Josh Shaffer

Slave who killed white overseer in 1834 honored with NC marker

Justice William Gaston of the N.C. Supreme Court, who decided in 1834 that the sentence for a slave named Will should be reduced to manslaughter after killing a white overseer in self-defense.
Justice William Gaston of the N.C. Supreme Court, who decided in 1834 that the sentence for a slave named Will should be reduced to manslaughter after killing a white overseer in self-defense. N.C. Archives

In 1834, on a plantation in Edgecombe County, a slave named Will refused to share a hoe he had made with his own hands, an act of defiance that got him shot in the back by his white overseer. As he lay wounded, Will reached up and fatally slashed his attacker on the hip and the arm, earning himself a trip to the gallows.

But before the death sentence could be carried out, the plantation owner hired a lawyer to defend Will, paying the unheard-of fee of $1,000. That lawyer, Bartholomew Moore, would one day become the state’s attorney general. But at age 33, he persuaded the court to overturn an earlier ruling governing slavery and reduce Will’s sentence to manslaughter – arguing that slaves were entitled to self-defense.

“The prisoner is a human being,” wrote William Gaston, then a justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, “degraded by slavery, but yet having ‘organs, senses, dimensions, passions,’ like our own.”

The case of State v. Will is widely considered a landmark case in the rights for slaves, chipping away at the brutality of the system. The case hardly granted Will his freedom, sending him from his jail cell back into forced plantation labor. But it demonstrated shifting attitudes in a state that only five years earlier had ruled “the power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.”

On Saturday, the state will dedicate a historical marker near the spot where Will struck back, placing him in the company of the slave poet George Moses Horton, the fugitive slave writer, abolitionist Harriet Jacobs and Dred Wimberly, a slave who became a state senator. It comes at the request of the Phoenix Historical Society in Tarboro, which called Will’s defense “a simple act of resistance to slavery.”

Just north of Rocky Mount, the town of Battleboro started as a railroad depot, though the plantation that owned Will predates any train lines. It belonged to James Smith Battle at the time of Will’s shooting, but later passed to a far more well-known relative: Kemp Plummer Battle, who became president of the University of North Carolina.

In his “Memories of an Old-Time Tar Heel,” Battle wrote, “I can truthfully say that I treated our slaves as well as I thought possible. The law did not allow them to be taught reading and writing. ... Little could be done for them except to feed and clothe them well and look after their health and provide overseers of high character and intelligence.”

Battle spoke fondly of a longtime slave named Allen, who was one-fourth white: “The estimation in which Allen was held by the neighborhood is shown by the fact that after my grandfather’s death, when his slaves were sold at auction at a time of financial depression, Allen brought $500 while other Negro men brought only $300.”

It was Allen, Battle and other historians note, who demanded Will’s hoe. Once refused, he reported the slave’s insubordination to the overseer, Richard Baxter. Baxter got his gun and ordered Allen to get a whip and follow him.

Once confronted, Will removed his hat in deference to the overseer. But shortly into his reprimand, he began running. Baxter shot Will in the back and commanded two slaves to give chase. As Will struggled on the ground, he cut a wound with a knife that caused Baxter to bleed to death.

Moore, one of two lawyers hired to defend Will, came from a poor farming background and carried a reputation for backing the underdog. Historical accounts differ on whether he was unknown at the time, and therefore good enough to defend a slave, or whether he already found the respect that would bring high office.

He argued against a murder case on legal grounds – Baxter would have faced manslaughter charges had he killed Will – and as a moral question. “Absolute power,” he argued, “is irresponsible power.” His defense struck a note with Gaston, who decided the case for the N.C. Supreme Court.

It may be difficult, viewed through a modern lens, to see this decision as a move toward justice considering slavery would endure for another three decades. Will’s success in court seems even more hollow considering James Smith Battle sent him to a plantation in Mississippi after the trial, hoping to avoid any difficulties on his own land with a slave who had killed a white man.

In Mississippi, Will killed a fellow slave and – that time – died by hanging. His wife, known as Aunt Rose, was heard to lament, “Will surely had hard luck.”

But nearly two centuries later, on the road where he lived in bondage, his name and his pride remain.

A state highway historical marker will be dedicated at 275 New Hope Church Road, Battleboro, on June 10 at 2 p.m.