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BEFORE I DISCUSS my father’s life, I wish to give some historical facts that I think will be of interest to readers about the establishment of the Leary family.
Jeremiah O’Leary, my great grandfather, was of Irish and Lumbee Indian descent. At one time, the family name used was O’Leary, but one of our ancestors dropped the O and shortened the name to Leary. Jeremiah O’Leary married Sarah Jane Revels, who came from a free family of color, prior to the year 1800. Together, they established the Leary Family.
Matthew Nathaniel Leary, their son and my grandfather, was born of this union in 1802 in Sampson County, North Carolina, and was reared in Fayetteville, North Carolina. As a boy, he served an apprenticeship in a harness shop and eventually became a harness maker and then a harness manufacturer. He was thrifty, saved his money and later bought the harness shop in which he had served as an apprentice.
In 1825, my grandfather married Julia Menriel, who had been born in France, taken to the French West Indies and from there brought to America in 1810 by her mother when she was six years old. Some relatives said that she was a French Algerian because she was swarthy in complexion with straight black hair.
When Lafayette visited Fayetteville in 1825, my father’s grandmother, being a native of France and proficient in the French language, was asked to help entertain this famous general. She was noted for her excellent cuisine and responded by preparing some delicious French dishes for his dinner. During this affair, she had the pleasure of conversing with him in French because she and her daughter were the only native French in the place at that time.
My grandfather’s wholesale harness business, located on one of the main business corners in Fayetteville, thrived and grew extensively. He employed a white man, John Ribideaux, as overseer for his firm until his sons were old enough and had learned the trade well enough to carry on his business.
My father was descended from an ancestry that was fired with patriotism and a firm belief in the equality of all. Grandfather Leary was a staunch abolitionist and philanthropist. He hated the system of slavery and gave freely of his time and money to help many slaves secure their freedom.
Several times he gave slaves funds to buy their freedom from their masters. He also allowed slaves to work in his harness shop until they had sufficient funds to buy themselves from masters who would cooperate with them in their effort to be emancipated. He was a tireless promoter of education and personally taught many slaves to read, write and figure, although it was forbidden for any one to do so at the time. In politics, he was associated with the Whig Party, but when the Civil War came, he became a Republican.
My grandfather was of mixed ancestry, but in appearance, he was said to have been almost a double for Horace Greely. He was provident and maintained for his family a large, very comfortable home that was situated on one of the most prominent streets in Fayetteville. In his home, the children knew nothing of color lines. A strong hardy white woman was employed to do the laundry work for the family. Some of Grandfather Leary’s best friends were white, and I have heard my mother speak frequently of the Scottish friend who visited him at intervals and always insisted on sleeping on a pallet in the back hall.
My father was a young man during the Civil War. Although he was born of free parentage, at one time during his young life, he was conscripted by the authorities and forced to help build breast works for the South at Fort Fisher near Wilmington, North Carolina. About the time of the Civil War, his father owned considerable real estate in Cumberland County. Among these possessions was a large farm equipped with stock, farm products, tools, etc. When Sherman made his famous march through the South, soldiers were said to have come to the Leary farm and destroyed quantities of materials, confiscated stock, food stuffs, etc.
I remember hearing my old aunt say she was a young girl at the time, and when soldiers came to the door to inquire about various things, she was so frightened she could only stand and bob her head. Among my father’s papers were old claims made to the United States government for settlement of these damages, but no compensation was given Grandfather Leary for his losses.
There was a school for children of free colored people during the youth of Grandfather Leary’s children, but he employed several white tutors to teach them so they might receive the best education possible. There was one teacher of the colored race who assisted also with their scholastic training.
My father, the youngest son, was trained as a harness maker in his father’s shop and then studied law under a noted white attorney in Fayetteville. He was proficient enough to enter Howard University Law School in 1871 as a result of this instruction and remained to complete the course. He was the second colored lawyer admitted to the bar in North Carolina for practice in the state.
My father was a lawyer of acknowledged ability in North Carolina, particularly in the cities of Charlotte and Raleigh. He was the dean of the once flourishing law department at Shaw University in Raleigh. He tried to fight social injustices wherever he found them. In the courtroom and through the papers, his voice and pen struck blow after blow against the unjust treatment of mankind. His life must have been greatly influenced by his own father’s interest in fighting for the cause of freedom for all men.
Another important happening that must have influence him was the untimely death of his older brother, Lewis Sheridan Leary, at the age of twenty-four in 1859. Lewis had been schooled in the idea of freedom for all men by his father also, and it is said that when he saw a white man cruelly beating a slave one day, he reversed the situation and thrashed the white man. As a result of this action, he had to leave his home suddenly and flee to Ohio where he joined the gallant leader John Brown. While he was a free man himself, he was among the five colored men who fought with John Brown and his band at Harper’s Ferry trying to bring freedom to slaves. He was killed in this heroic fight.
I quoted from the Negro Historic Bulletin of November 1946 in an article on the Leary family that was edited by the noted late historian, Dr. Carter G. Woodson. This account was written originally by my father for The Charlotte Observer in 1900.
At the time of the Declaration of American Independence, there was a larger number of free Negroes in the Colonial dependency or territory of Great Britain now comprising the state of North Carolina than any other Southern State. All of the free Negroes were patriots and ardent supporters of the American cause, and when the clash of arms came, a large proportion of them entered the American Army as soldiers and gave their blood and lives for liberty.
My great grandfather, a free Negro, was one of the patriots and soldiers. He survived the contest and not only voted after the constitution of 1787 was ratified, but on account of a wound he received while fighting in the Army, was granted and drew a pension from the National Government.
Before coming to Charlotte, my father’s interest in the welfare of his fellow man had turned him towards a political career. This career had taken him as far as the North Charlotte State Legislature where he served as a representative from Cumberland County for two terms during Reconstruction from 1868 to 1870. In 1884, he was sent as a delegate to the National Republican Convention. He also served as an alderman in his home town of Fayetteville for two years, and he served as a school committeeman there for four years before he was greatly interested in the welfare of children.
His law office was on East Trade Street in Charlotte’s uptown section. Each morning, he walked from his home in Brooklyn to town to meet his clients and then to the courthouse to help them solve their legal problems. He was said to have been quite handsome, a forceful speaker and very skillful in his pleading before the court. His chosen job was to defend and help those who needed it, and he pursued it with zeal and earnestness.
He was short in stature, but he stood tall. Perhaps this anecdote will illustrate what I mean. When he went to the courthouse to practice, there was a common drinking bucket and dipper for the lawyers to use because there were no fountains in that day with the signs For Colored and For White. My father never thought of questioning his right to drink from the bucket. He refused to allow his spirit to be fettered and drank daily from the common bucket and participated in whatever else came up that required his services.
He was an ardent churchman. Each Sunday, he and his brood (all that were old enough to walk from Brooklyn to the Episcopal church) were seen walking to church. For years he was the superintendent of the Sunday school, a job which gave him the greatest pleasure, and a dedicated lay reader who often took over the direction of the church work in prolonged absences of the regular priest.
My father dearly loved good food. I remember hearing one of our neighbors remark that whenever she saw Mr. Leary coming, he always had a bag of something, usually something good to eat. I have often heard Mother remark how he liked hot supper. No matter how uncomfortable the heat of the evening, she would have a fierce fire going in our cook stove to fry fish or whatever he brought home so he could enjoy a hot supper. This was the custom then, and women thought nothing of standing over a hot stove in summer, and getting supper ready to serve their families at six or seven o’clock.
My father’s life was devoted in a large degree to trying to improve the welfare of his fellow man. He also had an intense love for his family. As he lay dying in Good Samaritan Hospital, I heard Mother recall how he repeated his children’s names over one by one.
At his funeral in 1904, he was bestowed a single honor by the members of his profession which bespeaks something of the esteem in which he was held—every member of the Bar was present for his funeral
Love, Rose Leary. Plum Thickets and Field Daisies: A Memoir. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1996