Births Deaths Marriages, Newspaper Articles, North Carolina, Paternal Kin, Politics, Rights

Remembering J. Frank Baker.

The myth goes something like this: John Frank Baker was the first black man elected to Congress from Wayne County. He never made it to Washington, assassinated as he attempted to board a train north for his swearing-in.

Something about this didn’t sit right with me.

Wayne County was part of the so-called Black Second, the Congressional district that encompassed most of northeast North Carolina’s majority-black counties during Reconstruction and into the early 20th century. The history of African-American political activity in the district is extensive and well-documented, and I couldn’t recall having read of Baker. A Google search quickly refreshed my recollection. North Carolina voters sent four black Congressmen to Washington in the nineteenth century: John Adams Hyman of Warren County (1875-1877), James Edward O’Hara of Enfield (1883-1887), Henry Plummer Cheatham of Littleton (1889-1893), and George Henry White of Tarboro (1897-1901). No Baker.

As his headstone reveals, J. Frank Baker died 20 March 1897, the same month that George H. White was sworn into the 55th Congress, having defeated white Democratic incumbent Frederick A. Woodard of Wilson. [Sidenote: My junior high school was named for Woodard.] Clearly, Frank Baker was never elected to Congress. Why, then, was he killed?

To call newspapers of the era racist is to say “the sky is blue.” Articles about African-Americans were condescending and mocking at best, derogatory and vicious most times. Objectivity was not a hallmark of journalism in the late 19th century in general, but if their names appeared in the local paper, African-Americans could generally expect the worst. Notwithstanding this general bleak picture, when consumed with a grain of salt, early newspapers can be an invaluable source of otherwise unrecorded information about black Americans.

Frank Baker’s murder was covered in detail in the Goldsboro Headlight and the Weekly Argus, the rival newspapers operating in Wayne County at the time. Even before his death, however, his fiery advocacy seized the attention of the white community. This story was picked up by papers across the country:


Goldsboro Headlight, 5 November 1896.

I don’t know what Baker was speaking about or why his words touched off such a response — if, in fact, “150 negroes” actually took the streets like this. It is clear, though, that he was a powerful and polarizing figure in Wayne County. And four months later he was dead. A Raleigh newspaper broke the story:


Raleigh Daily Tribune, 24 March 1897.

The tone set, the Goldsboro papers picked up the report:

Gboro_Weekly_Argus_3_25_1897_Frank_BakerGoldsboro Weekly Argus, 25 March 1897.

Assuming that the basic description of the murder is correct, we learn that Baker was not boarding a train when he was killed. Rather, he was minding customers at his grocery store, located near the railroad warehouse in Dudley. (The Headlight reported that the store belonged to Ira W. Hatch.) He was shot at fairly close range, but a room full of people saw nothing. Nonetheless, a wholly unbelievable statement attributed to his brother, W.B. Baker, placed the responsibility for Frank’s death on his own head. The reporter then emphasizes the “deadly hatred” that Baker engendered among his neighbors by insisting on legislation incorporating the town of Dudley. [Sidenote: don’t you have to love Bishop Henry McNeal Turner?]


Goldsboro Weekly Argus, 29 April 1897.

A month later, the wheels of justice were spinning uselessly, as newspapers indignantly proclaimed the innocence of two white men implicated — but not actually charged — in the crime. A week after W.B. Bowden’s good name was cleared, J. Will Grady was released when the “facts of his innocence were established.” On 27 May 1897, the Headlight tersely noted that the governor of North Carolina had offered a reward for the capture of Frank Baker’s killers. That’s the last I’ve found on the subject.

John Frank Baker was born about 1845. I don’t know much about his early life, but in 1879 he married Mary Ann Aldridge, daughter of J. Matthew and Catherine Boseman Aldridge, and likely first cousin to my great-great-grandfather John W. Aldridge. Frank Baker was not a Congressman. Nonetheless, he made his mark in Wayne County as an African-American politician capable of stirring the masses and willing to take on unpopular causes in an era in which even voicing opinions was a daring undertaking. He is not forgotten.



Photo from Baker article posted at

Agriculture, Free People of Color, Land, North Carolina, Rights

But for marl.

I don’t know if I’m an Armwood or not, but (1) my great-great-great-great-grandfather James Henderson’s second wife, Louisa, was Henry Armwood’s cousin, (2) I’ve got a DNA match with one of Henry Armwood’s descendants, and (3) Inez Armwood Watson always said we were kin. Either way, I claim him just on the strength of the moxie he displayed when he, a tenant farmer, fought back against the landowner who sought to cheat him of his cotton.

Herring v. Armwood, 130 NC 177 (1902).

B.W. Herring filed this suit in Duplin County, North Carolina, to recover from William Henry Armwood two bales of cotton worth $81 that he alleged belonged to him. Armwood responded that the cotton was worth much more than $81 and that it was not Herring’s. Further, countered Armwood, he rented the farm on which the cotton was raised under this contract: “I, B.W. Herring, do hereby agree to rent my farm to Henry Armwood for the year of 1899 for five bales of cotton of the first picking, weighing five hundred pounds, or the equivalent in money. I do also agree to dig marl to the amount of two thousand bushels, more or less, and Henry Armwood agrees to haul the same and scatter on the land.” Armwood was to use the marl in lieu of commercial fertilizers to improve the land and increase crop yield. However, Herring refused to dig the marl, and Armwood’s crops suffered.

At trial, Herring testified that Armwood paid only three of five bales of cotton he owed in rent. Armwood took two more bales raised on the rented land to Ruffin Cameron’s to be ginned and those bales were seized. Herring’s testimony is somewhat confusingly recounted in the opinion, but he seems to assert that he did not agree to dig any marl for the 1899 crop, but that he used it as an experiment in 1898 on about 16 of the 40 acres he rented to Armwood.  Armwood countered: “It was agreed that the two thousand bushels of marl shoul dbe hauled on the crop for 1899. I lived on the plaintiff’s land in 1898, and hauled marl for 15 or 16 acres. The crops were increased by the use of the marl 50 to 75 per cent. I hauled the marl from Mr. Dan Lee Flowers. He had the bed, and furnished Mr. Faison Hicks, Mr. Ab Herring, Andrew Barfield, and others in the neighborhood. My crop was decreased by the failure to use the marl at least 50 per cent.” Herring objected to this testimony on the grounds that it was too remote, and the trial judge sustained the objection. Though Dan Lee Flowers testified in support of Armwood, the judge rendered a verdict and judgment for Herring. Armwood appealed.

The North Carolina Supreme Court neatly framed the issue: “The sole question involved in this appeal, when stripped of its technical paraphernalia, is whether an action for damages will lie for a breach of contract in failing to furnish fertilizers, whereby the yield of the crop was decreased, because such damage or failure in the yield will be too remote.” And decided: “… the conclusion is irresistible that a lessening in the yield would be the natural result of a failure to use the marl, if marl be beneficial to the growth and development of the crops, and that the lessened yield would be incidental to such breach, and therefore plaintiff would be liable.” Further, everybody knows that fertilizers increase yield and marl can greatly increase production. “… [i]f damages be recoverable for a breach of contract which decreased the yield, they can also be recovered for a breach of contract whereby the yield was not increased.” Armwood had a right to present his proof to the jury. Error in the lower court, and a new trial awarded.

Land, North Carolina, Paternal Kin, Politics, Rights

Poll holder — in Fremont???


Wilmington Messenger, 3 April 1889.

John W. Aldridge was born in northern Sampson County and grew up near Dudley in southern Wayne County. In the late 1870s, he and his brother George taught at a school near Fremont, in northern Wayne County, where John met and married his wife Louvicey Artis in 1879. I had always assumed that the couple immediately returned to Dudley to raise their family and establish a farm and later a general store. However, this announcement clearly shows that John Aldridge was a firmly entrenched resident of the Fremont district as late as 1889. (In hindsight, this would explain why the Aldridges do not appear in Congregational Church records in the 1880s and 1890s.) When did the family return to Dudley? John and his brothers George and Matthew purchased land together in the 1870s. I’ve never looked at these deeds in detail, but clearly need to do so. Are there other traces of John Aldridge’s tenure in north Wayne?

Free People of Color, North Carolina, Other Documents, Paternal Kin, Photographs, Rights

Jurors and judges of election.

As tax-paying landowners, many African-American men in Wayne County, North Carolina, in the 1870s were called alongside white men to fulfill their civic duties. Here are two entries from Superior Court Minute Book 2:

ImageNapoleon Hagans of Nahunta township was appointed a judge of elections.

ImageMy great-great-great-grandfather Lewis Henderson drew jury duty for the first week of the next term of the superior court.

Superior Court Minute Book 2, Wayne County Register of Deeds Office, Goldsboro, North Carolina.

Free People of Color, Land, Newspaper Articles, North Carolina, Paternal Kin, Rights

A win for Uncle Mathew.


Goldsboro Headlight, 5 March 1890.

I don’t know why Matthew W. Aldridge sued Calvin Foy, but I’ll try to find out next time I’m in Raleigh. “Little Washington” was a black neighborhood south of Pine Street and west of Virginia Street, just outside Goldsboro city limits. The community was largely lost to urban renewal projects.

Births Deaths Marriages, Land, Maternal Kin, North Carolina, Other Documents, Rights

Murdock v. Deal, 208 N.C. 754, 182 S.E. 466 (1935).

In case you’re interested, here’s the text of the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Bertha Hart Murdock’s land. Property law is not my strong suit, especially as it applies to inheritance, so I will not attempt an explication.


This is an action for a declaratory judgment construing the last will and testament of T. L. Hart, deceased, and adjudging that by virtue of said last will and testament the feme plaintiff is the owner of an indefeasible estate in fee simple in certain lands described in the complaint, and has the power, with the joinder of her husband, to convey the same in accordance with her contract with the defendant.

The facts admitted in the pleadings are as follows:

T. L. Hart died in Iredell county, N. C., during the year 1930, having first made and published his last will and testament, which was duly probated by the clerk of the superior court of Iredell county, and recorded in the office of said clerk on June 4, 1930.

By his last will and testament, the said T. L. Hart devised his home place in Iredell county “to my daughter, Bertha May Hart and her bodily heirs, forever, never to be sold, and if she dies without bodily heirs, then it must be in trust for my sisters’ heirs, to hold but never to sell the same.”

By a codicil to his said last will and testament, the said T. L. Hart devised to his daughter, Bertha Mae Hart, a tract of land in Iredell county, containing forty-five acres, and described in the complaint by metes and bounds.

At his death, T. L. Hart left surviving as his only heir at law his daughter, Bertha Mae Hart, who has since intermarried with the plaintiff W. J. Murdock. He also left surviving five sisters, three of whom are married. Each of these sisters has children. Neither of his two unmarried sisters has children. Both are now over fifty years of age.

On April 1, 1935, the plaintiffs and the defendant entered into a contract in writing, by which the plaintiffs agreed to convey to the defendant a fee-simple estate, free and clear of all liens or incumbrances, in two tracts of land, one tract containing twelve acres, and being a part of the home place of T. L. Hart, deceased, which was devised to the feme plaintiff by the said T. L. Hart in his last will and testament, and the other tract containing forty-five acres and being the tract which was devised to the feme plaintiff by T. L. Hart, deceased, by the codicil to his last will and testament. By said contract, the defendant agreed to pay to the plaintiffs the sum of $1,000, upon the execution and delivery to him by the plaintiffs of a deed conveying both said tracts of land to the defendant, in fee simple, in accordance with said contract.

The defendant has refused to accept the deed tendered to him by the plaintiffs, and has declined to pay the plaintiffs the sum of $1,000, in accordance with said contract, on the ground that the feme plaintiff is not the owner of an indefeasible estate in fee simple in said tracts of land, and for that reason the plaintiffs cannot convey to him such an estate in said lands, in accordance with their contract.

On these facts the court was of opinion and so held that the feme plaintiff is the owner of an indefeasible estate in fee simple in the forty-five-acre tract, but that she is not the owner of such an estate in the twelve-acre tract.

It was accordingly ordered, considered, and adjudged that plaintiffs are not entitled to the specific performance by the defendant of the contract set up in the complaint, and that the defendant recover of the plaintiffs the costs of the action. The plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court, assigning as error the holding of the court that the feme plaintiff is not the owner of an indefeasible estate in fee simple in the twelve-acre tract described in the complaint.


CONNOR, Justice.

There is no error in the judgment in this action. By virtue of the last will and testament of her father, T. L. Hart, deceased, and under the statute, C. S. § 1734, the feme plaintiff is the owner of an estate in fee simple in the twelve-acre tract described in the complaint. This estate, however, is defeasible upon the death of the feme plaintiff without bodily heirs. Whitfield v. Garris, 131 N. C. 148, 42 S. E. 568, and Id., 134 N. C. 24, 45 S. E. 904. It is clear that the words “bodily heirs,” used by the testator, must be construed as meaning children or issue; otherwise the limitation over to the heirs of the sisters of the testator would be meaningless. Rollins v. Keel, 115 N. C. 68, 20 S. E. 209. See Pugh v. Allen, 179 N. C. 307, 102 S. E. 394.

The limitation over to the heirs of the sisters of the testator, upon the death of the feme plaintiff, without bodily heirs or issue, is not void. The provision in the will that the home place of the testator, which includes the twelve-acre tract described in the complaint, shall not be sold by either the feme plaintiff or the remaindermen is void as against public policy. This provision, however, does not affect the validity of the devise either to the plaintiff or to the remaindermen. See Lee v. Oates, 171 N. C. 717, 88 S. E. 889, Ann. Cas. 1917A, 514.

There is nothing in the codicil which affects the estate in the home place of the testator devised in the will to the feme plaintiff.

The judgment is affirmed.