Newspaper Clippings: Death of an Ancient Black Builder

I can’t claim to have come across this little gem on my own. I found a reference to it in John Hebron Moore’s The Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom in the Old Southwest, and just had to track it down. To say I wish I could have met David Rolfe would be an understatement. Obituaries for slaves were extremely rare, so I’m glad this one exists, but it leaves me wanting to know more.

Longevity of a Negro

The Corinthian Pillar, of Corinth, Miss. chronicles the death on the 22nd of Sept, near that place, of a negro named David Rolfe, the property of Wm. H. Moss, Esq., at the advanced age of 117 years. A few incidents (says the Memphis Eagle) connected with his life may not be uninteresting. That he was remarkably obedient and polite, all attest who knew him, and as evidences of his good conducts, it is said he was never chastised in his life. He has remarkable powers of endurance, was a fine carpenter, and built a large frame dwelling for Mr. Moss, at the advanced age of 114 years. In addition to being a good workman, he was a fine judge of work, and frequently amused himself in criticising the order of architecture in Corinth. He supported himself exclusively by his own exertions, and notwithstanding his master would have cheerfully supplied him with all necessaries of life, his independence of spirit rebuked the idea of being an object of charity, so long as he could raise an arm for his support. He has during the present summer drawn between three and four hundred shingles a day, and has frequently walked to Corinth, a distance of two miles, after a hard day’s work, to supply himself with sugar and coffee for the month. He was never sick in his life, nor did he ever take a dose of medication.

Natchez Daily Courier
Oct. 8, 1856, p. 3

How many other skilled enslaved artisans lived and built buildings still standing today, but never received any recognition in the written record? We know that the Weldon Brothers (also cited in Moore’s book), who built the courthouses at Raymond and Vicksburg, among others, had a work force entirely composed of slaves, including John Jackson who apparently was a skilled designer, but other than that, we know very little about the enslaved African American brick masons, carpenters, iron workers, and other artisans who worked on many of our antebellum mansions. I’ve been reading Catherine Bishir’s Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900, and highly recommend it for giving ideas about where to research these questions in Mississippi.



Categories: African American History, Antebellum, Architectural Research

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4 replies

  1. That would be most interesting to discover. Has there been any research on that topic in Mississippi?

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  2. There’s been some, but until the advent of ancestry.com and other online sources, the sources were really scattered and often inaccessible. I’ve been trying to track the Weldons, and that’s who I was looking for when I came across this citation in Moore’s book. I should note, by the way, that I looked for the Corinthian Pillar and the Memphis Eagle to try to track down the original source, but no luck so far.

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  3. A slave named Old Mory is said to have built a number of the finer houses in the Black Jack area of eastern Yazoo County. One he planned and built after the Civil War around 1872 is the Stubblefield Plantation house which is still standing

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  4. You also need to remember Thomas Day. Even though he was free, he was still quite an oddity in the antebellum South: a successful African American businessman. The book “Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color” has photographs of architectural woodwork of such unique design and craftsmanship that (though I am not as knowledgeable as some others) have no comparison in the work of any other designers or builders. Thankfully, North Carolina has a very active group of architectural historians, “led” by Catherine Bishir, that have made that state one of the best, if not the best studied in the country.

    Also, as to the age of David Rolfe, probably subtract 40 years. I doubt he was much more than 80 years old and certainly not 117, though living to be in his late 70s was quite an achievement in the 1800s, especially for a slave.

    I do not have it handy right now, but I am sure that Mills Lane’s book “Architecture of the Old South: Mississippi-Alabama” has some mention of slave labor somewhere in it. Perhaps I am just imagining it, but I thought that Levi Weeks owned slaves and used them as workers on Auburn. I also believe that some work on Longwood was performed by slaves, especially after the Northern workmen saw how the wind was blowing and left.

    Natchez and Columbus are probably the best places to find both the tangible evidence of slave artisans’ work in both extant buildings and extant records.

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