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In Fitzgerald’s fields

In Fitzgerald’s fields they toiled, sun-dappled and rain-soaked, caked in mud and in blood and in sweat. They raised corn and peas and potatoes and children and they always had plenty of butter and honey and wool so long as with ceaseless toil they coaxed the stubborn mountainside into giving up its seasonal blessings.

They worked about as hard as, and had about as much as, any other poor white Reconstruction-era Waynesville farmer except for the rights expressed in that document which begins, “We the people” because they were still somehow less than that. 

But these former slaves found themselves with something more than many, for the land upon which they toiled was eventually given to them by a most unconventional man, in a most unconventional manner; these weren’t Fitzgerald’s fields anymore, they were Isaac’s and Stephen’s and Dinah’s. They were Lanah’s fields and Miner’s fields and Phoebe’s fields, where the mud and the blood and the sweat mingled both before emancipation, and after.

About five years ago, University of Pittsburgh Professor of Art and Architecture Kirk Savage found himself in Waynesville’s Historic Haywood Courthouse performing research on his wife’s great-great-grandfather William Holland Thomas, who plays an important role in the saga of the Cherokee people. 

It was there that he uncovered the story of a Haywood County man named Asa Fitzgerald. 

“I learned about it really quite by accident,” said Savage, who was leafing through huge bound volumes in the Register of Deeds office. “I saw a deed made out to formerly enslaved people. That sparked my curiosity because I have a longstanding interest in the history of slavery and also in the Reconstruction period and how freed slaves were able to, or were not able to, recoup their lives or create new lives for themselves, post-slavery.”

After intensive research, Savage penned an exhaustive 12,000-word story for the prestigious history journal Lapham’s Quarterly, which was published this past December. 

Titled, “A personal act of reparation,” Savage’s work introduces us to Fitzgerald, a Western North Carolina native born in 1824 who became one of Haywood County’s few attorneys just after his 21st birthday.

In 1849, Fitzgerald married Julia Benners, daughter of a wealthy New Bern slaveholder. The marriage made Fitzgerald a slaveholder.

Although already an adherent to the temperance movement by the tender age of 15, Fitzgerald wasn’t known to be especially religious until the deaths of his first two children and his younger brother in the 1850s. 

He consoled himself in his Bible, and when he emerged from his melancholia announced that he’d been called to preach. He also privately told his wife that he now considered it sinful to own other humans. 

Such notions were not only scandalous, they were also dangerous — a risk to the established order of things, not just in Haywood County but all across the pre-Civil War South.

After a brief period of religious study in New Hampshire in 1856, Fitzgerald returned to the mountains openly and adamantly anti-slavery. In 1858, he offered his slaves $100 each and passage to Liberia. 

They declined; it was a land they’d never known and a culture as foreign to them as any other, but their greatest fear was that it might break up the extended family unit that was really the only thing they had of their own. 

Instead, all but one of Fitzgerald’s slaves were sold to his wife’s siblings, Joseph Benners and Sarah Norwood. The last, called Isaac, was sent to another local family, the Allmans. 

Relieved of the moral burden of slaveholding, Fitzgerald spent the Civil War preaching in Waynesville’s black community, neglecting his legal work even as his own financial position began to deteriorate. 

After the war, a war of another sort erupted, this one not between blue and grey but between Reconstructionist Republicans and the Democrats who supported the old order by forming terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. The violence, Savage writes, perturbed Fitzgerald so that he redoubled his efforts to compensate his former slaves. 

In 1870, Fitzgerald began pestering his wife to sign a deed conveying 330 acres of land to nine formerly enslaved people, all of whom were descendants of one of her father’s slaves, a deceased woman named Venus. Eventually, his wife relented.

The conveyance was shocking enough, but the reasons behind it even more so; as Savage outlines in Lapham’s, the land wasn’t a gift, or a payment, or a bonus, or a reward for faithful service — it was repayment for labor that had been stolen from Venus, from her ancestors, and from her descendants.

“To Isaac, Miner, Juliet & Phillis, children of Venus deceased; & Stephen, Venus, Phoebe, Dinah, & Lanah, children of said Phillis, colored persons and formerly slaves,” Fitzgerald wrote in the deed, “witnesseth that for and in consideration of services performed by them and their ancestors while in slavery, part of the proceeds of which (with labor performed for us amounting to three thousand four hundred dollars) has been inherited and received by the undersigned … and believing that it is the will of God that we the parties of the first part shall restore to the parties of the second part  the proceeds of their labor which has come into our hands and pay them what is right and just for the labor performed by them for us, the said John A.B. Fitzgerald & Julia his wife have bargained and sold … the following tracts or parcels of land.”

Those tracts were divvied up into eight separate parcels in two distinct groups. Most were 30 acres each, but some were nearly double or more than triple that. Although Savage could tell from the deed who owned what, it took a local man to tell him where, exactly, Fitzgerald’s fields are. 

 

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A modern-day plot of lands near Waynesville given to former slaves roughly corresponds to an area in the Pigeon community. Cory Vaillancourt photo illustration

 

Kevin Ensley is probably best known as a longtime Haywood County commissioner and current chairman of the board, but he’s also a land surveyor by trade. 

“Kirk Savage called me,” Ensley said. “They were looking for a surveyor that maybe could figure out where some old deeds were. I love doing that, because when you’re a surveyor you’re kind of a historian, too.”

Ensley plotted the deed and began the effort to place the parcels onto a map of modern day Haywood County.

“You just kinda have a hunch on where you’re going to go, so I started looking at GIS maps and looking at the shapes, trying to figure out where it fit,” he said. “Well, the main tract was right off Highway 276 going out of Waynesville, on the right.”

He’s talking about Waynesville’s historic African American neighborhood, known as the Pigeon community. 

Heading eastbound on Pigeon Street from North Main Street, the road slopes down a steep hill and then winds past a number of landmarks, including the Shelton House, the Haywood Arts Regional Theatre, Mount Olive Baptist Church, Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, the Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center and the site of a former Rosenwald school. 

A little past that is Dix Hill, the county’s segregated cemetery. A little past that, down on the right, is a large parcel of land that Ensley identified as the site.

It’s a fortuitous discovery that couldn’t have come at a better time; the Pigeon community is currently undergoing a cultural revitalization fostered by the Town of Waynesville’s efforts to improve sidewalks and roads and construct a park, as well as place the Pigeon Center on the National Register of Historic Places. 

There’s also talk of a “cultural campus” linking several of those landmarks, which are already linked by real or potential connections to Fitzgerald. 

Savage said that at the same time Fitzgerald transferred his land to his former slaves, he also sold a nearby tract to the children of a Confederate veteran named William Swanger. Somehow, that land ended up in possession of a man named Shelton, who built upon it the handsome home now known as the Shelton House. 

That “Swanger tract” lies just west of Fitzgerald’s fields. Between them is much of the Pigeon community, including Dix Hill. Recently, the town assumed control of the cemetery after years of donating resources to its upkeep. Crumbling and neglected, the knobby bald home to potentially thousands of graves had languished for almost a century under uncertain ownership. 

Preservation planning consultant Sybil Argintar has been working with the town on a number of initiatives, and just finished the National Register application for the Pigeon Street School now home to the Pigeon Center. She thinks the discovery is important and could prove more so in the future. 

“This will be definitely part of the documentation of that area, and of the black community,” said Argintar. “It certainly should become part of the record of that area.”

 

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Although ownership of Dix Hill cemetery has been uncertain, it may have a link to Asa Fitzgerald. Cory Vaillancourt photo

 

On cold dewy mornings and long hot days Isaac and Miner and Phoebe and the rest of them toiled in their own fields as masters of their own destinies, pursuing that most American of dreams, until they were robbed of those Waynesville parcels in that most American of ways — with naught but a pen.

When Asa Fitzgerald passed away in 1878, his wife Julia quickly filed suit to reclaim Fitzgerald’s fields. The defendants asked that the case be removed to federal court, where African Americans could give testimony and serve on juries. That request was denied, but the case was moved to Jackson County because defendants felt they couldn’t get a fair trial in Haywood. 

The case of Fitzgerald v. Allman finally came to trial in 1881; Fitzgerald’s wife alleged that her husband Asa was insane when he conveyed the property to his former slaves. The proof? Only an insane person would freely give more than 300 acres of land to his former slaves. 

“I think it’s remarkable that you see what the culture was going through at that time because basically he left it to his slaves out of a commitment, and his wife and his kids after he died basically took it back through the court system,” Ensley said. “And you see how the courts really didn’t respect the African American community because basically it went to the North Carolina Supreme Court, and then that was it.”

Savage lamented the effect the decision might have had on Asa, who would likely have been quite upset to see his personal act of reparation undone by his own family. 

“Here was somebody who actually tried to make reparations and he was stripped of the ability to do that in the end after his death,” Savage said.

The repercussions of the court’s decision were felt farther than just in Fitzgerald’s fields and now open up quite a can of worms in light of contemporary discussions about possible reparations to formerly enslaved peoples in the United States. 

“The people that he made reparations to were stripped of their land. It just shows you how deep this problem is,” said Savage. “Part of the reason I wanted to track the outcomes of those African Americans who lost their land was I wanted to show that this has generational impacts that continue probably up to the present day.”

Savage was actually able to locate a few remaining family members related to the people who were given land by Fitzgerald — those of Phoebe in particular. 

“And they of course knew nothing about the story,” he said. “Nothing at all.”

Today, Fitzgerald’s fields are a hodge-podge of parcels that scarcely resemble the tracts laid out in the deed. Dozens of private homes are now located on parts of the land, including some impressive ridgetop homes valued upward of $750,000. 

“To know how hard it was to work the land back then, to get that land cleared and then the crops and then to know that they just came back and took it was just really sad to me, to see that happen,” said Ensley. “Fitzgerald was trying to right a wrong.”

The mud and the blood and the sweat are still there, in Fitzgerald’s fields, where slaves toiled for a master, and then for themselves, and then were cast away. 

“It was such a grievous wrong. It compounded the wrong of slavery. We have a responsibility to acknowledge the intergenerational impacts and devastation that stories like this caused. We need to acknowledge it and we then we need to do something about it,” Savage said. “I don’t know, I’m not a policymaker. I’m not talking about whether we should cut checks or give funds to educational institutions or whatever, but we need to do something right.”

 

 

Read the full story

Kirk Savage’s “A personal act of reparation” was published in Lapham’s Quarterly and serves as the basis for this piece. Read the full story — with additional detail —  online at www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/personal-act-reparation.

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