Written by: Craig James
In 2002, at the encouraging of a friend, I began collecting nineteenth-century African American photography. With this new found hobby came a hunger to know more about my family history, and I embarked on a journey gathering as much information about my family as possible. It wasn’t long before I learned about a remarkable ancestor. A woman, known to most and known to many, named Nursey James. Her name still looms big in the minds of many and she is revered throughout the community. Please allow me to introduce her to you.
It’s around 1842, in the southern states of America, where slavery is prevalent and commonplace. On the Sycamore Springs Plantation, situated in Pender County, North Carolina, a baby girl is born, the child of slaves and the property of John James. The Sycamore Springs Plantation was commonly known as the ‘Old James Plantation’, bearing the surname of its owners.
As I came to learn, this young girl was no ordinary child. At a very early age, she was able to put in a full day’s work and could work alongside most men. She quickly learned the ways of the plantation and began to play a vital role in its day to day operations. Some say, by the time she reached adulthood, she had gained the respect of the other slaves and was a force to be reckoned with. She was referred to as the matriarch of the plantation – a title usually reserved for an elder woman.
She soon caught the eye of a young slave, Andrew, and the two of them fell in love and married. Prior to the marriage, young Andrew was sent to work near the Wilmington, North Carolina area. In today’s travels it’s about a forty-five minute drive from The Old James Plantation. However, for Andrew, the distance was easily covered and he would sneak back to see his love at the end of the workday. They would meet at the wood line under the cover of darkness, and she would have food for him. They were soon discovered without incident; Andrew went unpunished and was allowed to stay on the plantation. After marriage, they began a family and Nursey continued to ‘manage’ the plantation. As the story is told, nothing big happened at the plantation without it first being cleared by Nursey, and she had gained the respect, not only of those similarly situated but also the respect of the plantation owners.
Within twenty-five years of living, Nursey found herself learning the ramifications of battle as the Civil War raged. She learned how to ration food and how to turn a little into a lot. According to older loved ones and family members, she was savvy and bold. I was told that when the Union Soldiers reached Sycamore Springs Plantation, as was common, they began to loot and burn the property. As the events unfolded, in the wee hours of the morning, Nursey ran from her cabin barely dressed and partly nude. A soldier removed his service jacket and draped it around her shoulders, covering her nudity. By dawn the following morning, she was found putting things back together and salvaging what she could.
After the Civil War ended and word reached the plantation about the freeing of slaves, it was almost harvest time. A meeting was called among the Negro population to discuss if they would stay to bring in the harvest or go about their way. At the center of this gathering was a young twenty-something year old woman with a voice. The group agreed to stay until the harvest was brought in and John James agreed to pay them a fair wage.
Once the harvest was brought in, many individuals moved on to embark on their new found freedom. Nursey and a few others continued to work with the James Family at Sycamore Springs Plantation. In fact, she was often referred to as “Aunt Nursey” by the descendants of John James. One descendant told me she can remember looking out the window and seeing this tall, dark-skinned, erect woman, walking up to the main house early in the morning with a basket resting upon her head. That woman was my great-great-great grandmother, Nursey James.
By the time Nursey reached the ripe age of 90, she had labored in love for John James, his son Gibson, and Gibson’s son, Joshua. In the photograph, Nursey is shown holding a daughter of Joshua’s. She had seen four generations. There were in fact always two things she desired. One, she wanted to see her fourth generation and two, she wanted to be laid to rest in a dress that had never been worn before. On February 2, 1940, the first child of her fourth generation was born. The child was taken to Nursey and placed in her lap as Nursey beamed with joy as though her heart was full. That child was my mother. In July 1941, well into her nineties, Nursey transitioned from life into death. Knowing her second desire, Gibson James purchased the best clothes available and commissioned a dress for Nursey in which to be buried. In an all white, newly sewn dress, she was laid rest. May she forever rest in peace.