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November 11, 2006
Slavery roots lead to Clyde
by BETH PLEMING

Gwen Cradle has a special plan for this Thanksgiving — to take her family on a trip down memory lane, back to a time more than 150 years ago that she said has given her family so much to be thankful for.

The story begins and ends at the historic Shook-Smathers Museum in Clyde, the oldest frame house in the county.

Cradle’s family has come full circle at the house where she is now a docent and her great-great-grandparents once worked as slaves.
With copies of two antiquated receipts in hand that authenticated the sale of her great-great-grandparents to Haywood County resident Levi Smathers, Cradle said she is grateful for her life and the progress our society has made in the past century. “Levi Smathers bought my great-great-grandmother, Dorcas Smathers, in 1863,” Cradle said. “And Henry Smathers, whom would become my great, great grandfather was purchased the same year.” Back then, it was a common practice for slaves to assume the last name of their owners.

The bill of sale states Levi Smathers paid “two thousand dollars for a negro boy named Henry aged seventeen years, whom I warrant sound and healthy and promise to defend against the claims of all persons whatsoever. Given under my hand and seal, March 20, 1863.”
Dorcas Smathers, who would later become Cradle’s great-great-grandmother, was purchased a short time later.
This receipt states, “received on July 3, 1863, of Levi Smathers, twenty-nine hundred dollars in full payment for one negro girl and child. Girl named Dorcas and child named Jefferson. Woman aged about nineteen years and child aged about four months, which we warrant sound, sensible and slaves for life.”

 
 

As oral history tells it, both Dorcas and Henry were bought off the auction block in Charleston, S.C., Cradle said, and moved to Haywood County where some of the family has remained since.

Cradle said she’s been aware of her family’s story most of her life and even used to visit the home in Clyde where Henry and Dorcas used to work.
“We used to come here and walk through the house,” she said. “But I didn’t know they were renovating until I saw it on TV. At that time, they were requesting volunteers to work as docents. I thought it would make my grandma Dorcas proud.”

As a docent at the Shook Museum, Cradle now drives 45 minutes once per month to lead visitors on a tour of the home.
“I think it’s fascinating that the house is still here,” she said, “and that it’s still standing. It was never burned down, torn down or vandalized and that our existence is still here. We were a part of history here.”

Cradle never got to meet her great, great grandparents, but said she has felt her grandmother Dorcas’ presence as she leads tour groups through the Shook-Smathers house.

“The first time I walked through this house, I got such strange vibes,” she said. “Especially when we got up in the chapel, I thought ‘wow,’ this is where my grandma used to be…it was like she was trying to tell me something- I don’t know what, but I just felt her presence…it was spiritual, a spiritual connection.”

Cradle said her family has strong religious ties, which she attributes in large part to the ancestry she’s inherited.
“I’m so thankful for the spirituality of our ancestors and for the religious background we’ve inherited,” she said, adding there are preachers of numerous denominations in her family.”

Cradle plans to take visiting family members on a tour of the Shook-Smathers home on Thanksgiving morning. Her cousin, Juanita Bryson, also a great-great-grandchild of Henry and Dorcas, visited the home for the first time last week.

“It’s really something,” she said. “It’s just so good to be here and to know the history. I’m so thankful the house has been restored and carries on the story of our family.”

Bryson said she is most grateful to know the Smathers upheld their end of the bargain that was agreed to in the bill of sale, to “defend against the claims of all persons whatsoever.” “We know the people here took care of our people and gave our family a good life,” Bryson said, “and that’s good to know because it was rough for some of them.”

Cradle said she has heard that Smathers would stand on a nearby hill and watch while the slaves were building the railroad to ensure no one was mistreated.

And although she never had the privilege of meeting her great, great grandparents, Cradle said she has heard stories that Dorcas, known for giving good hugs, liked to sing while she worked. “Miss Willie Morgan said my grandma used to stand at the sink and sing, ‘we’ll understand it better by and by,’” Cradle said.

The endearing grin and glimmer of her eye as she recalled stories of her late great, great grandmother is indication enough that Cradle truly is thankful for the legacy her ancestors have passed down, most notably because of the richly religious inheritance they left behind. “I’m most thankful for life,” she said. “And the mere fact that Jesus is the main theme. We could thank Him for all the material things He’s given us, but it’s far better that we just have Him.”

Not only Him, but our freedom, too, she added, still clutching the very receipt that once sold her kin into slavery.
“We just have so much to be thankful for…because we’ve come so far since those days,” she said. “We’re definitely blessed, so blessed.”

Reach Beth Pleming at bpleming@themountaineer.com