I enjoyed looking through the Orange County Tax List and was surprised how much information could be gleaned from a seemingly routine document used for book-keeping.
Skimming through the entire document allows me to estimate that roughly 30% of individuals in Durham between the ages of 21 and 50 were black, while around 70% were white. It first struck me as odd that races were distinguished in this tax document – the poll tax was $1.20 for both white and black individuals, so why would one create separate columns in a spreadsheet that was meant to keep track of taxes? This allows us to look at this document like a census sheet and a finance sheet instead of only the latter. After I read the Southern Crossing chapters, particularly Chapter Five “In Black and White,” this decision made sense in light of the race relations of the day.
I thought the marks made for the poll tax were tallies, because I could only find 1s, until on page 138 I came across a 2 in the white polls column. The name looks like Rawls and contains 4 letters after it that appear to be L C S A. They have no town lots, land, or animals, but they own stocks in merchandise and have highly valued personal property. This could potentially be a company.
In class, we looked at Washington Duke’s tax records. I wanted to see what I could learn about Pauli Murray’s family. Although she was born in 1910 in Baltimore, she moved in with her grandparents in Durham at the age of 3, so I hoped to find information on Robert and Cornelia Fitzgerald. However, I could not find their names. The Fitzgeralds had lived in the Durham-Chapel Hill area since 1869, but they may have been listed under Goldsboro or Hillsborough for taxes. As I continued to search through the document, I found a woman named Mildred Cameron who had a land evaluation at a staggering $7500. She was the daughter of Duncan Cameron, who was a lawyer who gained a fortune while investing heavily in land and buying stock in banks. After his death, she likely inherited much of her father’s land.
I am curious how much of the transcription process could be automated. There have been advances in handwriting recognition through optical character recognition programs, but cursive has always proved a challenge – particularly the style seen in this document. If not the names of individuals, the writing in other columns could potentially be read by a computer, as the numbers are extremely clear. However, the occasional spots of ink throughout the document (and places where a 1 is crossed out with a dash) might prove to be a problem.