON -- WDT 9 16 1914 No Negro Blood Allowed

Wilson Daily Times, 16 September 1914.

The whole matter was decided in seven months.

At the February Term of Wilson County Superior Court in 1914, J.S. Johnson filed suit against the Board of Education of Wilson County. He resided in School District No. 6 of Spring Hill township, he asserted, and was a white man and the father of four school-age children — Arthur, about 13 years old, Fannie, about 11, Carr, about 9, and Andrew, about 7. Johnson had sent Arthur to the local white public school, where a teacher sent him home after two days. The Complaint does not specify the reason for his expulsion. (And notes that Johnson did not attempt to enroll the younger children.) Johnson’s complaint demanded that the children be allowed to attend the district’s white school.

The Board of Education filed an Answer setting forth one devastating affirmative defense: “… the defense alleges that the children of the plaintiff are not entitled under the statute of North Carolina to attend the school for the white race for that they have negro blood in their veins.”

Judge George W. Connor scheduled a hearing for 4 February 1914, which was postponed by mutual consent until the 10th. In the meantime, an additional fact was admitted (presumably by Johnson): “each of the said four minor children have a slight mixture of negro blood, the same being less in each child than one-sixteenth …” Nonetheless, the Superior Court ruled a victory for the Johnsons. Judge W.M. Bond reasoned thus: the state constitution provides that the legislature shall provide separate white and colored schools and also makes valid a marriage between a white man and a woman with less than one-eighth “admixture of colored blood.” In Bond’s opinion, the legislature overstepped when it attempted to bar from white schools the child of a valid marriage involving a white person.  “In other words, the status of the child is fixed by the Constitutional recognition of the marriage.”

The Board of Education appealed.

The Supreme Court overturned.

At the outset, Justice Walker stated plainly that J.S. Johnson was a white man of a “pure strain” of blood, and his unnamed wife had less than one-eighth Negro admixture. He then homed in on a key passage of the state constitution: “no child with negro blood in his veins, however remote the strain, shall attend a school for the white race; and no such child shall be considered a white child.” “Should it be conceded … that the marriage J.S. Johnson and the woman who is the mother of his children, is a valid one, it does not, by any means, settle the important and delicate question, [presented here, in Johnson’s favor.]” The law allowing marriage between a white person and one of remote African ancestry might legitimate their children, “but by no subtle alchemy known to the laboratory of logic can it be claimed to have extracted the negro element from the blood of such offspring and made it pure.” In fact, the Court reasoned, the law does not even declare marriage between a white person and one with “negro blood” within the prescribed limit to be valid, but only that marriage between a white person and one over the limit is void. In any case, certainly the legislature has the right to lay down an absolute — no children with any African ancestry at all, period — as a matter of public policy. (That policy being the “peace, harmony and welfare of the two races, according to each race equal privileges and advantages of education and mental and moral training with the other, but keeping them apart in the schoolroom, where, by reason of racial instincts and characteristics peculiar to each, unpleasant antagonism would arise, which would prove fatal to proper school regulation and discipline …”) The justice turned to the definition of “colored,” which was not explicitly delineated in the law. What is common usage?, he asks. Is “colored” considered to include Arthur Johnson? The term is never applied to red Indians, yellow Mongolians or brown Malays, colored as they may be. “To those of Negro blood alone is [the term] ever found to be suited” and d0es not depend upon “a shade of particular blackness ….” “Whether complexions appear distinctly black or approaching toward the fair by gradations of shading is all one.” After touching approvingly upon the decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, the court reiterated the justness and wisdom of maintaining harmony through segregation. Judgment: reversed. The Johnson children were too black to go to a white school.

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No matter the views of school teachers and Supreme Court justices, the Johnsons’ community regarded them as white. In the 1920 census of Spring Hill township, Wilson County, on the Keely Branch of the Smithfield and Red Hill Road, Arthur Johnson, 20, and his wife Bertha, 25, lived next to his parents and siblings — Josephus, 42, Minnie, 38, Fannie, 17, Carl, 15, Andrew, 12, Luther, 10, Clintard, 8, Ransom, 4, Flossie L., 2, and Leonard, 6 months. All were described as white, just as they had in the 1910 census.

Cephus Johnson, 22, son of Emma Johnson, married Minnie Taylor, 18, daughter of Silvira Taylor, at the residence of William Taylor on 25 January 1898. Both were described as white. Further, Minnie Etta Johnson of Springhill township, Wilson County, died 20 March 1937, as a white woman. J.S. Johnson was listed as her husband, and he informed the undertaker that Minnie had been born in Wilson County to Silvina Taylor and an unknown father. She was buried in a family cemetery by Joyner’s Funeral Home, a white-only business.

I have been unable to locate Silvina or Minnie Etta Taylor prior to 1898.

School Records (1914), Miscellaneous Records, Wilson County Records, North Carolina State Archives; Johnson v. Board of Education of Wilson County, 82 S.E. 832 (1914).

The last will and testament of Ishmael Wilder.

In the name of God, I Ishmael Wilder of the County of Wilson and State of North Carolina being of sound mind and memory and in feeble health and considering the uncertainty of my earthly existence and the certainty of death do make and declare this my last will and testament in the manner and form following

First that executors hereinafter named shall out of the first money coming into their hands as a part of my estate pay all my funeral expenses together with my just debts wheresoever and to whomsoever owing.

Item 1. I lend to my son Josiah Wilder 60 acres of land to be cut off of the east side of my tract of land so as to include my present residence but not to include the place where he formally lived to him during his natural life and at his death I give and bequeath it to his bodily heirs if any and if none to return to my estate.

Item 2. I lend to my son H.G. Wilder 60 acres of land to be cut off next to my son Josiah Wilder’s piece so as to include the house where Josiah Wilder formally lived and not to include the house on the road where Joe Barnes now lives; to him during his natural life and at his death I give and bequeath it to his bodily heirs if any and if none to return to my estate.

Item 3. I lend to my daughter Laura A. Reed 59 1/2 acres the remainder of my land to include the house where Joe Barnes now lives to her during her natural life and at her death I give and bequeath it to her bodily heirs if any and if none to return to my estate.

Item 4. I give and bequeath to the six children of my deceased son Hinton Wilder One Hundred and Seventy Five dollars each in money.

Item 5. I give and bequeath to the two children of my deceased daughter Victoria Hinnant Three Hundred dollars in money.

Now I have some insurance and some personal property which I desire sold and used in the payment of the items above mentioned and if there be a deficiency which I think there may be it is my will and my desire that my two sons Josiah Wilder and H.G. Wilder and my daughter Laura A. Reed shall pay the deficiency each of them paying one third of said deficiency so that my grandchildren may have what I have bequeathed to them and I make this a first lien of the lands devised to them until they have paid said deficiency.

Lastly I hereby appoint my two sons Josiah Wilder and H.G. Wilder my lawful executors to execute this my last will and testament and I hereby revoke and declare void all other wills and testaments and I hereunto set my hand and seal this the 16th day of October 1913.  /s/ Ishmael Wilder

Made and declared by Ishmael Wilder to be his last will and testament and at his request and in his presence and in the presence of each other we sign the same as witnesses thereto. This October the 26th 1913.  Witnesses R.T. Barnes, S.C. [Simon C.] Barnes

——

J.T. Revell surveyed and divided Ishmael Wilder’s land in Springhill township among his heirs on 21 April 1920. A map of the division is found on page 390 of Will Book 5-6, housed in the Wilson County Register of Deeds office.

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This was not the end of the matter.

Laura Wilder Reid and her husband, Henry S. Reid, contracted to sell Oscar Neal her 59 1/2 acre portion of her father’s estate for $10,000. Reid contended that she had title to the land in fee simple, but Neal questioned her ability to convey the land to him under the terms of Ishmael Wilder’s will. On 19 October 1921, the Reids filed suit to clarify the matter. A trial judge found in their favor, and Neal appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Here is the statement of facts and initial judgment in Reid v. Neal, 182 N.C. 192 (1921).

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Five dense pages of legalese later, the Supreme Court concluded that Laura Reid had only a life estate in her father’s property and thus could not sell it. Judgment reversed.

——

On 27 August 1866, Ishmal Wilder and Sarah Richards registered their cohabitation before a justice of the peace in Wilson County.

In the 1870 census, Springhill township, Wilson County: Ishmael Wilder, 41, wife Sarah 38, and children Hinton, 6, Josiah, 4, and James, 2.

In the 1880 census, Springhill township, Ishmal Wilder, 44, his mother Classey, 65, his wife Sarah, 36, and children Hinton, 15, Josiah, 13, James, 12, Lorrian, 9, Guilford, 8, Clarian, 7, Henry, 5, and Nancy An, 3.

On 11 November 1893, H.G. Wilder, 21, son of Ishmael and Sarah Wilder, married Francy Earp, 19, daughter of Sidney and Nancy Earp, in Oldfields township, Wilson County.

On 6 January 1894, Josiah Wilder, 27, son of Ishmael and Sarah Wilder, married Christina M. Earp, 25, daughter of Sidney and Nancy Earp, in Oldfields township, Wilson County.

On 22 October 1895, Laura Wilder, 25, daughter of Ishmael and Sarah Wilder, married Henry S. Reid, 34, son of Washington and Penina Reid of Wayne County. Samuel H. Vick applied for the couple’s license. (Henry was a brother of veterinarian Elijah Reid and principal J.D. Reid.)

On 31 January 1900, Ishmael Wilder, 60, son of Ben and Clarisa Wilder, married Edna Newsom, 55, in Wilson County.

In the 1900 census of Springhill township, Wilson County: Ishmael Wilder, 63, wife Edney, 55, and daughter Clara, 26.

In the 1910 census of Springhill township, Wilson County: on Wilson & Raleigh Branch Road, Ishmael Wilder, 74, divorced, living alone. Next door, the “Joe Barnes” mentioned in his will: Joseph Barnes, 57, wife Chana, 51, children Elijah, 16, Joseph, 13, and Sarah Barnes, 10, and granddaughter Fletchie L. Williams, 6. Joseph reported that he was renting the land he farmed; he was Ishmael’s tenant.

Ishmael Wilder died 10 February 1917.

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North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [database on-line], Ancestry.com.