The Woodfin community, like many other Buncombe County communities is named for a man who enslaved human beings. If you’ve followed along in this series, you’ve probably recognized that to be a common theme among communities; they’re named for people of extravagant wealth. Wealth earned on the backs of enslaved black people. Indeed, our county and its seat are also both named for men who considered black people property, men who purchased people just as they would livestock.
“Why mention it, that’s the past!” You might say. Well, that’s what we’re in the business of here in the North Carolina Room. Sharing and preserving the facts of our county’s past with you as best and as honestly as we can.
You might also say, “What does it matter that we have towns named for were slave owners? That was a long time ago! Move on!” It matters for a number of reasons, but one of the most important is to recognize the truth of the history of African Americans in Buncombe County. Discounting the period of enslavement as “a long time ago” or something that “no longer matters” erases the history of the thousands of people who can trace their ancestry back to people enslaved by Nicholas Woodfin, but no further, because their identities as human beings were erased through the brutal economic system of chattel slavery.
I’m not suggesting we go changing everything that has a slave owners name on it, that would be next to impossible. However, I am saying, it is important for us to recognize and reflect on the fact of the matter.
Nicholas W. Woodfin enslaved more people, by far, than any other person in Buncombe County for at least two decades. in 1860, at the peak of slavery in Buncombe County, Woodfin owned 122 people, almost more than the next two people in line combined. He also entered into business partnerships that resulted in other Buncombe County businesses men (A.B. Chunn [16 slaves 1860] and James W. Patton[78 slaves in 1860, 2nd largest slave owner]) purchasing enslaved people to perform the incredibly dangerous and difficult work of building railroads.
Born in 1810 close to where the Town of Mills River is today, N.W. Woodfin was one of 12 children born to well-off parents. He was afforded the opportunity to attend a local grade school, read the law, and eventually became a well-known attorney in the region. Later, he served five terms in the North Carolina Senate. While serving in the senate, he became an outspoken advocate for increasing educational opportunities for white children.
He was also concerned with increasing access to modern infrastructure. As South Carolina and Virginia began to build modern railroads, allowing them access to broader markets, Woodfin was concerned that North Carolina was lagging seriously behind. This was especially concerning to him as an agriculturalist who wanted to ensure he could compete with practices of farmers in more accessible regions.
There are some sources to suggest that Woodfin might have had some aversion to slavery, but his actions speak differently. In the letters of Ezekiel Birdseye, an abolitionist, Woodfin is discussed. Birdseye, in 1841 made an attempt to purchase, for the purpose of freeing, enslaved men from Woodfin and his father in law. Birdseye writes that Woodfin “readily acknowledges his aversion to slavery,” and that he made some headway in discussing the manumission of one man, in particular. Later, however, Woodfin sold the man for $550 to another slave owner. You can read the entire letter here.
Like many slave owners, N.W. Woodfin received recognition while alive and posthumously for activities that are seemingly unrelated to slavery. However, as a challenge for the end of our 52 Weeks, 52 Communities Series, I invite you to contemplate the benefits Woodfin and others like him obtained because of their ownership of other human beings. What accolades would he have earned if he had to work his farm on his own or pay for labor? Would he have been nearly as prominent a businessman if not for enslaved labor? Could he have amassed the amount of land he did without wealth gained from enslaved labor? Would he have had time to excuse himself from his properties to serve in the senate, travel abroad, and work as a pro bono attorney for “common men” who needed his help? Maybe. But maybe not.
The history of our communities and their origin stories are messy and complicated. Let us resolve in this new year to reflect on our past, learn from it, and share it, no matter how uncomfortable it might make us feel.
This is the last post in our series 52 Weeks, 52 Communities. In this series, we are covered a different Buncombe County community each week. Type “52 Weeks” into the search bar on the right to find and read each post.
This post was written by North Carolina Room library specialist Katherine Calhoun Cutshall.