The Life of General Roberson
|This portrait of General Roberson (circa 1900), which is the only one known to existence, will be on display at the Leigh Farm Park Visitor Center for the month of February.|
Used with permission of copyright holder Curtis Booker.
In honor of Black History Month, the Cultural Heritage team thought it might be interesting to share with our readers a lesser known aspect of the history of Leigh Farm Park. So today we will be telling you about General Roberson, an African American farmer who lived on the farm in the early 1900s.
Like his parents Isaac and Patsy, General was born into slavery, sometime around 1844. It can be difficult to find written records of African Americans born prior to Emancipation, so knowledge of his early life is limited. His mother probably gave him the strong, unique name of “General” since enslaved people were typically known by their first name. It is likely that the Robersons came from Pitt County, North Carolina where they are reported living in the 1870 federal census. This is the earliest census in which they are listed by name. Although the 1860 federal census included a “Slave Schedule” it only recorded the gender, age and race of each person. Four years after the end of the Civil War, Isaac, along with his children Abe, General, Thomas and Annie “Robertson” are reported living in California Township near Falkland. The men are working as “farm hands,” Annie is “keeping house,” and no one in the household is able to read or write (however in 1900 General reported on the census that he had since acquired these skills).
Later census data from 1910 suggests that General and his brother Thomas served during the Civil War for the Confederate Army. However the ability to verify this is limited since written records of African Americans fighting for the Confederate states is almost non-existent.
Earlier in 1870 General married a local young woman named Violet, but it is unclear why he is still living at home. Unfortunately, there are many questions about this period of General’s life that remain unanswered. He is not represented in formal records again until 1884 when his second marriage to Rebecca Carlton takes place in Patterson Township [Leigh Farm Park – now present day Durham County – was once considered part of Patterson Township]. Although we do not know what drew the Roberson brothers (Thomas was married and settled in Patterson Township by 1880) to this part of the state, by 1890 General and his wife Rebecca were living there with their three children Rosa, H.R. and Cora. There is some evidence to suggest that Rebecca or her parents were once enslaved by the Leigh family though this is difficult to confirm. Rebecca must have passed away because in 1894 General married for the third time to a woman named Sarah, and went on to have four more children.
Large families were common then and the Robersons labored on a rented farm until 1904 when General, as the highest bidder at auction, made his first purchase of 87 acres of Leigh Farm property. He paid $600 (roughly the equivalent of $16,000 in today’s money), half of which he paid in cash.
Over the next several years General continued to purchase land from the descendants of Stanford Leigh, and by 1919 he owned 209 acres of the original 1,000 acres that comprised Leigh Farm. At this time the average farm size in Patterson Township was about 100 acres. According to the 1925 Farm Census report General’s assets included:
-one acre of tobacco
-one acre of cotton
-eight acres of corn
-half an acre home garden
-two dairy cows
Three of his daughters and their families also worked the land, and after his death in 1927 the property was divided into three tracts. In 1935 Rosa’s husband Sampie Brown (she passed away in 1928) planted 9 of their 73 acres with tobacco, corn, cotton, soybeans, truck crops, and six fruit trees. Her sister Myrtle, along with husband Earnest Davis, planted 21 of their 58 acres with tobacco, cotton, corn, soybeans, sorghum cane, sweet potatoes, truck crops, hay and 12 fruit trees. And Cora and Charlie Mitchell produced tobacco, cotton, corn, peas, sorghum cane, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes and truck crops on 17 of their 61 acres. In fact the Mitchell’s six acres of tobacco was the largest of any African American farmer in Patterson Township for that year.
According to oral history interviews, Myrtle Davis and her family were closely connected with their neighbors the Hudsons, who were descendants of Stanford Leigh. Up until Katie Hudson’s death in 1946 Myrtle did household chores for her, and as they had the only television in the area the Davis children would come over to watch it there when they were not at school.
As the years went on the grandchildren and great grandchildren of General Roberson sought work outside of the family farm. Several of them served during World War I and II. Many stayed in Durham and Chapel Hill, but the land he acquired was eventually sold for development.
Are you a descendant of the Roberson family? We’d love to hear from you!
If you want to learn more about General Roberson and see his portrait or an original drawing of the house he lived in, stop by the Leigh Farm Visitor Center for a special display during the month of February. For more information about opening hours, contact Natalya Buckel at 919.560.1116 or Natalya.Buckel@durhamnc.gov
Interested in learning more about African American genealogy research? Stay tuned for details on a workshop we will be holding in November to help you get started with your own family history.
|Storyteller Willa Brigham|