Samuel Morphis was born circa 1826, as an enslaved person in the household of James M. Morphis. He was raised by his enslaved mother (Emma?) but did not know his father (who was likely his owner, James, or a close relative of James's).
When James Morphis died, Sam was to be sold. So, at age 16, Sam ran away from the plantation (in southern Orange County or northern Chatham County) and made his way to Chapel Hill. Sam got a job as waiter in a boarding house and soon befriended several UNC students and professors. Even though he was not present at the auction, he was still sold. However, his new owner, James Newlin, allowed Sam to "buy his time," and with hard work and assistance from several of his student friends he was able to save up $550 and purchase himself from Newlin.
Circa 1846, Morphis was married to an enslaved "house-girl" of William H. Battle
's, named Lizzie, on the porch of the Battle house. They were married by the Rev. William Mercer Green
. Their marriage was recorded in the Chapel of the Cross's marriage record.
He was described by Kemp Battle as "very handsome, full of humor, an expert manager of horses."
In 1858, Sam asked the North Carolina State Legislature to officially free him, even traveling to Raleigh to plead his own case. He, however, failed at this, as his request was denied, even though he had the backing of many prominent North Carolinians.
According to the 1870 U.S. federal census, Samuel Morphis was at the time living in Chapel Hill. Also living in his household was his wife Lizzie, daughter Alice, and his son (who was two-months old and listed as "Baby Morphis"). Also living in the household was Catie Lewis, a seventy-five-year-old black woman “confined to bed.” In the 1880 census, Sam is 52 years old, Lizzie is 53; their eight year-old son Emerson Charles, nine year-old daughter Adda, six year-old son Emerson, and three year-old daughter Ador were listed as living with them.
His circa 1896 Autobiography of a Negro
(as transcribed) describes part of his life story, some recollections, and his feelings about his lot in life.
According to Kemp Battle, in later years Sam's "mind became more and more feeble, his little property disappeared, and he would have been sent to the County Home
to die the death of a pauper, if one of his daughters had not taken him into her humble home."
The famous playwright and UNC alumnus Paul Green
used parts of Morphis's autobiography in his 1927 Pulitzer Prize winning play In Abraham’s Bosom