Opinion

When the Confederacy lost Chapel Hill

Mike Ogle
Mike Ogle contributed photo

Mary Anngady was a girl the last time the Confederacy lost Chapel Hill.

She lived behind the Davis house with a dozen enslaved people. In the main house, Mary was drilled on “courtesy and respect” for her “superiors.” Many days, Mary would “scrap” with her brother over who got to rub Bettie Davis’ feet. Mary hoped to be allowed to sleep at those feet at night.

For the “Slave Narratives” collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, Mary also remembered well the moment she learned she was free.

“The first I knew of the Yankees was when I was out in my marster’s yard picking up chips and they came along, took my little brother and put him on a horse’s back and carried him up town,” she said. “I ran and told my mother about it. They rode brother over the town a while, having fun out of him, then they brought him back. Brother said he had a good ride.”

White families passed down for generations melancholy tales from that period starting when Union soldiers rode into Chapel Hill on Easter in 1865.

Meanwhile, the stories of people like Mary were broadly ignored despite the fact that 4 in 10 Chapel Hillians were enslaved around the start of the Civil War, and about half the town was black, according to Yonni Chapman’s doctoral dissertation, “Black Freedom and the University of North Carolina, 1793-1860.”

Those blue uniforms coming up a dirt road symbolized an erosion of the hierarchy that was the Confederacy’s “cornerstone,” as its vice president called it.

In 2018, neo-Confederates have been riding back into Chapel Hill, also upset over something lost: Silent Sam. But like those Federal troops, the Confederate statue was a symbol of the lives its installers had lost ownership of and still aimed to control.

Until the war was lost, UNC had been a place for educating and strengthening the slaveholding class. By 1860, the state legislature had a higher percentage (85) of politicians owning human beings than any statehouse in the country, according to “Many Excellent People: Power and Privilege in North Carolina, 1850-1900.”

So many of the college town’s white men volunteered for the local infantry that within weeks of the war’s start only a few dozen able-bodied ones remained. So many UNC students traded books for rifles that its president, David L. Swain, wrote begging that North Carolina’s elite sons stay.

After the war, the Federal general occupying Chapel Hill married Swain’s daughter, and white Chapel Hillians were said to have spit on invitations. Students hanged Swain and his new son-in-law in effigy. It was in this environment that Julian Carr “horse-whipped a Negro wench,” as he bragged at Silent Sam’s 1913 dedication.

Before emancipation, Nellie Strayhorn’s owner once whipped her for biting an apple too fresh off the tree. Nellie was 14 when the war ended, and while enslaved nearby on Wesley and Julie Atwater’s farm, she’d “ploughed same as a man,” Nellie said in a local newspaper interview in the 1940s. Wesley joined the Confederate Army, and Nellie’s mother was made to cook barrels of food for troops fighting to keep her family as chattel.

Nearly 80 years later, like Mary Anngady, Nellie also vividly recalled the moment she gained freedom. She was laboring with her mother when Union soldiers approached.

“All the hands was in the field, just like Master was there,” Nellie said. “Dey asked Mother if she knew we was free. She said, ‘No, Sir,’ and I was standin’ beside her when she said it. ‘We fought to free you,’ dey told her.”

With that new freedom, formerly enslaved people searched for loved ones lost on the auction block.

Yet generations of white Chapel Hillians mournfully remembered this era for having been pulled down off their pedestal. Cornelia Phillips Spencer, a local activist, wrote in her diary when the Union arrived: “The whole framework of our social system is dissolved. The negroes are free.”

A version of this column was first published by the Marian Cheek Jackson Center in Chapel Hill. Mike Ogle (@mikeogling) is a journalist.

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