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Inherit the Land

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

Gene Stowe
Illustrated by Carl A. Sergio
Copyright Date: 2006
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  • Book Info
    Inherit the Land
    Book Description:

    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 Willhints 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 theCharlotte Observerfor 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. Learn more about the author at

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-077-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-2)
    (pp. 3-4)

    The sad-eyed Southern squire on the witness stand could have predicted that night’s late-spring killing frost by the dry north wind whipping the high-arched windows in the second-story Courtroom. He could not have predicted the fallout from an offhand remark while he was explaining his ledger to a hostile lawyer: “I think Tom Houston’s account is in that book. He was called by the Marvin people ‘Miss Mag’s son-in-law.’”

    Here was the heart of the case on trial in Monroe, North Carolina, in April 1921. Was Maggie Ross crazy about the black people her family raised? Or was she just...

  6. PART I: Worlds Apart

      (pp. 7-16)

      For two hundred years, the gentle red-earth hills and the dusty-brown draws and bottoms in the far western corner of Union County, where the border with South Carolina runs northwest on some surveyor’s plot and the Mecklenburg County line angles north-east along Sixmile Creek, yielded some of the best cotton in the county. A few of the oldest families held kings’ grants from colonial times, but most had come down the Great Wagon Road from the North, like the Polks, who had produced President James K. Polk nine miles to the north, and the Jacksons, who had produced President Andrew...

      (pp. 17-25)

      In much of the world beyond Marvin—the neighboring towns, the next state, across the South, and even up North—not brotherhood but lynching was the rule. Hatred begot violence, and violence seemed to beget more hatred. Union County, created in 1842 from the union of eastern Mecklenburg and western Anson counties, straddled a sort of seam in upland North Carolina’s economy, and hence its racial strains. To the east, as the land grew flatter and more sandy, it supported plantations with thousands of acres of cotton and tobacco, and the descendants of slaves who worked those fields accounted for...

      (pp. 26-36)

      North Carolina’s establishment could eschew violence against black people because it had accomplished a far more peaceful, pragmatic, and permanent way to ensure white supremacy. In the Old North State, the experiment with equality that started with Emancipation and crested in Fusion collapsed on August 2, 1900. The passage of the Suffrage Amendment established as law what the election of 1898 had accomplished by Redshirt terror—the removal of black people from the political process. The amendment to the state constitution imposed a literacy test for voting—registrants must be able to read and write some section of the constitution...

    • 4 THE COURT
      (pp. 37-46)

      The black-and-white world of the Rosses of Marvin and the black and white world outside collided in the Union County Courthouse in Monroe on March 31, 1921. The impact attracted the top lawyers in the state—“an imposing array of counsel,” theJournalnoticed. The mayor of Monroe was on one side, the son of the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court on the other. Christian denomination and political party, alma mater and past professional partnerships—the gap between the lawyers’ walnut-stained tables in the courtroom sliced across all ordinary allegiances. Attorneys John Sikes, A.M. Stack, Frank Armfield, and...

  7. PART II: The Rosses

    • 5 SUSAN
      (pp. 49-53)

      Susannah Burleyson Ross was sixty-five years old when she started her third family. She figured she deserved another chance. Things had not worked out so well with the first two. The family she grew up with was all dead or dispersed, and the family she formed when she married Nathaniel Ross in 1827 was well on its way to the same end.

      Her father, Jonathan Burleyson, was a son of Isaac Burleyson, Sr., from Montgomery County, a member of Captain Polk’s Company of North Carolina Militia in the Revolution, where he helped fight Tories around Fayetteville in eastern North Carolina....

      (pp. 54-59)

      The probate judge apprenticed Bob Ross to Susan, but he learned his trade from Dennis Clay. Dennis had been the man of the house since his mother left his father when she took possession of her father’s land in 1859. He was, like his mother, more Burleyson than Ross, named for his Burleyson uncle, sharing Susan’s ambition, managing with her to add field after field to the Burleyson homeplace.

      Dennis was, like all Confederate veterans and especially wounded ones, officially revered in his community, although some whispered about the black boy who died at his hands years ago and about...

      (pp. 60-64)

      Mittie Bell had rubbed a blister on her heel and needed a comfortable pair of shoes to wear to Redding Springs Camp Meeting, so she went into the front room and asked Miss Maggie if she could borrow hers. After all, Mittie at age eighteen and Maggie at sixty wore the same size—dresses, jackets, even underwear. Mittie once wore Maggie’s silk dress to a camp meeting, and she often wore Maggie’s everyday dresses around the house. Almost every month they would go shopping together at the Belk store in Waxhaw. When a dress caught her eye, Mittie would insist...

      (pp. 65-69)

      It took two daughters to carry forward the shrewd and soft sides of Susan Burleyson Ross. Sallie, “the business end of the firm,” as one neighbor put it, inherited her ambition, her aggressive dealing, her eye for a bargain. Maggie mirrored her mother’s compassion, her charitable giving, her concern for the downtrodden. Each, of course, shared some of the other’s gifts, whether by nature, nurture, or a lifetime of living together. Maggie could hold her own in a horse trade, and Sallie could give away an armload of bedding to a neighbor whose house burned down. But they possessed clear...

      (pp. 70-76)

      Five years after the neighbors adopted Marvin Methodist Church’s name, the United States Post Office rejected the word for its official address. The community could have its own Star Route post office for weekly mail pickup, but “Marvin” was too much like “Morven” in Anson County. Find something less confusing, the postal officials ordered. So folks got together at Frank Crane’s new store to talk it over. During the meeting, somebody pulled a practical joke, setting up a needle in a seat so that a tug on a thread would lift the point just as the victim was sitting down....

    • 10 THE TENANTS
      (pp. 77-82)

      Will Body had but one hope. The wagons from the A. W. Heath Company were in his yard to take his goods, and W. H. Collins from the store in Waxhaw had the papers to prove that he had not paid his account. Talk to Miss Maggie, the black tenant told the white merchant. When Mr. Collins went to her house and told her what was happening, she hurried down to Crane’s store and telephoned Dick Hudson. He came over, and she told him to pay Mr. Collins a fair price for the merchandise. Will was spared.

      Such was the...

    • 11 THE WILL
      (pp. 83-89)

      At 10:30 on a fall morning in 1907, Robert B. Redwine and Henry B. Adams, traveling together in a buggy from their law offices in Monroe, reached the Ross house. The message that Steve Walkup brought gave no hint what Miss Maggie and Miss Sallie wanted with them. Adams, a large, affable man with thick, snow-white hair just long enough to sweep back, had been practicing in Monroe since 1872, after graduating from Trinity College and studying law for two years. He was elected to the state house in 1884 and the state senate in 1886 and recently moved his...

    • 12 THE COUSINS
      (pp. 90-96)

      No one had seen John Wesley Dees visit the Ross house since Sallie died. Frank Crane remembered seeing him stop by once, when he was township constable, before he moved to Mecklenburg County about 1910. George Washington Ross was around more often. He lived just a half mile from the sisters when he moved from the McIlwaine place to the Billy Ardrey place in 1898, and he was back and forth on business several times when he was buying land in Lancaster County from them in 1901. Both men showed up for Maggie’s funeral at Banks Presbyterian on May 24,...

  8. PART III: The Trial

    • 13 JURY
      (pp. 99-104)

      Sheriff Clifford Fowler, his black-banded white fedora in his hands and his basset-sad eyes cast down, eased into the courtroom. The tall, walnut-stained door swung silently behind him. It was past eleven o’clock at night. He did not want to tell Judge Ray the bad news. After ten hours of corralling, questioning, seating, and mostly rejecting jurors, they were one man short with the deadline looming. The state legislature agreed to allow this civil case, nearly a year old, to be heard in the March criminal term of Union County Superior Court because there was room on the docket. But...

      (pp. 105-110)

      In the bright light of that Friday morning, the first day of April and suddenly much warmer than the cloudy night before, with the sun spilling through the tall windows and the crowd milling in the aisles and among the seats and along the walls, the exhilaration of the trial swept away the exhaustion of the jury selection. The thirty-five-year-old redbrick, slate-roofed courthouse, hosting the most celebrated assembly of lawyers ever gathered under its vaulted ceiling and lofty clock tower, pulsed with the fulfillment of its purpose. Its tall granite steps east and west welcomed the crowd that pressed across...

      (pp. 111-116)

      “At the time you signed this paper, Mr. Sutton, did you think Miss Sallie and Miss Maggie knew how to dispose of their property?” Cansler asked the witness, still on the stand as court resumed Saturday.

      “Yes,” Sutton answered. “I did not think anything else at the time but what she knew what she was doing. She was a weak woman, but I thought she knew how to dispose of their property.”

      “What if they had sold the property?”

      “They could have sold it and I never would have thought anything but what they knew what they were doing, and...

      (pp. 117-125)

      Early Monday morning, Vann was in the barbershop when he heard forty-one-year-old Bill Pierce talking about a deal he’d seen his father make with Ross women when he was a child. The lawyer got the traveling pharmaceutical salesman from Charlotte subpoenaed to testify.

      When court reconvened, Cansler continued his examination, getting Sutton to catalog the relationship of the sisters to the people listed in the will.

      “Bob Ross lived with the Ross family all his life,” Sutton said. “He was the servant of their brother Dennis. His is probably fifty years old now and has never lived anywhere else that...

    • 17 PREACHERS
      (pp. 126-134)

      Outside the courtroom, on the first cloudy day of the trial, Steve Walkup announced that he would sue Maggie Ross’ estate for one thousand dollars or more, no matter the outcome of the cousins’ case. Steve said he had done odd jobs for the Rosses for more than twenty years, in addition to the sharecropping he had done on their land. They had never paid him for driving their buggy or weeding their flowers or building their fires. He figured the work was worth between twenty-five and fifty dollars a year, much more than the two hundred dollars they had...

    • 18 FRANK CRANE
      (pp. 135-143)

      No witness had known Maggie Ross better than Frank Crane. He was a boy when he met the Rosses—he and his father once spent the night in their home on the Burleyson land—and he had lived in sight of their house for twenty-five years. He told the court about laying off the road for Bob Ross soon after the women moved to Marvin and about Elias Crane’s visit just two years before Maggie died.

      “I went up to Miss Maggie’s house with an uncle of mine from Texas. He came up here and he was at my house...

      (pp. 144-152)

      Seventy-six-year-old “Cousin Hettie” took the stand first for the caveators as the sunlight shifted from the eastern windows. She had watched the Rosses about as long, and about as closely, as Frank Crane, but her account painted a very different kind of life.

      “I met the family in 1871,” she said. “I last saw her two weeks before she died. I saw her quite often. We moved on our place in 1888. I called Mrs. Susan Ross ‘Aunt’ and Sallie and Maggie ‘Cousin.’ From the time we lived there in 1888 I did not see much of Miss Maggie from...

      (pp. 153-160)

      Taylor’s testimony stretched into Wednesday morning, then her daughter Margaret Garrison Moore, who had been in Florida for five months before the trial, echoed the stories of an addled, feeble Maggie dominated by her older sister and Mittie Bell.

      “I have known Miss Maggie Ross ever since I can remember,” she said. “I lived in Lancaster County, South Carolina, until I was thirteen, and at that time we moved to the Ross farm. That was in 1888.”

      “Did you have sufficient opportunity to observe her?”

      “Yes, I ran around the house and carried them in stove wood and lived in...

    • 21 VISITORS
      (pp. 161-169)

      Henry Banks Stephens had rented land from the Rosses for nineteen years, almost half his life. The fall after Maggie died, he and his wife, Mary, bought a farm from the Traywicks and moved out to Providence Road near Weddington. He delivered, in breathless sentences before the unaccustomed audience, more stories of Maggie’s inept dealings.

      “I delivered a bale of cotton up there one morning and I asked her how she was and she said she was torn all to pieces, and I asked her why and she said last night she had seven bales of cotton out in the...

    • 22 DR. POTTS
      (pp. 170-174)

      The clerk then read the deposition of Dr. Robert Marcellus Potts, forty-nine, who had practiced medicine in Marvin in 1897 and 1898 and kept many of his patients—and his membership in Banks Presbyterian Church—when he moved to Rock Hill and to Fort Mill. He had started treating the Ross women when Sallie was ill in 1902 and first treated Maggie in 1906.

      “She was rather delicate, nervous disposition, frail woman, inclined to be nervous. She had a tendency to be despondent or pessimistic, looking on the dark side of things. This was from 1906 until her death. Rather...

    • 23 BOARDERS
      (pp. 175-178)

      Dr. Samuel Howard Ezzell was the older half-brother of Rep. Earle Ezzell and, from a third marriage of their father, half-brother to Thomas Sanford Ezzell, who had married Ann Davis, a Ross cousin—the one, as Crane had pointed out, who lived nearby and never visited Miss Maggie. Dr. Ezzell, at forty-seven, had recently gone back into farming after doctoring for years. After Dennis died he stayed in the Rosses’ home for a few weeks to get the farm records in order. He moved to Van Wyck, in Lancaster County, in 1901, married Brenda Thompson in 1906, and moved to...

    • 24 ALIENISTS
      (pp. 179-187)

      The caveators hired three alienists, doctors specializing in mental and nervous conditions, to testify about Maggie’s mind. They had never met her, but they qualified before the court as expert witnesses. Dr. J.K. Hall, forty-one years old, born in Iredell County, educated at Chapel Hill and Jefferson Medical College, once on staff at the State Hospital at Morganton, became president of the Westbrook Sanatorium in Richmond in 1911. By the time he testified, he had treated several thousand patients suffering with nervous and mental diseases. Dr. Albert Anderson, sixty-one years old, born in Wake County and educated in medicine at...

      (pp. 188-192)

      The wind changed for the first time in the trial, blowing from the south-west and pushing the temperature to eighty-five degrees on Saturday. The bright heat baked the courtroom where the final alienist, Dr. Taylor, took the stand and answered the same hypothetical question. The caveators had decided not to call a fourth alienist, Dr. Davidson of Charlotte, as they once had planned.

      “Do you have an opinion as to her mental condition?” Parker asked Dr. Taylor.

      “Yes. If the jury should find these facts to be true, I would say she was feeble-minded and would not have sufficient mental...

    • 26 NEWS
      (pp. 193-197)

      On the front page of that afternoon’sCharlotte News, the jurors saw a courtroom story more sensational than any testimony they had heard all week, a hastily filed report of the shocking verdict in Georgia that morning:


      Georgia Farmer Convicted of Death of Negroes on

      His Farm While in Condition of Peonage.

      Covington, Ga., April 9—John W. Williams, accused of the murder of eleven of his negro farm hands to halt a federal investigation of peonage, was found guilty of murder by a jury in Newton county superior court here today and...

      (pp. 198-201)

      John J. Parker showed up for court on Monday amid a buzz that he was in line for a federal court appointment. Judge Jeter C. Pritchard died in Asheville on Sunday, and everyone expected another North Carolinian to get his seat on the Fourth District Circuit of Appeals. With a Republican in the White House, the appointment would make a fitting consolation for the valiant gubernatorial candidate, and even Democrats in his home state could support the move. The gossip around the courthouse and the Law Building across the street shifted, for the moment, from the sensational trial under way...

      (pp. 202-211)

      To many in the courtroom, the caveators had done their job. The birth and burial of the bastard black baby was established. Equally established for many—why should the jury think differently?—was that event’s proof of moral degeneracy, hence mental decay, hence Maggie’s incompetence to make a will. How could Cansler and company defend the indefensible? Their own witnesses, so far from challenging the description of social equality in that house, seemed to substantiate the facts while pressing for a different conclusion. But on what grounds could anyone conclude that a southern woman who behaved that way was anything...

    • 29 R. A. HUDSON
      (pp. 212-219)

      R. A. Hudson took the stand Tuesday afternoon and stayed through most of Wednesday. He told how he became the women’s agent after Dennis died, how Maggie raised his pay after Sallie died, how he and Robert McIlwaine found the wills after Maggie died. He also told what he knew about the will before he read it, recalling the afternoon when he found them debating whether to give all of the money to Richard or some to Harry Hood. The caveators objected. Judge Ray overruled them but gave the jury the same caution he had given about Dr. Nisbet’s testimony....

      (pp. 220-225)

      Dr. William Robert McCain’s mother, Mary Walker McCain, a girlhood friend of Maggie’s, hired Aunt Harriet to cook for her after Maggie died. The propounders called the doctor, who lived with her in the old home-place, to testify because he had treated the sisters and people in their household since 1899, beginning with a call to see a sick cow.

      “Did you meet Miss Maggie on that trip?”

      “Yes, but I did not speak to her.”

      “Were you their regular physician?”

      “No, but I went over there to see Miss Mag, perhaps three or four times.”

      “On what other occasions...

      (pp. 226-229)

      On Thursday morning Dr. H. Q. Alexander, the former president of the Farmers’ Union, came first to the stand.

      “I visited Miss Maggie and Miss Sallie Ross in the year 1907 eighteen times,” he said. “I think each visit was made to see Miss Sallie. My receipts indicate that I prescribed for Miss Maggie during that time.”

      “Did you see Miss Mag on all those trips?”

      “Yes, but my conversation was limited to the purpose of my call. I would just give instructions about medicine and things like that.”

      Parker dwelt on the illness in his cross-examination.

      “Dr. Alexander, what...

      (pp. 230-236)

      Mayor John Sikes at age forty, married to his own Maggie for fourteen years and father of four children, cut an earnest figure with his soft eyes and high-domed forehead that reached to a thin layer of dark hair on the back half of his head. His thin, tight lips were set between a jutting nose and an equally jutting chin. He could be calm, but passionate. He began his address after lunch, reminding the jurors that they had promised, just two weeks before, that they had no prejudice against a white woman’s leaving property to negroes. He pointed out...

    • 33 A. M. STACK
      (pp. 237-241)

      Amos Stack focused on the formalities for the first half-hour of his oration. He spoke as rapidly as he could, quoting witness after witness to convince the jury that Maggie, feeble-minded as she was, had suffered another’s influence to make her will. “No one saw her sign the will,” he said, referring to Sutton and Ezzell, “and so far as you know she didn’t know its contents.” Stack said Sallie influenced Maggie to make this “unnatural will,” and Sallie was dominated by Hudson and other parties. “Witness have testified that both of them were crying like babies when the will...

    • 34 E. T. CANSLER
      (pp. 242-247)

      E. T. Cansler, rising to deliver the final argument, had an explanation for the will’s leaving Nathaniel Ross’s body in the Union Methodist cemetery when the others were moved to Banks: “His wife didn’t want to live with him—she ordered him away—so why force them to rest in the same grave?”

      The attorney took up the first of the three issues that Stack had laid out.

      Was the will executed according to the formalities required by law? The late Mr. H. B. Adams, who drew the will, was one of the leading lawyers of the state, and a...

      (pp. 248-256)

      The sky was still overcast but no rain was falling when Judge Ray opened court on Saturday. The dirt streets were dry but not dusty, and the smell of the moist earth freshened the warm air. Word had spread around Monroe and among the farmers coming to town that the testimony and the closing arguments had ended and the case would go to the jury that day. The crowd that crammed into the courtroom and down the steps appeared as festive as that on the first day of the trial, but an undertow of uncertainty, a sort of breath-holding for...

    • 36 REACTION
      (pp. 257-261)

      A mid the roiling rumble in the courtroom, defiant for the moment of Judge Ray’s gavel, the caveators’ lawyers quickly moved to set aside the verdict, moved for a new trial for errors they said the court committed in admitting some testimony and rejecting others and in the charge to the jury. Overruled. Judge Ray signed the judgment over the caveators’ objection. The caveators appealed to the state Supreme Court and filed a fifty-dollar appeal bond backed by Tip Helms and J. B. Coan. The lawyers agreed that the caveators would have until August first to serve their case on...

    • 37 NEW TRIAL
      (pp. 262-266)

      A cold rain was falling on Monday, February 18, 1924, the gray clouds dripping just about enough to accumulate an inch all day. A few degrees cooler, and the northwesterly wind would be blowing snow. In Judge Thomas Shaw’s Union County Superior Courtroom, twelve men swore their oaths, took their seats in the jury box, and faced their first case of the day. J. W. Tadlock, J. B. Hargett, J. B. Hartsell, Lonnie Wilson Tucker, Z. B. Presson, John Baxter Price, Jessie L. Helms, L. W. Ashcraft, W. M. Sell, T. B. Alexander, W. T. Medlin, and W. D. Hice...

  9. PART IV: The Heritage

    • 38 THE PEOPLE
      (pp. 269-274)

      Mittie Bell Houston’s baby Ervin had just turned three when Maggie died, and Florence, the oldest of her six children, was not yet thirteen. Through the years of trial, she and Tom were making a home in the house that the sisters had built for them after their wedding. No more trips to the big house between the churches: It was promised to Banks Presbyterian, and Reverend McIlwaine stayed there the summer after Maggie’s funeral. The J. E. Efird Monument Company in Monroe inscribed Maggie Ross’s name on her family’s monument in the Banks Presbyterian cemetery and placed a footstone...

    • 39 THE LAND
      (pp. 275-280)

      As the twenty-first century turned, bulldozers were reshaping the land of cotton, filling farm ponds, pushing over tenant houses, uprooting old oak trees, raising berms and hillocks in the high-dollar subdivisions spreading southeast from Charlotte. Acres worth fifty dollars when Bob and Mittie inherited them were selling at prices that soared above one hundred thousand dollars, and some of the houses on them above one million. When mansions started going up in Marvin around 1990, Mittie’s son Robert Houston said they looked less like homes and more like “babyhotels,” as if they had run away from the big hotels...

      (pp. 281-287)

      TheStatesville Landmarkcelebrated the trial’s conclusion as yet another example of Southern justice in an April 18, 1921, editorial headlined “Not Swayed by Prejudice.” The column, like many other news reports, assumed that Bob and Mittie inherited all the Ross land, failing to distinguish between the eight hundred acres of Burleyson property and another seven hundred acres sold to pay legacies. TheLandmarkcompounded the error by misreading 1,500 as 7,500, a mistake theMonroe Journalcorrected to 1,500 when it excerpted the opinion.


      The jury’s verdict in the Ross will case in Union county is...

    (pp. 288-293)
    (pp. 294-295)
    (pp. 296-302)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 303-309)