(Undated photo of African-American boys taken during enslavement or at time of emancipation, owned by Keya Morgan)
A recently purchased photograph of two African-American boys allegedly taken around the time of slave emancipation in this country has captured the attention of many this past week. The photo is claimed to be an original associated with the famous Matthew Brady, and because it was bought in conjunction with an 1854 deed of sale of a slave named John, most people (including the purchaser) believe one of the boys in the photo is John.
But even a rudimentary knowledge of slavery in this country combined with a thorough examination of the two artifacts makes it clear, neither of these boys are the John of the deed. The purchaser, Keya Morgan, seems to find most value in the alleged rarity of this type of photograph, its Brady provenance, and the link to the deed, which he says is borne out by a label on the album sleeve with "John" on it.
I agree photographs of humans during their enslavement in this country are rare, and portraits of slave children are rarer still. Virtually impossible to find are photos of slaves where they are named in any meaningful fashion. I think we instinctively grasp the significance of being able to put a name to one of these boys. We want it to be less dehumanizing that it actually is.
The Brady provenance is being seriously challenged, especially in this article by Kate Marcus. Sugar cane plantations such as appear to be shown in this photo are extremely rare in North Carolina. In particular, they do not exist in the "piney woods" regions of North Carolina which are firmly identified by the bill of sale for John. It is also true that Brady the photographer paid little attention to slaves; he was much more focused on war scenes or famous white men. The argument that this looks much more like the work of J.N. Wilson seems a good one to me, at least from this distance. I am cynical that Mr. Morgan's defense of his Brady label is primarily monetary rather than historical, and I fear if this turns out to be a Wilson photograph, the purchaser's interest in its implicit story will wane.
But when I read about these two items, I was seized with the desire to put names to the people involved, and hopefully their stories. The evil of slavery is not just theft of all labor and personal autonomy for a lifetime, it is theft of people's real names and family histories.
In the photograph, two boys are seated on a board which has been placed atop a barrel, probably with another barrel to the left creating a kind of counter. This implies an outdoor workspace, possibly an outdoor kitchen or preparation area. The vegetation behind the boys has been identified as sugar cane, which means this may well be a cane processing area.
So, these boys are in a work zone, and despite their young age, it is clear they are being worked already. They are dressed in cast-off men's clothing which has been cut down for them, ragged and ill-fitting. The hats they wear are shapeless. They are barefoot. On close examination, the boy on the right can be seen to have a woven strand of some sort around his left ankle, possibly adornment, spiritual or medicinal.
They look to be between 10 and 6. From the shape of their jaws and mouths, the bones of their forehead, and skin tone, they could easily be brothers.
They sit in easy proximity to each other but not looking at each other. Significantly, they have both tucked their hands neatly into each other and between their legs. They neither take up extra space nor evince the bodily curiosity and grabbiness common to children. I think this is particularly contradictory to boys who are already working outdoors for a living -- except these are not free boys. These are boys kept under pathological control by white people who fear them and want those hands locked down.
Their gaze is direct into the lens, with what might be described as a "straight face" common to the long exposure requirements of that era's photography. Except: Their misery, anger, and distrust is etched into every feature of their still faces. The reality of their situation is plainly evident, it leaps out at us 150 years later, and it has caught our attention.
While portraits of slaves are rare, this expression and revelation in similar pictures is not. It is present in every photograph I've seen from this era, though even more naked and painful in children. I believe human beings cannot help showing it when they are wretched, and it was part of the nonstop resistance to slavery which African-Americans intelligently employed to insert what reality they could into their lives. They showed the whites around them that what was going on was wrong, it hurt them every moment, and it is deeply offensive to believe otherwise. Yes, humans with a strong capacity for survival will find goodness in any existence, occasionally even joy, and if they are forced to wear a mask of lightheartedness or complaisance to avoid violence, some will do so. But not convincingly, not to anyone who steps away from the vicious dissociation inherent in white supremacist conditioning.
From my years of working with women who are survivors of child abuse, I take it as a rule of thumb that those wretched children revealed what was going on in at least one family photograph. It takes work to ignore what is being demonstrated, that plea for intervention. It takes a lifetime of conditioning and the relentless grind of a system built on not noticing. Racist conditioning begins when we are helpless children. It is up to us as adults, however, to comprehend the moment when we have left childhood behind and can use adult power to tell our parents, our community, our nation the evil they are handing on.
The value in this photograph is not who took it. The value is in those human faces challenging us across time.
The family which kept this photograph safe for 150 years (who are not identified in news accounts) saved it in association with the 1854 deed of sale for a man named John. The article implies the family believed both items are related to one of their ancestors. In fact, in its own way, the deed is as revelatory as the photograph, though I am not certain the two are temporally related.
This standard-form slave sale deed is executed in Brunswick County, NC on 26 January 1854 and transfers ownership of a slave named John from Miles Potter, administrator of Geo. W. Potter, deceased, of Brunswick Co. to Allen & J.R. Grist of New Hanover Co., NC for the sum of $1150. No identifying information about John is given aside from his name. (Note: New Hanover County is adjacent to Brunswick County, NC.)
We can know immediately from this that John is a grown man, because in 1860 (when price had gone up slightly) the average price of a slave was $450. This deed's price of $1150 reflects John's value as a seasoned adult male. Even if the photo was taken at the outset of the Civil War, seven years later, neither of those boys are the slave named John.
Further research has revealed that a petition from Brunswick County, NC which reports "Miles Potter, administrator of the estate of George W. Potter, seeks to sell John, a twenty-seven or twenty-eight-year-old slave belonging to the estate. Potter states that it is necessary to sell John in order to settle outstanding debts." Miles Potter was the father of George W. Potter.
A pedigree listing the descendants of Robert Potter in Brunswick Co., NC, turns up Miles Potter III, born 9 November 1784 and died 20 April 1857 in Brunswick Co, NC. He was the son of Miles Potter Jr. and Hannah Leonard. He married Mary Jane Evans, who died 6 December 1837 in Brunswick Co., NC. Before dying, she gave birth to four children, George Washington Potter, William Thomas Potter, Margaret Ann Winn Potter, and Frances Whitfield Potter.
George Washington Potter was born 10 April 1820 and died 1 August 1853, both in Brunswick Co. NC. This is the Geo. W. Potter of the slave sale deed. Dying at age 33, his estate was administered by his father Miles Potter III for George's widow Amelia and young children.
Thus, in 1854, John was sold from the Potter family farm after the death of his owner. He had been born circa 1826, and I went looking for records of his prior existence, which under slavery would only be property and tax-related items, nothing with his name on it.
The 1850 census for Town Creek District of Brunswick Co., NC shows George W. Potter, age 30, living with wife Amelia and two infant daughters Mary and Sarah. His occupation is give as farmer with value of real estate owned as $3000 (this amount does not reflect the value of slaves owned). The slave schedule for that census shows Geo. W. Potter owned seven slaves who are listed only by age, gender, and color:
The 24-year-old man on this list fits the age John would have been in 1850. It seems likely that part of a family group is also shown on this list. If John was the child of the older couple here, he was sold away from them in 1854.
Going back another decade, when John would have been 14, the 1840 census for Brunswick Co., NC shows a listing for Miles Potter (the same Miles Potter of the slave deed) with the following in residence and my guesses as to the names of the white household members who are not in fact named on this census aside from head of household:
1 white male 10-15 (Frances W.), 1 white male 15-20 (William T.), 1 white male 20-30 (George W.), 1 white male 50-60 (Miles III)
[NO WHITE FEMALES IN HOUSEHOLD]
2 slave males under age 10, 4 slave males 10-24, 5 slave males 24-36
2 slave females under age 10, 1 slave female 10-24, 2 slave females 24-36
This is a total of 16 slaves, all presumably owned by Miles Potter and some of whom may have been given or sold to his son George when George married and began farming separately. There is on this list a male slave the right age to be John.
Leapfrogging back to the 1830 census for Brunswick Co., NC, the entry for Miles Potter:
Free White Males -- 1 under age 5, 1 age 5-9, 1 age 10-14, 1 age 40-49
Free White Females -- 1 under age 5, 1 age 15-19, 1 age 20-29
Male Slaves -- 2 under age 10 (one could be John), 1 male 10-23, 1 male 36-54, 1 male 55-99
Female Slaves -- 2 age 10-23
Thus, it's possible that the above shows the only records ever made about John during his childhood and young adulthood. It is hard to work around the brutality revealed by this kind of record-keeping. If John was born and grew up on the Potter plantation in Brunswick County, his separation in 1854 must have been devastating. Regardless, he was plunged from one particular kind of slavery into another.
John was sold to a business, A & J.R. Grist, a father and son "Turpentine Farm" business headquartered in Washington, Beaufort Co., NC. At the time of John's sale, Allen Grist (the father) lived in Beaufort Co. but James Reading Grist (the son) lived in Brunswick Co. and also tended to Grist business in New Hanover Co., NC. A biography of James Reading Grist states "In 1843, he formed with his father the firm of A. & J.R. Grist, purchased 6,000 acres of pine land in Brunswick County, and moved there to develop a major turpentine plantation with slave labor. The firm also operated a store and a turpentine distillery." John could have been sent to work in one of three counties producing "naval stores" for the Grists, turpentine, pitch, rosin, and tar.
During the antebellum period, the counties in North Carolina where John was enslaved were uniquely important in providing America's naval stores. Percival Perry's article 'The Naval-Stores Industry in the Old South, 1790-1860" claims by the end of the colonial period, these "piney woods" counties were providing 3/5 of all naval stores used in America, effectively fueling the U.S. Navy and shipping industry. At first this was small farmers on a local scale, but by the 1830s, white men with capital like the Grists bought land and slaves to produce naval stores on a major level, ending the decline in North Carolina's economy and population.
Vast tracts of Southern long-leaf pine were destroyed in a couple of decades to produce wealth and that century's version of oil. "Turpentine was obtained from the living tree by wounding the tree and collecting the resin in a cup cut in the base of the trunk. Spirits of turpentine and rosin were obtained by distilling the crude resin in the same manner in which whiskey was distilled. Tar was made from lightwood, which was the heart of the dead pine. Fragments of dead trees were gathered, made into a kiln covered with earth, and subjected to a slow fire which forced out the resinous matter. Pitch was a concentration of tar." Almost all this labor was done by slaves.
"The federal census of 1840 reported a total production of 619,106 barrels of naval stores in the United States, of which North Carolina produced 593,451." The industry continued to expand rapidly, exporting to England as well as supplying the U.S. Allen Grist in Beaufort County supported his son James' business expansion into Brunswick County in the early 1850s. and this is what resulted in John's sale by the Potters.
Except there is almost certainly more to the story than that. In 1850, George Potter owned 7 slaves on what was likely a mixed use farm in the Town Creek region. Three years later George died and his father administers his estate because the sexism of the times precluded Amelia from assuming this job related to her own future. However, Miles Potter asked to sell only one of those slaves, John. Presumably the rest remained on Potter land. The question to be answered is "Why John?"
There were other male slaves, age 18 and 34, who would presumably have met the Grist criteria for turpentine workers -- young, strong, and male. But only John was separated out, and for a very high selling price. It is possible that Miles Potter made his decision strictly on a monetary basis. I think that would be a faulty asumption, both because there were equal numbers of slaves and free whites on that farm -- these people knew each other on a daily basis and relationships develop somewhere in that kind of intimacy, exploitative as it was -- and because the African-Americans left behind would have been wrenched by John's exile. There were emotional consequences felt somewhere with John's sale, and they would not have been static.
So it must be considered that John was sold away for other reasons besides a "good price" and needing to provide for a widow. On the 1840 census, the Potter household was all white males, three of them adults or late teens, and slaves, three of whom were females adolescent through 36. That sort of configuration always raises a red flag for me. White male rape of African-American women is more common than not. And the men doing the raping would almost always be in the owning family.
So perhaps John's presence upset George Potter's widow, or reminded Miles Potter of his own behavior. Or perhaps John was more resistant than the other slaves. His sale price indicates he was skilled, possibly already possessing distilling skills from small-scale turpentine extraction on the Potter farm -- it's safe to assume they engaged in it there, give the geography and income it offered.
Working in the large-scale turpentine industry, however, was substantially different from almost all other agricultural slave labor. Plantations which grew cotton, indigo, rice or sugar cane used the gang system, which is basically assembly line labor: Repetitive tasks done by multiple individuals with constant or frequent supervision by an overseer. It's tedious, exhausting, exposed to the sun, and subject to continual, often arbitrary white abuse.
Turpentine work in forests did not use this gang system. Gloria Vollmers in her article "Industrial slavery in the United States: the North Carolina turpentine industry 1849-61" states "The nature of the work, which covered thousands of acres of forestland, led to the use of a task system whereby each slave was assigned a large tract of forest that was worked with little supervision over several months." John entered a working life with a great deal more autonomy and no "slave cabin" family life at the end of the day. Slaves were encouraged to take on diverse additonal jobs and were often paid a small wage. The work was just as difficult, and distilling was dangerous, but John would have had relief from baking in the fields, white overseers, and the chance to save money. This was no compensation for losing his family, but it was not that worst of all fates for a slave, "being sold down the river." His future was marginally more secure with this change.
The fact that the family who sold the photo and deed of sale, and who claim descent from John, still live in North Carolina speaks to the likelihood that John stayed in his home state until emancipation. There's every reason to assume John made the most of his altered circumstances.
Before the Civil War started, James Grist moved back to his father's town in Beaufort County. On the 1860 census, James Grist had $44,000 in real estate and $125,750 in personal estate, the latter of which would include slaves. This was a considerable enterprise for that time. Allen Grist in 1860 has real estate of $50,000 and personal estate of $92,900, including 109 slaves of his own, making him the largest slaveowner in Beaufort County. Allen Grist also controlled 48 slaves from his sister's estate. And their business, "A.J.R. Grist", is listed on the 1860 federal census slave schedule as owning 72 slaves, ranging in age from 2 to 40. Most of these people appear to be male workers between 20 and 30-something. The only adult female is the 40-year-old; only 6 are below the age of 12; and there are no elders, which is extremely atypical for a large group of slaves, verifying that family life must have existed outside the turpentine farm. Between the Grists father and son plus the turpentine business, these men owned or managed 313 slaves. Allen Grist's biography states the company also leased slaves from other owners. The slave schedule for 1860 again lists no names, only age, gender and color. Trying to trace an individual male slave from the Potters to the Grists with this data is not possible.
And here we come to the salient point of the deed, the fact which struck me immediately as more pertinent than anything else: Where did John (or his family) obtain this deed? It is not a piece of paper which would ever have been shown to John, and it would not have logically been handed to him at emancipation since it was now, from the white point of view, worthless. It would have been one of hundreds of business papers stashed in an office.
But someone knew enough to go get that deed from the county records. Out of hundreds of sales taking place at the same time, and with a name so common that there could have been more than a dozen "John"s being sold, someone knew how to locate that particular deed: The point when John's life permanently altered.
If John went to request the deed at the Brunswick County courthouse himself, an illiterate black man trying to prove his history during Reconstruction in North Carolina, he was extremely brave and resourceful. If it was not him who tracked down the piece of paper, it was a family member later on who had been told the significance of the event. Either way, it's a singular story, and gives us another glimpse of who John was. If the photograph of the two boys turns out to originate in Savannah and thus has no connection to John, I can still imagine him seeing something familiar enough in it to have saved it for what it is, iconic proof of what he lived through.
And short of John's family breaking silence, I have one more chance to give him a name and story here. If he survived to 1870, he will appear on that year's federal census as a free, named citizen for the first time.
I began by looking for black men named John Potter or John Grist on the 1870 NC census. There were none who could be him, and it was a remote chance, anyhow. It made no sense to me that he'd take the Grist name, and I could imagine him rejecting Potter as well. Emancipated slaves did what they could to reconstruct their families and personal narratives, and surname choice was often an empowering part of that process. It is usually white delusion that makes us think they'd select the name of someone who kept them in servitude and destroyed their family unit. It did seem reasonable that he would have retained the first name of John, since he presumably had held it most of his life and it is not of the ilk which immediately harked of slavery, like Pompey or Prince.
I set out to search the three NC counties where John might have been after emancipation for a man with his first name and the same approximate age. What I know from past African-American genealogy research is that former slaves often don't know their precise age, or even if they do, they will nevertheless agree with whatever the white male census-taker guesses about them. In 1870, you still don't contradict white people, especially those in authority. Combine that with illiteracy and the overt racism of census-takers in how they recorded information, and you have to leave wide margins in search parameters to not miss actual human beings.
If we assume he stayed in Beaufort Co., NC, where he may have started a family, a search of the 1870 census in this county for all black men born between 1826 and 1830 turns up:
- John Allen, age 40, b. NC, working on farm, with wife Matilda (24) and son James (3) [Chocowinity Township, p. 41]
- John Allen, age 40, b. NC, farm laborer, with wife Elva (30) and daughter Sarah (2) [Long Acre Township, p. 24]. Also in household, relationship not clear. are Mary Grist, age 48, b. NC, "keeping house" with her children Samuel (15) and Charles (7); Susan Marshall, age 19, b. NC, farm laborer; Harvey Dimmock, age 45, b. NC, farm laborer, with wife Sallie (50) and son Mack (18)
- John Bryan, age 40, b. NC, farmer, with possible wife Hattie Bryan (30) and presumed kin James Bryan (24) [Washington Township, p. 36]
- John Burbank, age 42, b. NC, farmer, with grown son John (age 22) and two presumed grandchildren, James (5) and Martha (1) [Bath Township, p. 19]
- John Cradle, age 40, b. NC, farmer, with wife Minnie (35) and daughters Fortune (18) and Fanny (13) [Richland Township, p. 29]
- John Kees, age 40, b. NC, farm laborer, with wife Nancy (45) and children Mary (13), Barrow (10), William (4) and John (4 mos) [Richland Township, p. 33]
- John Peaton, age 40, b. NC, distiller, with presumed mother Mary Peaton (70, b. NC); also in household are Pheoby (sic) Crawford (40, b. NC) with presumed sons John (14) and William (11) Crawford [Washington Township, p. 28]
- John Rue, age 45, b. NC, farm laborer, with presumed wife Julia (27) and children Eveline (11), Ernest (10), William (2) and Luke (2) [Bath Township, p. 18]
- John Walker. age 40, b. NC, works on farm of Israel Jordan (50 , possibly father-in-law), with wife Rachel (28) and children Matilda (9), John (6), Caroline (5), Laura (4), and Hattie (8 mos) [Pantego Township, p. 25]
- John Winfield, age 40, b. NC, farm laborer, no one else in household [Long Acre Township, p. 26]
John Cooper, age 40, b. NC, farmer, with presumed wife Julia (40), possible sisters Faraby (35) and Martha (20) Cooper, [Smithville Township, p. 5]
Lastly, if John had been sent to New Hanover Co., NC, he might have returned there after emancipation. However, the Grist enterprises were ended in New Hanover Co. prior to 1865. John would probably have felt closer ties to either the geography of his upbringing or where he found himself at the point of emancipation. There are 41 black men named John in New Hanover Co. in 1870, but for now I remain focused on those from more likely locations, the other two counties.
This large number of former slaves named John, however -- at least 52 in three counties who are of an age to have been John of the sale deed -- reinforces how specific the later search for John's deed had to be.
And before I go on, I want to state that the column which indicates "Male citizen allowed to vote" was checked Yes for every one of these men. They would have that right attacked during Reconstruction, but in 1870, it was theirs.
Of the 11 on this likely list, John Allen is in a household with a woman named Grist, which I think means they were part of the family plantation rather than from the turpentine business. Instead, one of these Johns stands out as a match to John of the deed: John Peaton (sic), in Washington Township, Beaufort Co. which was ground zero for the Grist turpentine business, who is approximately the right age and is alone among the rest by earning his living as a distiller. Not farming or sharecropping, but exercising a more skilled trade.
First I went back to the slave schedules for the Potters from 1830 through 1860, to see if Mary Peaton born circa 1800 and living with John in 1870 could be his mother, whom he has located and reunited with. There is no contradiction to this theory. I felt a chill down my spine.
I went forward in time, looking for this John in later censuses. He appears in the same location in both 1880 and 1900 (the 1890 census was destroyed long ago), and all of the information is supportive. In 1880 he gives his age as 55, giving him a year of birth approximately 1826, confirming the deed. By 1900, he has refined this to being born in May of 1822. His surname changes to Peyten and then Peyton, which is the vagary of the census-taker, not John.
In 1880, John Peyten (sic) has married Phoebe Crawford who was living with him a decade earlier, and living with them as "son" is Phoebe's son William Crawford. John's mother Mary is absent and has likely died. John Peyten works as a farmer, Phoebe as a midwife, and William Crawford is "fishing". John Crawford has married since 1870 and lives next door with wife Julia and two infant sons, shown on the same census page as John Peyten.
John Peyton (sic) in 1900 is an elderly man who remarried in 1892 to Martha, age 71, who has never had children. Living with them is 90-year-old Millie Perry, identified as "sister", born March 1810 in NC, widowed, never a mother. Most telling, John owns his home free and outright, an amazing accomplishment for a former slave working through Reconstruction.
Now, the fact that I've located one John Peyton who COULD be John of the 1854 deed does not in any way mean they ARE the same man. It's just a possibility, which is actually remarkable compared to the brick wall those of us researching slave genealogy usually hit. I offer it as a starting point for John's modern-day family, or for anyone else who might pursue this fascinating story of a man who persevered in ways that deserve to be told.
I urge Keya Morgan, owner of these artifacts, to focus on accurate research instead of appraisals. I especially urge him to cooperate with and/or enlist the aid of specialists in the arena of African-American history. If he wants to keep media attention on his acquisition, he could ask Skip Gates to take up and direct this research. Dr. Gates would say yes and do the right thing by John. He would focus on the human being trampled beneath the commerce, past and present.
And, one last tantalizing tidbit, almost certainly coincidence, but still has to be mentioned: John Peyton's soon-to-be stepsons on the 1870 census -- or possibly his real sons using their mother's surname -- were named John and William. They were born circa 1856 and 1859 respectively. And if the photo of those two boys was taken in 1865, at the time of emancipation, they are right age to be John and William Crawford.
[I want to thank Nancy Whittier for assisting me in access to research materials and Sharon Bridgforth for her ongoing education of us all as to the reality of American slavery.]