On September 10, 1804, John C. Stanly completes a business transaction in New Bern. He buys Donum Montford, an enslaved man, from the Cogdell mother and daughter widows for $500.
On September 10, 1804, John C. Stanly completes a business transaction in New Bern. He buys Donum Montford, an enslaved man, from the Cogdell mother and daughter widows for $500. Tomorrow, he will sign a deed officially emancipating Montford — who is among the first of 40 people Stanly helps liberate over his lifetime. Stanly, the son of a wealthy white merchant and an enslaved woman, started his successful business as a barber following his own emancipation in 1795. His earnings have made him one of the wealthiest men in New Bern, and through his status, he plays an instrumental role in the manumission of numerous enslaved people throughout Craven County.
Montford is a skilled plasterer and brickmason. Once freed by Stanly, he works with his former owner to purchase his nephew, 11-year-old Abram Moody Russell. Montford’s trade keeps him busy in New Bern, and his handicraft is immortalized in projects like the Craven County Jail and the Donnelly House. He raises Russell in his home as an apprentice, teaching him the skills of a brickmason and plasterer and ensuring that he learns to read and write. Montford’s son, Nelson, was born into slavery, and nearly 25 years after Montford’s own emancipation, he posts bond for Nelson’s official manumission. His witness is John Stewart Stanly, none other than the son of Montford’s own emancipator.
Stanly and Montford are just two of many successful Black artisans in New Bern who pushed boundaries for their socioeconomic standing and played a pivotal role in the emancipation of others. In her book Crafting Lives: Stories of African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900, writer and researcher Catherine Bishir explores the impact of artisans of color and the unique social environment in Craven County that made such success more obtainable than in other towns and cities throughout the South.
Bishir’s interest in these artisans and their stories began in the 1980s while she was researching the lives and work of North Carolina architects and builders. She kept finding stories of skilled craftsmen, both free and enslaved, in New Bern. After decades of her research circling back to this group of talented men and women, she was inspired to write about the lives of this remarkable community. The book was a collaborative effort with the staff at Tryon Palace who provided research they began in the 1990s as they worked to create more inclusive educational programming. Their work to broaden public awareness of the importance of these African American artisans and their impact is included in this story.
Bishir traces the roots of the long-standing community of free Black people living in Craven County back to the 1740s. Many conducted business in New Bern, paving the way for the city’s Black artisans to flourish in the late 1700s and early 1800s. As a result of North Carolina’s more lenient racial laws (compared to other states in the South), enslaved artisans were allowed to perform jobs and keep a portion of their earnings, and they could buy their own freedom. Free Black men could run businesses and own property — and could vote as a result. Free artisans made up what Bishir calls “a constant presence in the human and economic landscape,” practicing trades like shoemaking, dressmaking, spinning, weaving, blacksmithing, coopering, bricklaying, carpentry, and shipbuilding. In addition to many earning and saving money to buy their own freedom, a top priority was obtaining others’ liberty, too.
Bishir highlights numerous artisans over the course of what she coins “New Bern’s Golden Age.” Here are four whose stories live on in Bishir’s work as well as the exhibits at Tryon Palace, a living museum dedicated to preserving North Carolina’s history that uses Crafting Lives as a resource to dive deeper into interpreting and sharing details of these individuals’ lives:
Bishir writes that Asa Spellman “epitomizes the complexity of artisan-citizen identity for free blacks.” He moved to Craven County when restrictions on free black families began to tighten in Virginia. Spellman himself was a cooper who owned land and a shop along the Trent River. His industriousness and service in the Revolutionary War established his identity in New Bern, though it’s said that no one believed he served alongside then-General George Washington in the 10th North Carolina Regiment. It wasn’t until 1791, when President Washington visited New Bern during his Southern Tour, that he recognized Spellman in a crowd. The president made a point of shaking his hand and revisiting their time together in the war. This officially established Spellman as a Revolutionary War hero. However, through the remainder of his life, Spellman had to navigate what Bishir calls “the deference to ‘color and place,’” meaning that among whites, no matter his veteran status or talent and industriousness as an artisan, he had to demonstrate that he knew his “place,” not as an equal.
Renowned for her ceaseless work ethic and dedication to her family’s emancipation, spinner Amelia Green purchased her freedom in 1875 from Robert Schaw. She later moved from New Hanover County to New Bern and immediately set to work freeing her three children still in bondage. She saved what she earned from spinning and purchased her daughters Nancy in 1794, Princess in 1795, and Harriet in 1806. But emancipation wasn’t simple — North Carolina was the only state in the South that required individuals’ emancipation to come from court ruling. In addition to paying slaveholders for her daughters’ liberty, Green successfully petitioned the courts in Craven and New Hanover counties and paid the legal fees for the manumission of all three.
Over the course of her life, Green witnessed — and was instrumental in — the emancipation of her five children and most of her grandchildren. Her network in New Bern grew prestigious when her granddaughter Kitty Green married John C. Stanly, the successful barber who helped with Montford’s emancipation. Bishir writes that Stanly supported and likely advised Green’s efforts to free her children. He additionally gave her a life estate, which included her one-story house on George Street, just half a block from Tryon Palace.
Tour the Palace where colonial governors lived and ruled. Embrace cooking in an 18th century kitchen. Stroll our gardens. Visit the Continental Line at their encampment. Learn about the people before us, whose stories continue to guide and inspire us.
At 13 years old, “Jack the Weasel” was not destined for the labor-intensive apprenticeships due to his small frame. John Rice Green, the son of John Stanly and Sarah Rice, was born into slavery, owned by the Spaight family. Fortunately, his mother was close with Mrs. Spaight, and she helped ensure that her son didn’t end up working in shipbuilding, carpentry, or masonry. Instead, his nimble fingers and excellent vision made him a star apprentice at tailor Rueben Bell’s shop and led to a 43-year tailoring career. Greene saved his earnings during his apprenticeship and bought his freedom in 1818, at the age of 25. His successful business catered to clientele across racial lines, and he became one of the wealthiest free Black men in New Bern at the time. His status made him instrumental in helping with others’ emancipation, including fellow tailor Boston Ferguson. Greene’s home still stands at 411 Johnson Street.
After his emancipation by John C. Stanly, Montford went on to manage a thriving plaster and brickmaking business where he employed numerous apprentices, including enslaved individuals, whom he clothed, fed, and housed, as was required by law at the time. Artisans like Montford understood the importance of providing apprenticeships: They were critical for the craft training necessary to become an artisan rather than a laborer and receive the earnings that made it possible to buy one’s own emancipation. He additionally owned his tools, a point of pride as it established his identity as a prosperous artisan. Bishir writes, “In contrast to a slave, who legally owned nothing, not even himself, a free artisan took pride in owning his tools.” Among his work, Montford oversaw the repairs to the Christ Episcopal Church in 1832, serving on a three-person committee alongside two of New Bern’s leading white builders. As a free man, Montford headed the household at his home on the corner of Broad and George Street — where St. Luke Hospital stands today.
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Today, Tryon Palace continues to provide programming that captures the stories of African Americans with their United States Colored Troops reenactment group, tours of the historic Stanly house launching in 2024, videos that capture the lives of the artisans using first person interpretation, and upcoming programming around this groundbreaking book. A link to these videos can be found here.
You can learn more about the lives of these artisans and others through the accounts Bishir illustrates in her book. Or, to see the history — including the remnants of the works of several of these artisans — visit Tryon Palace in downtown New Bern.