Coal-black negroes, no. 2.

by Lisa Y. Henderson

State v. William P. Watters, 25 NC 455 (1843).

This case, arising in Ashe County, was an indictment against William P. Watters for libel: “Notice. A man called Isaac Tinsley on the first day of this month in a suit wherein the State was plaintiff and myself and wife were defendants, swear a wilful lie and I can prove it. October 15th, 1841.”  In other words, Watters was charged with falsely calling Tinsley a liar. Watters pleaded not guilty and asserted the truth of his statement as a defense.

The case was rooted in Watters and Zilpha Thompson’s earlier indictment for fornication and adultery. Watters and Thompson proved that they had been married, but the State alleged that Watters was a man of color, and his marriage to a white woman was therefore void. Watters contended that he was descended from Portuguese, not Negro or Indian, ancestors. Isaac Tinsley testified for the state that he knew Watters’ mother and grandmother, and “they were coal black negroes.” Other witnesses testified that Watters’ mother was “a bright mulatto, with coarse straight hair — that her name was Elizabeth Cullom, and that she lived with a man by the name of John P. Watters, who was a white man, but of dark complexion for a white man,” who was the reputed father of William Watters. They also testified that Elizabeth Cullom’s mother, Mary Wooten, “was not as black as some negroes they had seen, and had thin lips.” Another witness stated that Wooten “was black, with thin lips and sharp features.” Watters then proposed to prove that Wooten had stated that Cullom’s father was white. This evidence was rejected by the court.  And found Watters guilty of libel.

Upon appeal to the Supreme Court, the justices confirmed that the evidence had been properly excluded as hearsay.  Further, as “the declaration of the grandmother assigns the paternity of her child to no man in particular, but only to some white man, [it] would be the loosest proof of pedigree that ever established one.”  “And, besides, it is well known that persons, of the description of this woman, have a strong bias in their minds to induce the declaration from them, and if possible, the impression on others, that their illegitimate child is the issue of a white man: if not to gratify a personal vanity in themselves, for the reason, that it removes their offspring one degree from the humbled caste in which is placed by the law,whereby he is excluded from the elective franchise, and from competency as a witness between white persons, and prohibited from intermarrying with them.”  Judgment affirmed.

In the 1850 census of Ashe County: Wm. P. Waters, 52, mulatto, wife Zilphia, 31, and children Mary, 9, Marth, 8, John, 7, Mark, 6, Louisa, 5, Granville, 3, and Henry, 1.  The race designation for Zilphia and the children was blank, which indicates the default “white.”