SUBMITTED BY: Dr. Algeania W. Freeman (researched and written by Cheri Todd Molter)
The Woodard story is also told in “Black River” (a historical fiction novella written by Algeania W. Freeman, PhD).
Much of this story is based on the oral history passed down through the generations of James Woodard’s descendants and some is the result of genealogical research. Sources will be named when possible.
From Enslaved to Landowner: The Story of James H. Woodard
James Woodard was born in Wilson County, North Carolina to an enslaved woman named Wadie (N.C. Certificate of Marriage, dated August 1, 1920) and had several brothers and sisters. His father, Amos Woodard (N.C. Certificate of Marriage, dated August 1, 1920), went missing from the plantation where James was born and lived. According to family stories, it had been assumed that Amos had been sold at auction; however, it was discovered that there were two men named Amos Woodard who served in the 14th Heavy Artillery (U.S. Colored Troops), one in Company I and the other in Company M. One of those men may have been James’ father. According to his military record, the Amos in Company I was 5’10” tall with a “yellow complexion, black eyes, and black hair.” He was born in Wilson County and his occupation was listed as “farmer.” He enlisted on April 4, 1865 at New Bern, North Carolina for a term of three years. W.A. Moore was named as the person responsible for Amos’ enlistment. The remarks on his record states: “Det. Service at Morehead City, NC, since June 10th, 1865. Returned to duty Aug.” The military record of the Amos Woodard in Company M states that he was 5’6” tall with a “black complexion, black eyes, and black hair.” He was a laborer who had also been born in Wilson County. He enlisted on April 24, 1865, also in New Bern and for a term of three years; however, Lt. R.J. Brown was named as the person responsible for his enlistment. The only remark on this Amos’ record states:
“Disented [sic] command at Fort Macon, N.C. July 13, 1865.” Both men were born in Wilson County, North Carolina. Although it cannot be said for certain if these men were the Amos Woodard whom James named as his father, their names match what was documented, the birthplace of both men is accurate, and the dates coincided with the family story about James’ father leaving the plantation, so it is possible that James’ father served in the USCT.
James’ mother, Wadie, died when he was young; afterward, when James was about 13 years old, he ran away from the plantation where he had been enslaved. For a long time, he hid in forests through the day and ventured into hog pens at night. He told his decedents that he survived by eating whatever was in the troughs. According to family legend, James was discovered by a Quaker boy named Johnny Gill who introduced James to his father. The Gills created a safe place where James could live, and he remained lifelong friends with the family.
According to the Cumberland County Office of Register of Deeds, on Jan. 22, 1887, James H. Woodard of Cumberland County, aged 28 years, applied for a marriage license to be celebrated between him and Sarah Hodges, a twenty-one-year old black woman whose parents were Isham [“Isaac” on her death certificate] and Francis Hodges. Sarah’s parents were residents of Cumberland County, North Carolina. David D. Smith, minister of Freewill Baptist, married them in a ceremony at the Hodges’ home in Black River.
The 1900 US Census for District 18, Black River, Cumberland County, NC, states that James Woodard was “Head of household, Black, was born in March 1855, had been married for 14 years and born in NC of parents born in NC.” He was a farmer who rented property and could not read or write. His wife, Sarah E. Hodges Woodard was born in North Carolina in August 1861 and had had eight children, with only five still living. She could read and write and her parents were born in North Carolina. The couple had the following children: [William] Henry, born January 1885 and 15 years old; Francis W. [Wadie], born Nov 1887 and 12 years old; Levander, born Dec. 1890 and 9 years old; Hattie B., born August 1896 and 3 years old; and Leanna C., born June 1899 and 11/12 months. Also, a cousin named Margret Draughon lived with the family. She was born in April 1879 and was twenty-one years old and single.
According to the Marriage Register of Cumberland County, on Jan. 20, 1906, James and Sarah’s eldest daughter, Francis Wadie Woodard [spelled “Wady” in the record], married Charles Burnett of Black River, N.C. (p. 35). Rev. A. B. Yarborough, Minister of Gospel, officiated the ceremony. Charles was a farmer in Black River, and the couple had the following children: Henry, James A., Wadie Elizabeth, Joseph Cornelius, Charles W., Madie, and Willie Lee (Black River, Cumberland County Census Records of 1920 and 1930).
In 1910, James H. Woodard had been married for 24 years and was sixty years old. Again, he was listed as a farmer who was “operating [a] farm” that he rented (1910 Census Records, District 43, Black River, Cumberland County). The document stated that James could not read or write. His wife, Sarah E. was forty-seven and had had nine children, six of whom were living. The following children lived at home: Levander (“Nevander” in this record) was nineteen years old, single, a laborer on farm as wage earner, and could read and write; Hattie B. was fourteen, a laborer on farm as wage earner, could read and write, and attended school; “Leana T.” was ten, a laborer on a farm as wage earner, and could read and write; and Laura M. was only three years old. Maggie Draughon (called a “boarder” in this record) still lived with them and was listed as twenty-eight years old.
James and Sarah’s eldest son, William Henry Woodard married Annie Bell in Black River on April 26, 1910 (Marriage Register of Cumberland County, N.C.—Grooms, Colored, pg. 35). Henry, as he was called, and Annie had at least four children: Mary, Clyde, Ethel, and Estella (Sampson County, N.C. Census of 1920).
According to family lore, James shoed horses, made and sold turpentine, harvested fruit orchards (grapes, pears, apples, and plums), and ran a sugar cane mill. Sarah Hodges Woodard was a midwife. They had two daughters get married in 1914: Hattie married J. Thomas King of Wade, N.C. on June 11th, and Leanna married James McDonald of Godwin on Oct. 28, 1914 (Marriage Register of Cumberland County—Brides, Colored, pg. 35). Just a few years later, Sarah Hodges Woodard died of influenza on November 1, 1918 (NC Death Certificate). Sarah was buried at Bluff Church in Dunn.
Family legend has it that, at some point, James went to the Cumberland County courthouse steps with Johnny Gill to bid on Black River land that was up for auction. He wanted to own his own property, and Johnny was willing to help him make it happen. Land records verify that in 1920 James had a mortgage on lot 33a in Black River, N.C., and in 1921, lot 63a in Black River also had a mortgage in his name. According to oral tradition, James acquired over 100 acres in Black River and listed the property as Woodard’s Place. James also gave back to his community: He helped to build a school for persons of color in Wade and donated the land and timber to build a church in the area.
According to the 1920 Black River, District 48 Census, James Woodard was a landowner with mortgaged property who was an employer and a farmer. According to the record, he had not aged a bit since the last census (he was still recorded as 60 years old), but it was documented that he had been widowed. His youngest daughter, Laura, lived with him. She was 13 years old, could read and write, and attended school. Also, the 1920 Census states that James’ neighbor was “Evander” Woodard, who is the right age to be Levander: “Evander” [Levander] Woodard was renting property, twenty-nine years old, married, a farmer and an employer. His wife, Jennie B., was nineteen years old.
On Aug. 1, 1920, James H. Woodard married Sarah Murphy. The marriage certificate states that it “is a license for the marriage of J. H. Woodard of Godwin, N.C., 60 years, colored, son of Amos Woodard and Wadie Woodard (both deceased) and Sarah Murphy of Wade, N.C., 40 years, colored, daughter of Alex Murphy and Hermia [or Hanna] Murphy (both deceased) of Wade, N.C.” I. H. McPhail married them and James’ son Levander signed as a witness to the event.
On Saturday, Oct. 17, 1925, James Woodard and his son-in-law, James McDonald (Leanna’s husband) were on their way home in a mule-drawn buggy when they were struck by a car driven by Lonnie Penny, of Selma (Fayetteville Observer, Oct. 19, 1925). Howard Norris, a youth from Cumberland Mills, was also in the car (The Charlotte Observer, Oct. 21, 1925). There was an eyewitness—”Rural Policeman Randall”—who saw that Woodward was “well on the right side of the road” (Fayetteville Observer, Oct. 19, 1925). The article in the Fayetteville Observer states:
“Penny and Norris, driving towards Fayetteville, crashed into the side of the buggy, as the mule frightened jumped farther over to the right. The buggy was torn to fragments, the car thrown several feet…and every one of the occupants of the two vehicles were hurt. Woodward (sic), who was run over by the car, had the whole side of his face split open, according to the officer. He was also hurt internally and died a few minutes after the smash. McDonald was brought to the city and his wounds dressed after which he was carried home. Woodward (sic) was said to be one of the best negro citizens of the county and the tragic manner of his death caused sorrow to many white friends. Both Penny and Norris are said to be recovering from their slight injuries.”
After the accident, on Oct. 19, 1925, Penny and Norris were held without bail in the Cumberland County jail. Penny was charged with manslaughter, and on Nov. 25, 1925, in the North Carolina Superior Court a jury determined him not guilty (N.C. Superior Court Records, November Term, 1925).
After James’ death, Sarah Murphy Woodard had some very difficult times. According to Cumberland County Court Records, all of the land that had been owned by James at the time of his death was sold, supposedly to pay his debts, at a public auction at the courthouse door at Fayetteville on Dec. 23, 1929.
Despite the many hardships the Woodard family endured, their legacy of strength, courage, and integrity lives on. The legacy of the James Woodard family lives on through his successful, intelligent, and talented great grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, who have done amazing things with their lives and helped many others in the process.