Alamance County: Digging Through My Family Roots
Armed insurrection, a war against the Klan, martial law enacted in an American town, Governor impeachment, a multimillion-dollar corporation built on free labor, a paternalistic slave owner, and the resilience of a former slave and first Black Deputy in the middle of all this.
My name is Thomas Holt Russell, jr. But I am not technically a jr. I should be the III because my father was Thomas Holt Russell Jr. When my mother tried to name me the III, a hospital employee told her that those designations are only for White people and royalty. Because of that bit of false information, there are two Thomas Holt Russell Jr's in my family tree. That is an explanation of just one of the abnormalities found on my family tree.
Before the mail-in DNA test and ancestry websites, I used a pencil and paper and sometimes a phone and the post office to find and gather information. Since ancestry.com is a great way to trace family roots, my search into my family history has been an obsession. I traced my family name back to a little house in Alamance County, North Carolina.
As an African American researching history, I already knew some of the things I may uncover would tax my emotions. I want to think things have changed. But two things happened on this trip that reminded me we still have a long way to go. First, on the day that I made this trip, the murderer in Wisconsin was found not guilty. Second, when I visited downtown Graham, North Carolina, I noticed the enormous confederate statue in front of the courthouse. A tall iron gate protects the figure, protected even from the touch of a human hand. I am not used to those monuments. Any time an African American visits former slave states, they have to be prepared to encounter unpleasant reminders of the past.
Like many people, I developed an interest in my ancestry. Research led me to the living room of the Oak Grove Plantation in Alamance County, North Carolina. The formal plantation is now the Alamance County Historical Museum. The museum is full of documents, photos, old furniture, paintings, sketchings, silverware, cyphered, hand-crafted dinnerware. A middle-aged white man took my wife and me on a personalized tour of the plantation home and went about his business in a matter-of-fact but detailed tour of the house. This home belonged to the Holts. The Holts were originally from Bavaria and settled in Alamance in the 1740s.
An industrious lot, those Holts were. By 1853, their Alamance Cotton Factory was producing woven fabrics known as the Alamance Plaids. This material had the distinction of being the first colored cotton material produced in the south. By 1900 the Holt family owned 24 cotton mills in Alamance County. Fast forward: These mills were consolidated and formed the core of Burlington Industries, a diversified fabric maker with over 8000 employees and offices all around the world. The Holt family produced doctors' lawyers, and people in business, and they married into other families like theirs and retained those family riches until this very day. The future governor of North Carolina, Thomas Holt, was born in this house.
There's another side to this American success story. It is the story of the other Holts, the African Holts. They were the slaves the European Holts owned. The African Holts date back to the 1770s with the first recorded Africans at the Oak Groove plantation, a couple by the name of Charles and Pattie, who are my 5th great-grandfather and mother.
It did not take a genius to figure out where my name (Holt) originated. Like many African families after the civil war, the slaves adopted the names of their slavers. The Holts were no exception. Before reconstruction, slaves did not have last names. This can be proven by all of the slave-era documents that list only the first names of slaves. When slaves were free, they adopted the names for practical reasons. It was easy to be identified; the government was in a hurry requesting names for all former slaves, and they had to register to vote. Lastly, those names also identified where a person was from.
This actually answered some of my questions from my family tree. It seems that a lot of Holts were marrying other Holts. This was for two reasons. First, all of the slaves that adopted the name Holt were not blood relatives. They only took the name out of convenience, as noted above. Second, Holts and Russell's remained at Oak Grove plantation for multiple generations long after the civil war and reconstruction, producing more Russell's and Holts and making tracing family origins a little tricky.
Several families have either the middle or last names of Russell and Holt. Additionally, census records show me that the Russell and Holt families also shared the same dwellings for many years. At graveyards such as Woods Chapel, Linwood Cemetary, and Springdale Church Cementary, I found several family plots in the cemeteries, with Russells in the Holt plots and Holts in the Russell plots.
Two brothers were born on the Oak Grove plantation that made a significant mark on North Carolina History, and these are the type of stories you will not find in history books. Caswell Holt jr. and Sam Holt were brothers born to Oak Grove slaves Caswell sr. and Rhena. The Holt brothers grew up with Thomas Holt, the future governor of North Carolina.
Both brothers worked at the dye house for Thomas Holt, producing the first indigo dyes used to make the famous Alamance Plaids. The Oak Grove plantation home includes an oil painting by Mort Kunstler, entitled Alamance Plaids. The picture depicts Thomas Holt showing off his company products to visitors with his wife, while Sam is working on the left side, and Caswell is depicted on the right.
Sam Went on to be a prominent preacher in the area. In 1832, North Carolina passed a law forbidding "any free negro, slave, or person of color, could not preach in public or private." But Sam preached so well, the European Holts would sometimes attend the informal services. E.M Holt deeded one acre of land to Sam for the sole purpose of developing a church for the black population.
The church moved from the woods to a one-room house and was called Uncles Sam's Meeting House. The church would soon become a school, teaching the emancipated slaves how to read and write. The school is credited with training the first black teachers, who spread around the states teaching others. It was the only school like this in the county. One of the first generations of African American teachers was my great-grandaunt, Eliza Holt, who opened the Pattillo School in the area. The church was later named the Springdale Church and is still in operation today.
As for Caswell Holt, he was a tough man. Besides helping with the dyeing process that made his owners millions, Caswell was the first black deputy in the county of Alamance during reconstruction. He teamed with Wyatt Outlaw, an African American political activist, and established patrols to curb Klan violence by establishing patrols to enforce curfew regulations during reconstruction. This put him in the crosshairs of the KKK. First, the Klan. Klansmen attacked Wyatt Outlaw, and they dragged him to the courthouse where the KKK hung him from a tree, and his body was left there until the next day to send a message to anyone that would go against them. Caswell was next on the list. The Klan attacked Caswell several times and at different points, was shot seven times, whipped, hung, and bucked (horrible torture that was widespread during the civil war that I am not even going to explain here). No matter the physical pain he endured, Caswell never gave in to the demands of the Klan. He denounced them in the face of danger and would rather lose his life than admit to a crime he never committed.
Caswell, working against the wishes of his ex-owner, E.M. Holt, Caswell traveled to Washington D.C. and testified before the senate. The brutal Klan terrorism in Alamance prompted North Carolina Governor William Holden to declare an insurrection in Alamance County. Basically, a war against the Ku Klux Klan. Gov. Holden put marshal law into effect and occupied Alamance and Caswell counties. On July 6. Colonel. George W. Kirk was in charge of troops, and 83 Klansmen were arrested. This was known as the Kirk-Holden War. Skirmeges broke out all over the county and the Federal troops were accused of hanging two Klan members in an effort to get information from them. The people of North Carolina were incensed at the government's pursuit of the Ku Klux Klan, and it cost Governor Holden politically. After the Kirk-Holden war ended, Governor Holden was the first U.S. governor to be impeached and removed from office. In other words, he was removed from office for harassing the Ku Klux Klan.
Just as I have written about earlier, history can sometimes put you in a funky mood, especially if you are black. Tracing my family history for a couple of years and finally visiting the plantation where my relatives lived in bondage for almost 100 years in this one place was an emotional experience. I knew what to expect. And even though I did learn a few things, my research was so thorough before I arrived, there were no great surprises to be found once I was there.
Oak Grove is a melancholy place. It is definitely not Tara. Oak Grove is not palatial and glamorous. Slavery is not a technicolored dream, it was a dirty, grimy life. I do not know how many visitors the museum receives. I suspect tourists do not overrun the Oak Grove plantation. The main walkway was blocked with an elaborate and symmetrical spiderweb. I walked around the web because destroying this type of nature seemed too much for a short visit. The Holt graveyard on the property was scrubbed and tidy, unlike the unmarked and washed-out headstones found in the place where the slaves were buried. The gravesite for the slaves of Oak Grove plantation is about a mile from the plantation in the rear of Springfield church; separated, even in death. This is the church that Sam Holt had started.
And though most of the slaves were not related to the slave owners, it is also just as accurate that many of the slaves were blood relatives of the owners. My own DNA says so. Slaver E.M. Holt gave land and to both Sam and Caswell for a church and school and attended Sam's Sunday sermons, But he did little to stop the harassment and beating of someone he looked upon favorably, albeit paternalistic. Slavery and the relationship between master and slave have always been complicated.
But my uncle Caswell was not having any of that paternalistic crap. He went his own way and paid a substantial physical and emotional toll. But he had resiliency. This is why I am so proud of him. He had it much worse than any of us have today and lived to a ripe old age with his dignity intact. Now that's admirable!
Before I left the plantation, I stood near the historical marker and took a deep breath. I did my best to imagine what it was like being here two hundred years ago. And I knew I would never return. For me, this was a one-time event. My questions were answered and my curiosity about this physical space dissipated. But somewhere deep in me, there's a book about Caswell Holt waiting to get out.