Rue, Isaac C. (ca. 1788-1880)
Isaac C. Rue (ca. 1788-1880), a bricklayer and plasterer, practiced his trades for many years in New Bern, spending at least a half-century of his life in slavery and thirty more years as a free man and owner of considerable property. He was one of the best known and most prosperous of many black artisans who plied the “trowel trades” in New Bern during the 19th century.
By the 1830s and possibly earlier, Rue (Rew) belonged to the emancipated plasterer and bricklayer Donum Montford, who was the wealthiest black artisan in New Bern. Nothing is yet known of Isaac Rue’s parents, his early years and training, or when or how he came into Montford’s possession. Rue was probably connected in some way with the slaveholding white Rue (Rew) family long prominent in the New Bern area, but no documentation has been found of an association. In his will of 1838, Donum Montford bequeathed Isaac Rue to his widow, Hannah Montford, for her lifetime, and specified that at her death Isaac was to be freed or taken to a northern state where he could be free.
As early as 1841, Rue was earning wages, either for himself or to pay a portion to Mrs. Montford: when New Bern merchant William Hollister built a fine house in 1840-1841, his accounts included payments to unnamed brick masons and carpenters, but occasionally he supplied names, such as in August, 1841, when he paid “Isaac Rue for sundry jobs,” $7.50. Although Rue probably became a free man within two or three years after Hannah Montford’s death in 1846, it is possible that he acquired his freedom before that, since his obituary stated that he had purchased his freedom twenty years before the Civil War. Rue surely constructed numerous brick buildings, chimneys, and foundations in New Bern and plastered many a room, but little of his work has been documented. In the 1850s he accomplished several small jobs for the Moses Griffin School. He signed numerous receipts for his work there on fireplaces, building chimneys, and plastering at rates from $1.50 to 20 shillings per day, and he billed for his workmen Miles and Laurence at 12 shillings 6 pence in 1853 and Ned at 10 shillings in 1855. By 1858 Rue was making $2.00 per day. Although he sometimes marked his receipts with an X, Rue also signed his name.
Rue soon accumulated money and property. By 1850 he was listed in the census as a plasterer with real estate valued at $500. He also owned one slave, a black man aged 19. Rue was head of a household of free people of color that included Phillis, 52 (probably his second wife), Angelina, 9, and Laura, 7, plus Miles Richardson, 17, a black house carpenter and probably a relative through his daughter, Sarah. An article of 1912 stated that during slavery Rue had been married to a free black woman, with whom he had free children. Among these children was Sarah Rue (born ca. 1812), who in 1830 married Simon Richardson, a caulker and a member of a free family long established in Craven County. Their son Edward A. Richardson (possibly “Ned” who worked with Rue at the Moses Griffin School project) became a leading bricklayer and a prominent citizen who probably learned his trade from his grandfather. Edward and Isaac remained close throughout Isaac’s long life.
During and after the Civil War, Isaac Rue continued to be a substantial citizen in New Bern and was in 1862 an elder in Andrews Chapel, the large, black Methodist church. He lost his wife Phillis but soon remarried, marrying Rachel Franks in about 1865. The census of 1870 stated that he owned $2,000 worth of real estate and $200 in personal property, a substantial amount of property at the time. Rue maintained his relationships with his family throughout his life and continued to live near his children and grandchildren. The New Bernian of January 17, 1880, reported: “A native of this county, and for nearly eighty years a resident of Newbern, died at his residence on Queen street on last Monday [in his] ninety-third year. Uncle Isaac, as we learn, was born in slavery and was once the property of a colored man named Montford, but some twenty years before the late war, by thrift and industry he purchased his freedom and afterwards acquired a considerable amount of property in real estate which is left to his grandson, E. A. Richardson, a faithful and obliging Clerk in our Post Office.”
- Craven County Records (Deeds, Wills, Estates Papers), North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- William Hollister Account Books, microfilm, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- Peter B. Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (1988).
- United States Census, 1850-1880.
- Calvin D. Wilson, “Negroes Who Owned Slaves,” Popular Science Monthly, 81 (July-Dec. 1912).
- Dates:1848-1851Location:New Bern, Craven CountyStreet Address:George St., New Bern, NCStatus:No longer standingType:EducationalImages Puslished In:Catherine W. Bishir, Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900 (2013).
Peter B. Sandbeck, The Historic Architecture of New Bern and Craven County, North Carolina (1988).Note:The wealthy New Bernian Moses Griffin left a bequest to build a school, and his estates papers and other records document the costs and the workmen involved. House carpenter Hardy B. Lane was the principal "architect" and builder, and William [H.] Jones was the principal white bricklayer. Much of the work was accomplished by free and enslaved artisans of color including Richard Tucker and Isaac C. Rue. It was a substantial Greek Revival style brick building similar in detail to other local buildings of the late antebellum period. It burned in 1922. See Sandbeck, New Bern, and Bishir, Crafting Lives.