Submitted by Craig James; Edited and vetted by Cheri Todd Molter
Please allow me to introduce to you a phenomenal woman who was born around 1847 in Eastern North Carolina. At a very early age she became the property of John James, the owner of Sycamore Springs Plantation. As was customary at that time, Nursey and her parents—Stephen and Gracey James—had been given the surname of their enslavers, so she was known as Nursey James.
According to family stories, Nursey, as a young adult, was a force to be reckoned with. She was a hard worker and very smart. She gained an understanding of how the plantation should and could run efficiently and was an intricate part of its success. Furthermore, eventually, she caught the eye of a young, enslaved man who had been given the name Andrew J. James. The young couple got married on Sept. 2, 1867. Andrew and Nursey had at least seven children together: Andrew Jackson James Jr., Emanuel James, Elijah James, Simon James, Katie James Pickett, Marion James Moore, and Linsey James.
By the time this photo of her was taken, Nursey had nurtured three generations of the James Family’s offspring, some while enslaved and some as a free woman. She had risen to the level of Matriarch on the plantation and thereby exercised some authority. She was such an intricate part of the family that many of them referred to her as “Aunt Nursey,” and she remained closely attached to them, even after slavery was abolished.
According to family stories, Nursey desperately wanted to see her fourth generation come into being, despite her advanced age—she was well in her nineties—and declining health, and the Lord granted her wish: On February 2, 1940, my mother, Oretha, was born to Nursey’s great-granddaughter, Maddie Rea. The story goes that my mother was quickly taken to Nursey, and she cuddled her with beaming pride. In less than a year, she gracefully passed away.
Before passing away, she made one request of the James family, who she had served so faithfully: Nursey wanted to be buried in a white dress that had never been worn before. They responded by immediately buying the finest white cloth available and having a new dress made for her. She was laid to rest in something she probably never experienced in life—a new white dress of fine cloth, custom made just for her.
To me, she is Grandma Nursey. Her name still rings throughout the community as someone great. Although I never met her face to face, existing photographs have given me a glimpse of her. I can see that she was weathered, worn, and tired. But I also see endurance, perseverance, strength, and power. I love you, Grandma Nursey. Rest in peace.