Saturday, March 28, 2009

Thomas Kirby, Freedom's Lawmaker

In the 1800's three African-Americans served on the Chapel Hill Town Council: Thomas Kirby and Green Brewer during Reconstruction, and Wilson Caldwell in the 1880's. These were what historian Eric Foner has called "Freedom's Lawmakers." I am reminded of the three of them by my post on the Congregationalist school that stood at the corner of Rosemary and Henderson Streets in Chapel Hill (see Freedman's School). I gave there a very brief sketch of one of the school's teachers, Wilson Caldwell. Now let me turn my attention to Thomas Kirby. I'll try to work up something on Green Brewer soon, but he is a more elusive figure.

Reliably, Kemp P. Battle tells us about a lot of 19th century figures in Chapel Hill and Thomas Kirby is no exception. Battle not only mentions Kirby in his History of the University of North Carolina, but also in his Sketch of the Life and Character of Wilson Caldwell. I also read W. J. Peele's A Pen-Picture of Wilson Caldwell, Colored, Late the Janitor of the University of North Carolina. Peele and Battle both give sterotypical views of Kirby (and Caldwell) which must be taken with a lot of salt ('slow shambling gate', 'burly yellow man') , but their comments are interesting nonetheless.

Battle tells us that Tom Kirby was "a big burly yellow man" and an "old issue free man of color" - that is, he was a free man from before the Civil War. Kirby was listed as "Mulatto" in the 1870 census. He worked for the University serving as an assistant janitor with and under Wilson Caldwell. Kirby served in the Old West building. In Battle's words, Kirby "never gained a high character for probity." Or in other words, he was viewed as being somewhat deceitful.

Both Battle and Peele relate parts of a tale about Kirby's purported lack of probity. Battle says: Kirby was "suspected in the days before the war of selling whiskey on the sly to students, a most lucrative business if detection did not follow, as the profits were from one hundred to a thousand per cent on the cost." Peele more graphically relates: "Pious-looking old Tom Kirby, the assistant janitor, was accused of bringing liquor to the students in his boot-legs - and they were indeed capacious enough to accommodate two or three pint ticklers each without impairing the gravity of his slow, shamblig gait." But Battle reassures us "Good behavior wiped out this suspicion, at least to the extent of making him eligible for employment by the University."

Battle also gives this curious account: "I witnessed, in truth I acted as judge, a ludicrous criminal trial of Kirby by a moot court, a trial conducted with all due colemnity, and as able as could be expected of neophytes in the law. Kirby was charged with mixing waters, that is of pouring fresh water from the well into buckets whos contents remained over from the night before. The fact was proved and then Frank Hines, a bright young man, soon afterwards drowned at Nag's Head, was brough in as a scientific expert, to prove that water kept for hours in a bedroom took in solution quantities of carbonic acid gas (carbon dioxide) and other deadly poistons. Of course Kirby was convicted by the jury but no punishment followed."

I found in the 1870 census, that Kirby's wife was Julia, born about 1825 in North Carolina; Kirby was ten years her senior, also born in NC. The 1870 census does not show any children, but Battle tells us that they had a son Edmund, "who was employed in the Chemical Laboratory. He was a preacher and some of his sermons are said to have contained most lurid metaphors, blazing with the transformations he had witnessed in the Laboratory." Battle also mentions that Thomas had a niece, Susan Kirby, who married Wilson Caldwell.

Regarding Green Brewer we know less, but he is listed in the 1880 census:
Green Brewer, Chapel Hill, Orange Co., North Carolina, Age: 48, born in North Carolina Wife: Cornelia, Occupation: Shoe Maker.


  1. Thomas Kirby bought a lot on Franklin Street "opposite Guthrie Hotel" in June of 1865 (ODB 47, pg 258). There are no Green Brewer deeds. Maria Mitchell sold 2 acres to Wilson Caldwell on "College Avenue" [Cameron?] in 1870 (ODB 45, pg 471); he also bought ten acres on North Street from John W Norwood in 1873 (ODB 41, pg 244). Also November Caldwell bought a half acre on the east side of S. Roberson Street in 1869 (ODB 41, pg 196).

  2. Thomas Kirby's land was "Opposite Guthrie Hotel." Guthrie Hotel was formerly Mrs. Hilliard's Eagle Hotel, located on lot 13, where Buck Taylor's tavern was, where Graham Memorial now is. So Kirby's land was opposite Graham Memorial - some pretty nice real estate.

  3. New information on Green Brewer is also included here:

  4. Two good articles have already been written on Wilson Caldwell:


    The UNC site seems in one place to imply that Caldwell served on the Town Council during reconstruction, but actually he served in the 1880's. I would love to know whether he was active in the Republican Party at that time.