Oftentimes, when we think of history, we imagine stories of individuals. By looking at their lives and exploits, as well as the obstacles they overcame, we try to better understand the abstract and distant events of the past. However, sometimes a much deeper understanding of history can be gained, not through the lives of people, but the story of places: buildings, roads and towns can often tell us more about the world that developed around them than the life of any single individual. In Ashe County, a patchwork of small communities have developed over the past 250 years. Some have flourished, some have faded, but all have something to tell us about the world that helped create them. However, one community has a particularly unique tale to tell: Cox’s Grove.
The story of Cox’s Grove’s founding is the story of Ashe County in the years immediately following the Civil War, and sheds light on both the discrimination, and the compassion, that characterized the mindset of county residents at the time. The end of the war, and the ratification of the 13th amendment to the constitution, permanently ended slavery in the United States. For many areas of the Deep South, this abolition created a sudden and dramatic realignment of society, as millions of freed slaves were suddenly able to claim the rights of citizenship and property ownership they had been long denied. In Ashe County, where slave ownership had always been a more small scale affair, this social realignment was less pronounced. However, the end of the war found hundreds of former slaves in Ashe County were suddenly presented with the opportunity for a radically changed future. Unlike the plantation system of the Deep South, many of the newly freed slaves in Ashe County were already living in small family units in close proximity to the family of their white owners. For the first decade following the Civil War, this arrangement seems to have persisted. As Martin Crawford notes in his book Ashe County’s Civil War, “a degree of tolerance, of wary respect sometimes bordering on friendship, may have characterized black-white relationships in Ashe County.” Freed slaves in Ashe generally seemed to take the last name of their former owner’s family and stayed nearby working the same small farms where they had been enslaved prior to emancipation.
However, by the mid-1870s, freed black residents began embracing their role as equal citizens, and many began moving, some to areas outside of Ashe County, but many to other areas within the region. Some of the most resourceful of these newly freed slaves began saving money to buy farms of their own, and by the mid-1870s, a small number of freed blacks were becoming property owners. One of these individuals was Em McMillian, a freed slave who had been born in 1827. By comparing the 1870 census to the 1860 slave schedule from Ashe County, it can be guessed that Em was a former slave of Andrew McMillian, a resident of Chestnut Hill, who owned three slaves in 1860; however, this is difficult to prove conclusively. By 1872, Em had saved $200. This was a fairly impressive feat, as the average wage for a freed slave in North Carolina at the time was only eight to fifteen dollars per month.
However, to buy a farm of his own, Em needed a white land owner willing to sell, something that may have presented difficulty. Newspaper headlines from around North Carolina during the 1870s clearly demonstrate a pronounced animus towards freed blacks, who were often associated with Northern reconstruction efforts. However the white population of Ashe County seems to have been more restrained in their outward distrust of their black neighbors, and, in 1872, Em McMillian was able to find a willing seller in Joshua Cox.
Cox had never owned slaves himself, although he would have been quite familiar with the South’s ‘peculiar institution.’ His grandfather, Captain John Cox, was one of Ashe County’s first slaveholders. His father, Joshua Cox Sr., was also a slaveowner, and reported owning 11 slaves in 1810. At the start of the Civil War, Joshua Cox Jr.’s brother, David, was one of southeastern Ashe County’s larges slaveholders, with 8 slaves reported on the 1860 schedule. The fact that in the midst of all of this slave ownership, Joshua Cox, himself a wealthly landowner, chose to never own a slave himself, might imply a moral objection to the institution, but that can never be known for sure.
Although Cox’s feeling about slavery are unknown, his desire to help provide farms to freed slaves is obvious. In 1872, he sold Em Mcillian 52 acres near the headwaters of Nathan’s Creek for $200 (deed book X, page 364), making McMillian one of the first independent black farmers in Ashe County. Joshua Cox’s desire to help freed blacks own land must have become well advertised, because beginning in 1880, he accepted offers from numerous families. In 1880, Cox sold Thomas Neal and his wife, Mary, 23 acres for only four dollars. In 1885, Cox sold an additional tract of land to Joseph Reeves for $140. Because these tracts all bordered on another, a community of black farmers soon emerged along the headwaters of Nathan’s Creek. These families in turn began selling land they had acquired from Joshua Cox to newly arriving residents. In 1885, Thomas and Mary Neal sold an acre of their property to Ed Long for five dollars. In 1901, Em McMillian sold part of his farm to the Long family for fifteen dollars.
By 1900, an entirely new community had emerged. The census for that year identifies ten separate households: Joseph and Tennessee Greer, Sam and Elizabeth Callahan, Dock and Mary McMillian, Ed and Nancy Long, Jan McMillian, Troy and Julia McMillian, Em McMillian, Mary Neal, David and Julia Cornelius, and Frank McMillian. These families, all black, had either moved into the community or were children of its first inhabitants. By 1900, they had established their own church, and Joshua Cox had sold 6 additional acres to the new minister, Sam Callahan. The newly formed community must have felt some warm regard to Joshua Cox, the man who had helped their community develop, as they decided to name the new church Cox’s Grove, an eternal reminder of the original landowner who had helped these families achieve their dream of independent property ownership.
Cox’s Grove would become a hub of the black community in Ashe County. The road in front of the church was the site of the notorious shooting of Frank McMillian by Will Banks, who was later hanged in Jefferson for the crime. However, the tightly knit residents of Cox’s Grove proved to be one of the most resilient and engaged communities in Ashe County during much of the twentieth century. They were instrumental in supporting the Crumpler Institute, the largest all black school in Ashe County, which, for a short time, was one of the best schools in the county. Like other communities in Ashe, the residents of Cox’s Grove held revivals, sponsored essay contests, and took part in food conservation drives during World War II. Community leaders, like Fred McMillian, and famed educator Oddie Cox, were core members of the community and helped the community of Cox’s Grove extend their influence outward, bettering the lives of people all over Ashe County.
While many other communities in Ashe County had disappeared, Cox’s Grove has persisted. This ability to survive in the face of constant change is a testament to the strength of a small community that has made a big impact on the history of Ashe County.