This is the 8th part of my 9-part series on artifacts from the National Museum of African American History & Culture that speak to North Carolina’s coastal history.
Another of the treasures at the National Museum of African American History & Culture that caught my eye is this portrait of John H. Scott, a free African American saddle and harness maker who lived in Fayetteville, N.C., before the Civil War.
Like many of the state’s free black people, Scott left coastal North Carolina in the 1850s. He moved to Oberlin, Ohio, in 1856.
Two years later, in 1858, he became famous for taking up arms and helping to liberate a fugitive slave that federal marshals had captured in Oberlin and were planning on returning to slavery.
Scott was one of 41 men– 12 blacks and 29 whites– who came to the rescue of John Price, a young African American man who escaped from slavery in Kentucky and traveled north into Ohio.
The incident came to be known as the “Oberlin-Wellington Rescue” because the federal marshal imprisoned John Price in Wellington, 8 miles south of Oberlin, and that’s where the 41 men had to go to free him.
Scott and his 40 compatriots freed Price, concealed him and guided him to safety in Canada.
A federal jury indicted 37 of those men for violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Scott and 20 others were sentenced to jail.
The federal marshal released Scott and all but two of the other men, however, after Ohio authorities charged the federal marshal, his deputies and others who captured and imprisoned Price with kidnapping.
Scott’s story opens a host of windows into North Carolina’s coastal history. In today’s post, I want to look at five of the most important things about the state’s coastal past that I see in the story of his life.
Free African Americans in Antebellum NC
To begin with, Scott’s portrait reminds us that free African Americans made up an important part of coastal North Carolina’s population before the Civil War.
Free African Americans represented only a few percent of the state’s overall population, but free black enclaves could be found in almost every coastal county.
One of those free black communities was in Harlowe, on the south side of the Neuse River, 35 miles east of New Bern.
My mother’s family is from Harlowe, and I have many cousins that are the descendants of those free African Americans.
Free African Americans also made up an especially large part of the total population in several of North Carolina’s coastal towns– and above all in the towns of New Bern and Fayetteville.
In 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, free African Americans made up 13 percent of the total population in New Bern.
They made up a smaller percentage of the total population in Fayetteville, but they were still a significant part of the town’s citizens.
Second, as Catherine Bishir has so splendidly documented in Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900, many of those free blacks were highly skilled tradesmen, including ship builders, brick masons, seamstresses, carpenters, plasterers and so forth.
That was true not just in New Bern, but also in Fayetteville, Washington, Wilmington and other coastal towns.
John H. Scott was one of those skilled artisans. In Fayetteville, he was a master saddler and harness maker in the shop of Matthew Nathaniel Leary, another free African American.
Leary’s shop was known for the high quality of its leatherwork and he and his family seem to have been something of a holdover of the ethnic diversity and cosmopolitanism that I more typically associate with the North Carolina coast in the 18th century.
Leary’s father was part Irish and part “Croatan Indian.” His mother’s ancestors included Africans, Europeans and Native Americans. His wife was a French woman raised in Guadalupe– her name was Julieta Ann Meimoriel, and they wed in 1825.
As I mentioned above, John H. Scott left Leary’s shop and moved to Oberlin in 1856. He continued to practice the leather working trade there.
Free African Americans Look North
My third point about John H. Scott’s life and North Carolina’s coastal history is this: he was also representative of the region’s free African Americans when he left Fayetteville in 1856 and moved to a northern state. Between 1830 and 1860, an important number of those free African Americans forsook North Carolina and went in search of a better life elsewhere.
Some went to Canada and a few went to Haiti and Liberia, but most re-settled in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Illinois.
Stoked by Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion and Nat Turner’s Rebellion, as well an aborted (and brutally put down) insurrection along the Cape Fear River, white fears of black revolt led to a severe crackdown on free and enslaved African Americans beginning in the 1830s.
On North Carolina’s coastal plain, white political leaders grew increasingly hostile to free African Americans.
Many white planters and merchants accused free African Americans of spreading abolitionist literature such as David Walker’s Appeal, of operating clandestine schools for enslaved people and of being active in the Underground Railroad.
All of those things were true, by the way.
Free American Americans did do all of those things in North Carolina’s coastal towns, but of course that doesn’t mean that all or even most free blacks engaged in that kind of anti-slavery activity.
For most free African Americans, just staying free was a struggle.
As John Hope Franklin wrote in his groundbreaking The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860 (originally published in 1943):
“The maintenance of freedom, even in the limited sense in which it was applied to the free Negro, was something for which he had to make a continuous fight. It was by no means enough to have been manumitted or even to have been born free. The free person of color had to maintain a strict vigil over his status lest it be reduced to that of slave.”
Facing violence, threats and new laws that took away many of their most fundamental constitutional rights, John H. Scott and many other free African Americans in North Carolina’s coastal towns looked north.
Bound for Ohio
We can also see a fourth lesson about North Carolina’s coastal history in the portrait of John H. Scott: a striking number of the free African Americans that left New Bern and Fayetteville re-settled in Oberlin or Cleveland, Ohio.
For several decades, in fact, it seemed as if an invisible thread ran between those towns in North Carolina and those towns in Ohio.
According to a recent survey by Elizabeth Sullivan, one of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s editors–
“On the eve of the Civil War, Cleveland was a mecca for black entrepreneurs and scholars from a handful of towns in North Carolina where free African-Americans could acquire skills, businesses and property — or just purchase their own freedom, or that of family members.”
In her survey of historical records, Sullivan found that at least 39 of the city’s black families in 1860 came from North Carolina.
They included descendants of John Carruthers Stanly (1774-1846), a resident of New Bern and one of the relatively few affluent black men anywhere in the American South.
Stanly, by the way, was the son of a wealthy white merchant, John Wright Stanly, and an enslaved Ibo woman from West Africa. He was born into slavery, but manumitted in the 1790s.
One of John Carruthers Stanly’s descendants was his granddaughter Sara G. Stanly, who came to Ohio originally to attend Oberlin College in 1852. She was later a schoolteacher and anti-slavery activist in Cleveland.
Another free African American that made the journey from New Bern to Cleveland was John Patterson Green. Born in 1845, his family left New Bern and moved to Cleveland when he was 12 years old in 1857.
Green became one of the first African Americans to hold public office in Cleveland when he was elected justice of the peace in 1873. He later served in the Ohio House of Representatives and Senate.
A significant number of free African Americans from New Bern, Fayetteville and other coastal towns also settled in Oberlin.
At least for the relatively well-off free African American families in coastal North Carolina– such as the Stanly’s in New Bern, the Sampsons in Wilmington and the Learys in Fayetteville– an important part of Oberlin’s draw was Oberlin College.
Supported financially by anti-slavery activists in the northern states, Oberlin College was one of the first racially integrated colleges in the U.S., accepting black men on an equal basis as white men beginning in 1835.
Two years later, in 1837, Oberlin became the first college in the U.S. to accept women students, white or black.
Several free African Americans in North Carolina sent their sons and daughters to Oberlin College in the 1840s and ’50s.
Among those young scholars was Mary Jane Patterson, the daughter of free African Americans in Raleigh. In 1862 she became the first or one of the first African American women in the U.S. to receive a B.A. degree.
Another was her first cousin, Mary Sampson Patterson (1836-1915), of Fayetteville.
She had fled to Oberlin after white men attempted to enslave her in Fayetteville.
Mary Sampson Patterson (Langston), by the way, was the maternal grandmother of the great African American poet, novelist, playwright and social activist Langston Hughes.
In his memoir The Big Sea, Langton Hughes recalled his grandmother’s great love of books and her stories of militant resistance to slavery.
Other free African Americans, including John H. Scott, left Fayetteville and New Bern and chose to go to Oberlin for other reasons.
Blacks made up approximately 20 percent of Oberlin’s population, and the black community had a reputation both for supporting the Underground Railroad and for a militant brand of anti-slavery politics.
Largely due to the college’s influence, the town’s citizenry overall also had a reputation for racial progressivism, though the surviving writings of black Oberlin students make clear that the white townspeople’s treatment of them was far from ideal.
Moreover, once a first cluster of free African Americans from Fayetteville and New Bern made new homes in Oberlin, a number of their family and friends followed them, which is what John H. Scott did in 1856.
At Harpers Ferry with John Brown
Fifth, and finally, John H. Scott’s portrait reminds us of the spirit of African American resistance to slavery that he and other free exiles from North Carolina brought to Oberlin.
As I already mentioned, only two years after arriving in Oberlin, Scott was one of the 41 men that defied the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in order to rescue a fugitive slave and guide him to Canada.
Another black man from Fayetteville, Lewis Sheridan Leary, was also part of the Wellington-Oberlin Rescue.
He was the son of Matthew Leary, the same African American saddler and harness maker for whom John H. Scott worked in Fayetteville before coming to Oberlin.
Lewis Sheridan Leary, too, had been a leather worker in that shop before coming to Oberlin.
Like John H. Scott, Leary left Fayetteville and moved to Oberlin in 1856. Two of his sisters had already moved to Oberlin, married and settled there.
Like John H. Scott, Leary was staunchly anti-slavery and quickly became a member of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society.
There he apparently also got involved in the Underground Railroad, aiding fugitive slaves to reach freedom in the northern states and Canada.
In Oberlin, Leary married Mary Sampson Patterson, the grandmother of Langston Hughes that I mentioned above, another exile from Fayetteville.
Then, in 1859, Leary was one of the three black men that rode with John Brown at Harpers Ferry. He died there, on Oct. 20, of gunshot wounds, attempting to rid America of slavery.
One of the two other black men that joined John Brown at Harpers Ferry was Lewis Leary’s nephew, John A. Copeland.
Born in 1834, Copeland had been a free African American in Raleigh, N.C., until 1843, when his family fled north to escape racial violence and other kinds of persecution.
The Copelands, too, eventually settled in Oberlin. John A. Copeland briefly attended Oberlin College, made his living as a carpenter and was involved in the anti-slavery movement.
Like John H. Scott and Lewis Leary, he was part of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue in 1858.
Two of Copeland’s maternal uncles from North Carolina, Henry and Wilson Bruce Evans, also lived in Oberlin and participated in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue– that makes for a total of five free African Americans originally from North Carolina being part of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue.
The connections between Oberlin and Fayetteville’s free African American community can seem boundless.
For instance, after moving to Oberlin from Orange County, N.C., the Evans brothers married a pair of sisters from Fayetteville. Henrietta and Sarah Jane Leary, the sisters of Lewis Leary, had moved to Oberlin in 1854.
John A. Copeland was captured during John Brown’s Raid at Harpers Ferry, tried and convicted. He was hung on Dec. 16, 1859.
The photograph of John H. Scott may only be a small object, but it opens a path into vast, unsuspected corners of this coastal world that we call home.