Inherit the Land: Jim Crow Meets Miss Maggie's Will

Inherit the Land: Jim Crow Meets Miss Maggie's Will

Inherit the Land: Jim Crow Meets Miss Maggie's Will

Inherit the Land: Jim Crow Meets Miss Maggie's Will


In the early twentieth century, two wealthy white sisters, cousins to a North Carolina governor, wrote identical wills that left their substantial homeplace to a black man and his daughter.

Maggie Ross, whose sister Sallie died in 1909, was the richest woman in Union County, North Carolina. Upon Maggie's death in 1920, her will bequeathed her estate to Bob Ross-who had grown up in the sisters' household-and his daughter Mittie Bell Houston. Mittie had also grown up with the well-to-do women, who had shown their affection for her by building a house for her and her husband. This house, along with eight hundred acres, hundreds of dollars in cash, and two of the white family's three gold watches went to Bob Ross and Houston. As soon as the contents of the will became known, more than one hundred of Maggie Ross's scandalized cousins sued to break the will, claiming that its bequest to black people proved that Maggie Ross was mentally incompetent.

Revealing the details of this case and of the lives of the people involved in it, Gene Stowe presents a story that sheds light on and complicates our understanding of the Jim Crow South. Stowe's account of this famous court battle shows how specific individuals, both white and black, labored against the status quo of white superiority and ultimately won. An evocative portrait of an entire generation's sins, Inherit the Land: Jim Crow Meets Miss Maggie's Will hints at the possibility for color-blind justice in small-town North Carolina.

Gene Stowe grew up in Monroe, North Carolina, and was a reporter for the Charlotte Observer for twelve years. He is head of the writing program of Trinity School at Greenlawn in South Bend, Indiana. Carl A. Sergio earned degrees in art design and psychology at the University of Notre Dame. He is currently working in Chicago while preparing to attend graduate school.


My father told me they should know better, those good folks in Monroe who proclaimed “niggers don’t have souls” and hounded him for allowing a black student to sing in the First Presbyterian Church choir in the late 1960s, when I was in high school. He was right. Their stance was that they were preserving a “way of life” passed on by ancestors who were “products of their times.” That argument fails. Fortunately, most people in Monroe had adopted a new way of life, producing more harmonious times, when I went back in the early 1980s as a reporter for the Charlotte Observer. P. E. Bazemore, a city council member for more than twenty years and mayor pro tem, cites his first election in 1981 as a mark of the change. He won the office while he was the lead plaintiff in a court case that charged the state agriculture department with racism—and the local paper was calling the class-action suit “Bazemore’s case.”

“Since that time, I would say they’ve moved progressively forward,” said Bazemore, who kept getting elected, often leading the ticket, after the Supreme Court ruled for his side in Bazemore v. Friday in 1986. “People who were not as strong racially began to step forward. You always had quality people in Monroe and some in the county as well. They weren’t the die-hard racists. They were silent in the trouble days. They’re not silent any more.”

They should have known better all along. Nearly one hundred years before I was in high school, on a plantation at the edge of their county, three white women knew better. Susan Ross took Bob Ross as a black apprentice in her home and, with her spinster daughters Maggie and Sallie, raised him as an equal member of the family. When he married and had a daughter, Mittie Bell, they brought her up the same way. The black people were so fully family that the women bequeathed them their homeplace, only to have the will challenged by more than one hundred cousins after Maggie died in 1920.

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