JOHN A. COPELAND, SR., was born into slavery near Raleigh, North Carolina, in 1808, the son of a white man who was also his owner. Nothing is known of Copeland's mother other than that she was a slave whose pregnancy was likely the consequence of implicit coercion if not outright brutality. Little more is known about the elder Copeland's interactions with his father, although the relationship was common knowledge in their community. There must have been at least some bond between them, because Copeland was emancipated in his master's will, which set him free at the age of seven or eight. The slave owner left his mulatto son no additional funds or property, however, so the young boy was placed in the care of a prominent neighbor named Gavin Hogg, who owned a large home in Raleigh and extensive lands in Bertie County, as well as at least seventeen slaves. As a free Negro, John was not allowed to attend school, so Hogg apprenticed him to a carpenter. The young man became adept at his trade – earning a reputation as a “most well disposed boy” – and he attracted regular work from both blacks and whites.
On August 15, 1831, Copeland married Delilah Evans, a “most respectable woman of color” who had been born in Hillsborough, North Carolina, in 1809. Delilah was from a well-established family of unusually mixed background, none of whom had ever been slaves. She and her two younger brothers, Wilson and Henry, were extremely light skinned – so much so that photographs of Wilson, in later years, were often mistaken for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – and they claimed descent from General Nathanael Greene of Revolutionary War fame.
Delilah was employed as a domestic for members of the wealthy Devereux family – related by marriage to the Hoggs – who considered themselves enlightened on race issues.
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