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In Honor of Black History Month: Echoes of Slavery, the Byers Family, by Historian Nancy Griffith

by | Feb 18, 2024

​Andy Byers, a neighbor whom Ralph Johnson referred to in his book David Played a Harp, was enslaved by James S. Byers of Iredell County, as was his father Andrew. James Smith Byers’ 1862 will listed “Old Andrew” and Andrew, both of whom he bequeathed to his son Augustus.  According to Chalmers Davidson, “Old Andrew” had an interesting background, serving as James S. Byers’ carriage driver, and possessing great skill as a violinist.

“Old Andrew” had apparently died by 1870, as his 40-year-old widow Margaret was living in Deweese Township (Mecklenburg County). Living with her were her children Nannie, Blanche, Monroe, Dallas, and Doctor. Her son Andy is not listed. Nannie was working as a domestic servant, and the older boys as day laborers. As was the case with most emancipated slaves, everyone in the family was illiterate. As was also often the case, they owned no real estate and had no personal property.

In 1880, Margaret, whose age was now given as 55, remained in Deweese Township. She and her daughter Blanche were living with Monroe, and they were working as farm laborers. By this time they had made some educational advances; Margaret could read, and Blanche could both read and write. By 1900, Margaret had moved to Charlotte, where she worked as a housekeeper and lived in a rented house in the Second Ward. Census records indicated that she had had twelve children, ten of whom were living.

The younger Andy Byers, born around 1854, was the one who was Ralph Johnson’s neighbor. Records indicate that in 1871 he married Judy Holsclaw, and by 1880 they were living in Davidson where Andy, age 26, was working as a blacksmith. Also in the household were sons Ernest, Andy, and John F., daughter Ora May, and stepson M.V. Holsclaw. Judy was doing washing, and 7-year-old Ernest was attending school. There is no information on how this marriage ended, but in June of 1889, Byers married again, this time to Hannah Torrence.

The marriage apparently did not last very long, as he married 19-year-old Katie Winecoff in Mt. Mourne in 1896. In 1900, he and Katy were living in Deweese Township. Their situation was far superior to that of his mother. They were both literate, and he owned his own home. Also in the household were four children, aged 11 months to 27 years; the two youngest were Andy and Katie’s. In 1908, Andrew married again, this time to Mattie Graham, daughter of Abraham and Harriet Graham.

It was around this time that Ralph Johnson knew the Byers family. Ralph remembered Andy as “a small elderly black man” whose barn and blacksmith shop stood behind his home amidst other dilapidated buildings.  Ralph would often go over to watch Byers working at his smithy. Byers also owned an “ancient, four-wheeled one-horse wagon,” called a “sugar wagon,” that he drove around town to empty people’s privies. Everyone had a privy in those days, and Byers had a virtual monopoly on the job, so it was relatively lucrative.

19th century Louisiana Sugar or Honey Wagon. (Courtesy of the Lethbridge Historical Society)

Johnson described Byers’ wife Mattie “as a big, bustling, unhappy woman” who ran a tight ship. The tirades she directed at Andy provided frequent entertainment for the neighborhood, as did Andy’s often profane efforts to get his mule to move. Andy and Mattie continued to live on North Main Street in 1920 and 1930, at which time he was eighty years old. Mattie Byers died in Davidson on July 6, 1936. I could find no record of Andy’s death.

“Young” Andy’s brother Monroe Hiram Byers, with whom Margaret Byers lived in 1880, also lived in Davidson. Born in 1862, he died in 1924 and is buried in the Christian Aid Society Cemetery.  He married Mary A. Torrance of Derita in 1883, and in 1900 they were living in Davidson with their children Charles R. (3), Walter W. (1), and a 9-year-old cousin named William. Monroe worked as a day laborer and owned his own home. Mary worked as a washerwoman.

By 1910, they were living on Concord Road in Davidson, and Monroe was employed doing odd jobs. At this time, he was listed as renting his home. By 1920 they were living on Mock’s Hill on the west side of Davidson, and Monroe was working as the janitor at the Davidson College Presbyterian Church. Monroe died of tuberculosis and heart trouble in December of 1924. Mary died in 1928.

Another one of James Smith Byers’ slaves, Blanche Byers Simonton, is also buried in the Christian Aid Society Cemetery. She was born in Iredell County between 1851 and 1853, and in 1870 was living in Mount Mourne Township (Iredell County) with spinster Maria Byers (77) and Caledonia (28), Julia, Olin, Abraham, Maria, Augustus, and Leonora. Blanche was a domestic servant and Olin and Julia were working as farm hands. Maria is probably the “Old Mariah” whom James Smith Byers bequeathed to his son Augustus in 1862; Caledonia, an enslaved person, was also bequeathed to Augustus.

In 1872 Blanche Byers married Henry Simonton in Iredell County. He was the son of Ann and John Simonton, and was probably enslaved by A.R. Simonton, who owned a large tract of land in Iredell County and owned 23 slaves in 1860. Simonton died in 1863. In 1870, 19-year-old Henry was living with his parents and his 15-year-old brother Sam near Fancy Hill in Iredell County. Blanche and Henry had married by 1880, and they were living in Davidson with their children Julia (7), Purdy (5), Hattie (3) and Henrietta (1). Blanche was widowed by the time of the 1900 census and was living with her daughter Hattie and her husband Robert.

The number of children in the household had greatly increased, ranging from 24-year-old Purdy to eight-year-old Lillie. Henry Simonton must have died sometime after 1892, when Lillie was born. Blanche and her family were still in Davidson in 1910, and the census indicated that she had borne 14 children, 9 of whom were still living. These were Julia Leatherby, Percy Scales, Hattie Abernathy, Henrietta Poe, James, Clinton, Aaron, Myrtle, and Lillie. Blanche died in 1919 and is buried in the Christian Aid Society Cemetery.

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