The antebellum history of Davidson and its surrounding communities is rich with accounts of Davidson College, merchants and professionals, prominent families, schools, churches, historic homes, and the plantations that remain from the antebellum period. What has been lost, however, is an integral part of that history: the story of the enslaved people who kept this whole society running.
In “African American Resources in Mecklenburg County,” written by Stewart Gray and Paula Stathakis in 2022, the authors note that slaves accounted for 40 percent of the county population in 1860. While 25 percent of the county’s white population owned slaves, some had only a few house slaves. The majority, however, had more than ten slaves; only one percent were classified as planters, who owned 25 slaves or more. While a few of these enslaved people were skilled workers, most worked as field hands or domestics. Although there were almost 7000 slaves in Mecklenburg County in 1860, there are few physical reminders of their presence, and family papers and public records give little information on their lives.
Deed records, which indicate when slaves were sold or gifted, wills, and escaped slave notices give slaves’ first names. Deed records also record the age and sex of each enslaved person. Escaped slave notices often include not only names, but a description of the escapee and sometimes information about where he was purchased, or a mention of where an escaped slave might be headed. Early census records and slave schedules, a regular part of the federal census after 1850, give only the number of slaves owned by each resident.
While Davidson College did not own slaves, its early years were entwined with slavery. Most of the college’s early trustees were landowners. Some of these lived nearby, like George W. Stinson (Woodlawn, in Iredell County), J.H. Houston (Mount Mourne), and William Lee Davidson (Beaver Dam). Davidson, who sold the land for the college, owned a 785-acre plantation, Beaver Dam, which still stands.
Census records indicate that he owned 21 slaves in 1830. The 250,000 bricks used to construct the first college buildings were produced by slaves on a nearby plantation. And while the college owned no slaves, officials sometimes paid local landowners for the use of their enslaved people to do maintenance and domestic labor on the campus.
Many of the college’s early donors were also involved in slavery. Most prominent among these was Maxwell Chambers of Salisbury, whose large gift funded the construction of the original Chambers building, completed in 1860. In 1850, he owned 69 slaves. There is also some indication that he may have been a slave trader, using his brother Joseph as a front man. His views on slavery were apparently mixed, however. By 1842 he was corresponding with a freed slave in Fayetteville who was interested in moving previously enslaved people to Ohio. In 1854 Chambers himself freed around 20 slaves and provided them with funds to make a new start in Ohio. When he died the next year, he made the same arrangements for 48 more enslaved people, sending them to Ohio under the supervision of his overseer. *
Faculty and staff at the college did have slaves. It’s not the intention of this article to document all of these, but records provide information on some of the earliest. The college’s first president, Robert Hall Morrison, had a plantation not far from Davidson where he owned 16 slaves in 1840. Patrick Sparrow, the college’s first professor of languages, owned four adult slaves in 1840. Accounts indicate that his slaves were housed in a small brick building called the Sparrow’s Nest behind the current Belk Dormitory.** The college’s first steward, Abel Graham, owned ten enslaved people on his Rowan County farm, and his successor, Thomas Robinson, possessed the same number.
Rev. Samuel Williamson came to teach mathematics and natural philosophy at Davidson in 1839, and became president of the college in 1841. In 1840 he owned 12 slaves, and by 1850 he had 19. In her history of Davidson College, Cornelia Shaw mentions one of Williamson’s slaves, Esom. Shaw reports that in his account of life at the college in the 1840s, Jethro Rumple described Esom as “the President’s slightly colored body servant and general factotum … popularly known as the vice-president.” Two other faculty members, Mortimer Johnston and Samuel Wilson, arrived at the college in 1841 and left in 1853. In 1850 Johnston owned 14 slaves and Wilson, nine.
Reverend Drury Lacy was chosen as Davidson’s president in 1855 and remained until 1860. He had most recently lived in Raleigh, and in 1850 he owned three enslaved people there. Although the slave schedules for 1860 indicate that he did not own any slaves here in Davidson, a letter written by his wife Mary Lacy in 1856 mentions that two female slaves, Aunt Amy and Aunt Maria, worked in their home. Mrs. Lacy also mentions a 13-year-old girl that they attempted to hire from the Torrence estate, but when the girl’s price reached $49.60, they were unable to do so.
Staff at the college were not the only Davidson residents to own slaves. In their history of Davidson, Jan Blodgett and Ralph Levering noted that in 1850 there were 100 free white men in the town of Davidson College, along with 86 free white women, no free Blacks, and between 70 and 100 slaves. Among the slaveowners was Patrick Sparrow’s brother, Thomas W. Sparrow, who was an early merchant and built a boarding house in Davidson around 1840. He owned 11 slaves in 1850 and nine in 1860. As was true of many slaveowners, most of those in Davidson in 1850, including some of the farmers, owned only a handful of slaves.
Among those who owned more were D. L. Torrence (ten), Louis Dinkins, who was the college steward (21), and James P. Henderson (14). According to a portion of the 1860 slave schedules reproduced in Blodgett and Levering’s book, slaveowners at that time included Hiram Hall (three enslaved persons), Arthur Armour (five enslaved persons), George F. Shepard (one enslaved person), and Samuel M. Withers (ten enslaved persons). The ages of Armour’s slaves ranged from one to 24, including three small children aged five, three, and one.
Not all of the enslaved people working in town in 1860 were owned by Davidson residents; some were hired out from local slaveowners. Hotel owner H.P. Helper was employing three slaves, two belonging to William Knox of Iredell County and the other belonging to the estate of A.H. Torrence. A number of enslaved people belonging to Torrence’s estate were hired out to households around town at the time.
James P. Henderson continued to be one of Davidson’s largest slaveowners, by this time owning 19 enslaved people. Another slaveowner who lived near Davidson was blacksmith John A. Hannah. In December 1862 he placed an ad in Charlotte’s Western Democrat offering a $25 reward for his “negro boy” Monroe, who was 15 years old and “yellow-complected,” and had a “pleasant countenance.” Hannah speculated that he was “probably in the neighborhood, or not far off.”
Fugitive slave notice reproduced from UNCG’s database of North Carolina runaway slave notices. https://dlas.uncg.edu/notices/
This is far from a complete picture of slavery in Davidson. There were plantations in and around Davidson, including a number just over the line in Iredell County, that employed many more slaves. Stay tuned for more.
*Information on Maxwell Chambers is available in North Carolina’s online encyclopedia, https://www.ncpedia.org/biography/chambers-maxwell
**Information on the Sparrow’s Nest is from an article by Sarah Mellin, and can be found at https://pocketsights.com/tours/place/Sparrow%27s-Nest-26755:3307
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. She is the author of numerous books and articles on Arkansas and South Carolina history. She is the author of "Ada Jenkins: The Heart of the Matter," a history of the Ada Jenkins school and center.