Ransom Hunter: Slave Turned Property Baron

Originally published by the Gaston Gazette: Saturday, June 21, 2014 at 11:34 AM.

No plaques or memorials there state that he is strongly believed to be the first freed slave to have owned property in Gaston County. Nor that his home, livery stable and makeshift general store became the hub of a thriving black community known as “Freedom” in the 19th century.

Even his burial site, in a nondescript African-American cemetery along South Hawthorne Street, lacks a clearly visible gravestone.

But his family members have never forgotten his story, his importance in the community, nor the place where he was laid to rest in 1918 after he died at the ripe age of 93.

“When I was growing up as a little boy, we used to always go down there and put flowers on his grave,” said great-grandson Eric Wilson, 55, an architect who now lives in Greensboro. “A tree was planted down there to mark it.”

Over the last two years, a movement has grown to properly recognize Hunter’s place in local history. More than 200 of his descendants will attend a family reunion — their first in two decades— on July 5 at Tuckaseegee Park in Mount Holly. A day later, they’ll gather for a church service and then dedicate new, prominent cemetery markers above the graves of Hunter and four of his family members.

The inscription on Hunter’s new headstone will assert his achievement as a freed slave who broke the mold in owning property — and accomplished much with it — during Reconstruction. For Hunter’s blood relatives, the stately oak tree that has grown to overlook his burial site is a metaphor for the towering reputation of the man himself.

“It used to be I could put my hand around the trunk, it was so small,” said Wilson. “You go down there now and me, you and two other men couldn’t wrap our arms around that tree.”

Digging up the past

The drive to substantiate Hunter’s biography has been led by Teresa Greene, a local historian. Long a volunteer with a Mount Holly group that explores African-American history, she is now a board member on the Mount Holly Historical Society. Her research has been based largely on talking with Hunter’s relatives and other elders within the Mount Holly black community.

She’s also researched Gaston County land records and genealogical books on the Hoyle family. Greene began looking further into Hunter’s story after a visit to the historic Hoyle Homestead in Dallas. The mid-18th century house was seminal in Gaston County’s development. It was where Hunter ended up after being brought from Africa to Charleston, S.C., and sold as a 13-year-old slave, Greene said.

Slaves weren’t commonly allowed to marry, but Hunter had 11 children with his de facto wife, Rebecca, on the plantation. After she died, he had two more children with his second wife, Maggie. Greene said her research suggests Hunter was freed at some point just before the start of the Civil War, likely in 1860.

He moved a few miles east and initially acquired land around Hawthorne Street and West Glendale Avenue. The earliest property deed for that land in 1874 identifies Hunter as its owner, though other evidence suggests he acquired it long before then, Greene said. The lot where he built his house was cheap and unappreciated because it was so rocky and inadequate for farming, which led to it being known as “Rock Grove,” Greene said.

Yet at a time when no other blacks were known to own land, Hunter saw promise in the property. What he established there would eventually lead other businesses and amenities to spring up along Hawthorne Street, as African-Americans found a place they felt welcome.

“They had a barber shop, businesses and everything,” said Greene. “The old café is still standing where they used to have a nightclub.”

If the shoe fits

Hunter had been educated while in slavery and had acquired useful skills such as carpentry and blacksmithing. He realized the road he lived along was a major travel route between the Catawba River and key destinations to the west, Greene said.

“When people came through from Stanley to Mount Holly, they had to have their horses shoed,” Greene said.

His decision to found a livery stable spoke volumes about his intelligence, great-grandson Eric Wilson said.

“That was pretty much the only stopping place,” he said. “He had a commodity that people needed.”

Family accounts tell of how Hunter pulled a large, light-colored rock out of the ground when he was building his cellar. He used mules to tow it to the road, and when customers were ready to mount their newly shoed horses, they could step up onto the rock to more easily climb into the saddle.

The original rock was eventually removed. But at some point in the 1950s or 1960s, a similar one was found and moved back to the corner of Hawthorne and Glendale. It still rests there today as an ode to Hunter.

Hunter also successfully cultivated the land around his home to include cornfields and groves of pecan, peach and apple trees that produced preserves, Wilson said. He had cows and chickens so they could sell fresh milk and eggs.

“It was like a general store adjacent to the livery stable,” said Wilson. “My grandma Mena was born in 1898, and she would sit down on that porch and tell us about the old times.”

A hand in growth

Hunter eventually used his profits to open a second livery stable closer to what is now downtown. He also bought up more and more land, eventually selling it for profit as Mount Holly was incorporated and became a thriving riverside city. He assisted black families who had relocated to the area because they wanted better options than having to sharecrop elsewhere, Greene said.

“There were families he actually brought to Gaston County and helped them get land in order to move here,” she said.

A.P. Rhyne and fellow textile executives are credited with founding the area’s first cotton mill in 1875. When the city was incorporated, they named it after Mount Holly, N.J. — home to another famed cotton plant.

Hunter helped to make the mill there a reality by selling Rhyne the land where it was built, Wilson said. He had a hand in numerous transactions involving property that now houses well known buildings downtown.

“If you look at property deeds and track land sales downtown around then, you see (Hunter’s) name a lot,” he said.

Hunter was respected and admired by many whites at a time when most black people were not, Wilson said.

“He could walk downtown as a businessman,” he said.

Property decline

After Hunter died in September 1918, his wife and children continued to live in the house at Rock Grove. Eventually they began using part of it as a boarding house, renting upstairs bedrooms to blacks who were traveling through the area and had nowhere else to stay.

Hunter’s daughter, Mena, continued to live there and oversee the protection of the home for decades. She hosted large family reunions by the “barnyard” where the livery stable had been.

“She had a lot of pride in what her daddy had done, so she kept the family and the property alive,” said Wilson. “As long as Grandma Mena was alive, it was kept pristine. It was beautiful.”

But after her death, the property’s appearance began to gradually go downhill, even as other family members remained there, Wilson said.

Eventually, relatives died or spread out to other areas. The vacant house began to fall into disrepair and attract vagrants. By the 1990s, the boarded-up windows drew the attention of city leaders. They were concerned about someone being injured by an accidental fire or other trouble, and their potential liability under local housing enforcement codes.

“The older members of the family made the decision they were going to let the city tear it down,” Wilson said. “It was sometime around 2000 when I think the fire department used it as a training exercise and burned it.”

Various members of the family had always made sure property taxes on the land were paid every year. But with the house gone, and so many of them having moved elsewhere, they began to falter in that responsibility. That led the county and city to foreclose on the land several years ago.

“A group of us tried to get together to save it, but they’d already auctioned it,” Wilson said.

Today, the lot where the home once stood is heavily overgrown with trees and bushes. A “for sale” sign from L&E Properties of Mount Holly is barely visible among the weeds along Glendale Avenue. On Friday, a stray shopping cart was nestled in the tall grass beside it.

But Wilson said the signs of the home’s existence are still there beneath the overgrowth.

“You can see the rock foundation of the house,” he said. “They burned the house. But you can’t burn rock.”

Newfound goals

Greene and Wilson acknowledge there is still lingering resentment among members of the black community in Mount Holly about what became of the property. They feel city leaders and historic preservationists should have been more aware of the home’s significance in the city’s history, and fought harder to preserve the land and the buildings on it.

“They have never, ever recognized Ransom Hunter for who he was there in Mount Holly,” Wilson said.

But a positive development of the last two years is that more of Hunter’s descendants have taken an interest in honoring his legacy.

“It really brought the family together after we started researching history on it,” Greene said.

Wilson has taken a lead role, using Facebook to help coordinate the upcoming family reunion. And he still thinks of his famous ancestor. In his home in Greensboro, he still has the elegant, wooden walking cane that Hunter used to get around town as he became older. He has the original grand piano that his great-grandfather used to play in the house there in Mount Holly.

“Grandma Mena wanted me to have it because I was the only one in the family other than (Hunter) who knew how to play piano,” he said.

Family members hope to soon pool enough money to buy back the corner lot where Hunter’s home once stood. Their dream is to restore it somehow and use it to host annual family reunions in the coming years, Wilson said.

In the meantime, a block away, the family has already raised enough for a large headstone and footstone for Hunter, as well as markers for his two wives and two of his children, who are buried beside him. All of the stones will be installed July 2.

Almost a century has passed since Hunter was laid to rest. But Wilson doesn’t believe he would change a thing about his burial site, as the majestic oak above has done its job.

“I guess you could say the roots are hugging Grandpa Ransom tight,” he said.

You can reach Michael Barrett at 704-869-1826 or on Twitter @GazetteMike.

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