An Unforgettable Love Story

I have spent much time and energy researching the lineage of folks in my area, and I hesitate to divert your attention to Caldwell County for a story. However, I met the author of an intriguing book while attending a monthly meeting of the McDowell County Historical Society, and one of her ancestors was a Confederate soldier who is buried in McDowell County so I will pretend I am keeping this in the neighborhood.

Most people of my age will remember the song “Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley.” I bet you can even hum the tune. This is one of the interesting characters that Leslie Dula McKesson found in her family tree. Ms McKesson is the Dean of Business and Public Services at Western Piedmont Community College in Morganton, NC, just up the road a ways. One of her ancestors was a senator and on the board for the NC School for the Deaf in Morganton. Another was the first black medical doctor in Caldwell County.

Not long ago, McKesson’s father handed off piles of research he had accumulated over the years. She investigated and gathered more information and in 2013 wrote a book about their ancestors. Hundreds of anecdotes are included, but Black and White is mainly about the relationship between slave Harriet Harshaw and “Squire” James Alfred Dula, from a prominent Irish pioneer family. On most census records, Harriet is described as “mulato.” Some records give her last name as Corpening.

The Dula family traces roots back to Captain William Dula (1755-1835) who served in the Revolutionary War from Virginia. Not unusual, of course. And it was not really unusual for a woman named Theodosia McMullen to run off with William and move to Wilkes County, North Carolina, in spite of the fact that she left five children and a husband behind. After all, she married him at age fourteen, a child herself. (In today’s forgiving world, we understand she probably needed a psychiatrist.) Or else this was true love between William and “Docia.”

Six more children later, the Captain had become very wealthy by selling horses and homemade brandy. He owned about 5000 acres in Wilkes/Caldwell Counties and also 81 slaves. He and Docia are buried at Dula Hill Cemetery which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The narrative of Black and White centers aound the third son, James Alfred Dula, who married Elizabeth Corpening, the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. Elizabeth died in 1846, leaving a houseful of six children who needed care. Alfred purchased some help in the person of Harriet Harshaw who arrived with her own two small children. This is where the story is unique.

“There is not much information about Harriet’s life prior to coming into the Squire’s household,” wrote Ms McKesson. Interracial marriage was impossible in North Carolina until 1967. But it is recorded that Harriet’s next son Samuel was born in 1852, and his father was James Alfred Dula.

The story is that Alfred’s and Harriet’s affection towards each other survived forty years under the pressure of other people’s opinions. In fact neighbors kidnapped and moved Harriet to another community, but Alfred sought out her location and brought her back to his Redcliff plantation. A second son was born to them in 1854. The Squire sold his holdings at Redcliff in the Yadkin Valley to his brother and bought the Belvoir plantation, on the other side of the county. He lived in the main house and built a separate frame house for Harriet.

The Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863, but Harriet chose to remain on the Belvoir estate in Lenoir, NC. She continued her household duties with the “Squire” and had two more children with him. He taught them all to read and write, and shared his resources with the growing family. (Harriet was the biological grandmother of more than one hundred children.)

On page 134 of Black and White, the author sums up her perspective. “I never knew my great, great, grandfather, “Squire” James Alfred Dula, but his actions speak for his character long after he passed away. He could have remarried after Elizabeth’s death, having more legitimate heirs, and maintaining his unsullied status as a proper Southern gentleman. He could have carried on an extra-marital relationship with Harriet, having slave children and expanding his property holdings as was the custom of his relatives and peers. He could have left it all behind and reinvented himself in California. But he chose not to do any of those things. The care Alfred demonstrated for Harriet, the land he left to their sons, his intentional and well-calculated efforts to protect them all even after his death, say to me that he genuinely cared about them.”

The book ends with a delightful invitation to 500 descendants plus friends to visit Dulatown, a settlement around Harriet’s house, to meet the family and talk some history.

This is where the author was raised. And thirty minutes after posting this, I found out my neighbor went to school with Leslie. Small world. https://www.facebook.com/events Catawba Museum of History: Visiting Author Leslie Dula Mckesson

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