The Story of Fearrington Village’s Nine Tombstones

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WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY MIKE ZBAILEY

Nine tombstones rise starkly above the barren ground inside an old stone wall near Galloway Ridge. They tell the story of the Smith and Jones families, who lived on this land and whose legacy is an important part of American history. All the complexities and contradictions of the Southern slave-owning society of the 19th century influenced the lives of the eight family members and one friend buried in the cemetery.

Francis Jones (1760- 1844), the patriarch, was a veteran of the Revolutionary War and a major landowner. This land, called Jones Grove Plantation, was his crown jewel. Francis once offered to donate part of his land for a college to be built at this location. He was turned down in favor of the small hamlet called Chapel Hill. Mary Parke Jones (1761-1811) was his wife, and Ruffin Jones (1794-1836) was their unmarried son. Their daughter, Delia Jones (1787-1852), is buried a few feet away next to her husband, James Strudwick Smith (1787-1852).

James was the illegitimate son of William Francis Strudwick. The Strudwicks were a prominent family in Hillsborough and part of the upper class. The Smith family lived nearby but were poor and of a different social class. William was 17 when he fathered his son and did not marry the child’s mother. James later said, “Having been born poor, I have had to be the architect of my own future.” Aggressive and ambitious, James was unpopular among his colleagues because of his blatant self-promotion. After studying medicine briefly at the University of Pennsylvania and becoming a doctor in Hillsborough, James’ ambitions took him far from medicine. He owned a general store, a copper shop and land, some of which he inherited from his father-in-law, Francis. He was a member of the U.S. Congress from 1817 to 1821 and became a trustee of UNC in 1821.

The Smiths had three children. The oldest, Mary Ruffin Smith (1814-1885), was raised as a refined, educated Southern lady of the time. Mary’s father purchased an enslaved 15-year-old girl named Harriet to be her personal servant. In the census records, Harriet is identified as mulatto, then a designation for mixed race. Later, Harriet married Reuben Day, a freedman, and they had a son, Julius. Since they were not permitted to live together as a family, Harriet lived in a cabin in Hillsborough.

Maria Louisa Spear (1804-1881), the only non-family member buried in the cemetery, was hired to tutor Mary, and they formed a long friendship.

The sons, Francis Jones “Frank” Smith (1816-1877) and James Sidney Smith (1819- 1867), both attended UNC. Frank also attended medical school and, although he did not graduate, he became a doctor like his father. James Sidney, known by his middle name, was high-spirited and difficult and developed a serious drinking problem. In spite of his reputation as a drunkard, he became a well-known politician.

In her family memoir, “Proud Shoes,” Pauli Murray, Sidney’s descendant, vividly describes Sidney’s stalking and sexual assault of Harriet. The next day, Frank, who had his own designs on Harriet, severely beat his brother and left him bleeding. Harriet became pregnant by Sidney, and their daughter, Cornelia, was born in 1844. Frank then developed his own dominant relationship with Harriet, a liaison that produced three children, EmmaAnnette and Laura.

In the meantime, James’ aggressive land speculations and other ill-fated business ventures finally caught up with him, and he became mired in debt. He astutely sheltered most of his assets within his family before declaring bankruptcy in 1845. Even in the midst of the bankruptcy, the Smiths, who all lived in Hillsborough, built a large house named Oakland at their property called Price Creek Plantation. The stately house still stands nearby on Smith Level Road. The entire dysfunctional family – James, now mentally and physically incapacitated due to the strain of the bankruptcy; Delia, his wife; Frank, the lecherous and now part-time doctor who maintained bitterness toward his brother; and the drunkard lawyer-politician Sidney – lived in the house. Mary, appalled by her brothers’ lifestyles, brought her four nieces, her brothers’ children, to live in the house and be raised and educated as family members.

BEYOND THE TOMBSTONES 

Sidney died in 1867 at the age of 48 and Frank in 1877 at the age of 61. Frank was buried in the Jones Grove cemetery. Mary was now one of the wealthiest landowners in the area, thanks to her inheritance. Harriet was freed after the Civil War and lived in a cabin near Oakland. In 1872, while in her cabin, she was struck by lightning and became paralyzed. Mary provided daily care until Harriet’s death in 1873.

Mary’s four nieces remained in the house with her, and Maria Spear moved into Oakland after Frank’s death. The four nieces were courted under Mary’s watchful eye and each eventually married. Cornelia, Sidney’s daughter, and the oldest, married Robert Fitzgerald in 1869. He was a Civil War veteran from the African-American 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, had attended college and moved south to help educate the freed slaves. He would become the grandfather of Pauli Murray, the most notable descendant.

Kemp Battle, the president of the struggling post-Civil War UNC, was one of Mary’s good friends and was named executor in her will. Her closest friend, Maria, died at Oakland in 1881. She was buried in the Jones Grove cemetery. Mary confided to a friend, “I am alone in this world. I miss her too much.” Mary Ruffin Smith died quietly at Oakland in 1885, at the age of 71. She was described in the newspaper as “a lady of uncommon strength of mind, lofty character and large charity.” A large procession of carriages escorted the hearse to the cemetery. Her brother Sidney and her parents were later moved to that cemetery from their earlier burial place at Price Creek. In her will, Mary gave her nieces – Emma, Annette and Laura – 100 acres each, cut from the Jones Grove Plantation land. The remainder, about 1,400 acres, was willed to UNC. The cemetery is still owned by the university. Mary Ruffin Smith is honored with a plaque inside Memorial Hall. Cornelia received 100 acres from the Price Creek Plantation. The rest of that property was willed to the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. An impressive monument was placed at her grave and a three-foot wall was built around the cemetery, which now has nine gravestones.

THE NEXT CHAPTER

Richard Fitzgerald taught school, farmed and had a small brick-making operation. He slowly went blind because of a war injury but still managed to build a small house at 906 Carroll St. in Durham, where it still stands. 

Agnes, one of Richard’s children, became a nurse and moved to Baltimore where she married William Murray. Their youngest child, named Anna Pauline – Pauli – was born in 1910. Pauli’s parents died at a young age, and when she was 3, she went to live with her grandparents, Cornelia and Robert Fitzgerald, in Durham.

Pauli graduated from Hillside High School in Durham and then from Hunter College in New York in 1933. She worked as a teacher and social worker and met Eleanor Roosevelt when she visited a women’s working camp in upstate New York where Pauli was employed. They formed a long friendship.

Pauli applied to UNC’s law school in 1938. She was refused admission because of her race. In 1940, Pauli and a friend took a bus from New York to Durham to visit her family. They were arrested for sitting in the front of the bus and refusing to go to the back. She would not pay the fine and spent several days in jail before being released. In 1941, Pauli entered Howard University School of Law, where she was the only woman. She was class president and graduated first in the class. Harvard Law School traditionally offered a fellowship for further study to the top student at Howard. Pauli applied but rejected because of her gender. She later earned a doctorate from Yale Law School.

Pauli became a civil rights lawyer and activist for women’s rights. Her writings were used as part of the basis for the landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education. Pauli was not shy about advocating for important issues and wrote a critical letter to her friend Martin Luther King Jr. asking why there were no women in leadership positions in 1963’s March on Washington. Future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg named Pauli an honorary co-author in her 1971 Reed v. Reed brief, which successfully overturned a gender discrimination case before the Supreme Court.

Pauli was also a co-founder of the National Organization for Women, was on President Kennedy’s Commission on the Status of Women and published the highly acclaimed biography of her grandparents called “Proud Shoes.” Pauli became the first Black woman in the country to become a priest in the Episcopal church, the church of Mary Ruffin Smith. Her first service was in the small Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, where her grandmother Cornelia was baptized. Pauli was sainted by the Episcopal church in 2012. The bishop said of her, “Pauli Murray had an agenda for human good that was constant and unswerving.”

Pauli Murray died July 1, 1985. Her girlhood home on Carroll Street is being restored and will house the Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice.

The Jones Grove land passed through several owners and eventually was owned by R.B. Fitch, who developed Fearrington Village. Pauli’s legacy lives on in the laws of the land as well as the lives she has influenced. The nine tombstones in this small cemetery have a checkered history but an important legacy that endures.

Price Creek Plantation on Smith Level Road.

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