Local historian and Danbury Cemetery board member Steve Shelton is seeking the community’s help to learn more more about a former slave in the Danbury area.
He said the search began when the cemetery board started purchasing land to ensure room for future burials.
“What we had was only one acre and it has lasted 150 years, so increasing that to three acres should take us well into the future,” he said, noting that the only problem with the recently acquired land was adequate access. “A piece of land granting that access came up for sale so we purchased it and started to work on clearing it.”
That new land include an old log cabin which Shelton said needed to be demolished, noting that the cemetery committee partnered with the Danbury Fire Department to use the house as a training exercise.
“But before they burned it, we went thought the house just to see if there was anything left in there worth saving,” he said, noting that is when he first learned about Caroline Smith. “In the upstairs area I moved an old stereo unit and discovered a little recess in the wall behind it with a book in it. I pulled it out and it was obviously a bible.”
Shleton said the bible, an 1866 American Bible Society publication, was in restively good shape when he pulled it from the wall.
“It was so old that it is actually printed on parchment, not what we consider to be paper today,” he said. “The inside pages were pretty well preserved, but near the edges of the book silverfish had gotten into it and started eating parts of it.”
As he started flipping through the pages, Shelton noticed an inscription near the front.
“Caroline Smith, Danbury ,N.C.,” reads the top of the page, followed by, “Caroline Smith according to her brother who visited her about 1896, was born in the year 1817.”
“Then you get to the part that you wish was higher up on the page because part of it was eaten by silverfish,” said Shelton. “It reads ‘This Bible was presented to Caroline Smith when she was set free (from) slavery.’
“All you have is what that says,” he added, “but when you have a Bible that was printed by a group that was in the business of providing Bibles to people who did not have Bibles, you have a publication year of 1866 so the timing is right, and then you have that record in there… your heart just caves. When I first read it it took my breath away to find something like that.”
Shelton quickly set out to find out what he could about Caroline Smith, saying that the property the book was found in used to be owned by Lafayette Smith, a confederate veteran and former slave owner.
“I had to wonder if Caroline Smith had taken her name from being a slave of the Smiths which was a common practice at the time,” said Shelton. “I did not find her name specifically connected to Lafayette Smith, but I did find a Caroline Smith who was listed in the census records. Back then they were listed as ‘W’ for white, ‘B’ for black and ‘M’ for mulatto or mixed race. I found a census record for a Caroline Smith who was listed as ‘M’ and was living the household of A.H. Joyce as a servant. Her age lined up with when they said she was born in the inscription in the bible.”
Shelton said he also found a note in the bible that had been written to someone named Nettie Smith. It read, “I suppose you think I intend to never write you at all, but I do. I shall never forget you or any of my dear pupils of 1920. I hope you made good in school this year also. We had a nice closing exercise. I wish you had been here to enjoy it. My love to Katherine and all of the children and also to Fannie May Hawkins and Betsy. When you see them let them know I plan to answer their letter. Your loving teacher, M.A.D.”
“Obviously the family kept this bible as a keepsake for a number of years, but at some point it got tossed in a recess of a wall or maybe someone hid it in the wall,” said Shelton. “It is just remarkable to have something like that survive. The cemetery committee felt that more people should be able to see it and that might be seen more and connected more to Danbury if it were in the library so it is on loan to them now and on display there. If anyone knows anything about Caroline Smith or a Nettie Smith please get in touch with me.”
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.