A cousin sent me this undated letter a few days ago, asking if I knew anything about it. She is descended from my great-great-great-grandfather Adam Artis‘ brother Richard Artis. Her Richard is not one of the Richards listed to in the document. (There were several contemporaneous Richard Artises just in the Wayne-Greene-Wilson County corner, none of whom I can link to one another.) The family history recounted in the letter smacks of the apocryphal, but it is interesting, and I will try to follow up on it.
Twenty-five years ago today, I submitted the first draft of my master’s essay prospectus to Professor Barbara J. Fields of Columbia University. The thesis itself took another year-and-a-half to complete. In between, I submerged myself in the North Carolina State Archives and the literature of free people of color and forged an unwavering fascination with their time and place in Southern antebellum history. Though I found frustratingly little direct evidence of my own ancestors’ apprenticeship, I gained a depth of understanding of their circumstances and community that has served my genealogical research well.
Per the “Account of the Sale of the property of Matthew Aldridg Deceased sold by Joseph Hollowell Adm. on a credit of six months, Nov 20th 1868,” his widow, Catherine Boseman (or Simmons) Aldridge, purchased five “chears”, cart wheels and an axle, two tables (one small), two beds and furniture, “one cubbard & contents,” a clock, a gun, “3 Bee Gumes & work bench,” a tub dipper, kitchen furniture, a blind mare and two beehives. Green Simmons, George Simmons and David Winn purchased tools, and “Robbert Aldridg,” who likely was Matthew Aldridge’s brother, bought the fourth and fifth beehive choices. A note on William Carter for a $27.50 debt, due 1 January 1869, was described as doubtful. The Application for Letters of Administration in the file notes that Aldridge’s heirs were John Henry Aldridge, Wm. Aldridge, Frances Aldridge, Della Aldridge, Mary Ann Aldridge, Joanna Aldridge, and James Thomas Aldridge.
William Aldridge was one of the founders of the First Congregational Church of Dudley, and Frances Aldridge Wynn and Mary Ann Aldridge Baker’s descendants were prominent members of the church for several generations. John H. Aldridge had a daughter, Nina Frances Faison Hardy, who played an important role in my grandmother’s young life. More about Aunt Nina later.
There had been a photograph of Adam Artis, cousin Daisy told me, but it was stored with other things in an old barn, and rain ruined it. She recalled an image of a tall, brown-skinned man — or the suggestion of brown skin, anyway, in the soft sepia and charcoal tones of portraits of that day — but not what he actually looked like.
If no photograph of Adam exists, however, there is one of his youngest brother. This image, in fact, is the only one known of any of Vicey Artis and Solomon Williams‘ children.
Richard Artis was born in 1850 in Greene County, very near Wayne. He spent his youth out of sight of censustakers, but in 1873, he married Susanna Yelverton (also known as Susanna Hall,) the daughter of free woman of color Nicey (or Caroline) Hall and a white Yelverton. Their children included: Lucinda Artis Shearod, Emma Artis Reid, Ivory L. Artis, Loumiza Artis Grantham, Richard Artis Jr., Susan Artis Cooper, Jonah Artis, Charity Artis Coley, Frances Artis Newsome, John Henry Artis and Walter Clinton Artis.
Richard Artis farmed in northern Wayne County all his life. He died of apoplexy on 12 February 1923 in Great Swamp township and was buried the next day by his sister’s son, Adam Wilson.
Photo courtesy of Teresa C. Artis.
My grandmother, who was born in 1910, said her great-grandfather Lewis Henderson died when she was very small. She did not remember him, though her sister Mamie had reason to. He threw a brush at her — it hit her in the head — because she was making too much noise. She could not have been older than four.
North Carolina did not keep death certificates until 1914, and Lewis’ grave is unmarked. How do we know exactly when he died? This is a page from one of the few volumes of early church records that survive for the Congregational Church of Dudley. Lewis had helped found the church in 1870, and this list shows tithes paid by male congregants. The sixth name: Henderson, Lewis. And this notation: “Died July 5 — 1912.” He would have been about 76.
I’ve spent a whole lot of time trying to figure it out, but I still don’t know much. I can tell you this: that Martha Henderson, better known as Patsey — and my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother — was desperate. That she could not adequately feed her children. That children like hers could be claimed by any passing scoundrel. That she needed to make the first move. So she made her way to Wantland’s Ferry, to the Onslow Courthouse, and implored the justice to place her boys with the white man of her choosing. They were to serve as apprentices until 21, to learn a trade, and maybe, if lucky, how to read and write. The year was 1821.
Patsey’s children were freeborn, as was she. She was likely a dark twig on the family tree of the white Hendersons who lived in Onslow, having arrived by the mid-1700s from Scotland via Maryland. She was nearly white herself, as were her children, but not so nearly as to confuse the court, which duly recorded them as free people of color and laid down the applicable laws, one of which dictated that “baseborn” children would not run the countryside, but would be made available to ambitious, cash-poor whites as short-term labor. Not slaves, but not free labor either. Apprentices.
Patsey could not escape this game, but she could try to work it, to play it, to squeeze from it what benefit she could. The reality was that there was not much work for free colored women in a slave society – she could never sew or clean or mammy cheap enough to compete — and in sparsely populated rural areas like Onslow, there was even less call for other skills. She may have been sickly to boot. Patsey’s children faced real threats to their well-being by every measure of need. So she struck some deals and went into court and pled that James and Bryant Henderson find shelter with a master she had selected. Was he their father? Another relative? Simply a neighbor? Her request was granted and, mission accomplished, she died.
From the minutes of Onslow County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, February term, 1821 —
“Patsey Henderson a free woman of color in Onslow County came into court and desired her two sons (viz) James Henderson and Bryan Henderson be bound to Jesse Gregory agreeable to law and give Jason Gregory and Hezekiah Williams for securities in the sum of $1000 each.”
Throughout the summer of 1866, they converged in pairs on the tiny hamlet of Goldsboro. In their least-patched clothing and maybe in shoes, they were dusty and footsore by time they arrived at the courthouse looming over the center of town. Under a scorching white sky, with depthless farmwork begrudging every moment away, they made their way to claim what had only recently seemed like fantasy — a marriage license. North Carolina had offered to legitimate all slave cohabitations, and thousands took up the offer.
Watching them go, self-proud and probably envious, were ancestors like mine — Lewis and Mag Henderson. They had been together 15 years by then and could have married legally at any time, but were too poor to afford the fees and too wary besides of inviting unnecessary scrutiny of their free colored lives. Even if they craved legitimacy, however, they did not avail themselves of the 1866 law. They had not been slaves. Until he died in 1912 and she in 1915, Lewis and Mag lived in quiet mutual devotion — without government sanction.
A hundred years after his forebears spurned the law, another Henderson happily paid for his license and was married in the shade-dappled sideyard of his bride’s grandparents’ house. My parents celebrated 52 years in May.
“It comes from Fremont, Wayne county, that Adam Artis, colored, 75 years old, who lives near there, is the father of 47 legitimate children and that in addition there are 80 or 90 grandchildren.” — Statesville Landmark, 9 Jan 1906.
Try as I might, I can only account for 32 children. My great-great-grandmother, by Adam’s third wife Frances Seaberry, was one of them. Adam was born in 1831 in Greene County, North Carolina, to a freeborn mother and an enslaved father. They gave him the middle name Toussaint, and I’d love to know that story. He was apprenticed as a carpenter and purchased his first acreage in 1855 from his brother-in-law, John Wilson. Over the years, he bought and sold a few hundred acres in northern Wayne County, and descendants still live on land that was his. It is said that his fifth wife, 50+ years his junior, treated him badly in his last days, and was so afraid that he would haunt her that she had his feet cut off before the burial. No photos of him remain, but his legacy is well-secured. As his granddaughter Beulah Williams once told me: “These Artises, they are innumerable.”