John Wright Stanly House
FROM SLAVE TO SLAVE OWNER
While Visiting the historic city of New Bern, in coastal North Carolina, I saw many interesting sites, including Tryon Palace, capitol of the independent State of North Carolina after the Revolutionary War, and Bradham Drug Company, the birthplace of Pepsi Cola. But to me, the most fascinating of all was the John Wright Stanly House. It was here that I learned the story of John Carruthers Stanly, a former slave who gained his freedom, only to become the largest slaveholder in Craven County, North Carolina.
Stanly, born a slave in 1774, was the son of an African Ibo woman and the white prominent merchant-shipper John Wright Stanly. He was apprenticed to Alexander and Lydia Stewart, close friends and neighbors of his father. They saw to it that John received an education and learned the trade of barbering. At an early age, they helped him establish his own barbershop in New Bern. Many of the town’s farmers and planters frequented his barbershop for a shave or a trim. As a result, Stanly developed a successful business. By the time he reached the age of twenty-one, literate and economically able to provide for himself, his owners petitioned the Craven County court in 1795 for his emancipation. However, he was not completely satisfied with the ruling of the court and in 1798, through a special act, the state legislature confirmed the emancipation of John Carruthers Stanly, which entitled him to all rights and privileges of a free person.
Between 1800 and 1801, Stanly purchased his slave wife, Kitty, and two mulatto slave children. By March 1805, they were emancipated by the Craven County Superior Court. A few days later, Kitty and Stanly were legally married in New Bern and posted a legal marriage bond in Raleigh. Stanly’s wife was the daughter of Richard and Mary Green and the paternal granddaughter of Amelia Green. Two years later, in 1807, Stanly was successful in getting the court to emancipate his wife’s brother.
Some politically correct Court Historians end the story here, if they acknowledge the existence of black slaveholders at all. What a noble thing, to purchase and emancipate one's own family! But there is much more to the story.
After securing his own and his family’s freedom, Stanly began to focus more on business matters. He obtained other slaves to work for him. Two of them, Boston and Brister, were taught the barbering trade. Once they became skillful barbers, Stanly let them run the operation while he used the money they helped him earn to invest in additional town property, farmland, and more slaves.
Through his business acumen, Stanley eventually became a very wealthy plantation owner and the largest slaveholder in all of Craven County. He profited from investments in real estate, rental properties, the slave operated barbershop, and plantations from which he sold commodities such as cotton and turpentine.
Stanly’s plantations and rental properties were operated by skilled slaves along with help from some hired free blacks. To improve his rental properties in New Bern, he used skilled slaves and free blacks to build cabins and other residences and to repair and renovate these properties. During the depression of the early 1820s it was slave labor that kept Stanly economically stable.
The 1830 census reveals that Stanly owned, 163 slaves. He has been described as a harsh, profit-minded task master whose treatment of his slaves was no different than the treatment slaves received from white owners. Stanly’s goal, shared by white southern planters, was on expanding his operations and increasing his profits.
During the early 1820s, Stanly’s wife, Kitty, was taken seriously ill. She became bedridden and, despite careful attention by two slave nurses, she died around 1824. It was at this same time that Stanly began to face a series of financial difficulties. His fortune began to plummet when the Bank of New Bern, due to the national bank tightening controls of some state and local banks, was forced to collect all outstanding debts. Unfortunately, Stanly had countersigned a security note for John Stanly, his white half-brother, in the amount of $14,962. Stanly was forced to assume the debt. This, along with his own debts forced him to refinance his mortgages and sell large pieces of property, including slaves. When these options did not resolve his economic woes, he resorted to mortgaging his turpentine, cotton, and corn crops, as well as selling his barbershop, which had been operating continuously for forty years. Without a steady flow of income, his fortunes continued to decline. In 1843, his last 160 acres of land were sold at public auction. Three years later, at the age of 74, John Carruthers Stanly died. At the time of his death he still owned seven slaves.
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