Stanly, John Carruthers

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John Carruthers Stanly

Barber, plantation owner

John Carruthers Stanly, the largest free black slaveholder in the South, is a paradox of history. He purchased his own family members out of slavery and eventually became one of the largest slaveholders in Craven County, North Carolina.

Stanly, born a slave in 1774, was the son of an African Ibo woman and, many believe, the white prominent merchant-shipper John Wright Stanly. As a young boy, he received an education and was taught the trade of barbering with the help of his owners, Alexander and Lydia Stewart. Alexander Stewart had served as captain of the ship that brought Stanly's mother to North Carolina and both Alexander and Lydia were John W. Stanly's friends and neighbors.

After learning the barbering trade, Stanly was allowed as a bondsman to establish a barbershop in New Bern. Many of the town's farmers and planters frequented his barbershop for a shave or a trim. As a result, Stanly developed a successful business and he became known as Barber Jack. Realizing that Stanly, at the age of twenty-one, was literate and could economically provide for himself, his owners petitioned the Craven County court in 1795 for his emancipation. However, he was not satisfied with the ruling of the court and in 1798, through a special act, the state legislature confirmed the emancipation of John Carruthers Stanly, which entitled him to all rights and privileges of a free person.

Between 1800 and 1801, Stanly purchased his wife, Kitty, and two mulatto slave children. By March 1805, they were emancipated by the Craven County Superior Court. A few days later, Kitty and Stanly were legally married in New Bern and posted a legal marriage bond in Raleigh. Stanly's wife was the slave daughter of Richard and Mary Green and the paternal granddaughter of Amelia Green. Two year later, in 1807, Stanly was successful in getting the court to emancipate his wife's brother. After securing his own and his family's freedom, Stanly began to focus more on business matters. He obtained two slaves, Boston and Brister, who were taught the barbering trade. They became very skillful at the trade, which prompted Stanly to turn the operation of the business over to them. He used the money earned from his barbering business to invest in additional town property, farmland, and slaves. Other factors that assisted Stanly in his rise were his close ties with his former owner Lydia Stewart, his half-brother, John Stanly, and many prominent whites, along with his thrift and business acumen.

Starting out with small holdings and eventually accumulating large holdings, Stanly became one of the wealthiest men and the largest slave owner in Craven County. He purchased property at low prices and sold it at higher prices. He also profited from his rental properties and slave operated barbershop, not to mention monies earned from the sale of his plantation commodities such as cotton and turpentine.

Stanly's plantations and rental properties were operated by skilled slaves and free blacks. To improve his rental properties in New Bern, he used skilled slaves and hired free blacks to build cabins and other residences and to repair and renovate these properties. In fact, slave labor during the depression of the early 1820s kept Stanly economically stable.

Regarding how many slaves Stanly owned, the 1830 census suggests he owned 163 slaves. He has been described as a harsh, profit-minded task master whose treatment of his slaves was no different than the treatment slaves received from white owners. Stanly's goal, shared by white southern planters, was on expanding his operations and increasing his profits. Prior to a series of financial difficulties in the 1830s, his economic net worth exceeded $68,000.

During the 1820s, Stanly's wife, Kitty, died and he faced a series of economic difficulties. Kitty had been ill for several years, eventually becoming bedridden. Despite careful attention by two slave nurses, she died around 1824. His fortune began to plummet when the Bank of New Bern, due to the national bank tightening controls of some state and local banks, was forced to collect all outstanding debts. Unfortunately, Stanly had countersigned a security note for John Stanly, his white half-brother, in the amount of $14,962. Stanly assumed the debt. This action along with his own debts forced him to refinance his mortgages and sell large pieces of property, including slaves. When these options did not resolve his economic woes, he resorted to mortgaging his turpentine, cotton, and corn crops, as well as selling his barbershop, which had been operating continuously for forty years. Without the steady flow of income from his barbershop, it became increasingly difficult for him to stabilize his finances. By the early 1840s, much of Stanly's holdings with the exception of a small rural tract of land had been liquidated. Finally in 1843, when Stanly was seventy-one, his last 160 acres of land were sold at public auction. Three years later, with only seven slaves remaining, John Stanly died.



Franklin, John Hope. The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790–1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1943.

――――, and Loren Schweninger. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation New York.: Oxford University Press, 1999.


Schweninger, Loren. "John Carruthers Stanly and the Anomaly of Black Slaveholding." North Carolina Historical Review 67 (April 1990): 159-92.

                               Patricia A. Pearson


Born in New Bern, North Carolina
Initiates petition for emancipation
State legislature confers Stanly's emancipation
Purchases Kitty Green and two slave children
Marries Kitty Green
Petitions for emancipation of brother-in-law
Buries wife
Owns about 1163 slaves
Owns 1160 acres of land
Dies in New Bern, North Carolina

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Stanly, John Carruthers

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