Patterson, Henry J. (1805-1886) and John E. (1804-1880)
Brothers Henry J. Patterson (1805-Dec. 28, 1886) and John E. Patterson (1804-1880) were free brickmasons of color who gained prominence in their native North Carolina and in their adopted home of Oberlin, Ohio. Early on, they were associated with members of the white Gorman Family of plasterers and brickmasons. Although few buildings have been attributed to the Patterson brothers, they led lives of distinction and were well remembered by residents of both Raleigh and Oberlin.
Henry and John Patterson were sons of Cheney (Chaney/Chancy) Patterson, who was evidently a free woman at the time of their births, thus making Henry and John free born. An old Raleighite stated many years later that Henry Patterson was born free; his and John’s father or fathers have not been identified.
Insights into Henry and John Patterson’s early life come from a letter of July 2, 1861, written by John E. Patterson from Oberlin to Andrew Johnson (1808-1875), then a U. S. Senator from Tennessee, who would become president of the United States in 1865. In this letter (The Papers of Andrew Johnson [Knoxville, Tennessee, 1976), vol. 4, pp. 537-538), John E. Patterson recalled that he and his brother Henry had been born in Raleigh in the first decade of the 19th century and lived with their mother, Chancy Patterson, on the north side of Powell’s Creek, “on the property of Mr [Joshua] Suggs.” Their household stood next door to the home of Mrs. Polly Johnson (a widow after 1811) and her sons William and Andrew Johnson. “Many play of marbles & other amusements of youthful enjoyment we had in the yard of your mother’s home,” John Patterson recalled to Andrew Johnson, noting that “no man of this day—knew more of you & yourse of early life than does myself & my Brother Henry.”
John E. Patterson noted that he and Henry and their families had left Raleigh in 1852 for Ohio “where we now live in much Cumfort & have raised a family here.” Patterson supposed that Johnson “might remember” the Gorman family, who were white plasterers and masons in Raleigh: “Henry & me lear[ne]d the trade of Bricklayer and plasterer under old Mr Henry S. Gorman & John S. Gorman all of Raleigh,” both of whom were long since deceased. The elder Gorman has been identified as an Irishman who died in Raleigh in 1840. The fact that the two young Pattersons were named Henry and John may reflect a neighborly relationship or possibly a familial connection. It is possible that John and Henry Patterson were related in some way to the white Chapel Hill builder James Patterson (d. ca. 1799).
During his career in Raleigh, Henry Patterson was employed by the state of North Carolina on various building projects—a connection probably encouraged by his earlier association with the Gormans, who had been employed by the state. The earliest such reference to Henry J. Patterson in this role appears in 1838 in records concerning construction of the North Carolina State Capitol. Evidently he operated or at least had access to a brick making business, a common situation for leading brick masons. Henry J. Patterson agreed on July 15, 1838 to deliver to “the Public Square in this city” 75,000 “good hard burnt well-shaped Brick” at a cost of $8.00 per thousand bricks, and on August 14, he agreed to furnish an additional 100,000 bricks of the same quality and for the same price (Capitol Building Records, Treasurer’s and Comptrollers Papers, State Archives).
Several years later, the state employed Henry J. Patterson, along with other local artisans, to work on a general refurbishing of the early 19th century governor’s residence at the south end of Fayetteville Street. He was paid in February, 1849, $55.75 for “work at Executive Mansion”, also known as the Governor’s Palace or Governor’s House. He was paid $23.75 for “work done at the Governor’s House” in March; $4.50 for “brick masonry done at the Governor’s House” in April; and $2.00 for “Brick Work done at the Government House” in November (Raleigh Register, December 1, December 5, and December 3, 1849). At that time, a skilled artisan typically earned $1.00 to $2.00 per day.
Likely Patterson’s satisfactory work in government projects, coupled with his good character, gained him friends among the state’s white elite. Such connections served him well when Patterson sought to obtain his wife Emeline’s freedom. It is possible that he had purchased his wife from a previous owner in order to seek her freedom. Through the 1820s, the process of manumission was difficult but feasible, but in 1830-1831 the state passed laws that made private manumission almost impossible. Slaveholders determined to free certain slaves often turned to the legislature for special acts of emancipation.
Henry and Emeline Patterson’s experience illustrate the uncertainties of the process. In 1838 Henry J. Patterson produced a petition seeking a bill to emancipate his wife, which was presented to the legislature and referred to a committee without accomplishing Patterson’s goal.
In 1840, Patterson renewed his mission, publishing a notice dated October 12 that he intended to apply to the General Assembly for an act emancipating his wife, Emeline (Raleigh Register, October 16, 1840). This time, it appears, he had gathered backing from influential citizens. The petition from Patterson was presented on November 27 by “Mr. Hoke—Michael Hoke of Lincoln County, a distinguished lawyer who later ran for governor—and “accompanied by a petition from many of the citizens of Raleigh.” The petition was read and referred to the Committee on Private Claims. On November 30, the committee reported “unfavorably” on Patterson’s petition, but one committee member introduced a minority “counter Report.” Both reports were “laid upon the table.” Then, Hoke introduced a bill to emancipate Emeline Patterson, which was read the first time and passed” (Fayetteville North-Carolinian, December 5, 1840; Raleigh Weekly Standard, December 2, 1840). Emeline Patterson became a free woman, and the children born to her and Henry Patterson thereafter were likewise free. How Patterson enlisted Hoke for this purpose is not known.
Census records indicate the Patterson brothers’ economic success. Henry and his family appeared in the United States Census of 1850 as free residents of Raleigh; Henry, identified as a mulatto plasterer aged 44 with real estate valued at $1,000, headed a household that included Emeline, 35, and their young children Mary (7), Henry Jr. (6), John (4), and Chaney (2). Also in the household were four free black youths aged 14 to 21 identified as plasterers, likely apprentices. Most of the Pattersons’ neighbors were whites including several artisans.
Meanwhile, John Patterson spent several years in Fayetteville, where he practiced his trade and owned substantial real estate. He advertised his skills as a plasterer and bricklayer in Fayetteville newspapers in the 1830s and 1840s. He and his family were recorded in the United States Census of 1850 as residents of Fayetteville: John was identified as a mulatto brickmason aged 46, and owner of $2,600 in real estate. He headed a household that included his wife, Mary J., his son Marcellus, a brickmason aged 17, and other children Mary S., 15, and Henry, 7, plus 4 more young brickmasons of color. Their neighbors, too, were predominantly white.
Despite their standing in their North Carolina communities, as white attitudes and restrictions toward free people of color worsened in the South, the Pattersons decided to join other prominent and successful free people of color in moving north. They were in Ohio by the early 1850s and in Oberlin by 1856. They like other North Carolinians of color probably chose Oberlin, Ohio, in part because of its unique opportunities for students of color at Oberlin’s schools and college.
The United States Census of 1860 showed both Henry and John E. Patterson as property-owning masons and heads of households in Oberlin. Henry and his wife Emeline (b. 1820) had seven children including Mary, a student born in 1843 or 1844 in North Carolina; the two youngest were born in Ohio in 1853 and 1856. John E. Patterson and his wife Mary J. Patterson (b. 1810) lived with their three grown children, including their daughter Mary S. Leary (b. 1837) and her infant child Lois.
Important events were soon to shape the lives of John and Henry Patterson’s children and descendants. In 1858 John E. Patterson’s daughter, Mary S., a milliner, had married Louis Sheridan Leary (b. 1835), a harnessmaker born to a prominent free family of color in Fayetteville, N. C. Shortly after their child, Lois, was born, Louis Sheridan Leary died fighting with John Brown in the Harper’s Ferry Raid in October 1859. In 1860 the widowed Mary Leary and her child were living with her father, John E. Patterson, as part of his large household. Mary subsequently remarried in 1869, to abolitionist leader Charles Langston of Virginia and Ohio, and they moved to the Midwest. Late in life, Mary Patterson Leary Langston was responsible for raising her grandson, the nationally celebrated writer Langston Hughes (1902-1967). John E. Patterson was still in Oberlin in 1870, a property-owning grocer. According to a family website, he moved to Kansas to join his daughter Mary Langston and her husband and their family, who were in Wakarusa, Kansas by the time of the 1870 census. John E. Patterson died in Wakarusa, Kansas, in 1880.
Meanwhile, Henry and Emeline Patterson’s daughter, Mary Jane Patterson (1844-1894), attended and graduated from Oberlin College, where she was reportedly the first woman of color to receive the B. A. degree. It is widely stated that she was the first American woman of color to graduate with a B. A. from college. Mary Jane Patterson, who never married, went on to become a highly regarded teacher and a school principal in Washington, D. C. In 1880, the United States Census listed her as residing in Washington in the household headed by her parents, Henry and Emeline, along with some unmarried siblings including schoolteachers and a lawyer.
In an article on “Old Times in Raleigh” in the Raleigh Gazette of October 10, 1891, one William V. Turner, an elderly man of color, recalled life and people in Raleigh fifty years before. The first topic he addressed was the “men of my race who were of aristocratic tendencies fifty years ago.” He cited Oscar F. Alston, William Smith, David Moore (a barber in Chapel Hill), and Henry Patterson, bricklayer. He commented, “All except Moore moved off to Ohio,” and stated that all of these men were free born. He noted that Henry Patterson had died in Washington, D. C., nine or ten years previously, “honored and respected by all who knew him, leaving behind him children and grandchildren, ornaments to our race.”
Note: Many secondary sources state erroneously that Mary Jane Patterson was born into slavery in 1840 and that she and her parents were runaway slaves who escaped to Ohio. The source of these statements is not clear, but they are not true. Her parents were not runaway slaves: her father was freeborn and her mother was emancipated in 1840 or possibly 1841. Mary was thus born free: census records indicate that she was born in 1843 or 1844, and her death certificate says 1844; by that time her father, Henry, had succeeded in obtaining the freedom of her mother, Emeline, so that Mary and her known siblings were born free. She was interred in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Washington, D. C. One early source of the erroneous story is Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College, II, 534-535, which says she was born in Raleigh and brought to Oberlin in her youth by her parents, who were “probably fugitive slaves.” See http://www2.oberlin.edu/external/EOG/OYTT-images/MJPatterson.html.
- William V. Turner, “Old Times in Raleigh,” clipping identified as Raleigh Gazette, October 10, 1891, C. N. Hunter Scrapbook, Duke University Library Special Collections, Durham, North Carolina.
- Washington, D. C., Death Certificates and Records, Ancestry.com.