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Session 1: Race and Class in Antebellum North Carolina

An examination of the population of North Carolina during the nineteenth century reveals a wide variety of people living in the state. Antebellum society was both class and color conscious, with a triracial community of whites, blacks, and American Indians. Race and rank played a major role in determining one’s economic and social status.

Enslaved and Free People of Color

North Carolina enacted a law in 1777 that referred to “Negroes, Indians, and Mulattoes, and All Persons of Mixed Blood descended from Negro and Indian Ancestors, to the Fourth Generation inclusive (though one Ancestor of each Generation may have been a white Person) whether Bond or free.” Thus, as a general rule in the antebellum South, if any of your ancestors was considered “colored,” so were you.

During the early colonial period, many people of color came to America, first as indentured servants and later as slaves. The Atlantic slave trade increased throughout the eighteenth century, and great numbers of individuals were forcibly brought to America from Africa. A lucky few obtained their freedom, but many more remained enslaved.

Enslaved population of North Carolina by county, 1860. Image courtesy of Learn NC.

Enslaved People of Color

Slavery was an integral part of the antebellum South’s economic system. The largely agrarian nature of the southern economy ensured that slavery would continue as long as it was profitable. The acceptance of slavery by the white population of the South helped ensure its survival, at least, until the Civil War. This acceptance was based on the belief that people of color were inherently inferior to people of European ancestry and that they were unable to care for themselves without white guidance.

More than 70 percent of white families in North Carolina owned no slaves, but most that did lived on farms. Enslaved workers were generally assigned to the fields. Their duties included clearing land and planting and harvesting crops. They were also responsible for the care of livestock. Others were highly skilled blacksmiths, coopers, carpenters, and mill operators. On larger farms and plantations, enslaved people also worked inside the house, cooking and cleaning for the master and his family. Women were employed as wet nurses and caregivers for the children, and some worked in the fields alongside the men.

Homemade doll found in the wall of a slave cabin at Horton Grove which is part of Stagville Plantation, Durham. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History.

Food rations for enslaved men, women, and children usually consisted of fatback, cornmeal, and molasses. (Some people were allowed small gardens to supplement their food supply.) Clothing was coarse and plain. Oftentimes slaves received the cast-off clothing of the master and his family. A pair of good shoes was an almost unheard-of luxury. Most slave families lived in log cabins of varying quality. One formerly enslaved man described the cabins as “log huts with sand floors, and stick-and-dirt chimneys.”

Most urban enslaved people in North Carolina were employed as domestic servants, much like their counterparts on the plantation. Enslaved women (and their children) cooked, cleaned, cared for the youngest members of the master’s household, nursed the sick members, and ran errands. Enslaved men typically held skilled jobs such as carpentry, blacksmithing, masonry, and printing. They (as well as free men of color) also worked as fishermen, ferrymen, boat pilots, and sailors, and were even hired out to perform municipal services like grading roads and cleaning streets.

Some slave owners were cruel, believing that physical punishment served as the best deterrent against disobedience. Others appear to have been more benign, and letters and oral narratives revealing affection between master and slave bear this out. “Some of the masters was good and some of them was bad,” recalled Cornelia Andrews, a formerly enslaved woman from Johnston County.

Devices such as this whip, called a cat-o-nine-tails, were used to punish enslaved persons. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History.

Marriages between enslaved men and women were not recognized in North Carolina because enslaved individuals could not enter into legal contracts. As a result, slave families were constantly threatened with being split up. It was not unusual for wives, husbands, and children to be sold to different owners and to be separated by several towns or even states. Despite the harsh conditions, the enslaved community developed its own traditions and religious beliefs in order to survive and resist the indignities of servitude.

Free People of Color
During the antebellum years, North Carolina’s population of free people of color blossomed and included blacks and American Indians. In the South, only Virginia and Maryland claimed more free people of color. Many of these individuals made a living as skilled artisans, including carpenters and mechanics. Others were preachers, while still others hired themselves out as laborers and domestics. Some owned property and themselves owned slaves. Sometimes, a free person of color would purchase an enslaved relative with the intention of freeing that individual.

But North Carolina saw a gradual stripping away of what little freedom this group enjoyed. In 1826 the legislature passed a law prohibiting free “Negroes” from entering North Carolina, and in 1835 free men of color lost the right to vote. Other laws prohibited free blacks from preaching in public, learning to read and write, buying or selling liquor, and owning firearms. These laws were collectively known as the “black codes.” Most historians blame the tightening of restrictions on people of color—both free and enslaved—to white fear of black uprisings and revolts. The 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in nearby Virginia fueled this fear.

Spotlight on Thomas Day
Thomas Day was a free man of color who lived in the antebellum South. A talented master craftsman and skilled woodworker, Day created unique furniture and architectural interiors that survive today. He owned and operated the largest cabinet shop in North Carolina before the Civil War, employing both free and enslaved labor. Day owned and managed property that included woodland, which provided raw materials for his business, and farmland, which produced large amounts of tobacco. As an industrialist and an innovator, he initiated technological transformation in the Dan River region, successfully mechanizing his shop and adapting steam power and equipment to the manufacture of furniture. He can rightfully be called a founder of the fledgling North Carolina furniture industry.

Thomas Day lived during a time of shrinking freedoms for free people of color. He faced isolation and personal challenges as a member of a marginal community. He walked a fine line to maintain respectability. One slip might have cost him not only a loss of privileges, but his freedom as well. In spite of these challenges, Day had a significant impact on the Caswell County and Dan River region where he lived and worked for over thirty years. His clients were people of wealth, from planters to merchants, who treated him with the respect due a master craftsman. The same white elite that enacted laws suppressing free blacks addressed Thomas Day as “Mr. Day.”

Day succeeded and flourished in a complex, often harsh, and racially polarized society. Yet, after years of success, a major economic downturn and increasing racial hostilities in the years leading up to the Civil War contributed to the eventual failure of his business. In spite of this, Day’s legacy was passed down through the furniture he made, the myths that arose around him, and the admiration for his accomplishments. 

Thomas Day stands out as one of a few people of color to leave behind an enormous repository that can be used to interpret his life, including numerous documents such as federal census returns, petitions, court papers, business records, and personal correspondence. Day also left behind the fruits of his creative genius. As a trained artisan and prolific cabinetmaker and woodworker, he produced furniture and interior architectural elements that survive today in North Carolina and Virginia.

Here are some images of Thomas Day's workmanship. Images are courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History.


The African American Experience from Colonization through the Civil War
A website titled The Making of African American Identity, Volume I: 1500–1865 from the National Humanities Center Toolbox Library.

North American Slave Narratives
A collection of documents from the University of North Carolina’s website Documenting the American South.

American Slave Narratives: An Online Anthology
This website from the University of Virginia contains interviews with formerly enslaved people who discuss their lives before and after emancipation.

Conditions of Antebellum Slavery 
PBS provides general information about slavery during the antebellum period.

George Moses Horton
George Moses Horton was a North Carolina poet who was born into slavery.

Lunsford Lane 
An electronic copy of Lunsford Lane’s The Narrative of Lunsford Lane, Formerly of Raleigh, N.C. Embracing an Account of His Early Life, the Redemption by Purchase of Himself and Family from Slavery, and His Banishment from the Place of His Birth for the Crime of Wearing a Colored Skin.

Harriet Jacobs
This lesson plan uses an excerpt from Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
A site about Jacobs hosted by the Edenton-Chowan County Tourism Development Authority and developed with Historic Edenton State Historic Site through a National Park Service grant offered by its National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program.

Runaway Slave Advertisements from the Carolina Watchman, 1837

Free African Americans in North Carolina before the Civil War
This webpage features electronic transcriptions of documents pertaining to free people of color in North Carolina before the Civil War.

Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period
The Library of Congress’s online exhibition The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship includes an article on free people of color of the antebellum period.

American Indians

In colonial North Carolina, American Indians assimilated some aspects of the government, religion, and culture of white settlers, but resisted white encroachment onto their lands. Many Indians fought the encroaching settlers, and some voluntarily moved away. Others entered into treaties during the antebellum era to protect their lands and rights, only to see those treaties broken.

In 1835 the United States government began a policy of forcing Indians to move west of the Mississippi River. In 1838 federal troops arrived in western North Carolina to compel the Cherokee living there to move to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Only a small portion of the tribe managed to remain in the western part of the state.

Cherokee Removal

By Rebekah Velazquez
Former Assistant Curator, North Carolina Museum of History

At the beginning of the antebellum period, the Cherokee Indians occupied a large territory in the Southeast, encompassing parts of Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Alabama. Archeologists have shown that the Cherokee came to southern Appalachia from the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada, but the Cherokee believed they had been there as long as the land itself. It was this tie to their homeland that made them resist the federal government’s attempts at removal so passionately in 1838.

The federal government thought of the Cherokee as one of the five “civilized” tribes because of their easy adaptation to many European customs. They had their own alphabet and newspaper—the Cherokee Phoenix—and many practiced Christianity, due to early missionary efforts. In the 1820s, they formed the sovereign Cherokee Nation and set up a democratic government composed of three branches: a bicameral legislature, an executive branch headed by a principal chief, and a supreme court. They also established a capital—New Echota, in Georgia—and wrote a constitution and code of law.

Not long after the Cherokee declared their sovereignty, gold was discovered on their land in Georgia, and prospectors from all over the country trespassed on Cherokee territory to search for it. At that time, a person of color could not take a white person to court, and so the Cherokee could do little about these intrusions other than protest to the state. But their protests were in vain.

The sudden escalating value of Cherokee lands and the large increase in population created a problem for the state of Georgia, which wanted the land rights. And so Georgia stripped the Cherokee tribe of its rights, refused to honor treaties, and implemented a lottery dispensing Cherokee lands. The federal government took no action, not only because it had already begun to support the prospect of Indian removal to free up land for white settlement, but also because newly elected president Andrew Jackson did not support the sovereignty of Indian nations within the boundaries of the United States. Jackson feared that Indians would join the Spanish, the French, or the English against the United States in time of war.

In May of 1830, the Indian Removal Act, pushed by President Jackson, was passed. This document began the chain of events that led to the Cherokee Nation’s loss of its homelands. It gave the president the power to negotiate treaties providing for the relocation of eastern Indians to lands west of the Mississippi. And while removal was supposed to be voluntary, tribal leaders were often pressured into such treaties.

Many supported the Indian Removal Act, but it was heavily debated in Congress, and passed by only one vote. One of those who opposed the act from the beginning was Tennessee congressman Davy Crockett, who considered it unjust. When John Ross, principal chief of the Cherokee, realized what the Indian Removal Act would mean to his people, he went to the Supreme Court to fight it. But by the end of the Jackson administration in 1837, over 46,000 American Indians had been removed from their lands.

Despite attempts by Ross and others to fight removal, on December 29, 1835, a small group of Cherokee having no official power signed a treaty with the United States government at New Echota agreeing to removal. The group promised that within two years of the treaty’s ratification, the entire Cherokee Nation would give up its homelands in the Southeast and migrate west to present-day Oklahoma. The treaty signers included Cherokee leader Major Ridge, his son John Ridge, and Elias Boudinot, editor of the Cherokee Phoenix, who all argued that moving west was the only way for the Cherokee to escape white intrusion.

Chief John Ross denounced the Treaty of New Echota as illegal and circulated a petition opposing it, gathering fifteen thousand signatures. But the Senate approved the treaty by one vote in 1836. Under the conditions of the treaty, the Cherokee had until 1838 to move voluntarily. If they did not comply, they would be forcibly removed.

John Ross Portrait by Charles Bird King from History of the Indian Tribes of North America (McKenny and Hall, c. 1843)

By 1838 only two thousand Cherokee in the United States had migrated; sixteen thousand remained on their lands. The federal government sent in seven thousand troops, who pushed the Cherokee into stockades at bayonet point. Many were pulled out of their homes and not allowed to gather any of their possessions. As they left, their homes were looted. Their forced march west, known as the Trail of Tears, resulted in thousands of Cherokee people dying of hunger, cold, and disease.

Some Cherokee in western North Carolina remained in the state, hiding out in caves during the day and scavenging for food at night. General Winfield Scott, who was in charge of the United States Army’s relocation of the Cherokee to present-day Oklahoma, was aware of those eluding removal, but considered the group too small in number to pursue. Moreover, the mountainous area in which they hid was considered too steep for farming by the white population, so there was little incentive for the federal government to confiscate that land. These Cherokee who escaped the Trail of Tears are the forebears of today’s Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.


The Indian Removal Act of 1830
Text of the act, signed by President Andrew Jackson, that allowed the U.S. government to remove American Indians residing in the eastern states to the western territories.

The Trail of Tears
A Learn NC lesson plan about the Cherokee relocation for eighth-grade social studies classes.

American Indians in the Antebellum U.S. Army 
The National Archives presents an article about American Indians who served in the military in the early to middle 1800s.

Cherokee Phoenix
The Hunter Library at Western Carolina University offers electronic transcriptions of articles published from 1828 to 1834 in the national newspaper of the Cherokee nation, the Cherokee Phoenix.


White North Carolinians during the antebellum period fell into one of three general classes: poor whites, yeoman farmers, and the upper class, including planters.

Poor Whites

At the bottom of the white social hierarchy were the poor who owned no land. The reasons for their poverty varied. Some, through reversals of fortune, such as prolonged illness, had lost their farms, while others succumbed to alcoholism or mental illness or were not prosperous to begin with. Sometimes these individuals worked as tenant farmers, living on a planter’s land and planting and caring for the planter’s crops in return for a place to live and a small percentage of the farm’s output. Often this land was not considered particularly profitable by the planter, so he tolerated the tenant farmer’s presence. Some poor whites were day laborers who hired themselves out to yeoman farmers in need of field hands to plant or harvest crops. Others worked as domestic servants in upper-class households.

A few poor whites were indentured servants during the early antebellum period in North Carolina, although indenturing was more common during the colonial era. Under this system, a man or a woman agreed to work for an employer a certain number of years in return for learning a trade or receiving free passage from a foreign country to America. However, rich southern whites soon determined that their money was better invested in enslaved people than in indentured servants, who were free to leave their employers once their terms of servitude had expired.

Being poor and white in the South entailed a life of grueling poverty and desperation. Some visitors reported seeing poor whites more malnourished than some enslaved people. The poor were held in widespread contempt. Terms like “redneck” and “white trash” were coined to describe them. The upper class, yeoman farmers, and even some people of color looked down on this group, attributing their lowly position to laziness and a penchant for sin. In a state where wealth and status were tied to owning land, being landless put one at the bottom of the heap.

Yeoman Farmers

Most Tar Heels lived on farms where children were an important part of the workforce. From The Way We Lived in North Carolina, edited by Joe A. Mobley © 2003 University of North Carolina Press, published in association with the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh.

By 1860 over two-thirds of the farms in North Carolina were composed of one hundred acres or less. These small spreads were owned by yeoman farmers. In fact, most white North Carolinians during the antebellum period were yeoman farmers.

Yeoman families raised crops and livestock primarily for their own consumption. This type of farming is called subsistence farming. Surplus crops were sold at the market for money to pay taxes and buy items that could not be grown or made on the farm. Yeoman farmers worked hard to meet their families’ basic needs and maintain self-sufficiency, but many lived in debt.

A few yeoman families owned slaves (usually one to four) or hired day laborers, but most did all the work on the farm themselves. The men and older boys worked the land, while the women were in charge of making food, clothing, and household items (like soap or candles). However, it was not unusual for women to work alongside men in the fields if they were needed.

Children began contributing to the farm at around age five or six by gathering eggs, vegetables, and kindling. As the girls got older, they assumed adult responsibilities, such as caring for younger siblings, sewing, and cooking; older boys went into the fields. During the end of the antebellum period, it became more common for children to attend school. But they only went three or four months out of the year, when things were slow on the farm.

Death, disease, drought, and flood were among the hardships yeoman farmers had to endure. Families labored from sunup to sundown. Farmwork was hard and physically demanding. Injury and infirmity could spell disaster. But yeoman farmers derived satisfaction and a sense of economic security from their position as landowners.

The Upper Class

Orton Plantation in Brunswick County was a major rice plantation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The main house is considered an outstanding example of antebellum architecture. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The top echelon of white North Carolina consisted primarily of planters, professionals, and merchants. Wealth and lineage played a large role in determining one’s admission into the upper class.

Planters were among the most recognized members of the state’s gentry. A plantation was usually populated by a white male who owned the land—the planter—his family, and enslaved laborers. The plantation was a large-scale farming operation, usually of more than five hundred acres, with twenty or more slaves. Many planters could trace their roots back to an ancestor who worked his way up from the middle class. The plantation was engaged in growing cash crops such as tobacco, rice, corn, cotton, and wheat. These crops were grown to sell at market and generated most of the plantation’s income.

Planters were not always rich in cash, but rather were rich in land and the status that came from being a landowner. The planter’s life has been glorified in books and movies; however, it was not always one of ease. The planter lived a precarious existence. In order for the plantation to function and remain productive, he had to exert firm control over his slaves. Yet he feared losing that control if the enslaved population were to mount a revolt. Adding to this fear was his concern about the always inconsistent ways of Mother Nature. One year could bring a drought, and another year could bring floods. In addition, sickness, disease, and death were a constant threat on the plantation.

Despite these potential problems, planters enjoyed many luxuries and pursuits not enjoyed by other North Carolinians. Planter families were educated and could boast impressive libraries filled with literary classics of the time. Music was valued, and many children could play at least one instrument. Families traveled within the United States and also to Europe. Often these trips took place during the summer months in order to avoid the oppressive heat and humidity, as well as the sickness and disease that the stagnant weather brought with it.

Other upper-class whites were engaged in professions considered to be the domain of the well educated, such as law, medicine, and politics. In addition, particularly successful merchants were counted among the upper class. It was not unusual for a professional person to be a planter as well.

A woman belonging to the planter class might have worn a gown such as this one which belonged to Mary Eliza Battle Pittman and was made between 1857 and 1859. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History.


Social History of Antebellum North Carolina
A chapter from Guion Griffis Johnson’s book Ante-Bellum North Carolina: A Social History on the University of North Carolina’s website Documenting the American South discusses the state’s different social classes.

The Three White Classes of Antebellum North Carolina This article from the fall 1996 issue of Tar Heel Junior Historian magazine briefly discusses poor whites, yeoman farmers, and planters.

Assignment 1

Complete one of the following assignments:

Option 1:
Women in antebellum North Carolina, whatever their race or class, faced special challenges due to their gender. Design a lesson plan appropriate for the grade you teach in which your students explore the lives of antebellum women.
Possible resources are:

Option 2: (Choose this option if you are seeking reading credits for this course.)* 
Primary sources such as letters, newspaper articles, pieces of creative writing, pamphlets, photographs, and political cartoons can make history come alive and engage students. Using primary sources related to African American or American Indian history from this workshop or elsewhere, develop a lesson plan that:

  • teaches your students the difference between primary and secondary sources
  • demonstrates the personal feel of history that a diary entry, letter, oral history transcript, document, or period newspaper account can invoke

Option 3: (Choose this option if you are seeking technology credits for this course.)*
Take your students on a virtual field trip to several North Carolina historic sites associated with the state’s antebellum period. List at least three historic sites you would visit via the web and design a list of questions about each site for your students to answer.

Submit your answers via e-mail to

*If you are interested in this option, we encourage you to contact your principal or LEA to receive prior approval. If questions arise, please contact Sally Bloom at 919-807-7965 or

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