Tucker, Richard (ca. 1818-1881)
- New Bern, North Carolina
Richard Tucker (ca. 1818-1881), carpenter and coffin-maker, was born and practiced his trade in slavery in New Bern and became a prominent figure after Emancipation. Tucker’s parentage is unknown; he had a brother named Jupiter, also a carpenter. Known during slavery days as Dick Tucker, he belonged in the late antebellum period to merchant John Flanner, who hired him out for various building projects. In 1858, the estate of Moses Griffin paid Flanner “For 11 days Work of Dick Tucker and boy (?) on House on Middle Street, @ 17/6 [per day].” Like numerous enslaved people in New Bern, Tucker operated with a degree of autonomy, and he “hired his own time” and paid a specified amount to his owner, as was customary.
While they were enslaved, Richard Tucker and his wife Emeline had as many as fifteen children, some of whom were sold away by her owner, white shoemaker Raymond Castix, who according to law owned the children born to her while she was owned by him. Tucker earned and saved money to enable his owner, John Flanner, to purchase Emeline and their youngest child, so that they could stay together, on the condition that he, Richard, would provide for them by hiring his own time. In an unusually revealing statement of family relationships in a runaway slave advertisement, Charles Duffy of New Bern advertised a reward for the return of “Negro boy Edward,” aged about eighteen, and explained, “his father, Dick Tucker, belonging to Mr. John Flanner, lives in Newbern, and raised him, his former owner is Mr. Raymond Castix, all of New Bern” (Newbern Daily Progress, December 14, 1858). The brief advertisement indicates that despite his children being owned by Castix, Richard Tucker took a fatherly role in his family.Tucker also had a prominent role in town life even before Emancipation. In 1873, he testified that “before the war he was the principal Undertaker,” and had buried “nearly all, both white and colored.” For a time during the Civil War, he was also put in charge of the Greenwood Cemetery, established before the war as a black cemetery (New Bern Times, July 9, 1873).
Tucker evidently had a special relationship with the distinguished New Bern jurist William Gaston (1778-1844), who was known for his concern for enslaved and free people of color and greatly admired by them. A newspaper account of 1876 commented that in the years before the war, “old Dick Tucker” had benefited from the “grandeur and the goodness of his old protector Judge Gaston.” Moreover, the announcement of Tucker’s death in the New Bern Daily Commercial News of August 13, 1881, identified Tucker as a former state senator and “a trusted servant of Judge Gaston.” Although Gaston died in 1844, his connection with Tucker, possibly as his former owner, had lasting benefits that may explain Tucker’s relatively advantageous situation even during slavery.
After the war, Richard and Emeline Tucker legally married in December 1865, and they brought many of their children together. Tucker, already a leader at Andrews Chapel Methodist Church (later St. Peter’s A. M. E. Zion), also took leadership roles in public life, participating in the 1866 second Freedmen’s Convention in Raleigh and the Constitutional Convention of 1868. He promoted public education for freedmen and held several public offices including justice of the peace, state legislator (1870, 1872) and state senator (1874). He became one of the most prosperous artisans in postwar New Bern, with his shop and residence on Pollock Street between George and Metcalf Streets. In 1870 his real estate was valued at $1,000, making him one of the leading black property owners in town. The census of 1870 listed him as a black undertaker and head of a household that included his wife, identified as Celia, and four children: Emeline, 21; Fanny, 16; Elizabeth, 14; and Richard, 12. In 1878 Tucker was described by Lachlan Vass, the white minister at First Presbyterian Church, as “a prominent colored man who has been a member of N. Carolina Senate from Craven Co.—about 60 or 65 years old; bright and enterprising Negro; with two daughters teaching school.” He was also cultivating some 50 or 60 acres of cotton. The census of 1880 listed Tucker again as a black undertaker, with his household now comprising his wife Annie Smith Tucker, whom he had married in May 1880, and his grown daughter Emeline. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
- Catherine W. Bishir, Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900 (2013).
- Moses Griffin Estates Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
- United States Censuses.
- Elizabeth Vass Wilkerson, ed., The Diary of Rev. L. C. Vass, D. D., Chaplain, Stonewall Brigade, privately published (2008).