The founding of Mars Hill University is a fascinating and complex account of personal sacrifice and community collaboration that tends to interest all who study it. Perhaps one of the most fascinating as well as heartbreaking stories from this period is that of Joe Anderson. Joe Anderson was an enslaved African-American owned by college founder J.W. Anderson and is crucial to history of the institution due to him being levied as payment for the college’s first building. Today, Joe’s story serves as a sort of campus legend that is challenging historians and scholars on how to appropriately approach the issue. Nonetheless, Joe and his story deserves to be recognized not as lore, but as an unfortunate event that shaped the history of Mars Hill University and thus deserves to be told in the most accurate manner possible.
According to various newspaper articles and John Angus McLeod’s work From These Stones, the first Board of Trustees contracted Asheville contractors Clayton and Shackleford to construct the college’s first building. After construction concluded, a dispute between the Board of Trustees and the contracting firm over the quality of work done resulted in a lien being placed on the building in light of a debt of approximately $1100. Hoping to quickly receive the money owed to them, Clayton and Shackleford enlisted the help of the Buncombe County Sheriff Department to settle the debt. As the Board of Trustees were unable to pay the full amount, the sheriff’s department seized Joe Anderson and placed him in prison in Asheville and not to be released until either the debt was paid or Joe would be sold to the highest bidder. Joe Anderson was reportedly widely well-liked and respected in Mars Hill, and his taking supposedly galvanized the community and the trustees to quickly raise the money. McLeod stated that only days later the debt was paid and Joe was released back to the possession of J.W. Anderson, although sources differ on the length Joe spent imprisoned.
Following his release from prison, Joe still did not find himself free as he was forced back into the service of J.W. Anderson until the Civil War ended the chattel slavery system. Following the war, J.W. Anderson allegedly gave Joe a tract of land in Mars Hill where he worked and lived with his family until his death in 1907. Most accounts of this important event in Mars Hill’s history claimed that Joe made a voluntary, humble sacrifice for the community that he loved, and that he did not view himself as a hero. Despite multiple written accounts of Joe’s story, however, no documentation exists of this event from Joe’s point of view.
Widespread knowledge of Joe’s story began with a small piece in a 1928 Ripley’s Believe It or Not publication entitled “A Human Being Taken in Payment for a College.” Other newspaper articles that covered the story during this time wrote similar headlines. Newspaper coverage of Mars Hill’s 1932 Founder’s Day celebration also helped spread Joe’s story. This particular Founder’s Day honored Joe’s memory and the sacrifice he made with the unveiling of his new gravestone on campus. Joe’s ashes were moved from their previous location at a private African-American cemetery. Joe’s descendants were introduced and there were numerous guest speakers, including an African-American pastor and an author of several books on the benefits of interracial cooperation. Additionally, letter correspondence during the 1940s also shows interest in Joe’s story. Staff of Mars Hill College, including McLeod, requested documentation of Joe’s seizure from Buncombe county officials. A Christian mission organization also requested information about Joe for their annual newsletter.
Accounts of Joe’s seizure draw similar conclusions about what Joe’s story represented for Mars Hill College. According to these accounts, Joe happily and voluntarily sacrificed himself for the Mars Hill community for the spread of education. His sacrifice, and the willingness of the community to quickly come to his aid, established Mars Hill College as a “recruiting station for righteousness” and as a humble Christian institution. These conclusions have pervaded the narrative of this event into the present. These written accounts glorified Mars Hill College while they failed to acknowledge Joe’s status as the legal property of a powerful and influential man in the Mars Hill community.