"Privileged Negroes" -- Disputed Will of Nathaniel Lea
Nathaniel Lea was born around 1793, in Caswell County, North Carolina, a son of John (Canebrake) Lea (1766-1839) and Hannah Slade Lea (1767-1850). He never married, died in 1855, and through a will written earlier that year left his property to certain relatives (including siblings, nieces, and nephews). As he came from a large family, siblings, nieces, and nephews were plentiful.
Sister Rebecca Slade Lea married Royal George Williamson and lived at "Melrose."
Sister Delilah S. Lea married Jeremiah Graves and lived at "Dongola" in Yanceyville.
Sister Elizabeth Lea married Calvin Graves and lived in the Brown-Graves-Yarbrough in Locust Hill.
Brother Thomas L. Lea married Ann Blount Wright, and resided at "Leahurst" which still stands across from the New Hope Methodist Church in Caswell County.
Brother Sidney S. Lea married Fannie Elizabeth Torian and inherited the home place from his father.
Sister Mary Lea married George Willson who owned the Red House Tavern in Semora. Oddly, their daughter, Mary Lea Willson, became the second wife of Calvin Graves after the death of her aunt Elizabeth Lea Graves.
A brother, John G. Lea, apparently never married.
Nathaniel Lea had been advanced substantial property by his father, John (Canebrake) Lea, before the father died in 1839. He also participated in the residue of John (Canebrake) Lea's estate, receiving a one-eighth share according to his father's will, in which he was named as one of the executors. And, when assets of his father's estate were sold as part of the estate's administration, Nathaniel Lea was, with many others, a purchaser. Thus, Nathaniel Lea died a very wealthy man.
During his life he had a special relationship with a family of eight slaves. They may have been his "house" slaves as he owned others. They were treated almost as "free," being given special privileges and even money. They became the center of a legal dispute that went to the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Nathaniel Lea's will was probated during the October 1855 session of the Caswell County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions.
Lea had bequeathed to his friend and executor Thomas Jethro Brown (1833-1914) certain slaves who had "been faithful to me and served me well, attended and nursed me in my long and painful sickness," instructing Brown to "take care of the said slaves, treat them kindly and humanely." He gave Brown $3,000 to pay for their expense, some "being women, and can yield no profit of great amount." If Brown died or became insolvent requiring a sale of his property, the will instructed that the slaves be allowed to select their new masters and that the money should be used to compensate the new masters. Lea also gave Brown land (200 acres) and additional personal property.
Lea's relatives and "heirs at law," John G. Lea and Sidney S. Lea, sued Brown and the other legatees in the Caswell County Court of Equity, claiming that such bequests are "void as being against the policy of the law" regarding slaves that are allowed to live as free. That lower court referred the matter to the North Carolina Supreme Court.
In Lea v. Brown, 56 N.C. 141 (1857), Justice Pearson, speaking for the entire court, ruled that the challenged provisions of Nathaniel Lea's will could not stand as they violated the public policy against freeing slaves unless they are sent out of state. The challenged provisions of the will also violated the prohibition against partial emancipation of "negroes" by which particular slaves are allowed privileges and are not required to work like other negroes, but to some extent are allowed to decide whether to work or not.
And these legal notions had been codified in North Carolina Revised Code, Chapter 107, Section 29:
"No slave shall go at large as a free man exercising his own discretion in the employment of his time; nor shall any slave keep house to him, or herself, as a free person, exercising the like discretion in the employment of his or her time; and in case the owner of the slave shall consent to the same, or connive thereat, he shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor."
The court had no difficulty reaching a decision, holding:
"In our case had the testator [Nathaniel Lea] tried on purpose, he could not have more directly violated the provisions of this Statute, or more effectually contravened the fixed policy of the State. Here we have a family of negroes with two hundred acres of land, and three thousand dollars in money, to provide for their support, so that they may not be made to work like other negroes."
"The result, if his intentions are to be carried out, will be to establish in our midst a set of privileged negroes, causing the others to be dissatisfied and restless, and affording a harbor for the lazy and evil disposed."
The heirs wanted the slaves sold and the proceeds distributed under the residuary clause of the will. The court refused to go this far, ordering a decree "declaring that Mr. Brown holds the negroes and money in trust for the next of kin, and the land in trust for the heirs-at-law."
As the people who challenged the will fell into one of these categories (some being in both), they realized a partial victory. They did not obtain immediate and absolute rights to the $3,000, the 200 acres, or the eight slaves. They became beneficiaries of a trust. The money, land, and slaves (also deemed personal property) "funded" the trust, and executor Thomas Jethro Brown became the trustee.
While no further record of this dispute has been found, I believe additional litigation was likely because: (1) the next of kin and heirs at law were too numerous; (2) the assets of the trust were valuable; and (3) there were no explicit trust provisions for the trustee.
Slaves at Issue (8):
1. Dila (female)
2. Fanny [Old Fanny] (female; approximately 60 years old in 1855)
3. Maria [Mariah] (female; approximately 22 years old in 1855)
4. Mary Anne (female; approximately 22 years old in 1855)
5. Milly (female)
6. Milly (female; approximately 45 years old in 1855)
7. Nat (male)
8. Vic (male)