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I recently got around to transcribing my gggrandfather John W. Holt’s will. John lived in Hardin County, TN, and spent his childhood enslaved by Giles Holt, along with his mother Malinda and siblings. By the early 20th century, John W. Holt was said to be the wealthiest black in the county, owning hundreds of acres of land. At one point, he was Postmaster at the town bearing his name (Holtville), had a school named Holtville, and he was a merchant who owned a country store. This is a photo of John and his wife Mary Garrett:

John and Mary Garrett

His standing in the community is also evident by the number of times he was named in other wills as executor, and served as security in numerous land records. He first purchased over 200 acres of land with a brother and possible cousin only six years after the end of the Civil War. I suspect, but have no evidence, that his father was a white man.

His will, written in 1911, is one of the most detailed I have ever seen in all the years of my research. John died in 1925 and his will had 15 individual items and ran over six written pages. The level of specificity is what is most notable. He clearly had been well-schooled in estate and land matters, although where and how he attained that knowledge remains a mystery.

He names his son Troy as executor but wisely places his vast estate within a trust that is set to last for twenty years:

“Out of the rents and income of the estate, the trustee will,
 during the said period of twenty years, pay all taxes assessed
against the estate, will keep the real estate in reason-
able repair…”

Troy was also the trustee, and was to use the proceeds from the trust to care for his mother Mary and other siblings, all who were named. John even detailed the meaning of his words, so there would be no doubt as to the purpose of his trust:

“…My object being to provide first, from the
income of my estate, a support for my widow and
minor children, that is for my widow as long as she
lives and my minor children as long as they or any
one of them are minors (whenever the word support is
used it is intended to embrace and include all necessary
food and clothing)…”

John W. Holt had a bout with infidelity, which produced a son named Hundley. Hundley is mentioned throughout the will, his inheritance being only one half of what the other siblings would receive:

“…the remainder of said rents, profits and
income in his hands be distributed by him annually
amongst all of my children, equally, except that Hundley
Holt shall be paid only one half of a child’s share in
said annual disbursements during said period of twenty
years…”

John also directed that the trustee was not empowered to:

“sell, mortgage or otherwise dispose of any of the real estate for any purpose, and any such attempted disposition shall be void.”

The repercussions were clear for disobeying this directive:

“…None of the beneficiaries under this will shall
possess the power or authority to dispose of any part
of my estate, herein willed and devised within said
period of twenty years. No deed or bargain and sale
can be made by either of them, no mortgage deed
of trust or other transfer can be made, and no
conveyance or alienation of any kind in anticipation
can be made by either, but such power is expressly
withheld, and any attempt on the part of
either to so dispose of the same will operate as an
immediate forfeiture of the interest in my estate.”

Oral history when I first started researching this line was that the land was in fact, quickly sold out of the family. I’d like to research whether or not his son Troy followed the letter of the will, which would mean that no sale or mortgage could take place until 1945.

Whatever the case, this remains an extraordinary example of the heights some of our formerly enslaved ancestors were able to reach because of education, industry and their own will to succeed.

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