'The Town Secret' Race of Famous Carthaginian Embraced
This article is reprinted from the February 12, 2012, edition of The Pilot.
By John Chappell
Every year with its Buggy Festival, Carthage celebrates the achievements of a former slave, though until recently few knew it.
William T. Jones - born a slave, and the son of a slave and her owner - ran the famed Tyson & Jones Buggy Co., the biggest business around.
Though he was an African-American described in census records as "a mulatto gentleman" and a former slave, Jones nevertheless became a leading businessman and industrialist, recognized and honored, his color the best kept secret in Carthage history.
His elaborate 1880s Queen Anne Victorian mansion stands at the entrance to the town's historic district. Now a bed-and-breakfast inn lovingly restored with wraparound porch and fanciful gingerbread trimmed in elegant Painted Lady fashion, the Jones house evokes the lavishness of a bygone era.
Few in Carthage today realize its builder and former owner was a black man of mixed race who lived openly with his white wife, operated one of the biggest factories in the South, taught Sunday School in the Methodist Church, served on national and local boards, and was admired and loved without any mention of race.
Today, the fact that Jones was an African-American is something the town history committee's present chairwoman, Carol Steed, thinks the town can take pride in - though for years nobody spoke of it.
"People on the committee - even long years ago - were not sure," she said. "We had nothing to verify it then, aside from his picture, and sometimes pictures fool you.
"I still think a lot of people outside of the museum have no idea. Now it is a source of pride."
That's the way Mayor Lee McGraw sees it.
"I think it's a neat thing," McGraw said. "When I joined the committee back in 1998, his picture was one of the first things I saw, and I said, 'Wow! African-American!' People have done a lot of research trying to find out as much as we can about him."
One of those people now owns the Jones house. Pat Motz-Frazier operates the restored mansion as The Old Buggy Inn. She's delved into historical records, collected memories from other townspeople, and tried to find out everything she can about the man who built her house.
'Regarded in All Aspects'
After his death in 1910 the local paper described Jones as "a citizen regarded in all respects as probably the peer of any, living or dead, in usefulness in accomplished purpose ... and withal in the example and model which he has left the present and future generations."
Jones was known nationwide as a pioneer of manufacturing techniques and business acumen. Yet over the century since his death, most people in Carthage seemed to forget he was black, a former slave, of mixed race and in an interracial marriage.
"His father owned a plantation, and his mother was a slave on the plantation," Motz-Frazier said. "His father was married and had three other children with his wife, all white. He had freed Mr. Jones. Census records in Raleigh showed it. Once we knew it, people started telling other things that they knew."
Bit by bit, she pieced together a remarkable story, wondering all the while how it was that people around Carthage - even on the town's Historical Committee - just assumed Jones was white. She found one reason after learning Jones and his wife had no children.
"He did have three white siblings," she said. "His father was married to a white woman, and they had three white children, two boys and a girl. His father owned a plantation, where his mother was a slave."
When Motz-Frazier started telling what she'd discovered, people thought she had it all wrong.
"Charles Prevost and his sister came down to tell me what I had been saying wasn't true," she said. "So, I gave Mr. Prevost copies of everything I had found. Then - it took him about a month - he went behind me, went to Raleigh, checked census records.
"He came back by himself about a month later and apologized and said that I was right. He felt really bad, because he felt for all these years that the committee had been misrepresenting the truth. Once he knew it, and I began telling it, people started coming out of the woodwork telling us that they knew."
Fought for Confederacy
Jones was born a slave near Elizabethtown on Aug. 8, 1833, and died Nov. 29, 1910, a free man - well-respected, well-known, and wealthy.
As a freed man, he had moved to Fayetteville, where his work as a carriage painter attracted the attention of two Carthage men: Thomas Bethune Tyson, and Alexander Kelly, the county sheriff. In 1857 they talked Jones into coming to Carthage to take charge of the painting department of their little buggy factory.
Two years later, Tyson, Kelly & Co. gave Jones entire charge of the vehicle part of their business. He enlarged the company and its trade grew, but with the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, production was suspended. Jones and many workers left to serve in the Confederate Army. Captured, they were interned at Fort Delaware.
"There were 12,000 men in Fort Delaware at the time," Motz-Frazier said. "During their time there, 600 were separated to be treated in retaliation for the way Union soldiers were being treated. They told them that they were going home, that they would be exchanged for Union prisoners."
That didn't happen. They segregated them from the normal population and put them on starvation rations. They were not given water.
"A lot of the time they had to catch water in their cap when it rained," she said. "One article said Mr. Jones was in prison a year, but I think it was longer."
While Jones remained at Fort Delaware, the 600 were moved about. At Fort Pulaski outside Savannah they were crowded into cold, damp quarters and fed only a meager "retaliation ration." The group came to be known as "The Immortal 600" for what they endured and their refusal to take oaths of allegiance to the Union.
"They were taken to other prison camps, then later marched - a hardship march - back to Fort Delaware," Motz-Frazier said. "Many died. When they got there, they were in bad shape, starving and dying."
Jones started picking up potato peelings off the ground and saving bread crusts, making moonshine for them to fill their bellies, warm them up. Union prison guards began buying his moonshine and paying him in Union currency.
"By the end of the war, a great many were no longer living because of the hardships they endured," Motz-Frazier said. "Matt Blue - you know, who had a homestead here in Carthage - was one of the 600. At the end of the war, when the war was over and they opened up the prison camp for men to come home, Matt Blue could not walk, he was so ill. Mr. Jones hired a carriage for him - and some other Carthage men - to come home."
Back in Moore County, Jones set about helping Tyson rebuild the business using his moonshine money as capital.
"When the war was over, and they came back to Carthage, that's how they reopened the buggy factory," Motz-Frazier said. "They reopened the company on this money he'd made selling moonshine."
She and Prevost spent a lot of time talking about how it could happen that a Southern town had a black man, married to a white woman - which was illegal - and living in one of the biggest houses in town, owning and being president of a company, yet not being persecuted.
"What Mr. Prevost and I kind of concluded was that it became the town secret," she said. "When they came back to Carthage, Sherman had marched through. There was devastation. People were starving. Here is a company that can reopen, can pay so that men can buy feed, plant crops, feed their families - and they can prosper. Other Southern towns weren't able to do that. So what if he was a black man - at that point who the hell cared?"
The former slave, former colonel of the Confederacy, former prisoner-of-war was back in Carthage with hard currency - U.S. dollars - at a time when hardly anyone in the state had anything but worthless Confederate paper.
"He came out of prison with considerable money earned while there, and brought it home with him, something that probably no other prisoner did during the whole course of that war," according to "A Short History of The Establishment and Growth Of the Vehicle Industry in Carthage, N.C.," as reprinted in 2009 by the Moore County Historical Association.
Jones bankrolled partners Tyson and Kelly in rebuilding their ruined buggy business.
On the first Monday of each month - the great sales day in Bennettsville, S.C. - they brought buggies down from Carthage in long strings, one hitched behind the other and pulled along by horses or mules over deep sand roads. The trip took about a week, down and back. Jones went down with buggies and came back with money.
In 1873, he and Tyson bought out Kelly, changing the name to Tyson & Jones. Jones - having visited Northern factories on trips - concluded it was necessary to use machinery. He bought a steam engine and boiler, circular saws, a planer, drills and other machines. He had it all shipped to Jonesboro, then hauled to Carthage on wagons.
In 1889, Jones and Tyson incorporated, with Jones as company president. In 1895 the company exhibited in Atlanta at the Cotton States Exposition and continued expanding. A 1902 Republican Party flier urged voters to support "Col. W.T. Jones of Carthage - one of the Captains of Industry of the State" for the state house. His campaign was unsuccessful.
Three years later, the wooden buildings at the factory began to be replaced by brick structures. One remains.
The race of this Confederate colonel, beloved Methodist Sunday School teacher, town leader and prosperous industrialist apparently became the town secret. His photograph never appeared in any Tyson & Jones catalog.
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or email@example.com.
More like this story