Sunday, November 16, 2014

Historic Louisburg - An Article

Wow. I just finished reading this lengthy, well-written essay on the history of Louisburg, the town of my ancestors; and I must say, it's left me feeling "some kind of way".  When I first began reading the article, I was grateful to be learning more about the houses and properties on the "other side of the bridge", as I'd grown up knowing the "historic" part of Louisburg to be. As a child, visiting my grandmother on South Main Street, I was forbidden to ever travel across that bridge in my wanderings.  The one time I did, I got my behind tore up when I got back to the house, since Ms. Wilhelmina, and some of the other townsfolk, had already notified my grandmother, aunt, and uncle that they'd seen me coming back across the bridge. (I even got the privilege of picking the switch off the tree!) I didn't understand then, what I know now, about why they didn't want me to cross the bridge. They were trying to protect me, and to keep me safe and innocent. But, I didn't know that....

Anyway, I still find myself curious about the other side of the bridge when I come to town.  Yes, the historic district holds the Franklin County Courthouse, as well as the Register of Deeds - both crucial to the work I've done in my genealogy research.  But, the homes on the north side of the bridge incite in me a special intrigue, and not only because of my love and fascination for old and unusual architecture, but also because it was in some of these homes that my sweet grandmother, Annie YARBOROUGH, labored and, dare I say loved, as "the help". Not only that, but thanks to my years of research, I must also acknowledge that others of my ancestors were amongst those considered to be the town's "most prominent citizens", thus making them, and their peers the owners of many of the very properties mentioned in this article.

As I began to read the essay, I was frst filled with excitement. After all, when I drive through the neighborhoods mentioned - Noble St., Church St., N. Main Street, etc., I never dare to stop and ask anyone any questions about the homes, even though I always wonder, "Could this one be where my gg-grandfather, Nathaniel Hawkins lived?" "Is this the block that was owned by my 3rd great-grandmother, Jacobina Sherrod Hawkins?"  "I wonder exactly where my great-grandfather, Calvin's, last owner, James H. Yarborough lived with his wife, Arete?"  The questions in my mind are never-ending.  It seemed that, armed with a print-out of this article, I'd be able to ride through the neighborhoods and identify many of the very homes I've been wondering about, and more.  However, about halfway through the piece, I began to get irritated.  This article was walking me step-by-step through the building and development of the town of Louisburg, and there had not been one single mention of African-Americans, although people of color had, during the time of the county's development, outnumbered the population of whites.  As the article mentioned over and over again how these prominent folks "built" these beautiful properties, not one word was lent to acknowledge the enslaved laborers, who most certainly did much, if not all of the work, since all of the property owners were slaveholders.  There was no menton, even, of James Boon, a free person of color, who not only owned and operated his own carpentry business, but was a Louisburg property owner, too. Not a word about John H. Williamson, a freedman who represented Franklin County in the NC Legislature for six terms (and who was a friend and contemporary of my great-grandfather's). As a matter of fact, there was only one mention in the entire 5,671 word article of any persons of color, and that didn't occur until after the 4700th word, when the author stated this:   "There were other contractors active in Louisburg but unfortunately records of their work are scarce. The 1900 Census lists Houck as the only house contractor and nine carpenters six of whom were black. These carpenters, such as Perry Williams who helped construct the Alston House (107 South Elm Street, 1902-1905), worked under the supervision of builders such as Houck."  I won't go into the fact that James Boon's papers are housed at the NC State Archives, but by "scarce" records, I assume that means no one looked for them.

Anyway, I realize that I'm kind of on a rant here, but reading this article has just brought to the surface much of the frustration I've felt as a researcher with roots in Louisburg. The truth is, this city was a Confederate stronghold, as alluded to by one of it's citizens at the end of the Civil War, when she wrote in her diary of a group of Union soldiers, "but here they are still...encamped in our beautiful college groves, which have always been the pride of the Village, and consecrated to learning-now polluted by the tread of our vindictive foe."

Although I've met and befriended many of Louisburg's wonderful current-day citizens, I definitely have felt constrained in my efforts to uncover truths about my ancestors of color, and their lives in this sweet little town. I don't hold anyone living today accountable for the choices and/or actions of their (our) ancestors, but I do ask that we honor them all, by doing the work it takes to tell the whole stories of their lives, and of the building of the town that we all hold so dear.

My grandma, Anna Green Yarborough, on "the bridge".