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Slaves as Escheats

Gravestones of African Americans in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, 2005.

Gravestones of African Americans in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery, 2005. Photograph by Stephen J. Fletcher.

escheat (es-cheet) n. in law, 1. the reverting of property to the lord of the manor (in feudal law), to the crown (in England), or to the government (in the United States) when there are no legal heirs. 2. property so reverting. 3. escheatage. v.t. to cause to escheat; confiscate. v.i. to revert or go by escheat. (Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition, ©1960)

The General Assembly chartered the university in 1789 but made no direct appropriation to support it. Instead it granted the Board of Trustees rights over two sources of income: monies owed the state for certain kinds of arrearages up to 1 January 1783 and "all the property that has heretofore or shall hereafter escheat to the state." As R. D. W. Connor explains in A Documentary History of the University of North Carolina, 1776-1799, "Potentially these liberal provisions made the University of North Carolina one of the most richly endowed institutions of learning in the American Union but many years were to pass before the Trustees were able to turn these into ready cash."

To turn escheats into cash the trustees appointed attorneys to act on the university's behalf. Initially there was one attorney for each judicial district in the state; later there was one in each county. An attorney tracked down escheated property, did whatever was necessary to obtain legal title to it, then sold it and turned the money over to the treasurer of the Board of Trustees. In return the attorney received a commission. During the antebellum period property that escheated to the university sometimes included slaves as well as real estate. In this section are several items documenting the sale of slaves by university attorneys.

"Troublesome Escheats"

In his History of the University of North Carolina, under the heading "Troublesome Escheats," Kemp P. Battle recounts this sad story:

"A free negro had a daughter, the slave of another. He [the free negro] bought her, and she then became the mother of a boy. The woman's father died without kin and intestate. His child and grandchild being his personal property became the property of the university. They were ordered to be sold. This sounds hard, but it was proved to the Board that they were in the lowest stage of poverty and degradation and that it would redound to their happiness to have a master. It must be remembered that slaves were considered to be as a rule in better condition than free negroes."

We leave it to historians to judge the rationale Battle gives for the trustees' decision.

From University Papers #40005 

(connect to finding aid).

2 February 1843. "B. F. Moore in account with the University of NoCa." for money collected from the estate of Dorothy Mitchell of Northampton County. The first item listed is "purchase money of slave Nelson $825."

22 July 1843. David Reid to Charles Manly. David Reid, a Fayetteville attorney and member of the General Assembly, pursued escheated property for the trustees in the counties east of his home. In this letter he informs Secretary-Treasurer Manly that he has asked the sheriff of Bladen to apprehend a Negro boy who is the property of the university. "I shall be at Bladen Court 1st Monday in August if the boy be taken by that time I shall sell him at Court." In a subsequent letter he tells Manly that he has sold the boy, named Jim, for seventy-five dollars.

15 December 1843. David Reid to Charles Manly. Reid reports the "Sale of Negro slave Jim in Bladen County $75_" (see previous entry).

8 June 1844. J. W. Bryan to Charles Manly. Bryan writes from New Bern regarding the estate of Edmund Pasteur, "a free person of colour," whose estate included "negroes sold" for $365.

20 November 1844. Asa Biggs to Charles Manly. Asa Biggs of Martin County was a prominent lawyer in the eastern part of the state. He served in the General Assembly and in Congress and was appointed by President Buchanan to a federal judgeship. From 1839 to 1851 he represented the trustees in cases involving escheats. Here Biggs writes to Manly about the case of "a girl by the name of Winnifred Robason [who] gave birth to an illegitimate child and died & shortly afterward her child died." Since both Winnifred and her legal heir had died, her property devolved on the university. That property included "a small negro & a tract of land of little value," which she had inherited from her father. Winnifred's relatives petitioned the trustees to allow them to keep her property, but the trustees denied their petition.

22 February 1845. Asa Biggs to Charles Manly. He has sold the Robason land and the Negro girl.

1 November 1845. Asa Biggs to Charles Manly. Biggs writes regarding the estate of R. B. Robason, mentioning the sale of a Negro for $120.77.

28 October 1847. David Reid to Charles Manly. Reid writes about a Mrs. Brown of Bladen, who died possessed of forty-eight Negroes and land worth $3000.

30 May 1856. P. H. Winston to Charles Manly. P. H. Winston of Franklin and Bertie counties studied law at the University of North Carolina during the 1844-1845 academic year. He later served in the General Assembly. Here he is writing about the estate of Simon R. Oliviera, which has escheated to the university. Winston reports that the administrator of the estate, Humphrey Hardy, has turned over $1,271.84 in proceeds from it but still has possession of "four valuable negroes and their hires the present year all of which he is to account for the 1 Jan[uar]y next." Winston goes on to explain that Hardy wants to buy Will for himself and that he [Winston] has agreed to a price of $800, although he thinks Will is probably worth more. Will "desired however to stay with Hardy and I supposed the University could well afford to settle the price as I did."

7 May 1857. P. H. Winston to Charles Manly. Winston reports that Hardy has sold the remaining Oliviera Negroes. He explains that "Lawrence hired one of the negroes an old one at $60 for the year 1856" and that she died about ten days after he hired her; now Lawrence does not think he should have to pay the note.

21 July and 30 July 1857. S. Attmore to Charles Manly. Attmore writes from New Bern about the Jarman estate. The case is very convoluted-the land was sold years earlier, but there are still four negroes, two of whom Attmore deems "worthless." Enclosures with the July 21 letter attest that the oldest of the negroes, David, had been emancipated by his late master and that he, in fact, owned the other three.

From Records of the Vice Chancellor for Business and Finance #40095

1850-1866. Historical Financial Records, Volume 22. Charles Manly's record of escheats collected by county. Under Bertie (p.6) are listed proceeds from the Oliviera case. A folder of enclosures includes printed forms for the appointment of attorneys.