The story so far: In February 2013, De Kirkpatrick and Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick, classmates at Myers Park High School, reconnected nearly 50 years after their graduation. In their catch-up phone call, Jimmie Lee asked De what the H in his initials H.D. stood for. De said Hugh. That’s when both men learned that De’s great-great-grandfather, also named Hugh, owned Jimmie Lee’s great-great-great-grandfather, a slave named Sam. Together, they began examining their families and the county where they grew up.
In the mid-1920s, 12 Kirkpatricks gathered around their father, Sam, for a portrait.
That’s him in front, holding a photograph of his wife, Isabella, who died in 1922 after more than 40 years together. Sam Kirkpatrick was born a slave in about 1853.
The family portrait, which looks as though it might have been taken on a Sunday after church, connects two generations of Kirkpatricks to more than 100 years of African-American life in Mecklenburg County: the freed slave Sam and his children, more than half of whom lived through the civil rights struggle in the 1960s.
It’s a family to be proud of, Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick says, “for what they stood for and what they had to endure.”
Jimmie Lee has researched his family’s history for years, but it always stopped with Sam Kirkpatrick. Census records before the Civil War didn’t include names of slaves, only their “age, sex and color,” so genealogy searches can be especially difficult for African-Americans.
“At the time those policies were adopted,” says Harry Watson, professor of Southern Culture at UNC Chapel Hill, “it did not occur to anybody that slavery needed researching or that anyone who mattered would ever want to try.”
Slaves were considered chattel, their names more likely to be recorded in a bill of sale, along with land and cattle. Often, they took their last names from their former masters.
That appears to be what happened with Sam Kirkpatrick. Now that Jimmie Lee has found De, they can look at their history together.
De is learning about his family, too. He knew some members came to America from Scotland in about 1760, but he’s now found they emigrated from Ireland. Many Scots-Irish settled in Mecklenburg County, and their ways helped shape the new culture. They planted Associate Reformed Presbyterian churches here and, by holding political positions, helped determine the county’s governance.
You can find connections to both religion and politics in De’s roots. His great-great-great-great-grandfather John Kirkpatrick was one of the founders of Sardis Presbyterian Church in 1790.
De’s great-grandfather, J. Watt Kirkpatrick, was chairman of his township’s Democratic Party for 16 years in the late 1800s, and T.L. Kirkpatrick, J. Watt’s son and De’s great-uncle, was Charlotte’s mayor from 1915 to 1917.
De knew about those men from history books, newspaper reports and family records. But he didn’t know about Hugh Kirkpatrick, his great-great-grandfather, who owned 32 slaves in 1860.
Years ago, when Jimmie Lee met dead ends in researching black Kirkpatricks, he concluded his best hope of learning more was through the heirs of white slave owners. He never imagined it would be De, whom he jokingly called his cousin in high school.
Now, after a year of research and long talks, Jimmie Lee and De, both 65, have glimpsed Mecklenburg County before the Civil War, when more than a third of the population was enslaved.
More than 70 plantations
In 1860, Charlotte was still a “little, dusty railroad crossing,” says author and historian Janette Greenwood. It was North Carolina’s 20th-largest city. Wilmington was four times larger.
Mecklenburg had more than 70 plantations with 20 or more slaves. Most Charlotte plantations had 20 to 50 slaves harvesting cotton, corn and wheat, or tending cattle farms. Women worked in the fields and cooked, sewed and cleaned.
One Mecklenburg plantation had more than 140 slaves, census records show. Still, that was far smaller than plantations in other parts of the South. In 1860, more than 15 plantations claimed 500 or more slaves. Eight were in South Carolina, including one with more than 1,000.
“The wealth of the South, the wealth of the entire region and the wealth of Mecklenburg County was in human bodies,” says Greenwood, a history professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and author of “Bittersweet Legacy,” a 1994 book about race relations in Charlotte in the late 1800s. “That’s something we often forget in American history.”
Greenwood wrote that many of Charlotte’s “leading merchants and professionals owned slaves, apparently having purchased them as both an investment and a symbol of status in the decade before the Civil War.”
Those slaves, she says, “may have worked on farms their masters owned in the country,” or were hired out as house servants or laborers. Others had skilled jobs, including working as blacksmiths, potters or horse caretakers.
“Slavery was a very, very personal institution,” says Dan Morrill, a longtime local historian and UNC Charlotte professor. “It was more complicated than people like to make it. There were instances when there were certainly abuses. There were others where it was a very intimate relationship ... people like to portray slavery in one extreme or the other.”
Scars that never went away
Local historians such as Morrill and Tom Hanchett, of the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, have written extensively about Mecklenburg’s past and the Civil War era. Still, historians say, there is relatively little research compared with what is known about slavery on the South Carolina coast and in deeper Southern states such as Louisiana.
In a 2013 article in the N.C. Historical Review, UNC Charlotte professor John David Smith sought to call attention “to the dearth of scholarship on slavery in North Carolina’s Piedmont” and to encourage new “inquiry, research, and analysis.”
In the 1850s and ’60s, slaves were rarely mentioned in the weekly Western Democrat newspaper published in Charlotte. Ads marketed “Negroes for sale” sometimes as part of an estate along with acreage, a house and cattle. Owners offered rewards for runaways.
The Jan. 22, 1861, edition advertised a $100 reward for apprehending a slave named Solomon: “A mulatto near six feet high, about 30 years old, tolerably bright. He has a down look when spoken to. The end of the forefinger on his left hand has been cut off, and a sharp knot has grown on the end of it.”
The penalty for slaves selling or giving away liquor was 39 lashes, according to an 1864 Charlotte ordinance. Any free person caught shooting a gun or setting off firecrackers within city limits was fined $5; for slaves it was 25 lashes.
A collection of Davidson family papers for the Rural Hill Plantation in northern Mecklenburg County includes an 1852 guidebook written “By A Southern Planter” in Richmond. It says managers should never punish slaves in anger, but should demand “entire submission and obedience.” Slaves should be punished, the journal says, for rules violations by being whipped or made to stand in stocks from Saturday night until Monday morning with only bread and water.
In the mid-1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration interviewed more than 2,300 former slaves and published a collection of “Slave Narratives.” Most of the slaves interviewed were in their 80s.
There are no recorded full first-person accounts of former slaves from Mecklenburg-area plantations, but scores of those enslaved were interviewed in the Raleigh-Durham area, Asheville and North Carolina coastal cities. Some said their masters treated them well; others said they were rarely beaten. Dozens tell of whippings, rapes or killings.
Cornelia Andrews, an 87-year-old former slave who in 1937 lived in Smithfield, 40 miles southeast of Raleigh, told an interviewer that her first master was good to her, but she and her mother were sold. She never knew who her father was. She saw mothers sold and separated from their children, but no one cried because the women would have been beaten “black and blue,” she said.
Asked if she had ever been beaten badly, she said no. Her daughter, a graduate of Cornell University who was at the interview, said to her mother: “Open your shirt ... let the lady judge for herself.”
Her back and shoulders, the interviewer wrote, were marked as though “branded with a plaited cowhide whip.”
She said the beating was for dropping a dish.
Profiling an ancestor
It’s unclear how Hugh Kirkpatrick came to own Sam or some 30 other slaves on his plantation, believed to be near Sharon Road, not far from where SouthPark mall is today.
“Hugh as a relative was not anybody I knew anything about,” says De, whose full name is Hugh DeArmond Kirkpatrick. He has been called De since childhood. “I hadn’t been named after him. I had been named after my grandfather.”
Hugh Kirkpatrick was born in 1803, died in 1883, and had 12 children. He and his wife, Louisa Reid, had at least one son, Hugh, who died in the Civil War.
“I believe (my great-great-grandfather) was an ardent supporter of the state’s rights of secession, and he supported his children fighting for the South,” De says.
A January 1861 story in the Western Democrat noted that Hugh Kirkpatrick chaired a meeting of Mecklenburg residents who adopted a resolution urging North Carolina to join the side of “the South, and the South alone.”
Within months, North Carolina seceded from the Union.
Hugh Kirkpatrick was selected to collect provisions from his neighbors to support the war, the newspaper said. And, in 1867, after the war ended, the paper reported that fire had destroyed Hugh Kirkpatrick’s barn, and that a Negro man fled to avoid arrest.
Remembering a past
Jimmie Lee’s family has little recorded history. They have worked to preserve their stories through an annual reunion, begun in 1971, and that extraordinary photograph of Sam with his children.
They started a scholarship fund by asking each family to donate $10 a year. To be eligible for the scholarship, a Kirkpatrick has to be accepted into college.
“We knew education excellence was important,” says Addie Cordelia Pettice, a cousin of Jimmie Lee’s.
The reunions can draw 300 people, all Kirkpatricks or those who consider themselves part of the Kirkpatrick family. Many are still trying to figure out their connection. They can trace their history back so far, then records fail them.
Mary Katherine Joseph traces her family to Isaac Kirkpatrick, who was born a slave in Mecklenburg County, but doesn’t know how she or Isaac fit with other branches of the Kirkpatrick family.
She graduated from Queens College in 1981 when she was 38, and later worked at Wachovia. Her father, Charlie Joe, offered her this advice when she was young, which she still recalls in his words: “Keep your dignity. Nothing is going to be given to you: You have to work twice as hard. Dress for the next job. Don’t do anything illegal or immoral.”
She said her father also was very protective. He told her that before he was 17, he had twice come upon hanged men.
“The experiences gave him a need to make sure we understood the dangers and stayed away from them,” she says. “That was central to his understanding of the world.”
She says nine branches of Kirkpatricks come to the reunion. “We know we’re related,” she says. “But it would be good to know how the branches of the family spring out.
“At the reunion, the resemblances are so strong. ... Sometimes they skip a generation, and you see someone and say, ‘I know that child.’ ... Sometimes you walk in and you say you’re just home. ... That these people are who I am.”
Common sense, integrity
Two of Sam’s descendents also used the 1920s family photograph to capture stories.
Addie Pettice and Josephine Wade, both relatives of women in the Sam Kirkpatrick photo, asked family members to write chapters on those in the photo they knew best. The result is a 28-page report on a family that would own land, farm, hunt, graduate from college, teach Bible school and public school, do church missionary work, own businesses, tend beautiful gardens and influence neighborhoods and communities.
Of Ella Belle, her daughters Josephine and Janie wrote: “Besides working in the fields, she was the one who drove the horse and buggy to town to sell the farm produce. Her backyard was very small, but landscaped like an estate.”
Addie Pettice remembers her grandmother Duley telling stories handed down through the family. Rarely, though, did Duley talk about slavery. She was born about 1888, more than 20 years after her father had been freed.
“My grandma always talked about how they had a pretty good life,” Addie says. Duley’s three sons all went to college, the notes say. Her “temperament did not permit her to work well with whites.” She owned a grocery store and was involved with missionary groups at Friendship Baptist Church.
Sam, the patriarch and freed slave, became a sharecropper and eventually bought land in the late 1890s in what is now the Sherwood Forest development in south Charlotte. “Sam was a sweet, unassuming ... quiet man,” the report says. “He was blessed with an abundance of common sense and integrity.” He died in 1929.
The report, kept in the Carolina Room at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, also mentions that some of the oldest black Kirkpatrick family members are likely buried at Sardis Presbyterian Church, where De’s ancestor Hugh Kirkpatrick once attended.
It’s been a year since De and Jimmie Lee have traded research and theories about the 1850s and ’60s on the Kirkpatrick Plantation. They say their opinions on race and inequity have been enhanced by what they have learned.
In January, Jimmie Lee came home to Charlotte and he and De spent two days together that they will never forget: one, at Myers Park High where they met almost 50 years ago; the other walking through a cemetery searching for Kirkpatricks.
Researcher Maria David and reporter Helen Schwab contributed.