Dolph Setzer

[Photo courtesy of Catawba County Historical Association]


Colored Citizen. Who Became Nationally Known

Newton, June 1 [1925],-Newton's oldest, Citizen, Dolph Setzer colored, died Sunday evening. He was about 95 years old and was born within, the present limits. of the corporation, buy long before there was any thought of a town. All of Catawba was at the time part of Lincoln county and Dolph was born on the farm of Reuben Setzer.

About 40 years ago he became nationally known, from the fact that at that time his color, which had been coal black, begun turning white in spots, These spots body became white. For the past quarter of a century, any stranger meeting him would have taken him for a white man.

He was Newton's best informed citizen about early history of the town, he saw the surveyors stake it off, mark the place for the first house built, and to his death could tell the exact location of the first dozen residences and all the first stores erected in Newton. He could give the names of all the first citizens, tell where they came from, and what their occupations were. He had been of much assistance to the Daughters of the Confederacy in gathering data about Catawba soldiers. He saw every company from Catawba give their last drill in Newton and take train for the battle fronts, and could tell from what section of the county each company was enlisted, the names of the officers and many of the privates.

Dolph carried brick for the building of the first court house, seventy-five years ago, made of mortar for two additions to the old building, helped to tear down and earned the first brick for the new building, which was erected last year.

He died in a house on the lot of Mr. Robert Lutz, a grandson of his old master, Reuben Setzer, a part of the farm on which he was born. He was a negro of unusual intelligence, honest by instinct, polite and respectful to all white people and loyal to his race. His passing gives sorrow to all our people.

Dolph was buried this afternoon on Snow Hill. Rev. C. C. Wagoner, pastor of Grace Reformed church and Rev. T. C. Snigleno, of the Baptist church, assisted in the service. A large number of white people attended the funeral. [Hickory Daily Record, June 1, 1925]

A recent newspaper article reported on the life of Dolph Setzer. Wrihter, Hannah Mitchell, provided this colorful insight into the live of one of Catawba County's more interesting citizens.

Condition of skin put man on map

By Hannah Mitchell

Even more than most black people who lived in the segregated South, Dolph Setzer's skin color affected everything he did.

In fact, it dominated his obituary when he died in Newton in 1925 at about age 95.

The former slave's skin had been very dark, according to newspaper accounts, until it started to turn white in the 1880s.

In middle age, he acquired a skin condition that gradually left his skin without pigment, starting with scattered white spots and spreading until his whole body had lost its color.

Setzer, a brick and mortar maker, toured the South as a curiosity when he wasn't helping put up buildings in his hometown. People in stops as far away as New Orleans and Atlanta paid money to see the black man who had become white.

As much as race relations have changed in the South and the rest of the country since then, color still matters, 80 years after Setzer's death.

"Skin color is still a very important marker for your social identity," said Harry Watson, director of the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC Chapel Hill. "People will say, I'm black and that means something. I don't want you to stereotype me, but recognize the fact that I have a certain kind of history and as likely as not, that's going to shape who I'm likely to marry, what church I'm likely to go to, how I'm likely to vote.' Likewise, if I'm white."

Setzer lived in Newton before it was a town, when what became the Catawba County seat was still part of Lincoln County, according to his obituary in local newspapers - black obituaries were unusual at the time. One account called him Newton's oldest resident.

Born into slavery on the farm of Reuben Setzer, he remembered when the town was laid out, and later, when the county's Confederate companies drilled in Newton before taking trains to battlegrounds. He helped build the first and second county courthouses in downtown Newton.

He was apparently well liked by the day's power structure -white people - and a "large number" of that race attended his funeral, according to the Hickory Daily Record.

But Setzer's skin set him apart to the point that he and his wife, Eliza, lived on the white side of town. He died there on the property of a grandson of his former master - which may actually have had more to do with his living in the white section than his skin color.

By that time, most Southern towns had segregated as former slaves pursued lives away from the fields and kitchens where they had been forced to work. Setzer apparently maintained ties to the people and place where he had been a slave, said Gary Freeze, a Catawba College professor who wrote about the former slave in a recently released Newton history.

"The way I interpret that," Freeze said, "is he never quite lost the traditional linkage that sort of had been left over from slavery."

Of course, race goes deeper than skin, and at the time of Setzer's death, N.C. law barred white people from marrying anyone who had even one great-grandparent who was of African or American Indian descent. Some states had a one-drop rule, Watson said, so that if a person had any African ancestry, they were considered black, no matter what they looked like.

There were likely no laws against black people living among white homes, Watson said, but social custom frequently took care of that.

In some towns, it was customary for white people's homes to face the street, while black people's houses stood in the alleys, making for a salt-and-pepper mix throughout town. The older the town, the better likelihood of integration in housing, Watson said, because white people wanted their cooks close by.

Setzer's race controlled his life, despite his new color. In the condescending attitudes of the day, white people treated his positive traits as exceptional for a black person.

"He was a negro of unusual intelligence," wrote the Hickory Daily Record, "honest by instinct, polite and respectful to all white people and loyal to his race."

[The Charlotte Observer, Sunday, February 19, 2006, page 5V]