Harris, Jacob (1799-1847)


New Bern, NC


  • New Bern, NC
  • Fayetteville, NC


  • Plasterer
  • Brickmason

Jacob Harris (ca. 1799-1847), a free man of color who grew up in New Bern, was a leading brickmason in antebellum Fayetteville and a prominent member of that city’s strong free black community. In this period, artisans typically numbered among the most successful free black residents. Although no buildings have been attributed to his hand as yet, Harris was active and taking apprentices during important periods of construction in the Cape Fear River city, including the extensive rebuilding after the disastrous 1831 fire. He was likely involved in such major projects as the rebuilding of St. John’s Episcopal Church and the Fayetteville Market House and many other buildings, but no documentation of his role has been discovered. Awareness of his name and identity may assist researchers examining records of Fayetteville construction projects.

Jacob Harris’s parents have not been identified. He and his descendants were regularly identified in censuses as “mulatto,” indicating their mixed race background. In both New Bern and Fayetteville, he was part of a web of family and friends. The earliest known record of Jacob Harris is the June 10, 1807 apprentice bond wherein Jacob Harris, aged eight, was bound to Donum Montford as a plasterer and mason. That he was apprenticed at such a young age suggests that Harris had been born to a free mother and was thus born free.

Harris’s assignment to Donum Montford was a fortunate one, for Montford was one of New Bern’s leading artisans in the bricklaying and plastering trade and had numerous connections in the community. Montford had been a free man only since his manumission by John C. Stanly in 1804, and Jacob Harris was his first recorded apprentice. (The day before, Israel Harris, a free person of color aged fifteen, was bound to Jane Carney as a cooper; it is possible that Israel and Jacob Harris were brothers or otherwise related). In New Bern in the early nineteenth century, several free children of color were apprenticed to masters or mistresses of their own race, which benefited both parties; the practice diminished in the late antebellum period as restrictions on free people of color grew tighter. Under Montford’s tutelage, Harris mastered his trade and within a few years established himself as an independent artisan. If he completed his apprenticeship at age twenty-one, which was standard, that would have occurred in about 1820.

When Harris moved to Fayetteville is not certain, but on June 17, 1824 he married Charlotte Dismukes (Dismuth?) (ca. 1808-1872?) there. The couple had at least ten children over the next twenty years. After a few years in Fayetteville, Harris began taking on apprentices, apparently more than any other brickmason in town, indicative of his stature in the community and the fact that he had sufficient work to support and need apprentices. All were youths of color. They included Owin (Owen?) Clinton, aged fourteen, as a brickmason and plasterer on September 8, 1831; Thomas Brimage, seventeen, as a plasterer on December 8, 1837; Calvin Jackson, no age given, also as a plasterer on December 8, 1837; and James Fore, aged twelve, as a plasterer on June 8, 1838. During the same period, other free youths of color were apprenticed to Harris’s fellow brickmason, John E. Patterson, another leading artisan of color in Fayetteville. (See Henry and John E. Patterson).

Best known among Jacob Harris’s apprentices was Cicero Richardson of New Bern, who like Jacob Harris had left New Bern for Fayetteville as a youth. He made his move in 1832, at age thirteen or fourteen, carrying a pass signed by leading white New Bernians, and he was apprenticed to Harris on September 7, 1832. (The pass identified Cicero Richardson as a “mulatto boy” born to a free mother in New Bern and the grandson of Caty Webber, a well- known “cake woman” in New Bern. Caty (Catharine) Webber had been freed in 1827 and acquired real estate in town with the support of leading New Bernians of color John C. Stanly and Donum Montford. In her will of 1838, Catharine Webber bequeathed her property in New Bern to her grandson Cicero).

After completing his apprenticeship in about 1840, in 1841 Cicero Richardson married Jacob Harris’s daughter, Sarah Ann (1824-1883). He soon became a master of his trade and a prosperous citizen. Jacob Harris and Cicero Richardson developed such a strong relationship that Jacob Harris named his youngest son Cicero Richardson Harris (1844-1917). In 1840, the United States Census recorded Jacob Harris as head of a household of eighteen. The fourteen free people of color included himself and his wife plus twelve younger residents, likely including apprentices as well as family members. There were also four enslaved people: two boys under aged ten, a girl under ten, and a girl or woman aged ten through twenty-three years of age. According to family tradition, Harris bought slaves whom he allowed to work toward their freedom.

At the time of Jacob Harris’s death in 1847, he owned substantial property. In his will dated January 19, 1847, Jacob Harris bequeathed his lots on Hillsborough, Moore, and Orange streets (including his residence) to his wife, Charlotte. He cited other property including a town lot, acreage in Robeson County, bonds, and personal items which he designated for his wife to hold and use the income for the benefit of their children, namely Sarah A. B. Richardson, William, Mary Williams, George Ragland, Joseph Dennis, Hannah Brimage, Catharine Webber, Robert Williams, Jarvis Buxton, and Cicero Richardson Harris. At their maturity the estate was to be divided. His witnesses were two fellow free blacks—brickmason John E. Patterson and Harris’s former apprentice Olin Clinton Artis. (Catharine Webber Harris was named for Cicero Richardson’s grandmother, and Jarvis Buxton Harris for a noted white Episcopal minister in Fayetteville. ) The executor of Harris’s estate was a saddler and harness maker M. N. (Matthew N.) Leary (1802-1880), who was one of Fayetteville’s most prosperous and prominent men of color.

Matthew Leary’s inventory of Harris’s personal property showed that the Harris family, like other successful free people of color, had a well-furnished home. Leary listed 1 Mahogany sideboard, 1 Walnut tea table, 6 common chairs, 1 common looking glass, 2 feather beds, 2 Maple bedsteads, 1 Pine table, and 1 cupboard. (The attention to the varieties of wood indicates the status of the pieces and perhaps reflects an artisan’s perspective on such matters). These items were evidently transferred by Leary to “C. Harris,” the widow Charlotte Harris. The inventory also cited cash in the Bank of Cape Fear plus a long list of debts owed to Harris. In 1850, Leary recorded the sale of real estate valued at $878.50, including lots on Moore Street, Hillsboro and Chatham Streets and another “House & Lot Residence,” presumably meaning Harris’s residence. Among the receipts in his estate papers was for Leary’s payment on Harris’s account, for a poplar coffin and “Head foot & Grave Boards”.

In 1850, the United States Census (the first to list free individuals other than the heads of household and provide personal details about them), recorded the household headed by the widow Charlotte Harris, aged 42, which included eight children aged 23 down to 6 years of age. She was not listed as owning any real estate. Within a few years, Charlotte Harris and her family, like many other free black citizens of North Carolina, left the state because of worsening restrictions of free people of color at home and in hopes of better opportunities for education and employment. In 1860 Charlotte Harris headed a household in Cleveland that included her younger children—Robert, aged twenty-four, a mechanic; Hannah, also twenty-four; Catharine, twenty-two; Jarvis, eighteen; and Cicero, fifteen years of age. Charlotte Harris is said to have lived until at least 1872.

In Ohio, the Harris family became part of a large community of North Carolinians of color, chiefly in Cleveland and Oberlin, which also included members of Fayetteville’s Richardson, Leary, Patterson, and Chesnutt families as well as free families of color from New Bern. Among them were Jacob and Charlotte Harris’s daughter Sarah Ann Harris Richardson and her husband Cicero Richardson and their family. Also closely connected to the Harris family were bricklayer John E. Patterson, formerly of Fayetteville, and his wife Mary and their family. Patterson like several other residents of Cleveland and Oberlin was a strong abolitionist. His and Mary’s daughter Mary Sampson Patterson married Lewis Sheridan Leary, a son of Matthew Leary of Fayetteville (Jacob Harris’s executor). Lewis Leary died in 1859 as a result of wounds suffered in the John Brown raid on Harper’s Ferry, leaving his widow with a young child. Mary Patterson Leary remarried, to abolitionist leader Charles Langston, and later helped raise her grandson, Langston Hughes.

Jacob and Charlotte Harris’s legacy continued long after their deaths. Especially well known in North Carolina are their sons, Robert and Cicero Richardson Harris, who graduated from Cleveland Central High School and became educators themselves. They returned to North Carolina after the Civil War and served as school teachers in Fayetteville, where they became friends and supporters of the writer Charles Chesnutt, born in Cleveland to another Fayetteville émigré family; Chesnutt went to Fayetteville for a period after the Civil War. Robert Harris was a founder of the school that became Fayetteville State University. Cicero R. Harris (C. R.) went on to become a bishop of the A. M. E. Zion church (he was ordained in New Bern in 1888) and a leader at Livingstone College.

Over the years, other members of the extended families had distinguished careers far and wide in medicine, construction, politics, education, the military, civil rights leadership, and other fields. For a detailed account of their accomplishments as well as photographs of several family members, see Constance E. H. Daniel, “Two North Carolina Families—The Harrises and the Richardsons,” Negro History Bulletin, October, 1949.

Catherine W. Bishir, Crafting Lives: African American Artisans in New Bern, North Carolina, 1770-1900 (2013)

Constance E. H. Daniel, “Two North Carolina Families—The Harrises and the Richardsons,” Negro History Bulletin, October, 1949.

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