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Epic Love Story Created Black Town

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Many parts of America bear marks from the slavery era. In my region of West Virginia, an epic love story produced the state's largest African-American community.

It happened during the mid-1800s, when our valley was a bastion of slavery. In the 1850 census, Kanawha County tallied 12,001 whites and 3,140 slaves. The bottomland was a string of farms on which blacks were kept almost like livestock: captive labor with no rights but to obey.

Apparently in secret, a rich plantation owner fell permanently in love with a beautiful slave, fathered 13 children with her, and finally was killed by angry white neighbors. But he had taken careful steps to assure that his woman and children would inherit his land -- setting the stage for Institute, a dozen miles downriver from Charleston, to become the state's largest black town.

The story wasn't recorded in any history book. It finally resurfaced because, one day in 1970, I was working in the county courthouse and a lawyer showed me what he called a "scandal" in a rich family. He pointed to century-old handwritten wills and documents, bound in musty record books. From them and old newspapers, this account emerged:

Samuel I. Cabell evidently was a member of the wealthy Virginia family that produced a governor and other leaders. Reportedly, he came to the Kanawha Valley with a regiment of slaves, worked them for a while in pioneer salt operations, then paid Martha Washington's heirs $10,500 for 967 acres of fertile valley land. The sale is recorded in a deed dated April 8, 1853.

By that time, Cabell already was deeply committed to one of his slaves. In 1851, he had secretly written a will saying that all his blacks were to be hired out after his death -- except one group:

"My woman, Mary Barnes, together with all her children... I do hereby give their freedom to take effect immediately at my death, and they aren't to be considered as included among the slaves before-mentioned."

Seven years later, Cabell wrote another secret will, implying that he feared that Mary and her children might be sold as slaves after his death. He wrote:

"In the event of sudden demise, this instrument of writing is intended to show or make known that Mary Barnes and all her children -- namely, Elizabeth, Sam, Lucy, Mary Jane, Sidney Ann, Soula, Eunice, Alice, Marina (or Bobby), Braxton, and an infant not named -- are and always have been free, as I have every right to believe they are my children. I want and it is my will that they shall be educated out of... all the moneys, bonds, debts due me, land, stocks, farming utensils and household to be equally divided between them."

Two more sons later were born to the couple.

In 1859, Cabell wrote a third private will, providing cash awards to each child. Finally, in 1863 -- during the Civil War -- the plantation owner added an angry codicil:

"I hereby revoke this testament and will as to the slave portion. Those that have absconded and those taken away by the Federal Army shall not receive anything and they shall never be released from bondage during their lives. All property and moneys and debts due me shall be given to Mary Barnes and children equally after paying the board and schooling of the six youngest until they arrive of age."

Cabell was a strange contradiction. He was devoted to his black family (of whom white neighbors presumably were unaware). Yet he was a Southern sympathizer who quarreled violently with Yankees. In 1864 he was charged with "intimidating a public officer". Then a death book records:

"(Name) Samuel I. Cabell, (date of death) July 18, 1865, (location) Kanawha River, (cause) murdered, (age) about 60, (parents) ----, (place of birth) Georgia, (consort) ----, (occupation) farmer."

A weekly Charleston newspaper, The West Virginia Journal, a fiery abolitionist sheet, reported on July 26, 1865, that "Samuel I. Cabell, a bitter and open rebel," had been shot to death by seven Yankee neighbors.

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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