The September 29, 1950, edition of The Franklin Times contains a lengthy obituary for Hilliard Mitchell, “one of the last former slaves of Franklin County.” The article, which was contributed by an anonymous writer, contains interesting information about the end of the Civil War in the county as well as Mitchell’s family background and later life. Whether Mitchell deliberately misled people about his age and status at birth is unknown, but census records reveal that he was born in 1870 and thus was not a slave.
Hil, as he was known, was one of at least six children born to Ross and Celestia Mitchell, who had been slaves belonging to Leroy Mitchell, a wealthy farmer in Cypress Creek Township. In 1860, Leroy Mitchell owned real estate valued at $23,700; his personal estate of more than $40,000 included numerous slaves. Hil’s mother had been purchased from the Hilliard family by Leroy Mitchell when she and Ross, one of Mitchell’s slaves, chose to live together as husband and wife.
Hilliard enjoyed telling stories about the arrival of a portion of the troops of the Fifteenth Corps of General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee, which was one of three columns of soldiers that passed through Franklin County in early May 1865, on their way from Raleigh to Washington, D.C. The soldiers who camped at Leroy Mitchell’s plantation had crossed the Tar River at Ferrell’s Bridge. According to Hil, the troops burned farm buildings, stole family silver, and “rode off with Jim, Hil’s oldest brother.”
The reference to Jim was clearly untrue, as he was only three years old in 1870, but Hil’s account of the behavior of Union troops is in line with the story that Mary Anderson, a former slave of Sam Brodie, told in the 1930s to an interviewer for the Federal Writers’ Project. Brodie, whose farm was located southeast of Mapleville, was one of Leroy Mitchell’s neighbors. According to Anderson, the troops who visited Brodie’s plantation raided the smokehouse, took several barrels of brandy, and left with his horses and cattle.
The article in The Franklin Times describes Hilliard Mitchell in his later years. His stories about the Civil War era “got bigger as the years rolled by.” Until three years before his death, he earned money by “working gardens,” including those of H. C. Taylor, W. M. Pleasants, and E. S. Hale. Bent nearly double, he walked around town with the help of a “heavy hickory walking stick.”
Mitchell desired to be buried “in the old slave burying grounds at Mitchell’s Quarter.” This property in 1950 was owned by Dr. Frank O. Alford, a descendant of Leroy Mitchell. (The article claims that Alford owned slave records associated with the Mitchell plantation.) When Hilliard Mitchell died, Dr. Alford instructed tenants on the farm to clear the burying grounds. The Rev. Edd Harris, who had lived on the farm for some seventy years, agreed to locate the graves of Ross and Celestia Mitchell so that their son could be buried next to them.
Published in The Franklin Times on July 20, 2016.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College and can be reached at email@example.com.