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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Harris, September 5, 2002. Interview R-0185. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A slave inherits her owner's land

Harris remembers his family's slave past. His great-grandmother bore ten children by her owner, and when her owner died in the early 1870s, a court awarded her the land, a remarkable decision at a time when many white southerners, some as members of the Ku Klux Klan, were beginning to violently subjugate their black neighbors.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Harris, September 5, 2002. Interview R-0185. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

KIERAN TAYLOR:
Now tell me a little bit going back. You said you're the third. You're John Harris the third. What, was your grandfather born in Greensboro as well?
JOHN HARRIS:
No. South Carolina.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
He's from South Carolina.
JOHN HARRIS:
My mother and father and my grandparents were from, they were from South Carolina.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Whereabouts in South Carolina?
JOHN HARRIS:
A little place called Ridgeway.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Ridgeway. And where does that come in.
JOHN HARRIS:
Ridgeway, my mother was raised in Ridgeway. My father was raised in Ridgeway. My mother came from, my mother's family owned their land. My mother was raised on 550 acres of land. My father was a tenant farmer. His family, they just moved from farm to farm. Every year there was a different farm to work. But my mother's family and my grandfather, my grandmother, my great grandmother was bought off the auction block in Charleston by Tom Davis. Of course, Tom was the plantation owner. But Tom Davis didn't have any other family. He had ten children by my great grandmother, and he died first. He died about 1870. My great grandmother went to court because he had a brother that wanted the land. The court in South Carolina awarded my great grandmother the plantation, and I have often wondered how in South Carolina in 1870s that that happened. So I was reading an article about the early South and especially South Carolina. There was a black, a young black man that was in law school at the University of South Carolina in Columbia in 1870. He went to law school two years, 1870, '71, but he was not allowed to come back in 1873 because they had a liberal governor during the 1870s, the early 1870s, late 1860s, 1870s. They had a very liberal governor. After about 1870 it was already very difficult in South Carolina, but in 1873 is when the Ku Klux Klan raised its ugly head. So it was just unheard of, but the die had been cast my great grandmother. She gave each one of her ten children 250 acres apiece. That's why everybody in that area, all my cousins, that's why we're all related, and we all own our own land down there. I have receipts where my great grandmother paid the taxes on that property, and when she couldn't and when one of her children couldn't pay their taxes, she saw to it that those taxes were paid. I have receipts dating, going up to 18, going up to 1902, and by this time now her children now, they're able and capable of paying their own taxes. So as a result well, my grandmother, I said my mother grew up on 550 acres. That's because her father was the youngest, and he had a brother that was an invalid, and he took care of him. So he got his 250 acres, and he bought another 50 acres from another brother. So this is why he had 550 acres. He got the home place.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Okay. Which is still there.
JOHN HARRIS:
Which is still there. It doesn't look like, my mother's baby brother lives in the house and raised his sixteen children there. It doesn't look like modern, but it's still, it's been fixed over so. But the original house was built was pegs. They didn't use nails to put it together. It was built with pegs. Didn't have a kitchen originally. The kitchen had a dirt floor. In fact the kitchen was sort of like a separate thing where they prepared food. But eventually they added a kitchen to the house. But now the house you wouldn't know it because it's altogether different, but I remember it.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
So is it your understanding that this planter Davis, he essentially lived with your great grandmother. I mean, they were husband and wife for all practical purposes.
JOHN HARRIS:
No, for all practical purposes he was still the plantation owner, and he owned her, and he owned them. We had a picture of him in the living room, and he was pretty mean looking, but also in the living room there was a picture on another wall of my grandfather's older brother, and he was dressed down. So apparently he did some taking care of—
KIERAN TAYLOR:
Of his children.
JOHN HARRIS:
Of his children, yes, because he had no other family.
KIERAN TAYLOR:
He had no other.
JOHN HARRIS:
Except when the night that he died we sent, we sent, my great grandmother sent message to his brother in Ridgeway that lived in town that his brother had died. They came in and got the body, but they never saw him anymore. They never saw it anymore. Never heard. There was no funeral where they all went. So that's—