Education, Maternal Kin, North Carolina, Other Documents

Signature Saturday, no. 4: Harriet Hart’s men.

Harriet Nicholson Tomlin Hart was not an educated woman. She did not lack for ambition, though, and made sure that both her sons received schooling.

The bold, instantly recognizable signature of Lon W. Colvert (1876-1930), on a marriage license:

LW Colvert Sig

The somewhat shakier signature of his half-brother Harvey Golar Tomlin (1894-1961):

HG Tomlin Sig

Her last husband, Thomas Lonzo Hart (1866-1929), may have been trained as a lawyer, and his business acumen was recognized throughout his community. He had the practiced hand of a literate man and, in fact, taught Harriet how to read and write:

TL Hart Sig

Education, North Carolina, Paternal Kin

Signature Saturday, no. 2: Lewis Henderson’s progeny.

Lewis and Margaret Henderson were surely unlettered, and I suspect that most of their children were, too. I have only been able to find handwriting samples for two.

Caswell C. Henderson was the most worldly of the siblings, having migrated to New York City in his mid 20s, engaged in local politics, and secured a patronage job at the United Customs House while in his 30s. From his 1893 marriage certificate to Emma D. Bentley:

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And from a letter he wrote in 1926 to his sister Sarah:

Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 5.28.33 PMSarah Henderson Jacobs Silver was also literate, though her handwriting and grammar reveal the limits of her schooling. This signature appeared on the marriage license of her niece, Minnie Simmons Budd.

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Most families grow exponentially, but Lewis and Mag’s descendants underwent a bit of a bottleneck in the third generation. Of their nine children, only two — Ann Elizabeth and Loudie — had children that survived to adulthood. Those two produced five children (barely, as one died at age 19) who reached majority. Of the five, I have only found the signature of one. Jesse “Jack” Henderson, Loudie’s son, affixed his name to his Social Security application in 1936:

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Education, Other Documents, Paternal Kin

Signature Saturday, no. 1: Adam Artis’ children.

Adam T. Artis was illiterate. Though a smart and successful man, he executed contracts with a shaky X and probably conducted much of his business on the basis of verbal agreements. Here, his mark on a receipt for goods purchased from him by the Confederate government in 1863:

Adam Artis mark

There’s little evidence to show whether Adam’s wives could read and write, but it seems doubtful that the first three or four could. His granddaughter Pauline Artis Harris told me that education was important to him, however, and he hired a teacher to live on his farm and school his children. His efforts bore fruit. Below, the signatures of eight of Adam’s 26 or so children.

The signature of the oldest son, Cain Artis (1853-1917):

Cain Artis Sig

The signature of Louvicey Artis Aldridge (1865-1927) on the final account of her husband’s estate:

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It is, perhaps not surprisingly, the shakiest of the bunch. Vicey was among Adam’s earlier children and likely came along before her father’s resources allowed for tutors. She was also a girl.

From the World War I draft registration card of Walter Scott Artis (1874-1951):

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From the World War I draft registration card of William Marshall Artis (1875-1945):

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From the World War I draft registration care of Jesse Artis (1878-1922):

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Jesse used the alternate spelling “Artice,” which was rarely adopted by members of this family. Notice that somewhere between William and Jesse’s early schooling, cursive capital A’s shifted in style from a form very similar to a printed “A” to one like an oversized small “a.”

From the World War I draft registration card of Robert Elder Artis (1883-1934):

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From the World War I draft registration of Columbus Estell Artis (1886-1973):

CE ARtis Sig

C.E.’s signature is interesting. This round, upright script, from 1917, is a relatively early version. Later, over the course of the hundreds of death certificates he signed as an undertaker, he developed a bold, right-leaning, immediately identifiable signature characterized by a bold slash through the “r” in Artis:

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From the World War I draft registration card of June Scott Artis (1889-1973):

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Though his letters are well-formed and decisive, the missing “S” in Scott suggests a man who signed his name from memory and did not write much.

From World War I draft registration card of Henry J.B. Artis (1892-1973):

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From the Social Security application of Alphonso Pinkney Artis (1903-1976):

[I’ve got this somewhere. I just need to find it.]

Education, Enslaved People, Land, Maternal Kin, North Carolina, Other Documents


My grandmother tells a story:

… Jay and I were supposed to clean the house on Saturday. You know, do the vacuuming and dusting and cleaning and everything. And then I would play, and we would play, and Grandma would say, “I’m gonna tell your mama. I’m gonna write your mama and tell your mama how you act.” She said, “I can’t write her right now ‘cause I’m nervous,’ you know.” Couldn’t write a lick. [I laugh.] Couldn’t read …. I don’t think she could read or write, but I know she couldn’t write. Bless her heart. She says, “I’m gonna tell your mammy on you. You see if I don’t. And, see, if I wont so nervous, I’d write her, but I’m too nervous” – couldn’t write any more than she could fly! [Laughs.]

Martha Miller McNeely, born into slavery in 1855, may not have been able to read or write, but her children signed their names in clear, firm hands that evidence both their early education and their easy familiarity with penmanship. Their father Henry, the literate son of a slaveowner, may have taught them rudiments, but they likely attended one of the small country schools that dotted rural Rowan County. (My grandmother said that her mother Carrie finished seventh grade and was supposed to have gone on to high school at Livingstone College, but the family used her school money to pay for an appendectomy for one of her sisters.) The document below is found in the estate file of Henry’s half-brother, Julius McNeely, who, unlike Henry, was not taught to read during slavery. Julius died without a wife or children, and Henry’s offspring were his sole legal heirs.

Power of attorney

Signatures are often-overlooked scraps of information that yield not only obvious clues about literacy, but also subtleties like depth and quality of education and preferred names, spellings and pronunciations. They are also, in original documents, tangible traces of our forebears’ corporality — evidence that that they were once here.


 Interview of Margaret C. Allen by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved. File of Jule McNeely, Rowan County, North Carolina Estate Files 1663-1979, Original, North Carolina State Archives.

Education, Maternal Kin, Religion, Virginia

Church home, no. 4: Zion Baptist, Newport News VA.

“The Zion Baptist Church was organized in the year 1896 under a cherry tree at its present location by a group of 13 baptized Christians who had migrated to Newport News from other areas of Virginia and the Carolinas and who had not affiliated with any local congregation.

In 1896, when the City of Newport News was in its infancy, a section of town now known as the East End was better known as “Blood Field” for its street violence. There were houses of prostitution, bars, dance halls, a saloon on every corner and gambling was a way of life.

It was after several meetings from house-to-house that the thirteen Christians concluded that there was a need for some type of religious worship in the immediate area and so 107 years later, Zion Baptist Church in the East End was set.

The first pastor called to lead the group was Rev. Moses Tynes and in 1897, the first tiny structure was built under his leadership. Most of the materials were donated by whites in the community and the labor was donated by men in the community.

In 1899, under the leadership of Rev. C. J. Crudup, the sanctuary was destroyed by fire. But despite this setback along with other difficulties, the congregation continued to grow. Rev. C. E. Jones was called to assume the responsibility of leadership in 1901 and for eleven years, Zion experienced tremendous growth, encouraging men and women to turn to Christ. Both Rev. and Mrs. Jones were actively involved in the work of the National Baptist Convention and the Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention. In 1941, Rev. Jones’ pastorate ended as a result of a car accident after 39 years of leadership to the congregation. Rev. Joseph B. Reid became his successor and he served the church for fourteen years.”  Excerpt from “About Us,”


John C. Allen Sr. was illiterate when he arrived in Newport News about 1899.  Before long, he made his way to Zion Baptist where, under the tutelage of Rev. Charles E. Jones, he learned to read. John reared his children in the church, and his funeral service was held there in the first days of 1954.

He was a smart man, but he was not an educated man.  If he had had an education to go along with his wit, he would have been a bad boy.  I’m telling you, ‘cause he was just as smart as he could be. 


Interview of Margaret Colvert Allen by Lisa Y. Henderson, 8 August 1998; all rights reserved.