Archive for the ‘African-American’ Category

The Asheboro Sit-Ins

January 18, 2013

AA Hops

On February 1,1960, four freshmen students from N.C. A&T asked for coffee at the lunch counter in the Woolworth’s “dime” store in downtown Greensboro, just 25 miles north of Asheboro. When they were denied service, they refused to leave, in a nonviolent protest that became known as a “sit-in.” The next day they were joined by twenty more students; on the third day there were more than 60 demonstrators, and on the fourth day, more than 300, as the protest spread down the street to the nearby Kress lunch counter. Within a week, the protest was joined by other cities in North Carolina; within a month, sit-ins were occurring all over the South. On March 16th, President Eisenhower supported the students, saying that he was “deeply sympathetic with the efforts of any group to enjoy the rights of equality that they are guaranteed by the Constitution.”

The first sit-ins, sponsored by the NCAACP Youth Council in 1958, had desegregated lunch counters in Kansas and Oklahoma. The Greensboro protests gathered wide media attention and resulted in the tactic spreading all over the South. Success came faster in some places: students in Nashville, TN achieved citywide desegregation in May, 1960. In Greensboro the black employees of Woolworth’s were the first to be served at the store’s lunch counter, on July 25, 1960. The entire Woolworth’s chain was desegregated the next day.

What is the history of the civil rights movement in Randolph County? With our history of Quaker anti-slavery activism and the Underground Railroad, was Randolph out in front of desegregation? Nothing has been published on this subject, and little research has been done. One exception can be found through the website of the Southern Oral History Project interview database, at http://dc.lib.unc.edu/cdm/ref/collection/sohp/id/4046 . This is a recorded interview of Melvin Benjamin Marley, born in Ramseur in 1943, by Sarah McNulty, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. Marley was a participant in a series of sit-ins that took place at businesses along Sunset Avenue that finally resulted in the desegregation of public eating establishments in Asheboro.

This is a uniquely valuable primary source document, available in a uniquely modern way, but it well illustrates some traditional challenges in taking oral history alone as the last word in research. Marley, as a freshman at NC A&T, also participated in the Greensboro sit-ins. He remembers the Asheboro demonstrations as part of the same continuum of social protest.

“So me and my brother was in college at A&T State University in Greensboro and the sit-ins there was going on at the same time, so we would actually go to jail up there through the week and come home on the weekend. So we was home one weekend and they were having demonstrations in Asheboro so some people approached us and said, since ya’ll… were in those in Greensboro, would you like to come help us organize? So we came over and organized with them…”

Newspaper accounts actually show that the Asheboro sit-ins were nearly four years after the Woolworth sit-ins in Greensboro, beginning Saturday January 25th, 1964, and still going strong as of February the 17th, 1964. While the Marley brothers may have joined the original sit-ins as freshman, Asheboro’s eating establishments remained segregated well into the end of their senior year. I think this is an example of the passage of time telescoping the time frame of history- fifty years later, the four-year time frame seems almost simultaneous in memory.

Burrell Hopkins

Burrell Hopkins

Melvin’s memory of the details seems unclouded, however. Two NAACP organizers, a Reverend Banks and a Robert Blow, of Thomasville, conducted meetings at the Greater St. John’s Baptist Church to map out the protests. Groups were sent to the Walgreen’s soda fountain, the Little Castle sandwich shop, and to Hop’s Bar-B-Que. Melvin and his twin brother Elvin were assigned to Hop’s, a restaurant in a converted taxi stand seating just 21 stools at a counter. Hop’s was the eponymous establishment of Burrell “Hop” Hopkins, who opened it in 1954 after four years as a cook at the StarLite Drive-In on Salisbury Street near Bossong Hosiery Mills. When Hopkins died in 1986, the community remembered him fondly. “He was one of the free-heartedest men you ever meet,” said Leon Strickland, an employee for 28 years. “He wanted to give folks the impression he was mean as hell, but he was 100 percent the opposite,” said Hal York, a long-time customer. (See article by Chip Womick in The Courier-Tribune, November 28, 1986). But whatever his eulogy, Hopkins was cast in the black hat role in this historic drama. He barred the door of his restaurant, saying, according to Marley, “No, you can’t be served here!” [Katie Snuggs, also arrested that day, remember Hopkins saying “You niggers can’t eat here!”]  In response, the demonstrators” just lay down in front of the door where nobody could go in… laying down at arm’s length, everybody touching the tip of the other’s hand, forming a big circle [around the building] where nobody could get through.”

The protest quickly attracted white bystanders. Marley recalled that the demonstrators took “a lot of abuse, just laying there. It was a really, really hard job to keep everybody under control, not to show anger or not to say anything to anybody… just lay there, a peaceful-type demonstration. My twin brother was laying beside of me and a lady came up and talked real big and spit in his face and when she spit in his face, I caught a’hold to his hand because he was about to get up and I held him down and I said, “No, No, No!” And while we were laying there, there was another incident; a lady walked up with her high heels on and took the shoe and started beating on one of the demonstrators…”

They didn’t react, said Marley, because “we had something in mind. It had to be nonviolent because you couldn’t accomplish anything by rolling up your sleeve and taking someone on. The hecklers called us many names, the one that was the most devastating to us was to be called niggers; niggers, go home, such as that was being said…. And with the name calling, it hurt to a point that you would want to do something, but you would realize that this was nonviolent and that was the only way it would work because these individuals that came to Asheboro were playing under the Martin Luther King system. And so… we took the abuse and laid there, spit upon, kicked, hit and stuff. It was hard, but we had a goal in mind… because we didn’t want anybody hurt, but we wanted justice.”

When the police came the demonstrators were arrested, but refused to walk to the police cars. “We tried to get as many people of size to help because that would not only make the lines larger but also the police would have a hard time picking them up; because we wouldn’t get up, we’d lay there; they’d have to bodily take us to the car to put us in. And we’d just lay limp and wouldn’t cooperate with being led from laying down to be put in police cars.” With the Marleys at Hop’s was “a lady named Emma Jean Stinson, she weighed somewhere about three hundred and some pounds… so they said, “Mrs. Stinson, will you please get up?” And she said no, and it took about four of them to get her up and put her in the car. And you know, by the time they had put all of us in the car the policemen were sweating and tireder than we were and probably wanted something to eat.”

“So they took us to jail, to the old Randolph County jail… And they would lock us up in cells that usually hold ten or twelve people, but at one time there was something like thirty-five of us in one cell… the women were downstairs and the men were upstairs. So the organizers were out in the parking lot and we would…call off our names, who all was in jail. And… they would go back and get people with property to come and sign our bonds so we could get out of jail…. our parents that had property would come and get us. And then other people that didn’t have kids, there was a man in the city back then named Mr. Tom Brewer and Mr. Lon Strickland who owned right much property on the east side… and they signed a lot of bonds.”

Almost Fifty Years Later

For an “objective” account of the event described by Melvin Marley, see the entry on this blog “60 Negroes Arrested in Sit-In Incidents,” from The Courier-Tribune, Monday, January 27, 1964.

What the Newspaper Had to Say…

January 15, 2013
the original article

the original article

60 Negroes Arrested in Sit-In Incidents

The Courier-Tribune, January 27, 1964.

There were 60 Negroes—24 juveniles and 36 adults—arrested here Saturday at Hop’s Bar-B-Que and the Little Castle in the first wave of sit-ins.

All 60 were charged with breaking a local ordinance dealing with congregating in the doorway of a business.

The Negroes posted bond Saturday night of $25 each to appear in Recorder’s Court Feb. 13.? A sheriff’s department spokesman said most of the Negroes posted bond on an individual basis, but that Rev. I.C. Everett and Mabel Haskins posted bond for some members of the group.

The names of the 36 adults are as follows:

Russell Siler, Ramseur; Archie C. Leak, 411 Woodlawn St; Mackie Lewis, 621 Loach St; Queenie Greene, 823 Cross St.; Dexter L . Trogdon, Rt. 1, Asheboro; Grady Ritter, Jr., 728 Frank St.; Tommy McMasters, 503 Loach St.; Melvin Marley, Rt.2, Ramseur; Robert Lee Bostic, 706 Tucker St.; and Shelly Manuel, Rt. 1, Asheboro.

Also, Elvin L. Marley, Rt.2, Ramseur; Edward McNeil, 426 N. McCrary St.; Joe Bell, 608 Greensboro St.; Archie Lee Little, 534 Greensboro St.; Woodrow Everetts, 501 Washington Road; Clinton McQueen, 460 Glovenia St.; Charles Farr? 1316 Forest St.; James Freeland, 508 Cross St; Lionel Baldwin, 443 Watkins St.; and Thomas Timmons, 427 N. Spring St.

Also Troy Franklin, Rt.1, Asheboro; Joe Morrison, 502 Cross St.; Macy Holley, Thomasville; George Lowery, 818 Brewer St.; Floyd Chalmas Thomas, Jr., 429 Loach St.; Ann Ledwell, 511 Loach St.; Barbara Ann Bostic, 706 Tucker St.; Brenda Ewing, 161 Greensboro St.; Grace Massey, 103 Washington Road; and Lille Mae Snuggs, 544 Loach St.

Also, Penny Bennett, Cedar Falls Road; Barbara Massey, 100 Washington Road; Earlene Crowder, 827 Railroad St.; Ollie Mae Little, 534 Greensboro St.; Clara Davis, 402 Loach St.; and Daisey Crump, 823 Cross St.

The Sunset Theater Incident

January 12, 2013

The “Little Castle,” 232 Sunset Avenue, Asheboro, date unknown.

Despite his detailed memories of the Hop’s Barbecue Sit-In, Melvin Marley said that the most memorable event of the Asheboro sit-ins was the night “when they would not let the young girls out of the Sunset Theater.”   His interviewer (who was actually the grand-daughter of Burrell Hopkins) didn’t question him about that incident, which was evidently the one time where the peaceful protests threatened to get out of control.

“It was nonviolent for a long time until one day some black girls went to the Sunset Theater, which is right beside of Little Castle and Hop’s, in that area.  And they went upstairs, you know [Negroes could only sit in the balcony], to see a movie, and when they got ready to come out, they wouldn’t let them out.  They [white people] had them surrounded and said they were going to kill them and all that stuff, and called them all sorts of names, and so somehow the word got back to the church that they were being held and the police wasn’t doing anything about it.  And so that’s when, actually a little bit of violence came into play.  The way they had them get out of the theater was that somebody went up and shot a shotgun in the middle of town and fled, and so they came out running and just kept on running and they were hitting them and kicking and all that, but they got away.”

That’s all of Marley’s account, but the next day’s local newspaper adds some detail to this or a similar incident:

[The Little Castle was under the canopy to the right.  The roof of Hop’s is visible to the left.]

Drug Store, Theater hit By Sit-In Wave

Courier-Tribune, Feb. 17, 1964

Arrests continued here this weekend as Negroes sat-in at the Little Castle, Walgreen’s Drug Store and the Carolina Theatre.

There were 52 Negroes arrested and charged with trespassing and resisting arrest.

Two white men were also arrested and charged with carrying a concealed weapon, interfering with an officer performing his duty, inciting a riot and one of the men was charged with using indecent and profane language.

These arrests came at 4:10 p.m. in front of the Little Castle and the men arrested are Charles Douglas Deese of Salisbury and Edward Donald Powell of 416 Levairn Drive. Deese is 32 years old and Powell, 29.

Sgt. B.S. Cagle reported that “while I was assisting in the arrest of demonstrators… [Deese] called [the demonstrators] s.o.b.’s…”

Deese was arrested, and while he was being placed in the police car, passed a .22 caliber pistol to Powell. There were approximately 120 persons in the area at the time.

Both men were placed in Randolph County jail and later released on $1000 bond each for appearance in court March 17.

Of the 51 Negroes arrested, 40 were adults (19 females and 21 males) and 11 were juveniles (8 males and 3 females). One person was arrested three times.

The names and addresses of the adults are as follows:

Sandra K. Nicholson, Rt. 4, Asheboro; Phyllis Ann Lineberry, 327 Dunlap St.; Irlean Williams, Rt. 1, Siler City; Helen Fox, 814 Frank St.; Queenie Green, 623 Cross St.; Pauine S. Laughlin, Rt. 1, Asheboro; Gracie Massey, 109 Booker Washington Road; Rosa Marie Siler, Siler City; Barbara Ann Massey, Rt. 4, Asheboro; and Judy Brooks, Siler City.

Also Mattie R. Laughlin, 107 Booker Washington Road; Annie Ruth Laughlin, Randleman; Katie Snuggs, 544 Loach St.; Ann Ledwell, 511 Loach St.; Callie Lowery, 818 Brewer St.; Christine Hallmon, 815 Brewer St.; Elzie Coble, Rt. 4, Asheboro; Pauline Coltrane, Rt.2, Asheboro; Cacille McMaster, 503 Loach St.; and Russell Lee Siler, Ramseur.

Also William Percy Shoffner, 610 Greensboro St.; Elven L. Marley, Ramseur; Thomas Lee Timmons, 422 Spring St.; Tommy Lee McMaster, 503 Loach St; Macy Holly, Thomasville; Howard Junior Spinks, Siler City; Lionel Baldwin, 443 Watkins St.; Edward McNeil, 426 N. McCrary St.; and Eugene Hoover, 730 Tucker St.

Also Harry D. Laughlin, Rt. 1, Randleman; Charlie Harrison Laughlin Jr., Rt. 1, Asheboro; Wilber Franklin JR., Rt.1, Asheboro; Lemuel C. Brady, 451 Loach St.; Charlie Leak Jr., 411 Woodlawn St.; Charles Wilson Harris, 410 Spring St.; Eddie Tom Horton, Siler City; Lindo O. Mason, Siler City; Shelton Rogers, Siler City; and Floyd C. Thomas Jr., 429 Loach St.

All the demonstrators were detained in jail overnight and released on bond between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Sunday.

 

The Underground Railroad in Piedmont North Carolina

February 22, 2010


Before the American Civil War, opposition to the institution of human slavery took many forms. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Quakers and other thoughtful people opposed treating human beings as property on religious, philosophical, moral and ethical grounds. Some formed groups or “manumission societies” to urge individuals to free slaves; other raised funds and organized groups of “freedmen” to return to Africa through “colonization societies”; others promoted the outright legal and governmental prohibition of slavery as “abolitionists.” Randolph and Guilford counties, the heart of North Carolina’s “Quaker Belt,” had examples of all of these organizations. But by 1835, that kind of individual action had gradually come to be prohibited by new state laws put forward by slaveowners to protect their increasingly-valuable investment in slave property. It became illegal to free slaves, or for freed slaves to move freely around North Carolina, and this promoted clandestine resistance to slave laws by brave local residents who cooperated to smuggle runaway slaves to free states in the North. When Fugitive Slave laws were passed by Congress seeking to force the return of escaped slaves from free states, the slave-smuggler’s network was extended all the way to Canada. This cooperative network supporting the escape of southern slaves to freedom became known as the “underground railroad,” despite the fact that the system began operating years before the time actual steam-powered trains were invented.

The “Underground Railroad” was, first and foremost, secret.  That was what it took to protect the people who helped the slaves escape, as what they did was against the law, punishable by prison and fines, and in fact, the punishments increased almost yearly from the early 19th century to the civil war.  The secrecy of it all makes it very difficult to document. There are very few direct sources of information on underground railroad activities in NC, and only one makes a tangential connection to Randolph County: that is the actual route taken by Elisha Coffin (1779-1872, who built my house in Franklinville), with his sister and his father in March 1822, and described in detail in the autobiography of his first cousin Levi Coffin (1798-1877).


From Levi Coffin’s book it is clear that escaped slaves knew to head generally for the Quaker heart of North Carolina.  Escaped slave advertisements collected by UNCG Loren Schweniger clearly show that eastern NC slave owners assumed that escapees were headed west.  Fugitives coming through Randolph County might have gone toward the Friends meeting houses, or toward individual Quakers, but sooner or later they ended up around New Garden, where the Quaker families descended from Nantucket emigrants of 1771 pretty much headed up the underground railroad in North Carolina.  The Nantucket Quakers (including Levi, Bethuel and Elisha Coffin) were the majority of the active participants in the North Carolina Manumission and Colonization Society which was organized in 1816 and pursued fitful activities until 1832. Some of the largest slaveholders in the area, such as General Alexander Gray, were supporters of the organization until the state’s constitution of 1835 made such activities illegal.

The Coffin family, like most other local Quaker families, was seeing most of its younger generation emigrate West. Some of this was due to the availability of cheap vacant land in the “Northwest Territories” (Indiana, Illinois, Ohio); some of it was the desire to get their children away from the dominant slave-holding ethic. No matter what local Quakers taught their children about the equality of human nature and the evil of slaveholding, the law of the land and the culture of their neighbors promoted and protected the ownership and exploitation of Negroes. It was a conflict that could only be resolved by leaving North Carolina. By 1818, so many residents of Randolph County, NC, had relocated to the Indiana that a Randolph County was created in memory of the “old country”. One of Bethuel Coffin’s daughters had already moved her family to Indiana, and Bethuel himself would soon follow.


It is a glaring omission that Levi Coffin’s autobiography (Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad: Being a Brief History of the Labors of a Lifetime in Behalf of the Slave, with the Stories of Numerous Fugitives, Who Gained Their Freedom through His Instrumentality, and Many Other Incidents. Cincinnati: Robert Clark & Co., 1880.) has not been more used as a source for antebellum NC history. The entire book has been made available online by the UNC-Chapel Hill Library at http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/coffin/menu.html . The first chapter of Coffin’s book recounts a number of incidents of slave mistreatment which nurtured his abolitionist views, and at least three appear to have involved legal action, which could be confirmed from historical records.


Chapter 2, the story of Jack Barnes, is a fascinating account of one of Levi Coffin’s first efforts to smuggle an escaped slave to freedom, and the fact that he enlisted his uncle and first cousins as co-conspirators illustrates the close-knit family nature of the underground railroad activities. Jack Barnes had fled “the eastern part” of North Carolina after the heirs of his owner refused to follow his will’s instructions to grant him freedom “for faithfulness and meritorious conduct”. He reached the vicinity of New Garden Friends meeting in the fall of 1821, boarding and working for members of the Coffin family. In March 1822 he “received the news that the case in court had been decided against him. The property that had been willed to him was turned over to the relatives of his master, and he was consigned again to slavery. The judge decided that Barnes was not in his right mind at the time he made the will… [Jack] was not to be found, and [the heirs] advertised in the papers, offering one hundred dollars reward to any one who would secure him till they could get hold of him, or give information that would lead to his discovery. This advertisement appeared in the paper published at Greensboro.” [p.33]


Putting Jack into hiding, Vestal and Levi Coffin devised a plan to smuggle Barnes to Indiana in a travelling party of Coffin relatives.


“Bethuel Coffin, my uncle, who lived a few miles distant, was then preparing to go to Indiana, on a visit to his children and relatives who had settled there. He would be accompanied by his son Elisha, then living in Randolph County, and by his daughter Mary. They intended to make the journey in a two-horse wagon, taking with them provisions and cooking utensils, and camp out on the way…. The road they proposed to take was called the Kanawha road. It was the nearest route, but led through a mountainous wilderness, most of the way. Crossing Dan River, it led by way of Patrick Court-House, Virginia, to Maberry’s Gap, in the Blue Ridge mountains, thence across Clinch mountain, by way of Pack’s ferry on New River, thence across White Oak mountain to the falls of the Kanawha, and down that river to the Ohio, crossing at Gallipolis.

“This was thought to be a safe route for Jack to travel, as it was very thinly inhabited, and it was decided that my cousin Vestal and I should go see our uncle, and learn if he was willing to incur the risk and take Jack with him to Indiana. He said he was willing, and all the arrangements were made…” [pp.34-35]


This trip was less than two years since 43-year-old Elisha Coffin had purchased the mill and several hundred acres of land on Deep River that later became Franklinville. He either had just been or was about to be elected a Justice of the Peace of the Randolph County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions (the equivalent of a modern County Commissioner), so it was truly a legal and political risk for him to make this trip. But my purpose here is to focus on the route from North Carolina to Indiana rather than on Elisha Coffin or the rather thrilling adventure of Levi Coffin, who was forced to follow the Coffins on horseback to thwart the efforts of a slave-catcher who appeared on their trail. [But all my readers should check out that story in the original—chapter 2,
http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/coffin/menu.html .]


It is an interesting aspect of modern scholarship of the Underground Railroad, as promoted by the National Park Service and dozens of local historical societies in northern states, that all the maps of “routes” out of the slave-holding states completely ignore the route from central NC to Indiana and Ohio called by Levi Coffin as the “Kanawah” road. In fact, most “maps” of the underground railroad only clearly define the route after it reaches a free state and starts toward Canada.

There is an internet-published record (“The Kanawah Trace Waybill”) which documents an almost identical route from New Garden to Ohio (its first stop appears to go west toward Winston-Salem (Clemmons) instead of north to the Dan River); see http://homepages.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~maggieoh/Migrate/merle.htm .


The only Piedmont NC museum interpretation of the underground railroad of which I am aware is at Mendenhall Plantation, in Jamestown, Guilford County. See http://www.mendenhallplantation.org/. A false-bottomed wagon from the Centre Friends Meeting community some 15 miles southeast is the museum’s primary artifact of the underground railroad, and it too confirms the importance of the Kanawah route. The wagon was preserved by Centre historian Joshua Edgar Murrow (1892-1980), grandson of Andrew Murrow (1820-1908), who with his foster brother Isaac Stanley (1832-1927), used the wagon to transport runaway slaves to Ohio on the Kanawah Road [see http://www.mendenhallplantation.org/Wagon.htm ].

Given the numerous primary sources and confirmation of this route from the heart of Piedmont NC to Ohio and Indiana, and the confirmation of its regular use in underground railroad activities, why is it not listed on the National Park Service websites and maps? Neither is it common knowledge here in North Carolina, and I think both omissions stem from a common source—the fact that the antebellum history of Guilford and Randolph Counties, and its Quaker inhabitants, does not follow the popular “Gone with the Wind” narrative of the antebellum South. Our region was another story, not the romatic lost world of the plantation gentry, but a Shadow South, of abolition and manumission activities, of industry and internal improvements, and steady moral and political opposition to the status quo. Our history is much more nuanced and interesting than the standard black and white (or blue and gray) textbook version, and our culture is lessened by the fact that we forget and ignore the work and sacrifices of the men and women who fought against heavy odds to change the fundamental basis of the society they lived in.

Ches Thrift’s Pickling Pear Tree

February 1, 2010

[Chess Thrift, date unknown, from Robins, Reminiscences of My Asheboro.]

Researching and writing local history often runs up against the veil of Time, which is often much more of an iron, not a lace, curtain. We have no real idea of the aboriginal name of Deep River, for example, and no real way to ever find out. Agricultural history is another area where information was such common knowledge it was seldom written down. One of these days I’ll write here about Greeson Wheat, our once-premier local variety of winter wheat. But here’s the story of one adventure in identification: Chester Thrift and the Pickling Pear Tree.

For many years my way to and from work took me past an elderly and not-very-healthy-looking tree growing on the north side of Old Cedar Falls Road in Asheboro. For most of the year it was nondescript and virtually invisible, but for a couple of weeks in late March it sported a striking cloud of white blossoms; and I confess I ignored it because I thought it was yet another Bradford Pear, that darling of 70s and 80s landscapers. I call them lolly-pop trees, because they have that perfect shape for preschool artists; they’re pretty twice a year, when they flower and when the leaves turn red in the fall, and they are sterile so they never have fruit. Bradford Pears are originally native to Korea and China, grow really fast, and rarely live more than 25 years without limbs splitting off. Plant a real tree, people, not Bradford Pears.

But then one September I noticed the tree was raining hundreds of mottled yellow fruits the size of ping pong balls.

The first time I stopped to investigate this phenomenon, I discovered that what I thought were yellow crab apples were actually some kind of pear: exquisitely sweet, miniature round pears profusely dropping from a scrawny, thorny tree. I never knew there were such things, and when I investigated, I found that the tree shouldn’t exist. Only wild pears have thorns, I discovered; they taste bitter and are only used to provide the rootstock for the usual named varieties: Bosc, Seckel, Keifer, etc. Because, like roses and apples, all of the historic named varieties of these plants are perpetuated by grafts, so that each Old Blush rose and each Macintosh apple is literally a clone of the ancient original of that name.

My tree on Old Cedar Falls Road was too elderly to tell if it had once been grafted; it had been cut back and pruned repeatedly, and had sprouted out time and again from an old stump. I asked the neighbors, but that intersection was in transition, and no one knew the story of the tree, but they did know its name: The Pickling Pear Tree.

Another gap in my knowledge revealed: I’ve seen plenty of pickles from cucumbers; I’ve heard of pickled peppers, pickled beets, pickled eggs; pickles from watermelon, okra and crabapples—lots of odd things, but never pears. But there it was on the internet: not just one but many recipes for pickling pears [http://www.cooks.com/rec/search/0,1-0,pickle_pear,FF.html ], especially Seckel pears, which are usually considered the smallest variety of pear (about the size of a tulip blossom). The end result was a sweet, spicy dessert treat that I’m told people ate like candy.

The whole point of pickling, historically, was to preserve perishable food so that it was available in some form during the winter months. Without refrigeration or freezing, drying and canning were the best ways to make the glut of the summer vegetable and fall fruit harvests last until the next year. Pickling can be accomplished by anaerobic fermentation using salt or salty water, which is how beef and pork were pickled to feed sailors on long voyages. Fruits and vegetables are usually pickled by marinating them in vinegar, often with added herbs like garlic, mustard seed, cloves and cinnamon, which have antimicrobial properties. Any kind of pear could be pickled, but larger pickles required peeling and slicing, which makes the finished product fragile and mushy, and reduces the shelf life. So these tiny bite-sized pears would have been the perfect size to core and pickle like crab apples.

It was only by chance that I found out anything more. One day while talking with Miss MacRae, an elderly teacher I had known since elementary school, I mentioned my pickling pear tree. “I don’t know about that tree,” she said. “People used to have pickling pears, used to put up quarts and quarts of them. But the only one around here who had pickling pear trees was Ches Thrift. He had apples, pears, peaches, all sorts of trees in his garden. He had a pickling pear tree.”

What little I knew of Chester Thrift (c.1853-1929) came from Sidney Swaim Robins, the first boy from Asheboro to go to Harvard, back before World War I. When I went to Harvard he was still living in Wayland, Massachusetts, and several times I went to dinner with Sidney at the instigation of Marion Stedman Covington, his cousin. Sidney was the author of a number of books, most of them related to his profession as a Unitarian-Universalist minister. His little book, “Sketches of My Asheboro, 1880-1910,” (published by the Randolph Historical Society in 1972) is an invaluable source for anyone interested in the daily life of 19th century Asheboro. “…’Chess’ Thrift was a mighty cook, often sent for to help in putting on and serving banquets. You often saw him around with white cap and apron, dressing the part of a chef. For a considerable time he served as major domo for Hal M. Worth” [p.37]. “Cooks were known and appreciated in Asheboro. It seemed that each one had a special receipt and routine to be famous for. And of course they ran loose in the branch of famous desserts. I have spoken of Chester Thrift as a famous cook (I wondered if Chess cakes were named for him), and I guess there were as many well-known ones among the colored people as among the whites. In fact, they had the more professional cooks anyhow” [p. 40].

An unpublished source has even more information. Walter Makepeace Curtis (1867-1955 ) was born in Franklinville and served as the President of Greensboro College in the 1940s.  His grandfather, George Makepeace, lived in my house. In 1940 Curtis wrote his autobiography, a manuscript copy of which was given to me by his daughter Marion Moser.   On page 9 of the manuscript, Curtis writes:

“One of my Negro friends during my boyhood days was ‘Ches’- Chester Thrift. He worked for my uncle, G.H. Makepeace, and I often saw him when I was with my cousins, which was a good deal of the time. Ches was also frequently at my home. He was easily amused, and his laugh was hilarious. He would often lie down on the floor and roll over several times with uncontrollable laughter. Ches was a good cook and was famous for his cakes. He was often called upon to bake cakes for weddings, and years later when his home was in Asheboro, scarcely a wedding occurred there without cakes furnished by Ches. Years later when my oldest daughter graduated at Greensboro College, Ches, then an old man, was there. Lucy had sent him a commencement invitation and he came up from Asheboro, bringing with him cakes which he make especially for the occasion. Lucy invited her classmates into our home, Ches served, and all present had a good time. Ches preached occasionally, but I never had the pleasure of hearing him. His hobby was educating young Negro girls who never could have gone to school without his aid. A large number of girls were recipients of his generosity.”

I discovered even more in a circa-1913 Courier note entitled “Uncle Chester Thrift Gives Interesting Item of History.”

“Uncle Chester Thrift, one of the town’s oldest and most respected colored citizens, was in The Courier office last week and told of some interesting bits of old history.  Uncle Ches went to Franklinville last August, where he lived in childhood.  His mother, Annie Thrift, belonged to Isham Thrift, who lived where the hotel now stands [the Grove Hotel, or “The Teacherage,” stood facing Deep River in Franklinville just north of what was the Randolph Mills Office building].  Aunt Annie took her two sons, Solomon and Chester, to a secluded place there each Sunday morning to pray.  The place then used for her ‘prayer spot’ is now the site on which Franklinville’s new M.E. church stands [built 1912].  Uncle Chester feels very kindly toward the church and feels it was built on holy ground.  It would be well if more of the mothers in this day and time would take time to teach their sons to pray.”

And my final discovery was his obituary, published in the Greensboro Daily News on December 24, 1928:

HEART ATTACK CLAIMS “UNCLE” CHES THRIFT /  Former Slave Negro Had Been Servant to Many Prominent Families/ RESPECTED BY WHITES.

“Asheboro, Dec. 23.– ‘Uncle’ Chester Thrift, ancient, honorable and much beloved negro man of Asheboro, died in his home here last night from a heart attack.  He was a familiar figure on the streets, and was out yesterday afternoon greeting his white friends, and carrying a large split basket that he always had with him.

“Uncle” Chester was born about 75 years ago in New Orleans, he and his mother being bought in Louisiana by Isham Thrift of Franklinville Township, and brought here just prior to the Civil War.  After the war was over and the negroes were freed, Chester’s mother lived with the Makepeace and Curtis families of Franklinville until Chester was 15 or 16 years old.  When Chester was just a boy, he went into the homes of the Worth and McAlister families of Asheboro, serving them almost continuously until his death.  He was the servant of H.M. Worth for more than twenty years on a stretch.  He also served the families of Curtis, Foust, Penn, Kelly and McAlister of Greensboro, and the Worth families now of Durham.

“He was one of the most expert cooks North Carolina ever produced, especially being noted for his cakes, persimmon puddings and pies.  He was an authority on cooking possum.  He has probably baked more wedding cakes than any other cook, his services being in demand in many cities of the state when a fine meal was to have been prepared.  His cakes and persimmon puddings have been sent all over the United States.

“Uncle Chester was one of the few of the old school, and was a welcome visitor in any home in Asheboro, or elsewhere where he was known.  He was deeply religious and philosophical, and gave much sound advice to the younger generation, both white and colored.  He lived in North Asheboro [north of Salisbury Street and east of Fayetteville Street] in a comfortable little cottage that was kept immaculately clean, and was nicely furnished with things that his white friends had given him.  At Christmas times “Uncle” Chester was the recipient of loads of gifts from his innumerable white friends.  He went home last night with a load that had been given him while he was down town.  He lived alone, with the exception of a negro boy that he furnished a room for company.

“Funeral services will be held Christmas day at two o’clock and interment made here [Asheboro].  Services will be in charge of the local negro Odd Fellows, of which he was a member, together with his white friends.  He had always requested that he be buried three days after his death, as the Saviour rose the third day, and he expected to.  The third day now falls on Christmas.”

That’s quite a tribute, especially for a black man in the 1920s, published in an out-of-town newspaper.  There’s no doubt Chester Thrift was one of the most respected members of the entire Randolph County community.

I can’t say that my Cedar Falls Road pickling pear tree was actually one of Chester Thrift’s pickling pear Trees. But it was someone’s, because fruit trees only survive if someone grafts new ones before they die. That’s why, last fall, I got some water sprouts from the tree and sent them off for grafting. This spring, I’ll be able to plant my own Pickling Pear Trees at the house where Chester Thrift once worked for G.H. Makepeace, and when I do, I’m calling them Ches Thrift’s Pickling Pears. You can’t tell me I’m wrong.

Manly Reece

September 15, 2009

Manly Reece, circa 1855.

In my entry on Charlie Poole I mentioned the Charlie Poole Festival, which is held each year in Eden, NC, the combined town in Rockingham County formerly known as Leaksville, Draper and Spray. Charlie Poole lived and worked in Spray in the second half of his life, and now there is an effort to create the “National Banjo Center” on the Dan River there. The banjo museum would highlight Poole’s contributions to American musical history at or near the Spray Cotton Mill site, “ground zero” or “hallowed ground, as far as the music world is concerned,” said one of the promoters. (see March 26, 2009 article at http://www2.godanriver.com/gdr/news/local/rockingham_news/article/eden_strums_closer_to_housing_national_banjo_museum/9995/ ).

Not to take anything away from Charlie Poole or the economic development activities of Rockingham County, but southern banjo history- even North Carolina banjo history- has a much wider sweep and deeper pull than is found just along the Dan River. Here locally, Charlie Poole’s teacher and mentor Daner Johnson (mentioned in the previous article) not only taught Charlie but a generation of other local banjo pickers. No recordings of Johnson are known, but his Randolph County pupils Kelly Sears and and Glenn Davis are both featured on “The North Carolina Banjo Collection,” musician/ folklorist Bob Carlin’s excellent 1998 Rounder double-album which demonstrates the evolution of banjo-picking through 20th-century recording history.

However, the history of the banjo didn’t start with Charlie Poole or Daner Johnson. The roots of the instrument are agreed to be found in Africa and the transplanted traditions of African-American enslaved people in the antebellum American South. Less certain is how the instrument made its way into white southern culture. Joel Sweeny (1810-1860) of Appomattox County, Virginia, is the earliest documented white banjo player, and popularized the instrument in New York with his group of blackface minstrels at least by April 1839 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel_Sweeney ).

Sweeny’s tour of England, Ireland and Scotland in 1843-44 is credited with introducing the banjo to Europe. (Bob Carlin recently wrote a book about Joel Sweeney, too- http://www.minstrelbanjo.com/SWEENEYindex.html ).

But in Randolph County, the roots of the banjo can be traced to Manly Reece (1830-1864), a native of the area between Franklinville and Liberty. For almost everything I know about Manly Reece I must give credit up front to Andy Cahan, musician, historian, antiquarian bookseller and former Chapel Hill resident.  Andy came South from New York where he had been a featured artist (along with Bob Carlin) on the influential Kicking Mule album “Melodic Clawhammer Banjo” (http://www.amazon.com/Melodic-Clawhammer-Sapoznick-Carlin-Perlman/dp/B001HGPTNY ). As a young music historian and grad student Andy conducted oral history interviews around Galax in the 1980s on Manly Reece that led him directly back to Randolph County. His research paper “Adam Manly Reece: An Early Banjo Player of Grayson County, Virginia” was written for a class at UNC in 1987, and I am much obliged to Andy for sharing the paper and accompanying photographs with me. [It is one of the most valuable works of Randolph County and southern banjo history that has never been officially published, and I hope that is remedied soon!]

Banjo built by Manly Reece ca. 1848.

Through born in Randolph County, Manly Reece introduced the banjo to the Galax, Virginia area. His father George Reece, a blacksmith, was one of the twelve children of William Reece and Elizabeth Lane, who are buried in the Sandy Creek Baptist Church cemetery (see the church’s prior entry). George’s sister Agnes was the second wife of Elisha Coffin, underground railroad conductor, builder of my house and the 1838 cotton mill in Franklinville (see his prior entry), making her the aunt and Elisha the step-uncle of Manly (all history is genealogy!).

Detail of Manly Reece banjo- the back of the neck.

George Reece is remembered by his descendants to have played the fiddle, and Manly is said to have learned to play the banjo while just a boy. Manly’s own banjo, which is still in the possession of family members, is said to have been built by him before the family moved to Virginia between 1846 and 1848. Once settled in Galax, Manly played with the legendary fiddler Greenberry Leonard (1810-1892), who trained Emmet Lundy, one of the earliest recorded fiddlers in the area.  Manly’s banjo originally had 4 strings, but before he went into the army he’d converted it to 5 strings.  The family remembers that Manly played first in the clawhammer style, and later learned to fingerpick.  He could play many Stephen Foster songs, so Andy theorizes that Manly could have learned from a passing minstrel show (though I’ve found no references to those playing the Randolph County area).  Andy believes that Manly introduced the banjo to the Galax area, partly based on letters written to Manly after he went into service with the Confederate Army, where women write that they miss him and haven’t heard the banjo played since he left. His banjo was returned to his family after Manly was killed in March, 1864, while riding on top of a troop train in the Petersburg area.

Julia Reece Green and unknown fiddle player (original from Kahle Brewer)

Manly’s sister Julia Reece Green (1842-1911) learned to play the banjo from Manly, and passed the skill to her grandson Kahle Brewer. Kahle Brewer was a well-known old-time musician in Galax of the 1970s and 80s, and became a mentor to Andy Cahan and other expatriate students of southern musicology.

L-R: Allen Hart (banjo); Wayne Martin (fiddle); Kahle Brewer (fiddle); Alice Gerard (guitar); at Brewer house in Galax, VA, August 1988.

[From Kerry Blech website, http://home.comcast.net/~blechfam/gallery3.html .]

Andy Cahan’s initial research is still the last academic look into the antebellum roots of Randolph County music.  We’re missing fifty years or more from the story of 19th century music in the county, and perhaps some day that link can be uncovered. Between the time the Reeces moved to Galax in 1848 and the time a young Daner Johnson began to play circa 1890, at least a generation or two of musicians passed their banjo knowledge along. Whoever that was-–Daner Johnson’s teacher and mentor– is currently unknown. But Manly Reece, Daner Johnson and Charlie Poole were all born in northeastern Randolph, within a 5-mile radius of each other, so it is obvious that “ground zero” for the Johnson-Poole banjo tradition rightfully can be located somewhere just north of Franklinville, in Randolph County.

“Free Persons of Color”

April 7, 2009

The February 12, 1909 edition of The Courier, published in Asheboro, printed the following news article under the eye-catching headline “Killed With an Axe”:

Liberty, N.C.– Alex Heath, an old colored man who lived about 2 ½ miles east of here, just over in Alamance County, was found dead in bed on the morning of Feb. 7th. Someone had gone there the night before and killed him with an axe. He was struck right over the eye and his skull broken in. It appears that the old man had gone to bed and was asleep when he was killed. Uncle Alex, as we all called him, was a good, honest old man, and his word was his bond. He had many friends among his white neighbors. He had always been a free negro. Quite a number of Liberty people went down to see him last Sunday, and they said he was the most pitiful sight they had ever seen. He had a negro man and his wife living in the house with him and they had some words the morning before and the man and his wife spent the night at a neighbor’s house about a quarter of a mile distant. He was away from the house two hours or more and suspicion was so strong he was put under arrest.

I have thought for some time that the meanest man on earth was the one who wrote letters and signed no name to them and slipped them under doors at night with the purpose of causing hard feelings among neighbors, but I reckon the man who killed Alex Heath was just a little meaner, and if we had the right man I think he ought to be beheaded and let the devil get him before his feet get cold.

I have always heard that “hell broke alose in Georgia,” but I think it was North Carolina this time. On last Sunday morning some negroes who were cutting wood for Will H. Matthews got into a free-for-all fight and one negro struck another on the head with a skillet, planting the legs of the skillet in his head and then made for Greensboro. Deputy Sheriff Marley is after him and you may expect another boarder in Asheboro soon.

–Liberty Correspondent.

The murder itself is sadly, not that unusual—it could be “ripped from the headlines” still yet today, with the only difference being that it might also soon come back to life as episode of Law & Order. The reason I’m sharing it is the passing note that Uncle Alex Heath “had always been a free negro. “

“Free Persons of Color” was the 19th century legal term for the people historians now call ‘free blacks’ or ‘free negroes.’ They’ve long interested me because the vast majority of North Carolinians—even the vast majority of its living African-American citizens– assume that every black person is the direct descendant of slaves. This just isn’t correct; in fact it’s part of the dumbing down of history which results from schools teaching only what the standard textbooks recite.

On the eve of the Civil War, the 1860 census recorded that North Carolina had a total of 30,463 free negro citizens. That census showed Randolph County as having 432 free blacks, and Alamance with 422. It’s really interesting that the Census of 1800 found North Carolina with a population of just 7,043 ‘free persons of color’- the population had increased about 500% in half a century, despite the fact that after 1826 it was illegal for slave owners to free (“manumit”) their slaves, and even before that it often took a special act of the legislature to accomplish it.

In 1826 the legislature amended the slave code to declare that “It shall not be lawful for any free negro, or mulatto to migrate into this State” or else “he or she shall be liable to be held in servitude, and at labor for a term of time not exceeding ten years…” (chapter 21, section 1). In 1830 a series of amendments restricted the ability of an owner to free any of his slaves by will or otherwise. Any slave whose master did manage to follow the law and legally free him was required to “within ninety days after granting the prayer of the petitioner to emancipate him, her or them, leave the State of North Carolina, and never afterwards come within the same…” (chapter 9, section 1). Any slave so freed who failed to leave the state, or who subsequently returned, could be arrested and sold back into slavery (chapter 9, section 5).

Interestingly, Warren Dixon of Liberty tells me that “ According to the 1900 Federal Census for Alamance County, Alexander Heath was born March, 1831″— that’s the year of the notorious Nat Turner uprising in southern Virginia. The widespread public hysteria in the aftermath of the Turner rebellion led to a number of laws restricting the rights of free negroes, but before that time in North Carolina, there was no legal distinction between white and black “free men.” As such, they were entitled to the privilege of trial by jury, the rights of habeas corpus; of ownership of property (even to own slaves); to prosecute and defend suits in court, even against whites. There were some restrictions: a free negro was not allowed to bear arms or to have weapons in his possession unless he had a license from the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions [Revisal of 1855, ch. 107, p. 577]. In Virginia, ‘freedmen’ were not only forbidden to own a gun, they were not even allowed to own a dog!

North Carolina had never followed its neighboring states in restricting the rights of free negroes. Even after its constitution was rewritten in 1835, North Carolina remained the only slaveholding state which still permitted free negroes the right to vote (Virginia had disenfranchised its free blacks in 1723!). The regressive laws of the 1830s were designed to prevent interaction between free negroes and slaves: they were forbidden to gamble with one another; they were forbidden to preach; they were not allowed to buy or sell spirituous liquor [Revisal of 1837, ch. 111, p. 590 and Laws of North Carolina, Session 1858-59, ch. 31]. After 1855, the marriage of a free negro and a slave was absolutely prohibited by law [75 Revisal of 1855, ch. 107, p. 577].

An ongoing project of the history department at UNC-G is compiling the public records of free negroes, and contains two interesting petitions from Randolph County seeking the legislature’s approval to emancipate local black families. In 1801, eighteen residents of the county petitioned for freedom to be granted to “Sarah Bagnall and Hannah Bagnall,” “two Mulato Children whose mother is also dead” and whose deceased father, John Bagnell, “left no will in writing.” The petitioners were “fully satisfied that he own’d sd. Children to be his & wish’d them to injoy the little property he was possessed of”, and asked the General Assembly to “Entitle them to freedom & to inherite what little property may be found.” [North Carolina Department of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina; General Assembly, Session Records, Emancipation Petitions, November–December 1801, Box: 3.]

In Randolph County on November 14, 1818, a free man of color named George Sears asked that an act be passed “to Emancipate & Set free his said Wife Tillah Sears and his two daughters Patsey Sears & Polly Sears…” He stated that William Bell (former Sheriff) emancipated him in 1809 as executor of the will of Richard Sears. George, a blacksmith, married Tillah, a slave he had purchased from Bell for $300, mistakenly thinking that she and all of their future children would be free by virtue of her marriage to a freed man. Now he realizes that his family are “considered slaves unless they are Emancipated by an act of your Honourable body.” Any action taken by the legislature on his petition is not known. [North Carolina Department of Archives and History, Raleigh, North Carolina; General Assembly, Session Records, Petition of George Sears and Certificate of Alexander Gray, W. Hogan, et al., [11-14-1818].


Asheboro Colored Graded School

February 8, 2009

At the southwest corner of Central School, now known as “East Side Homes,” is a marble stone which predates the 1926 construction of Asheboro’s oldest existing African-American school.

The reuse of “Ashboro/ Colored Graded School/ 1911″ marked not only the community’s joy in the new school, but its pride in its first. The stone was actually re-installed as the cornerstone of the 1926 building in a ceremony conducted by Zacharias Franks and other members of the Odd Fellows fraternal order. Mr. Franks was a brick mason and one of the first residents of “Moffitt Heights,” where Frank Street continues to bear a shortened version of his name.

Before the Civil War, education of black children was specifically prohibited by state law, but the Constitution of 1868 mandated free schools for all children between ages 6 to 21. Even before that time, Freedmen’s Schools were conducted in several places in the county, such as Middleton Academy between Cedar Falls and Franklinville.

It’s presently unclear what kind of serious funding black education received in Randolph County in the late 19th century. The only real reference to the subject is in Sidney Swaim Robins’ 1972 autobiography “Sketches of My Asheboro,” where he recounts his family’s friendship with William Ernest Mead. Mead, a native of Brooklyn, New York, was hired to serve as the principal of the black school in Asheboro. Mead, only 20 years old, arrived around 1882 to teach and run the school “as a sort of Quaker missionary” (p. 25).

According to Robins, the school was located on ” the Oaky Mountain Road… after you started down the red lane from the old courthouse [intersection of Salisbury and Main streets], crossed the wet weather brook on a low plant-bridge, and passed the Colored schoolhouse half way up the first rise to where the lane leveled off” (p. 44). Robins left Asheboro for Harvard in 1900, so his memory considerably predates the 1911 date on the preserved cornerstone date. The exact location of the school is shown on part of a map for “Beechwood” subdivision, developed in 1936. Lots 1 through 5 fronting on Brookside Drive include part of the school grounds; a later hand has drawn the outline of a building facing Old North Main Street just north of lots 1 and 2, on adjoining property labeled “School Lot” (see Plat Book 1, Page 289). So the site of the school can be found approximately at the present location of 309- 310 North Main Street.

The “Colored Graded School” was a public school established under the school improvement movement pushed by Governor Charles B. Aycock. The “Asheboro Graded School Trustees” in 1909 built a grand brick Graded School for white students on the old Male Academy lot on South Fayetteville Street (later named Fayetteville Street School), then in 1911 the four-room frame school on old North Main Street that older residents still remember.

Ruth McCrae, a long-time teacher in the Asheboro City School system, was a student in the 1911 school. She told historian Tom Hanchett, who prepared the nomination of Central School to the National Register of Historic Places, that “One the January day when the building was completed, students from the old Asheboro Colored School on Greensboro Road marched triumphantly down the hill to the new facility, each carrying a chair from the old building” (NR nomination, p. 5). McCraw also vividly recalled “we weren’t out of that building but three months—March—when the wind blew that school down! Just completely flattened it! There was nothing standing!”


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