Boys Scouts from the Cherokee Scout Reservation in Yanceyville took a tour of the Historic Courthouse, the old jail and the Poteat School on Wednesday, July 17. The group consisted of young men from different locations.
The tour was led by Paula Seamster said the Cherokee Scout troop has taken the historic tour for the past six or seven years.
“The group brings different boys every time and each group is so diverse I never know who to expect,” she said. “The boys are different ages and enjoy hearing about the murder that took place here at the Historic Courthouse.”
The tour began outside the Historic Courthouse and Seamster told the group about why the corn and tobacco leaves on the outside of the building are significant.
“Corn and tobacco were once the cash crops of Caswell County,” she said.
The tour continued up the stairs to the second floor of the courthouse where Seamster gave a history lesson on the building.
All eyes were on Seamster as she told the group about Henrietta Jeffries, a midwife who was brought to trial on charges of practicing medicine without a license in 1911. The penalty at the time, if convicted, was death by hanging.
“At the time of her trial Henrietta’s it was rumored that Judge Cook was the toughest, meanest judge around and he was the one presiding over her case. Not only was Cook the judge, but the jury was made up of all white men,” she explained. “During the trial the attorneys of the doctor’s suing Henrietta presented to the court why she was guilty. When it was her time to testify, Cook asked who was representing her and she replied, ‘You are sir.’ The judge then dismissed himself from the bench, came down and stood beside Jeffries as lawyer. If a judge were to do that today, I more than guarantee you they would be disbarred.”
“Once the jury heard both sides they deliberated and delivered a guilty verdict. However, Judge Cook overturned the jury’s decision and dismissed the charges,” Seamster continued. “Such a trial dismissal was unprecedented for an American woman of color. After the trial Henrietta continued to be a midwife until her death in 1926.”
Seamster went on to tell the group about John “Chicken” Stephens a former State Senator who was murdered by Klansmen in 1870.
“John Stephens was a native of Guilford County who moved to Caswell County. He earned the nickname “Chicken” because he killed two of a neighbor’s chickens that had strayed onto his property and after the incident the wife’s neighbor was distraught when Stephens offered them to her. He spent the night in jail when the neighbor had him arrested,” she continued. “Shortly after he sold his mother’s house and moved to Caswell County. While living in the county he promised slaves the right to vote if they did whatever he said well that didn’t far to well with the locals and is what ultimately led to his death. During the Democratic Convention three men removed the pistols off Stephens. Guess what the man who drew the short straw chickened out and ran out of the room.”
Seamster said Stephens was eventually murdered and found the next day.
She also said the names of those involved were not released until 1935 when John G. Lea died.
After the history lesson, Seamster led the group to the basement of the courthouse where the county used to hold prisoners.
The tour continued outside to the old Caswell County Jail. It was built in the 1900s and held prisoners until 1973.
The two-story structure contains a cell block on the top level. It also still has the original indoor hanging cell.
Attached to the old jail was the warden’s living quarters which included 2 bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen.
As Seamster shared the jailhouse’s history the young men were in awe with the structure.
The group ventured up the stairs to view the old cells to get a glimpse of what it was like in those days to be in prison.
The tour wrapped up at the Poteat School. The troop sat at desks inside the one-room public schoolhouse.
“Here’s a fun fact,” Seamster said. “Everyday a student was in charge of getting a pail of water and that is how they cleaned their hands. I’d sure hate to be the last person in line.”
Laughter filled the room, but quickly subsided when Seamster explained the history of the Poteat School.
“Some children at the time in Caswell County had a 6th grade education. Children who went to school were in this classroom with children of different ages,” she said.
After answering a few questions, the group was dismissed.
Seamster said, “Thank you for coming out and taking this tour. It is always nice to share some of Caswell County’s history with others.”
Tours are currently available to the public Wednesdays at 10 a.m.