By Angelina Ray Johnston and Robinson Wise
[This is the third of 4 installments of an essay that was originally published here.]
Although African Americans lobbied strenuously against any national monument to “mammies,” some African Americans sought to exploit whites’ professed affection for “faithful slaves” and “mammies” to advance black freedom and improve race relations. In North Carolina, Charles N. Hunter (1852-1931) was a tireless champion of black educational opportunities and economic progress even while he also promoted an annual ceremony to commemorate the faithful service of former slaves to their masters. Born a slave, Hunter was the son of a slave artisan and the property of William Dallas Haywood, a member of a prominent Raleigh family. Hunter’s first job was with the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust in Raleigh. After that venture failed in 1874, he began teaching, a profession with which he was associated for the rest of his life. Over the years he taught in schools across the state, and from 1910 to 1918 he served as principal of the Berry O’Kelly School, a black high school on the outskirts of Raleigh. During his tenure, the Baltimore Manufacturer’s Record acclaimed the school as the “finest and most practical rural training school in the entire South.”7
Hunter was simultaneously outspoken and cautious in his demands for racial justice. He was adamant that blacks deserved equal rights but advocated congenial race relations. While he urged blacks to build on longstanding relationships with white Southern elites (aka former slaveholders) he beseeched white elites to fulfill their promises to be the “black man’s best friend.” As one of the founders in 1879 of the annual Negro State Fair, Hunter sought opportunities to promote the interracial amity that was conspicuously absent at the dawn of the twentieth century. Although Hunter, himself a former slave, had no illusions about the slave experience, he did hold that one consequence of slavery had been that blacks and whites had lived together on close terms. Since emancipation, almost all familiarity between blacks and whites had dissolved, and now was replaced by animosity and suspicion.
In 1913, in his capacity as an officer of the Negro State Fair and as a member of the Exslaves’ Association of North Carolina, Hunter set out to revive the former bonds of affection between masters and slaves by organizing and publicizing a reunion of former slaves and their masters during the fair. Former slaveowners contributed funds to pay for the transportation of their aged former slaves to Raleigh and local white women helped prepare and serve a dinner to the former slaves. The banquet was accompanied by speeches, songs, and reminiscences from both former slave masters and slaves. Heartened by his Old Slaves’ Reunion and Dinner, Hunter proclaimed that “Today the Negro’s heart beats as one with his former owners.” Hunter would continue to promote the slave reunion until his death in 1931.8
Both during his lifetime and since, some observers viewed Hunter’s ideas about the ties of affection between slaves and masters as naive at best, craven at worst. Yet Hunter’s larger goal was not to perpetuate nostalgia about slavery, but rather to exploit the former familiarity between some whites and their former slaves to enlighten whites in general about black educational, economic, and religious progress since emancipation. Hunter, in sum, sought to strengthen tenuous bonds across the racial line in order to ease the climate of distrust that soured all contact between blacks and whites. He fully understood the obstacles in his path, and although he expressed satisfaction with the slave reunions that he hosted, he publicly acknowledged late in his life that they had failed to substantively improve race relations.9
7. Manufacturer’s Record, April 12, 1917; on Hunter, see John Haley, Charles N. Hunter and Race Relations in North Carolina (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987).
8. Haley, John. Charles N. Hunter and Race Relations in North Carolina, 176-77; Raleigh Times, December 22, 1913; Fayetteville Observer, January 31, 1927.
9. For more information about Charles N. Hunter’s heritage visit “Charles N. Hunter Papers, 1850s-1932 and undated,” David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.