Who Was John Chavis? An In-depth Look By The News-Gazette

Lisa Perry

If every riddle has but one perfect answer, the enigma of John Chavis is a singular exception.

            Free antebellum-era African-American teacher and Presbyterian preacher Chavis has been the subject of inquiry by The News-Gazette since Washington and Lee University announced in October that the Chavis name would supplant slave owner John Robinson’s on a prominent campus building.

            To recognize Chavis’s accomplishments as Washington and Lee rededicates the building March 9, the News-Gazette opted to give the topic full consideration and tell readers just who Chavis was.

            The following 11,000-word research project is summarized in March News-Gazette print editions. Be sure to pick up March 6 and March 13 newspaper copies.



***Research Begins

            When a “John Chavis” appeared on the 1830 Granville County, N.C., census with a female slave in his household, that unexpected discovery by a News-Gazette reporter brought into question other accepted Chavis “facts,” and hence, The News-Gazette jumped down a proverbial research rabbit hole. Is the man listed on the 1830 census, apparently a slave owner, one and the same man now honored by W&L?

            Could other long-held beliefs about Chavis derive from inexact or non-specific origins?

             A thorough scouring of primary documents became necessary to prove which “John Chavis” the honoree of Washington and Lee University, Revolutionary War veteran, alleged Princeton student, and Presbyterian minister…and/or slaveholder was. Weeks were spent poring over census records, marriage bonds and tax lists from various North Carolina and Virginia counties.

            The research dots would have been easier to connect had the spelling of Chavis been consistent, or if Mecklenburg (Va.), Wake, Orange, Bladen, Chatham, and Granville county (N.C.) boundaries and their related districts had not shape-shifted into various other differently-named counties throughout those states’ histories, making their records that much more difficult to decipher.  

            Spellings include Chavis, Chaves, Chives, Chevos, Chavos, Chaver, Chavers, Shavers, Cheaves, Cheavers, Shives, Shieves, Cheffers, and Chavous, all referencing black or mixed race free families that originated from the same region and timeframe, and likely shared common ancestry, relevant to the W&L John Chavis.  

Given names were spelled creatively, as well. Gibrea Chavis, whom some claim was a key John Chavis ancestor, was also known as Gibea, Gib, Gibeon and Gideon. A “William” Chavis apparently went by the alias “Boson Chavers.”  Who knew?

            To make matters more confusing, at least two signatures appeared on documented John Chavis correspondence, allegedly both written by W&L’s John Chavis. One missive was signed ‘John Chavis,’ and another ‘John Chaves,’ suggesting that either John Chavis himself took liberties with his own name-spelling, or at least one letter was signed by another author.

            Pinning down a county that Chavis called home was another challenge. As a preacher, he rode from county to county. As a teacher, records indicate he had schools in various counties, including Wake, Granville, and Chatham Counties in North Carolina. His family was scattered among counties, as well, likely Granville and Charlotte, N.C.

              In order to help sort the Chavises, The News-Gazette consulted many primary and secondary sources:


  • W&L History Professor Dr. Ted DeLaney spoke briefly with the News-Gazette and provided a prepared statement through W&L Public Information Officer Drewry Sackett. His research appearing on the university website regarding Chavis is included in The News-Gazette study.
  • Dr. Helen Chavis Othow, Chavis’s biographer, lives in Oxford, Granville County, N.C., where many Chavis families reside to this very day. In 2001, Othow published “John Chavis: African American Patriot, Preacher, Teacher, and Mentor.” Othow claims to be a direct descendant of John Chavis, and the octogenarian spoke by telephone with The News-Gazette.
  • Kianga Lucas, a University of Boston graduate and former second-year Cornell University doctoral student who maintains the blog “Native American Roots: Genealogy and History of Granville County and Northeastern North Carolina.” In March, 2018, Lucas published a detailed account of John Chavis, exploring and updating some long-held and possibly erroneous beliefs. Lucas traced her own roots to William Chavis (b. 1706) and his wife Frances Gibson of Granville County, N.C., and said they are her seventh great-grandparents. Lucas’s research can be found at https://nativeamericanroots.wordpress.com/.  Lucas is currently also a curatorial assistant at the Museum of the American Indian in Los Angeles. Lucas communicated with The News-Gazette through email, giving permission to use her blog and webpage information.
  • Engineer, award-winning genealogist, and author of “Free African Americans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina from the Colonial period to About 1820,” Paul Heinegg. His online Chavis family research is at www.freeafricanamerican.com/ Heinegg’s work reveals that many free African American families originating in colonial Virginia descended from white indentured-servant women who had children by slaves or free African Americans. Heinegg found that fewer families that were free during the colonial period descended from white slave owners who had children by their slaves than previously thought.
  • The late Stephen B. Weeks, turn-of-the century North Carolina historical author, editor, and grandson-in-law of U.S. Senate and President Pro Tempore (1842-1845) Willie Person Mangum.  Weeks and Raleigh attorney, publisher, editor, and founder of the Raleigh News and Observer Samuel A’Court Ashe worked together to produce multiple volumes of North Carolina histories that established the lion’s share of that state’s early twentieth-century historical reference sources.
  • Other authors consulted include famed nineteenth- and twentieth-century history specialists Carter Woodson, Oscar Blacknall, John Hope Franklin, Guion Griffis Johnson, Gossie Harold Hudson, Oren Morten,  Barbara Parramore, and others as listed within the text of The News-Gazette study.
  • Digitized primary sources consulted include (at times conflicting) census records, tax lists, Senator Willie P. Mangum papers, Presbyterian records, marriage bonds, veteran muster rolls, University of New Jersey Board meeting minutes,  and others as listed in the annotated bibliography at the conclusion of this study.


***Will the real John Chavis please stand up?

                        Free African Americans were concentrated in an area of southeastern Virginia and just across the state line in northeastern North Carolina by 1790,  historian Paul Heinegg documents. The free, black Chavis family headed 41 households in Virginia, 159 in North Carolina, and 12 in South Carolina by 1800.

            The first challenge in researching W&L’s John Chavis was to attempt to identify which John Chavis is relevant.  For purposes of this study, The News-Gazette identifies the W&L honoree thus:  John Chavis (b. ~1763). The year of birth is estimated. It is believed that this Chavis was born in Granville County, N.C., or just across the state line in Mecklenburg County, Va., but no documents have surfaced confirming Chavis’s birthdate or birthplace.

            The News-Gazette asked for an audience with W&L Dr. Ted DeLaney for guidance on winnowing down the long list of Chavises, many of them named John. Dr. Delaney instead sent an emailed, prepared statement through the W&L PIO office and did not address the question regarding multiple John Chavises.

Historians who studied the John Chavis family found many men by that name, and names spelled quite similarly, located in the pertinent Virginia and North Carolina regions within the relevant time frame.

For example, historic bloggers Kianga Lucas and Paul Heinegg located Revolutionary War vet named John Chavis (b. 1755) and his son, John Chavis.

Paul Heinegg references “John Chavous,” a nephew of a John Chavis, (b. 1755), and other eighteenth-century John Chavises from North Carolina’s Bladen, Richmond, Chatham, Cumberland, and Granville counties, and many more hailing from the Mecklenburg-Lunenburg, Va. area. Heinegg names a another father-son John Chavis duo for which records exist in Granville County, N.C. Ironically, that family migrated to identically-named Granville County, S.C.---a research nightmare.

Heinegg also located a John Jackson Chavis in Granville County, N.C. John Jackson Chavis was listed as a defendant in an 1808 lawsuit in which a plaintiff gave power of attorney to a third party, yet another man named John Chavis, this one a resident of Wake County, N.C. Heinegg believes this final John Chavis, the power of attorney, may have been the W&L John Chavis (b. ~1763).

Still another John Chavis, (b. 1733) was accused of murder in Brunswick County, Va., just north of the North Carolina state line, but later acquitted by a Williamsburg superior court on a manslaughter charge in 1772.

The 1820 U.S. Census lists at least two free black John Chavises. In Chatham County, N.C., John “Chaves” included in his household nine unnamed “free colored persons.” In Granville County in the same year, another  John “Chavis” lived alone. The John Chavis listed in the Chatham County, N.C. census lists a potential W&L John Chavis,  one free black male over 45 years old. The Granville County census John Chavis is too young to be John Chavis (b. ~1763).

This list is only an abbreviated list of John Chavises who fit the time and location parameters of the subject of The News-Gazette search.


Whittling the List of Chavises: So What IS Known?

            Despite the lengthy list of potential John Chavises, a few commonalities upon which most Chavis specialists agree about John Chavis (b. ~1763) create an estimable profile of the John Chavis W&L honors.


  • John Chavis was affiliated with W&L back when it was still Liberty Hall, by 1795. He was licensed to preach by the Lexington Presbytery, acting as a circuit-riding missionary in North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia (circa) 1801 through 1807.
  • Chavis  (b. ~1763) was the most, highly educated man of minority of his time, the first to earn a college degree.
  • John Chavis tutored and conducted private schools, teaching both blacks and whites, and founded a school in 1808 in Wake County, N.C.
  • He wrote many letters to influential U.S. Whig Senator Willie P. Mangum from North Carolina, though not all agree upon the relationship between Chavis and Mangum.
  • Chavis suffered greatly, especially financially, after new laws prohibited all blacks from teaching and preaching after the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831.
  • Chavis died under mysterious circumstances in June 1838. Presbytery records list his wife’s name as “Fanny.”


            Other facts about John Chavis (b. ~1763) continue to be whispered in the same mythological breath that murmurs, “George Washington carved his initials under the Natural Bridge.”

Serious researchers do not agree on John Chavis’s (b. ~1763) parents, or race, or ethnicity.

Princeton University reports that no records exist to prove Chavis ever studied there, though some researchers continue with that claim.

Some say John Chavis was an indentured servant for James Milner of Mecklenburg, Va.. Others say this young indentured servant wasn’t the same John Chavis (b. ~1763.) In some Southampton Co., Va., tax lists, John Chavis appears as a titheable in 1790, and again in 1817. Two men who some historians believe are his brothers, Isaac and Jacob, Jr., are also found there throughout that decade, so it’s likely that the family found labor there from time to time. A Fanny Chavis can also be found in Southampton. (Note: Southampton County is the same county where the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831 occurred.)

           Others question whether John Chavis’s famed slave-holding penpal, Whig Senator Willie Person Mangum of North Carolina, studied under Chavis. Mangum family papers do not bear this out.

            Did W&L’s John Chavis own slaves? Some say yes. Some say no.

Mystery surrounds Chavis’s descendants and death, as well. Documents describing the preacher’s last days or exact manner of death are cryptic.


Sidebar: From the minutes of the Presbytery of Lexington — "at Timber Ridge Meetinghouse, the 19th. day of November, 1800, the Presbyn. of Lexington having received sufficient testimonials in favor of Mr. John Chavis, of his being of good moral character, of his being in full communion with the church & his having made some progress in literature, proceeded to take him through a course of trials for licensure & he having given satisfaction as to his experimental acquaintance with religion & proficiency in divinity, Presbyn. did & hereby do express their approbation of these parts of trial & he having adopted the Confession of Faith of this church & satisfactorily answered the questions appointed to be put to candidates to be licensed the Presbyn. did & hereby do license him the said Jno. Chavis to preach the Gospel of Christ as a probationer for the holy ministry within the bounds of this Presbyn. or wherever he shall be orderly called, hoping as he is a man of colour he may be peculiarly useful to those of his own complexion. Ordered that Mr. Chavis receive an attested copy of the above minutes."

Source---as listed at the Presbyterian Heritage Center, http://www.phcmontreat.org/bios/Chavis-John.htm


***Black, Native American, or Mixed Race?

Some historians argue that John Chavis was “full-blooded” negro. Several others, including Helen Chavis Othow, Kianga Lucas, and Princeton University claim he may have been of mixed race.

Othow claims that John Chavis  (b ~ 1763) was a direct descendant of Cherokee Indian Gibrea Chavis. Gibrea was an ancestor of William Chavis, (b. 1809). Othow said her family descends from the Melungeon Tribe in Africa, and was mixed with Cherokee (through Gibrea) and European races once the free Melungeons arrived in America.

“… Chavis was descended from mixed heritage: African, Indian, and Caucasian,” Othow writes in her John Chavis (b. ~1763) biography. She said some described his skin color as “gingerbread” or “coffee.” Othow quotes at least two other witness accounts with whom she disagreed in her book, however, who claim they studied under Chavis and said that his skin was very, very dark.

“If Chavis were a pure Negro and also without heirs,” Othow writes, “that would mean that he was not related to anyone in Granville County, past or present, and that he left no family legacy.”

As Native American ancestry was traced only sporadically, if at all, on U.S. government or legal documents, (including the U.S. census), documentation of Native American ancestry is nearly impossible. Native American families were commonly listed in the census as blacks or mulattos, depending mainly on their complexion as viewed by the census-taker. This method of counting the population gave the impression that the population being counted was either black or white, and that the Native Americans had become nearly extinct, which was erroneous.

 Princeton records indicate that the John Chavis recommended for the Leslie Scholarship Fund in 1792 was “light-skinned.” The Public Services Project archivist at the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, emailed that their file “AC109” contains correspondence, clippings, and biographical information about a John Chavis. The materials seem to question if Chavis were a student, a student in what capacity, and if he were actually of color, the Mudd Manuscript Library archivist said in the email to The News-Gazette. Distance and expense prohibited The News-Gazette from obtaining the information in this file, which was not shared with other information from the Princeton Public Information Office.

Kianga Lucas said Chavis was mixed Native American and black.

“When I read that John Chavis (b.~1763) was described as being almost entirely African descent that was one of the early clues that tipped me off that he was not from William Chavis' family because William Chavis' offspring tended to be categorized by whites as ‘mulatto,’ ethnically self-identified as Native American, with some descendants even passing for white,” Lucas said.

Researcher Paul Heinegg wrote that William Chavis, (b. 1706), a potential paternal ancestor, was listed as a negro on veteran records.

            He was called ‘William Chavers, Negro’ in the 8 October 1754 muster roll of the Granville County Regiment of Colonel William Eaton Clark,” Heinegg wrote on his website. Heinegg sourced this information from “Colonial Soldiers of the South,” p. 716. “His wife, Frances (Gibson), was probably light skinned, since in the same list his sons were called ‘William Chavers, jun., mulatto,’ and ‘Gilbert Chavers, mulatto.’”

            In his work in the 1890s, Oscar Blacknall determined that the majority of slaveholding black families in southern Virginia and northern North Carolina were largely descended from Indians. Blacknall said a large part of the land William Chavis owned formed a land base for the Native American community in Granville County, N.C. 


***Was John Chavis a Slave?

            Scant records of John Chavis’s (b. ~1763) childhood have surfaced.

            Barbara Parramore wrote in Dictionary of North Carolina Biography published in 1979 that John Chavis, (b. ~1763), was likely the indentured servant in Halifax County, N.C., resident James Milner’s 1773 estate.

            At the reading of his will, Milner had referenced an indentured servant in his household named John Chavis, but apparently included no other clues as to Chavis’s identity. If the John Chavis is one and the same W&L Chavis (b. ~1763), the indentured servant listed in Milner’s will could not have been more than 10 or 11 years old at the time.

            During colonial and antebellum times, children of indentured servants conceived out of wedlock or who were indigent in North Carolina were commonly “bound out” as indentured servants themselves. Churches typically carried out laws at that time requiring that mixed race or black children of “indolent negroes” be taken from them. If John Chavis were the indentured child servant, it is much less likely that he was born into the landed William Chavis family.

            Parramore stakes her claim based on Milner’s ownership of an extensive library.

“Milner, whose private library was one of the best and largest in North Carolina, was closely connected with the Mangum, Willie, and Jones families of Sussex County, Va., where he (Milner) appears to have lived before coming to Halifax in about 1766,” Parramore wrote. That library contained many volumes of Latin and Greek, which John Chavis (b. ~1763) would eventually teach.  

            Paul Heinegg suggests that the indentured servant bound out to James Milner was John Chavis, (b. 1757) a distant cousin of John Chavis, (b. ~1763).  Heinegg draws a convincing connection from tax lists, deeds, and estate records listing land in the Chavous name that abuts Milner land in Halifax County.


***Chavis as Soldier

Nearly all researchers believe John Chavis was likely a Revolutionary War veteran.

            Helen Chavis Othow writes that Chavis (b ~1763) served in the 5th Virginia Regiment three years during the Revolutionary War, signing up in 1778. A brief perusal of Virginia Revolutionary War veterans records includes multiple Chavises, including more than one John.

However, reorganization of Virginia regiments continued throughout that war, and tracing which John Chavis was in which regiment could prove nearly impossible. The 5th was absorbed by the 3rd, and then the 7th, and so on. Most of what was left of “the Virginia line,” an amalgamation of remaining regiments, were either captured at the siege of Charleston in May, 1780, or killed in a massacre at the Battle of the Waxhaws the same month.  

Kianga Lucas confirms John Chavis (b. ~1763) was a veteran through an anecdote that appeared Oct. 27, 1835 in the Raleigh Register newspaper, and later recirculated in other North Carolina newspapers.  

 The Raleigh article recounts that John Chavis personally appeared and presented to the North Carolina state convention that year an authentic copy of his oath to serve in the Revolutionary War, signed by James Anderson of Mecklenburg Co.,Va., dated Dec. 20, 1778. The article identifies this Chavis as elderly, and a “preacher of color.” Legislators at the convention had debated whether freed blacks indeed took such an oath to serve in the military.  

Finally, in at least one letter to North Carolina Sen. Willie P. Mangum, John Chavis relates that he was a Revolutionary War veteran.

DeLaney concurs that Chavis was a Revolutionary War veteran.

Heinegg, though, was unconvinced that the Chavis who served in 5th Virginia was Chavis (b. ~1763). Heinegg believes the soldier who joined the 5th Virginia was John Chavis (b. 1755).

According to Heinegg, John Chavis (b. 1755), and his brother Anthony were wagoners in the 5th Virginia who served under Capt. Mayo Carrington. Carrington signed “certificates of public debt” after the brothers’ return from the war, earmarking 21 pounds for Anthony and 89 pounds for John. Heinegg points to a Mecklenburg County, Va., legislative petition presented Dec. 14, 1820 that cites a bounty warrant Carrington issued for John Chavis (b. 1755) that “entitles him to all immunities granted to three-year soldiers.”

            Fold3, the online American veterans’ registry, concurs with Heinegg that John (b. 1755) and his brother, Anthony were in the 5th Virginia Regiment. Fold3 lists that this John Chavis’ “orphans” John, Charles, and Randolph of Mecklenburg County received payment due Chavis for services rendered in 1787. Children of John Chavis, (b. 1755) and not (b. ~ 1763) are verified as John, Charles, and Randolph.

A John Chavis was called John “Shivers” in November, 1818 when he made a declaration in Southampton County court that he volunteered for Rev War service. This John Chavis was called Jack Chavis in 1810 when he was head of a Southampton County household of three "other free,” according to Fold3.

            No records surfaced that the W&L John Chavis (b. ~1763) was ever compensated for his military service. In 1839, the year after John Chavis (b. ~1763) died, the Richmond Enquirer reported that in the January session of the Virginia House of Delegates, and again in the December, session members introduced petitions on behalf of the heirs of John Chavis “praying the renewal of certificates and making allowance for the services of their father in the revolution.”  No heirs’ names were listed.






***After the War Years

Throughout the 1780s decade, a John Chavis pops up on various tax lists from Mecklenburg County, Va. Most Chavis authorities acknowledge that the same John Chavis listed on those tax lists is likely the W&L Chavis (b. ~1763). Most accede that it was likely John Chavis (b. ~1763) who tutored a family in Mecklenburg County under private employment when he was 25 or 26 years old.  

           But the decade that began in 1790 is a troublesome one for historians following John Chavis, (b. ~1763).

            Some claim Chavis was in New Jersey attending a school that later became Princeton University during those years. A full discussion of the possibility that Chavis attended Princeton in that decade follows later in this study.

            On a 1790 Edgecombe County, S.C. tax list that serves as a census document, a John Chavis appears as residing there. A notation is made that this John Chavis is a mulatto indentured servant, “bound for” five years. If this is, indeed, the same W&L John Chavis, (b. ~1793), it would account for his whereabouts during the early part of that century’s final decade, but no identifying clues are listed. It was not uncommon for blacks, or those of mixed race, to be bound into servitude for any number of excuses during that time.

By summer, 1795, John Chavis had arrived in Lexington, VA. Original Washington and Lee Special Collections records note that John Chavis was charged 3 “s,” likely shillings, for boarding for the summer of 1795.

On Oct. 19, 1799, written record clearly indicates John Chavis requested a preaching license from the Lexington Presbytery, which was granted more than a year later. He was assigned as a circuit-riding missionary to Virginia, North Carolina, and Maryland, and directed to focus on preaching to blacks.

The decade easiest to trace through legal documents and records for John Chavis (b. ~1763) was the one from 1800 to 1810.

Paul Heinegg cites Presbytery records thus: “John Chavis, a black man of prudence and piety who has been educated and license to preach by the Presbytery of Lexington in Virginia be employed as a missionary among people of his own color.”

            An 1801 marriage bond is listed for John Chavis in Mecklenburg County, Va., according to Kianga Lucas. She believes that because John Chavis (b. ~1763) resided in Lexington at that time, it could not have been the W&L John Chavis.

In 1802, a 40-year-old John Chavis was granted his free papers from Rockbridge County, Va., courts. Those papers document that he had studied at Washington Academy.

Researcher Paul Heinegg noted,  “On 6 April 1802 he recorded his free papers in Rockbridge County: Rev. John Chavis, a black man ... has been known to the court for several years past ... has been a student at Washington Academy where they believe he went through a regular course of Academical Studies.”

Presbyterian records detail Chavis’ travels as a Presbyterian missionary beginning in Lexington until about 1807.

            In 1808, Chavis advertised in at least one newspaper that his school opened in Raleigh, (Wake County) N.C. Chavis charged tuition of $2.50 for white students during the day and $1.75 for blacks in the afternoon and evening. Historian Barbara Parramore notes in the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, (located online at http://UNCpress.UNC.edu) that Chavis also taught in Granville and Chatham counties.

            In 1809, John Chavis joined the Orange Presbytery, which served Wake, Orange, and Granville, N.C. counties.

            Heinegg locates Chavis in Chatham County in 1810, and in Wake County during 1815 in land transactions.

            A marriage bond is listed for a John Chavis with Sarah Anderson in Granville County June 8, 1815. Othow said the groom was the W&L John Chavis, (b. ~1763), and that the pair had at least one son, Anderson Chavis, from whom she is directly descended. Othow suggests that Sarah Anderson’s middle name was Frances, but Kianga Lucas denies it, noting that the name “Frances” did not appear on the legal marriage bond.    Lucas said the June 8, 1815 groom was John Chavis (1790-~1840).

Records from the Orange County Presbytery indicate that at some point, John Chavis (b. ~1763) had taken a wife named Frances, or “Fanny.”  Some suggest the Cary with whom a John Chavis was arrested in Chatham County in 1814 bore the given name Francis, but no records document this.

            By 1818, Heinegg said John Chavis sold at least part of his Chatham County land.

            In 1820, two federal censuses counted John Chavises.

            An Aug. 7, 1820 Chatham County, N.C., census listed a John “Chaves,” all “free colored,” with one male under 14 years old, two males from age 14 through 25, one age 45 or older, three females under 14, and one female aged 26 through 44, and a female more than 44 years old, for a total of 9 in the household. This would have fit the age of W&L’s John Chavis.

            Also in 1820, a federal census lists a John “Chavis” in Granville County, N.C., a free black who apparently lived alone, but could not have been the W&L Chavis, as the age parameters were wrong.

A Fanny Chavis shows up on Southampton County, Va., tax lists in the late 1780s and 1790s, at the same time a John Chavis is noted on a tax list under black Revolutionary War veteran Moses Foster there. This Fanny was listed as a free negro head of household through the majority of that decade. Heinegg claims she was not the wife of Chavis’s (b. ~1763).

If indeed Chavis married an indentured servant or slave, he could not have purchased her or the children and taken them to his North Carolina home, as free blacks were prohibited by law from owning slaves until 1861 in that state.

            Heinegg believes that Chavis had at least two sons, Thomas in 1801 and William in 1805, who lived in Chatham County, N.C., during their adult lives.

            The Chavis School was still going strong in 1830. The Raleigh Register newspaper reported that its editor attended an examination of “free children of color” at Chavis’s school, and gave it a glowing review. The following year, however, all blacks, including Chavis, were prohibited from teaching after the Nat Turner slave rebellion.



According to Edgar Knight in his essay, “Notes on John Chavis,” appearing in The North Carolina Historical Review VII, No. 3, published in 1930, that statute “made it unlawful for any free negro, slave, or free person of color to preach or exhort in public (under any pretense) or in any manner to officiate as a preacher or teacher in any prayer meeting or other association for worship where slaves of different families were collected together; any free negro or fee person of color who was duly convicted  or indicted before any court having jurisdiction thereof was for each offense to receive not exceeding thirty-nine lashes on his back.”


John Chavis, (b. ~1763) the preacher, and his wife, Fanny were thrown into destitution after he lost his profession, and resorted to soliciting financial support from the Presbyterians and from North Carolina Senator Willie P. Mangum and other influential and powerful people by the mid-1830s.

            The Orange Presbytery promptly took up a collection and was able to deliver $52.42, at first, and more later, Othow and others write. Chavis’s attempts at publishing written works in order to raise enough money to support himself and Fanny were unsuccessful long-term.

            Othow writes that Chavis attempted to persuade his old friends to continue to send their children to his school to bolster his financial viability, including Sen. Willie P. Mangum, but his request was ignored, probably due, at least in part, to the new laws which forbade Chavis from teaching.

            “…but for a long period of time, his letters (to Mangum) went unanswered,” Othow indicates in her Chavis biography. Eventually, the church advised Chavis to respect the new law.

            By the final years of his life, (after 1831),  Chavis wrote letters to those whom he thought could help him financially, indicating to Willie Mangum he had no clothing to wear, should he come visit. He was reduced to giving up his home and residing with friends, as noted by historian Gossie Harold Hudson.

            Chavis died under mysterious circumstances in 1838, and could be buried on the Mangum estate in North Carolina. Othow theorizes that he was beaten to death by those who were angered that he continued to teach. The Orange Presbytery claimed that it supported his wife, Fanny, until 1842, when funds stopped. In 1850, a blind, 85-year-old Fanny Chavis was living in a poorhouse in Moore County. No record of her death or burial has surfaced.



***Did John Chavis Own Slaves?

            North Carolina nineteenth century historian, attorney, and Raleigh News and Observer founder Samuel A'Court Ashe included reference to John Chavis in his History of North Carolina, 1783-1925, on page 21.

"Many other free negroes likewise were slave owners. One who had served in the Revolution, John Chavis, not only was a slaveholder but was a school-teacher, having among his pupils some boys who afterwards became men of renown. He was also a Presbyterian minister,” Ashe wrote.  Ashe’s work was referenced by other Chavis historians, most notably, by Edgar Knight in his highly-respected work, “Notes on John Chavis.”

            A “John Chavers” is listed on the 1830 Granville County, N.C., census as a head of household living with a female adult slave. In this household were listed four residents: one free “colored” male under 10 years old, one free “colored” male between 36 and 54, one free “colored” female between 10 and 23, and one female slave between 24 and 35. John Chavis (b. ~1763) would have been 66 or 67 by 1830, and thus the Granville Co., N. C. John Chavers household likely does not include him.

            However, Harvard-educated historian Carter G. Woodson found a John Chavis listed as owning a slave on the 1830 census, as well, but listed this Chavis household in Charlotte County, Va., about 60 miles north of Granville County, N.C.  Woodson notes that the Charlotte County John Chavis, slave owner, would be in the correct age range, (55-100).

            In the Charlotte John Chavis household were tallied one female slave between the ages of 24 and under 35; two free black males under 10 years old; one free black male 10 to 24 years old; one free black male 24 and under 35; one black male between 55 and 100, and two free black females between 10 and 24 years of age. Names of slaves were not included in census records, nor was the relationship to Chavis explained.

            Though historical records clearly indicate John Chavis taught school in Wake County, N.C. in April of 1830, no John Chavis appears on the Wake County, N.C. 1830 census.

In his 1924 study of the 1830 census, Woodson wrote that blacks who owned small numbers of slaves frequently were related to them.

“Slaves of negroes were in some cases the children of a free father who had purchased his wife,” Woodson wrote. “If he did not thereafter emancipate the mother, as so many such husbands failed to do, his own children were born his slaves and were thus reported by the enumerators.”

In some parts of the antebellum south, if a free man married a slave, his children with her became his slaves. Conversely, if a free woman married a slave, her children would be free, and the enslaved father of those free children would, by law, be the slave of his own children.

Heinegg wrote that Isaac Chavis, of Granville County, left his possessions to his siblings in a distribution of his estate in 1831. Isaac’s parents are listed as Jacob and Elizabeth Chavis, which would make John Chavis (b. ~1763) a sibling. A John Chavis submitted a legal quit claim deed relinquishing any right to Isaac’s estate, according to Kianga Lucas.  Though an Isaac Chaves had been listed as a slave owner in the 1820 Mecklenburg County census, he was not listed as a slave owner in 1830, and no slaves were noted in his estate that would potentially have been bequeathed to John Chavis.

            Another North Carolina editor and historian, Oscar Blacknell, wrote in the Raleigh News and Observer in October, 1895, that he had studied four black families and their descendants from the Granville, N.C. and Mecklenburg Va., counties that had owned slaves.  The William Chavis (b. 1706), a possible John Chavis ancestor according to some historians, was one of the four families, though no records have surfaced that indicate John (b. ~1763) inherited slaves from him or other ancestors from that lineage.

            Paul Heinegg notes that William Chavis described himself as black, and owned a substantial number of slaves. William Chavis, (b. 1706) “proved his rights for 15 Blacks” in Edgecombe County in February, 1742, Heinegg cites. Part of Edgcombe became Granville County in 1746.

            In 1748, William Chavis was granted a license to keep an ordinary (saloon/restaurant) and lodging house in Granville County. In a 1753 court case in which William Chavis was called to testify, his answer, as quoted in court documents cited by Heinegg, “I am a Black man and don’t care to undertake such a thing.” That year, William was taxable in Granville County for seven slaves, according to Heinegg.

              Biographer Helen Chavis Othow said John Chavis (b. ~1763) did not own a slave, and that the story that he owned slaves was circulated to tarnish her ancestor’s reputation.



***W&L and Lexington Connections and the DeLaney Perspective

            Rockbridge County court records dated in 1802 indicate that a free man of color, John Chavis, had been a student who had gone through a course of “academical” studies at Washington Academy,according to the Washington and Lee website for which Dr. Ted Delaney provided research.

Those records confirming Chavis’s affiliation with the local college originate not from the university, but on Rockbridge County Court documentation created when Chavis was forced to obtain legal “free papers” in 1802. By law, free blacks were required to present documentation proving they weren’t slaves. W&L Special Collections has documentation proving that John Chavis paid room and board in 1795.

A further Rockbridge County connection is the presence of the Lexington Presbytery, instrumental in Chavis’s becoming a circuit-riding Presbyterian missionary from about 1801 until 1807.  

The most important reasons for Washington and Lee to honor John Chavis by placing his name on a major building is that he completed studies at the institution when it was still Washington Academy, and he became the first known black man to receive a collegiate education in the United States, Delaney emailed through Washington and Lee Public Information Officer Drewry Sackett.

            “More important, he previously served as a soldier in the American Revolution and later studied at the College of New Jersey under the tutelage of President John Witherspoon,” Delaney continued in the email.

            “Locally, Chavis was examined for licensing as a Presbyterian minister by the Lexington and Timber Ridge Presbyteries, and he preached his first sermon at Lexington Presbyterian Church in 1801. All that and more was notable during the late nineteenth century when race relations were somewhat more fluid than they would be later,” Delaney said.

            “Many notable historians have described Chavis as the most extraordinary black man in the antebellum South. As far as his alleged ownership of a slave goes, I am unconvinced that he did own one and if he did, it is important to note the differences in black and white ownership of slaves,” Delaney said.

            “Often free blacks purchased family members, a spouse or children. Nobody understood free-black ownership of black slaves better than historian Carter G. Woodson, who explains that often free black ownership of slaves was philanthropic,” Delaney went on.

            “They purchased slaves and gave them easy terms for purchasing their own freedom, or they worked them until they had covered their purchase price,” Delaney finished. “Often, they provided more benevolent experiences for the slaves.

            “Prior to the shipment of enslaved Africans to the New World, slavery and other forms of unfree labor had been common in world history. African slavery in the Americas was unique because it was racial and often linked to racism.

“I am far less concerned about slave ownership than racism,” Delaney finished.   


***About That Princeton Connection…

            Current Princeton University Deputy Spokesman Michael Hotchkiss told The News-Gazette that no records indicating John Chavis ever attended the University of New Jersey survive.

“John Chavis may have studied at the College of New Jersey, but records do not survive to confirm that,” Hotchkiss emailed.

Hotchkiss emailed links to three major works upon which Princeton University bases its stance on Chavis.

First, a hotlink led The News-Gazette to pertinent 1792-1796 Board of Trustee minutes.                 Second, Hotchkiss screenshotted a PDF page from the book “Princetonians, 1791-1894: A Biographical Dictionary” and emailed that to The News-Gazette.

Third, a discussion of Chavis in the Princeton Slavery Project was forwarded from Hotchkiss via hotlink.

A painstaking perusal of all University of New Jersey Board of Trustee minutes from 1792 until 1796 by The News-Gazette revealed that James Leslie of New York bequeathed a large sum of money to the university earmarked for “the education of poor and pious youth with a view to the ministry of the gospel in the Presbyterian Church.”

Nominees for the award are listed in the September, 1792 minutes.

Nominees include John Todd Henry of Virginia, John Chavis, a free black man of that state, Halloway Hunt, Robert Russel, and James Force. The board accepted Russel during that meeting, and ordered that the consideration of each other man’s case be referred to the next board meeting.

The following meeting minutes list the names of the recipients of the Leslie Scholarship Fund.

“Resolved that John Todd Henry, Halloway Hunt, and James Force be considered as candidates for Mr. James Leslie’s charity,” the minutes reflect.

John Chavis’s was not listed among the recipients of the Leslie Fund --- though he clearly had been nominated.

Every six months, the Board of Trustees required progress reports on each Leslie Fund recipient to determine if their continued progress merited distribution of more money to them from the Leslie Fund. In some minutes, actual amounts allotted were listed.

Again, John Chavis’s name was not present.

“All these young gentlemen shall receive from the fund at a rate not exceeding forty pounds a year as long as they are supported on this charity.” Listed were Henry, Hunt, Force, and Russel.

By April, 1794, Henry had not yet arrived at the university. His spot was allotted to Joseph Caldwell, and the amount was increased to fifty pounds a year to each man.  In September, Hunt completed a bachelor’s degree, and an additional student for the Leslie Fund, Isaac Snowden, was approved. In May, 1795, two more recipients, John Watson and Asa King were added. King was removed later that year, however, and David Comfort was awarded his funds. A list from 1796 indicates total amounts received by Hunt, Force, Caldwell, Russel, Watson, King, and two additions, Benjamin Hopkins and Thomas Hughes.

The name John Chavis was absent from all Leslie Fund primary source recipient lists, ledgers, and names of students presented to the board for approval to graduate.

The Princetonians Biographical Dictionary

Also provided by the Princeton public relations office was a discussion of Chavis in the book “Princetonians, 1791-1894: A Biographical Dictionary.”  Within this reference book, Chavis was listed as a “light-skinned free black and Revolutionary War veteran from Virginia,” and that Chavis became a noted tutor to prominent white boys.

The Princetonians book clarifies that the Chavis name appears on no class lists. A connection to Princeton, the book relays, is the result only of strong family tradition that insists Chavis attended.

“In other words, the family tradition may well be accurate and has been accepted by several generations of archivists at Princeton University. But unless Chavis entered with junior class standing, which seems highly improbable, he would necessarily have been assigned to the Class of 1795 or 1796.”

“For this reason, his biography does not appear in these volumes.”

Documents in Washington and Lee Special Collections note that Chavis paid 3 “s,” likely shillings, for room and board in Lexington for the summer session of 1795.

Edgar W. Knight wrote in his “Notes on John Chavis” that he received a letter from “the secretary of Princeton University” V. Lansing Collins Sept. 14, 1929 that contradicts Princeton University’s 2019 position.

“Although there are no known official records which verify his attendance there, the tradition or belief that Chavis was a student seems so well-founded that he is listed among the non-graduates of the institution,” Knight reported that Collins told him in the 1929 letter. 

            Paul Heinegg cites a similar 1935 Princeton Alumni Weekly publication that indicates Chavis may have studied under Witherspoon. Ironically, it was that same year, 1935, when African American Bruce M. Wright appeared as an accepted student on the Princeton campus, and was summarily sent home after it became apparent he was black, according to Princeton websites.

A Final Word on the Princeton and Witherspoon Papers

            Despite the Board of Trustee minutes from the 1790s which clearly do not list Chavis among the Leslie scholarship recipients, at least two current online Princeton websites indicate Chavis studied under Witherspoon, but neither website delivers specific supporting documentation. 

One Princeton site references the David Walker Woods book published in 1906, “John Witherspoon.” This site indicates Witherspoon tutored Chavis.

“(The University of New Jersey, now Princeton) was a thoroughly democratic institution, Indians and free black men finding there an equal opportunity with Witherspoon’s own sons and with boys from the best families in America. Many students whose usefulness in afterlife fully justified the practice, received their education as a free gift,” Woods wrote.

But the Woods book did not mention Chavis by name.

Granted, Witherspoon tutored free black, Native American, and Scottish males, sometimes personally absorbing all costs, and names them in some records, excepting Chavis.

            Several historians who have theorized that Chavis was tutored by Witherspoon have implied that Chavis’s attendance may have been kept secret because of his race.  

            Helen Chavis Othow adheres to the family tradition that Chavis was Princeton-educated as the result of a bet among his “white neighbors who sent him there to ‘see if a Negro would take a collegiate education.’”  

            Due to advanced age, total blindness, and failing memory, Witherspoon was reciting most sermons from memory, or composing by dictation to avoid writing by 1791, according to Princeton histories and writings of his friend and fellow Continental Congress attendee, then U.S. Vice President John Adams. Adams attested to the fact that Witherspoon, who died in 1794, had fallen into a faint several times during his final years in the pulpit.

            “Since, in over two hundred years, no evidence has ever surfaced suggesting otherwise, it is high time that the suggestion that Chavis attended college at Princeton should be discarded to the ash-heap of bad history,” author and auditor of Washington Lee University histories Kent Wilcox wrote in July, 2018.

***A Witherspoon Footnote

John Witherspoon’s grandson, also a Dr. John Witherspoon, likely worked closely with John Chavis, as Witherspoon, the younger, was elected moderator of the Orange Presbytery three times, in 1822, 1827, and 1831, according to the Stephen B. Weeks North Carolina biographies. This Witherspoon also assisted in the dedication of the first church building of the first Presbyterian Church of Raleigh.

“Especially he was successful in addressing the young and the colored hearers,” W. A. Withers, a contributor to the Samuel A’Court Ashe and Weeks works, wrote about the younger Witherspoon as recorded on page 1077 of the North Carolina biographical sketches, volume 5.

It was the Orange Presbytery that voted to help support Chavis financially after the Nat Turner rebellion caused laws to be passed that forbade all blacks, including Chavis, from teaching and preaching.  Chavis and Witherspoon, the younger, likely knew each other well.  


***Mangum Claims

            But for a single celebratory toast did Senator and President Pro Tempore Willie P. Mangum not ascend to the United States presidency in 1844.

As President John Tyler, (the vice president who took the highest office in 1841 after the sudden death of President William Henry Harrison),  paused to take a last congratulatory sip below deck during the debut celebration of the country’s newest  warship, the USS Princeton, an on-board cannon called The Peacemaker exploded on the deck above him.

Several party attendees were killed instantly. Two of Tyler’s cabinet members, Tyler’s personal valet, and his future father-in-law were among those dispatched in the blast.  Had Tyler gone above deck seconds sooner, he would very likely have been among the dead.

Senate President Pro Tempore, North Carolina Whig Willie Person Mangum, next in line to the presidency (due to the lack of a vice president), would have taken Tyler’s place.

Such was the importance and rank of the man named Mangum known well by John Chavis.

No doubt Willie Person Mangum and John Chavis enjoyed a relationship at some level, as evidenced by surviving correspondence. But how exactly did that relationship come about?

In 1905, historian Annie G. Randall relays that Mangum and Chavis became acquainted when Chavis had kept Mangum out of some legal trouble by astutely arbitrating a dispute between Mangum and Gov. John Owen, a deeply-appreciated personal service Mangum never forgot, even after Mangum defeated Owen for a senate seat by a single vote. Chavis visited Mangum often thereafter.

          According to one witness testimony, “(Mangum and other whites) had their slaves to wait on him as if he were white, but when meal time came he was served in a room by himself and they each had a special outroom for his chamber.”

Mangum and Chavis hailed from the same area in North Carolina, and their paths likely crossed often. Though Mangum and his brother, Priestly, were potentially within the age range to be Chavis students after he began his school in Raleigh around 1808, the brothers may have sent their children to his school, Randall explains.

Chavis was highly regarded as a teacher and preacher, and his students included the wealthiest citizens’ children, both black and white. Historians say Chavis called his students his “sons.”  

Mangum’s grandson-in-law, Dr. Stephen B. Weeks, a noted late nineteenth and early twentieth-century North Carolina historian and editor, lies buried on the Mangum estate. Weeks and Samuel A’Court Ashe served as biographers of the Mangum family, co-editing and publishing their biographies and those of North Carolina’s esteemed citizens.

Weeks had been appointed by the North Carolina Historical Commission to edit his grandfather-in-law’s papers, but died before he could complete the task. Weeks had worked directly with Mangum’s children, who were Weeks’ own in-laws, during the research. Weeks’ work was deposited into the Library of Congress in 1918.

Weeks listed Willie Person Mangum’s teachers on page 13 of “Sketches from Biographical Histories” published in 1911.  

“He (Willie P. Mangum) received his preliminary education in part at the hands of Thomas M. Flint, a strolling pedagogue, in part at the Fayetteville Academy under Rev. Colin McIver, and in part at the Raleigh Academy under Rev. Dr. William McPheeters. He spent some time also in his father’s store and was graduated at the University of North Carolina in 1815,” Weeks wrote.

The Willie Person Mangum papers are provided by the North Carolina State Library, digitized in 2011 and available at


Those papers, edited by Henry Thomas Shanks, indicate W. P. Mangum received his education from 1809 at Hillsboro in Orange County under Rev. Andrew Flinn, and had been privately tutored by Flinn prior to his entrance in Hillsboro. Mangum also helped clerk in his father’s store.

After Hillsboro, Shanks clarified, Mangum attended Fayetteville in 1809 under Rev. Colin McIver. At Raleigh Academy, he studied under Rev. Dr. William McPheeters, Chavis’s good friend and classmate at Liberty Hall. The two teachers likely crossed paths during this time frame.

McPheeters and Chavis would have known each other quite well, as the two had also applied to the Lexington Presbytery in 1799 for their preaching licenses. Chavis received his a year later; McPheeters waited until 1802.

 By 1811, Mangum was a University of North Carolina student. He taught briefly at the Raleigh Academy in 1812, and read law from 1815 until 1817 under Judge Duncan Cameron. Mangum then tutored Cameron’s son, according to the Mangum papers.  

Mangum made many powerful friends and constituents as he climbed his way to the top of the political ladder, and included John Chavis among them. Chavis advised Mangum politically, and asked Mangum for financial help. In those letters, Chavis refers to Mangum as his “son.”

It was this “my son” terminology within the Chavis letters that led several John Chavis specialist-historians to mistakenly believe that perhaps Mangum had indeed been a student of Chavis.

“Senator Willie P. Mangum and his brother Priestly Mangum, Governor Charles Manly, and Congressman Abraham Rencher were probably his (Chavis’s) students since he referred to each of them as ‘my son’ in his letters to the senator,” wrote Paul Heinegg. Barbara Parramore concurred.

The Mangum papers and biographies do not bear that out, as referenced by historian Edgar Knight, who denies Chavis taught Mangum. Randall suggests Mangum may have sent his older children to the Chavis school.

"He (Mangum) wrote innumerable letters and sent many documents to the people of his district whose names and addresses were furnished by friends and especially by Priestly, (his brother) whose astute political sense and general ability was relied upon by the elder brother,” Mangum papers editor Shanks wrote. Mangum's papers reveal that he performed many personal services for his friends and constituents.

While Mangum did not send his younger children to be taught by Chavis after the Nat Turner rebellion, as Chavis requested, the Mangum papers detail that Mangum solicited the North Carolina state treasurer, John Haywood, to support Chavis, and likely assisted Chavis with property legalities and loan renewals.

Mangum himself was deeply indebted by 1827, was forced to sell most of his slaves and much of his acreage to help settle his and his father’s accounts, and was not in much of a position to help Chavis.

By then, a politician’s affiliation or support from free negro voters was not considered an advantage, and Mangum likely attempted to keep his relationship with Chavis on a more private level.

According to an article printed in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in January, 1886, free negro voters during the antebellum years typically were considered “Lacking in intelligence and correspondingly venal, the free negro’s support of any aspirant for political office finally came to be regarded as a sort of reproach to the candidate.”  

Mangum’s fortunes obviously improved by 1844, when he nearly became president after The Peacemaker explosion. By then, Chavis had passed away.

       That there was a close relationship between the Mangums and Chavis is strengthened by the belief by several historians that Chavis’s final resting place lies among the Weeks and Mangum family members on the Mangum estate in Rougemont, Durham County, N.C. Most of the Mangum property was later acquired by North Carolina State University, but the cemetery was left unmolested for the Mangum heirs.




***Daily Life for North Carolina Free Negroes like John Chavis


            Laws to keep free blacks in North Carolina and Virginia weak and powerless changed as often as the weather, and were frequently products of nervous whites who feared insurrection in the antebellum era. Laws were enforced when convenient for whites, and lorded over blacks’ heads for power, whether enforced to the letter or not.

            By 1691 in Virginia, the manumission of slaves was prohibited unless they were sent away from the colony, and they were given a relatively short amount of time to leave the state after they gained their freedom.

            Interracial marriage was prohibited and the illegitimate, mixed-race children of white women were to be bound out for thirty years. In 1705, church wardens were allowed to seize and sell the farm stock of slaves to support the poor of the parish. And in 1723 the manumission of slaves was prohibited altogether in Virginia unless they had rendered some public service, such as serving in the military.

                In North Carolina, slavery had been legal since at least 1715, but many free blacks resided there because that state’s laws weren’t quite as restrictive as Virginia’s. Free blacks had been described as freemen in the North Carolina state constitution of 1776, and could vote and own property, in many cases.

            By 1790, the year after North Carolina achieved statehood, there were 4,975 free negroes within its borders. In 1810, that had doubled to more than 10,000. By 1830, it had nearly doubled again, to 19,543, census numbers indicate.

            John Chavis (b. ~ 1763) lived at a time when laws were being passed overtly, covertly, and specifically to discourage and disempower free black people. Free blacks provided living, breathing examples of what slaves aspired to become, and were seen as threats to societal balance. The two social groups, slaves and free blacks, interacted at many levels, including church attendance and social events.

            As small, local acts of slave rebellion occurred across the south, increasingly restrictive laws passed by southern governments to restrain free blacks appeared ---and Virginia and North Carolina imposed measures purposefully designed to stop the movement of free blacks across state borders, and to make it very difficult to support themselves if they did.

            No slave could be freed except for “meritorious service” as proved to a court in 1741 in North Carolina. Convincing a judge of the “meritorious service” in a court of law was slippery and subjective. Later laws mandated that freed slaves who didn’t leave the state after manumission could be subject to recapture and again sold into slavery, even if their families remained in bondage in North Carolina.

            Many North Carolina districts required free blacks to register with the town clerk to receive a badge of cloth bearing the word “free” which must be worn on their left shoulder by 1785.

            As of 1787, free blacks were prohibited from entertaining any slave in his house on Sunday, or during the night, whether they were related by blood or even married. They were forbidden from trading property of any kind with a slave, to gamble with a slave, to peddle without an expensive license, or to marry a slave without written consent of the master. A free black could not travel outside North Carolina borders for more than 90 days.

            In North Carolina by 1795, free blacks were required to pay a cash “security bond” to the state upon arrival to “to give security for the faithful discharge of those duties which they owe, in return for the protection they receive, from the laws of the state.” Two hundred pounds was required to ensure their “good behavior.” Though largely ignored, a similar law was reintroduced in 1828, requiring a 10 shilling payment. Should they not pay, they faced capture and enslavement.

            Though free blacks could own property in North Carolina, no black or mulatto “to the third generation” (meaning anyone who had a black or racially mixed grandparent) had standing in a court of law. None could testify against a white person. That law was later extended to the fourth generation. A free black in business could not force any white customer to pay his bills. 

            As noted previously, in 1802, John Chavis was required to obtain “free papers” after a rebellion that year, as was every free black, to prove they weren’t slaves.

            Curfews in many cities and town made free blacks subject to arrest if they were found on the streets past 9 p.m. No free black was permitted to visit any slave without express consent of the slave owner, whether the freeman and the slave were related or not. Punishments included hefty fines and “stripes” (public beatings).

            Free negroes who had children out of wedlock were frequently subject to being captured and “bound out” to pay for the support of those children. White men who had children out of wedlock were allowed to take an “oath of insolvency” and be discharged from the debt, with only minimal exceptions.

            By 1812, free blacks were prohibited from participating in the state militia except as musicians. After the Nat Turner rebellion in 1831, in addition to no preaching or teaching, free blacks were sometimes liable to be “hired out” simply to pay their debts.

            In 1835, free negroes were disenfranchised in North Carolina by a legislative vote of 62-65. It was this debate at which John Chavis brought forth proof of his veteran’s oath, as reported in the Raleigh Register newspaper. In Virginia, blacks were disallowed the vote as early as 1723. They couldn’t own guns or dogs. After 1832, a Virginia free black was not allowed trial by jury. Washington and Lee University sold slaves as late as 1836.

            In North Carolina, free blacks were allowed trial by jury. In many instances, blacks could not own or carry guns without the prior purchase of an exorbitantly-priced license. In the days when most men provided meat for their families through hunting, this restriction was especially insidious.

            Liquor sold to blacks was strictly regulated, and eventually allowed only after a doctor’s prescription. If deemed underemployed or “indolent,” a free negro’s children could be taken and “bound out” into servitude.

            In 1838, North Carolina declared all marriages between any free white and a slave void. After the advent of public school around 1840, all blacks, free and slave, were disallowed from public education.

            By 1860, laws were passed that prohibited free blacks from owning slaves. White slave owners were also prohibited from freeing their slaves by “will, deed, or any other writing, which is not to take effect in the lifetime of the owner.”




            What is clear from The News-Gazette John Chavis is that researchers continue to debate exactly who this giant enigma of a man was, and where his long shadow falls.

            Despite the historic deliberation, John Chavis clearly was a negro who overcame insurmountable obstacles to support himself and his wife, Fanny. By all accounts, he was erudite, brilliant, eloquent, and tenacious in a world that did everything it could to tear him, and those like him, down.

            Chavis is honored in Raleigh, North Carolina as an inductee of its Founding Fathers Hall of Fame. That city’s park bears his name, as does a large, federally-funded apartment complex there. In Oxford, N.C., Gib’s Creek bears the name of his likely ancestor, Gibrea Chavis.

            It is highly likely that Chavis was honored with burial in the family plot of North Carolina Sen. Willie P. Mangum, a testament to the esteem with which that powerful family viewed the educator and minister. Hopefully, officials will be able to prove his final resting place, and perhaps a cause of death that would determine if indeed, he was murdered for his beliefs.

            In 1986, the John Chavis House was dedicated at W&L as residence and cultural center for minority students.

“The Chavis House is named for W&L’s first African American student, Reverend John Chavis. Reverend Chavis completed his studies at Liberty Hall (which had been renamed Washington Academy) in 1799,” according to the university website.

            “The common space in the Chavis House is considered open university space and is a central congregating point for many in the African American community.  In addition to providing student housing, the Chavis House provides a physical space on campus where African originated and African American (and other American ethnic/racial minority) cultures and traditions are actively appreciated. It is meant to be “open” space and the center for a meaningful social outlet and shared resource.”

            And on Oct. 6, 2018, the Washington and Lee Board of Trustees voted to rename Robinson Hall after Chavis.

            Washington and Lee rightfully continue to bestow Chavis honor. Though some historical gossamer blurs as researcher after researcher attempts to unravel the thread of the celebrated tapestry that is John Chavis, a golden strand identifies Chavis as a respected mentor.





A FINAL NOTE ON CHAVIS ANCESTRY, as traced through wills, trusts, landholdings, estates and miscellaneous court documents


            While most researchers write that John Chavis (b. ~1763) was born to free blacks, questions remain as to just who those free blacks were.

            In her book, Helen Chavis Othow claims Phillip Chavis (b. ~1730) had a son, William Chavis, who married Lottie (maiden name unknown). William and Lottie’s son, John Chavis, was born (~1763), and was the one and the same John Chavis as honored by W&L.

            While Helen Chavis  Othow’s work is unclear at times, Othow said that this particular William Chavis was a direct descendent of another very wealthy William Chavis, who was at one time in possession of thousands of acres of land in North Carolina near the Virginia border. Though Othow’s timeline is inexact, she remains firm that John Chavis descends from the Williams, and W&L’s John Chavis is her fifth great-grandfather.


Lucas and Heinegg Point Elsewhere   

              “Having a name like ‘John Chavis’ in antebellum Virginia and North Carolina is akin to having a name like ‘John Smith,’” researcher Kianga Lucas blogged in March, 2018. Lucas said that while Othow’s narrative was “wonderfully” recounted, key biographical facts were incorrect.

            Lucas points to the John Chavis research contributed to Paul Heinegg that corrects most of Othow’s “outdated” information.

            “This is why, as more records and research becomes widely available, it is crucial to revisit and update older work,” Lucas blogged. If researchers attribute the records of one “John Chavis” to another “John Chavis” who may or may not be the one and the same, Lucas points out that the common genealogical mistake of conflating the identities and records of people who share the same name could be made.

            Lucas believes the John Chavis (b. ~1763) branch may have fallen from a more distant tree in the Chavis family forest.

            John Chavis was the son of “free colored” parents Jacob (1736-1808) and Elizabeth Evans Chavis (1745-1818) in Lunenburg County, Va., now Mecklenburg County, she and Paul Heinegg agree.

            “His father Jacob Chavis is documented through land deeds and court cases in Lunenburg (now Mecklenburg) during these years, so this is undoubtedly where John Chavis was born,” Lucas wrote.

                Simple addition makes it unlikely John Chavis (b. ~1763) was the son of William Chavis, Lucas reasoned.

            “William Chavis (b. 1706) and his wife Frances were born within the first decade of the 1700s. (…) There is no way Frances could have given birth to a child in 1763,” Lucas pointed out to The News-Gazette in an email. John Chavis was not mentioned in the extensive 1777 William Chavis will, either. Lucas wrote that William Chavis (b. 1706) and his wife Frances Gibson of Granville County, N.C., are her seventh great-grandparents.

            Some historians claim William Chavis (b. 1706) married first a Frances S. Gibson (b. 1710). After her death, William then married a relative of hers, also named Frances Gibson, born in 1735. Those claims are currently undocumented.

            Though Heinegg also disagrees that this William could have fathered John Chavis. Heinegg also said that a son of William and a Frances, referenced as William Junior, was born in 1741. By 1761, William Junior (AKA Boson Chavers) was located in Granville County through land purchases, and appeared in a tax list by himself in 1769, but with wife “Ellender” in 1774.

            William Junior may have also been known as “Boson Chavers, who was one of the ‘free negroes and Mulattus (stet) …raitously (stet) assembled together in Bladen County October 13, 1773,” Heinegg writes. By 1784, this William had purchased property in Richmond and Bladen Counties.  But

       An examination of property taxed to, and inherited or purchased by, John Chavis (b. ~1763) could shed further light on his ancestry. His absence as an heir in a will could also reveal lack of relationships.

       A 1784 Bladen County tax list includes “Chavers” family poll tax information. William, Phillip, Ishmael and a John Chavers all paid one white and one black poll tax in each of their own households. If this is the W&L John, (b. ~1763,) he would have been about 21 or 22 years old, and possibly freshly returned from the Revolutionary War. Poll taxes typically levied on blacks and whites between the ages of 21 and 50, but those ages varied.

            Much of the original William Chavis land, which spanned much of what now comprises several southern Virginia and northern North Carolina counties was apparently sold, lost in lawsuits, or confiscated by the state of North Carolina after the Revolutionary War prior to John Chavis’s (b. ~1763) generation’s ability to inherit it, Othow wrote.  Lucas indicates it may have gone to pay tax or other debts.

            Heinegg writes that no John Chavis was named in the will of William Chavis, (b. 1741), either. That William died in 1777 or 1778, and left considerable property to his three sons, Philip, William, and Gibson, the first of whom administered the estate, and squandered his inheritance.

            Oscar W. Blacknall, writing for the Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer Oct. 31, 1895, pondered, “The Presbyterian minister, Chavis, (…) was probably a son or descendant of the original William Chavis. Many of his descendants still live, and the family, having long ago squandered this great possession, have now mostly fallen into extreme poverty or ignorance. Few or any of them even know that the family saw better days. It is said that one of the largest farms of the antebellum period, fully 6,000 acres, the Chavises swapped for a horse and cart.”

            The name John Chavis clearly appears in a Southampton, Va., 1790 tax list as residing with a “Moses Foster,” another black Revolutionary War veteran.  Three black tithables are listed, but whether they are slaves is not noted. While Samuel A’Court Ashe believed this notation indicated John Chavis (b. ~1763), Paul Heinegg believes this John Chavis to be the son of John Chavis, (b. 1762, who was also the son of another John Chavis, b. 1740).

Ted DeLaney was silent on Chavis’s parentage.

Kianga Lucas traces John Chavis (b. ~ 1763) to free black parents Jacob Chavis (b. 1736) and Elizabeth Evans Chavis (b. 1745) from Lunenburg County, Va., parts of which were later became regions of Mecklenburg and Charlotte counties, Va. 

“There are no primary source records which place John Chavis (b. ~1763) in Granville County during his youth nor identify him as a son or heir of William Chavis,” Lucas writes. She points to several consistent primary source records that tie Jacob Chavis as father to John Chavis (b. ~1763).

For example, John Chavis is named in the estate records of a Thomas Evans of Mecklenburg Co., Va., the father of Elizabeth Evans Chavis, which would make Thomas Evans John Chavis’s grandfather. John is also named in a chancery case in 1819 in Mecklenburg County, Va., Lucas claims.

Likewise, Chavis (b. ~1763), Paul Heinegg said, appeared in Mecklenburg Co., tax records through the 1780s, and Heinegg also makes note of the chancery case.

Though Heinegg found the William Chavis, junior, (b. 1741) research which potentially dovetails with Othow research, Heinegg does not believe William Chavis to be the father of John Chavis, (b. ~1763).

 Heinegg claims the Mecklenburg County, Va., tax record John Chavis, grandson of Thomas Evans, is one and the same John Chavis who attended Washington Academy and received a preaching license from the Lexington Presbytery.

Heinegg noted that this John Chavis purchased Chatham County, N.C. property in 1804, and sold it by 1818. This John Chavis was found guilty of an unnamed offense with a Cary Chavis in Chatham County Court in 1814, but was granted an appeal, Heinegg wrote.

(Chatham County was formed in 1771 from Orange County. Some Chatham county towns are located astride the Chatham County/Wake County line. John Chavis (b. ~1763) operated a school in Wake County for many years.)

An interview that appeared in The Association Missionary Magazine of Evangelical Intelligence in August, 1805, quoted a John Chavis in Chatham County further establishing a John Chavis (b. ~1763) presence there.

Chavis (b. ~1763) purchased acreage in Wake County in May, 1806. That same year, a Jacob Chavis of Mecklenburg County granted a John Chavis a power of attorney, indicating a close relationship. Heinegg suggests this Jacob Chavis was John’s father.

 Census records from 1810 John Chavis was head of a Chatham County household of “five other free” and located next to a Charles Evans (likely an in-law) and Peter Chavers, whom Heinegg believes was John Chavis’s younger brother.

             In 1831, a John Chavis legally relinquished all claims in Granville County, N.C., against the estate of Isaac Chavis, potentially a John Chavis (b. ~1763) brother. Isaac is listed as the son of Jacob Chavis and Elizabeth Evans Chavis, and that further proves the family lineage, Heinegg writes.

Any potential ancestral connection between the William Chavises and Jacob Chavis remains unclear, and likely is distant. Further untwisting of the clues is beyond the scope of available time and resources of The News-Gazette.





Abbreviated Informal Bibliography with partial notations

Many of these books were available online through google, amazon, jstore, and hathitrust and other historic transcription websites.


  • A Semi-Centenary Discourse Delivered in the First African Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, May 1857, by William T. Cato, as appeared in the Making of America Books. General Assembly Digest, 1801, p. 209, said Chavis was ordained in spite of Orange Presbytery minutes referencing Chavis as a licentiate as late as the mid-1830s


  • An Antebellum Negro Preacher, The Southern Workman, by Stephen B. Weeks, 1914


  • Antebellum North Carolina: A Social History, The Free Negro, by Guion Griffis Johnson


  • Atlantic Monthly Magazine, Jan. 1866. Describes relationship between free negroes and politicians in the antebellum south.


  • Black Property Owners in the South: Blacks in the New World, Loren Schweininger


  • Christianity, Enlightenment, and Revolution: Hard Choices at the College of New Jersey after Independence John Murrin, The Princeton University Library Chronicle, Vol. 50, No. 3, 1989: notes that Chavis would have had to have been enrolled in the class of 1795 or 1796 had he been at Princeton; W&L records clearly indicate Chavis was paying room and board to Liberty Hall in 1795.


  • Church in the Old Fields: Hawfields Presbyterian Church and Community in North Carolina, 1738-1960; Mary Baldwin College Professor Dr. Herbert Snipes Hunter


  • Compiled Service Records of Soldiers Who Served in the American Army During the Revolutionary War, National Archives.


  • Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, by Barbara Parramore , 1979. Speculated that Chavis was the indentured servant in Halifax County, N.C., resident James Milner’s 1773 estate.


  • Free Born Negro: The Life of John Chavis, by Daniel Boyd, unpublished Bachelor of Art Thesis at Princeton, 1947; in online files of Duke University Library.


  • Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States in 1830, Carter G.Woodson, 1924. John Chavis in Charlotte County owned slaves.


  • Free Negro Owners of Slaves: A Reappraisal of the Woodson Thesis, Richard Halliburton, Jr. as it appeared in the South Carolina Historical Magazine, Vol. 76, #3, 1975.


  • History of North Carolina, Samuel A’Court Ashe, 1925. John Chavis owned slaves.


  • Historical Register of Virginians in the Revolution, 1775-1783, John Gwaltney, 1938.


  • Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, Junius Rodriguez.


  • John Chavis: A Sketch, North Carolina College for Women Representative Essays, State Normal Magazine, Nov. 1905, Annie G. Randall. Told how Mangum and Chavis became acquainted.


  • John Chavis: African American Patriot, Preacher, Teacher, and Mentor, Helen Chavis Othow. Alleged descendent Othow adds family lore; possible burial location.


  • John Chavis as  Preacher to Whites, Margaret Burr DesChamps. said Chavis counseled for not giving enough attention to blacks.


  • Journal of African American History, Vol. 91, #1, The Known World of Free Black Slaveholders: A Research Note on the Scholarship of Carter G. Woodson, by Thomas J. Pressley.


  • Journal of Negro History, Vol. 5 #2: The Aftermath Of Nat Turner’s Insurrection, John Cromwell, 1920.  Eastern Virginia preachers to blame for Nat Turner rebellion.


  • Journal of Negro History, Vol. 25, #1: The Influence of John Chavis and Lunsford Lane on North Carolina History, Jan. 1940.  Listed counties in which Chavis had schools, Granville, Wake, Chatham.


  • Journal of Negro History, Vol. 27, #3, Virginia Negro Soldiers in the American Revolution, by Luther P. Jackson, July, 1942.


  • Journal of Negro History, Vol. 58, #3: Southern Presbyterians and the Negro in the Early National Period, W. Harrison  Daniel. 1973.


  • Journal of Negro History, Vol. 64, #2: John Chavis, 1763-1838, A Social Psychological Study, Gossie Harold Hudson.


  • Journal of Presbyterian History, 1943-1961, Vol. 3 #3, 1952.


  • Journal of Presbyterian History, Presbyterians and Southern Education, Vol. 31, #2, June, 1953.


  • Laws of North Carolina, session 1860-1861, Ch. 37, p. 69. Free negroes could not own slaves in North Carolina until 1861.


  • List of the Colonial Soldiers of Virginia, A Special Report of the Department of Archives and History for 1913, by H. J. Eckenrode.


  • Marriage bonds from North Carolina and Virginia, as categorized on Ancestry.com


  • North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. 15, The Free Negro in Antebellum North Carolina, Jan. 1958, James B. Browning.  More on Gov. Owen, W.P. Mangum dispute


  • North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. 7, #3, John Chavis, A Negro to Southern Whites, Edgar W. Knight, July, 1930.


  • North Carolina State Archives, Various documents (919-807-7310)


  • Presbyterian Church in the South Atlantic States, 1801 – 1861, Margaret Burr DesChamps


  • Presbytery minutes, Orange, Lexington, Hanover, General Assembly; Chavis preaching history, Chavis called on carpet for not giving enough attention to blacks. Great Awakening notes.


  • Princeton University Public Information Office: Witherspoon family papers under their auspices. Chavis name not on scholarship recipient or class lists. 1792 Board of Trustee minutes. Some requested documents not delivered.


  • Race, Religion and Redemption, William Henry Ruffner and the Moral Foundations of Education in Virginia by Thomas C. Hunt, Jennings Wagoner, and Jennings Wagoner Jr.


  • Religious Development of the Negro in Virginia, Joseph Earnest, 1914, p. 96.


  • Richmond Enquirer, Jan. 15, 1839 and Dec. 14, 1839. Heirs introduced petitions to legislature asking for John Chavis Rev War remuneration


  • Slavery in the State of North Carolina, John Spencer Bassett, 1899, p.75. Chavis preached at Nutbush, Shiloh, and Island Creek Presbyterian churches.


  • Sketches of Virginia Historical and Biographical Synod of Virginia by William Henry Foote

            9 total licentiates and ministers in Lexington in 1800. Licentiates differ from ordained.


  • Sketches From Biographical Histories, Dr. Stephen B. Weeks. Weeks was the grandson-in-law of Willie P. Mangum, and the Mangum family biographer. Appointed by the N.C. Historical Commission to edit S. A. Ashe’s papers. Work filed in Library of Congress.


  • Southern Presbyterians and the Negro in the Early National Period, W. Harrison Daniel.


  • Tax lists from North Carolina and Virginia.


  • “The Academy Movement in the South,” by Edgar W. Knight,  as published in The High School Journal, Vol. II, #1, Jan. 19191, a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


  • The Black Preacher as Educator from 1787 to 1909, William Charles Larken, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  1979. p. 86.


  • The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861: A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States From the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War, by Carter G. Woodson, 1919. p. 116 – 117.


  • The Free Negro in North Carolina, 1790-1860, John Hope Franklin, pps. 170-174.


  • The Free Negro in North Carolina, UNC James Sprunt Historical Publications, Vol. 17 #1, by James Sprunt, Asst. Professor of History, The Citadel, 1920.


  • The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, Vols. 1 and 7, Junius Rodriguez.


  • The Lost History of Washington and Lee: New Discoveries, A Historical Performance Audit, by Kent Wilcox. Chavis did not study at Princeton, “ash heap of history” quote. Chavis likely housed separately at W&L in footnote 741. 


  • United States census documents, mostly as listed in Ancestry.com.


  • Washington and Lee Special Collections.  Original Chavis room and board records, artwork, as gathered by News-Gazette Editor Darryl Woodson.


  • Willie P. Mangum Family papers, digitized online, as noted within text of study.



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