Black history in Rowan: Looking back to look ahead

Published 12:01 am Tuesday, February 28, 2023

SALISBURY — Rain and a cold snap during an otherwise warm week meant attendance at a Black History presentation at the Rowan Museum was lower than hoped, but the information that was shared had those who showed up sometimes surprised and always well informed.

The one-hour presentation was partnership that started with Rowan NAACP President Gemale Black reaching out to the museum to see if they could hold a presentation for Black History Month. Black said that request was met with open arms by new museum Director Evin Burleson.

“The one good thing COVID brought us was some free time, and we combined it with some grant money to do some real research on the history of African Americans in Rowan County,” said Burleson.

He went through the history of African Americans in Rowan County as far back as he could, but noted that it is challenging to find much specific information on enslaved people during Colonial times because they were considered property, not people.

“There is even one instance of a female African American slave who was essentially a poker chip in a poker game,” he said.

Two names are on the record; one a man named Vaul who, according to legend, was the first non-native person to cross the Catawba, and the other a man named Dick who joined the British army to escape slavery. Dick belonged to Elizabeth Maxwell Steele, said Burleson, and she left instructions in her will that if he was ever found, he should be returned to her heirs.

He went on to outline the history of slavery, and how as cotton moved into the area, slavery increased tremendously. In 1790, slavery was on the rise, and the largest slave owners in Rowan County were names that remain recognizable today. According to documentation, those families were named Brown, Caldwell, Chambers, Cowan, Fisher, Gattee, Hall, Henderson, Kelly, Kerr, Locke, Long, McKay, McNamara, Polk, Steele, Torrence and Wood.

And in Salisbury, if a landowner could not afford to buy slaves, on Jan. 1 of each year, he could come downtown on what was known as “lease day” and rent slaves from wealthier landowners who purchased additional slaves, then rented them out.

The last known slave sale in Rowan took place in 1865 on the steps of the former courthouse, which is now the museum’s home. The advertisement for the sale reads: “On Wednesday, March 22, 1865 between the hours of 12 & 2, I will sell at Auction in front of the Court House in Salisbury, N.C., 12 or 15 very likely negroes, men and women, small boys and girls. There is a very fine cook among the lot. – Jack Hall”

And yet, from 1860 to 1890, freed Black men and poorer white farmers joined together to form the Republican Party, which at that time was considered the party of freedom, and voted, using their newly acquired right to do so to make changes.

But in the 1890s, “the white backlash began to reverse those rights,” said Burleson, and it would be another 60 years before some would be reclaimed.

Meanwhile, the Black community moved forward in education even when they were held back at work. In 1887, the Salisbury cotton mill was opened as a safe place for white women and children to work to protect them from the danger of Black men. But in 1866, Quakers opened the Friends School, the first school for Blacks, and in 1882, Livingstone College opened its doors. Livingstone was co-ed from the start, and a number of the first professors were women.

Founded by Dr. Joseph Charles Price, the college’s first president, and James Walker Hood, the college was renamed for Dr. David Livingstone, a missionary and explorer whose son died in the Salisbury Confederate Prison.

Another step forward in their journey was the establishment in the 1880s of Decoration Day, now called Memorial Day. The celebration included a parade that began at Soldiers Memorial AME Zion Church and made its way to the National Cemetery, where wreaths and flowers were placed on the graves of the U.S. soldiers who died in Salisbury’s Confederate Prison.

As the Civil Rights movement began to reach a crescendo in the 1960s, organizations like the Ku Klux Klan also began to grow. The headquarters of the state branch of the KKK was in Rowan County, in Granite Quarry, under the leadership of Grand Wizard Robert Jones. But community leaders like Wiley Lash carried on.

Born in 1908, Lash grew up in Salisbury and graduated from Livingstone College in 1934. He took over the family grocery store on East Council Street and the store became a hub of local political activity, as well as a place to turn for anyone in need,

“If you needed food, and you went to Lash’s store, he’d make sure you got what you needed to feed your family,” said Burleson. Lash also became a leader in the Negro Civic League, hosting voter registration drives. He was elected to the Rowan County School Board for 15 years, participating in the implementation of integration. He was then elected to city council in 1979, and elected mayor in 1981, serving until 1985.

Though schools were officially desegregated in the early 1960s, actual desegregation did not occur for almost another decade in the South, and in Rowan County, Calvin Strawder almost single-handedly forced desegregation on the county when he insisted on attending East Rowan High School where he lived, rather than having to attend Black schools.

According to Burleson, history shows that Strawder’s insistence on attending the school closest to his home (and just a few miles up the road from Robert Jones) “resulted in the Ku Klux Kan burning two crosses in his front yard, but he would not be deterred.” Strawder graduated from East Rowan in 1967.

Of the other individuals who stand out locally in Black history, Burleson touched on as many as possible in one hour. At the end of the presentation, Salisbury City Council member Anthony Smith applauded the research and information presented. But Smith himself is a history maker, as he and council member Harry McLaughlin represent the first time two Black members have been on the council at the same time.

Asked about that, Smith was quick to give praise to those who came before him to help pave the way. But he said he felt the weight of the historic moment when the council was sworn in.

“It makes me aware of the possibility of serious institutional change, the equitable distribution of power,” he said. “And the weight also makes me aware of how younger people see me, see us, and I hope we are role models or whatever you want to call it — examples of the possibilities. I also think it is worth pointing out the history of white allies — not just in word but in action. Yes, there is the Black resilience and determination, but we have always had substantive allies, and that’s important.”

“I am really glad for this collaboration, and our goal going forward is to create more partnerships, like this one, though they may look a little different than they have,” said Black, who thanked those in attendance for braving the rain to come out. “We hope to see this history talked about not only for one month, but over 365 days. And it’s important that we look back and know the history, but also that we look ahead and plan for our future.”

Seven-year-old Jayla Anderson, who attended the presentation, said while she does not think “too much” about how hard life may have been for her ancestors, she does think “things are better today because they worked for it.”