Saturday, October 16, 2004

Courting history

Wish I'd been in Edenton last week for the reopening of the historic Chowan County Courthouse. It would have been fascinating, if not really historically accurate, to see the N.C. Supreme Court in session there. Built in 1767 when Edenton was an important Revolutionary-era town, this was a busy local court for a couple hundred years.
The oldest Court House in North Carolina, [it] is an architectural gem of national reputation. A sketch of its life reads like a panoramic review of the life of North Carolina: the hardships of the early colony, the struggles of revolution, civil war and reconstruction; all finally unfolding into the commonwealth that is the Old North State of today. Through six conflicts the call to arms has resounded within its walls; it can recall the inauguration of every President of the United States; Governors from the time of Josiah Martin have spoken from its rostrum; Princes and Presidents have danced on its floors and the most illustrious lawyers of the State have pleaded their causes before its bar.

It was here in 1829 that a jury found a poor white man named John Mann guilty of assault for shooting a rented slave as she ran off from being whipped by him, a decision overturned by Thomas Ruffin and immortalized by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her novel Dred and in A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin--and still widely studied.

This courthouse loomed large in the life of Harriet Jacobs, who escaped Edenton to become "a quiet revolutionary" on her own terms.

Surprisingly, but fittingly, a picture of the Chowan County Courthouse is featured in a recent essay by Wendell Berry on the subject of land use and the environment. It's an example of "old buildings [that] look good because they were built by people who respected themselves and wanted the respect of their neighbors"--an example we can learn from.

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