In Greensboro and Guilford County during the nineteenth century, the Mitchell and Dean families contributed themes of influence and agency as free people of color within the context of legalized slavery and disenfranchisement. Working from their positions within the building industry – specifically brick making and masonry — male family members found their voice through artisanry, politics, and religion that exceeded traditional abilities of many Black and mixed-race citizens in the community at the time.
Zephaniah L. Mitchell (1806-1881) was a native of Caswell County. He appeared in public documents in Guilford County with his November 16th, 1835 acquisition of “a Certain lot or parcel of Land lying on the East Side of the Town of Greensborough” south of the Hillsborough stage road” from innkeeper Christopher Moring for $64. Just over a year later Mitchell is recorded selling the same 140’x64’ parcel on December 26, 1836 to James Denny for $250. The increase of land value may indicate property improvements or a new residence, perhaps a speculative investment venture for Mitchell.
On January 26, 1839, Mitchell acquired another parcel of land lying on the north side of “the Stage Road leading to Hillsboro” containing six acres “and all Houses, Orchards and appurtenances whatsoever to the said premises” from Greensboro powerbroker Jed H. Lindsay for $175. In 1844 he added 3 acres to the east of his homestead through a second purchase from Lindsay. This acquisition might have been the nucleus of the family’s holdings along the Hillsborough Stage Road, known today as East Market Street.
It was likely around 1830 that Mitchell married an Orange County native named Elizabeth and nicknamed “Bettie.” The couple took residence in Greensboro and were recorded in the Federal Census of 1840 in Guilford County as “Free Colored Person[s].” Under Mitchell’s household was recorded a female (presumed Bettie) that was between the ages of 24-35, and a younger free female under the age of 10 (presumed to be daughter Lucinda, born November 1834). Mitchell was employed within the broad category of “Manufacturers and trades.”
By the time of the 1850 Federal Census. Mitchell was more specifically recognized as a brick layer. He also owned $500 of real estate. The Mitchell’s daughter, Lucinda, was by then 16 years old and lived with her parents. A seven-year-old boy named Abner also lived with the family.
Across North Carolina and the South, Black citizens sometimes found agency and autonomy in their role as brick masons. Before and after emancipation, enslaved and freed Black men could rely on demand for their special trade skills to assure employment and safety among powerbrokers in the community. Without the skilled labor of Black workers, construction projects and community investments would be slowed or halted.
As a brick mason, Mitchell likely found steady work in the growing county seat of Greensboro. He might have interacted with resident brick mason David McKnight. Brick structures of the 1840s and 1850s in Greensboro were not uncommon, though few examples remain standing today. It is likely he earned commissions by building brick foundations and chimneys for frame houses that were widely erected throughout the growing town. Among the brick structures, most prominent examples include the Caldwell Institute (constructed around 1837), the Edgeworth Female Academy (constructed 1839), and Greensboro Female College (constructed 1843). Residences included Blandwood (1844-46) and the Bumpass-Troy House (1847). No documentation exists to tie Mitchell to any commissions.
On September 30, 1857, the Mitchell’s daughter, Lucinda, married James Monroe Dean of Randolph County. Like Lucinda, Dean was also a free person of color before the Emancipation Act of 1863.
The Mitchells were counted in the 1860 Guilford County Federal Census when Mitchell was again identified as a mason. His real estate holding swelled to a value of $1000 and his personal estate was $150. Lucinda and James lived next door.
After the close of the Civil War in 1865, Mitchell was 65 years old and had a respected reputation throughout the county as a successful builder. As a member of the Republican Party, he was well-positioned to benefit from the rise of the party in North Carolina in the early years of Reconstruction. In 1867, the Reconstruction Act outlined conditions for readmission of former Confederate states to the United States. Each state had to write a new constitution that was to be approved by a majority of voters – including African American men – and required ratification of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. After meeting these terms related to the rights of African Americans and their property, the former Confederate states could regain full recognition and representation in Congress. The act became law on March 2, 1867.
Mitchell’s growing political influence was documented at a gathering of county Republicans in February 1868, in which it was resolved “that we appoint Rev. G. W. Welker, Capt. A. W. Tourgee, Jno. B. Gluyas and Zepheniah Mitchell, to represent this County in the State Convention, to be held in Raleigh, on the 26th inst., either in person or by proxy.” This gathering formulated the Republican platform in which to write the new state constitution for North Carolina.
Among these representatives, Rev. George William Welker was a Pennsylvania-born German Reformed Church minister based in eastern Guilford County; Albion Tourgée was an Ohio-born lawyer who was highly influential as an advocate for equitable rights; and John Gluyas was a Cornish-born gold miner and member of Deep River Friends Meeting. Mitchell attended the conference in Raleigh in unity with these progressives advocating for equal rights by adding his voice as the only person of color among the representatives.
With ratification of a newly written state constitution in April 1868, a page was turned in North Carolina’s history. The new constitution abolished slavery, provided for universal male suffrage, and it eliminated property and religious qualifications for voting and holding office. With the Tuesday, April 21st election, for the first time, county officers were to be elected by a broader and more representative section of citizens, for the most part including all voting age males. Among those on the ballot was Zephaniah Mitchell, who ran for the office of Guilford County Commissioner on the Republican ticket.
According to the April 30, 1868 Greensboro Times newspaper, Guilford County had 1,089 registered Black voters and 2,690 White voters in 1867. With an alliance of Republican Black and White voters, the Republicans were able to accomplish an impressive victory over Democrats.
Election results startled conservatives. “The radicals have carried the State by from fifteen to twenty thousand” announced The Patriot newspaper of Greensboro. Among those elected was Mitchell, who earned the fifth highest number of votes (1,526) to win a position on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners. This was nearly two years before the 15th Amendment ratified the right of male citizens of the United States to vote regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude in the United States Constitution in 1870.
The new class of County Commissioners met for the first time in July, and chair William Mebane certified the election results, including Mitchell, the first Black man to be elected to serve as a commissioner in Guilford County. His certification stated:
I William M. Mebane of the Board of Commissions of Guilford County do hereby certify that Zephiniah Mitchell Commissioner in and for the County of Guilford and state afor said was duly qualified before me on the 27th day of July A.D. 1868 by taking the oath of office required in article 6 section 4 of the Constitution of said state.
Mitchell served his full two-year term, but not without antagonism. Apparently, he took his new position seriously and sidelined his business priorities to his responsibilities as an elected commissioner. The partisan Democrat newspaper saw this as an opportunity to taunt Mitchell and another unidentified commissioner.
“We hope Gov. Holden will issue an order, at once,” wrote the editors of The Patriot newspaper in July 1868, “fully defining the duties of the several officers elected under the new constitution, and, also, state whether it would be prudent for those having trades to continue to work at them. We mention this because we learn one of the newly elect [Zephaniah Mitchell] of this county [Guilford] refused to contract for a job of work for fear he might be needed officially before he could finish the work. One of our new commissioners is a good brick-mason and we suggest he be granted a week’s leave of absence, in order to enable him to build a chimney for a brother commissioner, who has lived for several years in a house without this useful appendage.”
The conservative views of The Patriot newspaper were a shift from its earlier partisan Whig voice. With the close of the Civil War the newspaper adopted a partisan Democrat voice. Simultaneously, the rise of the Republican Party in Guilford County led to the establishment of alternative press, The Republican and Greensboro North State newspapers, as early as 1870.
Partisans saw Mitchell as a Republican leader and identified his name in which to provoke party divisions. “Oh! Zephaniah call upon your colored friends to administer consolation to your late associates for they need it” stated The Patriot on 23 June 1870, when referencing a Republican party purge that took place among county officials. Although Mitchell did run for re-election in subsequent elections of 1870 and 1872, he was labeled a “Radical Republican” by The Patriot newspaper and never again won enough votes to rise within the top five elected.
Upon losing the August 1870 election, Democrats made an example of Mitchell as a warning to other Black men with political aspirations:
“Zeph Mitchell is a colored man of reverened years” stated the conservative Greensboro Patriot newspaper after the election of 1870. “He is somewhat of a politician, and a man of some influence among his people. He was the only colored candidate on the Radical [Republican] ticket, having been put on out of policy for the place of Commissioner.” The Patriot continued “They had promised to support him…but they betrayed him and in their treatment of him showed their treachery…” Then the editorial warned “This is a lesson to sensible colored men not to permit themselves to be tools of by designing white men any longer…we commend it to the attention of sensible colored men, and advise them to remember it in the future when some mouthing white Radical talks to them of political equality.”
In spite of political turbulence, Mitchell continued active work in the community. In 1871, Mitchell agreed to sell a one-half acre lot “twenty feet from the line of the North Carolina Rail Road” to the trustees of the Second Baptist Church of Greensboro. The transaction was made for $100 and executed in March 1875. Congregants may have been welcomed by Mitchell to worship on the land before purchase, as oral history references a simple frame arbor was used before any church was constructed. Church tradition states a one room frame sanctuary was erected in 1871, and that five years later, a brick sanctuary was built.
In the August 1872 election cycle, the Democrat and right-leaning The Patriot grew more racist and divisive, claiming “The love the Radicals [Republicans] have for the negroes is evinced by the vote that Zeph Mitchell got Thursday. White Radicals couldn’t go a black commissioner very well and the consequence was Zeph was 150 [votes] behind his ticket. And yet the poor simpletons can’t see it.”
Little is known of the Mitchells through the remainder of their lives. The 1880 Federal Census found “Zeph” Mitchell without his wife Bettie named in the household, indicating her death. His profession remained as a brick mason. Peggy Roland was a “friend and nurse” in the household, alongside his cousin Lambert Albright and another boarder named Jennie Myers. His daughter, Lucinda, lived with her family next door.
Mitchell died in June 1881. His gravesite is unknown. His death occurred a few years before Greensboro’s earliest African American burial ground, Union Cemetery, was established. It is possible he was interred alongside his wife adjacent to Providence Baptist Church of which they were both members.
His estate included four and half acres of land to his daughter Lucinda and her children and a small plot for his friend and caregiver Peggy Roland, all located on the Hillsborough Stage Road, today known as East Market Street.
His obituary focused on just one of his life achievements. “Zephaniah Mitchell, an old and respectable colored man, died in this place on Tuesday night. He was well-known and highly thought of by all classes of our citizens, and was the first, if not the only, colored man who was ever elected to any office in Guilford county, he having been elected as one of the County Commissioners, by popular vote, and held the position for two years, with credit to himself and his race” stated the Republican and left-leaning Greensboro North State newspaper on 16 June 1881. “He was about 80 years old.”
Zephaniah L. Mitchell and his son-in-law James Monroe Dean who is profiled in part two are representative of broader themes in Black history. As free citizens, they made their living in highly skilled trades such as making brick, masonry, and hand crafting shoes. Leveraging their roles in the community during Reconstruction, they aligned with the Republican party to make early gains in broader representation and social equity before being pushed out of power by Democrats with the resurgence of white conservatives the 1870s. Both Mitchell and Dean held influential roles in the rise of Black-centered religion and Dean held an important – though temporary – role on education. Both men maintained a degree of agency of their lives and worked to extend that empowerment to others in Greensboro’s Black community.
Though no known structures exist in which to honor their lives, institutions and places remain as echoes of their influence and contributions to the community.
Written by Benjamin Briggs
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