With Ancestry’s current focus on the African-American records they have in their collections, I’ve been taking another look through what is available. Tonight, I thought I would look and search through some of the Works Progress Administration’s Slave Narratives. The full-text of the slave narratives are also available on the Library of Congress (LOC) website.
I found a slave narrative as told by a woman named Adaline Johnson. She was born near Jackson, Mississippi, but her mother was born in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. They were slaves of the Battle family – Jim, Joe, Hue, and Marmaduke Battle are mentioned. I’ve been keen to start tracing the Battle family tree, as I believe my 3rd great-grandmother’s parents were Della Battle & Allen Wimberly, and Della was a slave on the Battle plantation in Edgecombe County. Adaline mentions in her narrative that the Battles owned three plantations full of slaves (which I have learned on my own from census records), and were in Tarboro & Rocky Mount in that county.
Adaline’s accounts of the Battle men are mixed – some were kinder than others. What makes this slave narrative of particular interest to me is the description of the experience with the Battles. If I ever get around to writing any kind of “formal” document on the history on this branch of my family, this would help add some historical context to life as a slave on the Battle family plantations.
I also recognized something else in her narrative. She describes the happenings of a slave named Will (referred to as “Big Will”) who killed an overseer. Big Will was apparently a big and strong guy b/c he could “do as much as any two” other slaves and the family had for him a “big axe” and a “big hoe.” Well, the new overseer the Battle family had got into some kind of altercation with Big Will and Big Will killed the overseer. Marmaduke Battle had Will put in jail, but when his uncle, Jim Battle got back into town, he sold Big Will and Adaline reports that no one ever saw him again, but his family stayed and worked on the plantation. As I read this, I realized I had heard of this Will in an article I found about a year ago.
There were court proceedings for what happened and is reflected by the case North Carolina vs. Negro Will. An April 1920 article by George Gordon Battle from the Virginia Law Review goes into great detail about the case.
On January 22, 1834, Will killed the overseer, Richard Baxter. Another slave named Allen had gotten into an argument with Will about a hoe. Allen went and reported it to Baxter. Baxter went to go confront Will. They argued, but no one heard what was said. Will got mad and started to walk away and Baxter shot him in the back “the whole load lodged in the prisoner’s back, covering a space of twelve inches square”, but Will kept running and made it to the woods. Will was pursued by both Baxter and other slaves and in a scuffle with slaves and Baxter ended up wounding Baxter in the thigh, in addition to a puncture in his breast, a wound about four inches long and two inches deep on his right arm above his elbow. Among Baxter’s last words were a comment stating that he should have listened to his wife (who advised him not to get involved in the dispute between Will & Allen).
At trial, Will was found guilty of felony murder. But the case was appealed and taken to the NC Supreme Court as James Battle wanted the rights of his slaves protected and hired Bartholomew F. Moore for $1000 to lead the defense. The court found Will justified in resisting and defending himself and that what happened was not murder, but manslaughter. Gordon Battle states that the judge concedes,
“though with reluctance, the cruel rule of law that there is no limit of the authority of the master over the slave, so long as his life is spared. But the judge is determined that the law shall be so administered as to promote justice and not injustice, and so we see him invoke the principle that the master may so treat a slave, even though that treatment be not technically a crime, as to justify the slave in resisting the master even into death.”
The North Carolina Supreme Court would then go on to serve notice to all slaveholders in the state that while masters had the right to punish slaves “in order to maintain discipline,” slaves too had the right of self-defense if the punishment was exercised with unreasonable cruelty. These events happened three years after the Nat Turner uprising.
At the end of the article, George describes his relationship to the case. James Battle was his paternal grandfather, and one of the three presiding judges on the case, Joseph J. Daniel, was his maternal grandfather. George states that Will was sent to the a plantation in Mississippi (owned by Battle or Daniel – that is not clear), where Will killed another slave and was hung for that act. Will’s wife, Rose, came back to NC. Gordon remembers her often saying
“Will sho’ly had hard luck. He killed a white man in North Carolina and got off, and then was hung for killing a nigger in Mississippi.”
A slave narrative and a court case that intersect with my own family history.