The Bobo Family: Mama Bessie

I drove up to the cemetery office with more than a little trepidation. Tired from the early morning flight from Washington, DC to Denver, and then the tedious drive South to Colorado Springs, I did not know what to expect. The front range of Colorado and the wall of the Rocky Mountains to the immediate West loomed over me, an omnipresent voiceless giant, glimpsed occasionally through the clouds. I went into the office of the Evergreen Cemetery and requested a map. I already had a plot number from earlier research, even a picture of the tombstone.

The helpful office attendant drew a line from the office down a road to plot 228. After 45 years it was my first time in a cemetery. I didn’t know the protocol. I got in the rental and drove slowly up the hill, flagged by all manner of headstone and grave markers like soldiers at guard duty. Most were dull and lifeless, occasionally one would be marked by fresh flowers, a beacon in a field of gray. The leaves were turning and falling. How was I going to find her grave in time? The sun was setting and I did not bring a flashlight. Even with the plot number, I guessed there would be thousands of headstones.

I parked and glanced out the window, yes hundreds of markers. I sighed and got out and resolved to begin at the beginning. And then I froze in my tracks. “Harper”, I read. I know that name. I walked over. Here were two stones side by side, Ethel Harper and Andy Harper, my great aunt and great uncle. And there, to the left another marker an unmistakable name.

“Bobo” it read.

The inscription read, “Mother, Bessie F. Bobo, 1877 – 1952.” I got on my knees to touch the cool stone running my fingers across the surface. I felt the omnipresent mountains at my back. Somehow I knew she wanted to face the setting sun over the mountains. In the stretching shadows, the tears came. I could not hold them back.

My great-great grandmother, Bessie Fredonia Demming Bobo, was born in Mexia, Texas, 800 miles away and though she lived in rural places, and urban places like Dallas and the Bronx, she lived her last twenty years of life in Colorado Springs, in a small house near the base of the enchanting natural foothills of the Rocky Mountains known as the Garden of the Gods. The red rocks and white covered granite peaks overlook all who live in the valley. Here in Colorado she went to church and tended to her family for her remaining days. But not after a long life as the matriarch of the Bobo clan.

A day later in the Colorado Springs library, in the old opulent basement wing built by Andrew Carnegie, I found Bessie’s death notice and obituary on microfilm.

“Mrs. Bessie Bobo Dies Here Tuesday”

Mrs. Bessie Fredonia Bobo, 74, a resident of Colorado Springs for 10 years, died Tuesday at a local hospital. A retired school teacher, Mrs. Bobo was born at Mexia, Texas. She was a member of the People’s Methodist Church of this city, and is survived by two sons, Earl Bobo, New York City, and David Bobo, Chester, PA. ; four daughters, Mrs. Susie Mae Davis, New York City; Mrs. Thelma Swann, Colorado Springs; Mrs. Birdie Sanders, Denver, and Mrs. Ethel Harper of Manitou Springs; one brother, William Bobo, Dallas, Texas.

-Colorado Springs Free Press, January 2, 1952

Demmings Roots

Bessie was born to Henry “Rufas” Demings and Ann Miles or possibly Wood, in the small town of Mexia on the 8th of February in 1877. This was the year Reconstruction ended. The so-called Compromise of 1877 was an informal, unwritten deal, that settled the intensely disputed 1876 U.S. presidential election that resulted in the United States federal government pulling the last troops out of the South, and formally ending the Reconstruction Era. Black Republicans felt betrayed as President Grant removed troops from Florida and later that year the newly installed President Hayes would remove the rest of the federal troops from the South. The birth of Jim Crow had arrived. Mexia was a frontier town originally on Comanche land. The town is named after General Jose Mexia, a Hispanic general of the Republic of Texas Army during the Texas Revolution, the town was founded near his estate.

Ann Miles was born in August in 1849 likely a slave. She probably never knew where precisely she was born because her birthplace is recorded as Tennesee, Georgia, Mississippi (most often), and Alabama on various records. She had three children, Mary Bell in 1871, twins girls, Zora and Ora Demmings in 1874, making Bessie the fourth child, but not the last. Bessie had a younger brother Willie, and infant brother, Herman, according to the 1880 census. I can not find Ann in any census prior to 1880. On the census, her children, Mary Bell, Bessie, and the infant boy are listed as “mulatto”, the others “black.” In 1880 she lived near several perceptibly middle-class whites, including a carpenter, railroad agent, lumber merchant, and a minister in the middle of town. At 37 years old she could not read and write, but her children could and were most likely in a Negro school. In the 1900 census, Ann’s profession is “nurse”.

The 1880 US Census enumeration for the Ann Deming family is as follows:

  • Ann Deming, 37, birthplace Mississippi, “keeping home”
  • Mary Bell Deming, 9
  • Ora Deming, 6
  • Zora Deming, 6
  • Bessie, 3
  • Willie L., 2
  • Deming (Herman), under 1

Miles and Day Family

On the 1860 US Slave Census for nearby Wortham, Freestone County, one James D. Miles b. 1835 is listed as the enslaver of one male 21, and three females, ages 14, 14, and 26 years old. Thomas Miles b. 1844 is also enlisted as the enslaver of one male 18, and one female 18 years old. James and Thomas were brothers from Russell County, Alabama. The Miles family was originally from Georgia, and they married two Day girls in Alabama, Ellen b. 1836 and Ida b. 1856 respectively. DNA research shows I have common ancestors descended from the John Day family from Edgefield, SC (several 5th – 8th cousins) that moved to Alabama. Ellen Day’s grandfather was John Day, b. 1773 in South Carolina. Her father Wiley Day, also born in South Carolina, moved to Alabama and actually moved the rest of his large family to Freestone in Texas by 1860 to farm. Wiley Day died in Fairfield, Texas in 1862. William Wiley Day enslaved 11 souls according to the 1840 census in Alabama. and by 1860 enslaved 19 (some his own blood) ranging from age 65 to 1 years old. No doubt Wiley Day took his enslaved from South Carolina, to Alabama, and then on to Texas.

After emancipation in 1870, 3 black families are found in Fairfield in Freestone with the surname Miles, and 4 – 5 black families with the surname Day. These are the former slaves of the Miles and Day families. There was 1 black family in Limestone with the surname Miles.

I strongly suspect Ann Miles hails from one of these family groups, and that either her mother or father was bi-racial and a Day, and she was enslaved as being either part of a dowry from the Days to James Miles or directly enslaved by Ellen Day. If Ann’s father was Wiley Day, he’d be my 4th great-grandfather by blood (hence the several 5th Day cousins). With such racial status, it might also be why Ann was allowed to live among whites in central Mexia — because let’s face it, it was highly unusual for a black woman to leave among the middle-class whites in the manner she did in 1880.

Ann Demming’s married name on the 1880 census was spelled D-e-m-m-ing (no “s”). Research indicates not all of Ann’s children could not identify their father and its likely they did not all share the same father, but at least Zora, Ora and Bessie, were likely the daughters of Henry Demming who is named on Bessie’s January 1938 social security application. Henry Demming is also listed on the 1927 death certificate of Ora Demings Butler (Ann’s daughter) attested to by her brother Herman Demming.

A Married Name

By 1857 according to tax rolls in nearby Wortham, Freestone County, about 8 miles from Mexia, a large white family with the surname originally spelled D-e-m-ings had immigrated from Greenville, Alabama. This family was lead by Lewis Demming b. 1811 in South Carolina to Simeon Demming and Mary Webb, originally from Connecticut. Lewis married Catherine Baldaree, a German immigrant in 1861. His brothers Albert and William appear to have moved to Texas with him or about the same time. Lewis Demings was a slaveholder and the Demings families are connected through Henry Deming (the man who appears on Bessie’s social security application as her father)…and by blood. Ann’s daughter Minnie marries in the area to a Wesley Dunbar whose father is probably Jacob Dunbar. Jacob is listed on various 1860 Freestone County poll taxes with other black Demmings men, Sam, Jacob, and Edward. In 1867, Henry Demming “colored” registered to vote in Freestone. The record indicates he was born in Alabama and lived in Texas for 13 years prior, since at least 1854. Henry Demming may have been a son or brother to Sam, Jacob or Edward, but he was also most certainly related to Lewis Demming.

DNA research shows descendants of Bessie Demmings share common ancestry to the white colonial Deming family who settled in the Hartford Connecticut area in the 1600s. I have living 5th-8th cousins with the same Deming roots. This family’s scion is Jonathan Deming (one “m”) born in France in 1585 whose descendants came to the colonies in the 1630s. Lewis Deming’s father Simeon Deming born 1786 in Wethersfield, Connecticut, died 1858 in Alabama and is descended from Jonathan Deming. While living in Alabama in 1840, Simeon enslaved two people, a woman between the ages of 24 – 35, and one male under 10 years old, presumably the son of the woman. By 1850, Simeon enslaved 11 souls, 7 females, and 4 males. Lewis Demming died in 1870 and is buried in Freestone at Oak Island Cemetery.

By 1880 Ann Demming is the head of her household. Her record shows a “D” for divorced, and she raises her children alone. She does not live in the black section of town, all her neighbors are white. Annie lived until 1917 and was known as “Mamie Bobo” while living in Dallas near her daughter Bessie’s family. She was buried, however, in Mexia Memorial Cemetery. When Bessie attested to and signed her younger brother Herman’s death certificate, she listed her mother’s maiden name as Wood and her brother’s father name as “Rufas” Deming, perhaps a nickname for Henry. DNA points to Miles (Day) and it’s unclear where Wood came from.

At age 18 Bessie met and married David F. “Lee” Bobo, age 22, on the 10th of April in 1895 in nearby Navasota, Texas. Dave’s parents were John Bobo and Alice (maiden name Craig). John was an expressman in town and had four sons. By 1900, the turn of the century, Bessie and Lee had four children while they lived in Navasota on Lee’s property in town.

The 1900 US Census enumeration for David and Bessie Bobo’s family when they lived in Navasota reads as follows:

  • David Bobo, 27, born Texas, works at oil mill, can read, can write
  • Bessie Bobo, 24, can read, can write
  • Annie Bobo, 4
  • Earl Bobo, 2
  • David Bobo, 1
  • Susie Bobo (infant), under 1

Straight to Hell

Navasota was a true frontier town, east of the Brazos River and about 70 miles north of Houston. Since its founding in 1831, the town was primarily a stagecoach shop surrounded by farms worked by European Americans and slaves brought in and sold to work the land. In 1859 a major railroad made the area more important for shipping. But life in Navasota was unluckly and dangerous. Throughout the 1860s disaster after disaster hit the town, including a Yellow Fever epidemic, Cholera outbreak, and arson that lead to the death of many in a gunpowder warehouse explosion. Throughout the Civil War, whites fleed to Navasota with their slaves who became refugees.

The county’s adoption of the Old South pattern of plantation agriculture was evident in the census of 1850, which found 1,680 slaves and two free blacks residing amidst a white population of 2,326. The county’s slave population continued to increase at an astonishing rate during the last decade of antebellum Texas, as a result not only of purchases by current residents but also of continuing heavy migration of slaveholders from the lower
South. In 1855 the county tax rolls enumerated 3,124 slaves, representing an almost 86 percent increase over the 1850 level. The 1858 county tax roll listed forty-two residents as holders of twenty or more slaves, the index of wealth often used to define a “planter,” while the 1860 census listed seventy-seven individuals owning twenty or more slaves. By 1860 there were 4,852 whites in the county and 5,468 slaves, constituting 53 percent of the population. Thus, though the white population had doubled in the preceding
decade, the slave population had tripled. With 505 slaveholders, Grimes was one of only seventeen counties in the state in which the average number of slaves per slaveholder was greater than ten.

Grimes County Historical Society Newsletter, January 2016

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Blacks in Navasota began to vote and most Republican. The KKK began to infiltrate the town and a sense of lawlessness became pervasive despite the election of several black politicians. The Freedmen’s Bureau reported over a dozen homicides in 1867 most against Blacks. By 1870, 60% of the population was Black.

Railroad Street, Navasota, 1910.

A deed between Ira C. Camp, and Lee Bobo’s father, John Bobo, dating to 1881 show John originally purchased for $125 two lots of land each 25 feet by 118 feet on the Daniel Tyler League (Daniel Tyler was one of the original Grimes County land grantees). Lee was probably conveyed one of the tracts by his father as he is found on the 1895 tax rolls. Father, John, was an “expressmen” delivering all manner of goods throughout the town and county on his wagon and horse. In 1867, just after the war, John is found on the voter registration list. His ownership of his labor and political will was no doubt instrumental in establishing a foothold in the town that would payoff for the Bobo family.

Ira C. Camp was a notable figure and slave-holder in Navasota prior to the Civil War. The 1850 Slave Schedule indicates Camp enslaved 13 individuals, 7 men, and 5 women. Well-known for his real estate and development projects, Camp moved from Mississippi in 1846 with his wife Eliza and acquired a lot of land in Grimes County. He built a large home that served as an inn and befriended Sam Houston and supported Baptist causes his whole life. After the Civil War, Camp petitioned President Johnson for a pardon for his support of the Confederacy and received it, like most Confederates.

Camp Addition and Camp Subdivision were sold to white settlers but a part of the town which Ira Camp named “Canaan” was sold to freed black men and became Freedman town. This is where Bessie and Lee Bobo settled in South Navasota. But even owning land offered little security. From emancipation to the turn of the century, blacks were continuous victims of white violence in Grimes County.

1890, Galveston Daily News

Despite the violence, the Bobos sought out an existence in the troubled frontier town. Lee’s brother Kelly “A.K.” was working on the river wharf, and brother John Wesley was working on a farm. By 1900 Lee worked at an oil mill and claimed his father was born in Louisiana and his mother in Texas. In 1889 Lee purchased more land in the Horlock and Deadrick addition to the city of Navasota for $150. However, by 1902, Lee and Bessie uprooted the family and moved to Dallas, Texas. They sold their land for $200. They were no doubt thinking about the safety of their family and children, Annie (named for Bessie’s mother), Earl Dewitt, David Newton, and Susie Mae. Parents, John Bobo and his wife Alice Craig left Navasota as well. Navasota had gone from outright lawlessness and straight to hell.

In 1900, a secret all-white, all-male society, known as the White Man’s Union made up of the white merchants and leaders of Navasota began to terrorize the large black population of Navasota. The white Populist Sheriff Garett Nelson who had a good relationship with the black community was targeted in a daylight attack on the streets of the city. An all-white mob murdered three men and shot the sheriff in November and trapped him and his family in the courthouse. State militia was needed to rescue Scott, his family, and several other men. Scott left Navasota, divested his land and brought a successful lawsuit against EVERY white merchant in town. They were all WMU. The black population, and the Bobo family, left Navasota in droves in 1902 so much so the crops in the area failed because there was no one to bring them in. Today the population of Navasota is 54% white and 30% black.

Not Without Difficulty

Lee and Bessie and the family settled into Armstrong’s Booker Washington Addition of Dallas, Texas near Highland Park. Mother, Annie Demmings moved to Dallas to live with them. Records indicate they owned their own home. Bessie had six more children, twins, Thelma Valentine and Ethel Tobie, as well as Birdie, and unbelievably, another set of twins, Bell Zora and Ell Ora Bobo. Fourteen years separated Bessie’s oldest Anna, and her twin daughters born in 1910. Sadly, her twin daughters lived just three months before perishing according to announcements in the Dallas Times. Tragedy struck again in 1911 when her daughter Gregory died. She survived just 10 days.

Bessie Bobo with grandson Leslie Bobo, 1940 in the Bronx, New York City.

During the early 1900s in Dallas, the Bobo family went through remarkable changes from a rural to urban life. Their community and lives were documented frequently in the Dallas Times, Dallas Express (the city’s African American newspaper), as well as the Dallas Morning News. “Mama Bessie” as she became known, was a devout churchgoer at Central Methodist Church, a teacher, a nursery head, and taught Sunday School. Lee was a sextant for their church. They both worked for and were affiliated with Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

1920, The Dallas Express

According to a 1930 Dallas Morning News article, Bessie Bobo was also head of a negro daycare for children ages 2-8 at the Highland Park United Methodist Church, part of the A.M.E. church grounds onsite. The site was rented by the Highland Park Women’s Missionary Society. It’s unclear, but Bessie probably also taught at the nearby negro Sunday School. Despite the racial slur in the headline and demeaning view of black progress, the article places Bessie at the center of the nursery entrusted to her by her community and the Highland Park Society.

1930, Dallas Morning News

Bessie’s father-in-law John Bobo died in 1917, and her mother-in-law “Nannie” Bobo died in 1929. The 1910 census indicated John was widowed by then at the age of 58. John was living with his younger sister Lilly and her husband Henry Bolden at that time in Dallas (according to the 1910 census and Directory information). However, I believe he was actually separated from Alice. Alice was living not too far away in fact according to the Directories. This intriguing bit of information recently lead me to learn that John Bobo’s younger sister (and possibly a parent or two) lived not too far from Navasota in the 1880s. Research on Lilly reveals her surname as “Johnson” and that she and her husband lived in and were married in Montgomery, Texas prior to moving to Dallas. It’s possible her mother remarried as “Johnson” or it was an adopted name. Its also possible Lilly was John’s sister-in-law, the sister of his wife Alice Craig. John’s death certificate lists his parents as Cornelius Bobo and Emma Brown in testimony by Bessie Bobo. There is considerable more research needed here.

In 1920, Annie, Bessie’s first daughter died. She was living in Los Angeles, a stenographer and recently married when she contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. She traveled home to Dallas where she passed away in July from complications from the flu. She was buried in Woodland Cemetery near the Booker Addition. John Bobo and wife Alice “Nannie” Bobo, and AK Bobo, are also interred at Woodland. Crawford was the family undertaker.

In 1932, Lee Bobo, 60, died and was laid to rest in Woodland Cemetery in Dallas as well. Lee had several jobs over the years. He worked as a driver for the Armor Package Co (1903), a fireman at the Linz building (1904-06), an engraver (1907-1909) and then worked for 26 years at the Central Christian Church (1910 -1932) in Highland Park, one of the oldest Protestant congregations in Dallas (established in 1863), as a Sextant and Custodian. David could read and write by age 7 according to the 1880 census, and clearly, had attended a negro school in Navasota.

Apparently, Lee was quite the barbecue pitmaster. His smokehouse was cleared out by a “sneak thief” in a theft that made the Dallas Express newspaper in 1919.

1919, Dallas Express

A Remarkable Feat

A persistent family story about Bessie Bobo was that she earned a college degree in her lifetime. Indeed, I learned after examination of the 1940 census record that she had earned a 4-year college degree between 1930 and 1940 in her 50s, a remarkable feat. The search continues to find her alma-mater. Almost certainly she was one of the first in the Bobo line to graduate from college. Daughter Thelma did have a 4-year college degree from Wilberforce University in Ohio.

After Lee’s death, Bessie left Dallas and traveled to New York where her daughter Thelma had relocated with her husband Bill Swann, a Bermudian immigrant. The Swann’s lived in Harlem on E. 99th Street according to the 1930 census. Their eldest daughter Gloria was born in New York eight years prior meaning Bill and Thelma had been living in New York since at least 1922. Maude Hale (Bessie’s granddaughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law of Tobie Bobo) shared that “Mama Bessie” had worked in the offices of Asa Philip Randolph, the noted Civil Rights and labor movement organizer while living in New York in the 30s.

On the application for a social security account number on January 19, 1938 that Bessie made, she listed her address as 129 St. Ann’s Avenue, Bronx, New York. She listed her mother’s full maiden name as Ann Miles. Her home in the NY was just off Bronx Kill on the peninsula of the borough. Across the kill was Harlem and Randall’s Island, and the East River- Rikers Island. Bessie’s daughter Birdie and her husband Leo Leslie Saunders relocated from Dallas to Harlem in late 1940 also to E. 99th St. There Leo registered for the draft while working at the Adolphus Hotel. He was never drafted. After Susie Mae’s first husband, Chester Nash passed in 1947, she left Dallas and lived the rest of her life in New York.

By 1931, Ethel and husband Andy Harper had relocated from Dallas to Colorado Springs. Cousin Leslie Stephens, grandson of Birdie Bobo and Adolph Jordan, informed me that Ethel and Andy owned a restaurant serving black soldiers and airmen from the nearby Air Force Academy out of the back of their home. Andy was a great cook and well known and beloved in the Colorado Springs community. Ethel was a social worker for nearly 20 years. Ethel had a son from a previous relationship when she was 14 years old in Dallas, Herman Atcherson Jones. Ethel passed in 1989, her husband Andy in 1958.

By 1935, Thelma and Bill and their family followed family to Denver, Colorado from Harlem. Bill was an independent trucker most of his life and passed in 2000. Around 1950, Birdie and Leo and their family also relocated to Denver from New York as well. Leo was a waiter at the Navarre Club, the hottest jazz club in Denver. He later worked as a realtor. Birdie had two children from a previous marriage in Dallas to Adolph Jordan born 1899.

According to Leslie Stephens, Adolph Jordan was the first black pharmacist in Dallas, TX. He was well-known and respected and later sent three children (not his own) to college. His first families (the Bobos) were more complicated and difficult. He married Thelma V. Bobo but later had an affair with Thelma’s younger sister Birdie, producing two children, Everett Alvin b. 1924 and Ernestine b. 1925. A third child, Charles, may also be attributed to Adolph but is more likely Leo Leslie Sanders’ son. Adolph eventually moved to Houston (presumably when the relationship with Birdie ended). He lived there until his death in 1991.

Bessie’s son David N. Bobo b. 1898, my great grandfather, lived most of his life in Chester, Pennsylvania, locating there when he was just eighteen where he met and married Edith Johnson b. 1893, the daughter of a grocer and city councilman. He had divorced and remarried Edith’s distant much younger cousin Mario Rae Henry, but large remarkable families with both women. He also had an illegitimate child with Gertrude Palm all of Chester in 1923, but that is yet another story. David passed in 1990, Edith ten years earlier. David Johnson or “Curly Dave” as he was known, lead a very complex life that I will explore in a later post.

Dave N. Bobo fishing on his boat on the Chesapeake Bay 1950 – 60s.
In the 1980s – Bessie Bobo’s son David N. Bobo with his sister Ethel “Tobie” Bobo, sister-in-law Mary Catherine Johnson-Bobo (Earl Dewitt Bobo’s wife), and Maude Hale, Tobie’s daughter-in-law and wife of Herman Jones).

Bessie lived the last 10 years of her life with her daughter Ethel in a modest home on Fountain Place in Manitou Springs. Records show she was living in Colorado Springs since at least 1946.

Bessie’s home was just a few miles from The People’s Methodist Episcopal Church on East Vrain in Colorado Springs. The church was formed in 1903 by a group of ex-slaves and began meeting at the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows Hall. The church provided meeting space for the DuBois Study Club, People’s Literary Society, NAACP, Women’s Home Missionary Society, Ladies Aid Society, and Colorado Springs Unity Council. I imagine Bessie must have been quite a force in life. She was wise and well-traveled, and her experiences with her family and their complicated relationships showed how much she loved and cared for them. Her leadership and guidance as a teacher set a powerful example. It’s no wonder that ten years after her death, in 1963, the Woman’s Society of Christian Service of People’s Methodist Church named a new circle in Bessie’s honor.

1963, Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph

Sources.

  • Dallas Morning News
  • Dallas Express
  • Dallas Times
  • Land Deeds, John Bobo, 1881
  • Land Deed, David Bobo, Bessie Bobo, 1902
  • Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph
  • US Census, Texas, Mexia and Navasota, 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880, 1900
  • US Census, Texas, Dallas County, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940
  • Ancestry.com, DNA Summary and Matches, Joel R. Johnson, Cherita E. Bobo
  • US Census, Slave Schedules, Greenville, Alabama, 1840, 1850, 1860
  • Slave Schedules, Freestone County, 1840, 1850, 1860
  • Pikes Peake Library, Colorado Springs
  • Evergreen Cemetery, Colorado Springs
  • Wikipedia

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