Chapel Hill News

Forgotten monument spurs historian’s quest

Eight years ago, a tall stone cross in a neglected family cemetery in Chatham County took hold of historian H.G. Jones’ curiosity.

“It was just this strange thing,” he said. “This big granite monument out in the woods – forgotten.”

The cross marked the grave of Mary Ruffin Smith, and Jones was especially struck by the inscription: “Founder of the Mary Ruffin Smith Fund in the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Diocese of North Carolina and of the Francis Jones Smith Fund of the University of North Carolina.”

“It just seemed to be so out of place, I had to find something out about it,” said Jones, 91, retired curator of UNC’s North Carolina Collection and a former state archivist.

So he set out on a quest of discovery, leading eventually to the book “Miss Mary’s Money: Fortune and Misfortune in a North Carolina Plantation Family, 1760-1924.”

The book, which Jones wrote with the assistance of Durham researcher David Southern, came out in January. It is a saga of a mixed-race family in a bygone era, in which Mary Ruffin Smith emerges – in Jones’s judgment – as the saint and her father and two brothers as a trio of flamboyant but improvident sinners.

“I had never heard any of that, and had to dig it up,” Jones said.

Miss Mary’s money, it turned out, saved a number of her farmer neighbors from ruin in the Reconstruction era, saved the financially floundering St. Mary’s School in Raleigh two decades later and brought major modernizing to the university – such as indoor toilets and a sewage system.

‘Four little girls’

Posterity does not remember Mary Ruffin Smith so much for her philanthropy as it does for her being the aunt of Cornelia Smith Fitzgerald – grandmother of Pauli Murray, who grew up largely in Durham and went on to become a lawyer, civil-rights activist and the first black woman ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church.

Murray wrote about her grandmother and her memories of the Smiths in her memoir “Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family.” Cornelia was the daughter of Harriett Smith, a slave of the Smith family, and Mary Smith’s brother Sidney.

Harriet gave birth to three other daughters – Emma, Annette and Laura – by Mary Smith’s other brother, Francis. They, along with Cornelia, figure large in “Miss Mary’s Money,” as the spinster Mary Smith took “the four little girls” under her wing, saw to their education secular and Christian, and left them each 100 acres of the Smith family property in her will.

“Always there were the four women in the background,” Jones said. “And let me tell you, if the book accomplishes anything I hope the descendants of the three girls (other than Cornelia) realize that they go back to this wealthy family.

“I really wrote the book for them,” he said.

A personal surprise

At first, Jones thought he might get a journal article out of researching Mary Ruffin Smith, but as he learned more, the story grew and became a years-long project. Some was fun, he said, “but a lot of it was drudgery” – especially reading through the old deeds he used to trace his story back to the mid-18th century and Mary Smith’s great-grandfather, Tignal Jones.

From there, land records help illuminate the career of Smith’s father, James Strudwick Smith, a Hillsborough physician and politician who squandered a fortune with his careless wheeling and dealing in real estate. There are his sons, both given to drink and following in their father’s footsteps.

And there is Miss Mary, taking charge of affairs when she had to and preserving the family’s fortune to hand off for generations to come.

“One major bottom line of the book is that it highlights the life of a highly intelligent, kind and no-nonsense woman who lived simply, preserved a fortune that her borthers would have squandered and left the money to institutions that benefitted many thousands of North Carolinians,” said David Williamson of Durham, a long-time friend of H.G. Jones.

One part of the story, near the end, particularly touched and surprised Jones, the archivist.

Besides water and sewer, Smith’s bequest brought electricity to UNC in the 1890s. In the 1970s, the university sold its utility systems and the sale resulted in a $32.5 million windfall for the campus libraries. Jones said he had no idea that the libraries’ good fortune came, indirectly, from the subject of the book he was working on.

“That,” he said, “was very personal, for me.”

Wise: 919-641-5895