Guide to the Josephine Napoleon Leary Papers, 1873-1988

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The Josephine Napoleon Leary Papers (1873-1988) contain financial and legal papers, correspondance, artictectural and biographical materials, and photographs pertaining to the life and business/real estate ventures of Josephine N. Leary, and her daughter Clara Ryan, of Edenton, North Carolina.

Collection Details

Collection Number
Josephine Napoleon Leary papers
Leary, Josephine Napoleon, 1856?-1923.
0.5 Linear Feet
David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Materials in English

Collection Overview

The Josephine Napoleon Leary Papers are the personal and business papers of Josephine Leary, an African-American business woman of Edenton, North Carolina. Josephine Leary, born into slavery and freed at age 9, owned several properties in Edenton until her death in 1923. The Legal Papers contain the legal documents pertaining to the properties Leary bought and sold, as well as the legal arrangements of her estate. Deeds and legal papers related to mortgage payments compromise the majority of this series. The Financial Papers include her the financial information related to her properties and her barber business. They include bills and receipts, insurace papers, bank information, and cancelled checks paid from Leary to various parties. The Correspondence series contains correspondence to Leary, her daughter Clara Ryan, Clara's husband Noah Ryan, and Clara's son, Percy Reeves. The correspondence contains business matters, letters from lawyers, personal letters, and letters pertaining to the estate of Leary. The Personal Writings are a few undated writings from Leary. The Biographical/Historical and Architecture and Maps series contain information related to Edenton and to the Leary legacy. These papers are partially made up of documents from Leary's lifetime, but also include later biographical secondary sources about Edenton and Leary. The Maps and Architectural series contains the original plans for the J.N. Leary building that still stands on Broad Street in Edenton. The final sereis is 13 photographic negatives and one photograph. These photographs are of Leary, her family, as well as Leary's grandson, Percy Reeves, and his family.

More Biographical / Historical Info


The Josephine Napoleon Leary Papers are arranged into seven series: Legal Papers, Financial Papers, Coorespondence, Personal Papers, Biographical/Historical Material, Maps and Architetural Materials, and Photographs. The Financial Papers series is further divided into 6 files: 3 Receipts and Bills files, Bank Records, Insurance Papers, and Cancelled Checks. Additionally, the Photographs series contains 14 photographs, described individually.

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How to Cite

[Identification of item], Josephine Napoleon Leary Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Contents of the Collection

1. Legal Papers, 1857-1923

5 folders

Legal documents pertaining to the buying of properties and mortgages. The majority of the documents are deeds of trust on the properties Leary bought and eventually sold. The legal documents also include the death certificate of Josephine Leary and the clerk superior court's appointment of Clara Ryan as the administer of Leary's estate. The legal documents after Leary's death are primarily concerned with Clara Ryan's payments of Leary's debts. Folder 4 contains preservation photocopies of several deeds and Leary's death certificate.

Legal Papers, 1873-1898
Box 1
Legal Papers, 1900-1919
Box 1
Legal Papers, 1906-1907
Box 1
Legal Papers, 1921-1926
Box 1
Legal Papers (copies), 1875-1923
Box 1

2. Financial Papers, 1901-1935

6 folders

The Financial Papers series is made up of Josephine Leary's business and personal financial records. The bulk of the records deal with her business and properties, including bank records, insurance papers, mortgage checks, and bill payments. The records also include documents after Leary's death that highlight the financial turmoil Leary left her daughter Clara Ryan.

The Financial Papers series is separated into four subseries, Receipts and Bills, Bank Records, Insurance Papers, and Cancelled Checks.

Receipts and Bills 1901-1919

Receipts of Josephine Leary's payments on her mortgages.

Box 1
Receipts and Bills 1920-1928

Josephine Leary's and Clara Ryan's tax receipts, receipt for purchased building materials, receipt for electric, water and ice bills.

Box 1
Receipts and Bills 1934-1935, n.d.

Receipts of Clara Ryan's business purchases, notices to Clara Ryan for unpaid bills, court of Edenton payment cards, telephone rental bill, receipt for the purchase of a casket, cement, funeral and herse, as well as a deposit list for a grave marker for Josephine Leary.

Box 1
Bank Records, 1907-1927

The bank records contain Josephine Leary's 1913-1917 bank account ledger, deposit slips from Josephine Leary and her daughter Clara Ryan, and a deposit slip from Clara Reeves. All bank records are from the Bank of Edenton, NC.

Box 1
Insurance Papers, 1919-1935

The insurance papers include Clara Reeves' receipt book with payment slips for Metropolitan Life Insurance, Wood and Warren Insurance for Josephine Leary's estate, Noah Ryan's receipt book for Metropolitan Life Insurance, a Harford Fire Insurance Company policy for the barber shop, three Virginia Fire and Marine Insurance Company policies for Leary's property on Church Street, a receipt of Clara Ryan's recieved payment from Gate City Life Insurance Company, and lapsed insurance notifications.

Box 1
Cancelled Checks, 1915-1925

Checks stamped paid from both Josephine Leary and her daughter Clara Ryan's payments to various people and businesses. Also includes an empty checkbook with payment stubs.

Box 1

3. Correspondence, 1894-1935

4 folders

Correspondence inclucles letters to Josephine Leary, her daughter Clara Ryan, Noah Ryan, Clara's husband, and Percy Reeves, a later owner of the Leary's barber shop. Letters to Josephine Leary include lawyers Pruden, Bond, and Holland's letters related to Leary's properties, a letter from Mrs. R.D. James, and a letter from M.N. Sawyer, a real estate dealer. Letters to Clara Ryan include correspondence with her husband Noah Ryan, a letter from the NC Department of Revenue making Clara the Administer of Josephine Leary's estate, a letter from her nieces Mallie and Lulu, her cousin Gary A. Jones, a letter from the Rich Square Institute offering her a job, letters from lawyers concerning her mother's estate, as well as letters from friends, including a Christams card from Mr. and Mrs. Garrett. Letters to Noah Ryan include several letters from lawyers and the Undertaker's Supply Co. about late paymeets. There are also two letters to Percy Reeves, one from his daughter Maggie and one from Floris.

Correspondence, 1894-1922
Box 1
Correspondence, 1923-1935
Box 1
Correspondence, undated
Box 1
Correspondence (copies), 1894-1935
Box 1

4. Personal Writings, undated

1 folders

This series includes two personal writings by Leary, as well as a ledger of names and addresses.

Personal writings, undated
Box 1

5. Biographical/Historical Information, 1893-1988

2 folders

The biographical/historical information is documents related to the history of both Edenton and Josephine Leary. This series contains a pamphlet from Central Barber Shop (Leary's business), a ticket to the Edenton Amusement Blub banquet at the Colored Hotel, two historic Edenton brochures that feature Leary's properties, a biography of Leary's assumed father, an article about the economic and social development of Edenton, an article about the Edenton fire and the "Cheapside" neighborhood, a copy of the inheritence record that transfered property deeds to Clara Ryan, a copy of a 1932 story on the Leary barber shop, an article about Leary's properties, and a copy of the Representative House and Prominent Men of Edenton, NC, many of whom Josephine Leary sold and bought properties with.

Biographical/Historical Information, 1893-1988
Box 1
Biographical/Historical Information (copies), 1923
Box 1

6. Maps and Architectural Materials, 1894-1991

2 folders

The maps and architectural materials contain the plans for the J.N. Leary Building on South Broad Sreet in Edenton and a building permit for Noah Ryan to build on Leary's property. They also include an announcement by the Edenton Women's Club of a publication about the architecture in Edenton, titled "Edenton: An Architectural Portrait."

Maps and Architectural Materials, 1894-1991
Box 1
Maps and Architectural Materials (copies), 1894-1991
Box 1

7. Photographs, 1890-1935, undated

14 photographs

Photographs of Josephine Leary and her family.

Photograph of Uncle Walter, undated
Box 1
Negative #1, 1920

Photograph of Mallie McDonald.

Box 1
Negative #12, c. 1917

Josephine Leary in Washington D.C.

Box 1
Negative #3, 1927

Miss Fannie Badham (principal of Edenton Grade School), Miss Santoria Leigh, and Mr. Percy Reeves taken one year before Percy and Santoria were married.

Box 1
Negative #6, undated

Unknown subject.

Box 1
Negative #7, 1913

Percy Reeves at age 16.

Box 1
Negative #2, c. 1900-1910

Josephine Leary.

Box 1
Negative #13, 1890

Clara Reeves.

Box 1
Negative #9, 1926

Percy Reeves.

Box 1
Negative #8, c. 1925

Percy Reeves and Santoria Leigh, later married.

Box 1
Negative #10, 1926

Percy Reeves.

Box 1
Negative #11, 1935

Percy Reeves and Clara Reeves.

Box 1
Negative #4, undated

Uncle Walter written on the back of the photograph.

Box 1
Negative #5, c. 1916

Octavius William, brother of Josephine Leary, and his wife Mazuria.

Box 1

Historical Note

Josephine Napoleon Leary was born into slavery in Williamston, North Carolina around 1856. At age 9, she was freed from slavery. In 1873 she married her husband Sweety Archer Leary and they moved to Edenton, North Carolina as barbers. Mrs. Leary, skillfully navigating the real estate market, acquired 6 properies in Edenton by 1881 in the "Cheapside" historic district. In 1893 Edenton, and the "Cheapside" district, experienced a fire that destroyed all of Leary's investments. After the fire, in 1894, Leary rebuilt 421-423-425 South Broad Street. This signature building still bears "J.N. Leary 1894" in downtown Edenton. Leary became sick with cancer at the turn of the 20th century and the cost of medical care forced her to sell several of her properties. Leary died in 1923. Three of her properties were inherited by her daughter, Clara Ryan, but they were mired in debt and unpaid mortgages.

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The Josephine Napoleon Leary Papers were purchased by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library in 1991. Accession 2002-0125 was received as a gift from the Historic Edenton State Historic Site in 2002.

Processing Information

Acc. 91/153 and addition 02-125 are described in this finding aid.

Processed by Melissa Delbridge, May 1991. Accessions joined and finding aid created by Heather McGowan, September 2017.