“Archival Silence: Closing Gaps in African American History in Bulloch County, GA” is day-long event, led by Dr. Alvin Jackson, historian, Board President and co-founder of WHHRC, in association with the Telfair Museum in Savannah.
Telfair Museums explore Savannah’s place in “our collective American past through art, history, and architecture,” including the historiography of the Owens-Thomas House, and the enslaved in Savannah, among other sites.
My own history is deeply intertwined with the WHHRC, as I’ve discovered in the last several years. The founders of Willow Hill include my 3rd great-grandparents Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish-Riggs, and 3rd great uncle Isaac Riggs, and aunt Harriet Lanier-Riggs. I will present on my journey to “close the archival gap” and discoveries that led me to discover my Riggs Parrish heritage, through archival research, oral history study, and DNA research.
Students of SE Georgia genealogy and history, won’t want to miss this event! It is free and open to the public.
Abraham “A.B.” Riggs (1816 -1886) listed 14 enslaved souls in the 1860 census, among them my 4th great-grandmother Harriet Riggs (1820 -1874) and her family. Harriet and her children were enslaved by Abraham Riggs from 1849 – 1865, prior to that by Dicey Nevils-Donaldson-Mikell (as dower slaves) and formerly belonging to Jacob Nevils, my white 5th great-grandfather. Abraham Rigg’s enslaved labor increased by marriage by 9 since the 1850 slave census. Dr. Alvin Jackson, a historian, and director of the Bulloch county-based Willow Hill School Heritage & Renaissance Center, has shared that Harriet may have had another son named “William.” William Riggs does not show up in records connected to Harriet, but a recently added collection of documents to Ancestry reveals an enslaved man named William labored for the Confederacy against his will in Savannah – loaned out by Abraham Riggs to support white supremacy.
I’ve shared previously, Abraham Riggs was a large planter in Statesboro, Georgia, about 55 miles west of Savannah. in 1860, Abraham Riggs land was worth $400, but his personal estate was worth, $13,564 (wealth tied up in slaves that would be over $450,000 today). In 1870 after the war, his personal estate was just $150.
In January 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued and signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring “all persons held as slaves,” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward, shall be free.” The proclamation was anticipated in advance by the black community (free and enslaved) as Lincoln made the promise in the fall over a hundred days earlier and word had spread it was coming. As ambitious as the proclamation was, it meant nothing to the Confederates except further provocation to battle to keep the institution of slavery, and their wealth.
Ever the profiteer of misery, Abraham Riggs sent one of his enslaved, William Riggs, to labor for the Confederacy in December 1863, just under a year after the proclamation. William worked for just over 3 months. Abraham earned about $80 for William’s toil. Abraham’s recognizable signature can be found on the payroll listing the enslaved and amounts he was paid.
“We, the Subscribers, acknowledge to have received of Captain John McGrady, C.S. the sums set opposite our names respectively, being in full for the service of our Slaves at Savannah, GA during the months of Aug. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec. 1863 having signed duplicate receipts”
US, Confederate Payrolls for Enslaved Labor
Throughout the Civil War, Savannah was well-fortified by Confederate forces. Fort McAllister lay along the Ogeechee River to the South and guarded entry from the South through the Ossabaw area. To the North of the city, Fort Jackson protected just a few miles upstream on the Savannah River. However, the Union army was a constant and ever-present threat. Since 1862, Union forces occupied Fort Pulaski in Tybee just 18 miles south on the Savannah River. The Commander of the South was Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, infamous for leading the attack on Fort Sumter that started the war in 1861. He approved the evacuation of Savannah when General Sherman’s fateful march arrived with 62,000 Union soldiers. Several naval battles took place between raiders and ironside vessels in the rivers and seas around Savannah.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis toured Savannah in October 1863 and surely admired the fortifications that stolen labor created to buttress white supremacy. He couldn’t realize that a little more than a year later, Fort McAllister would fall ahead of Sherman’s siege of Savannah.
What was life like for William while he was in Savannah those short three and a half months? First, Savannah was a porous city, where Confederates, enslaved blacks, free blacks, Irish and German immigrants, intermixed relatively freely. Union spies traveled through Georgia’s largest port where cotton was exported throughout the war. In fact, Savannah exported over $18 million dollars of cotton in 1860, nearly half a billion in today’s dollars. Rice, lumber, indigo were other common exports. Savannah’s population was about 23K with about 7.5K enslaved souls in 1860 but the number swelled throughout the war with refugees, enslaved forcibly brought into the city to dig trenches and battlements, and of course soldiers. William was in all likelihood, a fish-out-of-water in the city where urban enslaved understood how to navigate the customs, laws, and city life. Blacks worked on riverboats, hotels, grocers, with most at the railyards where the Central Railroad or Savannah, Albany, and Gulf Railroad intersected.
Perhaps William took spiritual refuge in the church? The First African Baptist Church in Savannah pre-dated emancipation and was constituted in 1777. The oldest black church in North America was home to free blacks and enslaved, and even whites attended sermons by black pastors. There is evidence that the First African Baptist Church was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.
After the war, Abraham Riggs returned to his plantation in Bulloch County where he eventually signed a Reconstruction Oath to the United States in August 1867 in order to participate in a vote to send delegates to the Georgia Constitutional Convention. In all 33 African Americans attended and 137 whites as delegates. At the desk of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Riggs signed contracts with his formerly enslaved to pay them for the labor on his farms. Eventually, the formerly enslaved Riggs became landowners themselves.
What happened to William? It is unclear whether William returned to the Riggs plantation or slipped away to freedom. Or perhaps he died there among the hundreds of enslaved who became sick and ill. His service lasted three months and twelve days, until mid-March, according to the payroll. William Riggs can not be found in the record afterward. We don’t know how old he was when he went to Savannah, nor if he was buried by family. William is a ghost, a cipher in payroll account, and yet, we knew that he was likely loved and missed by the 14 enslaved souls on Abraham Rigg’s plantation. He was lost, but had a life, even if it was a miserable one.
Harriet’s grandson William Henry Riggs was born in 1868 to Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish-Riggs. “Willie” Riggs may have been named for the man who labored against his will in Savannah in defense of slavery. But what a difference a generation makes. My great-great-granduncle William Henry Riggs graduated from Morehouse College and went on to teach young blacks during Reconstruction.
“Do you want me to search for your father? I think we can find him, together,” I told Dad. He paused, a long while.
It had taken me several years to feel competent and confident to ask Dad that question. Since the early aughts, I had been building my skills as an amateur genealogist and family historian of the Johnson – Bobo family, my paternal line. The question of my grandfather’s identity is the source of a many decades-old gulf between my father, his sisters, and mother, and now deceased stepfather. They all love each other dearly, and that’s both a source of joy, but also part of the divide.
My father Richard B. Johnson was born in Chester, Pennslvania in 1947. He grew up there and attended Wilberforce College in Ohio before being drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam. He left behind a wife and young son and that marriage ended before he could return. He remarried, adopting a son, and had three more children with my mother Carol Mays Johnson (b. 1941 – d. 1999).
The fact is my Dad’s biological father was unknown to him but was also a very public secret. While he was certain that at least one or more of his sisters knew the identity of his father, that his mother and step-father knew, no one would divulge it for fear of causing pain. To who? To everyone, to him, but especially my grandmother. Even my father had only ever asked his mother once. Grandmom said it was a long time ago and difficult to recall, so Dad was rebuffed with half-answers and half-remembrances and told to let sleeping dogs lie.
Clues, however, came in fleeting conversation and memories over the years. In the many genealogy discoveries I made about my father’s maternal line (the Johnson and Bobo family), I quietly and consistently blew on the embers of his desire to know until it became a flame.
Two summers ago while the family was at our annual vacation in Chincoteague, while we sat around the beach house, I shared with him his High School Yearbook. The pictures triggered many fond memories. After many conversations, like a veil lifting, Dad recalled being told once not to play with a certain kid on the playground when he was just a boy. It may have been because the boy was his half-brother, and his father was “no good.” After a long silence, Dad recalled the boy’s name was Jimmy Hall, and he was close in age. We searched the yearbook. Jimmy and my Dad may have played on the same High School baseball team.
Maybe something truly terrible happened to my Grandmother when she was 18 years old? I had come to believe that they were all just too young and not ready. The question has been dormant some seventy-five years, waiting for people to get old or die so the secret could die with them. Aware the facts could be difficult and painful, but less interested in the how than the who, I believe the truth is healing, no matter how you come by it. By adopting the role of family historian, my generation was coming to a crossroads. Would we also take responsibility for not knowing too? Would we accept the burden, the trauma? The secret itself had become a malignant force, and it was spreading.
To even talk about unraveling the mystery caused my father to choke up, which the grizzled Vietnam-vet and hardened former-civil rights activist rarely did, but he said, “Son, yes, let’s do it.”
The Riggs Brothers Come to Chester.
By the late winter of 2018, I had Ancestry DNA tests gathered from my father, myself, and my grandmother to identify and separate family lines at the genetic level. This was namely for my own work, it’s easy to tell which line a DNA match is on if you have older family members test. But I could apply it to this research question too. By sorting the thousands of DNA cousins who matched my father but not my grandmother, a large group of matches on Ancestry revealed themselves. They all had deep roots in Bulloch County, Georgia. These paternal cousins were the Riggs, Parrish, Hall, and Love, families by surname. Several family trees posted by these DNA cousins led back to a family matriarch named Harriet Riggs (b. 1820 – 1874). I spent several months researching them. Fortunately, they were already well-documented. This work on the early Riggs in Georgia informed The Riggs Family (part 1): New Kin and The Riggs Family (part 2): Harriet Riggs the Matriarch of this series. I’ve focused the next chapter of this series around finding my grandfather’s identity.
I couldn’t help myself and so got started without much of a research plan. With some basic info in hand, I searched for Riggs in Chester through US Census Records and quickly identified four of Harriet’s grandsons living in Chester with their families. I even identified other surnames from Bulloch County in Chester. In the Great Migration, many Bulloch families had come North, including the Riggs. They included William Henry Riggs, Thomas Jefferson Riggs, Nathaniel Riggs, and Solomon H. Riggs. Each family had migrated around 1920. They were all the children of Daniel and Audelia Riggs. Now I had a big lead and I would need to thoroughly research each family. Developing a plan, I used the FAN method (researching all known “friends, family, and known associated”) of the Riggs. I intended to use Ancestry, FamilySearch, and archives, public and private info.
Outside the census records, the first major document I found was the obituary of William Henry Riggs which showed that he attended Morehouse College, taught in Fitzgerald, GA, and later in Chester. I would come to learn that he also taught at The Willow Hill School in Statesboro. Began during Reconstruction, it was the first black school in the county according to Dr. Alvin Jackson, the foremost scholar on the black history of Statesboro and a founder of The Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center, a preservation society dedicated to the school’s history. Dr. Jackson knew the Riggs story well and shared that Daniel Rigg’s store in Statesboro was right across the street from the Willow Hill School.
Willie worked at the store because he didn’t want to return to the field after attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, according to an interview conducted with his sister Rosa Riggs several years ago when she was 100 years old. I later learned Willie would have seen first hand how the white people had treated his uncle Isaac Riggs, who was brutally beaten by a white mob for having the audacity to educate the area’s black children. It’s clear now these four brothers went North to escape racial violence and find new economic opportunities. Willie’s obituary included the names of his kin which further helped me uncover and track the lives of the four Riggs families in Chester in the early 1900s. I was on my way to identifying my father’s Riggs line in Chester. But which line of the four brothers was it? It was time to buckle down and dig.
Daniel Samuel Riggs (b. 1842 – d. 1895) and Audelia “Delia” Parrish (b.1858 – d. 1935) had twelve children.
Nathaniel (b. 1865 -d. 1946)
William Henry (b. 1868 – d. 1963)
James R. (b. 1871 – d. 1953)
Agnes (b. 1872 – d. 1956)
Martha (b. 1876 -?)
Solomon H. (b. 1878 – d. 1952)
Emma (b. 1879 – ?)
Benjamin (b. 1883 – d. 1917)
Rose (b. 1890 – ?)
Pearl R. (b. 1892 – d. 1972)
Thomas Jefferson (b. 1894 – d. 1962)
Maude (b. 1895 – ?)
Nathaniel, William, Solomon and Thomas went to Chester between 1900 and 1920. While today, Chester Pennsylvania is little known, at the turn of the 20th century it was a booming industrial port on the banks of the Delaware River. For at least a half a century before that it was the one-time seat of government for Pennsylvania before it transferred to Philadelphia, and it was well known for it ship-building and garment factories and Quaker citizens. Chester was booming in the early 1900s, producing hundreds of the largest iron vessels and steamships in the Sun Ship Yards alongside steelmakers Penn Steel, and paperworks, Scott paper. Chester became home to the first public art gallery in the Eastern US, the Deshong Museum, and a Ford Motorworks factory.
The African American community was large and swelled during Reconstruction with blacks from Maryland, Virginia, and further south. It became a center of black life and culture and the country’s burgeoning black elite stopped often there to preach, sing, and entertain. Stimulated by World War I, the population swelled between 1900 and 1920 from 38,000 to 58,000 with newly created jobs. The population peaked at about 66,000 in the mid-50s and since then has been in steady decline. Sadly, the city has been in serious decline these last 70 years as industry dwindled and went off-shore, and whites moved to the suburbs. In the shadow of Philadelphia, without adequate resources, without support from the State, Chester suffers.
In 1888, Nathaniel Riggs (b. 1865 – d. 1946) married Anna Moore (b.1870 – d. 1941) in Screven County, Georgia. Census records show they lived in Statesboro, Georgia until 1900 then moved to adjacent Irwin County. At this time, they had their first and only daughter Harriet “Hattie” in 1890. Their first and only son Jesse Riggs was born on August 7th, 1908 in Fitzgerald, GA. By 1920, they had moved to Rahway, NJ (Hattie Riggs married Oscar Hippert there). Nathaniel and Anna Riggs can be found in the census living in Chester, PA between 1920 and 1925. In 1936, they sold their house to their son Jesse. Nathaniel was a railroad worker and lived a long time in Chester.
In 1903, Solomon H. Riggs (b. 1878 – d. 1952), married Mary Tucker in Irwin County, Georgia. Census records show they lived in Statesboro, Georgia. By 1920, Solomon and Mary were living in Chester, Pennsylvania. Solomon was a builder, working on the Roxy Theater, and several stores in Chester. He worked in several factories in Chester, including Penn Steel and Scott Paper. Solomon died in Atlantic City, NJ. It’s unclear if Mary Tucker is in fact Mentoria, his wife, or if she is a second wife. Solomon and Mentoria did not have any children.
Like his brothers, William “Willie” Henry Riggs Snr. (b. 1868 – d. 1863) got married in Irwin County, Georgia in 1906 to Lula Whitfield (b. 1873 – ?). All three of their documented children were born in Georgia before the family arrived in Chester by 1920.
Daisy b. 1896 – d. 1947
William H. Jr. 1903 – ?
Willamina “Willie Mae” b. 1911 – ?
Willie Sr. didn’t teach in Chester, his occupation was listed as “Carpenter” in the 1940 census. By the time Willie Sr. passed in 1963, Willie Jr. was his last surviving child and living in New York according to his obituary. Willie Jr. married Cora Fleming in New York in 1930. His sister Daisy was married twice and died in Chester.
The last of Daniel’s sons who moved to Chester was Thomas Jefferson Riggs (b. 1894 – d. 1962). Thomas married Laura B. Gaffrey (b. 1898 – d. 1945) in Irwin County in 1916. By 1919, their family too was living in Chester. Thomas and Laura had five children.
William Riggs III b. 1916 – ?
Willie Mae b. 1917 – ?
Rosalee b. 1919 – d. 1946
Lillian Rebecca b. 1919 – d. 1989
Thelma b. 1922 -?
William III and Willie Mae were born in Georgia, the remaining three girls were born in Chester. Thomas was a laborer in one of Chester’s many steel mills for more than twenty years.
So what evidence can we use to determine which line my grandfather is on?
Clue 1. – We Are Riggs Parrish People
Through pedigree triangulation on Ancestry, and using a documented paper trail, I concluded that Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish were my father’s 2nd great-grandparents. An examination of several Ancestry DNA matches (second, third, and fourth cousins) matched with other family tree info and public records, shows that Daniel and Audelia were the most recent common ancestors(MRCA) these matches shared. These matches are the descendants of Thomas Riggs or their siblings (but not Solomon, Willie Jr., or Nathaniel Riggs so far).
Clue 2. – Not Solomon
We can probably eliminate the line of Solomon Riggs – he and his wife had no documented children.
Clue 3. – Not Thomas
We can eliminate Thomas Jefferson Rigg’s line. A recent DNA match of a well-documented 4th cousin who descends from Thomas Jefferson Riggs shows we are related through great-great-granduncle and aunt thus we are not on the same line.
Clue 4. – Moore DNA Reveals Which Riggs Brother
Turns out, my father and I match several descendants of the mother and father of the wife of Nathaniel Riggs, Anna Moore (b. 1870 – d. 1941). Jackpot!
Two of my DNA cousins descend directly from Anna Moore’s mother Harriet Kent. Recall, Nathaniel Riggs and Anna Moore had two children, Jesse, and Harriet “Hattie.” Could Jesse or Harriet be one of my father’s grandparents? Seems increasingly likely.
Let’s dive into Anna Moore’s own line for a moment.
I first learned of Anna Moore’s mother Harriet when her name appeared on the death certificate of Anna Riggs as “Harriet Kent.” The name of her father “William Moore,” was listed, along with a birthplace Dover, Georgia.
The death certificate states Anna Moore had been living in Chester for 20 years at the time of her death. Harriet Kent had a death certificate registered in 1930 in Dover, Screven County, Georgia that provided more detail. Harriet Kent was born 1848 in Emanuel County, Georgia (close to Statesboro and adjacent to Bulloch and Screven Counties), and lived in Dover for at least 50 years. She was 82 when she passed, a widower, and her husband’s name was “Aaron Kent”. From this document, I gleaned that “Kent” is a married name and not her maiden at all. Her parents were not named.
Harriet Kent’s death certificate led me to uncover that she had at least one other husband or partner, Peter J. Humphries (b. 1851 – d. 1890). Harriet had at least four children with Peter. The 1880 census lists the family.
Peter J. Humphries, age 17
Harriet Humphries, age 25
Anna, age 9
Frank, age 7
Miles, age 5
Amy, age 3
Laura, 11 months
However, Anna Moore’s death certificate lists “William Moore” as her father. On the 1870 US Census, a “William Moore”, black, age 18, can be found living in a boarding house in Dover, Screven County, working as a railroad hand. The name and age fit making this William a likely candidate.
Further DNA research in Screven and Emanuel counties shows I am related to several white Moore descendants (5th-6th cousins) that lived in Emanuel, Georgia since at least the late 1700s. It’s likely “William Moore” was enslaved and had a white Moore ancestor (a 5th or 6th great-common ancestor).
So there are at least two DNA connections to Emanuel County and Screven County, to the Moore family and descendants of Anna Moore’s mother Harriet (two half-cousin relationships).
Clue 5. – Enter The Davis Family
While researching Thomas Jefferson Riggs’ family, I came across his child Rosalee Riggs (b. 1919 – d. 1949) and her spouse Thomas Davis (b. 1915 – ?). I happened upon a family tree in Ancestry for the Davis family. Because I was researching the friends, family, and acquaintances (or the F.A.N. Method), I immediately started to explore the Davis family and dug into the connection. Little did I know the twists and turns would weave a thread to some surprising revelations.
I won’t go into the details, but the rabbit hole of Rosalee Riggs led me to new cousins but no answers. So I turned to the family of Thomas Davis. Thomas had three siblings, all born in Chester, their parents were born in Chatham, in Pittsylvania County in southern Virginia. Thomas Davis’s oldest sibling, his sister, Alice Faye Davis (b. 1911 – d. 1983), had conflicting or little information on her husband but the public profile happened to have pictures of her and her son. Alice looked vaguely familiar, deep smile, high cheekbones, dimples for days, but it was the picture of her son, George Davis (b. 1927 – d. 1986) that took my breath away. He looked so much like my father that I simply froze. I couldn’t move. I had to force myself to breathe.
I knew I had found something significant. Examining George Davis’s records, I learned he listed his father’s name as John Hall on his own marriage certificate to Carrie Badgley (b. 1929 – d.2016) in March 1946 when he was just 18. However, there was no marriage certificate between Alice Faye Davis and John Hall. In fact, Alice, 19, was single in the 1930 US census with a 2-year-old son. George, it appeared, was something of a rolling stone. He was married at age 18 in 1946, and then three more times in his life, fathering several children with three different women. He had his first child when he was just 15 years old with Gladys Harris (b.1927 – d. 1975), also 15. He had no children with Carrie, but when he settled down in the third marriage to Alice Geraldine Parker (b.1928 – d.1988), he had at least 6 more children by my count.
My gut told me there was a connection, but I could not puzzle it out. The timeline fit, but who was John Hall, and how the heck could he have been a Riggs? Why did this guy look like my dad? My grandmother and George Davis were contemporaries in 1946 Chester, just a year apart in age. The information was incomplete, but I had to share the intriguing picture and what I had with my father.
Of course, upon seeing the photo, Dad was as shocked as I was at the resemblance and had many more questions. He was now, feeling driven to get answers. When my father saw his sister not too long after I shared the picture he resolved to ask her if she recognized the name.
Who knows how it feels to withhold something so precious to someone for so long, what the burden might be, the rationalizations, the fear, the pain? Whatever demons my aunt had to face, she met. Whatever decision my aunt had to make, she made.
“George Hall! Your father’s name is George Hall,” she exclaimed before my father could even utter a word.
From Clues to Evidence
Clue 6. – Davis DNA Matches
None of the Davis descendants have tested with Ancestry. My sole contact in that family did not appear interested in exploring the theory or testing, so I began to look among my DNA matches for connections to Alice Faye Davis’s parents using Ancestry and Genetic Affairs’ Autocluster tool.
Jackpot (again)! I soon found a cluster of several matches with common ancestors on Alice Davis’s maternal line with the Davis surnames in Chatham, Pittsylvania County in Virginia about 4 – 5 generations back. Pedigree triangulation on Thrulines on Ancestry also identified a distant cousin on the same Davis line as Faye Davis, George’s mother. I could now connect the dots on my pedigree chart.
Recall the story about Jimmy Hall, the boy my father was warned away from, his “half-brother?” James Davis is the name of one of the documented sons of George Davis in the same public family tree I found.
Without a DNA test of another descendant of George Davis, I could not definitively say George Davis was my biological grandfather. I did make contact with descendants of Hattie Riggs, the first child of Nathaniel Riggs and Anna Moore. At that stage, the clues were fast becoming evidence…hearsay, distant Davis DNA relationships… A preponderance of evidence connected my father to Alice Faye Davis, George Davis, and pointed to George Davis’s father as being a Riggs.
Will George’s father please stand up?
My hypothesis at that point was that Jesse Riggs (son of Nathaniel Riggs and Anna Moore) was the father of George Davis Hall, unknown or unrecognized to him, and George Davis was my biological grandfather.
Jesse Riggs was the only documented son of Nathaniel and Anna Moore (recall clue 4, we have both Riggs and Moore DNA). We’ve eliminated the other Riggs brothers’ lines in Chester (clue 2 and 3). So did Jesse Riggs have a relationship with Alice Faye Davis (clue 6), which resulted in George Davis’s birth in 1927? Probably.
Could “John Hall” have been a pseudonym for Jesse Riggs or just an adopted father? Did George Davis really know his biological father’s true identity?
The Riggs and Davis family would later be connected by marriage when Alice’s brother Thomas married Rosalee Riggsafter Alice and Jesse’s speculated tryst. Jesse and Alice were likely in the same circle as teens (Alice was 17 years old when she had George).
While there were a couple of John Hall’s living in Chester in 1927, I can find no record of a John Hall in a relationship with Alice Faye Davis, and I’ve become a pretty good sleuth of this particular period in Chester. Hall is a Riggs family name, but not on Daniel and Audelia Rigg’s line. Though it can be misinterpreted, the DNA doesn’t lie. It just wouldn’t make sense that John Hall was George’s father (AND the undocumented son of Anna Moore and Nathaniel Riggs).
Go for it.
In April 2021, my father texted me a picture of an envelope. The elegant cursive handwriting revealed it was addressed to the Department of Health, Division of Vital Records in Pennsylvania. My enthusiastic response – “Go for it!”
But we were both skeptical. Pennsylvania law allows birth parents to redact the names of birth parents. The only birth certificate my father carried for 75 years was a “Notification of Birth Registration” that listed his adopted father, Garland H. Johnson (b.1925 – d. 2011), and his mother.
Birth records of adopted children in Pennsylvania were sealed to protect the privacy rights of birth parents (my father was adopted by his stepfather), but we didn’t know the law had changed in 2017.
A few days ago I got another text from my dad.
“It’s official, George Davis was my biological father.”
The accompanying picture was a noncertified copy of the original birth record listing my father’s two parents – both 18.
My father shared that it was the “ultimate 75th birthday present.” I told him, now we have to find the record that connects George Davis to Jesse Riggs.
As I write this, my grandmother is 94 years old, and her life, vast, beautiful, tragic, and interesting in its own way is sunsetting. She did what she was put on this Earth to do. My fatherRichard is now a great-grandfather. How will this new knowledge and insight about his father impact the rest of his life and that of his children? He has said not knowing the identity of his biological father was never an impediment, he had a loving adopted father, but not knowing is still trauma. Unlike his mother, he has more time left to heal it. That’s what I wanted for him from this project, for all of us. More time to heal.
My father is a Riggs, a Davis, a Bobo, and a Johnson. He has been a soldier and recipient of the Bronze Star, law student, husband, teacher, carpenter, educator, civil rights investigator, and school board member. He has six children, each with graduate education, 17 grandchildren, and 2 great-great-grandchildren.
It was my father who kindled my passion for genealogy. Before the internet, he roamed the stacks of the National Archives in the 1980s with my mother, and his yellowed notes in beautiful cursive his own mother, a teacher, drilled into him, was the starting point for my journey. Of course, fathers aren’t perfect beings, no one is, but he always encouraged us to leave no stone unturned, to keep digging and pushing against the status quo, and to never let sleeping dogs lie.
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 Willie Riggs. Willie Riggs was the son of Daniel and Audelia (Parrish) 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 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 enslaved Parrish 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 Demming, my 3rd great-grandmother. Using DNA, I was able to find the enslavers of Ann Demming (aka Ann Miles, Ann Demmings, Ann Wood, Ann Turner, Rebecca Turner), and to corroborate the finding by combining my research with census, geographical, and archival data.
Ann Demming 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 after 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 migration west. Perhaps he was a circuit rider? 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. In the census document, Jack would is also confirmed as born in Georgia in 1848. 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. In 1831 Henry County, Georgia tax rolls, Senior is a slaveholder owning 2 slaves. On the 1850 Slave Schedule for Leon County, Aaron owns four 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, the boy, Jack. 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” Demming, her first husband (her first marriage appeared to be in Freestone County). 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 and her husband Henry Demming were living in the next county over in Mexia. Henry Demming 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 Demming 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.