While searching Kingsport Times and Kingsport News for articles on the early days of the space program, I accidentally typed in “April 1859” instead of “April 1959”. Before fixing the search, I scanned the stories to see if anything interesting came up. One story quickly caught my eye.
The November 26, 1939 edition of the Kingsport Times contained an interview with Nathan Dykes, who at the time was one of the last living former slaves in our area.
Nathan, originally from Scott County, was born a slave. His father, Sam Dykes, was brought to America directly from Africa. Sam was separated from his wife and two children by slave traders in Africa. He remarried and started a new family in the United States.
The interview was conducted at Nathan’s two-story home on US Highway 23, a mile and a half northwest of Gate City, where he showed the reporter his bill of sale – for himself .
Nathan was sold at the age of 6 to settle a debt from his master, James H. Dykes. The deed of sale reads: “Pursuant to an order made by the county court on April 13, 1858, I, William D. Nottingham, DS, have proceeded to sell to public outcry a certain boy negro, a slave belonging to James H. Dykes appointed Nathan, about six years old, for the sum of four hundred and twenty dollars to Samuel Wininger, being him the highest bidder, the said Wininger having paid in full the above sum, the declared possession of the said slave is given to the said Wininger, and I warrant named Nathan insofar as vested in me by order of the said court. Given under my hand this 15th day of June, 1858.”
“Uncle Nate”, as he was called in the story, was able to remember the day of the sale. He said he doesn’t mind being auctioned off too much outside the Scott County Courthouse, or having potential buyers dig their fingers into the muscles in his arms and legs. He said he didn’t even care about the stares of the crowd gathered there in Gate City.
It was being taken away from his mother that hurt so much. That night, he cried to go home.
Wininger’s wife, who had two small children of her own, could not bear Nathan’s sadness and took him home. He was then put through a “conditioning period”, where he stayed part of the time with his mother and part of the time with his new owners.
“It wasn’t long until they gave me a hen and some chickens to look after,” Nathan said, “then it wasn’t long until I was too busy to take care of myself. feel alone.”
Nathan was a slave for the first 14 years of his life. After the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War, and the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865, Nathan became a free man.
“My old Massa told me I was free and I could go home,” Nathan said. “I went back to my mother and my father. I still had chickens and maybe some cattle at Massa Wininger so I went back. They sent me home again.
Nathan got married when he was 14. His wife was 13 years old. He became a father at 15 when the first of 13 children was born, his son, John Dykes. John would become a lawyer in Atlantic City. In 1939 one of Nathan’s daughters, Mrs. Mary Hill, stayed at home to care for him and one of his sons, Will Dykes, worked in Kingsport.
When the Times article was published, Nathan was living in his own house with 30 acres of land. He was a farmer for a time, but gave that up and went into the lumber business, where he said he could make $100 a day. He built his current home within sight of the three-room cabin he grew up in.
I checked the 1940 census and found that Nathan owned his own house in Estillville and was still farming. He went through his whole life without formal education. I also learned from his obituary that he was an active member of the Methodist Church for Colored People in Gate City.
I found his death certificate online and learned that he died on July 11, 1944, aged 92 and was buried in Gate City ‘colored cemetery’ on July 14 . Funeral arrangements were handled by the McConnell Funeral Service.
Professor IC Coley wrote of Dykes in the Gate City Herald: ‘Through economy, hard work and good management, he acquired a good home and raised a like-minded family and they follow in his footsteps. He may be the last of his race to be born into slavery in this county.