Searching for Mira: The enduring legacy of slavery and brutality in the South 

I WAS BORN and raised in North Carolina, but I didn’t hear about Mira until my third year of law school.

I was first introduced to Mira in a class called “Property and Slavery in the Old South,” which had a ratio of Black students to non-Black students that was the closest to even of any law school class I took at UNC-Chapel Hill. It’s a Southern university that once held enslaved people in trust, one where students pass a segregated campus cemetery every day en route to the School of Law; the allure of such a class is perhaps not surprising.

Mira, who lived and died about two hours west of Chapel Hill, was at the center of a North Carolina Supreme Court case nearly two centuries ago, taught briefly by my professor in this class. It has been eight years since I graduated, and Mira has been on my heart ever since. 

I wanted to know more about her as a person since there was so little about her life in the actual court records, as found in North Carolina case law. As an African American person, a researcher, and a history buff, I fully expected to encounter the dead ends that so frequently arise when seeking information about the lives and times of enslaved people. But for years, I held onto a glimmer of hope that I could trace Mira’s story; perhaps I could put history’s pieces together as I’ve done many times before with my own enslaved family members. It’s the hope of finding and assembling these disjointed pieces that keeps me coming back to the dusty records, the slave indexes, and the county records offices across the South, searching for answers about our ancestors.

In class, we learned that on May 15, 1840, a North Carolina slaveholder named John Hoover was executed in Iredell County for torturing and killing an enslaved woman named Mira, whom he “owned” as his “property.” This outcome was extremely rare in the antebellum south; in fact, I have never read another case involving a slaveholder’s conviction and punishment for abusing an enslaved person that they “owned.” Anecdotal accounts have it that he was even executed on his own land on that spring day, in a public hanging ordered by the State of North Carolina. At first glance, the trial may sound like a good thing: A slaveowner being held accountable for the mistreatment and murder of an enslaved person. But I would learn that it’s not as straightforward as it appears. 

I knew to start my search for Mira in Iredell County, where the county seat is the small but significant city of Statesville, which sits about thirty minutes north of Charlotte. The city was once home to many Revolutionary War soldiers, white men given land grants by the state of North Carolina to develop the area into a town. They did this by using the lives and labor of enslaved Black people; thanks to the grants, the unpaid labor, and for some, family wealth, Statesville housed many families who were prominent in white slaveholding circles at the time. Descendants of many of those families still live there today.

In late August, I arrived in Iredell County armed with the facts of the case, straight from the North Carolina court records. Pulling off the highway to the center of Statesville, I was surrounded by all of the characteristics of a typical small Southern town: lush greenery exploding around quaint, centuries-old buildings. In looking at these structures, you can almost see general stores and markets of old beneath modern-day updates. In these towns, an air of Southern hospitality governs every interaction. On my way to a local downtown coffee shop for a vanilla latte, I was greeted by nearly every person I passed on the street, Black and white. I chatted with people in line at the register about how rough allergy season has been, and the barista told me to “have a great day, now!” 

This was a familiar scene for me, as a native North Carolinian.

Saccharine platitudes often belie the horrific history that forged many of these towns.

For three months, from December 1838 to March 1839, John Hoover tortured and abused Mira. Here are just a few examples, pulled from the official court transcript found in NC case law: Hoover stripped Mira naked, tied her to an apple tree, and whipped her. On another occasion, he broke a limb from an oak tree and beat her until the leaves and branches were worn off of the limb. When she fell to the ground, he began punching her with his fists. On yet another occasion, Hoover ordered Mira to shape a large amount of snow into a mound, raise up her dress, and sit on top of the mound for an extended period of time.

As the court transcript unfolds, white man after white man, all of whom Hoover hired for odd tasks around his property, such as woodworking and erecting fences, testified about his barbaric treatment of Mira during that three-month period. Lashing her 75 times with a whip. Beating her until she fell to the ground, then covering her with brush and lighting the brush on fire. One witness saw Hoover order Mira to haul a piece of timber so large that the witness himself had refused to lift it. When she was inevitably unable to lift the wood, Hoover beat her on the head with an ax handle. 

To make matters even worse, this treatment was taking place while Mira was heavily pregnant, and in the weeks after she had delivered her baby. Mira gave birth in February 1839 and succumbed to Hoover’s abuse in March. On the day she died, Hoover had chained her to a log in the yard by her neck. The court records state that, around sundown, she attempted to stand up to head toward the kitchen, but fell down and never got back up. 

The day after Mira was buried, the coroner exhumed her body, and, as stated in the court transcript, “There was blood on her cap and blood [on] the cotton in the coffin. From the back of her head to her heels was literally a continuous wound.” 

John Hoover was arrested, tried, convicted, and executed by public hanging for her murder.

TURNING ONTO Constitution Lane in Statesville, I pulled up at the Iredell County Register of Deeds, housed in a modest building of brick and stone. Once inside, I stated my business to a sweet, Southern, older white woman. I told her I was looking to find a specific enslaved person somewhere in the records. 

“We don’t speak much about those things,” she said. I explained that I had combed through the records available online for two months and that the “sale” of enslaved people in Iredell County was sometimes recorded alongside the sale of land, but not always. Were there any resources that could help me find an enslaved person who wasn’t listed in the land records? 

She asked me for the name, and when I said “Mira,” she immediately replied, “We need a last name.” I told her that Mira didn’t have a last name, and she repeated herself: “I’m sorry, but we need a last name.” 

And so, standing there in the county seat of a city that exists because of the labor of enslaved people, I was forced to explain how and why many of them did not have last names. Many were given the last names of their “owners” solely for identification purposes, so their identities changed if they were “sold” to another plantation. 

It was more common than not for an enslaved person not to have a dedicated last name, because in the books kept by white men, they were property, and no more deserving of a last name than the family mule. In fact, many enslaved people weren’t listed by name in family or government records at all. I was annoyed that this lady, who works with records every day, didn’t know that. But I wasn’t surprised. She went silent for a few beats, then excused herself to consult with a colleague. She returned with instructions for accessing the Iredell County Slave Deeds Index, and I gained renewed hope for finding Mira.

The Register of Deeds is a powerful resource when it comes to uncovering information about court cases involving enslaved populations, and I wanted to leverage it fully. In courtrooms across the antebellum South, claims pertaining to slavery ruled the dockets. Legal historian Ariela J. Gross writes in her book Double Character that “much of the daily business of Southern courts involved the commercial law of slavery… civil trials involving slaves were the routine events bringing townsfolk and planters together to fight over their human property.” 

But what did this look like for the enslaved, the people actually at the center of the claims at issue? 

These human beings were, in a legal and socioeconomic sense, suspended between personhood and property. Their lives were adjudicated and their fates determined in rooms that they were not allowed to enter. At the time of Hoover’s trial, no person of African descent, whether enslaved or free, could testify in court, nor serve as a member of a jury. Even more relevant in this particular case, the North Carolina Slave Code (originally introduced in 1715, and revised on multiples occasions through 1855) held that any criminal trial involving an enslaved person, whether as a defendant or a victim, had to be tried before “a jury of good and lawful men, owners of slaves.” 

Furthermore, the early to mid-1800s saw judges across the South inject romanticized, pro-slavery ideologies into their opinions. Writes Gross in Double Character: “Judges knew that abolitionists in the North scoured the published reports to find damning evidence of the inhumanity of slavery.” Thus the very real, everyday experiences of Black people held in bondage were suppressed in Southern trials, as the South resolved to justify slavery as a necessary evil.

Just 10 years before Mira’s murder, there was a landmark ruling that essentially set the standard across the South for adjudicating cases involving “masters” disciplining their enslaved “property.” In Chowan County, N.C., an enslaved woman named Lydia was hired out to work for John Mann for a year. Mann alleged that Lydia committed some small offense, and when he prepared to lash her with a whip, she ran. Mann shot her in the back as she fled. Lydia’s “owner” was a teenager, and her guardian brought assault and battery charges against Mann in Chowan County Superior Court, since a wounded Lydia could not be hired out. Mann was convicted in the lower court, but appealed; the case was later heard by the North Carolina Supreme Court.

What followed was one of the most renowned rulings in Southern history, prominent enough to be regularly cited in other Southern slavery cases. The North Carolina Supreme Court held that slaveholders had complete authority over the enslaved people that they “owned,” thus they could punish them as they saw fit without being held legally liable. 

Adding to the viciousness of this ruling was the fact that, even if the enslaved person was being hired out, as Lydia was, the person who had hired them also had the legal right to commit acts of violence and punishment against them for the duration of the period of hire. In other words, the court said a temporary “master” – like Mann – had the same legal protections to commit violence against enslaved people as the permanent “master” did.  

Mann focused on correction, driving home the fact that owners could use any level of force to correct the enslaved person in order to put them back in the regular rotation,” Irving Joyner, noted civil rights attorney and professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law, tells me. “It gave owners the legal authority to do what they wanted to in order to try and curb the person’s behavior, and make them fall in line with what was expected under the Slave Code.” 

Mann would be a legal precedent for judges throughout the South in cases involving violence against enslaved persons. It was later used by Harriett Beecher Stowe as a major plotline for Dred, her second anti-slavery novel, following Uncle Tom’s Cabin

But when it comes to Hoover: “As far as I know, there was never another case in North Carolina where the community turned on one of its own for killing an enslaved person,” Joyner says.

Revisit the (not at all comprehensive) list of abuses that were inflicted upon Mira at the hands of Hoover: Stripped naked. Whipped. Beaten. Burned. Now, consider this: Had he tortured her exactly as listed, but stopped short of killing her, he would have been justified, and even reaffirmed, in his atrocious behavior under North Carolina law established in Mann

Had he laid off for a period of time and given her worn out, postpartum, anguished body some time to heal, he could have kept going indefinitely and would have been well within his rights under the law to do so. It was not until Mira reached the point where her body could no longer withstand his relentless torment, and gave out, that Hoover was in breach of the social and legal contracts governing the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

Although his evil acts had already violated every moral, ethical, and spiritual tenet, it was not until Mira breathed her last breath that Hoover was in violation of the law of North Carolina, and of the South in general. 

Slavery, in all its brutality, depended upon “masters” being protected in their absolute authority to punish the enslaved. To keep persons of African descent subjugated in the inexorable horrors of enslavement meant that violence and brutality had to be commonplace. The human spirit cannot withstand a life in bondage, as it is not a natural condition. 

To preserve this unnatural state, Southern society knew that it must try to extinguish the human desire for free will, for free movement, for freedom itself, and the everyday interactions between whites and African Americans, particularly those held in bondage, reflected that. The North Carolina Supreme Court understood that this routine violence needed to be actually codified as law, with Judge Ruffin writing in the Mann ruling that: “The power of the master must be absolute, to render the submission of the slave perfect.” Despite the beatings, the whippings, and all of the torture Hoover rained down upon Mira, until he actually murdered her, he was protected under the law. 

I spent months attempting to unearth any information that I could find about Mira’s life before her tragic arrival at the Hoover plantation. Unfortunately, my search in the Iredell County Slave Deeds Index didn’t uncover any new information. There was an enslaved woman named Mira listed, but the dates weren’t right. In the “sale” of an enslaved woman named Samira, the grantor and grantee listed on record didn’t trace back to Hoover in any way. And a new possibility occurred to me: Perhaps “Mira” wasn’t her name at all. Reaching the last page of the index, with countless questions having been met with no answers, history’s silence on the matter left me discouraged and defeated. 

The court transcript in Hoover’s trial lists a witness by the name of “Mr. Allison,” and records this testimony from him: “Mr. Allison stated that his father raised the Deceased – that witness and his brother sold her to the Defendant and that she was an obedient and humble Negro when the father owned her.” I identified the witness as Thomas A. Allison, born in Rowan County, N.C., and his father as William Allison, born in Pennsylvania in 1740. Although William Allison recorded several enslaved people in various censuses, only one was actually named: An enslaved man named Solomon was mentioned in William Allison’s will. Beyond that, the record trail ran cold. 

The Allison family remains a mainstay in Statesville. The Allison property, where Mira was presumably raised, is now an outdoor learning center called Allison Woods, hosting plant discovery workshops, scavenger hunts, and outdoor survival classes, among other things. Spread across 298 acres of the (at one time) nearly thousand acres of Allison land, Allison Woods was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. In the 45-page application, prepared by Thomas Ausley Allison, there is no mention at all of people being held in bondage on the property, even as the Allison family name appears throughout the Iredell County Slave Deeds Index as both grantors and grantees in the purchase and sale of human beings. I didn’t see any mention of this history there still, not even on the current website.

There’s no indication as to why William Allison “sold” Mira after having raised her, who her parents were, why Hoover was so determined to kill her, who fathered her child, or what became of her one-month-old baby following her murder. And why was Hoover arrested in the first place? This case, and Hoover’s execution, was only covered in two newspapers that I could find, and was just a brief announcement in each, no more than three sentences.

Based on testimony from the court transcript, it seems that he was not liked by his peers. One witness, who had done some work on Hoover’s property, testified that “he left on unfriendly terms with the defendant, and had not since been at his house.” Another contract worker stated that he “was not on friendly terms with the defendant, and had not been for the past three years.” The coroner was called to Hoover’s property the day after Mira’s murder to exhume the body, and it was the coroner’s findings that led to Hoover being charged. To enlist the coroner over the abuse and murder of an enslaved person was highly unusual. My guess is that Hoover angered enough of the white community for them to want him gone; Mira’s murder would have provided the pretext to make it happen.

According to the Iredell County land records, Hoover purchased 375.5 acres of land in 1818, and 116 more acres in 1834. He had one of the largest real estate holdings in the area. Today, Hoover’s descendants are still very active in the business of Iredell County, with land records dated as recently as September 2022. Among countless other things, the land houses the Hoover family cemetery, several residential subdivisions in different areas (and, from the looks of it, more on the way), an animal hospital, and a park. Throughout the years, land has been granted to the Anglican Church, the West Iredell Recreation group, and various other community bodies. The land also has not been exempt to the business of government; highway I-77 cuts through it, and the land records list countless governmental transactions. About eight minutes from the Hoover family cemetery, people live in subdivisions with street names like Cotton Field Drive, Planters Drive, History Lane, and… Hoover Street. Whether that’s named after John Hoover himself, I can’t confirm. But let’s be real here; it probably is.

In either 1834 or 1836 (the Register of Deeds record is smudged, so the last number is not clear), Hoover “purchased” four enslaved people from a man named Jacob Lytaker: A woman named Raney and her three children, Sophia, August, and George. It’s probable that they were among other enslaved people living on the Hoover plantation while Mira was there, as Hoover’s will mentions the division of “slaves belonging to me.” His will also mentions that “…[slaves] shall be set up at sale but no person is allowed to bid but the legatees alone.” This, and the fact that the itemized list of the sale of his estate following his execution shows no enslaved people listed, indicates that his heirs divided the human beings held in bondage amongst themselves, with no interference from officials. 

However, no child whose age corresponds with the birth year of Mira’s child was listed in the estates of any of Hoover’s children, nor counted in their censuses. This should not be taken as conclusive, though, as enslaved people typically weren’t counted as household members for census purposes, so it is rare to see them listed by name. The trail runs cold on Raney and her children. The Black people who worked on Hoover’s land against their will, without payment or respite, have been lost to history, for now. Neither they, nor their descendants, have benefited from the land, as far as we know.

The aftermath of Hoover’s execution demonstrates that in condemning only the most extreme instances of racism, society reinforces the practice overall. Becoming outraged by only the most extreme outliers provides a false sense of self-righteousness that actually strengthens racism, by affirming everyday routine interactions that allow it to thrive. From Mira to George Floyd, whether expressed in the institution of slavery, or in widespread police brutality (and everything in between), racism must be called out, and involved parties held accountable, even in the most seemingly innocuous demonstrations of it. 

Consider Mira’s murder alongside the murder of George Floyd. Black drivers are 20% more likely to be stopped by police than white drivers and are searched twice as often, although they are less likely to be carrying drugs, guns, or other illegal contraband compared to their white peers. A recent Gallup poll shows that 41% of Black Americans rated their encounters with police as “not positive,” and 8 in 10 Black adults say that Black people are treated less fairly by the police and the criminal justice system as a whole. Interactions like these occur routinely, at traffic stops, on city streets, along country roads, etc., and they are expected at best, celebrated at worst. 

But, in May 2020, as George Floyd lay on the rough concrete of Minneapolis, crying out for his mother as his life slowly ebbed from his body, with a knee pressed into his neck over a suspected counterfeit $20 bill, outrage rose up from every corner of the globe. And, while that outrage was necessary, justified, and humane, dismantling racism will, in part, require people to be just as angry about the Black person being racially profiled while driving, and pulled over unjustly. 

Rebuking only the most extreme exhibitions of racism allows people who practice it to employ the “at least I’m not doing that” fallacy. A courtroom full of slaveholders decried Mira’s murder, then returned to their plantations and continued to whip, beat, rape, and sell their own enslaved “property,” because, by their reasoning, at least they weren’t like John Hoover. Many white people stood on the lawns of schools and universities across the country protesting integration (or stood in support of those who did), some spitting on Black schoolchildren and young adults as they attempted to enter newly-integrated public schools, while simultaneously joining the nationwide horror at the photos of the mangled body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, resting in the false sense of self-righteousness brought about by knowing that at least they weren’t out lynching anyone. Corporations around the country and the world issued statements denouncing George Floyd’s murder, while one glance at many of their corporate boards and daily leadership teams revealed nary a Black person, as institutional racism allowed them to protect their status quo. The fallacy strikes again.

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State v. Hoover is a little-known case, even among legal historians, scholars, and attorneys. At the time, it was barely a blip on the radar; it was only covered in two local newspapers that I could find. “It didn’t start a trend,” Professor Joyner says. “And, it really didn’t become a part of a new interpretation of the law. It was merely an aberration, a one-time occurrence, and applied to just this. It did not set a precedent in any way.” 

Was it just a show? 

State v. Mann is cited, studied, and analyzed across legal and historical contexts, but it can be argued that Hoover was also pivotal. It goes hand-in-hand with Mann, as both rulings sanctioned violence against the enslaved population at the hands of white people, and justified its use. Both made sweeping concessions for abuse and torment, and for the continued criminalization of Blackness itself, reaffirming dangerous racialized ideologies and practices in Southern society as a whole, by only punishing the most extreme outlier of violence. Slaveholders probably smugly patted themselves on the back, feeling moral and righteous about having appropriately punished John Hoover, while themselves upholding the institution of slavery for another 25 years after his execution. 

Hoover absolutely should have been punished. It’s a rather sweet bit of irony that he was executed and buried on his own land, the same land where he tortured and murdered Mira. But holding only the Hoovers of the world accountable cannot dismantle the daily practice of racism in our society. There is danger in the seemingly mundane instances of racism that govern daily interactions across this country, and they, too, must be duly addressed.

Despite the complexities surrounding this case and its aftermath, the one undeniably marvelous outcome of Hoover’s execution was that Mira received justice. The anguish that she endured, and many others held in bondage for centuries, as their toil, blood, sweat, and tears provided the economic foundation that would propel America to its superpower status, should never be forgotten.

I will continue to search for Mira in my spare time. Imagine if the testimony of even just one African American person could have been entered into the court records. We would have likely gotten a deeper glimpse into her life, as she would have been seen by that witness as a person, not merely as property. I didn’t uncover much more about Mira herself than I knew when I started. This is endlessly frustrating. It’s entirely possible that the answers will never come, and that’s a tough realization to accept. However, what we do know is that Mira existed. She was a person–a woman, a mother, a daughter, and she is known to us because of what has been documented in the historical record. For now, that is what we have to hold onto. She was here. She existed. 

This story was made possible by the support of Sunday Long Read subscribers and publishing partner Ruth Ann Harnisch. Edited by Kiley Bense. Designed by Anagha Srikanth.

Jaha Nailah Avery

Jaha Nailah Avery (she/her) is an African American woman and proud Southerner. Hailing from Asheville, North Carolina, she received her law degree from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she studied constitutional and civil rights law. Her work can be found in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Architectural Digest.