There is no lens within our modern moral context to understand or condone the enslavement of fellow human beings that took place in the first 258 years of American history. It is a horror that has haunted the human experience and remains in practice even today. However, by reflecting on the historical context of enslavement in terms of its growth as an institution in this country and by examining those who practiced in the enslavement of their fellow man, insights might be gained to raise awareness of the role individuals held in maintaining the institution.
At the time of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, enslavement was legal in all thirteen original states. From that point forward, a national dialog began a process to roll back legalized slavery based on moral, social, legal, economic, and religious grounds. For citizens who lived in this reality, theirs was a world that was nuanced along a spectrum where our modern world has clarity to see right and wrong.
North Carolina’s statesman John Motley Morehead was among the most agile politicians in the American South during this period, serving two terms in the state’s legislature and two terms as Governor. In the context of enslavement, what nuances did Morehead reveal that might be useful in understanding this period of history of American history? Poignantly, what might these revelations tell us about the character of a statesman such as Governor John Motley Morehead?
Morehead was born on the 4th of July, 1796 in Pittsylvania County Virginia. At the age of two he became a citizen of North Carolina when his parents moved across the state line to Rockingham County. Morehead was born into an economic and social system of legalized slavery. In 1790, 31% of North Carolinians owned slaves. Between the years 1800-1860, slavery greatly expanded in the United States, especially in the Deep South. By 1860, a third of North Carolinians were African-American and most were enslaved.
However, not all of the North Carolina’s citizens were lock step in support of the institution. Due to the influence of Quakers and other abolitionists groups, Guilford County’s enslaved population was a relatively low 18.7% in 1860. Members of the Society of Friends populated western and southern Guilford County, and were a powerful voting constituency. Though the history of Quakers and slavery is complex, it is generally believed that they had enough influence in Guilford County to reduce the number of enslaved people through their testimony against the practice and their practice of assisting the enslaved to Free states.
As the enslaved population increased throughout NC, so did the un-ease with which many among the white population felt living in such an uncivil society. The result was to severely limit the activities and rights of all African American citizens, free and enslaved, and those who associated with them. The strictness of the laws passed to restrict citizens are exemplified by an 1826 that allowed no freed slaves to enter the state. An 1830 law allowed no one to teach enslaved people how to read or write. An 1835 law stripped free blacks of the right to vote (prior to this law NC was the only Southern state that allowed free blacks the right to vote), and free blacks were also denied the right to preach, to own a gun, to buy or sell liquor, or to attend public schools.
Within the context of this polarizing world, Morehead exhibited some deviations from the standard Southern script. His perspective might have been influenced by his mother, Obedience Motley, who told a heart-wrenching story related to African history that likely framed her son’s view on slavery. She spoke of her childhood nurse who cared for the family after the death of their mother. The nurse was named Rachel, and she “had been an African Princess, and, being sent one day to drive the birds from the rice fields, was suddenly kidnapped, a bag thrown over her head, and herself carried away captive and sold as a slave in America. She was faithful and kind and became a real mother to the ten children when left to her care. There was a boy also, from Africa, among the slaves, and they talked with each other in their language. He often said he would go back to his people, for whom he sighed. One morning he was found hanging to a tree in the yard and Rachel explained that he had gone to his own country. The children wept for him, and only Rachel, whom they loved devotedly, could console them. She had flowers tattooed on her breast for beauty.” Perhaps this story humanized Morehead’s perspective on enslavement, or inspired him to take action.
Morehead’s ideas might have also reflected those of his father, John Morehead, who’s grandson wrote “Our grandfather [John Morehead, Rockingham, N. C,] was a grand old man, far ahead of his age, hence his misfortunes. Slavery retarded the development of the country, and in vain he tried to accomplish what he saw was bound to be in the future. Had he lived north of the Mason and Dixon, he would have splendid success. The Moreheads got their intellect from him, and his moral nature was of the highest order.” John Motley Morehead, it appears, was not raised in a family that fully embraced slavery.
After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1817, Morehead practiced law in Wentworth, the county seat of Rockingham. In 1821 Morehead was elected to represent Rockingham County in the North Carolina House of Commons. He married Ann Eliza Lindsay of Greensborough, Guilford County in 1821, and the young couple took residence in that city. In 1826, Morehead was elected for the first of two terms as the Representative for Guilford County in the House of Commons. During his service to Guilford County, he worked with his Quaker constituency on legislation related to enslavement.
Examples of his work include a bill proposed on January 4, 1827, at the request of the Quakers, to provide emancipation of slaves under certain conditions. The bill was indefinitely postponed on Feb 8, 1827. Weeks later, on January 23, 1827, Morehead voted in favor of a bill to free two slaves. It lost by a vote of 79 to 41. Days later, on Jan 30, 1827, he fought a bill restricting entry of free slaves into NC. It lost by vote.
As Southern states began increasing the restriction and control all people of African heritage in the 1830s, the minority Quakers and abolitionists groups grew less capable of changing any laws regarding slavery. Morehead joined the Whig Party, a political brand that sought to promote economic and industrial growth in the country through tariffs, infrastructure, and education. Henry Clay, a Senator from Kentucky, consolidated the Whig Party in 1844, was a friend and political ally of Morehead. Clay is recognized for his involvement in the colonization of free African Americans in Liberia, Africa.
In the South, the Whig stance on slavery was ambiguous enough that in his first gubernatorial campaign, Morehead’s opponents sought to dissolve his political support by sharply criticizing his earlier work by stating in Raleigh’s The Standard newspaper June 3, 1840:
“This whig party, I repeat, do not and cannot entertain the jealousies they have affected on the subject of Slavery, and if they do, I boldly ask the people (even the whigs who are here present) how they came to nominate for Governor a gentleman whose whole legislative career is marked with opposition to the laws of North Carolina, on the subject of Slaves and Free negroes?”
Socially, Morehead had numerous friends and colleagues that likely had an influence on his perceptions on enslavement. One voice was likely that of George C. Mendenhall, a Guilford County attorney and politician who served with Morehead in representing Guilford County in the House of Commons and who spoke on behalf of the region’s Quaker population. Another voice was Eli Caruthers, a Guilford County Presbyterian minister who served in sister churches to Morehead’s First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro. Caruthers held interests in both ecclesiastical and historical topics, and published work in both fields. When Caruthers died in November of 1865 at the age of 71, he left behind an unpublished manuscript entitled American Slavery and the Immediate Duty of Southern Slaveholders that pondered “It is strange that a Christian and protestant people, who profess to value liberty above every other consideration on earth and to regard it as indispensable to the welfare of mankind should exhibit to the world such a legalized and systematized course of downright despotism.”
It is within this forum of voices that Morehead likely struggled in maintaining a mainstream pro-slavery political position that was in-line with a majority of North Carolina’s voters, and at the same time determining a relatively moderate position that spoke to his local constituency. His position was politically risky as it crossed severely with opinions held by his political opponents during the 1840 gubernatorial election. As stated by historian Konkle, statesmen such as Morehead “were liable to be between the hammer of the Abolitionist and the anvil of the large Slave-holders; those far away from slaves, but mad for their freedom, and those in the midst of a slave population, often larger than their own…” In spite of his nuanced views, he handily won the office of governor by securing 55% of the statewide vote.
In contrast to his political record, precious little documentation exists about Morehead’s personal narrative with enslaved people. His home in Greensborough, Blandwood was not a plantation, though it did have a number of gardens. Morehead held other interests that included a traditional plantation and manufacturing facilities in Rockingham County. At Blandwood, a cook named Hannah may have lived above the kitchen, and servants responsible for caring for small children may have lived in an upstairs bedroom. Others may have lived in two outbuildings referenced in the 1850 Slave Schedule (part of the Federal Census).
In 2015, papers discovered in the Guilford County Register of Deeds office recorded legal transactions of slave ownership. Nine transactions involve Morehead as a grantee or grantor between 1822 and 1826, and these records document some names, including Ann, Jane, Jacob, Valsey, Frank, Lewis, Esther, and George.
The 1850 “Slave Schedule of the US Census” lists 37 people under Morehead’s name in Guilford County. This included 14 men and 23 women, of which only 8 women and 9 men were over the age of eighteen. One of the women was one hundred years old. The predominance of children is a mystery, but they might have been tasked with working in the household and grounds due to a relatively light workload compared to agricultural or industrial labor, and they may have benefited from the availability of skilled medical care in Greensborough. Papers held at Blandwood include a doctor’s bill, dated May 3, 1858-July 23, 1859, which lists numerous visits of Dr. James K. Hall to the African Americans at Blandwood. The bill is addressed to Mrs. L. H. Walker (Letitia). The total cost is $51.00.
In Rockingham County, Morehead had 27 people listed in the 1850 Slave Schedule, including 12 women and 15 men. One historian states that Morehead’s “industrial holdings employed most of his slaves, and they were located at Spray in Rockingham County, and were thus not used in agriculture.” Furthermore, historian William Bushong reviewed the list of products supplied on the Agricultural Schedule of the 1860 census, it is evident that this acreage was utilized for raising livestock and cultivating cereal crops such as corn, wheat, and oats. Bushong states that “it is certain there was no plantation system involved because Morehead had only seventeen slaves in 1860.” Further research is needed on this topic.
In 1860, county “Slave Schedules” list 17 people under Morehead’s name, eight of these individuals were women and nine were men. Of the group, four of the women and six of the men were above the age of 18. The decrease in number of enslaved people is at odds with members of his social and economic peer group, who often grew their investment in enslaved people during the same period.
By the eve of the Civil War, the world Morehead had created in terms of improved education, transportation, manufacturing, and architecture was slipping closer to catastrophe. Hoping to avert the impending conflict by negotiation, Morehead represented North Carolina at the Washington “Peace Conference” in 1861. Discussions were not successful, and North Carolina seceded from the United States on May 20, 1861. He was elected as a delegate to the Confederate Provincial Congress and served until its work was completed in 1862.
Historian Samuel A. Ashe stated in 1905 that the Civil War caused Morehead to be reduced in fortune, but in a letter from his daughter Letitia Walker, learned that “Governor Morehead’s estate, however, was less involved than that of many others, because he owned comparatively fewer slaves. His wife had been reared near the New Garden Church, which was abolitionist in sentiment, and had always opposed her husband’s investing largely in slaves.” He died a year and four months after the close of War while taking in the healing waters of Rockbridge Alum Springs in Virginia on August 27, 1866.
After Emancipation, some people continued to work at Blandwood. Hannah Jones and a “freed man” (name illegible) are bequeathed small amounts of bedroom furniture in Mrs. Morehead’s 1868 will, and Hannah appears again in Eugene’s diary around 1870 where she was noted for cooking a delicious dinner of possum and chicken. Simian Morehead (worked on farm), and Hannah Jones (domestic servant), and Samuel Jones (shoe maker) remained residents of Blandwood with Eugene as recorded in the 1870 census. The couple might be Samuel Jones and Hannah Wiley who were married in Greensboro Oct 15 1861.
Overall, the narrative that Morehead presents on the subject of slavery does not mirror the standard rhetoric of upper-income land-owning southerners of which Morehead was a peer. His political record depicts a nuanced position that reflected initiatives of his Guilford County constituents to improve the overall condition of free and enslaved African Americans in the state. In contrast to this progressive position, documentation survives to show that he did practice in buying and selling human beings, though the population diminished by half from 1850 to 1860 to 17. The history of John Motley Morehead is complicated, and sometimes strays from established narratives of period biographies from other citizens in the American South. Research is ongoing to reveal more history among members of the extended family including enslaved and free people, as well as the pursuits of Abolition here in Greensboro and Guilford County.
Special thanks to contributors to this article, including Reneé Donnell, Education Specialist with Preservation Greensboro, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Jeff Thigpen Guilford County Register of Deeds