Larry Griffin, curator of the Wilkes Heritage Museum, presented his research on slavery in Wilkes County at the Wilkes County Library Thursday.
His presentation, titled “Of Human Bondage: Slavery in Wilkes,” described the lives of slaveholders and slaves in the count and emphasized separating myth from reality.
Griffin said it’s important to talk about slavery in the context of the 19th century.
“There’s no justification for it and no way you can apologize for it,” he said. “But it’s a page of our history, and not a page of our future.”
Griffin’s research shows that many of the major slaveholders in Wilkes were leaders in civic and religious activities and elsewhere. Many held political positions.
Slaveholding families in Wilkes often associated with one another and it wasn’t uncommon for the families to intermarry, he said.
Slaveholders in Wilkes
One of the first Wilkes slaveholders Griffin studied was William Lenoir, a Patriot militia leader in the American Revolution and statesman who built Fort Defiance in what now is Caldwell County. Lenoir was Wilkes County clerk of court and a founding member of the Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Griffin said he heard Lenoir was considered a “benevolent slaveholder and that Lenoir and other slaveholders in Wilkes treated their slaves better than elsewhere in the South. Griffin said he was told Wilkes slaveholders kept families together, and weren’t as brutal toward those in bondage.
“I wanted to know if all of that was true,” he said. “I wanted to sever myth from fact.”
He said that while it’s clear slavery wasn’t as prevalent in the Wilkes area as in the eastern part of the state, or in states further south, there’s no evidence that Wilkes slaveholders were more kind to their slaves than slaveholders elsewhere.
“And as I researched, a whole world opened up to me,” Griffin said.
In the 1860 census, about a third of North Carolina’s total population were slaves. In Wilkes, less than 25 percent were slaves. In comparison, the greatest concentration of slaves at that time was in South Carolina, at 57 percent of the population.
Lenoir was the largest slaveholder in Wilkes history, owning 41 slaves in the 1820 census.
“And he had a penchant for buying children,” Griffin said, noting that it was generally cheaper for slaveholders to do so, as they considered the purchase a valuable investment.
Griffin said Lenoir was one of the slaveholders who disproved the viewpoint that Wilkes slaveholders didn’t split families apart.
“He only kept families together if it was economically beneficial for him to do so,” he said.
By 1850, the largest slaveholder in Wilkes was William Pitt Waugh, who owned 35 slaves. He came to the county in 1803 from Pennsylvania, and founded a chain of stores with his cousin, John Finley, who helped found Wilkesboro Presbyterian Church. Waugh was also a major benefactor of both Wilkesboro Presbyterian Church and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
Around 1835, Waugh, Finley and Thomas Bouchelle, who was married to Finley’s daughter, formed a group to patrol and capture slaves who were away from their plantation at night without permission. Griffin said when the trio found slaves, they would beat them “until the blood ran,” and then would rub salt in the slaves’ wounds.
Griffin said practices such as this one, which he found wasn’t uncommon, made clear that slaves were likely not treated better in Wilkes than other areas.
Perhaps the most well-known and well-researched slave in Wilkes County, Judith was purchased in 1832 at 12 years old as a companion for her master’s daughter, Mary.
She ultimately became the slave of the Rev. Richard Barber, who married Mary in 1853, becoming the head of the household and giving Judith the surname “Barber.”
Of Judith’s 13 children, nine lived to adulthood. Many of her relatives still live in Wilkes and several attended Griffin’s presentation.
Evonne Raglin, Judith Barber’s great-great-granddaughter, spoke about Judith’s life.
“She didn’t live the life of the average slave,” Ms. Raglin said. She said that Judith was raised alongside Mary, with similar standards. Judith was also confirmed at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which was not typical for a slave.
“Her legacy is immense,” Ms. Raglin said.
Ms. Raglin said that Judith encouraged education among her family.
“She thought education was the only way to break out of what was happening to us,” Ms. Raglin said.
Judith died at age 92 in 1912, leaving behind nine daughters, 43 grandchildren and many great-great-grandchildren.
Ms. Raglin also noted that slavery still exists for many, now in the form of human trafficking and forced manual labor. She said it exists around the world, “but is as close as North Carolina. It’s just a different kind of slavery.”
Importance of historical preservation
Griffin spoke about the importance of record keeping and document preservation, noting that much of his research on Judith Barber was possible because her relatives have kept their family records.
“Write down what older folks have to tell you,” Griffin said. “Once they’re gone, a lot of their stories and understanding is gone as well.”