A Brief History of the Pope Family of Northampton County, North Carolina

Here is the short history on the origins of the Pope family that I prepared for the 2022 Pope Family Reunion.

The Pope family of Northampton County, North Carolina begins with Elias Pope, born free around 1793 to Jonas Pope a white man born around 1770 in southeastern Virginia, perhaps Southampton, and a woman of African descent. Elias’s wife was a woman named Sarah (or Sallie) Clark but it’s unclear, based on her age and how she is handled in estate files for Elias Pope, whether she was the biological mother to Elias’s children. Elias had 12 children in total — Jonas, Olive, Lazarus, Sarah, Elias, Louisa (my third great grandmother), Martha, Sidney, John, William, Hansel and Exum (Axom) Pope. Note that the names Jonas and Elias are repeated in the family over many generations.

We don’t have photos of any of Elias’s children. All we have to approximate their appearance is this description written within the 1851 Freedman’s Papers of Elias’s oldest son Jonas Elias Pope. In it he was physically described as “of bright yellow complexion, five nine inches in shoes…” His complexion and likely that of his siblings were indicative of their mixed African and European family ancestry.

Elias, by all appearances was a relatively prosperous free man of color in Northampton. He is listed in the 1850 census for Northampton County as a farmer who owned 65 acres of land with a real estate value of $295. It’s unclear from records exactly how Elias came to own all of this land, but estate records suggest that he might have inherited it from his white father Jonas.

His children and grandchildren would go on to make important contributions in service of Northampton County, the state of North Carolina, and our Nation.

Axom Pope, son of Elias Pope, was one of 179,000 African Americans to serve in the Civil War. He served in the Union Navy, enlisting in Suffolk, VA.

Exum Roberts, grandson of Elias Pope, owned a store in Rich Square and was elected Northampton County’s first African American Register of Deeds in 1886.

Winfred Roberts, grandson of Elias Pope and brother to Exum Roberts, was appointed the first Black postmaster of Rich Square in 1886. Roberts street in Rich Square is named after these brothers.

Lazarus Pope, son of Elias Pope, and his wife Margaret along with a handful of other community members in 1866 founded Willow Oak African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of the first Black churches in Northampton County.

The Rev. Cicero Franklin Pope, grandson of Elias Pope, was a Baptist minister and principal for 38 years in the education system who has an elementary school named after him in Burgaw, Pender County, North Carolina.

One of the most notable members of the Pope family is of course Dr. Manassa(s) Thomas Pope, grandson of Elias Pope. Dr. Pope was a graduate of Shaw University, a Historically Black University in Raleigh, North Carolina. He attended Shaw with at least three of his Pope first cousins. John W Pope, Georgianna Pope Tann and Exum Roberts. He graduated from Shaw’s Medical School in 1886 as part of the schools first graduating class, and went on to become one of the first medically-licensed African American doctors in North Carolina.

Dr. Pope was a military officer during the Spanish American War and successful surgeon. In 1902, he was one of only seven black men registered to vote in Raleigh, NC. To prevent blacks from voting, southern states like North Carolina enacted literacy tests and grandfather clauses stipulating that to be eligible to vote, your father had to be eligible to vote. Dr. Pope was a highly educated doctor and was able to handle the literacy test. What made him even more unique within his community was that he possessed his father Jonas Elias Pope’s 1851 Freedman’s papers which he produced when asked to meet the grandfather clause. States also used intimidation to deter blacks from voting. Make no mistake; by requesting that he be added to the roll of eligible voters Dr. Pope was putting his livelihood and the well-being at risk. But he stood strong and courageous in his conviction to be treated as an equal to white men.

Much history has been made by this family since Dr. Pope and his generation. In fact, Pope Family History is still being written. May we continue to make our ancestors proud, and may God continue to bless our family.

Jonas Pope in the 1810 US Census for Southampton County, VA. Southampton sits on the VA-NC border directly above Northampton County, NC, where Elias Pope was born and lived his life as a free person of color.
1851 Freedman’s Papers for Jonas Elias Pope. In it he was physically described as “of bright yellow complexion, five nine inches in shoes…”
1850 US Census Northampton County record for Elias Pope and family (dwelling 159). Living next door to him (dwelling 160) is his son in law Watkins Roberts, father of Exum and Winifred Roberts. Living two doors from him were the Cumbos (dwelling 161). My third great grandparents were Louisa Pope (dwelling 159) and Matthias Cumbo (dwelling 161).
National Park Service Civil War record for Axom Pope.
Winfred Roberts, son of Watkins Roberts and Sidney Pope, and grandson of Elias Pope, was appointed the first Black postmaster of Rich Square in 1886.
Exum Roberts, son of Watkins Roberts and Sarah Pope, and grandson of Elias Pope, was elected Northampton County’s first African American Register of Deeds in 1886.
Newspaper article documenting Lazarus and Margaret Pope as founders of Willow Oak AME Church in Northampton County, North Carolina. Lazarus Pope was the son of Elias Pope.
Sign for Cicero F. Pope Elementary School in Pender County, NC
Dr. Manassa Thomas Pope, one of the first licensed, African American doctors in North Carolina.
Shaw University 1877 Yearbook. Dr. Manassa Thomas Pope attended Shaw University in the 1870s with at least two of his first cousins. John W Pope was the son of Elias Pope and Louisa Jones of Rich Square. Georgianna Pope Tann was the daughter of Lazarus and Margaret Pope, of Rich Square who were also founding members of Willow Oak AME Church in Rich Square. EE (Elias Exum) Roberts of Rich Square son of Watkins Roberts and Sarah Pope is a third.

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