Black history in Surry County

by Meghann Evans

The history of Surry as an incorporated county dates to 1770, a time when many people farmed to live. But black people shared a separate struggle from the white residents of the county.

A detailed history of that struggle is not available. Since the majority of the black people were slaves, much of the history was passed down orally.

“Oral history—it’s all we’ve got,” said Dr. Evelyn Scales Thompson of the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society of Surry County.

“As property, they had their names listed only occasionally; as free people, they rarely saw their accomplishments noted,” wrote Martha Rowe Vaughn in “Black America Series: Around Surry County,” a book compiled by Thompson.

In “Around Surry County,” Vaughn writes that African Americans could first be found in the area in the 1580s. That is when Sir Francis Drake arrived in Virginia then set free the black slaves who were with him. Vaughn said that as the need for labor increased, along with the threat of slavery, many black people fled south. The slave importation proposition of 1600, as explained in Thompson’s book, gave many people incentive to have slaves. The proposition provided for settlers to receive 20 acres of land per male slave and 10 acres per female slave.

The first permanent settlers began coming to what is now Surry County in the 1740s, according to an essay written by Ruth Minick in “The Surry County Book.” Substantial settlement began in the 1750s.

Surry County was created in 1770, but the present boundaries of Surry County did not come to be until 1850. Originally, Surry County encompassed what we now know as Forsyth, Stokes, and Yadkin counties. Parts of Ashe, Alleghany, Wilkes and Alexander counties were also included in the original county borders.

Shortly after the creation of Surry County, records show that African Americans comprised a noticeable portion of the population. The North Carolina State Census of 1784-1787 reported that there were more than 1,000 slaves in and around Surry.

Lucy Taylor is one of the local historians who contributed to “Around Surry County.” She recently explained that for poorer landowners, the ability to own slaves that would work for free was an attractive option. She said, “It was about survival.”

Not all black people in Surry County were slaves. William Franklin Carter Jr. and Carrie Young Carter report in “Footprints in the Hollows” that there were 698 slaves and 17 free “Negroes” in Surry County near the close of the 18th century. In 1860, the unpublished schedules of the eighth census showed that there were 12 free Negro apprentices in Surry County. The unpublished schedules also show that there were 18 free Negro property owners.

But some free black people were held illegally as slaves in Surry County. John Hope Franklin wrote in his book “The Free Negro in North Carolina 1790-1860” that in 1825 the Deep Creek branch of the North Carolina Manumission Society reported that “a ‘number of colored people’ were being ‘illegally held in bondage in Surry County and perhaps in some other Naboring County.’”

The number of slaves in Surry County was less than in many areas of the South. Vaughn explained in “Around Surry County” that “the land was not suitable for large plantations, so the number of slaves in the Surry region never approached the numbers held by eastern plantation owners.”

Barbara Case Summerlin wrote in her book “The Hollows” that in the early 1800s, the “vast majority of people, at least ninety percent, had no slaves and only a small tract of land.”

In 1830, only slightly more than 11 percent of household heads in Surry County owned one or more slaves, reported Laura A.W. Phillips’ in her book “Simple Treasures: The Architectural Legacy of Surry County.” In 1860, there were 205 slave owners reported, and 64 percent of those owners had five or less slaves. Five percent owned more than 20 slaves, and only one owner had more than 40 slaves.

Many of the slave owners are said to have worked with their slaves in the fields or on building projects. In “The Franklin House: The house, the family, and their historical perspective,” J. Edwin Hendricks says, “This was no plantation southland in which the master sat by idly as the house was being constructed by his slaves, and the members of his family probably labored along with the slaves—although by this time there was likely a clear distinction between family and slave tasks, with only the easier, nicer jobs going to the family.”

Many slaves stayed on the same plantation for the majority of their lives. Grace Gates Smith is one such slave. Smith was born a slave in Alabama, probably in 1790. She was given to Eng Bunker and his wife, Sallie, as a wedding present in 1843. Grace served as the nurse to the 22 children of Eng and Chang Bunker, the famous Siamese twins who eventually settled in White Plains. She died in 1915, some claim at 125 years of age, still living in White Plains.

Some of the plantation houses of Surry County still stand today. Photographs of many of the well-known plantations—such as the William P. Dobson plantation, Edwards-Franklin plantation, and Joseph Dobson Plantation—can be found in books written by local historians.

While most black residents of the county prior to the Civil War were owned as property, they made lasting contributions to Surry County. In “Around Surry County,” Vaughn wrote: “America was built on the backs of her workers—those unsung, ignored people who spent their lives contributing to society in quiet ways.”

Slaves provided much of the labor to build historic buildings such as the original courthouse in Rockford. Thompson describes one such man, Lewis Dobson, in her book. Lewis Dobson was the product of his master, William Polk Dobson, and a slave woman. He helped build the first courthouse in Rockford and the fence for the state capitol building. He transported food and supplies to the Confederate soldiers in Richmond, Va. as well. He had eight children with his wife, Caroline, while they were slaves and three more once freed. As a freed man he acquired 200 acres of land.

The Civil War began in 1861 and would eventually bring relief from slavery for black people in Surry. It would be many years after that, though, before black people in Surry County and around the nation would be given full rights of citizenship.

© 2010 Mount Airy News

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