My Story: Ashley McGhee Whittle - Part One
The Black Andersons
TITLE: The Black Andersons
AUTHOR: Jim Stokely
PERMISSION TO PUBLISH granted by the author. All rights reserved.
The Black Andersons of northern Buncombe County, descendants of William David Anderson (1807-1880) and Sallie Jane Russell (1845-1920), constituted a portion of the populous Anderson family tree of Madison and Buncombe Counties. William D. Anderson’s grandfather James, born in northern Ireland in 1740, had emigrated to the American colonies before the Revolution, had served as a Private with the New Jersey militia, and in the 1790’s had moved with his wife and 11 children to what is now Buncombe County. Family lore had it that they were the first Methodist family to live west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. One of their sons, James Anderson, Jr., married Elizabeth Frances Summers; they raised nine children.
Jane Russell’s family had come from either eastern Tennessee or elsewhere in western North Carolina. She fell in love with William Anderson, 38 years her senior, and William Anderson declared his intent to marry her. Their community around what is now Barnardsville in northern Buncombe County expressed its general distaste for such a match. Why? Because Jane Russell was not White. The 1870 United States Federal Census listed the family members who were then living together as follows:
M signified Mulatto. The word “mulatto,” while never precise, most often connoted a White father and Black mother. However, it might have suggested to some readers any maternal mixture of White, Black and/or Native American ancestry. As scholar Warren Eugene Milteer, Jr. has noted, “North Carolinians sometimes used ‘free negro,’ ‘free mulatto,’ and ‘free black’ interchangeably with ‘free person of color’…’free person of color’ was simply a label of status that denoted a middling position in the sociopolitical hierarchy that ranked the free over the enslaved and the white over the non-white.” [i]
The 1870 Census listed only half of William’s and Jane’s children. Those unlisted included William B., Olympus, Robert (born 1873), and General Meade (born 1875). Although the two eldest children had been born by 1865, William married Jane at the end of the Civil War and took his family away from the oppressive Barnardsville community. They settled along Paint Fork two miles to the south, then up a steep branch in an isolated cove which became known as Anderson Cove. There their children grew up and raised their own families, interacting with the outside world no more than necessary. One of their modes of interaction was a time-honored mountain tradition of turning their main cash crop – corn – into a liquid "moonshine" form that could command higher prices and be more easily transported.
During the 1920’s and Prohibition, newspapers delighted in covering the trials and tribulations of the infamous Andersons, whose later patriarchs included a grown-up Robert (“Big Bob”), a grown-up Alonzo ("‘Lonzo the Fox”), and Robert’s bullying son “Big Robert." Following the death of “Big Robert” in 1930 – who at the time was serving a 20-year prison sentence for killing his uncle Alonzo – outside media took a bit less interest in these Andersons. An Asheville newspaper described the funeral as follows:
No automobile has ever penetrated Anderson’s cove proper, so the body will necessarily be taken home by wagon. The burying ground is isolated on top of the mountain and clansmen are forced to carry their dead on their shoulders. It is a pretty spot, marked with crude headstones which the mountain folk have erected themselves from native stone. The view is magnificent. Every Anderson from the day “Old Greasy Bill” Anderson and his beautiful Jane Russell died many decades ago, is buried in that clearing.[ii]
[i] Warren Eugene Milteer, Jr., “The Complications of Liberty: Free People of Color in North Carolina from the Colonial Period through Reconstruction,” unpublished dissertation, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2013, pp. ii,4.
[ii] “Big Robert” Anderson to be Buried Saturday, Asheville Citizen, February 21, 1930.