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.