The story of Debby and Tom: a white man’s will, two enslaved people, two terrible choices

Marble panel from the Charles Avery tomb, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA, 1860, showing a black family on the left, and a ship departing for Liberia on the right. Avery was a prominent funder of the American Colonization Society which sent thousands of newly freed people to the African colony in the decades before the Civil War.

As we’ve delved into  the complex racial and social history of whites, Cherokees, and blacks in western North Carolina, we’ve come across many amazing individual stories that we can’t include in the book (unless we want it to be seven volumes!).  But these stories have a lot to tell us about the complexities of race in America.  A trope that will be familiar to anyone who’s confronted a personal history of being descended from either the enslavers or the enslaved, is the myth of the “good slave owner.”  Many white people – many in our own families – cling desperately to any evidence that their ancestors were “good,” or at least better than those other enslavers.  Some use wills freeing the enslaved on certain conditions as evidence of the goodness of their ancestors. But in addition to the indefensible fact that these wills continue to enslave people until the owner’s death, they show us ways in which racism hides in such seemingly magnanimous gestures.  One such will was left by one of Will Thomas’s distant cousins, a man by the name of John Berry of Lincoln County.  Berry was a farmer and blacksmith who owned several valuable tracts of land and two black people, named Tom and Debby.


In his January 1833 will, Berry gave Tom and Debby a choice: after his death they could either remain in North Carolina enslaved, but to a master of their choice, or they could choose to be free, but only if they were willing to emigrate to Liberia – which meant giving up everything and everyone they knew, and taking a dangerous sea voyage to an entirely unfamiliar land.


“As to my two slaves, Tom & Debby, if they should choose to go to the land of Liberia or to the country provided by the colonization society for black people, in such case I appropriate 50 dollars toward bearing their expenses to said land & if that should not be sufficient to pay their passage there the said negroes to be hired out until they procured enough & then to be sent by my executors to said country[,] that if said slaves should not be willing to go to said land then in that case they together with the fifty dollars to fall back into my estate & the said negroes to choose their masters & be sold.”

It’s true that there were draconian manumission laws in effect at the time, making it difficult to simply free a person. Manumission  became much more difficult  in North Carolina after 1830, when the state legislature required owners to provide support for newly freed people and required the new freedmen to leave the state within 90 days. But it must be also understood that the group encouraging black emigration to Liberia – the American Colonization Society – was founded on ideas of racial purity and against race mixing.   Berry’s will was an early example of this manumission-and-deportation scheme. Eventually over 2,000 brave North Carolinians of African descent would choose to make the transatlantic voyage to Liberia, assisted by the Colonization Society.


Tom chose to remain in North Carolina, probably to remain with people he loved. We don’t know who he chose to be his master or what his fate was.  John Berry’s will bequeathed him a set of cooper’s tools (for barrel-making), suggesting that he was a skilled tradesman.  One can only hope he was able to hire himself out and earn the money to purchase his and his family’s freedom.


Remarkably, Debby chose Liberia. Berry gave her a “good suit of clothes” and ship fare. A document in his estate file indicates that not too long after his death the executors paid expenses amounting to $71.38 in all, for his headstone, coffin, funeral and other costs, and at the bottom of the list, these two items:


For suit of clothes for Debby: 5.00

For sending Debby to Liberia: 25.00

It was an extraordinary act of courage, for a single woman to embark on such a perilous journey into an unknown future — a testament to her determination to do whatever it took to be rid of slavery. This document is the last trace we have been able to find of her. We don’t know whether she completed the journey, much less how she may have fared in her new home.


A white descendant of Berry’s, reading the will, might be tempted to ascribe goodness to Berry.  But in circumstances like enslavement, “good” is an absolute term. To believe you can “own” another person is the negation of all that is good. We can say there were better or worse enslavers, but there could never be a truly good one; the only way to be a good enslaver would be to free the slaves immediately and without conditions.  Berry was among the “better” masters, but one must recognize that even in making that better choice, he chose not to inconvenience himself in life, either in the loss of their service to him, or in giving them better, more bearable choices. Any goodness in this situation can only be attached to the people he enslaved contending with the heart-rending choice they were given. One chose the pain of remaining enslaved, but with people he loved in a world he knew.  One chose freedom at the cost of everything and everything she knew. Both were heroically brave.


Berry’s will can be seen in the original on FamilySearch. His full estate file with the expense sheet (and an 1829 bill for a “cupping” treatment that he and Debby both received) is also on FamilySearch. We also recommend a book on black emigration from North Carolina to Liberia by Claude Andrew Clegg III, The Price of LibertyAfrican Americans and the Making of Liberia (UNC Press, 2009).


John Hyde and “Negro Frank”

In the first years of the 19th century a Scotch-Irishman named John Hyde settled on the Oconalufty River very near where the Oconaluftee Visitors Center to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park stands today. He’d bought the property from a speculator, Felix Walker, who was locked in an epic lawsuit with Elizabeth’s 4xggrandfather Waightstill Avery over who had better title to the land. By the time the case wound its way to the North Carolina State Supreme Court in 1820, John Hyde had already packed off for Missouri with its prospect of cheaper, better land for his large family.

           On the night of October 13, 1818, just two years after he had arrived in Missouri, Hyde was killed by one of his enslaved people, a 17-year-old known as “Negro Frank.” We know nothing of the circumstances, except that they were camped out on the Gasconade River working on Hyde’s property. Frank lit out but was eventually found the next year and delivered to the jail in St Louis, the largest city by far in the region. With nearly 10,000 people, as well as a thriving slave market, St. Louis presumably had a very strong jail, especially for offenders who were enslaved. But then word came in the Missouri Gazette, a full year after the killingthat somehow Frank had broken out of jail and was again at large. The news came in a reward posted for his capture. This “runaway” notice included an amazing description of him, noting that he “speaks without embarrassment” and “has a remarkable habit of closing his eyelids in rapid succession when in conversation” (reminding me of some of the language in contemporary artist Glenn Ligon’s brilliant series of runaway prints, based on his own friends’ descriptions of himself.)

From this point on, the case seems to have disappeared from the papers. We can only hope that this young man Frank, who spoke without embarrassment, eyelids fluttering, made his final escape from slavery.

Word of John Hyde’s fate no doubt filtered back to his relatives in North Carolina, particularly his brother Benjamin, who had lived just upriver from him. Ben’s daughter Catherine had a liaison with Will Thomas in the early 1840s, resulting in the birth of son who would be named William Pendleton Hyde. Pen Hyde, as he came to be known, maintained a life-long relationship with his father and got some land from him on the very same river where Ben and John Hyde had once lived. In the last surviving letter we have from Will, written from the insane asylum in 1892, a year before his death, he told another son to “let W P Hyde retain possession of the little farm on Oconaluftee if he wants it.”

List of people/families enslaved by the Avery family of Morganton, NC

This is where the unmarked graves of enslaved Africans/Americans are. I hope to add a marker in this area.
This is where the unmarked graves of enslaved Africans/Americans are. I hope to add a marker in this area.

This is a listing of poeple enslaved* by the Avery-family. I’ve divided them into family groupings. I hope it will help their descendants in their searches for their family history. I’ve also added a brief history of the Avery family to help put these enslaved Africans and Americans in a wider historical context and timeline.

*A note on the terms I’m using. Race and racial slavery are such painful and difficult issues in our collective history that I am trying to do my small part by reexamining even the terms used to discuss it. The words we use reflect our beliefs; using different words can undermine those beliefs. So, for instance, rather than calling the people on this list “slaves,” they are “the enslaved” – which describes what was done to them but does not define them by it. And it places culpability squarely where it belongs – on those people like my ancestors who engaged in the enslavement of other human beings.

I also use the term “racial slavery” for slavery as it was practiced in the U.S.  Slavery, of course, has been practiced, and practiced in different ways, throughout human history. The Cherokee took those defeated in battle as slaves, but then often eventually adopted them into the family with full familial rights. Slavery as practiced by whites in the U.S. was an institutionalized system of degrading, devaluing, and using people of African descent. Our economy was built on it and an entire field of pseudo-science was created to justify it (e.g. different races were believed to be different species).


The Avery family of Swan Ponds, Burke County, NC

Waightstill Avery, who founded the Swan Ponds plantation (I don’t say he “built” it because, of course, it was built by enslaved people), was born in 1741 in Groton, Connecticut. He was educated at Princeton University. In 1778, in New Bern, NC (on the east coast) he married a young wealthy widow, Leah Probart Franks. After a few years in eastern N.C., Waightstill and Leah moved to Burke County, N.C. in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains in western N.C. Swan Ponds plantation, just outside Morganton, was established. They had four children – Polly Mira Avery, Elizabeth Avery, Isaac Thomas Avery, and Selina Louise Avery. Leah and Waightstill lived at Swan Ponds until their respective deaths. Waightstill Avery died in 1821 and Leah died in 1832.


Their son, Isaac Thomas Avery (1785-1864), inherited the plantation and some portion of the enslaved population. In 1815 he married Harriet Eloise Erwin (1795-1858). The Erwins were a wealthy local family. They owned a plantation called Belvidere and, presumably, some of those enslaved by the Erwins went with Harriet to Swan Ponds. They had ten children (that survived into adulthood): William Waightstill Avery, Isaac Erwin Avery, Mary Martha Avery, Justina Harriet Avery, Alphonso Calhoun Avery, Laura Myra Avery, Willoughby Francis Avery. Three of their sons – William Waightstill Avery, Clark Moulton Avery, Isaac Erwin Avery – died in the Civil War, fighting on the wrong side of history. Their father died in 1864 after hearing of the deaths of William and Clark.


After emancipation, many of those who had been enslaved (having few options) stayed in the area. There are still many Avery descendants, both black and white, in the area around Morganton.


The people the Avery family enslaved (and who died before emancipation) are buried in unmarked graves near the small Avery family cemetery. I hope to raise enough money to put a permanent marker of some kind near or on the place where these enslave people lie, and on it all their names.


Slave cabins were on this ridge along the tree line.
Swan Ponds in 1900, more or less as it would have been during the time of slavery.
Swan Ponds in 1900, more or less as it would have been during the time of slavery.

Enslaved family groups on the Avery plantation

Tina [from Franck family, with Leah]

Son Lenoir, b. 1766



Daughter Ester, b. 1766

Son Jon b. 1769

child Benna, b. 14 May 1772

 Balaam, b. 11 April 1774

Jim, b. 10 April 1776

Pete born 3rd Nov. 1778

Diana born 13th Dec. 1780

Adam born 25 Dec. 1783

Sarah born Dec. 1785


Children Lilph & Rose b. 15 April 1770



Son Ben, b. march 1788



Son Owen



Son Perry


Manual (Emanual?)

Two sons


Mary (purchased Sept 6, 1814)

son Jim, b. April 1816



Daughter Chassey, b. August 1816


Romeo & Big Luie have 9 children at home Dec. 1815

  1. Mara       7. Eliza or Liz
  2. Pat          8. Dashee
  3. Jacob      9. Mimee
  4. Nan
  5. Vinee
  6. Jos. (or Joseph, and possibly given to Harriet Avery Chambers in Isaac Thomas Avery’s will)


Eliza [possibly daughter of Romeo & Big Louie becayse she named a son Romeo?]

Twins, Jacob & Mary, b. 12 Sept. 1829, d. Sept. 1840 from fever

Daughter Luann, b. 18 Aug. 1841

[same as Eliza?]


Twins, Romeo & Sully



July hath 8 children 1815

  1. Hampton
  2. Dick
  3. Henry
  4. Peter
  5. Chenee
  6. George
  7. Sally
  8. Ginny

Monday hath 7 children living at home 1815

  1. Stephen
  2. Luie M.
  3. Will
  4. Anthony
  5. Emperor
  6. Sue
  7. Jack


Diana hath 6 children living at home 1815

  1. Ab (Abraham, Abner, or Absalom?)
  2. Li
  3. Isam
  4. Balam
  5. Celia
  6. Cinthia

[Same Diana? Son Cyrus, b. 10 Jan. 1838 “bought by Forney and paid.”]?


Bet hath two children (could be Betty or Elizabeth)

  1. Abe  (Abraham?)
  2. Rose


Felix hath 3 children

  1. Tina
  2. Lip
  3. Primus

And one grandchild

  1. Sam



son Jim



Daughter Chiney



Twins, Two smart healthy daughters, b. Sept. 1818




Son Moses



Son Billy “being a Mulatto” b. 2 Jan. 1805


 15 August 1837



Boy child b. 28 March 1838



Child (no name) b. 8 April 1838, d. 4 weeks old



Boy child died soon after birth



Boy Child b. 24 August 1838, d. same day


16 April 1829


Child Robert Ad___ b. 14 May 1829



Son b. August 1829, d. 4 days after birth



Daughter Polly, b. 19 Nov. 1841



Linda and Abnus

Daughter Hulda, b. 20 Sept. 1854


Caty & Alfred

Daughter Milly, b. Swan Ponds in January

Son Anthony, b. 22 Oct. 1854



Son Balaam, b. 22 Oct. 1852, d. 1852


Jenny (& Cathe?)

Son Willoughby Francis, b. 18 March 1855 (the fact that her son is named Willoughby Francis could indicate that the child was fathered by Willoughby Francis Avery)

(mentioned in Willoughby Francis Avery’s will in 1876)




Daughter Jane

Daughter Lovina, b. Nov. 17 1856

Son Ephraim, b. January 26, 1861, d. Dec. 4, 1862


March 25th 1855


Daughter, Mineva (Minerva?)

two boys, b. Dec. 15th 1860 died soon after the birth


Mary Esther

Son John Carson, b. June 24, 1855? (The Carsons were also a well-to-do local family who had many enslaved Africans/Americans. This boy could have been fathered by one of them.)

[same woman?]


Daughter Mary, b. March 10th 1862


Margaret (owner Isaac Erwin Avery)

Son Clingman August 2, 1855?

daughter Lititia, b. Dec. 6, 1862

[same Margaret as Isaac T. Avery’s Margaret?)


Cinthy (Abbi’s daughter) [same Abb as Abb Boy Child b. 24 August 1838, d. same day?]

Son Elisha, b. August 26 , 1855?



Daughter Matilda, b. December 20 1850


19th February 1857


Daughter Lila



Son Samuel, b. 10th March 1857 at Swan Ponds

[same as below?]


Son Capt. James Wilson, b. August 4th 1861, d. 26 April 1862

[same as above]?

Cecelia (in Yancey, NC)

Daughter Ann, b. December 1856



Twin sons b. 16th May 1857, William & The other died in October 1857



Daughter Missy, b. August 14


Margaret (owner Isaac Thomas Avery)

child named ___ , b. Nov. 23 (1855?) died at 5 months old

Daughter Elvira, b. October 12, 1860


Cindy was delivered of two boys, b. Dec. 15th 1860 died soon after the birth


Julia & Homer’s

Son Romeo, b. January 6, 1861




Thine had at the Crab Orchard (in Plumtree, NC) in Mitchel

Daughter Louisa, b. About the 20th of August


Mary  (Thines’ daughter)

Son Logan, b. 30 September 1861



bore three children on Jan 19, 1862 – two sons and one girl Rachel. Of the boys, one died in May & one in August



Daughter Sally, b. February 20, 1862


Surak (Sarah?)

Son Will Phifer, b. Sept. 11th 1862

(The Phifers were also a local white family. The use of the Phifer name could indicate that one of the Phifer men had fathered the child.)



Daughter called —— , b. & died October 24, 1862



Roxanna & Lige (Elijah)

(There are many stories about an enslaved man named Elijah or Lige, which I’ll post soon. He was – through the Avery family’s telling of the stories – the prototypical “faithful slave” of Southern myth. Obviously his own version of events would be different and fascinating! If anyone descended from Lige reads this, I’d love to hear from you.)

daughter Anna


Cecilia & Alfred’s

Daughter Delphy, b. in Mitchell [Crab Orchard in Plumtree?] in 1862

(Alfred possibly given to Clark Moulton Avery in I.T. Avery’s will, though Clark was dead by then.)



son called ________, b. July 26th 1864




From Isaac Thomas Avery’s will

(Isaac Thomas Avery, b. 1785, d. December 1864)


Bequeathed to W.W. Avery:


Poiter +


Daughter Delia

Son Balaam

Son Julius

Daughter Mary

Son William


Bequeathed to Harriet J. Chambers:

Jo or Joseph


Son Hardy

Son Nelson

? M___

daughter Minny


Bequeathed to Mary. M. Chambers:




Son William

Son Turner?

Son Stephen

Son Harris

Daughter Mariah

Unnamed baby






Bequeathed to Clark M. Avery:


A couple

Loress (or Louu) and Alfred


Elvira (died before 1865)

Daughter Linda

Son Joe

Daughter Emma

Lost Ancestors: people enslaved by the Coman family

JimComan_WHTaccount_1860s?One of our goals for this blog is to provide documents we have come across in our own researches that might help others, especially those looking to find family who have been lost by enslavement or by other kinds of social disruption. Here is the first installment in what we expect to be a regular feature. We have included it in a new category, “Lost Ancestors,” which you can click on to the right to see similar posts as they are added.


Today we focus on the people enslaved by Elizabeth’s fourth great grandfather, James Coman (1767-1842), an affluent merchant who had a store and house in Raleigh, N.C. and a farm outside the town. Coman was a Scotch-Irish emigrant from Ulster who got caught in a scheme to defraud Revolutionary War veterans of their bounty land, but managed to escape trial and go on to become a “respectable” citizen (admittedly, the bar was low). He died without a will in 1842 and his three children divided up his considerable estate of land and enslaved human beings.


The name Coman (pronounced, in my family at least, as “common”) has its origins was originally Comyn (derived possibly from either the cumin plant or the Breton word “Cam,” meaning bent or crooked).  There are many variations of the name. Some are: Cummings, Cumming, Cumin, Cumins, Comin, Comins, Common, Camon, Kamon and many more.


Here is a transcription of the inventory of that “property”:


Inventory and Account of Sales of the Property of James Comans late of Raleigh North Carolina Deceased [dated May 20, 1842]


…Two negroes sold because they were unmanageable and it was thought best to sell them by all the Distributors under all the circumstances

Anika a woman           Watten L Otay Cash  500

& Ingram a man           Note at Int                550


…Negroes belonging to the Estate to be divided between the Distributed, viz:

1. Turner   [JBL] 10. Caroline   [SJL] 20. Louisa     [MJC]
2. Sam       [JBL] 11. James       [?] 21. & child found dead
3. Henderson   [MJC] 12. Sally           [?] 22. Mary     [MJC]
4. Lucinda       [JBL] 13. Elizabeth   [SML] 23. Martha   [MJC]
5. Reddick       [JRL] 14. Marian     [MAL] 24. Jimm       [MJC]
6. Dinah           [JRL] 15. Mat           [MJC] 25. William   [MJC]
7. Emeline         [JRL] 16. Fanny     [MJC] 26. Rebecca     [?]
8. Prince           [JRL] 17. Child of Fanny     [MJC] 27. John     [JBL]
9. Marcus           [JRL] 18. “         “       “       [MJC] 28. George   [JRL]
19. Chloe     [?] 29. Dick   [?]


[Note: JBL= John Bell Love (spouse: Margaret Coman); MJC= Matthew James Coman; JRL= James Robert Love (spouse: Maria Coman), SJL=Sarah Jane Love, JRL’s daughter; SML=Sarah Malinda Love and MAL= Mary Ann Love, JBL’s daughters.]


And here is the distribution agreed to by the heirs:


State of North Carolina, Haywood County


To wit for John B Love’s wife Margaret E Love one of the heirs of Jas Coman decd, the following negroes, wit 12th Dec 1842

Negro John 40 years old valued at                              350.00

Negro Sam 25 years old valued at                               600.00

Negro Turner 20 years old valued at                          600.00

Negro Lucinda 16 years old valued at                          500.00


The following negroes allotted to MJ Coman both by the consent of MJ Coman and Jas R Love his Guardian

Mat a yellow man 40 years old valued at                   400.00

Fanny wife of Mat 35 years old two Girl children      550.00

Negro Girl Louisa 16 years old valued at                     400.00

Negro Mary Mat Daughter 10 years old valued at      350.00

Negro Jim Mats Son 5 years old valued at                   300.00

Martha Daughter of Mats 4 years old valued at          200.00

Wm Mats Son 2 years old valued at                             150.00

Henderson Mats brother valued at 23 years old          600.00


The following negroes allotted to J.R. Love & wife Maria A Love one of the heirs of J Coman decd wit

Reddick Negro man 50 years old valued at                 350.00

Negro Dinah & Child Reddicks wife aged 38 years    450.00

Prince Reddicks son 15 years old valued at                500.00

Marcus Reddicks son 5 years old valued at               300.00

Emeline Dinah’s daughter 25 years old valued at       350.00

George a boy 10 years old valued at                           400.00


The heirs all being present we have allotted to the several heirs the Negroes set under their name and we by the heirs consent have had a particular regard to arrange each lot agreeable to families all of which we do certify 12th December 1842. Signed W. [William] Welch, B. [Bannister] Turner, A. J. Davidson


[Original documents available online at “North Carolina Probate Records, 1735-1970,” images, <i>FamilySearch</i> ( : accessed 29 January 2016), Wake &gt; Wills, Inventories, Settlements, 1841-1845, Vol. 25 &gt; image 59, 95, 96 of 320; county courthouses, North Carolina.]


Recently we came across some further documents relating to Jim Coman, the boy who was five years old and distributed with his father Mat to Matthew Coman. These are from Will Thomas’s undated accounts and memoranda, undated but probably in 1866-1867, after the Civil War and emancipation. I’ve transcribed it with the original line breaks, to preserve its mundane poetry:


Jim Comman Dr [Dr=debit, i.e. owed to Thomas]


Negro Jim & wife Josephine

1 pair of half soles for Jim

1 pair for Josephine

1 home made pair of shoes for Jim

1 pair of store shoes for Josephine (very good)

Let Josephine have five and a half yards

of spun cotton (which would be about one

fourth a bunch) bunch sells at $3.50

dyed two yards of deep blue and 2

yards of pale blue Indigo for Josephine

For the weaving, warping, and spooling

of 15 yards of striped cloth $1.50

flax thread to make pants 10 cents

Let Jim have a sheep skin raw

Let Josephine have a half worn

Linsey dress

Jim had a bed tuck cut up

and made into a pair of



Another sheet headed “Jim Comans colored” lists debits of $5.00 for 5 yards of [house?] jeans and 15 cents for thread “to make 4 yards and ¾ of blue jeans, one dollar and half per yard.” Below that he lists “cash paid you by WHT [Will Thomas] in the first month,” itemized as:


To [i.e. debit] cash used to purchase

To cash 4.00

Josephine 2.00


Josephine was making clothing, that is certain, and Will was advancing her cash and materials, but how the profits were distributed we can’t tell from here.


In the 1870 census for Culowhee township in Jackson County (near present-day Western Carolina University), James Commans age 34 appears with his wife Josephine age 23, both listed as “mulatto,” and, in the same household, a Henry Thomas. The nearest neighbors were also Thomases, Dick and Susan, age 62 and 64, listed as “black.” And their neighbors were Amanda and William Casey: Amanda had grown up as an enslaved person belonging to Will Thomas. All of this shows a strong connection between Jim & Josephine Coman and the African Americans who lived and worked in Will Thomas’s household and farm.


After 1870, Jim and Josephine disappear from the census records.


The first in a series of “True History” portraits of my ancestors


R Love in truth

For several years I’ve wanted to make faux-historical-style “engravings” that told the true stories of some of my ancestors. Here’s my first one! (If you click on the image you can see it larger.)


The standard histories will tell you that Robert Love (my gr. x 4 grandfather) tell you some version of this: “Colonel Robert Love (11 May 1760 – 17 July 1845) was an American Patriot, Frontiersman, Statesman, Benefactor and Founder of Waynesville. He would conduct the 1820 Robert Love Survey, establishing the North Carolina and Tennessee border.”


He did fight in the Revolutionary War. But in 1776, at the age of 16, he was a wagoner on the Christian Expedition that systematically destroyed Cherokee towns, burned all their crops, and killed any Cherokee who got in the way. After that he became a “frontiersman,” which means he moved into Cherokee territory, took their land, and killed the Indians who were defending that land. He was a “benefactor” because, after taking Indian lands, he became a slave owner and got rich on the exploitation of enslaved Africans and their descendants.


So this is my true portrait of Robert Love.

The mysterious 6%

My mother lived with us for the last four years of her life because she had dementia. We had a rotation of agency in-home care givers to help us with the hard job of caring for an adult who could no longer care for herself. Much of the time caring for her – moving her, cleaning up messes – was more than one woman could easily do alone, so the care givers and I spent a fair amount of time together and became quite friendly. One evening, in the quiet, relieved minutes after we had at last wrangled my mother into bed, the aide – I’ll call her Mary – and I were standing there just looking at my mother asleep now on the bed. Mary, who was black, turned to me and said hesitantly, “She looks like my grandmother.”


“Hold on, “ I said. “I want to show you something.” I pulled out a photo album, leafed through it, and pulled out a picture of my mother’s grandmother when she was a girl. When I showed it to Mary, she gasped. “You know what she looks like….” She didn’t finish her sentence, but she didn’t have to. My great grandmother had wild frizzy hair, black eyes, and non-Aryan features. Anyone looking objectively at the photo, not knowing who it was, would say that she wasn’t white – in the American one-drop definition of whiteness. She looks “high yellow.”


Sallie Thomas Avery with son Lenoir
Sallie Love Thomas as a girl

My mother had always said we were part Cherokee. She never said how that might have happened, or which ancestor slipped out of our well-documented history of white-to-white marriages to mix up our gene pool. Of course, many Americans claim to be part Cherokee. The Cherokee, now that they’re no longer inhabiting lots of land that we want, have the dubious honor of being the most popular native tribe for whites to claim relationship to. Now, given that my great-great grandfather was an adopted member of the North Carolina Cherokees, and given that no one knew precisely who his father, “Richard Thomas,” was, we had more basis for that belief than most. But still, was my mother implying that her great grandfather, Will Thomas, was actually illegitimate and the product of an affair his mother had with a Cherokee? Not at all; she liked, I think, the romance of the relationship without wanting to know the particulars. Me, I always want to know the fascinating, gossipy particulars.


So when we started this project, I had my mother’s dna tested. She is 94% Scottish/English/Irish descent and 6% mystery. Now, for my mother to be 6% something-or-other, she had to have inherited it from a great-great grandparent, someone whose name and history we know. Genetic tests determine ethnicity by comparing your genes to the genes of populations around the globe. 94% of my mother’s genes are similar to the genes of people who live in the British Isles and Scandinavia. But that remaining 6% is uncertain and interpreted differently depending on the testing service. My mother has been tested three times and had three different explanations for it. The first test said she was 6% Native American. The second test said Western European and Middle Eastern. The third interpreted it as Mediterranean, Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian.


Interestingly,  some dna analysis of the Cherokee themselves, show them to be (by current limited testing definitions) part Mediterranean and/or Middle Eastern. Does this mean, as some people have speculated, that the Cherokee mixed with early European invaders and that what we’re seeing is the traces of that? It’s possible. Just as it’s possible that my 3rd great grandmother, Temperance Thomas, had an affair with a Cherokee before or during her marriage to Richard Thomas. (My fondest hope was that we would discover she’d had an affair with the Cherokee chief Yonaguska and that was why he’d adopted Will Thomas.) Again, not impossible but, given the social mores of the time for women anyway, unlikely. And having almost certainly identified Richard Thomas (an Anglo-American) I have no idea where that 6% came from.


Which leaves me thinking about race in America. We European-Americans invented the Frankenstein monster of race to justify the taking of land and the taking of humans, and so race is encoded into our national dna. “Whiteness” and “blackness” are constructs created when we left the tribal/clan boundaries – whether Celt, Gael, Viking, Mayan, Iroquois, or Yoruban – that had defined “us” and “them.” In North America, we had to find a new us and a new them. The Atlantic slave trade and racial slavery created the lumped ethnicities we now have of white, black, and Native American, and left us, in America, with an obsession with something we call “race,” which doesn’t really exist. What exists are shared geographic and genetic origins. My mother’s genes tell us she is a mix of peoples who came from Scandinavia (the Vikings), Scotland (which the Vikings invaded), and England. Not long ago these groups, that we see now as simply “whites,” would have forcefully denied any similarities; they all hated each other, warred with each other, and considered each other barbarians. So now, in the U.S., each of us – whether the majority of our genes are Native, Caucasian, or African – is a mix of once-warring tribes that saw only their differences and yet, are now mixed and unified in our American bodies.


It would be a beautiful thing if this newly widespread tool of genetics could bring us to the realization that race doesn’t exist. If Mary, standing with me looking at the worn out, sleeping body of my mother, could have said, “She looks like my grandmother,” and meant only that, without the ellipsis of unspoken racial identity hanging in the air. If she didn’t have to cautiously state it so that I could ignore or misunderstand it if I chose, or worry that I would take umbrage if I did understand. Someday I hope my children – who have varying geographic/genetic origins and various amounts of pigment in their skin – might begin to see a world where marking difference by skin pigmentation will seem as bizarre and arbitrary as the Scottish hating the Swedes who once, long ago, invaded them.


But, honestly, even in that imagined post-racial world, I’d still want to know who slept with whom and where that 6% came from. I’m just nosey that way.

Trying to see it whole


 A.C. Avery

As I’ve been researching this book, I’ve been thinking about fathers in the larger sense of the word – forefathers, the sins of the fathers, and the gifts as well. On my mother’s side, my family has been in North Carolina for hundreds of years. They dispossessed the Cherokee, established plantations on Cherokee land, and kept slaves. Leading up to the Civil War, every single one of my ancestors was a hard-line, fire-eating, secessionist. Lots of them died fighting for the morally bankrupt cause of the Confederacy. After the war, my great grandfather, A.C. Avery, helped start a chapter of the Klu Klux Klan and worked to set up the racist policies of Jim Crow. We, in the South and in my family, have revised and rewritten this past so that it’s bearable. You’ve heard, and maybe even believed, some of these revisions:


  • That the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about states rights.
  • That some slave owners (usually the ancestors of the person telling you this) were good to their slaves, with examples to prove it – they bought them shoes, or the mistress herself taught the enslaved children Sunday School.
  • That the KKK, when it was first started, wasn’t a terrorist organization but a peace-keeping group.


These are all things people in my family have said to me. And these lies are also still part of the accepted and official version of North Carolina history. The NCpedia entry on A.C. Avery says:


“Avery joined an underground resistance movement instituted by the Conservative politicians of the state. A leader in the organization of the Klu Klux Klan in western North Carolina, he rode with the vigilantes. The Klan was a powerful resistance movement against the Republican party, its principles, and its policies. Confederate soldiers and respected citizens manned its ranks. It functioned actively and effectively during the late sixties and early seventies and promptly disbanded when it was no longer needed. There was no resemblance between it and subsequent organizations of the same name.”


The thing is, I understand the urge to rewrite our past; some days, researching this book, the weight of all that sick sad history is almost more than I can bear. Almost. But the lies are even worse because they deny the true stories and suffering of others, for our own fleeting comfort. Which is cowardice. And I’ve been many things in my life – naïve, stupid, and confused at times – but I’ve never been a coward.


So for me, it’s not hard to say that the beliefs and actions of my ancestors were bad. What’s hard is seeing them as not wholly bad. My great grandfather Avery may not himself have murdered, beaten, or lynched the blacks (and whites) who dared to organize and vote against white supremacy, but I’m certain that, at the very least, he incited others to do all those things. He believed and did monstrous things and it would be so much easier if I could just see him as a monster through and through.


But he was also the man who took his young daughter, my grandmother, to see a lecture on the importance of education for women and, afterwards, told her “You are going to go to college” at a time when few women did. And my grandmother not only went to college, but was one of the first women admitted to Chapel Hill, and went on to have a dazzling political career. Because of her father, that man I wish I could hate, who refused to see the humanity of African Americans, but somehow saw, when other men of his time didn’t, that girls could and should be educated and that women should have the right to vote.


I feel a screaming cognitive dissonance when I try to put the two halves of that man together into one comprehensible, human whole. I think, as hard as much of this project has been, the hardest thing of all for me will be to see and write my great grandfather as a human, flawed and failed in so many ways, but human nevertheless. And this is a struggle we all face, no matter which of the many Americas we come from – white, Native, or black. How do we, each of us and all of us, carry the sometimes unbearable weight of our shared history? How do we see it whole – not erase the good because there is bad, and not deny the bad because it is painful?


I don’t have an answer yet, but the one thing I am sure of is that, if we can’t see it whole, we can’t tell it true.


Why I call it rape

A couple of years ago, Kirk and I were talking about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. We had just discovered that, at the age of two, my great-great grandmother Sallie was given another two-year-old girl, a slave, who was her own first cousin. The slave child, Caroline, was (documents indicate) the daughter of Sallie’s uncle and an enslaved woman named Dinah. We were trying to wrap our heads around that – a child being given as a gift, a pet, for another human to own, and that human being her own first cousin.


So we were talking about sex between masters and slaves, Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, and I said off handedly, “Well, of course, what he did to her was rape.”


Kirk, who is a wonderful man, a deep, careful thinker, and an excellent historian, was taken aback. “Well….” he said using the delicacy and caution you would use to approach a possibly dangerous stray (me, rape, women and men, and slavery), “you know, I think it’s more nuanced than that.”


“No.” I said. “It’s not.”


My immediate, forceful, and seemingly unconsidered answer came from the fact that, as a woman, much of my life has been spent considering rape and the fact that I could be raped if I walked home alone at night, took a walk in the park, went to a bar, went out with a man I didn’t know. I have friends who’ve been raped waiting for the bus, working alone in an art studio, sleeping in their own beds at night. I’ve had conversations with friends about what constitutes rape and what doesn’t. Rape is something every woman has considered long and hard.


“OK….” Kirk, who knows this, albeit intellectually, said. “Explain.”


“Could Sally Hemings, a fourteen-year-old girl, in Paris, a country where she had no friends or family and didn’t speak the language, have said no to Thomas Jefferson? Could she have said no to him without negative repercussions?” Kirk thought about it for a moment and then said no. “Well,” I said, “if Sally Hemings couldn’t say no, then she couldn’t say yes. Without the ability to refuse, there can be no real consent. Sex without consent is coerced, and coerced sex is rape.”


“Yes,” he said. “You’re right.” Because he knows a good logical argument when he hears one.


I see this as similar to my argument, in “Southern bells,” that there can be no such thing as a good master, that the fact of believing you can “own” another human being taints everything in your life.   Thomas Jefferson had been against slavery until around 1792, when he factored up the profits and losses of his plantation and noticed that the enslaved people were yielding him a predictable and reliable profit when they had children. He wrote, “I allow nothing for losses by death, but, on the contrary, shall presently take credit four per cent per annum, for their increase over and above keeping up their own numbers.” In the 1790s he wrote that a friend who was having financial difficulties, “should have been invested in negroes.” Greed overcame his ideals and his humanity; slavery, the belief that you can own another human being, taints and twists you, so there can be no “good” slave owners, only bad or worse slave owners.


Jefferson once punished a slave boy named Cary – some mother’s child – by selling him “down river” to Georgia slavers. Jefferson said he did it, “to make an example of him in terrorem to others, in order to maintain the police so rigorously necessary among the nail boys.” In terrorem, an example and threat of punishment. A few years ago, a letter came to light describing how Monticello’s young black boys, “the small ones,” age 10, 11 or 12, were whipped to get them to work in the plantation’s nail factory. (It was that profitable factory that paid the mansion’s bills. This letter about children being whipped was deliberately deleted from the 1953 edition of Jefferson’s Farm Book, which still serves as a reference today for research on Monticello.)


This world of punishment was the world Sally Hemings was born into, this was the master who brought her, at age fourteen, to Paris to look after his daughter Polly. Abigail Adams wrote to Jefferson and said of Sally, “The girl … is quite a child, and Captain Ramsey is of the opinion [she] will be of so little service that he had better carry her back with him.” Adams also wrote that Sally was “wanting more care than [Polly],” that she was “wholly incapable” of looking properly after Polly Jefferson “without some superior to direct her.”


Sally Hemings was fourteen years old when Thomas Jefferson first had sex with her. She was a child herself, one who needed care. She was away from her kin in a foreign country where she knew and could speak to no one but the Jeffersons. Could that child have said no to his advances? The answer, in this case, is clearly no. But, if we look at it honestly, the answer, when speaking of sex between a master and a slave, is always going to be that the slave cannot say no without fear of reprisals, without living in terrorem.


This is why I call it rape. Because it is rape.

Southern Bells

I grew up with the ringing of bells. Three times a day, breakfast, lunch, SouthernBelland dinner, my family would sit at the dining table, my mother would pick up the bell placed discreetly near her placemat, and she would ring it once, just a single chime. After a few seconds, the kitchen door would open and a servant would bring us our food. My father was a diplomat and I grew up in Southeast Asia. Looking back on it now, it seems surreal, alien, but then it was all I knew.


I inherited a number of those bells and they sit unused on shelves or in boxes of stuff I haven’t gotten around to taking to Goodwill. I never thought much about them. They were just part of the strange furniture of a life I once lived and that has very little to do with my life now. But as I’ve been researching this project – a social-cultural biography of my great-great grandfather William Holland Thomas – this inanimate inheritance has begun to haunt me: the bells, the dining table they sat on that was once at my family’s slave plantation, the two-hundred-year-old writing desk with its black spills from ink pots and quill pens that signed names and sold peoples lives away. My ancestors, the Averys, were the largest slave-owners in western North Carolina, and my mother and I come from a long line of women who rang bells that called people with brown skin to serve them.


In our lives, as in the lives of my ancestors, the bell took away the need for words: you didn’t have to yell crassly for your food; you didn’t have to poke your head in the kitchen, look in someone’s eyes, feel how hot it was for them cooking your dinner on a summer day; you didn’t have to speak to them, use their name. The bell did it all, and its chime made the unvoiced command seem sweet and sound pretty.


The women I descend from, the Southern belles, based their elegant, gracious lives on myths, on stories they told over and over again, that slavery wasn’t that bad, that they, the slaves, were inferior and needed white guidance. Those stories could only be maintained by inhibiting the words of the people they enslaved. Which is why slaves weren’t allowed to learn to read or write. The written word would have given them a permanent physical manifestation of their experience: the word made flesh or the experience of their flesh made into words. And that would have threatened the fragile stability of the system they all lived within. Because a system based on lies is easily threatened.


The bell was a mellifluous stand-in for an order the enslaved person had no choice but to obey. It allowed the white mistress to act out a masquerade of plantation life as genteel and hospitable. It was a world built on controlling words. It prevented black people from telling the true story of their lives, and whites from hearing the whip in their own voices. Words are dangerous things, because words make stories and the stories we tell create our reality.


I know all too well the stories we white people tell. I remember once, going through family papers with my mother, and coming across one of the plantation’s slave ledgers. She leafed through it and finally said, “Well, they bought them shoes once a year, so they must have been good slave owners.”  But, as I told my mother that day, the words “good” and “slave owner” are mutually exclusive. The simple act of “owning” another human being taints every other part of your life – in part because it is an absolute wrong, and in part because you must lie to yourself to make it acceptable. This “Gone With the Wind” version of life in the old South – relying on the silencing of some words and the assertion of others – is the story we whites have told ourselves and the world over and over again until we believe, against all common sense and human decency, that it’s true.


But, of course, the dissenting voices were not entirely silenced. Those who cannot speak subversion can, for instance, sing it. Using the codes of white culture as camouflage, the slaves sang of resistance and escape: “Tell ol’ Pharoah To let my people go!” or “Mary and Martha’s just gone along/Way over Jordan, Lord/ To ring those chiming bells.”


This project began as a fairly simple wish to tell the true story of my great great grandfather Will Thomas, the adopted son of a brilliant Cherokee chief – not just the heroism but the sex (and sex diaries!), the illegitimate children, the insanity, and all the other uncomfortable parts my family tried to suppress. But projects take on a life of their own, and this book will be not only about my great-great grandfather, Will Thomas, and his astonishingly complicated life. It will also be about the constructs we white people have made – about blackness, Indian-ness, whiteness, about manifest destiny and American exceptionalism – to justify the doing of whatever we wanted to do.


It’s important to remember that the myths we whites have spun cover up not only the truth about black lives and Indian lives, but also the truth about our own lives. Growing up, when one of us kids would mention some unsavory fact about a family member – their alcoholism or suicide – my grandmother would say, “We don’t talk about that.”  So we didn’t. And as in my family, in every shadowed corner of every “gracious” Southern plantation’s history, there are suppressed stories.  In my own family there is the baby daughter – of a slave woman raped and impregnated by the son of the house – given as a gift to her own white cousin, or the husband’s white mistress on the other side of town, to name only a few. These are all things those Southern belles, my great grandmothers, knew about, hid away, and never spoke of.  There is a cost to those lies too –  to the one who lives that lie, and to the ones lied to and lied about.


Looking at my mother’s bell now – its gold mouth resting silent against the polished wood of the table that once stood in the plantation house – I think about all the different bells: this small table bell that holds within it generations of stopped voices, black and white; the Southern belles, my grandmothers, who once held and used it; and the church bells that called people to gather, to sing out dissent, that rang out Judgment Day and a world where slavery would be undone.


With this book project and this blog, we hope to add our voices to the rising chorus of dissenting voices, to help ring not the bells of command and fear, but those better bells, the “chiming bells” that invite us to come together and sing out loud and clear.