Monday, April 20, 2009

Anderson Leathers - first black north Durham landowner

In February 1873, Anderson Leathers bought a modest 10 acre farm in Durham township for $62.50. His was not the largest or most important Durham purchase that year (Simeon Hester would buy much of today's Watts-Hillandale six months later) but it was nonetheless a remarkable achievement and one utterly impossible just ten years earlier.

Anderson was born around 1820, most likely on the lands of John B. Leathers in today's northern Durham county. Like so many other 19th century NC African-Americans, he lived much of his life enslaved. As such, his early life is difficult to trace. He was most likely a farm laborer working with some of Leathers' 30 other slaves on various tracts in then northeast Orange county. Anderson and other enslaved workers helped produce several thousand pounds of Tobacco every year for Leathers by 1860. While enslaved to Leathers, Anderson married and had at least seven children. In fact, his first appearance in official documents as a free man came in 1866 when he and his wife Caty (b.1825) joined other newly freed slaves at the Hillsborough courthouse to have their union (10 July 1849) recognized by the state.

Emancipation coupled with new economic opportunities in the growing tobacco and manufacturing industries brought Anderson and many other freed slaves from farms in other parts of the county to the area around the new city of Durham (for more on this generally see Leslie Brown's Upbuilding Black Durham pp.27-55). Anderson had certainly moved to the Durham area by 1868 when Washington Duke enumerated him as a voter for the federal elections that year (one imagines he voted for U.S. Grant).

In Durham township he lived near other former Leathers slaves and worked as a hired farm laborer and perhaps shoemaker along with four of his sons (ages 8-14). This hard work apparently paid off and he was able to buy his 10 acres "on the waters of Ellerbee creek" bordering Hampton Dollar, George Turner, and the Guess Mill road. Acquiring the farm was an achievement of some rarity for a man like Anderson. By the 1870s only around 5% of black men in NC owned property, many of whom were freed prior to the civil war (see Kenzer, p.12). As a slave until emancipation, Leathers had none of the advantages of antebellum free blacks and probably started the post civil war years with no capital or credit at all. By 1875 Anderson owned two cattle and five hogs and his 10 acres were evaluated at $75 by the county property tax assessor. In 1879, his 8 acres of tilled land produced 300 pounds of tobacco, 75 bushels of maize, 25 bushels of oats, and a half bale of cotton valued all told at $75 (Durham chicken enthusiasts should note that the farm only managed 20 eggs that year). Though he continued to farm without any hired labor, even expanding his holdings to 12 acres, the 1880 census lists Anderson's occupation as Shoemaker. Likewise, his sons, like many others, become tobacco factory workers.

By the 1880s, Anderson had a mix of black and white neighbors. These included white landowners J.W. Markham and J.A. Malone (produced 30 lbs. of honey in 1879!), as well as Bethel Snipes and John Trice, both black farmers (though Trice did not own land). Though Anderson's relationships with his black neighbors are unclear in extant records, Markham and Malone both played a role in Leathers' legal affairs - Markham as the executor of Anderson's will and Malone as a witness to its writing. Leathers also appears to have been active in civic life and interested in the life of the growing black population in the greater Durham area.

Perhaps because he never learned to read or write, Leathers took a particularly active role in the educational life of others. In 1882, the school board commissioners of newly formed Durham county appointed Leathers the head of Durham township colored public school committee no. 1 - his neighbor Markham was a committeeman for the parallel white school district. He remained the sole committeeman in 1883 when his district was carved up and became district no. 6 "south Piney Grove." By 1886 he was joined on the committee by N.E. Cain and famous Durhamite R.B. Fitzgerald. Whether from necessity, convenience, or a touch of self-interest the 3-man committee paid $62 in Feb. 1886 for half an acre of Leathers' land on Guess Mill road in order to erect a free school. That same year, the North Carolina supreme court declared racially based taxation (white taxes to white schools, black taxes to black schools) unconstitutional in Rigsbee v. Town of Durham (99 NC 341) and it's unclear if the school on Leathers' land was ever built (it was still called the "free school lot" in 1890).

By the 1890s, Leathers had begun selling off parts of his 10 acres, in one case selling 4 acres or so for $250. When he wrote his will in 1891, Leathers estimated he had about 6 acres remaining and singled out one daughter and one son for eventual possession of his farmhouse and the acre surrounding it - the rest of his land he ordered divided up evenly among his other six children.



Anderson Leathers' six acres in 1908 and 2009 . Click for rough(!) Google earth overlay.

In 1896 Anderson Leathers died after a long life and was buried a free man on his own land. Caty (or Katy, or Catharine) continued living into the early 1900s with her son William at her side. Out of 13 live births she had eight remaining children, now spread out around Durham, her daughters with new married names like Snipes, Hicks, Sims, and Geer. After Caty died, sometime before 1905, the Leathers children behaved like many others before them (and after) by commencing suits against each other for their inheritance. Court ordered commissioners had the map above made in order to parcel out the lots for sale so as to monetarily satisfy the children's claims. By the ninteen teens all of Leathers' Guess rd. land save for one parcel had been sold off.

Lot 13 of Anderson Leathers' land on today's tax map

What first drew me to Anderson Leather's story was this one unsold parcel. After writing the piece about the trinity park cemetery (less than a mile away) I started to look around for other small cemeteries in Durham proper. In looking through tax records, the unknown cemetery lot at 1700 Guess rd. popped up and I decided to dig a little deeper. A previous cemetery canvasser for the cemetery census had failed to find anything on the site indicated by the tax map and the county records for that parcel had no deed or plat references to go on. Luckily, the city had recently drawn up a survey of the surrounding area and I was able to use other property references nearby to follow the chain back to Leathers' lot 13 which the commissioners specifically referenced as the graveyard.

2008 Plat of Walltown park area DCPB 183/292 (x added)

The plan above showing the cemetery was done by the city only last year as part of the preparations for the new recreation complex in Walltown.

Rendering of Walltown complex. Site plan by CLH Design courtesy of Cherry Huffman Architects (x added)

Anderson's land also features in this site plan for the possible Walltown aquatic center to the rec center. You'll note that like the city planning map the architects' map includes land references, except that is for the Leathers cemetery, which appears as a blank rectangle next to the proposed parking lot.

Despite his remarkable and successful life, many today, including the makers of maps and tax records, may not remember Anderson and his family, but I tend to believe the Leathers' story is worth preserving in the collective memory of Walltown and Durham generally.

Anderson Leathers graveyard 2009

This broken headstone fragment, pinned between fallen trees and a discarded couch, is all that remains of the Leathers cemetery. Though without a legible stone it's impossible to know, Anderson Leathers and his wife and perhaps a few other family members are most likely buried in the graveyard (there certainly seem to be other burial depressions on the site). Perhaps it's too much to hope that in the flurry of building construction and paving for the new rec center, some trash clearing might be done or even a small marker erected for one of the more remarkable families to live in Durham. I would hate his life to be marked as anonymously as that of many of his relatives and friends.

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Many thanks are due to Trudi Abel at Digital Durham for pointing out the 1880 agricultural census and to Erik Landfried at Bull City Rising for his reporting on the aquatic complex.

1 comment:

Show-Me-Sheryl said...
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