[caption id="attachment_163696" align="alignright" width="300"] Photo Credit Enabled[/caption] Born to an enslaved mother and a white father in Williamston in 1856, Josephine N. Leary was freed at age 9 after the
Born to an enslaved mother and a white father in Williamston in 1856, Josephine N. Leary was freed at age 9 after the Civil War. The historical fiction novel Carolina Built by Kianna Alexander explores the life of this extraordinary but little-known woman in North Carolina’s history through captivating storytelling. As depicted in Alexander’s well-researched novel, Leary was a bookish girl who grew into an astute businesswoman, fueled by ambition, a feisty personality, and her study of John Jacob Astor and other moguls of the era. As a woman of color, she took full advantage of her freedom — along with a few privileges that her background afforded her.
Leary’s close-knit family was one such advantage that many formerly enslaved people didn’t have. Early in the novel, Leary’s mother and Grandma Milly help welcome her first daughter into the world; later, Leary and her younger brother tearfully part ways as he heads north, the bonds among the family as strong as ever.
Leary’s relationship with her husband, Archer “Sweety” Leary, is more difficult than those with her relatives, with Leary’s defiance of traditional gender norms serving as a frequent source of tension. The two clash over her ambitions and independence, his chauvinism and drinking.
While Leary makes a compelling protagonist on the page, her real-life legacy can be found on modern-day markers of North Carolina’s history. Papers, letters, and photographs that document her life and work are housed at Duke University. In Edenton, where Leary lived most of her life, an 1894 building on South Broad Street bearing her name still stands on property she solely owned.