Today is the anniversary of the marriage between a woman named Susan Campbell and a man named William York on September 23, 1852, in Randolph County, North Carolina. They are my great-great-grandparents. Both were born into slaveholding households in that same county. At least three out of four of their grandparents’ households enslaved Africans in the North Carolina counties of Randolph, Chatham, and Orange. The household which Susan and William would create was a slaveholding household too.
William enslaved a Black woman, who was 65 years of age when that fact was recorded in the 1860 Federal Census Slave Schedules. Several years earlier, after his father had died in 1855, William was the administrator of the estate and “filed a petition to sell the slaves of Semore York.”
That group of enslaved Africans may have included the five human beings listed in the 1850 Federal Census Slave Schedules beside the name of William’s father, whose first name was spelled variously as Semore, Seymore, or Seymour. The youngest was a one-year-old girl described in that official record not as “B” for “Black” but as “M” for “Mulatto,” which referred then to someone who shares both African and European ancestry.
At the time that youngest child was conceived, Semore would have been married and about 44 years of age. William would have been single and about 22 years old. Two of William’s younger brothers would have been single and teenagers. The presumed mother of the enslaved girl would have been about 33 years old then and, as an enslaved person, a victim of sexual violence. So it’s surely within the realm of possibility that my great-great-grandfather sold either his half-sister, his niece, or perhaps even his own daughter, as human property at some point after Semore’s death.
In 1862, a decade after William and Susan were married, Susan’s father David Campbell died. His will directed that part of his estate, including 13 human beings he enslaved, be equally divided between his eight children. The estate inventory includes their names, ages, and monetary value.
It then describes which of the eight children of David Campbell received which lot of human property, and also what amount of cash was added to that lot from a sibling whose own lot was more valuable. The Yorks received lot “no. 6,” with 14-year-old Tamar, valued at $650, and 55-year-old Malinda, valued at $200, and also $25 from one of Susan’s brothers to make the total value equal to everyone else’s share, which is to say, $875.
In addition to Tamar and Malinda, the enslaved were: Alfred, 32 years of age, $800 in value; Marticia, 32 years of age, $575 in value; Hannah, 29 years of age, $675 in value; Jacob, 26 years of age, $1,100 in value; Betty, 12 years of age, $550 in value; Sarah, 6 years of age, $400 in value; Martha, 6 years of age, $400 in value; Libby, 4 years of age, $350 in value; Harriott, 4 years of age, $350 in value; and John, an infant, $200 in value.
What distinguishes Susan and William York within the more than three dozen direct ancestors of mine who were slaveholders is the fact that they are the closest in time to me. Their household was the only slaveholding household among my great-great-grandparents. But the striking part of that statement, of course, is the harsh truth that I have great-great-grandparents who inherited people and then continued to enslave them.
Both of these great-great-grandparents lived to see not only the end of the Civil War but also the end of Reconstruction. Both of them also lived to see a resurgence of white supremacist ideology in the election campaign of 1898, which culminated in the Wilmington coup d’etat that same year, a prelude to the disenfranchisement of Black voters throughout the Old North State.
Susan died at 74 years of age in 1901, and William died at 87 years of age in 1914. They are buried side by side in Chatham County, North Carolina. That simple act of charity in a cemetery, however, is something that more often than not was denied to enslaved African families, which were split apart both in life and in death. Had that been offered in the context of this story, some might be tempted to believe that William or someone else in his immediate family would have a larger circle of relationships represented at the grave. But we should know better than to embrace a fairy tale like that.
The context of this story won’t allow it from the point of view of a woman who was raped and her daughter, whose name is unknown and who would be enslaved from birth, regardless of the real identity of her white father.
What each of us can do is, first, to remember the past truthfully, as it really was, not as we wish it had been, and to work in our own day toward justice in this world. Then, certainly for those of us who call ourselves Christians, we can pray that God will right all wrongs, including not only hurtful things done to us but also those cruel things done by us, in the world to come.