This is a single story from the life of a woman named Chloe that was held in slavery at Indian Ridge in Currituck County, N.C., in the first half of the 1800s. It is only one brief moment in her life, but it is the only one that history has recorded. The passage, though brief, nevertheless says a great deal about her and about the lives of other enslaved women on the North Carolina coast.
These are the words of her son, the Rev. London R. Ferebee, in his 1882 memoir titled A Brief History of the Slave Life of Rev. L. R. Ferebee:
At an early age my mother was sold. I scarcely can remember the occurrence which took place on the morning she was sold. It was said that all of my people are mixed with Indian blood, and she was a spirited woman and would not suffer to be imposed upon by her master nor mistress.
A dispute arose between my mother and her mistress, and her mistress attempted to strike her, at which mother said “If you strike me, it will be the dearest lick ever you struck,” and at the arrival of the master her mistress of course reported the conduct of my mother.
He, knowing the spirit of my mother, took his gun and cowhide in hand and coming to the kitchen, said with an oath, “Chloe, if you don’t let me whip you for saucing your mistress, I’ll shoot you.”
She (my mother) said, opening her bosom, “Shoot; that’s the only way you can whip me.”
Having at this time come in reach of her, he struck at her with the cowhide. She seized it and cut it in two with a butcher knife which she had been cleaning fish with: they then gathered each other and my mother threw him, and as he fell the gun discharged but injured no one.
She put one knee in his breast, the other, as well as I can now remember, on one arm, wrested the gun from his hand and struck him over the head with the breech, wounding him badly. . . .
For somebody like me, who first learned about the history of American slavery from the old Hollywood classic, Gone with the Wind, Chloe’s story reminds me yet again why we should always go back to the original documents when we are seeking to hear the true voices of American history.
Ferebee’s A Brief History is not unusual. Firsthand accounts of slavery (written by former slaves) are relatively rare, but the ones we have are full of strong, defiant and dignified African American women such as Chloe.
A Son’s Story
As I said, I found Chloe’s story in A Brief History of the Slave Life of Rev. L. R. Ferebee, her son’s account of his life.
I used the Rev. London R. Ferebee’s little book 20 years ago when I was writing The Waterman’s Song because he was an enslaved boatman and his father, also a slave, worked at least for a time in a shipyard—The Waterman’s Song is about slavery and the maritime trades on the North Carolina coast.
This week though I re-read Ferebee’s narrative because his life had so many similarities to that of John H. Nichols, who was the subject of my post last week, “Escape through the Dismal Swamp.”
The Rev. London R. Ferebee was born into slavery in 1849, only a year after Nichols, and his birthplace, Coinjock, is only 50 miles from Nichols’ birthplace in the northern part of Pasquotank County, N.C.
Like Nichols, Ferebee escaped and made his way to Union army forces and freedom during the Civil War.
Ferebee learned to read and write at schools in the Union-occupied parts of the North Carolina coast. One of the schools was in New Bern and the other on Roanoke Island, both of which Union troops captured early in the war.
After the war, Ferebee became an A.M.E. Zion minister and teacher. He published his life story in Raleigh in 1882.
When he witnessed this incident involving his mother, he was a small child. That was probably between 1850 and 1852.
The place was a farmhouse in Indian Ridge, south of Shawboro and north of Indiantown Creek, in the remote western corner of Currituck County.
This was the only story about his mother that the Rev. London R. Ferebee told in his narrative. I think we can assume the events described in it were extremely important to him.
The Freedom Church
Chloe’s spirit of defiance and sense of herself is apparent in her son’s story. Unfortunately, we know very little else about her life.
I think we can safely say, however, that she was born sometime around 1820. Like many of the enslaved laborers on that part of the North Carolina coast, she was a descendant of enslaved Africans and of the local indigenous people, probably one of the region’s Algonquin tribes.
According to her son, Chloe married the Rev. Abel M. Ferebee in or about 1837.
Her husband, also an enslaved laborer, was a blacksmith and a Methodist minister in that part of coastal North Carolina. As I mentioned earlier, he worked at least for a time at a shipyard in Elizabeth City, N.C., a river town southwest of Indian Ridge.
The Rev. Abel M. Ferebee, Chloe’s husband, played an important role in the founding days of the A. M. E. Zion Church in North Carolina.
Renown for their commitment to the African American freedom struggle, the church’s members in the northern states included Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.
The Rev. Abel M. Ferebee was also active in the state’s Equal Rights League, an African American group that advocated for black political rights on the North Carolina coast during and immediately after the Civil War.
According to his and Chloe’s son, “They lived together as man and wife for twenty-two years. The number of their children was ten— seven boys and three girls. . . .. [A] cross word by either of them to each other has never been known by any one.”
A Husband’s Devotion
A woman named Olly Whitehurst held Chloe and her children in slavery. (A different white person owned her husband.)
However, I don’t know if the “mistress” in the story is Olly Whithurst or another woman. In the 1850 federal census, Sally Whitehurst, age 60, is also listed as being in the household. A 21-year-old farmer, Peter Whitehurst, lived with the pair as well.
Only hours after the incident in which Chloe defended herself against her owner’s assault, her beaten owner sold her to a slave trader, a man that bought and sold enslaved people as a business.
According to A Brief History of the Slave Life of Rev. L. R. Ferebee, Chloe’s husband, despite being a slave, convinced his owner to buy her from the slave trader. In a rather remarkable turn of events, she was soon reunited with her husband and at least some of her children.
The Rev. Abel M. Ferebee may even have come up with the money to purchase Chloe from the slave trader—or at least put down a “deposit” for her while committing to reimburse his owner over time.
Such arrangements were not unknown in that part of the North Carolina coast. African American slaves in the maritime trades, in particular, seem to have been especially adept at finding ways to earn income beyond what they had to surrender to their owners.
For instance, Moses Grandy, who had been an enslaved boat captain in Chloe’s part of the coast earlier that century, described something similar in his Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America, which was first published in London in 1843.
Chloe died in May 1859. I don’t know the circumstances of her death. As an enslaved person, she had no death certificate, no listing in the “mortality schedule” of the U.S. census and no marked grave.
What we know about her comes down to her spirit of defiance, her sense of dignity and her love for her husband and children.
I don’t even know if she used her husband’s surname (Ferebee), her owner’s surname (Whitehurst) or some other surname. Perhaps she used no surname at all—she may have simply been “Chloe.”