#52Ancestors – Week 6: Favorite Name – Vella Lassiter, Civil Rights Champion

Novella Anna Lassiter
Novella Anna “Vella” Lassiter, 1894-1994

I have chosen Vella Lassiter, whose full name was Novella Anna Lassiter, not because the name itself is my favorite over others, but because of who she was and what her name represents to me. I have written about her before. Unfortunately, through some unforeseen circumstances, that post is not currently accessible. However, this time I am pleased to be able to post this information because it is Black History Month and this year she is being honored in her home town for her courage in standing up against injustice. This post is excerpted primarily from my book on her family’s community, From Hill Town to Strieby.

Born 4 September 1894, Novella Anna Lassiter, “Vella” was the second of thirteen children (twelve of whom survived) of Winston and Ora (Kearns) Lassiter, of the Lassiter Mill community in Randolph County, North Carolina.[1] She was the granddaughter of Colier and Kate (Polk) Lassiter, and great granddaughter of Miles Lassiter, an early African American Quaker, about whom I have also written. Vella was my 2nd cousin three times removed.

Vella attended Strieby Church School, about two miles from her home in Strieby, in neighboring Union Township. Strieby was founded by the Rev. Islay Walden under the auspices of the American Missionary Association.[1] From there she went on to Peabody Academy in Troy, in the next county, Montgomery County, and then to Bennett College, in Greensboro. Vella graduated in 1913 from the Normal program and eventually earned her Masters’ degree from Miner Teachers College, in Washington, DC. (Miner became part of DC Teachers College which became the foundation for the Department of Education at the University of the District of Columbia.[2]) Vella went on to become a teacher, first back at Strieby, then the combined school at Red House School in the nearby Mechanic area, then at Central School, a Rosenwald school in the county seat of Asheboro, and finally at a school in Reidsville, in Rockingham County, North Carolina, where she taught for 40 years.  However, being close to her family, she often came home on weekends to visit, so it was in 1937.

 

Vella Lassiter Bennett College Diploma
Vella Lassiter’s Bennett College Diploma, 1913

Vella was returning to Reidsville on Easter Monday afternoon. She was on the first of her two bus trips. The first bus would take her from Asheboro to Greensboro, about 35 miles away in Guilford County. From there she would take a bus to Reidsville. She had bought her ticket and was seated on the bus – next to a white person. The bus was crowded and there were no more seats. The bus driver apparently objected to Vella sitting next to a white person. Vella was asked to give up her seat, get off the bus, and wait for the next one. Anyone who knew Vella knew she was a force of nature. Vella said “No.” The bus driver attempted to force her off the bus. Vella resisted. Eventually two policemen were needed to drag her to the door and throw her onto the sidewalk. She would later tell people there was no way she would make it easy for them to throw her off that bus. After all, she had bought a ticket and she was just as good as any white person.[3] 

Bus Case Hotly contested image (2)
The Carolina Times, 12 August 1939, p. 3

Vella called one of her brothers to come and take her to Reidsville, but she also called a lawyer, her cousin, prominent High Point, North Carolina, African American attorney, T. F Sanders (grandson of Wiley Phillips Lassiter and great grandson of Miles Lassiter). With his assistance (and that of prominent civil rights attorney, F.W. Williams, of Winston Salem) Vella sued the Greensboro-Fayetteville Bus Line, on the grounds that they had sold her the ticket for that specific bus trip and consequently were required to transport her.[4] To everyone’s surprise she won the case in a jury trial in November of that year. She was awarded $300 in damages. The bus company appealed to the North Carolina State Supreme Court.[5]

Bus Company Will Appeal (2)
The Courier, 28 July 1939

Two years later in 1939, the decision was upheld by Judge Allen H. Gwyn.[6] Vella had won. In reporting the victory on 12 August 1939, The Carolina Times newspaper, published in Raleigh, wrote that: Possibly the most significant victory regarding the rights of Negroes was won in Randolph County last month when attorney P.[sic] W. Williams, prominent Winston-Salem lawyer emerged victorious in a suit against the Greensboro-Fayetteville Bus Line.[7]

Wins Important Case image -clipped
The Carolina Times, 12 August 1939

Her success was particularly significant because there was only one other lawsuit before hers that had gone to the North Carolina State Supreme Court and won, that was a 1914 housing segregation lawsuit in Winston-Salem.[8]

Lassiter Family Home, Lassiter Mill Road - 1982.jpg
Lassiter Family Home, Lassiter Mill, New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina. Photo by Margo Lee Williams, 1982.

After more than 40 years of teaching, Vella retired to the family home in Lassiter Mill, where she lived until her death in January 1994, at 99 years of age. She is buried in the Strieby Church Cemetery. [9]

Figure 50-Strieby Church Sign in memory of Vella Lassiter
Strieby Congregational C.hurch sign, in memory of Novella A. Lassiter, Strieby, Union Township, Randolph County, North Carolina. Photo by Margo Lee Williams, 2014

 

Endnotes

[1] Novella Anna Lassiter, 4 September 1894 -2 January 1994. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1700s-Current [Database on-line]. Retrieved from: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/83486598

[2] Williams, M. L. (2016).  A Civil Rights Story: Vella Lassiter. In From Hill Town to Strieby (Crofton KY: Backintyme Publishing, Inc.), pp. 155-159.

[3] UDC’s History. University of the District of Columbia-1851. Retrieved from: https://www.udc.edu/about/history-mission/

[4] Jones, K. L. (1993). Novella Anna Lassiter (361). The Heritage of Randolph County, North Carolina, pp. 343-344.

[5] Bus Case Hotly Contested in Randolph County. (12 August 1939). The Carolina Times, p. 3. Retrieved from: http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/sn83045120/1939-08-12/ed-1/seq-6/#date1=1939&index=0&date2=1939&searchType=advanced&sequence=0&lccn=sn84025826&lccn=2014236904&lccn=2015236558&lccn=sn98058906&lccn=sn83045120&lccn=2015236794&lccn=sn92074045&lccn=sn92073929&lccn=2015236793&lccn=2015236573&lccn=2015236572&lccn=2015236571&lccn=2015236570&lccn=2015236569&lccn=2015236568&lccn=2015236567&lccn=2015236766&lccn=2015236765&lccn=2015236764&lccn=sn97064597&lccn=sn98058907&lccn=2017236906&lccn=sn96027351&lccn=2015236599&lccn=2015236750&lccn=sn92072987&lccn=2016236536&lccn=2015236585&lccn=2015236586&lccn=sn97064595&lccn=sn83025849&lccn=2014236900&lccn=sn85042324&lccn=2015236574&proxdistance=5&rows=20&words=Bus+Case+Contested+Hotly&phrasetext=Bus+Case+Hotly+Contested&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1&type3=on

[6] Bus Company Will Appeal Verdict. (28 July 1939). The Courier. Courtesy of Randolph Room, Randolph County Public Library.

[7] Wins Important Case. (12 August 1939). The Carolina Times, p. 6. Retrieved from: http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/sn83045120/1939-08-12/ed-1/seq-3/

[8] Wins Important Case. (12 August 1939). The Carolina Times, p. 6. Retrieved from: http://newspapers.digitalnc.org/lccn/sn83045120/1939-08-12/ed-1/seq-3/

[9] Gershenhorn, J. (2010) A Courageous Voice for Black Freedom: Louis Austin and the Carolina Times in Depression-Era North Carolina. North Carolina Historical Review, 87(1):85; and Williams, M. L. (2013). Vella Lassiter, 1937 Bus Suit. The Miles Lassiter Family of Randolph County, North Carolina. Retrieved from: http://mileslassiter.tribalpages.com/tribe/browse?userid=mileslassiter&view=78&ver=352&storyid=49456.

[10] Novella Anna Lassiter, 4 September 1894 -2 January 1994. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1700s-Current [Database on-line]. Retrieved from: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/83486598

 

 

 

 

 

 

#52Ancestors – Longevity: Abigail Phillips Lassiter, circa 1812-1920

Abigail Phillips Lassiter Ceramic Pot
Ceramic Pot Belonging to Abigail Phillips Lassiter

I have many examples of longevity in my mother’s family, who come from Randolph County, North Carolina. My mother, herself, lived to be just one month short of her 98th birthday, but there were several cousins who lived as long or longer. In recent years, there were five: Vella Lassiter (99), Will Lassiter (98), Clark Lassiter (97), Kate Lassiter Jones (100), and Aveus Lassiter Edmondson (101), all siblings. However, the person in our family who lived the longest of anyone as determined so far, was Abigail Phillips Lassiter, who lived to be between 104-110 years of age, based on public and private records.

Abigail was the daughter of Miles Lassiter and his wife Healy Phillips Lassiter.[1] Their marriage was what we would consider common-law because Miles was technically a slave, although he lived most of his life as if a free man. His wife, Healy Phillips, was a free woman of color.[2] Thus, Abigail was born free, per the laws that said that a child followed the legal status of the mother. Based on a private document in the possession of her grandnephew, the late Harold Cleon Lassiter, she was born in February 1812. Census records show birth years anywhere between 1810 and 1816.[3] She was last recorded in the 1910 census.[4] Family members, specifically those listed above (especially Kate) reported that she died in 1920, obviously before the 1920 census was taken. She was buried in Strieby Church Cemetery according to Kate, who was able to show me the depression in the earth over the site where she said Abigail was buried. There is no tombstone, or other marker.[5]

Abigail never married. Thus, she can be found under her name, Abigail Lassiter, in every census from 1850-1910. Since she was not married she always lived with family members. In 1850, she was living with her father, Miles, by then widowed.[6] After that, she lived in the home of her brother Colier and his family until he died circa 1893.[7] After he died, she lived with her nephew, Ulysses Winston Lassiter and his family, including his above-named children Vella, Kate, Will, Clark, Aveus, and Harold.[8] In her later years, Kate reported that she was blind. There is no way to find out if she was blind due to Glaucoma or Macular Degeneration, which I would like to know since I have Glaucoma. Kate said that she was responsible for helping “Aunt Abbie” get around. Unfortunately, Kate was of an age where she balked at this responsibility. Combined with a rebellious personality, she was not always a genuine help to Aunt Abbie; sometimes she was negligent, resulting in some minor injuries to Aunt Abbie. Of course, in later years, reflecting on that inappropriate behavior, for which she was punished, Kate had to admit that her behavior fell far short of exemplary.

Aunt Abbie’s name does come up in a few other documents, mostly land records. She is recorded in in several deeds over the years, reflecting the inheritance of property from her mother and father.[9] After her brother, Colier dies, she gives her portion of the inherited property to her nephews, Ulysses Winston and Amos Barzilla, in exchange for her care, indicating she could no longer perform farm or household chores, undoubtedly a result of her blindness as well as advanced age.[10] She did not leave a will.

Interestingly, although the state of North Carolina began officially recording births and deaths about 1913, there is no death certificate or indexed recording of Aunt Abbie’s death. There are two possibilities for this. First, the year of death, as remembered by Kate, when she herself was of an advanced age, was incorrect. I did not begin talking with Kate about our family history until the 1980s, when Kate was in her 80s. Trying to remember exactly how old she was when Aunt Abbie died could very likely be inaccurate. The second reason is simply that the death may not have been reported. The family lived in the country, about 13 miles from Asheboro, the county seat of Randolph County, and the nearest town. They might not have realized that they were supposed to report the death, or they did not think it important. Either explanation is plausible. Both could have contributed.

Sadly, there are no pictures that have survived of Aunt Abbie, despite her long life. Perhaps even sadder, is the realization that there are no stories that have been passed down that would tell us about her personality, her sense of humor, her interests or talents. The only tangible object from her life is a ceramic pot (pictured above) that has survived and is still in the family’s possession. Additional information about her family can be found in my books on her father, Miles Lassiter  and on the church where she is buried Strieby Congregational United Church of Christ.

[1] Williams, M. L. (2011). Miles Lassiter (circa 1777-1850) An Early African American Quaker from Lassiter Mill, Randolph County, North Carolina: My Research Journey to Home (Palm Coast, FL and Crofton, KY: Backintyme Publishing, Inc.), 106-107.

[2] Williams, M. L. (2011). Miles Lassiter (circa 1777-1850) An Early African American Quaker from Lassiter Mill, Randolph County, North Carolina: My Research Journey to Home (Palm Coast, FL and Crofton, KY: Backintyme Publishing, Inc.), 76.

[3] 1850 US Federal Census, Free Schedule. Southern Division, Randolph County, North Carolina. Miles Lassiter, head; Abigail Lassiter, p. 136. NARA #432-641. 1860 US Federal Census, Free Schedule, Western Division, Randolph County, North Carolina. Colier Lassiter, head; Abigail Lassiter, p. 148. NARA #653-190; 1870 US Federal Census, New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina, Colier Lassiter, head; Abigail Lassiter, p. 24. NARA #593-1156. 1880 US Federal Census. New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina. Colier Lassiter, head; Abigail Lassiter, sister, p. 1. NARA #T9-978. 1900 US Federal Census. New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina. Winson Lassiter, head; Abbie Lassiter, Aunt, Sheet 1, Dwelling 15, Family, 16. NARA #T623-1213. 1910 US Federal Census. New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina. Winston Lassiter, head, Sheet 1A; Abbie Lassiter, Aunt, Sheet 1B, Dwelling/Family 11, NARA # T624-1198.

[4] 1910 US Federal Census. New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina. Winston Lassiter, head, Sheet 1A; Abbie Lassiter, Aunt, Sheet 1B, Dwelling/Family 11, NARA # T624-1198.

[5] Williams, M. L. (2011). Miles Lassiter (circa 1777-1850) An Early African American Quaker from Lassiter Mill, Randolph County, North Carolina: My Research Journey to Home (Palm Coast, FL and Crofton, KY: Backintyme Publishing, Inc.), 107, #17n.

[6] 1850 US Federal Census, Free Schedule. Southern Division, Randolph County, North Carolina. Miles Lassiter, head; Abigail Lassiter, p. 136. NARA #432-641.

[7] 1860 US Federal Census, Free Schedule, Western Division, Randolph County, North Carolina. Colier Lassiter, head; Abigail Lassiter, p. 148. NARA #653-190; 1870 US Federal Census, New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina, Colier Lassiter, head; Abigail Lassiter, p. 24. NARA #593-1156. 1880 US Federal Census. New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina. Colier Lassiter, head; Abigail Lassiter, sister, p. 1. NARA #T9-978.

[8] 1900 US Federal Census. New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina. Winson Lassiter, head; Abbie Lassiter, Aunt, Sheet 1, Dwelling 15, Family, 16. NARA #T623-1213. 1910 US Federal Census. New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina. Winston Lassiter, head, Sheet 1A; Abbie Lassiter, Aunt, Sheet 1B, Dwelling/Family 11, NARA # T624-1198.

[9] Estate of Healy Phillips or Lassiter, Will Book 10:190-192. F(amily) H(istory) L(ibrary) #0019645.

[10] Abigail Lassiter to Winston Lassiter and Amos Barzilla Lassiter, Deed Book 90: 268. FHL #047255.