Part 1/2
“Free People of Color” in Slaveholding North Carolina: The Andersons of Granville County

Photograph: Sampson Anderson (1844-1906) with wife Jane Anderson (1852-1923) and son Robert F Anderson (1872-1914). 

Sampson was the son of Henry Anderson and Nancy Richardson. Jane was the daughter of Mark and Crecy Anderson. 

The family lived in Granville and Wake Counties and relocated to Washington, D.C. in their later years. 

Source: Ancestry, Username: rewinder11. Courtesy Kianga Lucas.
“Free People of Color” in Slaveholding North Carolina: The Andersons of Granville County
Posted on April 1, 2017 by renegadesouth
By Vikki Bynum

Late last year, I was contacted by Raymont Hawkins-Jones, a descendant of a family I’d written about many years earlier: the Andersons of Granville County, North Carolina. The Andersons were one of the many fascinating free families of color that I’ve studied over the years, and I enjoyed learning more about their history from Raymont. Back in pre-internet 1992, pretty much everything I knew about my subjects was what I’d learned from records held at the North Carolina State Archives. 

Today, social media has enabled me to meet many of their descendants and to access additional records posted on the internet. The same digital revolution that stimulated me to create this blog also allows me to revisit my early topics of research and bring their stories up to date! (1)

The Andersons and the families with whom they intermarried belonged to a community of people defined by society as non-white, but who rarely appeared as slaves in North Carolina’s state and court records. As I’ve noted in earlier Renegade South essays about the mixed heritage communities of Gloucester County, Virginia, and the “Winton Triangle” of North Carolina, the lives of free people of color reveal far more complicated histories of racial identity, class, and race relations than the broad images of “white freedom” and “black slavery” would suggest.

In fact, families such as the Andersons are central to understanding historical events that preceded and followed the institution of slavery, including colonization, the American Revolution, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the postwar rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and the New South era of white supremacy.

The very existence of free people of color, especially those in the South, threatened the growing institution of slavery. Southern whites especially feared their influence on slaves as the United States moved toward a Civil War generated by national conflicts over slavery. Determined to prevent free people of color from exercising full rights of citizenship and mobility, lawmakers increasingly policed their behavior through oppressive laws and customs. 

In my first book, Unruly Women: the Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South (1992),  I published my findings on the Andersons and touched on the lives of free families bearing the names of Boon, Chavis, Curtis, Day, Fane, Haithcock, Kearsey, Mayo, Richardson, and Tyler. During the course of my research, I also become familiar with the Bass, Guy, Pettiford, and Taborn families of Granville County. 

With no diaries or first-hand accounts available to me from the families themselves, I focused on their court-house experiences and what they revealed about the lives of multi-ethnic free people governed by race and class-based laws in a slaveholding state.

Back in 1992, I knew next to nothing about these families’ heritage, and mostly referred to them as “free blacks.” Today, thanks to conversations with Raymont and after reading Kianga Lucas’s Native American Roots blog, I realize that the courts’ label of “free people of color” masked their extensive and varied Indian ancestry. The Bass family, for example, with whom the Andersons intermarried, originally descended from the Nansemond tribe of Virginia’s Powhatan Confederacy. 

Likewise, many of Granville County’s free people of color claim descent from various Indian tribes such as the Tuscarora of eastern North Carolina and the Pamunkey, Chickahominy, and Saponi of Virginia. Descendants of these tribes were among the earliest people of color to migrate to Granville County, where they settled in the vicinity of the town of Oxford and the townships of Fishing Creek, Kittrell, and Tally Ho. (2)

Writing for the Atlantic Monthly in 1886 under the pseudonym David Dodge, Oscar W. Blacknall of Kittrell township gave an eye-witness description of his neighbors. Because of “exclusive intermarriage in their own class,” he wrote, they displayed a “considerable infusion of Indian blood” revealed by their “long coarse, straight black hair and high cheekbones . . . joined with complexions whose duskiness disclaims white blood and with features clearly un-African.”

Because the Andersons were free during colonial times, I wondered whether they and their kinfolk had descended from indentured servants rather than slaves, or had perhaps been freed between 1740 and 1770, when European Enlightenment ideals generated criticism of slavery. That era not only provided the ideological underpinnings of the American Revolution, but fueled debates about the morality of slavery, setting in motion the gradual abolition of slavery in the Northern colonies. The plantation South did not follow suit, but numerous Southern slaveholders nonetheless sought to save their souls by privately manumitting slaves.

Greed overcame white misgivings about slavery enough for framers of the U.S. Constitution (ratified in 1788) to grant protections to the institution. The matter was anything but settled, however. Antislavery sentiments never completely died out, and reemerged in the 19th century among various religious groups, notably Wesleyan Methodist farmers in North Carolina, and politically in the Free Soil and Abolitionist movements.

Although the 17th century Bass family of Virginia appears never to have suffered enslavement, the Andersons, who lived nearby, were held in bondage by John Fulcher, an English planter of Norfolk, Virginia, who eventually freed them. In 1712, decades before the era of the American Revolution, Fulcher manumitted fifteen slaves, thirteen of whom bore the surname Anderson, two the surname Richardson. He bestowed 640 acres of land as well as freedom on these slaves, eight of whom were still children.

I suspect that John Fulcher was kin to the Andersons. Not only were kinships common between masters and manumitted slaves, there is also the matter of Fulcher’s divorce from his wife, Ruth, some twenty years earlier. In 1691, Ruth Woodhouse Fulcher was granted a legal separation from her husband by Virginia’s Lt. Governor Francis Nicholson. Such separations were rarely granted to women in 17th century Virginia, particularly not under the terms granted by the Lt. Governor. Nicholson not only assigned legal guardianship of the couple’s son to Mrs. Fulcher, he also ordered Mr. Fulcher to pay her two thousand pounds of tobacco annually. (3)

These were unusual decisions in an ardently patriarchal society. Clearly, Lt. Gov. Nicholson was disturbed by whatever undisclosed charges Ruth Fulcher brought against her husband. Might she have accused her husband of sexually crossing the color line, of fathering children among his slaves? Were the slaves he manumitted in 1712 his own children, and did they include the mother(s) of those children? (4)

Whatever his reasons, John Fulcher’s freeing of his slaves fed fears of slave revolts among Virginians. The colony’s General Assembly responded by recommending passage of a law forbidding manumission, citing it as an incentive for slave revolts.

Exactly when and where the Andersons were first enslaved seems as uncertain as how they gained their surname. In the Southern colonies, where Indian wars, servitude, and slavery overlapped, they may originally have been Indian war captives whose descendants mixed with other Indians, African slaves, English colonizers, or white servants, creating mixed-heritage peoples with no fixed racial identity—except in the minds of white leaders who marked them as non-white under the heading of “free people of color.” 

The Bass and Anderson families’ lives intersected in 1699 when Edward Bass, a son of William Bass, Sr., purchased land from John Fulcher. After Fulcher freed the Andersons, the two families intermarried. In the first half of the eighteenth century, they migrated from Norfolk, Virginia, to Granville County, North Carolina.  Once settled, Basses and Andersons married among other free families bearing names such as Chavis, Day, Goins, Harris, Hawley, Kersey, Pettiford, Mitchell, and others. These families, too, identified their roots as Native American. (5)

By the late eighteenth century, the names of free people of color appeared frequently in Granville court records and documents. George Anderson, whose will was probated in May 1771, left an estate that included at least seventy acres of land to heirs bearing the surnames of Anderson, Bass, Pettiford, Harris, and Smith. To Nathan Bass, he left a “plantation’ on which Bass already lived. To various other kinfolk, he left cattle, a mare, pewter plates, and a bed. Clearly, the founding families of this community had established solid yeoman-class roots. (6)

A revealing petition about the families’ status was also presented in 1771 to the North Carolina Assembly. Here we see Granville’s growing community of free people of color asking to be exempted by the state from paying taxes that were described as “highly derogatory of the Rights of Freeborn Subjects.” (7)

Colonial taxation laws had long discriminated against people of color, taxing not only free males over the age of twelve, but also females, on the assumption that all non-whites “worked the ground,” whether enslaved or not. In this era of emergent republican ideals, race-based economic discrimination against free people was condemned by the petitioners as unjust. 

Grouped among their names were those of free people from the area of Oxford and Fishing Creek: Gibea Chavis, Benjamin Bass, Lewis Anderson, Edward Bass, David Mitchell, and William Chavis. - 8 

Criticisms of slavery and demands that free people of color be respected as citizens were soon quashed after the American Revolution. As the 19th century’s Cotton Kingdom emerged, Southern demand for slave labor increased. 

The one drop rule of race came to prevail. Whether free people of color were dark or light-skinned,  and regardless of whether they had white or Indian ancestors, they were labeled “Negroes” or “Mulattoes”—meaning that they were fit for slavery and their freedom thus a threat to its stability. For that reason, Southern states passed laws further limiting slave manumission. At the same time, they passed stricter laws that further limited the mobility and rights of  free people of color.

In response to their diminishing status, Granville County’s free families of color emphasized their Native American roots and often denied African ancestry altogether in hopes of distancing themselves from slavery.

 Local court records from the three decades before the Civil War, 1830-1860, reveal a fractious caste of people,  one in which intra-family feuds and scuffles with whites generated court charges of affrays, assault & batteries and filings of peace warrants. Not surprisingly, white authorities seemed all too eager to police the neighborhoods of families who lived in the interstices of freedom and slavery.  (9)

Social contact between people of color and whites ranged from affectionate to violent. People from various backgrounds traded goods, drank, gambled, fornicated—and occasionally tried to marry—across the lines of color and status. Tavern keepers were frequently targeted for running “disorderly houses” that included all manner of such interracial activities. Public affrays no doubt reflected internal tensions created by such activities.

Poor white and free women of color occasionally ran taverns as an alternative to working in the homes and fields of other (mostly white) people. When taverns added interracial prostitution to the menu of services, authorities labeled them “bawdy” as well as “disorderly” houses. White women Elvira and Sally Short, for example, were specifically cited for “procuring” “whores” who engaged in “dreadfully filthy and lewd offences” that included “men, women, free persons, and slaves” who gathered there day and night. (10)

But it was not prostitution per se that seemed to concern white authorities. The courts punished sexual relations between whites, free people of color, and slaves far more frequently than they punished the sale of sex among whites. By their very nature, taverns were assumed to encourage sexual activity among patrons; it followed, then, that owners who ignored boundaries of race and status were suspected of fostering sexual intimacy across those boundaries.

Free people of color were not to fraternize with either slaves or lower-class whites. In 1856, tavern-keeper Nancy Anderson was accused of violating laws that forbade such camaraderie. Specifically, the courts charged her with running a “disorderly” house in which whites, free people of color and slaves engaged together in “whoring, drinking, and gambling.” That she was not charged with running a “bawdy” house indicates that interracial mingling (including sexual intimacy), not prostitution, was the offense.

It was not whites who initiated the charges against Nancy Anderson. The three men who testified against her (one of them her kinsman, Ephraim Anderson) were free men of color. Although we know that ethnic differences, economic status, and who one associated with all contributed to conflicts among people of color, we don’t know the exact reasons that these men appeared to police social contact between a woman of their community and neighboring slaves. (11)

Among whites, mingling between the races ended in death for Tom Peace, a white man, who carried on a relationship with Tabby Chavous (Chavis), a free woman of color, for some ten years. The fact that Tom regularly treated Tabby with the respect reserved for white women infuriated his brother, Dickerson Peace, who brought fornication charges against the couple in 1844. 

Undaunted, Tom and Tabby continued to attend public gatherings together well into the 1850s. When they appeared together at a neighborhood barbecue in 1854, an enraged Dickerson attacked and killed his brother. (12)

The courts regularly sought to counter interracial relationships and, that failing, to control the lives and labor of mixed-race children born to such relationships. The long-term relationship between Susan Williford and Peter Curtis, discussed here and in Unruly Women, (pp. 88-93) demonstrated the stages of that control: first, the guilty party was charged with fornication. 

If the woman subsequently became pregnant, bastardy charges would follow. At some point, usually after the age of five, the bastard child, defined as an “orphan,” (i.e. lacking a legal father) would be apprenticed to a member of the community until age 21. By contract, these apprenticed children worked for their “masters” until adulthood, depriving them of their freedom and the affections of their parent(s). 

Their mothers, of course, were deprived of both their children’s affection and their labor—a crucial element of survival in the rural Old South. Her punishment by the courts also demonstrated the larger threat that personal as well as political alliances of class and race presented to slaveholding society.

In part, the courts’ forcible apprenticeship of illegitimate children—many of whom were impoverished whites—to more prosperous members of the community prevented them from becoming economic and social burdens for county governments. By 1830, however, the system clearly provided a handy way to deny freedom to an increasing population of free children of color, at the same time claiming their labor for the white community. (13)

Relatively prosperous free families of color such as the Andersons managed to escape the apprenticeship system. Marriage among free people of color within their own community, land ownership, and gainful employment defended them against this practice.

 A number of free families of color from Granville, including William Evans, Anderson Pettiford, Joseph Curtis, and Lucy Richardson,  managed even to rescue the children of friends and family from the apprenticeship system by becoming apprenticeship masters themselves. These families gained custody of community children through the very system that would otherwise have bound the children out to whites. (14)

The free community of Granville’s Oxford area struggled for autonomy right up to the Civil War and beyond. Archibald “Baldy” Kersey, a propertied free man of color with multiple ties of kinship to its core families, had long engaged in illicit trade among slaves and white citizens. (15) 

Court records show him charged more than once with illegally possessing guns and with various thefts connected to illegal trading. During the Civil War, such trade networks among slaves, free blacks, and whites flourished, causing Sheriff William Philpott to describe Kersey to Governor Zebulon Vance as

“the worst rogue and seducer of slaves I have ever known. He has a range from here to the extremity of the state east, as he has been trading that way for years.” Furthermore, Philpott reported, Kersey had recently broken out of jail with the aid of two white men. (16)
-End of Excerpt-

Link to Part 2/2 :


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