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History Commission’s Research of the Names Behind Aycock, Carr, Daniels and Ruffin

The following profiles of the men whose names were removed from four campus buildings were produced by the History, Race and a Way Forward Commission from its research.

 

Aycock Residence Hall

The Board of Trustees named this building in 1928 to honor Governor Charles Brantley Aycock (class of 1880). Aycock:

• Spearheaded the Democratic Party’s white supremacy campaign of 1898;

• Condoned the use of violence to terrorize Black voters and their white allies;

• Campaigned for governor in 1900 on a platform of white supremacy and Black disenfranchisement; and

• Embraced “white supremacy and its perpetuation” as the guiding principle of his political career.

Aycock was born in 1859, the youngest of Benjamin and Serena Aycock’s 10 children. His parents owned a farm that sprawled across more than 1,000 acres in Wayne County. They were made prosperous by the labor of 13 enslaved men, women and children who cultivated that land. Benjamin was a fervid Confederate who served in the state Senate through the end of the Civil War and into the early years of Reconstruction. In 1866, he supported passage of a Black Code that severely restricted the freedom of North Carolinians who were newly emancipated from slavery.

Aycock graduated from UNC in 1880 and soon after established a legal practice in Goldsboro. He became an influential figure in state politics, and between 1893 and 1897 he served by presidential appointment as U.S. attorney for the eastern district of North Carolina. In 1898, Aycock and Locke Craig (class of 1880) — described in newspaper reports as “young apostles” of “white supremacy” — appeared together at a rally in Laurinburg, where they launched the Democratic Party’s campaign to unseat a biracial, Fusion alliance of Black Republicans and white third-party Populists who had won control of the state Legislature and the governor’s office in the elections of 1894 and 1896.

On the campaign trail, Aycock denounced “negro domination,” complained of the “curse of negro jurymen” who sat in judgment of whites in the state’s courts, and whipped up fear of Black men’s alleged lust for white women. He and other party leaders encouraged loyal Democrats to organize “White Government” clubs in communities across the state and to muster squads of vigilantes known as Red Shirts for the purpose of terrorizing Black voters and their white allies. The worst violence occurred in Wilmington, where a white mob took up arms in the only municipal coup d’état in American history. They marauded through Black neighborhoods, killing wantonly along the way; burned the offices of Wilmington’s Black newspaper; and forced the resignation of the city’s Black and white Fusion board of aldermen.

Red Shirts were the paramilitary arm of the state Democratic Party. On Election Day, Democrats regained control of state government. They then moved to consolidate their hold on power and to lock Black North Carolinians into permanent subjugation. In the 1899 legislative session, they passed the state’s first Jim Crow law, which required that train passengers be segregated by race, and drafted an amendment to the state constitution that, once approved by popular referendum in the next election, would impose a literacy test designed to strip Black men of the right to vote. As the Democrats’ gubernatorial nominee in 1900, Aycock made ratification of the amendment the centerpiece of his campaign.

The amendment stipulated that in order to register to vote, male citizens would be required to prove their ability to “read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.” That gave Democratic registrars wide latitude to exclude Black men from the polls. The amendment also included a grandfather clause that exempted from the literacy test adult males who had been eligible to vote or were lineal descendants of men who had been.

As in 1898, Red Shirts turned up at many of Aycock’s rallies. More than 1,000 white men, armed and on horseback, welcomed him to Hillsborough; in Clinton, a band of 1,200 formed an honor guard that escorted him into town. The vigilantes reinforced Aycock’s message: He and his party had given fair warning of their willingness — in Aycock’s words — to “rule by force”; only a vote for white supremacy and Black disenfranchisement would restore peace and good order. For a majority of whites, Aycock’s appeals to race hatred and threats of violence were persuasive. When ballots were counted, he and the constitutional amendment won by a margin of 59 to 41 percent.

Aycock’s opponents used his own words to label him the “Fraud and Force Candidate” in the 1900 gubernatorial election.

After his death in 1912, state leaders memorialized Aycock as North Carolina’s “Education Governor.” They noted that he significantly increased school spending during his time in office, opposed lawmakers who tried to prohibit the use of white tax receipts for Black education, and launched a program to build hundreds of rural schoolhouses. For admirers, these accomplishments were reason enough to disregard the deadly price of white supremacy and to crown Aycock with what one devotee described as “a halo of justice and idealism.” The Aycock Memorial Association erected a statue of the governor on the state capitol grounds in Raleigh in 1924. Eight years later, the state placed another likeness of Aycock in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, where it stands alongside the marble form of North Carolina’s Confederate governor, Zebulon B. Vance (class of 1852).

But there was more to the historical record, even on the narrow question of education. The Fusion lawmakers Aycock opposed in 1898 also valued North Carolina’s public schools, and during their brief time in power, they funded instruction for Black and white children on an equal per capita basis. That contrasted with sharp disparities under Aycock’s administration. By the end of his term in 1904, construction of new schoolhouses for whites was outpacing that for Blacks 8-to-1 and per capita spending on the education of Black children was half that for whites.

These figures are a reminder that Charles Aycock was a principal architect of the regime of Jim Crow, which denied Black North Carolinians equal justice and the basic rights of citizenship for more than half a century. As Aycock assured delegates to the Democratic state convention in 1900, “White Supremacy and Its Perpetuation” was the guiding principle of his political life.

Since 2014, Aycock’s name has been removed from campus buildings at Duke University, East Carolina University and UNC-Greensboro.

Carr Building

The Board of Trustees named this building in 1900 to honor Julian Shakespeare Carr, who studied at UNC in the mid-1860s and was a trustee from 1877 until his death in 1924. Carr Building was a residence hall until the 1980s, when it was converted to office space. Carr provided the funds for its construction. Carr:

• Provided financial underwriting for the Democratic Party’s white supremacy campaign of 1898;

• Used violence and condoned its use by others to suppress Black claims to equal Citizenship; and

• Labored to legitimize the regime of Jim Crow by promulgating a false history of the Civil War and its aftermath.

Carr was born in 1845, the third of seven children in the household of John W. and Eliza P. Carr. His father was a wealthy Chapel Hill merchant, who in 1860 owned $6,000 worth of real estate and $30,000 worth of personal property. Roughly a third of the latter sum derived from the value of nine enslaved men, women and children who ranged in age from four months to 40 years. Today, the combined value of John Carr’s holdings would be $1.1 million, $390,000 of which would be represented by the people he held in bondage.

The younger Carr studied at Carolina from 1862 to 1864, when he left to serve in the Confederate army. He returned for the 1865-66 academic year and departed again in 1868, this time for Little Rock, Ark., where he worked in an uncle’s business. A remembrance of him written many years after his death ascribed the move to “wanderlust,” but there is evidence to suggest that more serious considerations may have been at play.

On Sept. 12, 1865, Carr and a number of other students broke up a political meeting organized by newly emancipated Black residents of Chapel Hill. Newspaper accounts reported that “a general fight ensued, in which some of the students were pretty badly injured and the negroes roughly handled, pistols and sticks being freely used.” Carr was arrested and then released on bail, secured by University president David L. Swain (class of 1825). We do not know how the case concluded, but three years later, in August 1868, Carr was involved in another assault. In this instance, he and his brothers — “on slight provocation,” according to one witness — flogged a Black woman near the University campus. She subsequently took her case to Freedmen’s Bureau officials headquartered in nearby Hillsborough. Again, the archival record goes cold, but it is clear that Carr was in danger of prosecution before a military tribunal. That may well be the explanation for his move to Little Rock. Such speculation is supported by Carr’s public acknowledgment in 1921 and again in 1923 that he had been a Klansman. “Back … when there was need of the Ku Klux Klan, I was one of them,” he confessed, “and I am proud of that fact.”

So it seems that the flogging incident was not a one-off act of violence but rather an expression of what a Raleigh newspaper described as the “intense rebel spirit” that prevailed in Chapel Hill. Over the course of the following year, surrounding Orange County and nearby Alamance and Caswell counties became sites of some of the most intense Klan activity in the state. Had Carr not fled, he would have faced the very real prospect of imprisonment or worse.

Carr returned to Chapel Hill in 1870, and with his father’s financial backing purchased a third interest in the W.T. Blackwell Tobacco Co. in Durham. Carr had a genius for marketing. By the early 1880s, he had made Blackwell’s “Bull Durham” tobacco an internationally recognized brand. The company shipped its product worldwide and had offices in Bombay and Shanghai. Carr took a special interest in China, where he supported the work of Methodist missionaries and later became a financier of the Chinese Nationalist revolution. Spreading the Gospel and dethroning China’s last emperor were, for him, elements of a singular project to open the country’s vast market to American commerce. With similar shrewdness, Carr maneuvered to buy out other Blackwell investors and establish a majority stake in the firm.

Then, in 1898, he sold the business to James B. Duke’s American Tobacco Co. for the remarkable sum of $3 million. In the decades that followed, Carr used the profit from that sale to expand a business empire that included textile and hosiery mills, railroads, banks, and electric and telephone companies.

Carr’s wealth made him an influential figure in state politics. He was heavily involved in the Democratic Party’s white supremacy campaigns in 1898 and 1900, which stripped Black men of the right to vote and institutionalized racial segregation. Carr provided the financial backing that newspaperman Josephus Daniels needed to acquire a failing Raleigh daily, The News and Observer, and transform it into the party’s semi-official mouthpiece. Daniels filled the paper with stories and political cartoons that stoked fears of “negro domination” and Black men’s purported lust for white women. To amplify the message, Carr and a small circle of associates paid to send The News and Observer and other loyal Democratic papers to more than 40,000 white households that otherwise had no subscriptions.

On Election Day, Democrats took command of the state Legislature, which had been controlled since 1894 by a biracial, Fusion alliance of Black Republicans and white third-party Populists. Elated, Carr sent a note of gratitude to fellow industrialist Bennehan Cameron, whose cash donations had helped to finance the victory for “Anglo-Saxon manhood” and “White Supremacy.” To mark the occasion, he enclosed a souvenir badge adorned with his own image.

Men like Carr and Cameron understood white supremacy as something more than an expression of racial prejudice and discrimination. It constituted, as well, a system of power and plunder that drove Black earnings down to near subsistence levels, reduced white wages by devaluing labor in general, and sustained itself through one-party politics and a racial ideology that persuaded even the poorest whites to see their economic interests as opposed to those of Blacks beneath them. The end effect was to trap the vast majority of Black North Carolinians on the land as a semi-bound labor force of sharecroppers and tenant farmers, and to make the wages paid in North Carolina’s textile mills and tobacco factories some of the lowest in the nation. This was the regime of Jim Crow that made Carr, Cameron and others of their class wealthy men.

The economic logic of white supremacy helps to explain why Carr devoted himself to the Lost Cause and a version of history in which racial slavery was remembered, in his words, as “the gentlest and the most beneficent servitude mankind has ever known.” He led the United Confederate Veterans in North Carolina and proudly bore the title of “General,” which the organization bestowed on him despite the fact that he never served above the rank of private.

That position of honor and respect made Carr a regular and much-sought-after speaker at the dedication of Confederate monuments erected in the years following the white supremacy campaigns. At such an event in Chapel Hill in 1913, he delivered the now infamous speech in which he boasted of having “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because on the streets of this quiet village she had publicly insulted and maligned a [white] Southern lady.” Carr appears to have been recalling the assault he committed in 1868.

Carr told the story to underscore the purpose of UNC’s newly installed Confederate monument and others of its kind. The statue honored all University men who fought for the Confederacy — the living as well as the dead — and most especially the veterans who, like Carr, enlisted in the postwar battle to restore white rule. For those men, service to the Confederate cause “did not end at Appomattox.” In peacetime, they answered demands for racial equality with acts of terror. They “saved the very life of the Anglo-Saxon race,” Carr declared. “Praise God.” In his fevered imagination, the alternative could not have been worse: Carr believed with certainty that had he and other “heroes” shirked their duty, the South would have become “a Black Republic.”

As the stories of Carr’s youth suggest, he had few qualms about the use of violence to enforce racial order. He made that clear in an 1899 speech on the subject of lynching. Carr linked vigilante killing to what he characterized as Black men’s bestial sexuality and declared forthrightly, “the Black fiend who lays lustful hands upon a [white] woman cannot be killed too soon, and no punishment, legal or illegal, is too severe to be administered speedily.” He went on to explain that Emancipation had bestowed equality upon a race unprepared for its responsibilities — a “blunder” that made slaves-turned-citizens impudent and licentious. The way to end lynching, Carr contended, was for Black people to accept white supremacy as Nature’s law and teach lessons of “industry, thrift and uprightness” in their homes, schools and sanctuaries.

That reasoning defined what historian Paul Mullins has described as Carr’s “raw paternalistic racism.” He could speak in one moment as a white-robed Klansman and act in the next as a generous philanthropist. In Durham, he provided much-needed funding for the N.C. College for Negroes (now N.C. Central University), supported the city’s leading Black church, and backed Black businessmen such as John Merrick, one of the founders of the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co. To Carr’s way of thinking, these institutions offered Blacks the means to “make everlasting war upon the brute element of [their] race.” The onus was on Black people to earn the right to live without fear as free and equal citizens — a right that whites took for granted as an entitlement by birth. “I am and have been a friend of the negro, in the negro’s place,” Carr declared. “Whenever and wherever the negro has behaved himself, and kept himself in his place, my disposition has been to lend him a helping hand.”

Over the course of a lifetime, Carr gave hundreds of speeches to promulgate these understandings of the Civil War, its aftermath, and its implications for Black citizenship and American democracy. To that end, he also labored to ensure that white children would be schooled in “the truths of Confederate history.” In 1919, he joined the steering committee for a project undertaken by the United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy to censor what was written and taught about the slaveholding South and its war against the United States. The two groups distributed thousands of copies of a pamphlet titled “A Measuring Rod to Test Text Books and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges, and Libraries.” The publication offered a catechism of Confederate principles such as these: “Secession Was Not Rebellion,” “Slaves Were Not Ill-Treated in the South” and “The War Between the States Was Not Fought to Hold the Slaves.” Carr and the steering committee urged public school and college officials to reject textbooks that did not teach these truths and implored librarians to mark the title pages of offending scholarly works with the words “Unjust to the South.” This campaign to teach a false history of slavery, the Confederacy and the origins of Jim Crow was remarkably effective; even today, its tenets persist in classroom lessons and public memory.

In these many ways, Julian Carr devoted himself to the maintenance of white supremacy. He was not simply “a product of his time,” as one biographer has claimed. He instead labored as a master builder of one of the darkest eras in American history — a time marked by extra-legal violence and legalized injustice that made a mockery of the nation’s professed values.

Duke University’s board of trustees removed Carr’s name from a campus office building in December 2018. The structure was named for him in 1930 in recognition of the gift of land on which the university’s East Campus was built.

Josephus Daniels Building

The Board of Trustees named this building in 1967 to honor Josephus Daniels (class of 1885), who studied law at UNC in 1885 and was a trustee from 1901 until his death in 1948. The building has housed the Student Stores since its opening in 1968. Daniels:

• Shaped strategy for the Democratic Party’s white supremacy campaigns of 1898 and 1900;

• Positioned The News and Observer as the propaganda arm of the party and used political cartoons and sensationalist reporting to demonize Black voters and politicians as a threat to whites;

• As secretary of the Navy, promoted Jim Crow segregation in the federal bureaucracy and racial subjugation in U.S.-occupied Haiti; and

• Opposed President Harry S. Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights and its call for an end to Jim Crow segregation.

Daniels was born in 1862, one of three brothers in the household of Josephus and Mary Daniels. His father died in a military operation near the end of the Civil War, and young Josephus later grew up in Wilson, where his widowed mother moved to be close to her kin. Daniels began his career in journalism as a teenager. By the time he was 23, he owned three newspapers: the Wilson Advance, Kinston Free Press and Raleigh State Chronicle.

In 1894, he purchased The News and Observer of Raleigh out of bankruptcy, with financial backing from Julian Carr. Daniels quickly made the paper into one of the most influential publications in the state, largely by positioning it as the semi-official mouthpiece of the Democratic Party in the white supremacy campaigns of 1898 and 1900. In the elections of 1894 and 1896, a biracial, Fusion alliance of Black Republicans and white third-party Populists won control of both the state Legislature and the governor’s office.

In quick succession, they undertook an expansive program of social investment, particularly in the equitable education of Black and white children, and enacted reforms that put local government squarely in the hands of voters and safeguarded free and equal access to the ballot box. In March 1898, Daniels and two close friends — Furnifold M. Simmons and Charles B. Aycock, both rising stars in the state Democratic Party — met in New Bern to outline a strategy for defeating their Fusion adversaries in the next election, rolling back reforms that promised political and social equality for Black North Carolinians and establishing the system of racial subjugation that would come to be known as Jim Crow.

What followed was a vitriolic and violent campaign to restore white rule. Day after day, Daniels filled the pages of The News and Observer with scurrilous stories — often demonstrably false or at least partially fabricated—  that demonized Black men as sexual predators, maligned the masculinity of white men who voted for Black candidates, and decried rampant corruption among Black officeholders. Years later, he confessed that he was “never very careful about winnowing out the stories or running them down.” White voters, frenzied by appeals to their racial fears, “would believe almost any piece of rascality,” Daniels said. “The propaganda was having good effect.”

Daniels used political cartoons to stoke white anger, fear and resentment. He relied on Norman E. Jennett, a young artist who had joined The News and Observer’s staff in 1895, to fashion powerful visual weapons.

Throughout the 1898 campaign, The News and Observer presented itself as a citadel atop the bedrock of white supremacy. Daniels and his newspaper were capable of whipping white Democrats into fearsome mobs. At party rallies across eastern North Carolina, vigilantes known as Red Shirts turned out by the hundreds — and in some instances, by the thousands — brandishing weapons to terrorize Black voters and their white allies. In Wilmington, acts of intimidation turned deadly when white rioters killed dozens of Black citizens and drove the city’s Black and white Fusion aldermen from office.

On Election Day, Democrats took back control of state government. In 1899, they passed North Carolina’s first Jim Crow law, and a year later, the party’s gubernatorial candidate, Charles Aycock, campaigned for popular ratification of an amendment to the state constitution that was designed to strip the right to vote from Black men and many of their white allies. As in 1898, Daniels committed himself and The News and Observer fervently to the cause. When ballots were cast, Aycock and disenfranchisement won the day by a 59 to 41 percent margin.

That victory marked the beginning of a new era of white rule that for more than half a century denied Black North Carolinians equal justice and the fundamental rights of citizenship. Daniels promoted that racial order not only at home but on a national and a global stage as well. In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed him secretary of the Navy, and together with Postmaster General Albert Burleson, a Texan, Daniels eagerly promoted the president’s efforts to segregate the federal bureaucracy along strict racial lines. That policy, journalist and historian Colin Woodard has noted, was “a direct assault” on Washington, D.C.’s “Black middle class, which had grown substantially … under the protection of the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883, a law that ensured that hiring was based on competitive exams, not race.”

As Navy secretary, Daniels also directed the American invasion and occupation of Haiti in 1915. He tasked white Marine units, mostly from the South, to impose Jim Crow — “replete,” Woodard has written, with “forced labor” and “summary executions” — on the world’s first Black republic, established by slave uprisings in the 1790s. W.E.B. Du Bois described events in Haiti as “a reign of terror … and cruelty”; in the first years alone, more than 3,000 Haitians died at the hands of the U.S. military, many of them victims of what a federal report described as “indiscriminate killing.”

Daniels supported the presidential candidacy of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and was rewarded with an appointment as U.S. ambassador to Mexico, a position he held until 1941. Over the course of that decade, his son Jonathan began to turn The News and Observer in a progressive direction. He supported labor unions and urged white North Carolinians to accept the gradual desegregation of their society. But the elder Daniels remained unreconstructed.

In early November 1947, Josephus published one of his last editorials in the family paper. It was a blistering critique of the report recently released by the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, which Harry S. Truman had appointed the year before. The report took its title — “To Secure These Rights” — from the Declaration of Independence, and it recommended immediate “elimination of segregation, based on race, color, creed or national origin, from American life.” Daniels was incensed. He mocked the report, even though a close friend, UNC President Frank P. Graham (class of 1909), was one of its authors, and he warned that it posed a dangerous threat to the “sovereign power” of the Southern states. Daniels also reached back to 1898 and white supremacy’s most lethal trope: the Black incubus and the sexual vulnerability of white women. He agreed with the committee’s denunciation of lynching but questioned why its report included “no word of condemnation of those guilty of the rapes for which the crime has most frequently been resorted to, or the indignation felt by most Southern people who are portrayed as guilty of prejudice against the Negro.” On these grounds, Daniels concluded that the “remedy” proposed by the president’s committee — a swift end to Jim Crow, enforced, if necessary, by the federal government — was far worse than the disease it sought to cure.

Two months later, Daniels died at his Raleigh home.

In 2006, The News and Observer formally apologized for the role the paper and its editor had played in the 1898 white supremacy campaign. The time had come, the editorial board and publisher explained, to “get on the right side of history.” More recently, the Daniels family removed a statue of Josephus Daniels from a park in downtown Raleigh. They had placed it there in 1985 to honor their forbearer’s contributions to journalism and service to the nation. The family also endorsed decisions to strip Daniels’ name from a local school and a building on the campus of N.C. State University. Frank Daniels III, Josephus Daniels’ great-grandson, explained these actions with a reference to the racial reckoning ignited by the COVID-19 pandemic and the police killing of George Floyd, both of which exposed deep racial injustices in American life. “The time is right,” he said. “[Josephus Daniels’] legacy of public service does not transcend actions he took to favor white folks over Black folks.”

Ruffin Residence Hall

The Board of Trustees named this building in 1922 to honor Thomas Ruffin, a UNC trustee from 1813 until his death in 1870, and Thomas Ruffin Jr., Class of 1844. The elder Ruffin:

• Enslaved 135 men, women and children in Alamance and Rockingham counties;

• Invested in and profited from the domestic slave trade;

• Used his authority as a jurist to normalize the violence inherent in slavery; and

• Fortified the institution of racial slavery against abolitionists and Black insurrectionists.

Ruffin was born in 1787 to Sterling and Alice Ruffin, wealthy slave owners in Essex County, Va. He was educated at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University); practiced law in Orange County, N.C.; served in the N.C. Legislature; and in 1829 was appointed by that body to the state Supreme Court. Ruffin presided as chief justice from 1833 to 1852 and again from 1858 to 1859. His son, Thomas Ruffin Jr. (class of 1844), was born in 1824 and made his living as an attorney. He served one term in the N.C. House of Commons (1850-51), fought for the Confederacy as a colonel in the North Carolina infantry, and from 1881 to 1883 sat as an associate justice on the state Supreme Court. The younger Ruffin, in the words of a 20th-century biographer, had “a reputation as one of the state’s best lawyers” but otherwise left no particular mark on jurisprudence.

In 1860, the elder Ruffin enslaved 100 Black men, women and children on the Alamance County farm he called the Hermitage and another 35 on a smaller property in Rockingham County. He was known by his neighbors for his own cruelty and that of his white overseer. In 1824, Archibald DeBow Murphey (class of 1799), with whom Ruffin had studied law, complained of the overseer’s “barbarous treatment” of the slaves at the Hermitage. He noted that they were “worked to death” and whipped mercilessly — and that one man, Will, had been “literally barbecued, peppered, and salted.” Murphey encouraged his friend to discipline the overseer, lest the man’s cruelty tarnish Ruffin’s own “character” and reputation. The archives offer no record of Ruffin’s reply, though correspondence from his wife and another neighbor suggest that he was aware of the overseer’s behavior and chose not to intervene.

Between 1821 and 1826, Ruffin also participated in the domestic slave trade. He was the silent partner in an arrangement with a man named Benjamin Chambers. Ruffin provided a substantial cash investment, but Chambers carried on the business of buying and selling slaves in his name only, presumably to shield Ruffin from rebuke by professional associates who disapproved of the trade in human flesh. One such figure was William Gaston, who served with Ruffin on the state Supreme Court. In 1832, he encouraged young men at the University to commit themselves to the “extirpation of the worst evil” that afflicted the South: racial slavery. “Disguise the truth as we may,” Gaston declared, the institution “poisons morals at the fountain head.”

Ruffin likely earned a handsome profit from slave trading. During the 1820s, a boom in cotton production in the new states of Alabama and Mississippi created an insatiable demand for enslaved laborers, who were shackled together and driven southward from “exporting” states — North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky and Maryland. Traders conducted their business with extraordinary callousness. They routinely broke families apart in order to maximize profits on the youngest, strongest men and the women of prime childbearing age. Ruffin approved of that practice; indeed, he encouraged it. In Cannon v. Jenkins, a case argued before the N.C. Supreme Court in 1830, he ruled that estate executors had an obligation to break up slave families if separate sales would bring higher prices. “Most commonly … articles sell best singly,” Ruffin observed, “and therefore they ought, in general, to be so offered.” An executor was “not to indulge his charities at the expense” of the sellers he represented.

Today, Ruffin is most often remembered for the equally inhumane judgment he rendered in State v. Mann, a case heard during his first year on North Carolina’s high court. The case involved John Mann, a widowed sea captain living in Edenton, who had hired an enslaved woman named Lydia from her owner, Elizabeth Jones. Jones, a minor child, had inherited Lydia from her parents. She lived in the household of her brother-in-law, Josiah Small, who paid for her upkeep by hiring Lydia out as a laborer. Lydia defied Mann’s authority over her, and in one instance attempted to run away. Mann picked up his gun and shot her in the back.

The Chowan County district attorney charged Mann with assault and battery, and a jury found him guilty. They based that judgment on well-established case law, which held that hirers such as Mann were liable to safeguard the property of another — in this case, Elizabeth Jones’ slave, Lydia — which they held in their possession only temporarily.

Ruffin reversed that verdict on appeal. A slave’s obedience, he wrote, “is the consequence only of uncontrolled authority over the body. There is nothing else that can operate to produce the effect.” Maintaining that authority was, in Ruffin’s mind, imperative to safeguarding public order and the economic interests of slave owners. On that account, he treated Mann as Elizabeth Jones’ proxy and accorded him full rights of ownership, including the unfettered right to inflict grievous bodily harm. In what legal scholar Eric Muller has described as “the coldest and starkest defense of the physical violence inherent in slavery that ever appeared in an American judicial opinion,” Ruffin declared that “the power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.”

Why did Ruffin depart from established case law in such dramatic fashion? Legal historian Sally Greene suggests that he did so to strengthen the defense of slavery, in part, against abolitionism in the North, which had been gaining support since 1820, when Congress admitted Missouri to the Union as the first slave state west of the Mississippi. Ruffin was also mindful of worsening fears of Black insurrection, particularly in the eastern North Carolina counties where whites were outnumbered by the people they held in bondage. In December 1829, at the time Mann was writing his opinion, nervous slave owners in Lenoir County petitioned the Legislature to establish a special police force to suppress the clandestine activities of runaways living in dense forests and swamplands.

In this context, overturning John Mann’s conviction was a bold strategic move. As Greene has noted, by eliding the distinction between slave owner and slave hirer, Ruffin created in an instant a vastly enlarged body of white men with “an unqualified right of discipline over slaves.” He also attempted — with uneven success — to close the door on juries and judges who, like those in Chowan County, would exercise more nuanced understandings of the relationship between slave and enslaver, and most especially a sense of “moral right” that drew a line between discipline and gross brutality.

On these points, Ruffin remained resolute throughout his judicial career. Twenty years after State v. Mann, a majority of justices on the state Supreme Court ruled in another case that “if a white man wantonly inflicts upon a slave, over whom he has no authority, a severe blow or repeated blows, under unusual circumstances, and the slave, at the instant, strikes and kills, without evincing, by the means used, great wickedness or cruelty, he is only guilty of manslaughter.” Ruffin was the lone dissenter. “It is very clear,” he wrote, “that the question turns on the difference in the condition of the free white men and negro slaves. For, there is no doubt, if all the persons had been white men, that the conduct of the deceased would have palliated the killing by the person assaulted, or by his comrade, to manslaughter.” But when the deceased was white and the killer was a slave, the crime was unequivocally murder. Ruffin explained: “The rule for determining what is a mitigating provocation cannot, in the nature of things, be the same between persons who are in aequali jure, as two freemen, and those who stand in the very great disparity of free whites and Black slaves.”

What, in the end, are we to make of Thomas Ruffin? Was he simply a man of his time, as some have claimed, guided by principles that were commonplace and conventional? The evidence suggests otherwise. As Sally Greene has argued, Ruffin “took an active part in defining” the historical moment in which he lived. In State v. Mann, “he chose to elevate the slave hirer … to the status of a master,” and by doing so, “created an urgent situation” — a rupture in the authority of white over Black — “for which his judicial response became the commanding solution.” For Ruffin, white dominion was totalizing, and the law gave no quarter to the humanity of the enslaved.

The story told here did not figure in the adulation of Thomas Ruffin by UNC’s trustees when they named a campus building for him in 1922 or by the N.C. Bar Association, which in 1915 placed a bronze statue of him outside the chamber of the N.C. Supreme Court. Both bodies regarded Ruffin as a “great citizen” and source of “inspiration for the future” — “a man resolved and steady to his trust, inflexible to ill and obstinately just.” Ruffin the brutal slave master, trader in human chattel, and author of the most notorious defense of slaveowners’ authority over the bodies of the enslaved was invisible in such tributes.

That erasure — that silence — was the product of a focused effort to create a falsified, usable past for a neo-Confederate white South that by the early 20th-century had stripped Black men of the right to vote, institutionalized Jim Crow segregation, and dismantled much of the promise of Emancipation.

In January 2020, at the request of Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Carl Fox ’75 (’78 JD) and James Williams, first vice president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, Orange County officials took down the portrait of Thomas Ruffin that had hung in the historic courthouse in Hillsborough. In July, state officials removed the statue of Ruffin that once stood outside the state Supreme Court chamber and had more recently been located in the N.C. Court of Appeals building. A commission appointed by the N.C. Supreme Court is currently considering the disposition of “problematic” portraits in its chamber, including the life-size painting of Ruffin that hangs above the seat of Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, the first Black woman to serve in that office.


 

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