Dave Gillespie and Judi F. Gillespie —
Surprising though it may be, it is true. Through most of the long global history of slavery, race or “blood” was largely unconnected to which side of the slave-free line of demarcation a human creature of God fell. Slavery was the fruit of war and conquest and, regardless of skin color, slaves were people who or whose ancestors had lost the match. That was as so in democratic Athens as in authoritarian settings before and after. It was originally the case in the Americas, even in the earliest years of European penetration and conquest.
But it was also in the Americas where blood/color/race would come to make that connection with slavery as cause and effect. That may be why, in theory at least, the legal or customary benchmark in the United States for differentiating whites from non-whites was so much more stringent than what the Nazis would adopt as the volume of blood separating “Aryans” from Jews.¹
Race as demarcation was simple conceptually but tough and complex when applied. For many years millions of Irish and other European whites arrived in what was or would become the United States as indentured servants, not free, and the conditions of their servitude sometimes did not radically differ from the status of slaves. And because of the long history of sexual relations between slave-owning men and enslaved women, there were many slaves whose skin color and other features were more stereotypically Caucasian than Negro. The abolitionists were well aware that the fact of enslaved people who were white in appearance was a public relations dilemma for slavery defenders. Abolitionist pamphlets and literature thus often carried photographs or drawings of slaves who looked white.
Accessing a White Slave’s Life Story
Back in the 1970’s we met Jordan Chambers (1813-1892), a North Carolinian who lived for 42 of his 79 years in slavery, who married twice and fathered 15 children, and who, following emancipation, taught school and also attained some prominence as a Republican participant in the local politics of the Reconstruction era.
That is not quite true, of course, that thing about our meeting him. But we did become rather intimately acquainted with him, first, through the family story revealed by Jordan’s youngest child, Carrie Chambers. Carrie, when nearly blind at 91 years of age, recounted her father’s life to Rosette Flowers. Flowers, the mother of one of the authors of this article, had become Carrie Chambers’ confidant and close friend. Glimpsing some of Carrie Chambers’ family photos one day, Rosette exclaimed “Carrie, your folks look white!” That is when and where the narrative commenced. It began with an affirmative reply: “Yes, my father was a white man.”
Absent DNA testing, we cannot confirm unassailably that Carrie’s parental grandparents—Jordan Chambers’ mother and father—were white. But subsequently researching the Jordan Chambers family story, we have found documents and data corroborating dozens of details of the Jordan Chambers life story. We found pertinent census data, newspaper articles, deeds, wills, land transfers, and other state and county public documents, and even a lengthy entry on slave Jordan Chambers in an unpublished manuscript titled “A History of the Chambers Family of Iredell County, N.C.” Written by family historian Henry Alexander Chambers, it is a comprehensive account of the history of one of the most prominent slave-owning Iredell County families.²
Most importantly, through Rosette Flowers’ connection with Carrie, we procured a memoir which Jordan Chambers composed and kept over the years 1870 to 1881. It bears school lessons and other items, but its most significant entries by far are the autobiographical notes providing details about his life.³
Unassailable proof, no; but given the wealth of information corroborating so many things, we trust the veracity of Jordan Chambers’ racial and parental claims. Here is his life story as we have come to understand it.
Earliest Life (1813-1824)
Jordan Chambers was born on September 24, 1813 in Iredell County, in the western Piedmont region of North Carolina. He was not short on names. As an adult he would give his full name as Henry Jordan Clay Caldwell Chambers. He never wavered in his lifelong claim about race and parentage. He was, he said, a white son of Andrew Caldwell, an Iredell plantation owner. The Caldwell family produced lawyers, state senators, and judges. Jordan’s mother Harriet was an Irish woman who may have come as an indentured servant to the Caldwell family. Jordan’s earliest status in life was thus that of the illegitimate child of a prominent white land owner and of a white woman.
One day when he was playing with some slave children, Jordan was picked up and taken from the Caldwell property. That came soon after Andrew Caldwell’s death, and the removal may have been to eliminate the embarrassing reminder to Ruth Sharpe Caldwell, Andrew’s widow, of her husband’s infidelity. Jordan fell into the hands of Robert Simonton, a landowner known to have had connections with the Caldwell family. Jordan’s life in slavery had begun.
Slave Life (1824-1865)
Simonton twice took Jordan to Charleston, South Carolina, to sell him at the slave market. Both attempts ended in failure. In his memoir, Jordan himself offered what he thought was the reason: “I Wars whiter than he Wars and the peoples wars a going to put him in prinson.” Simonton took him back to Statesville, the Iredell County seat. After Simonton’s death, Jordan became a slave on Joseph Chambers’ plantation, Farmville. Joseph Chambers was the wealthiest planter in the county.
It was with the Chambers family that Jordan spent nearly 40 years as a slave. Jordan’s value to the plantation was well documented by family historian Henry Alexander Chambers. In his unpublished family history, Henry devoted a lengthy entry to slave Jordan Chambers. Henry noted that Jordan was very intelligent, that he could read and write “a little,” and that Jordan would sometimes boast “of his blood relationship to one of the most distinguished white families of this part of the state.”
Jordan was the personal servant to Joseph and then to Joseph’s son Pinckney Brown Chambers. He was regarded by the Chambers family as indispensable to the workings of the plantation. He was a skilled carpenter and sometimes even served as overseer to the work of other slaves. Jordan also read simple medical books, learned about illnesses and remedies common to the area, and he became the assistant physician who accompanied doctors in making their rounds to treat slaves at Farmville and on nearby farms. At the close of his biographical entry on Jordan Chambers, Henry wrote that “next to the master he was the most important man who belonged to the place.”
Jordan married twice, and he fathered 15 children. His first wife was Eliza, a slave from a nearby farm. Jordan and Eliza married in 1834 and together parented seven children. His second wife was Margaret Curtis Moore, known as Lettie Moore. Although a slave, Lettie was the daughter of a prominent white Statesville doctor. Lettie’s mother, also a slave, was part Indian and part black.⁴
The marriage of Jordan and Lettie took place on Christmas Day 1854. According to oral tradition in the family descending from Jordan and Lettie, the doctor was proud of his slave daughter, so much so that for her marriage he travelled to New York to purchase her wedding dress.⁵ Lettie and Jordan parented eight children, four of whom were born in slavery. The last of these eight to be born, a woman named Carrie Chambers, was the person who led us to the revelation of her father’s remarkable life.
Life After Emancipation
Jordan Chambers continued to live and work at Farmville for about a half year after the Civil War ended. He left on January 1, 1866, apparently moving to Salisbury, the county seat of Rowan, the historic county adjacent to and east of Iredell. In Salisbury he found work as a warehouse watchman and as a policeman. He also is said to have tried his hand at preaching the gospel. But Jordan gave more of his sustained vocational attention during his freedom years to teaching former slave children. From 1867 to 1871, he filled assignments to teach black children in common (ungraded) schools in Iredell and Rowan counties.
Jordan Chambers also engaged in North Carolina’s Reconstruction era bi-racial politics. In 1868, Republican Governor William Holden appointed him as both a Justice of the Peace and the Iredell County Executor. Also in 1868 and again in 1870 he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the state House of Representatives. He would later serve as an assistant to the Iredell Clerk of Court. The Landmark, a Statesville newspaper with a Democratic and white supremacist editorial viewpoint, several times commented on his political activity and quest but always with derision, scorn, and amusement. Jordan’s political fortunes and hopes must have diminished after the Democrats regained control of the legislature in 1870. But for nearly four years ending in January of 1877 Jordan Chambers did work in Raleigh as a waiter and messenger for the North Carolina Secretary of State.
Whether due to age, family considerations, or the newly-contrary political winds, he then retired and bought a small tract of land in Statesville. There he built a modest home facing a street which came to be named Chambers Street. To the end of his life, Jordan Chambers sustained his devotion to the education of African American youths. Graded schools were instituted in Statesville for the first time in 1891. Records confirm that he was one of the principal founders of the first graded school for black Statesville children.
We know the precise date on which Jordan Chambers died. That is because Pinckney Brown Chambers, the master of Farmville for nearly half of the time Jordan was enslaved there, penciled this note (perhaps it was written lovingly or at least gratefully) into the record book he had kept as master: Jordan died 22 Feby 1892. Aged in his 78 year. (Initialed) PBC.⁶
About the condition and circumstances of Jordan’s bondage, family historian Henry Chambers wrote that “his slavery was merely nominal.” Undeniably Jordan Chambers’s status had been extraordinary. That had appeared in the roles he was tasked to perform as in the deference the family expressed in what they wrote about him. He had received some basic instruction in reading and writing, and the corroborated fact that some of his learning had come while sitting alongside white sons and daughters of the Chambers family was remarkable. More than that, it was probably illegal, for North Carolina law, like those of other slave states, forbade the empowerment of enslaved people by making them literate.
Carrie Chambers, who clearly was interested in her father’s remarkable life, also took pride in his achievements. But she would never have accepted that her father’s enslavement was “merely nominal.” He had been unfree, bound not as a serf to the land but as a slave to a human master. The education accorded him was very rudimentary even if acquired illegally. After emancipation, Jordan and his wife Lettie were the first former slaves in Iredell County to undertake to have their marriage recognized under law. They had lived under the tyranny of a legal system which had not recognized their marriage or even the inalienable right of enslaved couples and their children to remain and live together as families.
Whatever advantage had accrued to Jordan over other slaves of darker hue was blunted, maybe neutralized, by his recognition or sense that as a white man his own enslavement was in violation even of the malign rules of the system itself. “Uppity” is a term with a long history of racial use in America. During the Jim Crow era it is was often applied by traditional whites to “uppity blacks” who did not “know their place.”
It has also been used from slave times on by African Americans to light skinned kin or acquaintances who have claimed special privilege or who have tried to “pass.” Despite the evidence strongly supporting Jordan’s particular racial claim, his own stature and influence within the black community in which he lived even when he was no longer a slave was no doubt limited by a perception that his claim was unseemly, alienating, and uppity.
Thus, according to Carrie Chambers, emancipation never fully liberated her father. Bound psychologically and limited educationally and socially, he had gone to his death “no longer a slave, but not yet free.”
¹Nazi law declared that people with one Jewish grandparent were Jews. In the United States, a single drop of non-white blood sufficed in principle to declare one to be non-white.
²Named Farmville and situated along a road between the North Carolina county seat towns of Statesville and Salisbury, the Chambers plantation was 4,000 acres in area. According to 1860 U.S. census figures, 90 enslaved people were living there.
³On behalf of Carrie Chambers, we donated the diary to the Atlanta University Center, the consortium of historically black private colleges in that city. Through the AUC we also published our first article on the topic: J. David Gillespie and Judi F. Gillespie, “Struggle for Identity: The Life of Jordan Chambers,” Phylon: The Atlanta University Review of Race and Culture, XL, No. 2 (Summer 1979), 107-118.
⁴It may be reasonable to speculate that Jordan and the Statesville doctor had become acquainted through their common labors in treating ill slaves in the area.
⁵Of course Jordan Chambers’ marriages while a slave were, like all slave marriages, unrecognized under North Carolina law.
⁶Reconstruction had brought hard times for the white Chambers family. Pinckney Brown Chambers declared bankruptcy in 1873, and the family lost the Farmville home and remaining property in 1898.