Inherit the Land: Jim Crow Meets Miss Maggie’s Will
The history of a friendship between black and white families in Marvin, N.C., 1875-present, that led to an 800-acre inheritance upheld by two white juries in Monroe, N.C., in 1921. The mutual respect and economic empowerment created unparalleled racial harmony in the community for generations and remains strong today. It is a model for overcoming hate and division.
Susan Burleyson Ross started a new family when she apprenticed five-year-old Bob Ross, son of a freed slave, in 1875 and raised him in her home with her grown daughters Maggie and Sallie and son Dennis. When he married and had a daughter, Mittie Bell Ross, he sent her to live with Maggie and Sallie. They sent Mittie to Livingstone College in the early 1900s. When Maggie died in 1907, her will revealed the bequest of her 800-acre homeplace to the black family,. More than 100 cousins, led by lawyer John J. Parker, sued to overturn the will, claiming that the bequest proved she was mentally incompetent. Defenders of the will, including two mayors of Monroe, countered that the families’ love made Bob and Mittie the proper heirs. When the all-white jury agreed, The Charlotte Observer write: “Perhaps no greater temptation had ever been placed before a jury to break a will, but it made bold to establish justice for Negroes and write a triumph for the law.”
The bequest of 800 acres made African-Americans important participants in the agricultural economy, and land sales across the color line became ordinary. Many black sharecroppers became landowning farmers. This Reconstruction-era story demonstrates the power of economic empowerment once proposed in “Forty Acres and a Mule,” complicates the monolothic understanding of black-white relationships in the period, and destroys the conventional excuse that racists like Gov. Walter Bickett, Miss Maggie’s first cousin once removed, should be accepted as “products of their times.”
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