John Brown, THE John-Brown-goes-marching-on-John Brown, is one of the reasons I got into documenting my family history. I am a sometimes writer and nearly fifteen years ago I wanted to write a play about John Brown. I was in love with his wild story, and the team of free and enslaved comrades that fought alongside him in his daring raid on Harpers Ferry to free enslaved people in 1859. As you probably know, Brown’s freedom fighting was one of the last sparks to ignite the Civil War. But after many attempts, outlines, and false starts I just couldn’t tell the story. I zeroed in on Emperor Shields Green, said to be the son of a prince, formerly enslaved, one-time valet to Frederick Douglass. Another compelling story, but nope, I had writer’s block. Finally, I realized it was my own family’s story I wanted to tell during this pivotal moment in history and so I dived into genealogy headfirst.
I tell that story at the end of my time on the Flying Carpet Theatre Company’s latest podcast, “Family History Discussion Series,” which centers around the exploration of family history and genealogy. The podcast includes talks with “amateur genealogists” with the goal of discovering common themes that unite different groups of people. I joined my fellow Swarthmore College alum and FCTC Artistic Director Adam Koplan and Pete Candler for episode 4 last week.
Why is the Atlanta-based theater company investigating family history? Because the FCTC team are exploring “conversations about oppressors, bystanders, victims, the hidden, the brash, the loud, the hard work, the racism, the brave exodus, and everything else that makes up the our American patchwork quilt…Because it’s all in our family stories…”
“In the fourth episode, series hosts Adam and Pete interview Joel Johnson. Joel Johnson is a Black writer and veteran ad agency executive. He has worked in agencies in New York, Chicago, and London and currently co-owns Admirable Devil, an agency in Washington, DC. He’s researched his family lineage since 2005 and recently began telling the stories of his ancestors on his blog, Struggle and Progress. He is primarily interested in researching the lives of his free and enslaved Black ancestors prior to and throughout emancipation, and during the period known as Reconstruction. His research has identified his biological European ancestors as well. Joel is a graduate of Swarthmore College, Goldsmiths College in London, and Northwestern University.”
Recently I was a guest on RESEARCH AT THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES & BEYOND, a podcast on Blog Talk Radio with professional genealogist and author, Bernice Bennett. I’ve long been a fan of her genealogy podcast, and have frequently worked with Bernice to conduct research in the National Archives. In our brief discussion, I shared my 4x great-grandmother Harriet Riggs’ story. I explained how traditional and genetic genealogy led to a deeper understanding of my enslaved ancestor in Bulloch County, Georgia. I discussed how research into county records revealed Harriet and her family had five enslavers, all in the same town of Statesboro, GA, and their transition to freedom from clues within two key documents, an estate sale in 1847, and a labor contract with the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1866. You can read Harriet’s story here.
Just over 100 years ago, the “Spanish Flu”, an especially virulent 2nd wave of influenza swept the planet. Transmitted by soldiers from Europe after World War I ended to the US, South Africa, and Latin America. The flu claimed millions of lives between 1918 and 1920. Sadly, the flu’s spread through the military was kept secret and under wraps, because there was an active theater of war. Only Spanish journalists could report on it, hence the name. So many were caught up by a widespread lack of knowledge and deliberate ignorance. Today, Covid-19, a hundred years later, is marching across the planet, but we’re fortunate to have a more widespread knowledge, and increasingly, a coordinated effort to flatten the curve of transmission.
Naturally, the recent news made me think about my family their lives during a pandemic. There is at least one documented victim of the flu on the Bobo line of my family, my 2nd great-aunt Annie Bobo-Thomas. In 1920, Aunt Annie Bobo-Thomas was living in Los Angeles with her husband. She was 26 years old, and a court stenographer. She had been there for less than a year when she abruptly returned to her family’s home in the Booker T. Washington Addition neighborhood in Dallas, Texas in May. The Booker T. Washington Addition in Precinct 1 in Dallas was near Flora Ave and McKinney Ave just a few blocks north of downtown Dallas. Anna was very ill, as reported in the Dallas Express (a black newspaper published from 1892 – 1970). The Dallas Morning News reported that the flu had burned itself out by the end of 1919, so was it the Spanish flu?
During this period, Anna’s father Dave “Lee” Bobo worked at the Central Christian Church in Dallas as a Sextant and custodian, her mother Bessie Demings-Bobo was a maid at nearby Southern Methodist University. Annie, the namesake of her grandmother Annie Turner Demings, was the oldest child, one of nine (six survived). None of her family or siblings appear to have caught the flu.
In 1918, World War 1 ended in November and returning troops from Europe brought the Spanish Flu with them to a number of American cities. When the Spanish Flu hit the Dallas, Texas area particularly at Army Camps like Fort Dick, that were full of young men who had been training to fight in the War. The second wave of Spanish Flu was a mutation that hit young men and women hard, with some victims dying within 24 hours. September saw it’s first quarantines. Dr. A.W. Carnes, Dallas’s health officer at the time underestimated the flu, and local officials waffled against his recommendations to start taking action. The Mayor and Chambers of Commerce argued and eventually kept cinemas, churches, and schools open, ultimately worsening the effects of the impact until mid-October when several deaths and hundreds of victims pouring into emergency rooms threatened to overwhelm the city’s health infrastructure. Dallas only had 150,000 people living there at the time. Over 456 people died in the city by year’s end. Ultimately, more U.S. soldiers died of Spanish Flu (63,114), than in combat during the war (53,402).
Annie’s death certificate shows that she had contracted pulmonary tuberculosis, “TB”, while living in Los Angeles. She suffered from the bacterial infection from May to July in 1920, but complications from the flu hastened her to her death. Perhaps it was during her work as a stenographer, that she contracted TB. She would have been exposed continuously to people as she transcribed notes into shorthand, in a Los Angeles County Court. While recovering in Dallas, she got the flu, and as we’ve learned more recently, viruses tend to target the most vulnerable among us. While it’s not precisely clear that the strain she had was Spanish Flu, the timing aligns.
Annie Bobo Thomas died on July 14, 1920, and was buried on Dallas’s southside in the Woodlawn Cemetery. Her grandfather John Bobo was previously buried there in 1917. Later, her father Dave, grandmother Alice, and uncle A.K. Bobo would also be buried at Woodlawn.
According to another report in the Dallas Express, before she died, my great-grandfather, David Newton Bobo, 21 years old and married, traveled from Chester, PA in June, home to Dallas. Likely, he was called by his mother to see his older sister, in anticipation that they might lose her.
The lessons of the Spanish Flu were profound. Studies by the CDC about how over 40 American cities responded to the 1918 pandemic lead to the creation of pandemic protocols and policies that protect us today. Key was the many insights learned about social distancing as a communal effort to stop the spread of a virus. During the Spanish Flu pandemic, where one city shut down, lives were saved, where another went ahead blindly, like Dallas or Philadelphia, far more lives were lost.
The point of understanding history, even family history is not to drum up nostalgia or melancholy for the past, but to learn from it. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Los Angeles had shut down the courts during the pandemic? What could have happened had the greedy Mayor and myopic Chamber of Commerce in Dallas had heeded their health officials? Or if Anna was able to recover in isolation. Would she have survived or was it already too late?
What we are presented with today is not exactly unprecedented, though it may feel that way to us. We have history and its lessons to draw upon. We know it takes a community, not just the government to fight a pandemic. We don’t have to wonder what might have been. We have to act now for what could be.
Please, stay home, stay safe, and help flatten the curve of Covid-19.
Dallas County Death Certificate, Annie Bobo Thomas, 1920.
The Dallas Express, 29 May 1920, Annie Bobo Thomas.
The Dallas Express, 12 June 1920, David Bobo Jr.
The Dallas Morning News, 1920.
Tarrant, David. “100 years ago, the deadliest flu of all time devastated Dallas as it swept through the world” The Dallas News, October 2018.
It is April 1847, in Statesboro, Georgia in the low country.
On an unpaved dusty street in front of a two-story log building, the rough and tumble courthouse of Bulloch County, not far from wiregrass fields and endless rows of rice. Below a longleaf pine, a 27-year-old enslaved black woman named Harriet clutched her children close to her in a throng of indifferent white men and women covered in red clay dust.
Could no one sense her dread but her children? Daniel, 5 years old cried softly into the folds of the roughspun woolen dress. He didn’t know what was wrong, just that something had his Mama scared. Isaac stared off into the distance, his face simmering with anger and defiance that belied a 10-year-old’s age. Peter hid behind his mother while she clutched her infant, Susan, to her breast. The girl was silent, staring into her mother’s face with a depth of curiosity and wonder only known to babies as if she were asking, “what’s next?”
Indeed, my 4x great-grandmother well understood what happened next in these situations. Her name was Harriet, and she and her children stood outside the front door of the Bulloch County on the auctioneer’s block. Beside her, the auctioneer likely conferred with her present owner and enslaver, Dicey Mikell, age 41, formerly Dicey Donaldson, and before that, Dicey Neville. Dicey’s first husband was James Donaldson, farmer, and son of a local preacher born in Scotland who founded several Primitive Baptist Churches in the county. Her second husband, David Mikell, had recently died and she was in dire need to get her business affairs in order. A two-time widower, her second marriage only lasted three years, and now she had children from both marriages to care for, and an enslaved family. At the same place, and three months later, Dicey Mikell would sell the entirety of David Mikell’s estate as well. But now, she was faced with how to get cash, and to get it quickly. She was going to sell off her enslaved.
The auctioneer would have called for order, as a small press of local farmers and merchants from Bulloch county, and perhaps a slave trader or two would begin the bidding. Harriet and Dicey both noticed an eager man step forward in the crowd. Sharing a look, tears began to stream down Dicey’s face for it was her salvation, her brother, Thomas Neville. Harriet knew him. She did not beg, but she stared Thomas in the face and uttered a few simple words, “my children…my children.”
Despite fierce rounds of bidding, again, and again, Thomas Neville outbid the surrounding crowd. First, he bid on Harriet and her child, packaged together, winning at $797, a stunning figure for this small Georgia backwater deep in the low country. Then, in turn, he bid on Isaac, $493. Next came Daniel, $421. Finally, he began to bid for Peter, but either he was running low on cash, resolve or both. Zachariah Bennett, a wily old farmer kept going and won Peter for $450. I imagine Harriet shrieked and Dicey gasped in defeat. Isaac pulled on his Mama’s hand and whispered that old Zach’s farm was not far away, she might still get to see him at Christmas. Then the auctioneer sold off more land in the estate of James Donaldson, Dicey’s first husband. The morning produced $2,308 in sales, of which Dicey kept a large portion.
Thomas Neville stepped forward to whisper something to his sister Dicey. Then Dicey turned to Harriet ordering her and children, without Peter, to follow her home. Harriet kissed and hugged her boy, and then watched as Zachariah lead the screaming child away. Thomas turned to Harriet and told her to continue to be attentive and subservient to his sister Dicey, but that she and her family now belonged to him, now and forever, and walked away.
But Thomas would be wrong. Dead wrong, for history had already set in motion the impending conflict that would free Harriet and her kin, and begin to set the scales of injustice right. A year before, Dred and Harriet Scott initiated a suit for freedom in the St. Louis Circuit Court. Under Missouri statutes, the suit was allowed based on their previous residence in a free territory (Wisconsin) before return to the slave state of Missouri. The same year, Frederick Douglas, himself a self-emancipated man, had founded The North Star to further spread his eloquent brand of abolitionism. And Liberia, on the west coast of Africa, was founded by free and formerly enslaved black men and women.
The remarkable account of the estate sale of Harriet, my 4th great-grandmother, once buried in the courthouse records of Bulloch County reads as follows:
“To Account of a Sale held on the sixth day of April 1847 before the Court House door in Bulloch County by Dicey Mikell, Administrator on the Estate of James Donaldson, deceased
Harriet, a woman +
Susan, a child……..Thomas Nevill $797.00
Isaac a Boy…………Thomas Nevill 423.00
Peter a Boy………..Zacarahia Bennet 450.00
Daniel a Boy………Thomas Nevills 421.00″
Estate Sale of James Donaldson, Sr. Administrator Dicey Mikell, 6 April, 1847, Bulloch County, Georgia
Why did Thomas Neville step in? To bail out his sister? To secure a good investment? At this time, enslaved people often made up the majority of the wealth of enslavers, more valuable than land or nearly any other item they could own or purchase. They were useful for obtaining credit as they could be mortgaged. They brought labor and status and more.
As I shared in The Riggs Family: New Kin (Part 1), I believed Harriet’s first enslaver was James Donaldson, however, further research produced the bill of sale that led to the discovery of the Neville family’s deep involvement in Harriet’s life, and to a stunning revelation about Harriet’s parentage through genetic genealogy.
Harriet in slavery, a Timeline
1790 – John Oliver Neville, age 46, (formerly of Beaufort County, NC) gives to son Jacob Neville Sr., age 21, 200 acres of land in Nevils Creek in Burke County, Georgia. John also donates land for Nevils Creek Primitive Baptist Church.
1796 – Bulloch County is formed out of Burke, Screven, and St. George’s Parish.
1803 – John Neville dies, age 60.
1806 – Dicey Neville born (this date is probably earlier), daughter of Jacob Neville Sr. b. 1769 and Nancy Henderson, in Bulloch County, GA.
1810 – 1820 – Harriet (my 4x great grandmother, enslaved) is born in GA, likely on the Neville (51 – 61 y.o.) plantation on Lotts Creek.
1814 – March 17, Dicey Neville, a child bride, is married to James Donaldson (son of Robert Donaldson according to tax receipt). Both Dicey and James are mere children. Harriet moves to the Robert Donaldson plantation.
1814 – Abraham B. Riggs was born to Stephen Riggs and Rachel Martin in Bulloch, County Ga.
1815 – Frances Ann Mixon-Neville (wife of John Neville) dies, age 63.
1830 – Jacob Neville Sr. owns no slaves on the 1830 census.
1840 – James Donaldson has 3 slaves on the 1840 census (likely Harriet, Isaac, Daniel, and Peter). David Mikel owns no slaves on the 1840 census.
1831 – April 21, Dempsey Riggs b. 1808 (brother of Abraham) marries Frances Neville (daughter of Jacob Neville and Nancy Henderson).
1834 – Nov 6, Abraham B. Riggs marries Nancy Cannon.
1837 – 18 Dec, Harriet’s sonIsaac (enslaved) is born. Sometime after, Peter and Daniel are born.
1840 – James Donaldson dies. In his September estate inventory appears the following enslaved ancestors: Harriet, and inferred children Isaac, Peter, and Daniel (order appears to be an age order, Susan and Eliza are not yet born).
1844 – March 24, Dicey Neville Donaldson marries David Mikell. Harriet is living on the Mikell plantation.
1847 – David Mikell dies and his entire estate is sold to pay debts.
1847 – April 6, Dicey Neville Donaldson sells her enslaved on the Statesboro courthouse steps: Harriet, Susan, Isaac, and Daniel are sold to Jacob Neville’s son, Thomas Neville. Peter is sold to area planter Zachariah Bennett (Bennett has one 45 yo male slave in the 1860 census). Thomas Neville is Dicey’s brother. Thomas Neville technically owned Harriet and her family but clearly let them continue to live with Dicey.
1849 – Sept 5, Abraham B. Riggs marries 2x widow Dicey Neville Donaldson (presumably Nancy died). Dicey likely lived between 1847 and 1849, with her brother Thomas Neville.
1850 – Abraham B. Riggs has 5 slaves on the Slave Schedule (probably Harriet and her family), his wife Dicey is 44 yo.
1850 – Thomas Neville has 4 slaves on the Slave Schedule. Male 30, female 30, female 12, male 1 (doesn’t appear to be Harriet and her family).
1860 – Abraham B. Riggs (44) has 14 slaves in 2 cabins on the Slave Schedule. Dicey Riggs is 55 yo.
1865 – April, Nathaniel Riggs is born to Daniel Riggsand Audelia Parrish, my great-great-grandfather in District 1209 on Ansel Parrish’s plantation.
1865 – Last Confederate troops in Georgia surrender on May 12, 1865. Harriet and her family are freed. Take the surname Riggs.
1872 – Jacob Neville Sr. dies age 104.
Harriet Riggs by name, Neville by blood
The white Riggs family and Neville family of Bulloch County, Georgia were close by marriage and proximity. The area that John Neville (father of Jacob Neville Sr.) settled in Georgia, after moving from Nevil’s Creek in Beaufort, NC, was at one time several different counties. They included St. George’s Parish, Burke County, and Screven County. The area was carved from the said counties and became Bulloch County in 1796. John Neville is in the records of these various counties, however, he never actually moved.
In two plats from 1804 and 1819, show Jacob Neville and his family (and enslaved) resided on nearly a thousand acres along Boggy Branch and Lotts Creek in Bulloch. Along with the other Neville’s, this is likely where Harriet was born.
Jacob Neville 1769 – 1863 married Nancy “Nissy” Henderson 1780 – 1889
Thomas Neville 1808 – 1870
Delilah “Lilly” Neville 1806 –
Jacob “Jake” Neville Jr. 1812 – 1880
Phoebe Ann Neville 1825 – 1903
In 1849, Dicey Neville, daughter of Jacob Neville and Nancy Henderson, married A.B. Riggs (it was her 3rd marriage and produced no children). Abraham’s brother, Dempsey Riggs, son of Stephen Riggs and Rachel Martin, married Dicy’s sister Frances Neville. I believe Dicey Neville had dower slaves when she married James Donaldson in 1814. The 1830 census shows James owned no slaves prior to marrying Dicey. As I shared, after James Donaldson’s death Harriet and 3 of her 4 children were sold to Thomas Neville, Dicey’s brother. However, Harriet and her family stayed on with Dicey in the Riggs household. Wealthy, Abraham Riggs had 400 acres of land in 1860 and an estate worth $13,564, including 14 enslaved people living in two slave cabins, among them Harriet and her family.
Using genetic genealogy, I have uncovered several distant DNA matches who are direct descendants of Jacob Neville Sr. including his parents John Oliver Neville (Beaufort, NC clan) and Frances Ann Mixon (Effingham County, SC clan). Triangulation through Ancestry’s Thrulines tool shows these cousins confirm common ancestry. Not surprisingly, Jacob was Harriet’s biological father, no doubt her mother was a victim of rape in bondage. This DNA evidence further supports the timeline that Harriett and her children were dower slaves…originally enslaved by Jacob but given to James Donaldson’s estate as part of his daughter’s marriage to his future son-in-law.
And so now we know that Thomas Neville wasn’t just purchasing Harriet and her family. He was purchasing his father’s daughter, and his own nephews and niece, as well as bailing out his sister, and keeping the wealth of the family, in the family.
Some realizations occur to me. 1) Dicey had for several years, her enslaved half-sister Harriet waiting on her and her family. This reminds me of the story of Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha Skelton. Martha’s marriage to Jefferson included dozens of dower slaves, including Martha’s half-sister Sally Hemings. 2) Jacob Neville, though still living, did not come to Dicey’s rescue. Were they estranged? 3) Thomas Neville technically owned his half-sister Harriet and her family but clearly wanted them to continue to live with Dicey. 4) I can see now why Harriet and her family took the Riggs name instead of Dicey’s surname or the Donaldson’s. It wasn’t out of convenience. Would you take the surname of the woman and men who split up your family?
Next, freedom and prosperity
After the Civil War swept through southern Georgia, Harriet and her family found themselves, like many recently freed people, pondering “what’s next?” But they did not wait long. They had been working the Riggs plantation for nearly twenty years now. They knew how to farm corn, rice, wheat, and tobacco. They knew how to manage a household. They knew animal husbandry. They just needed a foothold to get started.
By February 1866, the Freedmen’s Bureau was on the ground in Georgia, probably sending representatives from the nearby Savannah Station, to counsel the people of Bulloch. Harriet Riggs (and two children, presumably Susan and Eliza), Isaac Riggs, Paul Riggs (probably Peter), along with Tom Williams, and Doris Hall (and her two children enter into a one-year labor contract in Bulloch County with the Freedmen’s Bureau to continue to live and work on Abraham B. Riggs plantation. Isaac was to receive $13 a month, food and clothing, Tom and Paul were to receive $8 per month, and Harriet and Doris food and clothing.
Paul Riggs likely dies soon after and is not present in the record afterward. Tom is probably not the same Tom (col, 21 y.o.) who also worked on Neville’s plantation. Tom Neville’s (col) birth date is derived from his voter registration in 1867. His surname is also Neville according to the 1866 poll tax.
Harriet in Reconstruction, a Timeline
1866 – Feb 6, Harriet Riggs, Isaac Riggs, Paul Riggs (probably Peter), along with Tom Williams, and Doris Hall enter into a labor contract with the Freedmen’s Bureau to continue to live and work on Abraham B. Riggs plantation.
1866 – Thomas Neville and Tom (colored) sign a labor contract in Bulloch County with the Freedmen’s Bureau to work Neville’s plantation. Witnesses include James Donaldson Jr.
1867 – Aug 15, Isaac Riggs and Tom Williams register to vote in Bulloch County. Isaac Riggs pays the 1867 poll tax.
1869, Feb 4, Eliza Saturday Riggs, Harriet’s daughter, marries Washington Hodges.
1869, Jun 1, Daniel Riggs applies for tax exemption on land he owns engaging a lawyer.
1870 – Oct 21, Thomas Neville dies.
1870 – Dec 4, Isaac Riggs purchases from Benjamin Wilson 100 acres.
1874 – Jun 25, Harriet Riggs dies. She is between 64 – 74 y.o. Her burial place is unknown.
1874 – The Willow Hill School is established on Daniel Riggs’s land
1876 – June, Isaac Riggs is threatened and beaten for opening and teaching at “Willie Hill”.
1879 – July 16, Elder Washington Hodges (husband of Eliza Saturday Riggs, daughter of Harriet) purchases from W.E. and Henry Parrish 229 acres.
1879 – Oct 28, Daniel Riggs purchases from David Bell 180 acres.
1883 – Sept 22, Elder Washington Hodges (husband of Eliza Saturday Riggs, daughter of Harriet) purchases from James Parrish 20 acres.
1885 – Jan 5, Daniel Riggs purchases from David Bird 115 acres.
1886 – Jul 12, Abraham B. Riggs, dies.
1895 – March, Daniel Riggs dies at age 53.
1897 – Jul 22, Isaac Riggs dies at age 59.
Harriet’s life during Reconstruction was markedly different.
Now, she chose when to rise in the morning, and when to sleep. No longer suffering under the yoke of Dicey and Abraham Rigg’s lash or order, she could breathe, cry, celebrate, even laugh whenever she wanted. She was reunited with her son Peter and watched her family begin to flower and flourish in freedom.
In just three years after emancipation, the Riggs family got access to capital through their PAID labor on Abraham Rigg’s plantation. Harriet’s sons purchased land of their own. They got credit, and mortgages and began to build their lives as free people. Her sons and daughter married and started their own families. In 1867, Isaac voted on the new Georgia Constitution, a requirement by the federal government that each Confederate state had to write and ratify a new state constitution. The military held massive voter registration drives and for the first time, black men and white men appeared alongside each other on voter rolls. The Georgia Constitution Convention had 33 African American delegates and 137 white delegates.
In 1869, my 3x great-grandfather Daniel Riggs was either given or acquired land which was obviously intended to be used for tax-free purposes like education or a church. He applied for a tax exemption that was published in the paper. He and his wife Audelia Parrish, brother Isaac Riggs and his daughter Georgiana would found The Willow Hill School in 1874, the same year that Harriet passed away.
Harriet’s final resting place may be on or near the grounds of the Nevils Creek Primitive Baptist Church where there is a single headstone, that of her white grandfather John Neville. The black congregants of Nevils Creek eventually left in 1879 when Aaron Munlin and several elders formed Banks Creek Primitive Church. Wherever she is buried, her blood and toil infuses the soil of Bulloch County and mixes with the descendants of so many.
I am an exceedingly lucky descendent of Harriet, and especially grateful for one David Beasley who lived in Statesboro in 1866. General Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea on the wain of the Civil War in Georgia destroyed several county courthouses and their records. According to The True Story of the Bulloch County Courthouse, “David Beasley, the Ordinary (lawyer), was aware of the approach of Sherman’s Army, and had heard that the soldiers were burning both private homes and public buildings. Mr. Beasley had the Bulloch County records removed from the courthouse and concealed near his home where they remained until the danger had passed.”
Without Beasley’s foresight, I would not have been able to tell Harriet’s story. Furthermore, I am deeply grateful to Dr. Alvin Jackson who told me in an interview in 2019 that he knew of a document that mentioned Harriet’s sale on the courthouse steps.
What is family? Is it a blood tie? Is it kinship? Though I have had no relationship with my ancestors (I didn’t know them) they are my family because I have found a connection with them through my feelings. When I learn about their lives, for better or for worse, I can’t help feel a bond with them. I count my living family now as extraordinarily tight, but in my life have seen how the relationships that make family come and go. Family is impermanent and often what we define.
Growing up in the industrial waterfront town of Chester, Pennsylvania, my father had a large and loving family, and yet he did not know his biological father, and his father’s kin, despite the fact that they were all around him, hidden in plain sight, his whole life. His biological father’s identity was a mystery. But he has always wanted to know more, as did I, and so we set out to use traditional and genetic genealogy to uncover what we could. In our research, we learned my biological grandfather had died in the 80s, and so while we could never know him personally, we did find his people, from their roots in the deep south to the lives they made in Chester after the great migration. And now, for the better, we have a relationship with them. Does that make them family?
Looking for Harriet
The white planter Abraham B. Riggs was not the first enslaver of my fourth great-grandmother, HarrietRiggs, and her children. **See The Riggs Family: Harriet Rigg’s Story (Part 2)** for an update on Harriet’s remarkable life. Despite this, she took Riggs as her surname after emancipation when she could have any she liked. Like many enslaved blacks in the Lowcountry of Georgia, Harriet faced the cruel chattel slavery system that traded human life like a gold watch or a prized axe, a valuable commodity to be passed along after death to provide wealth to those left behind. Harriet and her kin were victims of legacy-based enslavement, passed on paper as well as on the auction block of Statesboro, Georgia. Her first enslaver was an Scot by the name of James Donaldson, whose father followed the Ogeechee River south to Statesboro in the late 1700s. In 1834 Donaldson married a local girl Dicy Neville. When James died, Dicey Donaldson remarried in 1844 to David Mikell, and then when David died, Dicey once again remarried to Abraham B. Riggs on September 8, 1849. Through each marriage, Dicey inherited land and more enslaved people, and so Abraham and Dicey became Harriet’s last enslavers before emancipation.
Harriet, b. 1820 – d. 1874, my 4th great-grandmother had four known children all born before the Civil War with an unknown partner:
Isaac Riggs b. 18 Dec 1837 d. 22 July 1897
Daniel Samuel Riggs, b. 1842 d. 1895
Susan Riggs, b. 1846, death unknown
Eliza Saturday Riggs, b. Jan. 1857 death unknown
Harriet’s children’s father may have gone by the surname Saturday, as her daughter Eliza listed her surname as Saturday on her 1869 marriage certificate to Washington Hodges.
One of Harriet’s enslavers, James Donaldson can be found in the 1830 Census for Bulloch County, between 15 and 19 years old at the time. In the 1840 Census, James has three slaves, one is a female between 10 and 23 years. In the 1850 and 1860 Census his son, James Donaldson Jr. b. 1829. James Jr. is in the 1870 and 1880 census so we can conclude it was James Donaldson Sr. definitely died sometime around 1840.
In the 1850 Slave Schedule for Bulloch County, Abraham Riggs is found enslaving five souls, Harriet almost certainly among them. Abraham was born in 1814 to Stephen and Rachel Riggs in Statesboro. He was married first to Nancy Cannon, then remarried Dicey Donaldson at age 35. He had several children with Nancy, none with Dicey. Abraham Riggs owned Riggs’ Old Mill and his house still stands on Cypress Lake Road across from the lake’s dam according to his descendent Rebecca Riggs Boone. Harriet and her family no doubt lived on the Mill grounds until emancipation. Abraham’s parents sold to their neighbor Jordan Lewis 500 acres of land in two transactions in 1817. Upon Abraham’s death in 1884, he willed his land, some 200 acres between Big Lotts Creek and Big Branch Creek to his sons Abram Jr. and Thomas Riggs. Abraham is buried in Lower Lotts Creek Church Cemetery along with several of his family members.
In 1870, Harriet is found living with her daughter Eliza (16) and son-in-law Washington Hodges (19) and a relative Dina Munlin (25). Her occupation was as a seamstress. In 1880, Harriet (60) is still living with the Hodges and her four grandchildren. The consensus on her death date is June 25, 1874, though her burial place is unknown. Just eight years after her death, her son-in-law Washington Hodges became Elder Washington Hodges and founded the Old Bethel Primitive Baptist Church in Statesboro. Several Riggs descendants are buried in the church cemetery.
How did I find my biological grandfather’s great-great-grandmother Harriet? Her identity, as well as that of an entire clan of intertwined families, began to emerge in dozens of DNA matches and my father’s DNA matches in the last several years. In 2019, I was finally able to isolate my father’s DNA from his mother’s (my grandmother), and it became clear the African American Riggs were the ancestors of my biological grandparents. Several surnames merged in Statesboro with two sets of common ancestors, Harriet Riggs, and Cain Parrish and his wife Isabella Donaldson. Statesboro, about an hour West of Savannah Georgia has a rich history and is well-researched. Fortunately, the Riggs and Parrish family histories are well-documented in family trees by numerous family historians and amateur sleuths like myself. In particular, the remarkable work of Dr. Alvin Jackson, also a descendant of Harriet Riggs, has become a useful guide to antebellum Statesboro’s black community. Dr. Jackson’s remarkable life’s work has been to educate, research, and preserve the story of the legacy of his family and community. He has collected thousands of obituaries and funeral programs of black elders (read them here) from Statesboro, conducted hundreds of interviews that have resulted in digital collections at the Georgia Southern University And he has worked hard to preserve the cultural history of one of area’s seminal colored school founded byHarriet’s children during Reconstruction, the Willow Hill School.
A willow bends but does not break
The Willow Hill School was founded in 1874 by former slaves, initially on land donated by my 3rd great-grandparents Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish (Daniel was my fourth great-grandmother Harriet Riggs’ son). The school was in existence for 125 years; the longest for any school in Bulloch County, Georgia. In 2005, concerned citizens of Statesboro and several trustees founded the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center to preserve The Willow Hill School. A fount of knowledge, Dr. Jackson is the Chairman of the Center.
“A little history – Sometime after the “Great Surrender,” a group of former slaves, lead by Moses, Andy and Sam Parrish, Andy Donaldson and his sisters, Mary, Dorah and Isabelle and Moriah, along with their sons, good friends and in-laws, saw a great need for their children to get an education. The group established the first community/family school (1874-1999) for colored children in Bulloch County, GA and called it the “Willie Hill School” in 1874 after the son of Daniel and Audelia (Parrish) Riggs. The school grew, moving from the farm of Daniel and Audelia, Moses and Isabelle to its final location. It became officially known as Willow Hill School and was sold to the Bulloch County Board of Education for $18.00 in 1920 by Moses Parrish. In 1930 Julius Rosenwald of Sears & Roebuck donated a large sum of money to construct a new building on the school which served as the main academic building for about 20 years. In 1965 the Courts ordered the integration of the Bulloch County Schools and in 1969 Whites forced the closing of the Willow Hill school and other black schools because they refused to integrate. The Willow Hill was was reopened in 1971 but officially closed in 1999. There were more that 40 Colored/Negro community/family schools through Bulloch County but as the schools were integrated into the public school system, they were closed or lost their identity. “
from the website of Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center
The history of the Willow School has been covered widely in Georgia, accompanied by archival documents and photographs of the Riggs, Donaldson, Love, Parrish families who were instrumental to its founding.
Nathania B. Miles, a Riggs descendent has also researched The Willow Hill School and published in several forums and genealogical magazines.
“The Willie Hill school grew rapidly and in 1890 moved to Handy and Agnes (Parrish) Donaldson’s farm for five (5) years where it grew to a two room building. Then, 1895 the school moved to its final location on land donated by Moses and Isabella (Donaldson) Parrish, in Portal, Georgia. The Willie Hill School would evolve three times during its lifetime and become the only community/family school to become a part of the Bulloch County Board of Education in the 1920s. In 1999, the school officially closed its doors.”
Nathania B. Miles, Afrigeneas
The first teacher at the school was Georgianna Riggs, b. 1859, the daughter of my 3rd uncle Isaac Riggs and Harriet Lanier. Harriet Lanier was said to be the mulatto child of “old lawyer Johnson” according to Dr. Jackson. Georgianna was only 15 years old when she began to teach her cousins and community. A former slave herself, and the granddaughter of Harriet Riggs, she learned to read and write during a time when African Americans were outlawed from education. Dr. Erik Brooks, the author of Defining Their Destiny: The Story of the Willow Hill School, writes, “Most likely, Georgianna Riggs learned how to read from the slave owner’s children as they ‘played school.’ She was too young to carry out the duties of plantation work as a slave. The other possibility is that she was educated at one of the underground schools in the Bulloch County or Savannah area.”
Georgianna taught the children to read and write, math and bible-reading. Her father Isaac Riggs was also a teacher at the school, as well as her cousin The Willie Riggs. Willie Riggs was the son of Daniel and Audelia Riggs. Willie later traveled to Atlanta and there graduated from Atlanta Bible College (later Morehouse College) in 1894 before returning to teach at Willow Hill.
Unfortunately, the prejudices of the white community of Bulloch County were vast and emboldened by the rise of the Klu Klux Klan. Throughout Reconstruction, colored education in the south came under fierce attack. Whites wanted the black population of the South docile, their station reduced, and back under the heels of racist politicians. At the Willow School, Harriet’s son Isaac was targeted for terror in 1876.
Despite the compromise of 1877 that withdrew the last federal troops from the South to protect recently emancipated blacks and free black communities, blacks would not bend against the onslaught of terror. The Willow School persisted even as the violence escalated throughout the south.
The Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal counsel to the poor, calculates that there were 3,959 lynchings in the South from the end of the Reconstruction era in 1877 to 1950. However, Captain Robert Smalls, later Representative Smalls of Charleston, SC, a black Civil War hero and public figure, stood up in the state capitol Columbia in 1895 and proclaimed that nearly 53,000 African Americans had been killed since Emancipation…in just thirty years. This staggering number included Paul Reed and Will Cato of Statesboro.
There are at least four documented acts of terror in Statesboro between Reconstruction and the turn of the century, not including the infamous lynching case of Paul Reed and Will Cato, in retaliation for the alleged murder of four members of the Hodges family (a white family) in a house fire in 1904. With over 1000 white onlookers (including men, women, and children) Reed and Cato were burned alive without mercy in a forest in Statesboro. After the lynching, four more blacks were murdered in the aftermath. Black citizens were routinely attacked, beaten and whipped. It is reported that many black families left Statesboro soon after for nearby Portal. Many left the state. Not a single person was brought to justice for the lynchings.
It was against this backdrop of racial terror, the sons of my third great-grandparents began to pick up their families and leave town. Perhaps, like blues singer Blind Willie McTell, they got the Statesboro Blues.
Delia on the Parrish Plantation
Audelia “Delia” Parrish whose family is well established in Statesboro, was born in 1858. She married Daniel Samuel Riggs, Harriet’s son. My third great-grandmother Audelia was formerly enslaved by Ansel Parrish a prominent slave owner in Bulloch Co, the son of Henry Parrish and Nancy Williams. Records indicate Delia Parrish was born to Cain Parrish b. 1810 and Isabella b. 1822, all in Bulloch County. On Ancestry, I have a few 6th – 7th cousin DNA matches who have in their trees the white Parrish family. This means we share an ancestor, and very likely Cain Parrish was the mulatto son of Henry Parrish.
Cain Parrish m. Isabella children:
Lucinda b. 1834
Hannah b. 1840
Moses P. b. 1842
Samuel b. 1844
Andrew b. 1850
Agnes b. 1856
Audelia b. 1858
Cain Jr. b. 1864
Henry Parrish received two grants of land in what is now Candler County, and on one built a millpond in Statesboro where Bay Branch Creek and Lotts Creek come together in early 1800s. His son Ansel built his own home a mile west of the creek on a road that branched off Monk’s Ford. He also built a large millpond there. Ansel married on March 3, 1814, and ultimately had 18 children. Audelia lived with her seven brothers and sisters, and parents on the Parrish settlement.
“By Bulloch County standards, Ansel was a very large slave holder. He housed them in a long string of cabins stretching back on a quarters road toward the mill. But rather than having them cooking in their individual cabins with resulting deficiency diseases such as scurvy and pellagra, he provided for them in common, feeding them in a big dining shed back of his house where two responsible women presided. By the time of the Civil War this population had grown so large it took a beef a week to feed them, as well as hogs, goats, game, fish, corn, potatoes, vegetables, rice, syrup and molasses, all produced on the place. He produced rice in large quantities on an island between the forks of the creek where he could raise and lower the level of the water with the sluice gates of the pond. When word came of Sherman’s approach (during the Civil War), old Ansel, then seventy-six years old, sent his people to secure the stock in the swamps and hummocks of the creek. How well they succeeded can be seen by his inventory when he died the following July. That inventory counted 5 horses and mules in addition to the fine saddle horse stolen by his black sheep son the night he died, cattle, hogs (and outlying hogs) sheep, goats, fowls.”
Rita Turner Hall, Lest It All Gets Away From Us
Audelia Riggs who may have also gone by Emma lived on the rice plantation during enslavement, and later with her husband and children in an area described as swampy and full of briars and pokeweed in Statesboro after emancipation. Given that Ansel cultivated rice, and the proximity to the Georgian coast and Ogeechee river, the Riggs family may have been Gullah Geechee, though there is no direct evidence of this.
Audelia Parrish and Daniel S. Riggs had 12 children including:
Nathaniel b. 1865
William Henry b. 1868
James R. b. 1871
Agnes b. 1874
Martha b. 1876
Solomon H. b. 1878
Emma b. 1879
Benjamin b. 1883
Rose b. 1890
Pearl R. b. 1892
Thomas Jefferson b. 1894
Maude b. 1895
In 1864 when General Tecumseh Sherman’s army came marching into Statesboro, during their infamous March to the Sea, they found a pretty pitiful sight while foraging for supplies. No large buildings, a couple of whiskey and turpentine shacks, barren fields, a log courthouse which they promptly burned, and empty farms. Sherman’s men raided several farms mercilessly for supplies. With no railroad, Statesboro was a somewhat impoverished area and didn’t start to prosper until the late 1890s as a town, becoming a large producer of Sea Island Cotton and mules.
Remarkably, by 1869, just three years after emancipation, Daniel Riggs and his family acquired land according to tax assessments. Clearly, they were busy working their farm, and perhaps under contracts with Ansel Parrish’s family coordinated by the Freemen’s Bureau. In an article in the Milledgeville Federal Union newspaper, Daniel’s lawyer, C. A. Sorrier, sought an exemption status from taxation on his land.
In 1882, the state assessed that the total value of Daniel Rigg’s property, which included a farm, 115 acres of land, and various animals to be worth $376. His brother Isaac had 105 acres assessed at $750.
Many nice things
Several remarkable things took place in 1889, the Eiffel Tower opened, Vincent Van Gogh painted Starry Night, the great land rush created Oklahoma City, a city of 10,000 – in a single day. Montana, South and North Dakota and Washington became states showing just how very young indeed the country really was. And on a sunny but crisp Tuesday morning in March, Agnes Riggs and Johnson Rozier were married by Rev. Washington Hodges. Agnes, the 17-year-old daughter of Daniel and Audelia Riggs, was waited on by her cousin Henry, brother Willie, Sarah Parrish, and Maggie Riggs. In the afternoon they took a fine buggy ride about the neighborhood of Blitch, about 10 miles north of Statesboro.
This remarkable bit of news made its way to the Savannah Tribune and was published in April. Unfortunately, sometime between the wedding and Christmas, Daniel Riggs passed away. Daniel lived long enough to see his daughter marry the man who was already the father of Agnes’s son John born in January. Agnes and Johnson would go on to have 11 children, and Agnes would live a long life, passing away in Coffee, Georgia at the age of 83.
By the time of the census in 1900, Delia Riggs was widowed. Over the next 10 years, the escalating violence, racism and lack of opportunity drove some of Delia’s children to pack up and head North.
It’s unclear why Chester, Pennsylvania, and not Atlanta or any of the other major cities along the mid-Atlantic coast became the preferred destination of four of Delia’s six sons and their families. According to Dr. Jackson, Willie Riggs, the namesake for the Willow Hill School, was known to be a “traveling person” and in the club scene in Chicago, perhaps as a musician. Willie already had a taste of travel and freedom from his time in Atlanta. Uncle Isaac had traveled to Savannah after his terrible beating. Perhaps the reality became that there was more to life than the oppression of Bulloch County, maybe even a better life. After all, with their growing education and literacy, they must have asked themselves around the kitchen table and on the walk home from church, what more could they do, what more could the Riggs family become, somewhere else?
In Part 2: The Riggs Family: Harriet Riggs Story I’ll explore the life of Harriet Riggs, including a timeline for her life enslaved and free. I’ll share some surprising revelations about her biological father.
In Part 3: The Riggs Family: New Kin I’ll share how the Riggs who came to Pennsylvania, their lives and families in Chester, and how using traditional and genetic genealogy, I’ve identified my father’s grandfather among them.
Agnes Riggs Marriage Announcement, Savannah Tribune. Savannah, GA. April 4, 1889.
Bonds, Charles; Brannen, Dorothy; Collins, Maggie; Good, Daniel B.; Jackson, Nkenge; Mabry, Evelyn; Postell, Carolyn; Seel, Robert M.; Wall, Rita Turner; and Ariail, Julius, “From Aaron to Ivanhoe” (1988). Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
Bulloch County Tax Assessment, 1882 – 1888.
Daniel Riggs (Colored), Milledgeville Federal Union, Milledgeville, GA. June 1, 1869.
F. Erik Brooks. Defining Their Destiny: The Story of the Willow Hill School. (Savannah: The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center Publishing Group, 2011).
Rita Turner Hall (illustrations) Lest It All Gets Away From Us. Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
“Negroes Shot Flogged In Georgia Statesboroughs Double Lynching,” NY Times, New York, NY, 1904.
“School Teacher Whipped in Bullock County” Colored Tribune, Savannah, GA. June 3, 1876.
US Census, Bulloch County, GA. 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900, 1910.
US Census, Delaware County, PA. 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940.
One of the most exciting developments in genealogy is the use of DNA to uncover connections to family lines. African Americans who take a genetic genealogy test and upload their results shouldn’t be surprised to see white ancestors as blacks with enslaved ancestors have on average 25% DNA that originated in Europe. I’ve added DNA to my research because I believe knowing my white ancestry can lead to finding more about the life of my black ancestors prior to the Civil War and Emancipation. Understanding my white ancestors, where and how they lived helps me to gain access to the potential vital records, documents, and information that can break down brick walls. I’ve used traditional research to identify numerous enslavers, and no matter what, I’m always surprised to learn the circumstances of how my ancestors were emancipated, such as the case of Levi Chase, my 3rd great-uncle, who was freed by his enslaver Susan Goodhand, in order to fight in the Civil War for the Union Army.
The emotional toll of uncovering enslavers can be heavy at times, as I empathize with my enslaved ancestors, but I’ve decided its worth the pain to know the whole truth of their lives. Now DNA has furthered my research so I can pick up where the paper trail leaves off. DNA has helped me find new generations of ancestors, as well as to understand their forced migration across the country during enslavement.
The discoveries on my Bobo line have lead me to white ancestors who were both enslaver and family, back across the continent to North and South Carolina, and even across the Atlantic Ocean to England and Holland.
Recently, I wrote about Mama Bessie Bobo, who was originally Bessie Demings, and her mother Ann Demings, my 3rd great grandmother. Using DNA, I was able to find the enslavers of Ann Demings (aka Ann Miles, Ann Demming, Ann Wood, Ann Turner), and to corroborate the finding by combining my research with census, geographical, and archival data.
Ann Demings was born enslaved in August 1849 in Leon County, Texas, and lived in Mexia, Texas for most of her life, spending her final days in Dallas with her daughter’s family, the Bobo’s. She was buried in Mexia upon her death in 1917 at the age of 67. Previously, I explored theories in The Bobo Family: Mama Bessie about my 4th grandmother. I learned of distant white ancestors in the Miles and Day lines (uncovered through DNA matches). Two white Miles descendants (brothers) and Day descendants (sisters who married the Miles bros) moved from Alabama together to the adjacent county of Limestone in Texas. Because the Miles were slaveholders, I hypothesized that this could be the source of Ann’s roots. Ann’s maiden name was listed as “Miles” in her daughter Bessie’s social security application. Naturally, I wondered if her mother or father was a Miles. I now know that it’s very likely that the Miles DNA came from Bessie’s father’s line or possibly Ann’s mother’s line, but it did not come from Ann’s father. DNA enabled me to conclusively identify Ann’s father as a white man, a farmer named Aaron Turner Sr.
THE CLUES ADD UP
Last Spring, my 92-year old paternal grandmother shared her DNA with me. What a blessing. We uncovered that she had several white 3rd and 4th-cousins, and of course hundreds of 5th – 8th cousins with roots in Texas. This was not a surprise because we knew where the Bobo and Demings family came from, and we knew there was some white ancestry. My grandmother’s father Dave Bobo was very fair-skinned. Which side did the white ancestry come from? Using the surname and geography match techniques, I quickly saw a pattern among white cousin matches but they were too numerous to discern the common ancestor.
So I turned to “genetic genealogy” and new tools used to analyze DNA data. I clustered my grandmother’s DNA matches using the Genetic Affairs “Autocluster” tool.
The more focused cluster revealed these ‘cousins by the dozens’ indeed shared a common ancestor. Several had well-developed trees that were searchable on Ancestry. Then, I was then able to compare trees and match locations, surnames, and generations to my grandmother in order to devise a probability of the most common recent ancestor (MCRA) shared by the matches.
Match after match pointed to a MCRA within the line of a white family by the surname of Turner who lived in Leon County at the same time as Ann. Finally, once I placed Aaron Turner Sr. into Ancestry Thrulines, which uses other people’s family trees and their DNA tests to hypothesize connections, dozens of Turner descendants on direct and collateral lines matched my grandmother in the same generation as Aaron Turner. Thrulines also revealed matches related to his siblings, first cousins, and Aaron’s parents, Charity Ann Clark b. 1752, and Thomas Reuben Turner II, b. 1754. The matches went further to Charity’s parents, William Clark b. 1709 and Hannah Peck, b. 1712. There are no less than 31 matches with Aaron Turner Sr. and 45 hypothesized matches with his mother Charity, 48 with Charity’s father William Clark! It was a pretty remarkable set of evidence.
Digging in, I found several pictures of Ann’s half brother, my 5th great grandfather’s son, Aaron Lloyd Turner Jr., on the family tree profiles of DNA Turner cousins. Aaron Jr. shares a remarkable resemblance to my great-great-grandmother Bessie.
Aaron Turner Sr. was born in 1783 in North Carolina to Charity Ann Clark, and Thomas Reuben Turner II. He was one of eight children (many of whose descendants are the cousins whose Ancestry DNA profiles corroborated the relationship). Senior migrated to Henry County Georgia from Marlboro County South Carolina to an area called Bear Neck Creek. In 1838, he met and married Nancy King nee’ Nelms b. 1817. Nancy was 21 years old and Aaron was 55 years old. Nancy Nelms was born in North Carolina and married George Dickson in 1830 very young, but Dickson died and she re-married. Nancy already had several children with Dickson. Aaron, Nancy and his adopted children migrated to Texas around 1841 to Leon County. Leon County is southwest of Limestone County, whose county seat is Mexia where Ann and her family first appear in the record. It turns out Aaron Sr. was a Methodist preacher and that probably had a lot to do with his slow migration west. In fact, his father Thomas Turner was also a Methodist preacher, but more on that later.
Nancy and Aaron had more children including Junior who became a cattleman, fought for the Confederacy, and was a store clerk in Mexia by 1867. Aaron Jr. lived and worked not too far from Ann Deming’s home in 1880. In Nancy Nelms (Turner-Sanders) household, alongside Aaron Jr.’s and her other adult children lived a black man (age 22) named Jack Turner. Jack Turner also shows up on the 1869 voter registration as born in Georgia. Jack would have been born in 1870, but I can find no further trace of him in the record (for now). Jack may have been related to Ann, a half-brother perhaps, or just a laborer in the home.
So how did Ann come to be born of Aaron Turner Senior? Despite being a Methodist and a man of the cloth, Aaron Turner was a slaveholder. On the 1850 Slave Schedule for Leon County, Aaron owns three slaves listed as follows:
32, Female, Black
27, Female, Black
2, Male, Black
11 months, Female, Mulatto
The two enslaved women are of age to have children. The 2-year-old boy and 11-month-old “mulatto” girl are likely children of one or both of the enslaved women. The mulatto girl I surmise was Ann. But there is no guarantee as slave schedules were not true censuses of slaves, and have to be seen only as evidence a person was a slaveholder. In the 1900 census, Ann lists her father’s birthplace as Georgia and her mother’s birthplace as Alabama. The slave schedule was done on September 26, 1850 meaning if it was Ann, she would have been born in November 1849. The timing very much fits.
After emancipation, Ann Turner Demings may have made a mortgage for her own home with “two hundred gold dollars” in 1868 in town. It would be pretty remarkable for a formerly enslaved woman to purchase a home so soon after emancipation. The deed was for Lot 16, Block 24, made in 1868, recorded in 1872 and 1876 between A. Demming and W. R. Baker/A. Groesbeck. If it was Ann, where did she get the money? In 1880 Ann and her family lived near several perceptibly middle-class whites, including a carpenter, railroad agent, lumber merchant, and a minister in the middle of town. Records further show in 1900 she owned a home on Tyler street and then in 1910 owned a home on Carthage Street, also in Mexia. She was working as a nurse and raising her children. Some of the children’s father appear to be of Henry “Rufas” Deming, her first husband. A seventh child may have been with a man named Hickman as her son Arthur Caldwell took the surname Hickman.
Between 1890 and 1900, Ann learned to read and write as indicated on the census. The census also confirmed she had 9 children, 7 of whom were still living. She was living with her daughter Ora Wright, son-in-law Green Wright, and grandchildren, Thomas, Herbert, and Charles Wright.
Her birthplace was listed as Tennessee, as were her parents. She probably never knew where precisely she was born because her birthplace is recorded as Tennesee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama on various records. Did she know her mother? Why did she leave Leon County for Mexia? Did she know the Turner’s were family? Surely she knew the Turner family, living in the same small town in 1880around the corner from her own home, and she could not have been able to ignore the striking resemblance to them in her daughter’s features, or perhaps her own. If Ann’s mother was either that 31-year-old or 26-year-old enslaved woman in the Turner household in 1850, then it is likely her mother was raped by Aaron Turner Sr., who was 66 years old at the time. Aaron Sr. died in 1851, so Annie never knew her biological father. Aaron’s widow Nancy remarried Drury Sanders in 1852, and moved to Grimes County, until she once again became widowed and moved to Mexia to live there until her death. What did Nancy Nelms make of her husband’s black daughter with her enslaved?
LIFE BETWEEN TWO RIVERS
When the Texas and Central Railroad reached Limestone County in 1871, Mexia became a town when the Texas and Central Railroad Reached Limestone County in 1871. Prior to that, the land was part of a large land grant owned by a Spanish family (stolen from the Comanche tribe) the Mexia family lead by General Jose Antonio Mexia b. 180o. General Mexia fought in the revolution
Mexia and his American wife, the former Carlotta Walker, owned a big land grant in Limestone County that included the future town of Mexia. Before the general’s last unsuccessful revolt against the Mexican despots, he and Carlotta had transferred the title of the Texas lands to their children, Matilda and Enrique and Enrique had been given more land near Mexia by his godfather, Marianno Riva Palacios of Palacios, Texas.
City History of Mexia
Mexia was platted in 1870 by the Houston and Texas Central Townsite Company. Lots went on sale in 1871 when the railroad was still under construction. A post office was built in 1872, and Mexia was incorporated the following year. Mexia went through an oil boom and bust in the early 1900s then quieted down to a small town population.
The 1877 Sanborn map of Mexia does include block 24 (Ann’s 1872 house lot), which was in the exact center of town adjacent to the railroad tracks, but the lot numbers only go up to 15 for the block. It may have been designated a different number in the map or a half lot. However, Carthage street appears on an 1891 street bordering different blocks suggesting Ann Deming moved and purchased a new house eventually.
Enslaved blacks coming off the plantation in Limestone and Leon counties, between the Brazos and Navasota rivers, purchased land, farmed, and started their own communities in the 1870s. African Americans celebrated Juneteenth in Mexia in Booker T. Washington park in Mexia, which they purchased explicitly for the celebration. According to the Limestone Historical Association, land was deeded in 1898 as a permanent site for celebrating June 19th– the anniversary of the 1865 emancipation of slaves in Texas.
The county sent to the Texas constitutional convention of 1866, Ralph Long, an African American, and the area had other black legislators including Giles Cotton, Dave Medlock, and Sheppard Mullins. For many years at the park, the honorable Ralph Long was the featured Juneteenth speaker, presenting from the bed of a wagon parked in the shade to over 20,000 attendees.
Another well known Limestone African American was Giles Cotton. In late 1869 voters from Robertson, Leon, and Freestone counties elected Cotton, running as a Republican, to theTexas Legislature. He served from February 10, 1870, to January 14, 1873 on the Agriculture and Stock Raising Committee and Privileges and Elections Committee.
Ann Turner was born on a homestead between the Brazos and Trinity River. Generally, there were no white settlements in the county prior to 1840, and the Turners were really pioneers. They were among the first wave of white settlers there in the 1840s as part of the Westward Movement. They lived alongside Keechi and Kickapoo tribes. During the Mexican War, Aaron Turner may have been a private in Chevallier’s Mounted Battalion (basically a Texas Ranger) between 1847 – 1848 under Maj. Webb and Maj. Walker. According to the record, Private Turner was discharged for killing cattle (no doubt to feed himself and his fellow rangers).
By 1850 Leon County had 621 blacks; by 1855 this number had increased to 1,455, with a value of $757,296, which was $300,000 more than the assessed valuation of all the taxable land in the County in 1855. However, by 1870, Ann Turner, now Ann Demings and her husband Henry Demings were living in the next county over in Mexia. Henry Deming may have been the same Henry Demming “colored” registered to vote in nearby Freestone County in 1867. The record indicates he was born in Alabama and lived in Texas for 13 years prior, since at least 1854. Henry Deming is a bit of a ghost, appearing only by mention in later records.
I have not located Ann and Henry in the 1870 census, and in the 1880 census, “Ann Demming” is divorced. Ann’s household includes:
Mary Bell Demming, b. 1871
Ora Demming, b. 1874, twin
Zora Demming, b. 1874, twin
Bessie Demming, b. 1878
Willie L. Demming, b. 1878 or 1879
And infant (Herman Deming, b. 1880)
Bessie, Willie, and Herman’s father’s place of birth is listed as unknown, suggesting they may not have had the same father. I will explore Ann’s other children in a future post.
Meanwhile, in 1870, Aaron Lloyd Turner Jr. (Ann’s half-brother), and his wife Ella Fisher lived briefly in Western Retreat in Grimes County. By 1880, they have moved Limestone County to Mexia, where Aaron Jr. was a clerk in a store. He had several children with Ella. The census taker listed Aaron’s father as having been born in Alabama, and his mother in South Carolina. Its possible Aaron Jr. did not know precisely where his parents were born, but other records indicate both were born North Carolina – South Carolina border, moved to Georgia, then through Alabama, to Texas. Aaron Jr. may have moved from Grimes to Mexia to be near family. By 1880, his half-brother Marcus King, lived next door with his family and kept a saloon. His mother Nancy also appears to have left Grimes after the death of her 3rd husband.
Ann lived in Dallas, Texas briefly in 1910 with her daughter Bessie, now Bessie Bobo, and her grandchildren, before dying in 1917. She is buried a couple of miles outside Mexia in an African American cemetery, Mexia Memorial, where she has a prominent headstone.
TURNER’S MIXED-RACE LUMBEE ROOTS
When Aaron Turner Sr. died in 1850, his obituary read as follows:
“Died at his residence in Leon County, August 9th, 1851, Rev. Aaron Turner, aged 70 years. He was a native of North Carolina, married and emigrated to Georgia, when a young man, connected himself with the M. E. church and was licensed to preach the gospel. He was ordained in 1814 and imminently useful as a local preacher until 1848, when he emigrated to Texas. He left a widow and 6 orphans to mourn.”
George Tittle for the Texas Methodist Newspaper
Aaron Sr. of course left more than that behind, he enslaved four people at the time of his death. A good source for what happened to his enslaved would be his will, however, I have not been able to obtain his will yet. I did find the probate of Aaron’s father. Thomas Reuben Turner died in Marlboro County, South Carolina along the border near the Peedee River in 1822.
Upon the death of Thomas in July 1822, his will instructs that his “negroes” should be divided equally among his children, along with the rest of his property. In the probate, an inventory lists his enslaved:
Given the enslaved were valued based on age and condition – the males at $600 were likely adults in their prime. Caesar was probably elderly, as is Hannah, because of their very low value. Sarah is likely a young adult as well based on her valuation. Were the enslaved of Aaron Turner Sr. descended from Thomas’s enslaved or were any of them among Aaron Jr.’s enslaved? Or did Aaron Jr. inherit the slaves as a dowry from his wife Nancy’s family?
The will of Thomas Reuben Turner, Sr. names his following children:
Thomas’s first wife Charity was not named in the will, so we can presume she died before this date. This detail was uncovered by Mrs. Edmond L. Crow, a descendant of Thomas Jr., later recounted by Gail Blancett.
We know from records that Aaron Sr.’s wife Nancy Nelms was married once before to Dickson P. King in Georgia in 1830 when she was a young teen. A school teacher, she had three children before Dickson’s death around 1841, Marcus, Louisa, and Lucius King. After remarrying she had Mary Ann Turner, David Turner, Noah Turner, Francis Turner, and Aaron Lloyd Turner Jr. with Aaron Sr. The 1850 census in Leon County Texas gives Nancy’s place of birth as North Carolina, and that of the Turner children in Leon County, Texas.
I was able to trace Thomas Turner back to Marlboro County South Carolina by examining Turner family research (collateral lines of Aaron Lloyd Turner and his cousins) in blogs, forums, and published histories of this line. I also used DNA again to corroborate relationships. The research lead me to a wide variety of historical records that establish a migration of the Turners from North Carolina to South Carolina, Georgia, and then Oklahoma and Texas. Some Turners also migrated to Arkansas. For example, in the records of the Daughters of the American Republic of Texas is a description of the life of the grand-nephew of Aaron Sr., George Washington Turner.
“George Washington Turner, son of Thomas Turner Jr. (came to Leon, TX in 1843 and lived with “Uncle” Aaron Turner). He was born Nov. 18, 1833, Henry County, GA, son of Thomas Turner Jr. and Gincy Parrish. After the death of his mother in 1843 he moved west to Texas and lived with his Uncle Aaron Turner. He was a Confederate and after the Civil War, in 1869 he founded Old Bethel Methodist Church, 8 miles outside of Mexia. In 1894 he moved his second family to Altus, Oklahoma.”
Daughters of the American Republic of Texas Vol. 1
Thomas Reuben Turner II and his wife Charity Ann Clark lived along the South Carolina – North Carolina border at a time when the area was considered the wild frontier between 1750 and 1800. The land was swampy and wet, full of creeks and rivers. The land was home to the Lumbee Indians who were made up of both indigenous peoples, and the descendants of formerly enslaved Africans who escaped and free people of color. In The History of Old Cheraw’s, by Bishop Alexander Gregg, Thomas Turner Sr. was listed as clerk for Cheraw District in 1773. He further states on 9 June 1775 the Lt. Governor named twelve magistrates for Cheraw Dist., SC and Thomas Turner Sr. as being in the list of names.
Further research into the Turner line reveals that it is very likely too that Thomas Turner was mixed-race, descended from Lumbee Indian and perhaps Scotch-Irish immigrants. The following observation was made by Rev. Eli W. Caruthers in 1856 about the Turner family living along the North Carolina-South Carolina border during the American Revolution.
“Near three hundred men, under Colonel Peter Robison of Bladen county, in passing through the country had halted at Stuart’s, now McPherson’s mill creek, to take breakfast, when Colonel McNeill, with all his force, came upon them so suddenly, that they had no time to rally, and were scattered forthwith. How many, if any of the Whigs were killed, I have not learned; but John Turnerand Daniel Campbell, two of McNeill’s men were killed on the ground; and Dougald McFarland, another of the Tories, was, soon after, found dead near the place. Matthew Watson, a Tory, took young Archibald McKizic by surprise and held him a prisoner; and one story is that, being an acquaintance, and knowing that Turner, a mulatto, would kill him on sight, he gave him a chance to escape…
…It was Wade’s intention (a rebel officer) to scour the whole country and put every man of them to the sword. They were therefore greatly relieved in their feelings when his revenge seemed to be satisfied, and when he began to turn his course toward home. He turned down through the upper end of Robeson county and passed through the lower side of Richmond, by the Rockdale mills (i.e. modern Scotland Co.), into the Peedee country.
At the Rockdale mills, there lived some free mulattoes by the name of Turner, who were Tories and very wicked. The troops engaged in this expedition, having been disbanded, and Captain Culp having gone home, some of these mulattoes followed him to his own house, called him out at night, and accused him of whipping one of their brothers. He refused at first to come out, and they threatened to burn the house; but still he refused, until they began to apply the fire; then he came out between two young men, one on each side, holding them by the arms, and begging for his life; but the Turners told the young men that, If they did not wish to share the same fate with Culp, they must leave him. They did so; and he was Immediately shot down in his own yard. It is said that they not only murdered him, but his family also, and then burned his house, which stood about a mile below Hunt’s Bluff. Old Major Pouncey’s wife was Culp’s daughter….”
On 29 Dec 1760, Thomas Turner the 1st (Moses and Thomas Reuben Turner’s father) was issued a land grant by Lord Granville for 640 acres in Anson County, North Carolina adjoining Abraham Carson’s land. Obviously, after the revolution, the land grants were absolved. In 1775, Moses Turner, father of Winney Tedder (a line my grandmother shares more than a few DNA cousins with) appears in Richmond County, NC census. Moses Turner appears to be living east of Gum Swamp in then Anson County prior to 1779 when he was granted 100 acres next to Thomas Turner (likely his father’s land). Richmond County was created from Anson County in 1779.
Moses Turner was listed on the 1790 census in Richmond Co, NC. His brother Thomas Reuben Turner had moved into what is now Marlboro County, SC by then. On the 1790 census, Moses Turner’s family were all enumerated in the “Other” column. This column was for those considered “Free Colored” by the census taker. Moses Turner’s household included seven free persons of color and one slave.
Other family researchers have speculated the Turners were of Lumbee Indian extraction given the naming patterns of some of Moses Turner’s children, but it’s doubtful if we’ll ever conclusively know if they were Lumbee or simply descendants of free blacks who intermarried with whites and ultimately adopted a white ethnicity.
By 1800, Moses had joined Thomas in neighboring Marlboro District, South Carolina (Richmond and Marlboro were adjacent counties along the border). Marlboro District had been formed in 1798 from Cheraw’s District. Moses Turner was listed on the 1800 census in Marlboro District, SC, along with Thomas Turner.
Further DNA research along collateral lines of the Turners revealed the following related surnames as DNA cousin matches; Turner, Tedder, Quick, Locklear, Driggers (all Richmond County, NC, and Marlboro County, SC families). Ancestry DNA matches that include these surnames and Thrulines appears to corroborate that Moses Turner was Thomas Reuben Turner’s brother, and as we know, Thomas and his brother were slaveholders.
PLYMOUTH ROCK LANDS ON ME, HARD
In 1964, Malcolm X gave a speech in New York where he famously remarked, “We are not Americans. We are a people who formerly were Africans who were kidnapped, brought to America. Our forefathers weren’t the Pilgrims. We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us.”
That quote pretty much describes a common African American sentiment about the Pilgrims, but what I learned about Charity Ann Clark (my white 5th great grandmother) makes that quote particularly poignant. Of course, I beg to differ from X’s description, blacks are Americans, we built this country with our blood, sweat, and tears, but then Malcolm X was really saying we are not perceived as Americans by racists. Efforts like the 1619 Project are revealing that our presence here pre-dates the formation of the American project, and is very much in the colonial roots of this country. The truth be told, it’s even more complicated because European Americans with colonial roots and African Americans share an intertwined history in blood.
Here’s what I learned. Charity Ann Clark’s paternal line descends from England and Holland, and her family arrived in the Plymouth Colony as Pilgrims on the Mayflower. Charity Ann Clark’s great-great-grandparents were Thomas Roberdes Clark (born 1599 in England) and Susanna Ring (born in Holland in 1611) who sailed on the Mayflower to the new continent with Myles Standish to start the Plymouth Colony of England. Thomas Clark is said to be the son of John Clarke, the actual pilot of the Mayflower (my 10th great-grandfather). Clarke’s story is straight bananas, concluding with his death in a battle between the Powhatan Indians at the Jamestown colony.
Growing up, to my white history teachers, nothing could be more thrilling than to be a Mayflower descendant. For me, it was always a painful thought. Learning more about my ancestry and recovering my once-lost history is my thrill now. I acknowledge that uncovering this Turner line and accepting it into my history is difficult. We know precisely how the Turners intersect with my enslaved African ancestors and the truth of it hurts, but it is no less true.
Early America is often portrayed in the most romantic terms, and democracy is spoken off as the result of the intent of pursuing freedom. Within the great project of America, one cannot look away from the fact that early democracy was really about establishing and protecting minority rule of poor whites, women, enslaved Africans, and the removal and genocide of millions of indigenous peoples. Minority rule was codified in the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. Violence, rape, murder, torture, enslavement, theft, unjust laws, broken treaties and of course the Translatlantic slave trade was how minority rule was established and maintained in order to create property and profit for wealthy white men. And yet, against hundreds of years of persecution, against the odds, people resisted, in the dream, the hope that democracy would one day belong to them.
Incidentally, the Speedwell which was supposed to accompany the Mayflower with more pilgrims sprang a hole in it off the English coast after leaving Holland and didn’t make it on that fateful voyage. It became a slave ship captained by the great-great-grand uncle of the enslaver of my free 4th great-grandfather Emory Chase (on my grandmother’s maternal line) who was very likely descended from the men of Senegambia that were stolen away on the Speedwell.
I reconcile some of these remarkable facts now with the knowledge Ann Turner saw enslavement, emancipation, and Reconstruction. She survived and thrived. She learned to write, became a nurse, and a homeowner more than once, raised a large family, among whom would include the first college graduate in the family, “Mama Bessie.”
She gave her daughter Bessie Demings Bobo the name Fredonia after the first “Fredonian rebellion” in the Texas Mexican war that Aaron Turner briefly fought in. For Ann, Bessie was an act of freedom.
Mexia History Blog
Limestone County Historical Society
Limestone County Deed book Volume E. pg, 612.
US Census, Texas, Mexia County 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910
US Census, Texas, Freestone County 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910
US Census, Texas,Leon County 1850, 1860, 1870
US Slave Schedule, Leon County 1850
Granville Tract, Grant Book No. 30, page 322. 1750
Probate, Marlboro County, South Carolina, Thomas R. Turner, 1822.
In 1872, six years after the close of the Civil War, and 8 years after the abolishment of slavery in the State of Maryland, a community of African Americans in Queen Anne’s County made a remarkable transaction that lead to the founding of one of the county’s oldest African Methodist Episcopal churches. Many of these men and women, trustees and grantors, were family intertwined by marriage and blood, and also by the recent bonds of enslavement.
Out of the ashes of the war arose Reconstruction, and African Americans became busy establishing the institutions that would serve as bedrock foundations for the spiritual life, education, and economy of their community for generations to come. It was a time of great contrast. W. P. S. Pinchback became the first African American Governor of a state (Louisiana). Morgan State University opened its doors in Baltimore. President Ulysses Grant won re-election but restored the full rights of Confederate soldiers. All this happened against a tidal wave of black enfranchisement and growth.
The Appeal of Methodism
The black Episcopal Methodists of the Eastern Shore, Kent and Queen Anne’s County (QAC) began numerous schools and churches. While it is unclear where the early black community of my ancestors worshipped (between Sudlersville and Crumpton) between 1864 and 1872, it was likely that enslaved and free people of color previously worshipped in white churches like Dudley’s Chapel built around 1873. Relegated to sit in the upper pews in the “colored” section listening to white preachers, my ancestors and other black Methodists eventually became desirous of their own places of worship and preachers.
African Americans free and enslaved were drawn to Methodism because the denomination treated blacks differently, even calling for the abolishment of slavery and casting out of white members who enslaved blacks. In 1785 the Methodist discipline denied membership to slaveholders (although it was not followed closely), and itinerant preachers actively converted blacks through the early 1800s. It’s safe to say my early Maryland Eastern Shore ancestors (black and white) were Methodists. My third great grandfather Asbury Johnson lived in Queen Anne’s County near Double Creek and is almost certainly named for Francis Asbury, the methodist preacher who toured the area extensively with other circuit riders in the late 1700s. Bishop Francis Asbury ordained Richard Allen a deacon in 1799 and Allen went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal church in 1816.
“The first truly independent black denomination, the Union Church of Africans, was founded in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1813 by Peter Spencer, who was born a slave in Kent County in 1782. In the mid-1860’s Spencer’s church split into two rival denominations, the Union American Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Union Methodist Protestant Church. The most successful move for independence, headed by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, led to the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in 1816.”
Historic African American Churches of Kent County, Kent County Historical Society, 2019.
In 1864 the new Delaware Conference began with about 5,000 church members and 34 churches, with black clergy members in the Episcopal Church from New Jersey, Eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, and Maryland. Black Methodists promoted education, training teachers and starting schools. Preachers taught, and teachers preached. Thousands of formerly enslaved and free blacks shifted from participating in predominately white churches with white elders, to black churches with black clergy.
“Black local preachers were recruited to serve their congregations, supervised by white elders and annual conferences. Eventually, an ongoing Conference of Colored Local Preachers was organized at Zoar M.E. Church in Philadelphia in 1857 under Bishop Levi Scott.
A Brief History of the Former Delaware Conference
Mt. Pleasant UMC (Pondtown)
An 1877 map of QAC District 2 (Sudlersville, Church Hill, Crumpton) shows at least one “colored church” on the road between Crumpton and Sudlersville next to “School No.2” On the street are the homes of William D. Tarbutton (a justice of the peace), the Cooper brothers (James and John), A. Brooks, and a second school on the crossroads to Sudlersville “School No. 8”. Down Pondtown Road can be found the Doman and Milburn families. All would be instrumental in founding Mt. Pleasant. Nearby are three white Methodist Episcopal Churches including Dudley’s Chapel. The white Goodhand, Tarbutton, and Roberts families are living side-by-side their formerly enslaved who are now free farmers, millers, and even seamen on the nearby Chester River. At this time, my 2nd great-grandfather Walter “Wallis” Johnson is living in Crumpton as a laborer. He would go on to marry my 2nd great-grandmother Sarah Catherine Milbourn, daughter of James Milbourn and Harriet Ann Chase, my 3rd great-grandparents. Emory and Charlotte Chase, my 4th great-grandparents also lived in Pond Town, though I have found no record for their precise dwelling.
Emory Chase Senior, my fourth great-grandfather (a previously free man of color and blacksmith), and my third great-grandfather James Milbourn (formerly enslaved) along with several other trustees of the first African Methodist Episcopal church in Pond Town purchased land from two black farming families, Thomas and Mary Gafford, and William and Eliza Holliday. The trustees include George Brown and Joseph Doman, husbands to my third great aunts, Emeline Johnson and Juliette Johnson, respectively. Emeline and Juliette were the daughters of Asbury Johnson (born free about 1823 and died before the church’s founding in 1863). The trustees sought to site and build their church and cemetery next to the Public School on the road to Crumpton. For the sum of $30 they obtained “seventeen parcels” of land on September 27, precisely 147 years ago, making the current church Mt. Pleasant at 1701 Dudley Corner Rd, nearly 150 years old. Mt. Pleasant is now under the United Methodist Church Charge with locations at Millington and Pond Town).
TRANSCRIPT OF DEED
This Deed made this twenty-seventh day of September in the year one thousand and eight hundred and seventy-two by Thomas Gafford and Mary Gafford his wife, and William Holliday (colored) and Eliza Holliday his wife all of Queen Anne’s County, State of Maryland. Witnesseth that in consideration of the sum of thirty dollars, the receipt hereof is hereby acknowledged, the said Thomas Gafford and Mary Gafford and William Holliday and Eliza Holliday do grant unto Emory Chase Snr., Suel Books, James Cooper, Joseph Doman, John H. Cooper, James Milbourn, George Woodland, and George Brown (colored) all of Queen Anne’s County, State of Maryland (these parties being the Trustees of M.E. African Church at Pond Town) all that contains lot of land in the Second Election District of Queen Anne’s County, state aforesaid, lying on the main road leading from Crumpton to Pond Town adjoining lands of Mrs. Matilda Fowler, Mary Gafford, Reuben Newcomb, and the Pond Town Public School house lot and which may be better known by the following meters and bounds, courses and distances. Viz: Beginning at a Stone on the said main Road at the corner of said School House Lot and running thence South ten degrees west four rods and twenty one links to a Large Stone on same road, thence South eighty six and a half degrees west xxx rods and twenty one links to a Large tree, thence North ten degrees east six rods and twenty links to Reuben Newcomb’s line, thence along and with said Newcomb’s line and the line of said School House Lot South eighty-seven and a half degrees east eighteen Rods and twelve links to the place of Beginning, containing two rods and Seventeen parcels of Land, more or less in the Simple. And the said Thomas Gafford and William Holliday together with their wives do hereby covenant that they will defend the same from all claims and encumbrances that may be brought against it. Witness our hands and Seals the day and date above written. Test: William D. Tarbutton Thomas Gafford, seal Mary Gafford, seal William Holliday, seal Eliza Holliday, seal
State of Maryland, Queen Anne’s County, to wit: I hereby certify that on this twenty seventh of September in the year one thousand eight hundred and seventy two, before the subscriber a Justice of the Peace for said County, personally appeared Thomas Gafford (colored) and Mary Gafford his wife and WM. Holliday and Eliza Holliday his wife and did each acknowledged the aforegoing Deed to be true respective acts. Acknowledged before me…William D. Tarbutton J. P.
The following trustees are listed below with further information from my research.
Emory Chase Snr. b. 1810 – 1880 (4th GGF)
Suel (Samuel) Brooks
James Cooper (brother of John Cooper, freedom papers testified to in 1857 by Col. Lemuel Roberts who on the same day testified on my 3rd GGF Asbury Johnson’s “Certificate of Freedom”)
Joseph DomanII or III b. 1817 or 1841 (father-in-law of 3rd great aunt, or husband of the 3rd great aunt Juliette Johnson)
John H. Cooper (brother of James Cooper, freedom papers testified to in 1857 by Col. Lemuel Roberts who on the same day testified on my 3rd GGF Asbury Johnson’s “Certificate of Freedom”)
James Milbourn b. 1820 (3rd GGF married to Henrietta Chase, my 3rd GGM, daughter of Emory Chase Snr.)
George Woodland (may have been related to Charles Woodland of Kent County who founded other M.E. churches around the same time, namely Mt. Pleasant UMC in Fairlee in the 1880s)
While whites attended School No. 2, the closest “colored school” was in Beaverdam, several miles to the south according to the 1877 map. Anectdotes suggest a closer colored school existed on the crossroads of Sudlersville Road and Route 290. By 1926, Mt. Pleasant had purchased and placed a colored school on its property.
“Originally built in 1902 at a different location, the one-room schoolhouse was first purchased by Queen Anne’s County Public Schools as an all-white school. It was moved to the northern part of Queen Anne’s County and eventually became Pondtown Colored School in 1926. The school closed in the mid-1950s. In 1956, Mt. Pleasant Church purchased it from the school board for $800. Segregation ended in Queen Anne’s County in 1967. Over the years, the old Pondtown school building fell into disrepair. The Crumpton Volunteer Fire Department was asked to dispose of the building. They burned it to the ground Aug. 6, 2017.”
Former Pond Town School Demolished, MyEasternShore.com
John Wesley Methodist (Millington)
Other area ancestors were involved in the founding of churches in Queen Anne’s County and adjacent Kent County around the same period. The congregation of John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church in Millington met as early as 1855, under the supervision of white Methodists at Asbury Church. Research shows that the deed for the property purchased in 1863 was processed on December 18, 1877, and the among the trustees listed was Joseph Jeffers, the father-in-law of my 4th great aunt, Mary Jane Chase, the daughter of Emory Chase Snr.
The predominately black Jeffers Chapel of Sagefield in Queen Anne’s County, a small chapel on the crossroads to Sudersville and around the corner from Dudley’s Chapel was presumably built by a QAC ancestor as well in 1894. Johnson’s were also founding members of the Boardley AME Church in Pondtown at the founding in 1903. Both Jeffers Chapel and Boardley AME are still active churches serving their communities today, over a hundred and ten years later.
Price’s Chapel (Sudersville)
On a 2019 research trip to Sudlersville, I found yet another family church. Working with local historian and librarian Lucille Kuntz, we visited Price’s Chapel to explore a lead on a tombstone. The Historical Society had indexed a handful of tombstones at the cemetery behind Price’s Chapel in Sudlersville. One tombstone read “Sarah A Johnson, wife of Asbury Johnson.”
Upon locating the actual tombstone, we learned it read further: “Died May 2st 1921, age 49 years.” Through followup research I learned more: Sarah Annie Brooks, born 1872 in Sudlersville, died 1921 in Chester, Pennsylvania as Sarah A. Johnson. Sarah was married to my 3rd great-grandfather’s grandson Asbury Johnson. Asbury was descended from Lucy Johnson and Isaac Johnson. Lucy was the daughter of my 3rd great grandfather Asbury. Her son, Asbury moved to Chester between 1880 and 1900. Upon examining Sarah Annie Brook’s death certificate it revealed she was removed for burial to Sudlersville.
In 1824, a free black man, James Price, was sold land by Samuel and Hannah Spry (QAC deed book T. M. No. 3 Pg 415). Spry’s widow Hannah also sold land to Aaron Johnson, my 4th great-grandfather. As we saw in the 1877 map, it was indeed a “colored” Methodist church and cemetery, with a J. Price living nearby in 1870. Furthermore, an “E. Brooks” is found living across the street on the map from J. Price. Sarah Annie Brook’s father was Eli Brooks. Lucille and I encountered other Brooks headstones in the Price Chapel cemetery so I can only conclude some Johnsons, Brooks, and Price family worshipped at Price’s Chapel.
I drove up to the cemetery office with more than a little trepidation. Tired from the early morning flight from Washington, DC to Denver, and then the tedious drive South to Colorado Springs, I did not know what to expect. The front range of Colorado and the wall of the Rocky Mountains to the immediate West loomed over me, an omnipresent voiceless giant, glimpsed occasionally through the clouds. I went into the office of the Evergreen Cemetery and requested a map. I already had a plot number from earlier research, even a picture of the tombstone.
The helpful office attendant drew a line from the office down a road to plot 228. After 45 years it was my first time in a cemetery. I didn’t know the protocol. I got in the rental and drove slowly up the hill, flagged by all manner of headstone and grave markers like soldiers at guard duty. Most were dull and lifeless, occasionally one would be marked by fresh flowers, a beacon in a field of gray. The leaves were turning and falling. How was I going to find her grave in time? The sun was setting and I did not bring a flashlight. Even with the plot number, I guessed there would be thousands of headstones.
I parked and glanced out the window, yes hundreds of markers. I sighed and got out and resolved to begin at the beginning. And then I froze in my tracks. “Harper”, I read. I know that name. I walked over. Here were two stones side by side, Ethel Harper and Andy Harper, my great aunt and great uncle. And there, to the left another marker an unmistakable name.
“Bobo” it read.
The inscription read, “Mother, Bessie F. Bobo, 1877 – 1952.” I got on my knees to touch the cool stone running my fingers across the surface. I felt the omnipresent mountains at my back. Somehow I knew she wanted to face the setting sun over the mountains. In the stretching shadows, the tears came. I could not hold them back.
My great-great grandmother, Bessie Fredonia Demming Bobo, was born in Mexia, Texas, 800 miles away and though she lived in rural places, and urban places like Dallas and the Bronx, she lived her last twenty years of life in Colorado Springs, in a small house near the base of the enchanting natural foothills of the Rocky Mountains known as the Garden of the Gods. The red rocks and white covered granite peaks overlook all who live in the valley. Here in Colorado she went to church and tended to her family for her remaining days. But not after a long life as the matriarch of the Bobo clan.
A day later in the Colorado Springs library, in the old opulent basement wing built by Andrew Carnegie, I found Bessie’s death notice and obituary on microfilm.
“Mrs. Bessie Bobo Dies Here Tuesday”
Mrs. Bessie Fredonia Bobo, 74, a resident of Colorado Springs for 10 years, died Tuesday at a local hospital. A retired school teacher, Mrs. Bobo was born at Mexia, Texas. She was a member of the People’s Methodist Church of this city, and is survived by two sons, Earl Bobo, New York City, and David Bobo, Chester, PA. ; four daughters, Mrs. Susie Mae Davis, New York City; Mrs. Thelma Swann, Colorado Springs; Mrs. Birdie Sanders, Denver, and Mrs. Ethel Harper of Manitou Springs; one brother, William Bobo, Dallas, Texas.
-Colorado Springs Free Press, January 2, 1952
Bessie was born to Henry “Rufas” Demings and Ann Miles or possibly Wood, in the small town of Mexia on the 8th of February in 1877. This was the year Reconstruction ended. The so-called Compromise of 1877 was an informal, unwritten deal, that settled the intensely disputed 1876 U.S. presidential election that resulted in the United States federal government pulling the last troops out of the South, and formally ending the Reconstruction Era. Black Republicans felt betrayed as President Grant removed troops from Florida and later that year the newly installed President Hayes would remove the rest of the federal troops from the South. The birth of Jim Crow had arrived. Mexia was a frontier town originally on Comanche land. The town is named after General Jose Mexia, a Hispanic general of the Republic of Texas Army during the Texas Revolution, the town was founded near his estate.
Ann Miles was born in August in 1849 likely a slave. She probably never knew where precisely she was born because her birthplace is recorded as Tennesee, Georgia, Mississippi (most often), and Alabama on various records. She had three children, Mary Bell in 1871, twins girls, Zora and Ora Demmings in 1874, making Bessie the fourth child, but not the last. Bessie had a younger brother Willie, and infant brother, Herman, according to the 1880 census. I can not find Ann in any census prior to 1880. On the census, her children, Mary Bell, Bessie, and the infant boy are listed as “mulatto”, the others “black.” In 1880 she lived near several perceptibly middle-class whites, including a carpenter, railroad agent, lumber merchant, and a minister in the middle of town. At 37 years old she could not read and write, but her children could and were most likely in a Negro school. In the 1900 census, Ann’s profession is “nurse”.
The 1880 US Census enumeration for the Ann Deming family is as follows:
Ann Deming, 37, birthplace Mississippi, “keeping home”
Mary Bell Deming, 9
Ora Deming, 6
Zora Deming, 6
Willie L., 2
Deming (Herman), under 1
Miles and Day Family
On the 1860 US Slave Census for nearby Wortham, Freestone County, one James D. Miles b. 1835 is listed as the enslaver of one male 21, and three females, ages 14, 14, and 26 years old. Thomas Miles b. 1844 is also enlisted as the enslaver of one male 18, and one female 18 years old. James and Thomas were brothers from Russell County, Alabama. The Miles family was originally from Georgia, and they married two Day girls in Alabama, Ellen b. 1836 and Ida b. 1856 respectively. DNA research shows I have common ancestors descended from the John Day family from Edgefield, SC (several 5th – 8th cousins) that moved to Alabama. Ellen Day’s grandfather was John Day, b. 1773 in South Carolina. Her father Wiley Day, also born in South Carolina, moved to Alabama and actually moved the rest of his large family to Freestone in Texas by 1860 to farm. Wiley Day died in Fairfield, Texas in 1862. William Wiley Day enslaved 11 souls according to the 1840 census in Alabama. and by 1860 enslaved 19 (some his own blood) ranging from age 65 to 1 years old. No doubt Wiley Day took his enslaved from South Carolina, to Alabama, and then on to Texas.
After emancipation in 1870, 3 black families are found in Fairfield in Freestone with the surname Miles, and 4 – 5 black families with the surname Day. These are the former slaves of the Miles and Day families. There was 1 black family in Limestone with the surname Miles.
I strongly suspect Ann Miles hails from one of these family groups, and that either her mother or father was bi-racial and a Day, and she was enslaved as being either part of a dowry from the Days to James Miles or directly enslaved by Ellen Day. If Ann’s father was Wiley Day, he’d be my 4th great-grandfather by blood (hence the several 5th Day cousins). With such racial status, it might also be why Ann was allowed to live among whites in central Mexia — because let’s face it, it was highly unusual for a black woman to leave among the middle-class whites in the manner she did in 1880.
Ann Demming’s married name on the 1880 census was spelled D-e-m-m-ing (no “s”). Research indicates not all of Ann’s children could not identify their father and its likely they did not all share the same father, but at least Zora, Ora and Bessie, were likely the daughters of Henry Demming who is named on Bessie’s January 1938 social security application. Henry Demming is also listed on the 1927 death certificate of Ora Demings Butler (Ann’s daughter) attested to by her brother Herman Demming.
A Married Name
By 1857 according to tax rolls in nearby Wortham, Freestone County, about 8 miles from Mexia, a large white family with the surname originally spelled D-e-m-ings had immigrated from Greenville, Alabama. This family was lead by Lewis Demming b. 1811 in South Carolina to Simeon Demming and Mary Webb, originally from Connecticut. Lewis married Catherine Baldaree, a German immigrant in 1861. His brothers Albert and William appear to have moved to Texas with him or about the same time. Lewis Demings was a slaveholder and the Demings families are connected through Henry Deming (the man who appears on Bessie’s social security application as her father)…and by blood. Ann’s daughter Minnie marries in the area to a Wesley Dunbar whose father is probably Jacob Dunbar. Jacob is listed on various 1860 Freestone County poll taxes with other black Demmings men, Sam, Jacob, and Edward. In 1867, Henry Demming “colored” registered to vote in Freestone. The record indicates he was born in Alabama and lived in Texas for 13 years prior, since at least 1854.Henry Demming may have been a son or brother to Sam, Jacob or Edward, but he was also most certainly related to Lewis Demming.
DNA research shows descendants of Bessie Demmings share common ancestry to the white colonial Deming family who settled in the Hartford Connecticut area in the 1600s. I have living 5th-8th cousins with the same Deming roots. This family’s scion is Jonathan Deming (one “m”) born in France in 1585 whose descendants came to the colonies in the 1630s. Lewis Deming’s father Simeon Deming born 1786 in Wethersfield, Connecticut, died 1858 in Alabama and is descended from Jonathan Deming. While living in Alabama in 1840, Simeon enslaved two people, a woman between the ages of 24 – 35, and one male under 10 years old, presumably the son of the woman. By 1850, Simeon enslaved 11 souls, 7 females, and 4 males. Lewis Demming died in 1870 and is buried in Freestone at Oak Island Cemetery.
By 1880 Ann Demming is the head of her household. Her record shows a “D” for divorced, and she raises her children alone. She does not live in the black section of town, all her neighbors are white. Annie lived until 1917 and was known as “Mamie Bobo” while living in Dallas near her daughter Bessie’s family. She was buried, however, in Mexia Memorial Cemetery. When Bessie attested to and signed her younger brother Herman’s death certificate, she listed her mother’s maiden name as Wood and her brother’s father name as “Rufas” Deming, perhaps a nickname for Henry. DNA points to Miles (Day) and it’s unclear where Wood came from.
At age 18 Bessie met and married David F. “Lee” Bobo, age 22, on the 10th of April in 1895 in nearby Navasota, Texas. Dave’s parents were John Bobo and Alice (maiden name Craig). John was an expressman in town and had four sons. By 1900, the turn of the century, Bessie and Lee had four children while they lived in Navasota on Lee’s property in town.
The 1900 US Census enumeration for David and Bessie Bobo’s family when they lived in Navasota reads as follows:
David Bobo, 27, born Texas, works at oil mill, can read, can write
Bessie Bobo, 24, can read, can write
Annie Bobo, 4
Earl Bobo, 2
David Bobo, 1
Susie Bobo (infant), under 1
Straight to Hell
Navasota was a true frontier town, east of the Brazos River and about 70 miles north of Houston. Since its founding in 1831, the town was primarily a stagecoach shop surrounded by farms worked by European Americans and slaves brought in and sold to work the land. In 1859 a major railroad made the area more important for shipping. But life in Navasota was unluckly and dangerous. Throughout the 1860s disaster after disaster hit the town, including a Yellow Fever epidemic, Cholera outbreak, and arson that lead to the death of many in a gunpowder warehouse explosion. Throughout the Civil War, whites fleed to Navasota with their slaves who became refugees.
The county’s adoption of the Old South pattern of plantation agriculture was evident in the census of 1850, which found 1,680 slaves and two free blacks residing amidst a white population of 2,326. The county’s slave population continued to increase at an astonishing rate during the last decade of antebellum Texas, as a result not only of purchases by current residents but also of continuing heavy migration of slaveholders from the lower South. In 1855 the county tax rolls enumerated 3,124 slaves, representing an almost 86 percent increase over the 1850 level. The 1858 county tax roll listed forty-two residents as holders of twenty or more slaves, the index of wealth often used to define a “planter,” while the 1860 census listed seventy-seven individuals owning twenty or more slaves. By 1860 there were 4,852 whites in the county and 5,468 slaves, constituting 53 percent of the population. Thus, though the white population had doubled in the preceding decade, the slave population had tripled. With 505 slaveholders, Grimes was one of only seventeen counties in the state in which the average number of slaves per slaveholder was greater than ten.
Grimes County Historical Society Newsletter, January 2016
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Blacks in Navasota began to vote and most Republican. The KKK began to infiltrate the town and a sense of lawlessness became pervasive despite the election of several black politicians. The Freedmen’s Bureau reported over a dozen homicides in 1867 most against Blacks. By 1870, 60% of the population was Black.
A deed between Ira C. Camp, and Lee Bobo’s father, John Bobo, dating to 1881 show John originally purchased for $125 two lots of land each 25 feet by 118 feet on the Daniel Tyler League (Daniel Tyler was one of the original Grimes County land grantees). Lee was probably conveyed one of the tracts by his father as he is found on the 1895 tax rolls. Father, John, was an “expressmen” delivering all manner of goods throughout the town and county on his wagon and horse. In 1867, just after the war, John is found on the voter registration list. His ownership of his labor and political will was no doubt instrumental in establishing a foothold in the town that would payoff for the Bobo family.
Ira C. Camp was a notable figure and slave-holder in Navasota prior to the Civil War. The 1850 Slave Schedule indicates Camp enslaved 13 individuals, 7 men, and 5 women. Well-known for his real estate and development projects, Camp moved from Mississippi in 1846 with his wife Eliza and acquired a lot of land in Grimes County. He built a large home that served as an inn and befriended Sam Houston and supported Baptist causes his whole life. After the Civil War, Camp petitioned President Johnson for a pardon for his support of the Confederacy and received it, like most Confederates.
Camp Addition and Camp Subdivision were sold to white settlers but a part of the town which Ira Camp named “Canaan” was sold to freed black men and became Freedman town. This is where Bessie and Lee Bobo settled in South Navasota. But even owning land offered little security. From emancipation to the turn of the century, blacks were continuous victims of white violence in Grimes County.
Despite the violence, the Bobos sought out an existence in the troubled frontier town. Lee’s brother Kelly “A.K.” was working on the river wharf, and brother John Wesley was working on a farm. By 1900 Lee worked at an oil mill and claimed his father was born in Louisiana and his mother in Texas. In 1889 Lee purchased more land in the Horlock and Deadrick addition to the city of Navasota for $150. However, by 1902, Lee and Bessie uprooted the family and moved to Dallas, Texas. They sold their land for $200. They were no doubt thinking about the safety of their family and children, Annie (named for Bessie’s mother), Earl Dewitt, David Newton, and Susie Mae. Parents, John Bobo and his wife Alice Craig left Navasota as well. Navasota had gone from outright lawlessness and straight to hell.
In 1900, a secret all-white, all-male society, known as the White Man’s Union made up of the white merchants and leaders of Navasota began to terrorize the large black population of Navasota. The white Populist Sheriff Garett Nelson who had a good relationship with the black community was targeted in a daylight attack on the streets of the city. An all-white mob murdered three men and shot the sheriff in November and trapped him and his family in the courthouse. State militia was needed to rescue Scott, his family, and several other men. Scott left Navasota, divested his land and brought a successful lawsuit against EVERY white merchant in town. They were all WMU. The black population, and the Bobo family, left Navasota in droves in 1902 so much so the crops in the area failed because there was no one to bring them in. Today the population of Navasota is 54% white and 30% black.
Not Without Difficulty
Lee and Bessie and the family settled into Armstrong’s Booker Washington Addition of Dallas, Texas near Highland Park. Mother, Annie Demmings moved to Dallas to live with them. Records indicate they owned their own home. Bessie had six more children, twins, Thelma Valentine and Ethel Tobie, as well as Birdie, and unbelievably, another set of twins, Bell Zora and Ell Ora Bobo. Fourteen years separated Bessie’s oldest Anna, and her twin daughters born in 1910. Sadly, her twin daughters lived just three months before perishing according to announcements in the Dallas Times. Tragedy struck again in 1911 when her daughter Gregory died. She survived just 10 days.
During the early 1900s in Dallas, the Bobo family went through remarkable changes from a rural to urban life. Their community and lives were documented frequently in the Dallas Times, Dallas Express (the city’s African American newspaper), as well as the Dallas Morning News. “Mama Bessie” as she became known, was a devout churchgoer at Central Methodist Church, a teacher, a nursery head, and taught Sunday School. Lee was a sextant for their church. They both worked for and were affiliated with Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
According to a 1930 Dallas Morning News article, Bessie Bobo was also head of a negro daycare for children ages 2-8 at the Highland Park United Methodist Church, part of the A.M.E. church grounds onsite. The site was rented by the Highland Park Women’s Missionary Society. It’s unclear, but Bessie probably also taught at the nearby negro Sunday School. Despite the racial slur in the headline and demeaning view of black progress, the article places Bessie at the center of the nursery entrusted to her by her community and the Highland Park Society.
Bessie’s father-in-law John Bobo died in 1917, and her mother-in-law “Nannie” Bobo died in 1929. The 1910 census indicated John was widowed by then at the age of 58. John was living with his younger sister Lilly and her husband Henry Bolden at that time in Dallas (according to the 1910 census and Directory information). However, I believe he was actually separated from Alice. Alice was living not too far away in fact according to the Directories. This intriguing bit of information recently lead me to learn that John Bobo’s younger sister (and possibly a parent or two) lived not too far from Navasota in the 1880s. Research on Lilly reveals her surname as “Johnson” and that she and her husband lived in and were married in Montgomery, Texas prior to moving to Dallas. It’s possible her mother remarried as “Johnson” or it was an adopted name. Its also possible Lilly was John’s sister-in-law, the sister of his wife Alice Craig. John’s death certificate lists his parents as Cornelius Bobo and Emma Brown in testimony by Bessie Bobo. There is considerable more research needed here.
In 1920, Annie, Bessie’s first daughter died. She was living in Los Angeles, a stenographer and recently married when she contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. She traveled home to Dallas where she passed away in July from complications from the flu. She was buried in Woodland Cemetery near the Booker Addition. John Bobo and wife Alice “Nannie” Bobo, and AK Bobo, are also interred at Woodland. Crawford was the family undertaker.
In 1932, Lee Bobo, 60, died and was laid to rest in Woodland Cemetery in Dallas as well. Lee had several jobs over the years. He worked as a driver for the Armor Package Co (1903), a fireman at the Linz building (1904-06), an engraver (1907-1909) and then worked for 26 years at the Central Christian Church (1910 -1932) in Highland Park, one of the oldest Protestant congregations in Dallas (established in 1863), as a Sextant and Custodian. David could read and write by age 7 according to the 1880 census, and clearly, had attended a negro school in Navasota.
Apparently, Lee was quite the barbecue pitmaster. His smokehouse was cleared out by a “sneak thief” in a theft that made the Dallas Express newspaper in 1919.
A Remarkable Feat
A persistent family story about Bessie Bobo was that she earned a college degree in her lifetime. Indeed, I learned after examination of the 1940 census record that she had earned a 4-year college degree between 1930 and 1940 in her 50s, a remarkable feat. The search continues to find her alma-mater. Almost certainly she was one of the first in the Bobo line to graduate from college. Daughter Thelma did have a 4-year college degree from Wilberforce University in Ohio.
After Lee’s death, Bessie left Dallas and traveled to New York where her daughter Thelma had relocated with her husband Bill Swann, a Bermudian immigrant. The Swann’s lived in Harlem on E. 99th Street according to the 1930 census. Their eldest daughter Gloria was born in New York eight years prior meaning Bill and Thelma had been living in New York since at least 1922. Maude Hale (Bessie’s granddaughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law of Tobie Bobo) shared that “Mama Bessie” had worked in the offices of Asa Philip Randolph, the noted Civil Rights and labor movement organizer while living in New York in the 30s.
On the application for a social security account number on January 19, 1938 that Bessie made, she listed her address as 129 St. Ann’s Avenue, Bronx, New York. She listed her mother’s full maiden name as Ann Miles. Her home in the NY was just off Bronx Kill on the peninsula of the borough. Across the kill was Harlem and Randall’s Island, and the East River- Rikers Island. Bessie’s daughter Birdie and her husband Leo Leslie Saunders relocated from Dallas to Harlem in late 1940 also to E. 99th St. There Leo registered for the draft while working at the Adolphus Hotel. He was never drafted. After Susie Mae’s first husband, Chester Nash passed in 1947, she left Dallas and lived the rest of her life in New York.
By 1931, Ethel and husband Andy Harper had relocated from Dallas to Colorado Springs. Cousin Leslie Stephens, grandson of Birdie Bobo and Adolph Jordan, informed me that Ethel and Andy owned a restaurant serving black soldiers and airmen from the nearby Air Force Academy out of the back of their home. Andy was a great cook and well known and beloved in the Colorado Springs community. Ethel was a social worker for nearly 20 years. Ethel had a son from a previous relationship when she was 14 years old in Dallas, Herman Atcherson Jones. Ethel passed in 1989, her husband Andy in 1958.
By 1935, Thelma and Bill and their family followed family to Denver, Colorado from Harlem. Bill was an independent trucker most of his life and passed in 2000. Around 1950, Birdie and Leo and their family also relocated to Denver from New York as well. Leo was a waiter at the Navarre Club, the hottest jazz club in Denver. He later worked as a realtor. Birdie had two children from a previous marriage in Dallas to Adolph Jordan born 1899.
According to Leslie Stephens, Adolph Jordan was the first black pharmacist in Dallas, TX. He was well-known and respected and later sent three children (not his own) to college. His first families (the Bobos) were more complicated and difficult. He married Thelma V. Bobo but later had an affair with Thelma’s younger sister Birdie, producing two children, Everett Alvin b. 1924 and Ernestine b. 1925. A third child, Charles, may also be attributed to Adolph but is more likely Leo Leslie Sanders’ son. Adolph eventually moved to Houston (presumably when the relationship with Birdie ended). He lived there until his death in 1991.
Bessie’s son David N. Bobo b. 1898, my great grandfather, lived most of his life in Chester, Pennsylvania, locating there when he was just eighteen where he met and married Edith Johnson b. 1893, the daughter of a grocer and city councilman. He had divorced and remarried Edith’s distant much younger cousin Mario Rae Henry, but large remarkable families with both women. He also had an illegitimate child with Gertrude Palm all of Chester in 1923, but that is yet another story. David passed in 1990, Edith ten years earlier. David Johnson or “Curly Dave” as he was known, lead a very complex life that I will explore in a later post.
Bessie lived the last 10 years of her life with her daughter Ethel in a modest home on Fountain Place in Manitou Springs. Records show she was living in Colorado Springs since at least 1946.
Bessie’s home was just a few miles from The People’s Methodist Episcopal Church on East Vrain in Colorado Springs. The church was formed in 1903 by a group of ex-slaves and began meeting at the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows Hall. The church provided meeting space for the DuBois Study Club, People’s Literary Society, NAACP, Women’s Home Missionary Society, Ladies Aid Society, and Colorado Springs Unity Council. I imagine Bessie must have been quite a force in life. She was wise and well-traveled, and her experiences with her family and their complicated relationships showed how much she loved and cared for them. Her leadership and guidance as a teacher set a powerful example. It’s no wonder that ten years after her death, in 1963, the Woman’s Society of Christian Service of People’s Methodist Church named a new circle in Bessie’s honor.
Using DNA research and other methods, I determined the paternity of Ann Demings. Her father is Aaron Turner Sr., a white enslaver, farmer, and Methodist preacher who was born in North Carolina, likely Richmond County, who migrated to Marlboro County, South Carolina, then Georgia, Alabama, and finally to Leon County, Texas. He enslaved two adult women and two children, one of whom was Ann’s mother. Ann is likely referenced in the 1850 Leon County Slave Schedule of 1850 as an 11-month old living in the Turner homestead. See: Ann Turner Demings: Her Enslaver, Her Ancestor, Her Country.
Dallas Morning News
Land Deeds, John Bobo, 1881
Land Deed, David Bobo, Bessie Bobo, 1902
Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph
US Census, Texas, Mexia and Navasota, 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880, 1900
US Census, Texas, Dallas County, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940
Ancestry.com, DNA Summary and Matches, Joel R. Johnson, Cherita E. Bobo
US Census, Slave Schedules, Greenville, Alabama, 1840, 1850, 1860
Slave Schedules, Freestone County, 1840, 1850, 1860
The word “Africa” lept off the page like lightning. I jumped from my chair as if a thousand volts had snuck out of the keyboard and into my fingertips. I did the geni-happy dance around my basement den for several minutes. Then I cried, tears of joy, relief, exasperation, and pain (in genealogy, you cry a lot, and often).
On the 1870 census of Greenville, South Carolina, there next to my ancestor Alex Choice’s name were the undescribable letters A-F-R-I-C-A indicating where Alex was born, and equally remarkable, his age, 100. Homespun family genealogists hate the word impossible. African American family genealogists usually just use the word “rare” when asked if we may ever find a direct link to an ancestral nation in Africa. Sure, it’s “rare, but not impossible” to find your enslaved ancestors slaveholder, we agree, especially if you’re willing to dig into local archives and study the white slaveholders in a community as deeply you would your own ancestors. It’s “rare, but not impossible” to find a descendant’s Civil War pension from the United States Colored Troops. But this type of find can be classified as “exceedingly rare.” To find a genetic descendant who was enslaved, whose birthplace is identified in a census as “Africa” is frankly, damn near impossible.
To arrive at Alex Choice and his family is a journey that uses all the tools of genealogy – from the scrutiny of records to modern DNA-testing, as well as recognizing the fact that it takes family to find family. The journey would go through the Mays family (my mother’s father’s line), the Choice line, and the Walker line. And as we shall see it also yielded a second powerful revelation about my lineage.
It begins with my maternal line, the Mays family from Greenville, South Carolina, and their relationship with another family of formerly enslaved people, the Walkers, whom they lived beside, and farmed corn, wheat, wool and cotton with, and built business and religious enterprises with from the early 1800s throughout the 1900s. The Mays family is absolutely enormous, but my eldest Mays ancestor on record is my second great-grandfather, James Mays, born in March 1847, a farmer who was previously enslaved, who died in 1910. His wife, Harriet Sherman, born in Charleston to Joseph and Mariah Sherman in 1848, outlived him and died in 1929. No picture of Jim survives, only Harriet. Jim never knew his parents, family oral history suggests and I have not identified them on any record so far.
Once free, Jim Mays and his wife Harriet were tenant farmers the rest of their lives, never owning property, probably never getting out from under unfair labor contracts that kept them poor. While I can find labor contracts between other Greenville family lines, which I will write about in due time, I have not found any between Jim Mays and white farmers during Reconstruction. There are no records either of whose property he farmed, first in Gantt and later the Grove district. In 1868, Jim registered to vote and signed up for the local militia. Jim and Harriet were the parents of 11 children. Benjamin Franklin aka Frank, John, Judge, Van Matthew, William aka Will, Lula, Hattie, Maggie, Nellie, Jessie Lee, and an unknown named child. They had rich lives still in their community and church. They were affiliated with Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church and Flat Rock Baptist Church in Greenville. Their children, one generation out of slavery broke the cycle and gained upward mobility which I’ll detail in a later post. The 1900 census shows Harriet was the mother of 11 children but only 10 was living. Van Matthew Mays, the fifth son, left Greenville for Cleveland, Ohio between 1910 and 1920 as part of the great migration. I am the grandson of Van’s second son Arthur O’Neal Mays and Dorothy Alberta Redd.
The 1880 US census enumerates the Mays family as:
Jim Mays, 30, farmer
Harriet (nee Sherman), 23
The northernmost corner of South Carolina was for a long time an American frontier, with Native Americans, Cherokee and Catawbas, trading with some intrepid trappers and farmers along the foothills of the Appalachian mountain range. The Cherokee accepted traders like Tory explorer and farmer Richard Pearis under British rule and granted him the first 100,000 acres of Cherokee land that stretched across the Piedmont North to Virginia in the late 1700s. Families followed the wagon road and the area’s earliest white settlers set up homes along the waterways. Eventually, Lemuel J. Alston purchased a good deal of Pearis’s lands and Alston set up the plat, called Pleasantburg, that became Greenville by the early 1800s. The area was attractive to speculators and wealthy planters like Vardry McBee who purchased land from Alston. McBee was an ardent recruiter for Greenville convincing Furman University to relocate there. Meanwhile, planters who fought in the Revolutionary War, like Captain Samuel Walker and Captain Robert Cleveland, established their farms in the late 1700s. Though the majority of enslaved in the state resided around plantations on the coast and outside Charleston, enslaved from farms on Ninety-Six, Abbeville, and Edgefield were imported to the county farms. By 1800, Greenville district had 10,029 whites and 1,475 blacks, a 10-to-1 ratio and by 1870 the ratio was 2-to-1 with 15,121 whites and 7,141 blacks. The town proper population in 1870 was 2, 757, showing most lived on the surrounding farms. Black labor was small, but grew steadily as Greenville went from frontier-town to established trading post, and finally, the northern agricultural center of the state.
James Mays, family oral history says, that he was born on or near the James Moon plantation known as “Moonville” though this is currently uncorroborated. An 1882 map shows two Mays/Mayes families living along the White Horse Pike in between the Lenhardt lands and Moon farms. A. Walker and P. Walker also have nearby farms which will prove consequential later.
In fact, there are three white James Mays living in Greenville in about 1850 when my great-great-grandfather was born. Its unclear if Jim took the surname of a slaveholder, or a merely common name post-emancipation.
On the 1850 Slave Schedule, James B. Mays (white farmer) lists a male age of 4 on James B. Mays farm, and the 1860 Slave Schedule lists a male age of 12. This tracks with Jim’s age at the time. On the 1860 Census, Dr. James B. Mays, now age 24, lives in “Oil Camp district in Greenville, SC with his brother Samuel E. Mays whose farm is valued at $20,000, with a personal estate valued at $14,000.
In 1850, another James Mays (white) born in England in 1780 is living in Gilford, in Greenville. In 1860 his farm is worth $5000, and he has $4000 in personal wealth. Jim Mays may have come off either plantation, or neither. There is more research to be done on these slaveholding planters.
The Walker Connection
I started to investigate the Walker family of Greenville in earnest after I learned that genealogists could use the “F.A.N. Club” approach to break down brick walls in your research. Brick walls are deadends on the genealogy paper trail where the ink runs dry on the usual records and sources and an ancestor disappears from the record for any number of reasons. Could be a name-change, move, or death, etc. F.A.N. stands for “friends and neighbors” and when researching the census, we use the F.A.N. Club approach to examine the friends and neighbors of relatives, identifying and tracking them on subsequent censuses, and census records in neighboring counties, and even across the district for more relatives and their neighbors. Because enslaved and free black communities were tight-knit, interwoven by family and marriage, they often moved together in groups. In some cases, entire black communities would pull up the welcome mat and move, for opportunity or to escape violence. It’s especially helpful for ancestors with difficult to spell surnames. The Walkers, I knew were connected to my family because several early 20th-century death certificates of the Mays family referenced the Mayes & Walker Funeral home for burial services. My cousin Pat Thompson, the Mays family genealogist had discovered the clues years ago, but now the lead was mine.
I used newspaper archives and city directories to identify that John Henry Mayes and Clifford C. Walker were partners and funeral directors at Mayes & Walker, at 510 McBee Avenue in the early 1930s. John’s son James W. Mayes was also an embalmer there. John Mayes, born May 1872 and died in 1864, was my great-grandfather Van Matthew Mayes’ brother, and son of Jim and Harriet Mays. The 1930 census classified John as an “undertaker” and “owner” living in a home on Chicora St. above the funeral home (valued at $2000) with his wife “Jannie” Gamble and several children. His partner, Clifford C. Walker, born Jan 1877, was single and living at St. John St in 1930. Clifford never married and died in 1934 at age 54. No further record of Mayes & Walker suggests the business did not last much longer.
The Mays and Walkers were also founders of the Mt. Pleasant Church in Greenville on White Horse Pike Road. When the church reorganized in 1938, J. Walker, G. Walker, and J. Mays were carved into the new church cornerstone. Walkers and Mays both, are buried at the Mt. Pleasant cemetery behind the church and across the railroad tracks.
Furthermore, Mays and Walkers intermarried. Florella Walker, born 1845 died 1947, married Samuel Mays Sr. (another probable brother or first cousin of Jim Mays) born 1843 died sometime after 1900. Clearly, the Mays and Walker families are deeply connected throughout their lives in post-emancipation Greenville right up through the 20th century. However, it is 21st-century technology that further unites these families.
A New Revelation
Last year, after taking an AncestryDNA test I identified two 4th cousins with well-developed family trees who match me, and match each other. The DNA result meant I share a common ancestor, a 3rd great grandparent with each.
I share 21 CM across 3 segments with Cousin A, and 36 CM across 4 segments with Cousin B. Ancestry only shows shared match in the same range meaning we’re all 4th cousins. It does not mean we’re all descended from the same 3rd great grandparent.
My Cousin B’s mother’s father’s line’s 2nd great-grandparent is, in fact, Samuel Mays Sr. This possibly corroborates that Sam Mays and Jim Mays are brothers, the 3rd great grandparent being the in-common “missing” ancestor for both. I believe he’s also the “S. Mayes” listed on the 1882 Greenville map above, living a stone’s throw from Alfred and Pleasant Walker.
Here’s where things get interesting… Both of these 4th cousins are Greenvillians and descendants of Walker family lines between the 6th and 7th generations. Both DNA cousins’ share 4th great-grandparents Limb Walker and Betty Walker, both born before 1815. Limb and Betty Walker are found on the 1917 death certificate of Alfred Walker Sr. born 1826 and died 1917. Alfred is a son. He is also the father of Florella Walker who married Samuel Mays Sr.
Cousin A’s 3rd great-grandparents are Alfred Walker his wife “X” and Samuel May’s father and an unidentified woman (for now). For the sake of the test, I’ve eliminated Cousin A’s other 3rd great-grandparents based on surname matching.
On Cousin B’s line, Pleasant Walker born 1825 and died 1890, is also the son of Limb Walker and Betty Walker, and married to Mariah Choice. Pleasant Walker and Mariah Choice are her 3rd great-grandparents. For the sake of the test I’ve eliminated Cousin B’s other 3rd great-grandparents based on surname matching here again.
So possible 3rd great grandparents of Cousin B (and probably Jim Mays father or mother) include, Pleasant Walker OR Mariah Choice.
Cousin A and I have only one shared match – with Cousin B. Cousin B and I, however, share many shared matches. This is tricky as DNA is lost from generation to generation…but Cousin A and I don’t share matches with other genetic relatives with Choice surnames. I do share several Choice descendant matches with Cousin B.
So here are my best guesses.
A) Either Jim is the son of Mariah Choice and Alfred Walker Sr,
B) Jim is the son of an unidentified man (who is also Samuel Mays father and likely has the surname Mays) and Mariah Choice.
My own Greenville line is well-researched, but in a combined 65 years of research between myself and Pat Thompson, we’ve never identified the parents of my second great-grandfather Jim Mays, never got close, until now.
Why isn’t Jim the son of Alfred Walker’s wife “X” and Pleasant Walker? Turns out, Cousin B and I share “Choice” family DNA shared matches in common on Ancestry, but Cousin B does not with Cousin A. That puts the spotlight on Mariah Choice as his mother, at least. Why can’t Jim just be descended from Pleasant and Mariah? Because my second 4th DNA cousin is descended from Pleasant’s brother, Alfred (at least on paper).
There is more DNA research to be done and these are just theories. Triangulation will enable me to further explore, confirm or refute these theories once I get Cousin A and B to post their data to GedMatch, but I feel it in my bones that Mariah Choice is my likely 3rd great-grandmother, mother of Jim Mays, most likely with an unidentified Mays man who also fathered Samuel Mays Sr. Furthermore, Oliver Mays, born 1845 is also found living in Mariah and Pleasant’s home in 1870, another probable son or nephew. Mariah was born about 1825 but did not start having children with Pleasant until 1852, when she was 27. There was plenty of time for her to have children before that relationship, and it would have been quite common among the enslaved to be forced to increase the slaveholder’s lot. Perhaps she had Jim, Samuel, and Oliver in a quasi-relationship with a white Mays? Perhaps she had no say in the matter as was often the case during slavery.
Mariah found something, hopefully, happiness, with Pleasant Walker raising a large family. But not so Jim. He may have been given up to be raised by another family member. He may have known all along Mariah was his mother and chose not to acknowledge her or she him. If it was rape, repeated rape by a white Mays, then one can understand the unfathomably deep pain and trauma that may have caused and…the distance. Or the family oral history is wrong and he did know his Mother. One can only speculate.
Jim’s son Benjamin Franklin Mays was a very light-skinned man. In his picture, he could pass for a white man. I believe Jim’s father was white (I have no picture of Jim and his census records show him as “black”). This leads me to believe Mariah’s partner was likely white or she herself was bi-racial. I do have a 5th DNA cousin who lists an ancestor Caroline Choice “black” as the bi-racial daughter of William Choice b. 1756, the white enslaver and plantation owner who lived in Greenville. However, no other matches suggest this relationship.
Mariah’s brother Jack Choice is also found living one home away, right next door to Jim Mays in 1870. This is no coincidence and continues to point to a nexus between the Mays, Walker, and Choice families.
A Father From Africa
Mariah Walker-Choice disappears from the record after 1880, probably passing away shortly after, but her parents are documented in several records. At the close of the Civil War, Mariah’s parents are “Ellick Choice + wife” on a Freedmen’s Bureau ration report in 1865, listed as “very old.” On a second ration document, they’re listed as follows, “Alech” Choice, 75 years old, “Sylvia,” 70 years old, and they “live at Lenhart’s” (living on the Lawrence Lenhardt plantation — see Map). Each received 1 corn bushel and 8 lbs of bacon from the government. Such sustenance was desperately needed in Greenville during and immediately after the war. Two harsh winters, the loss of enslaved labor for farming, and war had impoverished the Piedmont region of South Carolina. Thousands of free blacks and poor whites were starving, thousands died. The Freedmen’s Bureau literally saved millions of black and white lives post-emancipation.
A search of the 1870 census for the Walkers turned up Alex Choice still living, but widowed. His wife Sylvia had died between 1865 and 1870.
Here is the remarkable enumeration of the Walker family on the 1870 US Census that has brought me one step closer to my ancestral home:
Pleasant Walker, 45, personal estate, $200
Mariah Walker nee’ Choice, 45, keeping house
Oliver Maize (Mayes), 22, laborer (possible son of Mariah, brother to Jim)
Alex Choice, 100, birthplace, Africa
Alex Choice, my 4th great-grandfather, was born in Africa. Thanks to the new DNA communities added to Ancestry, I can identify which native regions are most closely associated with African Americans in the Piedmont of South Carolina. They are Cameroon, Congo and Southern Bantu regions, as well as Benin and Togo, taken together more than half of my DNA admixture.
Alex may yet be the link to Africa, but I wish to learn about his life and to identify his slaveholders. His last name, Choice, has pointed me in the direction of early Greenville founders, William Choice, and his descendants, as well as Sylvanus Walker. Both were prominent, wealthy slaveholding planters, both are well-researched, descendants of Patriots from the American Revolution. Because so many Greenvillians today have Mays and Walker roots, I look forward to searching for my ancestors among the Walker and Choice records.
Since, this post was published, Ancestry launched ThruLines, a DNA family tree tool that combines DNA evidence of Ancestry DNA tests and family tree profiles for researchers to evaluate potential theories on the relationship. Below is a visualization using Thrulines of the Choice-Walker-Mays relationship based on an analysis of the DNA relationship between myself and Cousin A and Cousin B, adding validation to my initial theory.
US Census, South Carolina, Greenville District County, 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930
Ancestry.com, DNA Summary, and matches of Joel R. Johnson
Huff, Archie Vernon Jr. Greenville: The history of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont, University of South Carolina Press, 1995
US Census, Slave Schedules, Greenville District, 1850, 1860
Selected US Federal Non-Population Schedules, Agriculture, Gant Greenville, South Carolina, 9 June 1880
Ancestry.com, US City Directory, Greenville, South Carolina, 1930, 1931, 1933, 1934
Mays Thompson, Patricia, I Came By Way of Somebody, Sixth Edition, 2004.
Where did Asbury Johnson, my 3rd great grandfather, a free black on Maryland’s Eastern shore and a well-documented scion of the Johnson family come from? An examination of the book, Free African Americans of Maryland 1832 by Jerry Hynson, a census of free blacks taken to inform the Maryland Colonization effort to ship free men to Liberia, shows several “Johnson” family groups listed in Queen Anne’s County living between Sudlersville and Crumpton. Among Asbury’s family group was the following information:
Group 1: Johnson, page 115
Males (as listed in order)
Aaron Johnson, 30
Philip Johnson, 45
Asbury Johnson, 9
Alfred Johnson, 5
James Johnson, 23
Nat Johnson, 49
Unfortunately, this part of the census is separated into male and female groups (other counties are not). It is possible however to identify families by matching listed associates with each male and female family group to build a preponderance of evidence to recombine the family units.
I found separated several male and female Johnson groups and then matched most of them by examining the surnames before and after each group, and the order of listing. So for example, if one male group had Gould, Comegys and Little surnames surrounding it, and one female group had the surnames, and they were in the same order of appearance in the list Johnson male group 5, Johnson female group 5, I could reconnect families. In my case, matching surnames included Massey, Anderson, Warwick, Faulkner, and Blake. In this way, I identified the correct Johnson female group linked to Asbury’s family. The female group is as follows:
Group 2: Johnson, page 126
Females (as listed in
Jenny Johnson, 52
Hester Johnson, 20
Sarah Johnson, 2
Charlotte Johnson, 26
Netta Willamson, 90 (possible mother/grandmother to Charlotte or Hester)
Adeline Johnson, 2 Ana Maria Johnson, 2 (twins)
It’s incredibly exciting to have reunited the family and it will give me countless new leads to follow. Furthermore, revisiting the census leads me to new conclusions about Asbury’s lineage. I’ve deduced that Aaron is probably Asbury Johnson and Alfred Johnson’s father based on their proximity in the census. A second clue lay in the fact that Asbury is a wealthy landowner in 1860 as documented on that census. Where did he get the money to buy a farm? How did he build his wealth? Did he have a headstart?
Land in the Family
A thorough review of Queen Anne’s County land records from 1707 – 1851 (MSA CE 144 – 145) reveals no sales of lands to Asbury Johnson, my 3rd great grandfather. Ditto in the second set of records 1851 – 1965 (MSA CE 146 – 147). I did, however, discover a sale of land from James Wilson Browne and wife Hannah Spry-Browne to Aaron Johnson (free negro) in 1829. I’ve often wondered how Asbury could come to own land by the 1850 census without a deed. I can only conclude that he inherited it from his father, Aaron.
“Queen Anne’s County, to wit. Be it remembered that on the Sixth day of anno Eighteen hundred and Twenty-nine, the following Deed was brought to be recorded to wit,This indenture made and registered this 29th day of December Eighteen hundred and twenty eight between James Brown and Hannah his wife formerly the widow Samuel Spry of the one part and Aaron Johnson free negro of the other part, all of Queen Anne’s County and the state of Maryland, Whosotheth, that the said James Brown and Hannan Brown his wife for and in consideration of the sum of fifty four dollars current money of Maryland to them in hand paid for the said Brown Johns the receipt whereof whereby acknowledged hath granted bargained and sold, a xxx and xxxx conveyed and conferred and by these present doth give grand bargain and sell xxxx release xxx off convey and confer unto the said Aaron Johnson and his heirs forever all that messages? or tenament? of land being part of two tracts of land called and known as Guyders range and Comegys Reserve or by whatever name or names the same may be called lying and being on the upper kent of Queen Anne’s County and situated on the North side of the public road leading from J. B. to the heart/head of Chester and on the west side of the Red Lyon Branch near where the Camp meetings have been held annual thing….now laid down for six acres of land more or less, together with all and singular the houses buildings gardens fences has woods underwoods ways water profits commodity hereditaments and advantages to the said part of tracts or parcel of lands called + known by the name of Gyders range + Comegys Reserve .”
I’ve thoroughly researched every transaction (deed, bill of sale, manumission) made by James Browne and found only one sale of land to a free negro, Aaron Johnson. Browne was a wealthy planter. The 1810 census shows he owned 5 slaves, and the 1820 census shows Browne owned 4 slaves at that time. Browne has several transactions in the QAC Land Records which I’ll detail later. He was also living on a tract on Comegys Reserve. He sold part of that tract to Aaron.
Comegys Reserve first appears named in the will of Andrew Cornelius who died in 1796. He left the land to his son Andrew Cornelius Jr. It’s unclear when Andrew Cornelius gained his tract on Comegys Reserve, however, sources suggest that William Comegys III (of Kent Island) gave his brother Isaac Comegys land in Queen Anne’s County called “Comegys Reserve” containing 103 acres. The Comegys were Swedes from the Swedish colony in Delaware who became planters in Kent County and Queen Anne’s County in the mid-1700s. On 16 Jan 1765, Isaac Comegys sold the reserve to Joseph Ireland. Its likely Ireland (a Calvert County native) sold the land to James Brown so the chain of ownership would look like the following:
William Comegys III (103 acres) >Isaac Comegys (103 acres) > 1765 Joseph Ireland > James Brown OR Hannah Spry (wife) > 1829 Aaron Johnson ( 6 Acres)
To my son Daniel Cornelius, all those parts of two tracts of land in Queen Anne’s County upon which I now live the one called Comegy’s Reserve, the other Gunthers Lot; except the part of Comegys Reserve which is hereafter devised by me to my son Andrew Cornelius. In case my son Daniel shall die without lawful issue of his body, then the sd. to my son Nicholas Cornelius.
To my son Andrew Cornelius all that tract of land called The Pearl lying in Queen Ann’s Co. containing one hundred a. of land, also sixty a. of my xxx. part of the tract of land called Comegys Reserve (being the part excepted in the above devise to my son Daniel), to be laid off for my son Andrew so as to include the north end of the part of the sd. tract now held by me and adjoining the one hundred a. of land called the Pearl. In case my son Andrew shall die without lawful issue of his body, then I give the sd. part of the tract of land called The Pearl and also that part of Comegys Reserve to my son Joseph Cornelius.
To my son Andrew Cornelius two Negro men: Cesar (and) Robert. To my son Daniel Cornelius one Negro boy James, Negro girl Margaret. To my son Joseph Cornelius Negro girl Rachael and two Negro children Temperance (and) William. To my dau. Mary Cornelius Negro boy Richard. To my dau. Rebecca Cornelius Negro boy Jacob. To my dau. Elizabeth Cornelius Negro girl Esther.
The residue of my personal estate to my sons: John, Daniel, Nicholas, Andrew & Joseph & to my daus. Mary, Rebecca & Elizabeth – equally divided between them. I appoint my son Daniel Cornelius sole executor.
Will of Andrew Cornelius 1796
Logically, I wondered if Aaron Johnson or his parents were formerly enslaved by either the Cornelius, or Brown, or Spry family. An examination of land records, bills of sale, and manumissions reveal some incredible and sometimes heart-wrenching facts about these family’s business transactions.
First, Andrew Cornelius’ son, Daniel Cornelius – sole executor of his estate, lead his siblings, Mary, Elizabeth, and Andrew Jr. to the courthouse in 1796 right after their father’s death. There they freed the Cornelius enslaved willed to them by their father. The remarkable manumission lists the following enslaved and the date they were to be freed; Robert 1803, Richard 1805, Jacob 1808, Esther 1805, Margaret 1808, James 1808. Witnesses inclu Thomas Roberts and Samuel Cook.
Joseph Cornelius, another son of Andrew and who received 3 enslaved in the will, did not participate in the mass manumission of the “sundry negros.” There was no clear record connecting Aaron or his presumed father Phillip to the Cornelius family.
Records show James Browne, who sold the land to Aaron, made 3 sales of his enslaved in 1816. His first sale was South to feed the beast that was King Cotton. Browne sold Sophia, age 15, to a slave trader in South Carolina. He then sold 9 of his enslaved to Edward Brown (presumably his brother) Hannah -34, Ned -21, Nance -7, Margaret -4, Bill -9 mos (son of Hannah), Noah -19, Doll -21, Beck -17 with male child 8 yrs. The last sale was of a girl -11, Ellen, to Stephen Wycoff of the county. Clearly, Browne was fully utilizing of enslaved labor, and willing to participate fully as a trader and purchaser of enslaved labor to his benefit.
Given that Browne was embroiled in the business of enslaved labor, perhaps it was his wife Hannah Spry that instigated and approved of the eventual sale of Browne’s portion of Comegys Preserve to a free negro Aaron Johnson? After all, records show that while she was married to her first husband Samuel Spry, the family sold a portion of their land on Guyders Range to another free negro by the name of James Price. Or perhaps for Browne, it was just business.
Maryland was a tobacco-growing state throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Cultivating tobacco was labor-intensive and depleted the land fast. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Maryland planters shifted to wheat and other crops. They needed less labor for these less-intensive crops and started selling their enslaved south or freeing them to save money. This could have been a factor in the Cornelius family’s mass manumission as well.
Clearly, the source of Asbury’s ability to build a prosperous free family and farm thirty years before emancipation came from his father’s ability to purchase those first 6 acres of land. Make no mistake, this was a mighty act of self-sufficiency in 1829 for a free black. I can only imagine how Aaron, his wife, and their children must have felt at the end of the exchange of those $54 hard-earned dollars.
So while there are no other clues about Aaron’s lineage in the Brown and Spry records, one tantalizing clue appears in the 1850 census. Living immediately next door to Asbury Johnson and his family are William Cornelius and family, descendants of Andrew Cornelius. Furthermore, I’ve now identified the Cooper brothers family. Recall the Cooper brothers also received a Certificate of Freedom witnessed by Col. Lemuel Roberts in 1857 on the same day as Alfred and Asbury Johnson. One Michael Cooper was listed as living on land in the will and probate of Christopher Goodhand. Michael and his family including sons James and John Cooper are found in the 1850 census. Perhaps the Coopers and Johnson family were related? And in Andrew Cornelius will, I find one Cesar (negro man) left to Andrew Jr. A free black man Cesar Faulker also appears in the 1832 census. Could the Faulkners be related to the Johnson clan? Separately, a Cesar Johnson (free negro) appears to have purchased on Kent Island in QAC from one Thomas Lynch in 1822 (QAC Land deeds TM No. 3 page 331). Could Cesar Johnson be the same Cesar enslaved by Andrew Cornelius and willed to Andrew Jr?
The search continues to identify who freed the Johnson family among the dusty digitized records of Queen Anne’s County. My reconstituted and combined Johnson family group of the 1832 census is now as follows:
Philip Johnson, 45 married Jenny Johnson, 52
Aaron Johnson, 30
James Johnson, 23
Aaron Johnson, 30 married Charlotte Johnson, 26
Asbury Johnson, 9
Alfred Johnson, 5
Adeline Johnson, 2 (twin)
Anna Maria Johnson, 2 (twin)
James Johnson 23 married Hester Johnson 20?
Sarah Johnson, 2
With this construction, I reclaim the women ancestors whom I thought lost to time, including my 4th great-grandmother Charlotte, and 5th great-grandmother Jenny. I say your names.
By the 1840 census, the Browne and the Johnson family are still neighbors. Phill Johnson is listed as the head of household. There 6 in the household, 1 male under 10 (born btw 1830-1840), 2 males between 10 – 23, 1 female 36-54, and 1 female 10-23, 1 male over 36 – 54 (Phill). By this time James Browne wife’ Hannah is dead and his son and daughter live in his home with 2 children under 6 years old.
I can see these early Johnsons in my mind’s eye walking their fields at dusk on a cold crisp January evening, the winter sun setting behind the trees and over the fallow fields. I envisage Aaron holding Charlotte’s hand as six-year old Asbury ran amok chasing the wild geese holding over in the field. He’d squeal and laugh as loud as he liked – for there was no White man to offend, no overseer to anger with his exuberance and joy. His father Aaron’s mind would turn to distant memories of people he had known and loved who were sold on from this county, neighbors, friends, perhaps even family. He would shed a few tears, and then would be thinking hard about what to plant as soon as the freeze was over and wondering how much firewood he could chop from his new land to last the rest of winter. Charlotte would be wondering about her one-year old son Alfred back home in the old cabin and under the care of her mother-in-law, Mama Jenny. Maybe now they’d get a cow for fresh milk so the children could grow tall and strong. Charlotte could find a good place for the animals behind the new cabin they’d start to build that very winter. As the geese scattered, Asbury would stop at the edge of the woods and turn around to look back at their parents, and be still, for just a moment, to take it all in.
In a world that guaranteed their people absolutely nothing, not even the dignity of familial bonds, they’d survived, they’d lived and thrived. And now this land, impossibly, incredibly, was theirs. They would choose when to rise and till the land. They would choose where to build the homestead. They would choose what crops to plant, which animals to raise. They would choose were to plant the well. They would choose which parcel of their six acres to set aside for the family cemetery. They would choose whom to hire, if need be, to help them work their own corner of Comegys Reserve.
US Census, Maryland, Queen Anne’s County, 1810, 1820, 1850, and 1860
Jerry M. Hynson, Free African Americans of Maryland 1832, Heritage Books, 2007
Will of Asbury Johnson, 1866. Maryland State Archives