Slavery and Emancipation at Poplar Grove
On the eve of the American Civil War, slaves comprised nearly one-third of North Carolina’s population. Slaves, numbering more than 331,000 in 1860, made up the state’s lowest social class. While they were held in all counties, slaves maintained a higher presence in the eastern portion of the state where the environment lent itself to intensive agricultural pursuits. Most slaves were engaged in the production of cash crops, particularly tobacco, cotton, and rice. In New Hanover County alone, 7,103 slaves were counted in 1860.
Slavery was also an investment. About fifty percent of all southern wealth in the antebellum era was held in slaves. While Joseph Mumford Foy inherited most his original slaveholdings from family members, he spent at least $14,793 at an average cost of $704 per slave with the purchase of Samuel, Lucy, Martha, Matilda, William, Nancy, Daniel, Nathaniel, Sealy, Ellen, Alfred, Joseph, Hannah, Robert, Elcy, William, Bill, Celia, Tobey, Ben, and Leah between 1850 and 1860. Slaveholdings were a sign of wealth and power in the antebellum South. The Foy family belonged to a large planter class network in the community of Scotts Hill and the city of Wilmington. In 1860, Joseph M. Foy owned fifty-nine slaves. The Foys moved in an very elite class of white residents, for out of 938 slaveholders in the county, only twenty-one owned more than fifty slaves and only 744 of the 34,658 slaveholders in NC owned more than fifty slaves. The Foys, therefore, remained in the top two percent of the slaveholding group.
Looking out onto the plantation complex, one would have seen a working area very different from the gardens and lawn we see today. Outbuildings dotted the landscape, while a large hog killing yard was located behind the existing root cellar. The ten original slave quarters for field slaves were most likely located to the rear of the modern barn, far enough away from the main family home, but still within reach of supervision. They were most likely double cabins constructed in a similar manner to the surviving tenant house. Housing also existed closer to or within the manor house for domestic slaves.
Slaves held many roles on the plantation. Domestic servants cooked, cleaned, and cared for the Foy family. Skilled artisans such as carpenters, plasterers, weavers, and blacksmiths crafted the house, outbuildings, and other useful items. Field slaves worked on the day to day operation of plowing fields, planting, and harvesting crops such as peanuts and sweet potatoes. About half of the slaves reported on the federal census in 1860 were under the age of sixteen. Many of these children cared for their younger siblings until they were old enough to work in the fields (around age 12) and performed small tasks such as caring for chickens and tending garden patches.
The Foys were active Methodists and founding members of the Wesleyan Chapel United Methodist Church at Scotts Hill, but the slaves of Poplar Grove did not have a church of their own. Mary Hines, a former slave, told her granddaughter that the slaves were not allowed to gather in groups to pray. Slaveowners were often wary of the possibility of conspiracy when groups of slaves gathered together. If the slaves were caught, they would be punished. Slaves, therefore, chose to subvert the system of slavery by stealing away to the woods to worship in their own way.
Some speculation exists that Joseph M. Foy intended on freeing his slaves upon his death. The process, known as manumission, would have been very difficult and expensive for a slaveowner in North Carolina due to a state law passed in 1830. Manumission, under state jurisdiction, required slaveowners to provide two $1,000 security bonds and ensure that the freed slave leave the state within ninety days. Ultimately this would be impractical for a slaveowner with fifty-nine slaves. The only reference we have to the sale or freeing of slaves at Poplar Grove is in Joseph M. Foy’s will, which states that “no negro is to be sold unless he become unmanageable or shall be guilty of some vicious habit.” Therefore, it is unclear whether Foy stated this from a humanitarian standpoint or from that of a businessman. Even though the Foys were Methodist and the Methodist church was historically associated with the anti-slavery movement, southern Methodists who were divided over the issue chose to form the United Methodist Church-South in 1845 and the local Scotts Hill congregation followed suit.
When Joseph M. Foy died in 1861, an inventory was completed of his estate. This inventory included a list of the fifty-nine slaves in Foy’s labor force:
“John, Rachel, Leah, Jo, Winslow, Izah, Big Leah, Betsy, Kitty, Ruth, Isaac, Peter, Caroline, Abel, London, John, Alice, Katherine, Stella, Mary, Sarah, Mariah, Cornelia, Abby, Margaret, Alice, Ben, Alfred, Jo, William, Adaline, Jere, Paul, Henrietta, Bob, Sam, Lucy, Matilda, Toby, Fannie, Hannah, Snow, Daniel, Nathan, Ellen, Dave, Patsy, Dinky, Bill, Ida, Frank, Simon, Jim, Josh, Bernard, Jo Hannah, Jane, Sallie, and Celia”
Upon the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Foy slaves remained at Poplar Grove and were managed by hired overseers in 1862 and 1863. At least seventeen slaves (Isaiah and his wife, Bob, Ben, Hannah, Jo, Isaiah, Peter, Bill and his wife, Abbe, Abel, Matilda, Estella, Bill, Toby, and another) were also rented out to labor for a planter named Benson in Graham, NC near Chapel Hill in 1863 and 1864 for $2,395.50. In 1864, with the most employable/serviceable slaves rented out, the management of the plantation was skeletal. The Foy’s second-oldest son, Joseph Thompson Foy (J. T.), returned to Scotts Hill to manage the plantation in the last year of the war until his mother’s return. It is actually Mary Ann, “an invalid” by all accounts, who would supervise Poplar Grove’s transition from plantation slavery to tenant farming in the coming years until her son, J.T. would establish himself as proprietor and manager during the latter part of Reconstruction.
While evidence does not indicate that any of the Foy’s slaves attempted self-emancipation during the Civil War, Wilmington and the surrounding area experienced significant social upheaval during the conflict. The Wilmington Daily Journal posts on November 28, 1861:
“Look Out. — Negroes occasionally steal boats and make their way to Yankee blockading vessels outside. We mention this to put the owners of boats on the sounds or at the mouth of the river on their guard, so that their boats may be properly secured.
We understand that on last Monday night, between ten and twelve o’clock, three boys, one belonging to Jas. N. Craig, another to James S. Newton, and a third to Miss Mary Newton, stole a boat belonging to Joseph Burris and made their way in her to the blockaders off Confederate Point. The boy belonging to J. S. Newton is well posted about every thing on the point, having been at Fort Fisher since it was first commenced. He can, and no doubt will, give the enemy much information, so that our officers should bear this fact in mind. This fellow has n o doubt listened carefully to all that has been said, and being a keen, intelligent fellow, has made use of it by treasuring it up. Thee is the greater reason for care and circumspection.”
William Benjamin Gould, an artisan slave from the neighboring peanut plantation owned by Nicholas Nixon, and notably worked on the Bellamy Mansion during its construction, escaped while hired-out in the city of Wilmington in October 1862. He and seven other slaves stole away under the chaos of the yellow fever epidemic which plundered the city that fall. William Gould’s artisan skills can be seen in the plaster of Paris work of both the medallions and crown molding in the Bellamy Mansion. The patterns of one plaster of Paris medallion at the Bellamy is modeled after the two formal parlor medallions at Poplar Grove, a likely indication that William Gould was apprenticing during the construction of the manor house at Poplar Grove – a testament to the valued skills of a few notable artisan slaves, which no less underscored their desire to be free.
Another instance was recorded by Private John C. Fennel, a Confederate soldier stationed at Camp Heath in Scotts Hill. Due to the presence of Union soldiers as far south as White Oak Swamp in neighboring Onslow County, many slaves were escaping to Union lines and being kept as “contraband of war.” Fennel noted that a group of Confederate soldiers disguised themselves as Union troops and lured a group of slaves into their encampment, only to dash their hopes of freedom. The willingness of these slaves to follow indicates that not all slaves were happy with their status in the “peculiar institution” and sincerely hoped for the extension of liberty to their families.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law in 1863, declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” The Wilmington Daily Journal posted an announcement on February 7, 1863:
“Slaves every day make or attempt to make their escape to the Lincoln Blockaders. Any slave caught so attempting, ought to be hung on the nearest land to the point where caught. Any white man convicted of aiding or abetting, ought to share his fate. Things of this kind must be stopped by some acts of apparent but necessary vigor. The country can better afford to pay for a few exampled than it can allow the citizens to be betrayed and plundered.”
Freedom was not fully extended to slaves in New Hanover County until the fall of Wilmington and the surrounding area to the Union Army in February 1865. Few opportunities presented themselves for former slaves and state laws, such as the Black Codes, attempted to control the mobility of African Americans. Many freedmen faced the choice of destitution or working for their old masters as tenant farmers or sharecroppers.
Several former Poplar Grove slaves remained on the plantation as tenants while choosing surnames to denote their new status and solidified family bonds that had been tenuous during the days of slavery. Rachel and Leah chose the surname Sidberry/Sidbury, while Leah’s son Abel chose the surname St. George. Many of these surnames reflect how the relationships between slaves often crossed property boundaries: Foy, Nixon, Sidberry, St. George, Johnson, and Rederick.
Included in a report from the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission, “Wilmington’s African American population saw some gains in political office, but the area in which they saw the greatest advance was business … including shoemakers, carpenters, painters, masons, butchers, teachers, blacksmiths, barbers, wheelwrights, mechanics, and grocers” (32).
By 1870, freedmen (10,462) outnumbered Wilmington’s white (6,888) population (33). The hard-won economic and political successes of an emerging African American middle class only fueled the end of the Reconstruction era. “The Democratic Party emerged from Reconstruction wholly solidified behind the concept of native white rule within the government against the picture it painted of the Republicans as a party represented by northern carpetbaggers and illiterate former slaves” (29).
In the case of Bartlett_v_Strickland, “Conservatives in the NC General Assembly sought to isolate the influence of Republicans and African Americans in New Hanover County by taking the northern two-thirds of the county and forming Pender County” (8). Thus, the formation of Pender County in 1875 effectively separated Scotts Hill and the Foy family household from New Hanover County in attempt to push out the African American vote.
However, Wilmington was still a destination point for rural freedmen to begin an economic life and those in the skilled trades could find a niche in the city of Wilmington. “The African American population of Wilmington prospered and by the 1880s had a complex society. Regular celebrations of Emancipation Day and Memorial Day were spectacles with parades and speeches by both blacks and whites. Like other cultural groups in the city, African Americans developed literary societies, built libraries, established benevolent organizations to provide for the needy and developed baseball leagues. Along with creating new traditions, Wilmington blacks continued a few traditions developed under slavery, such as the Christmas Day Jonkonnus” (“1898” 30).
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, J. T. Foy and his younger brother, Francis Marion Foy, continued management of the fields surrounding Poplar Grove with the labor force of tenant farmers that had descended from former Foy slaves and slave descendants from neighboring farms and plantations with a degree of success best reflected in high crop yields and their investment in the railroads.
The 1900 Census indicates the members of Francis Marion Foy’s household and Israel Jackson’s household. 1900 Census F.M. Foy and Israel Jackson. See photo above.
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References & Further Reading
Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage Books, 1974.
Gould, William Benjamin. Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor. Stanford University Press, 2002.
Historical Census Browswer, University of Virginia Library. http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu
LearnNC: North Carolina Digital History. http://www.learnnc.org/lp/editions/nchist-antebellum/
Robert Lee Foy Collection. Joyner Library. East Carolina University. Greenville, NC.
Reaves, William. Strength through Struggle: The Chronological and Historical Record of the African American Community in Wilmington, North Carolina, 1865-1950. New Hanover Public Library, 1998.
Soley, James Russel. The Navy in the Civil War. http://usnllp.org/OurNavy/section_I_chapter_IV.html
Watson, Alan D. Wilmington, North Carolina to 1865. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, 2003.
White, Deborah Gray. Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1999.
Wood, Bradford. This Remote Part of the World: Regional Formation in Lower Cape Fear, North Carolina 1725-1775. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.