Monday, January 19, 2015

UNC at Pittsboro? Historians reveal what might've been and more 

Imagine that our great University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, would, but for the tight-fistedness of an 18th century landowner, have been our great University of North Carolina at Pittsboro.

On Pokeberry Creek, no less.

It's true, and the details of this near-miss of the 700-acre Chatham County Jones Grove plantation as a site for the University in 1792 -- as well as the secrets literally dug from unmarked slave graves -- are revealed in a tantalizing new book, "Miss Mary's Money: Fortune and Misfortune in a North Carolina Plantation Family, 1760-1924" (McFarland Publishers, Jefferson, N.C., $29.95 softcover.) by H.G. Jones with David Southern.

Trust Jones, who's taught history in several universities, served as state archivist and director of the North Carolina Department of Archives and History and as curator of the North Carolina Collection at UNC, to nail the most elusive facts and make history come jigging to life.

David Southern is a managing editor at Duke University Press of "The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle" and a genius of a sleuth.

Let's put aside the complicated Smith genealogy that begins with a 1760 land grant to one Richard Parker, and just say that Mary Ruffin Smith became the sole heir of several sizable parcels, including Jones Grove, which over the years expanded to more than 1,000 acres, and which, at her death in 1885, she willed to the University. Proceeds from the sale of the property were parlayed into scholarships.

Mary Smith never married. But her unsavory bachelor brothers, Francis Smith and Sidney Smith, one a quasi-doctor and one a binge-drinking lawyer, sired four daughters with a slave woman named Harriet, often as the result of rape.

And that's only the beginning of this fascinating story, which anyone interested in dysfunctional families, horrific treatment of slave women by their white owners, great wealth, family devotion and heart-swelling generosity, will definitely want to read.