As I continue to do the character development for my book about the fugitive slave Emperor Shields and how he joined John Brown’s infamous attack on Harper’s Ferry and his subsequent martydom, I came across a startling and compelling bit of history. I’m currently developing a fictional slaveowner, “Jonah Vanderhart,” as Emperor’s master and owner. In researching slave owners in North Carolina in the 1800s, I learned of a former slave, turned slave owner, who also became the wealthiest black alive in the 1800s, John Carruthers Stanley of New Bern, NC.
Stanely was an incredibly complex person and so is his story. His life proves that history can never be taken for granted and that we have so much to learn from it if we study. The complex industry of slavery in the US was dynamic, ever-changing, and of course, insidious. It was a form of capitalism that was far more grey than black or white, and it involved everyone. My own genealogy research has shown this to be true–that though enslaved blacks were chattel, it did not mean they stood idly by, it did not mean they built their own societies, culture and lifestyle. The “Roots” version of African American slavery, while groundbreaking for its time, can lead to an over-simplification.
Stanely owned over 160 slaves, lived in a big house across the street from his white father, knew which African tribe he descended from (Ibo). Educated and trained as a barber, Stanely petitioned for and won his own freedom after becoming a successful barber. He purchased his wife Kitty, a slave, and other family members. He started a plantation which was worked by both free blacks and slaves. He was considered as tough as a white master and apparently used the same techniques of slave owners–the whip, overseers and forced ignorance. I’m struck by several questions.
- Why did he purchase slaves?
- What possessed him to amass so much wealth?
- Faced with insight that his own education set him free, why turn his backs on so many? Or did he? Is there more to the story?
As today, so then, money and friends could buy your freedom, buy your family’s freedom and buy you slaves (if you had enough of it). One of the raiders at John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry, Dangerfield Newby, was in fact, a free man and blacksmith who had tried to raise enough money to free his enslaved wife Harriet and six children. Dangerfield realized though he could not do it in time before they were to be sold into the deep south. Several letters from his wife spurred him on (note- both he and his wife could read and write, again, one cannot assume slavery meant slaves were incapacitated).
Newby joined Brown on the attack on Harper’s Ferry with this in mind. My development of his motivation concludes he was also recruiting among the raiders to rescue his own wife. Tragically, he died at the attack and his family was separated and sold off. Though, just five years later, slaves were freed upon the Emancipation Proclamation.
I feel drawn to further explore Stanley’s story as a means of unlocking the nature of the mind of the slaveowner. Who knows? Perhaps his story will spark a new book project for me. One thing is for certain, I marvel how complex we are–how history, our lives are so very full of choices. Real lives are always more interesting.