The Riggs Family: Visiting the Willow Hill School

As I drove through southern Georgia on the way to Savannah, I noticed fields of soybeans and corn. I was startled by other fields blooming with large flowers reminiscent of hibiscus, white and pink. Of course, being a Northerner, I had never seen blooming cotton. I pulled the rental car over and got out to stand on the edge of a field and catch the setting sun. I was on my way home after two remarkable days in Statesboro, Georgia, home of the Riggs and Parrish clan, meeting new family, kin, and exploring a new found heritage.

My visit began with a stop at the Statesboro public library, and the Brannen room, where I met Lillian Wingate, a talented young genealogist and employee of the library. She introduced me to my cousin, Tonya Donaldson, a firecracker of a woman, who was quick to interrogate and discuss our relationship and talk shop. Tonya and I are both descended from Jacob Nevils Snr. (1769 – 1862). His daughter Harriet was my 4th great grandmother, born enslaved and kept enslaved by Jacob’s daughter and her half-sister Dicey for most of her life, until emancipation. Tonya is descended from Dicey Donaldson-Mikel-Riggs. See The Riggs Family (Part 2): Harriet Riggs – the Matriarch.

Well, we shook hands when we met, but we hugged hard we I departed. Through the many well-organized files and shelves, Lillian, Tonya, and I discussed life in old Bulloch County, the wealth of records at the library, and the uncanny journey that led me there. As I have written previously, I’ve only recently discovered my Riggs Parrish lineage through traditional and genetic genealogy. Sharing my story led to an invitation by Dr. Alvin Jackson, Board Chair of the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, to the Willow Hill Festival, and to speak at a joint event with Telfair Museums as part of their Legacy of Slavery in Savannah Initiative.

But first, Lillian had something to share. She had come across Struggle and Progress – Tonya tipped her off – and curious, looked into the life of my 4x great grandmother Harriet Riggs. She emailed me before my trip asking a provocative question, how had I arrived at Harriet’s death date of 1874? She had intriguing information to share…

Comfortable in her busy office, surrounded by stacks of books and files, Lillian opened the minutes of the Lott’s Creek Primitive Baptist Church and shared several notations made in the minutes about one Harriet Riggs and Sister D. (Dicy) Donaldson. This interesting information shows that Harriet was introduced to the church by her half-sister and enslaver Dicey (in 1843).

Harriet Riggs, 1843, received at Lower Lott’s Primitive Baptist Church.

However, less than a year later, by a complaint made by Dicey, Harriet was excommunicated in 1844. Jacob Nevils Sr., Dicey and Harriet’s father, and a member of Lower Lott’s is also mentioned on several instances as struggling with drinking and being “in passion” which likely refers to infidelity. It’s no surprise Jacob was forgiven – often – for his transgressions. More importantly, the minutes reveal Harriet was also re-admitted in 1882, after her suspected death date of 1874. And in 1884, she “called for a letter” to leave the church, necessary to be admitted to another in good standing, according to Ms. Wingate.

Harriet Riggs, 1844, excommunicated at Lower Lott’s Primitive Baptist Church.

Of course enslaved blacks were in many cases members of the church of their enslavers in antebellum America. Ansel Parrish (1789-1865), son of Henry Jackson Parrish (1740 – 1800), enslaver of my 4th great grandparents, Cain Parrish and Isabella Donaldson, was also a deacon at Lower Lott’s. Not incidentally, genetic genealogy also reveals Ansel Parrish was also Cain’s half-brother. Ansel was my 3rd great-grandmother Audelia’s last enslaver. Audelia married Harriet Rigg’s son Daniel Riggs. See The Riggs Family (Part 1): New Kin.

This remarkable information placed Harriet Riggs’ birthday after 1884 and opened a whole host of questions. When did she die exactly? What church did she move to? Would she be in that church’s minutes or cemetary? Some of Harriet’s children moved from Bulloch County south to Irwin County to the town of Fitzgerald, and further out of town to Blitch. This was another breadcrumb to finding her final resting place, and it shed light on the complex interrelationship between enslaved and enslaver, family, friend and foe.

One critical question I have is why would Harriet return to Lower Lott’s in 1882, almost twenty years after emancipation, when her son-in-law, Elder Washington Hodges (who married her daughter Eliza Saturday Riggs) had with other black community members, founded a separate black primitive baptist church, Old Bethel Primitive Baptist Church, in 1882? Perhaps it was just too far to travel too on a weekly basis in her advanced age, certainly, the first black church in the area founded during Reconstruction, Banks Creek Primitive Baptist Church, was a long journey from Lott’s Creek too. Perhaps Harriet considered Lower Lott’s her family church, after all, she had black and white family members there.

Eliza Saturday Riggs-Hodges (1857 – 1910), daughter of Harriet Riggs. There is no surviving image of Harriet, but I imagine Eliza looked like her mother.

I shared these new findings, thanks to Lillian Wingate’s talents, with an audience of “cousins by the dozens” at Willow Hill in a presentation, “Many Nice Things – Discovering a Georgia Lineage” that weekend, as part of Archival Silence: Closing Gaps in African American History in Bulloch County, Georgia. The presentation captures my journey of discovery and explores the wider diaspora around Willow Hill – indeed, former teachers and students and their families have spread far and wide beginning with the great migration of blacks North in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In my case, five brothers, the sons of Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish, moved from Statesboro, GA , 750 miles north to Chester, Pennsylvania. See: The Riggs Family (Part 3): Finding Fathers.

Many Nice Things: Discovering a Georgia Lineage

“Many Nice Things: Discovering a Georgia Lineage” by Joel R. Johnson, part of Archival Silence: Closing Gaps in African American Research, September 2022.

Highlights of the weekend include meeting Dr. Alvin Jackson and his family, board members at Willow Hill, as well as listening to other presentations, including one by Rev. Bill Parrish, a cousin, who presented his remarkable story of a line of Parrish family that migrated to Cincinnati, Ohio and there attended and led the preservation of the historic Eckstein School which served the African American community from 1915 – 1958. Read more about the Eckstein School.

We also heard from Rev. Steve Taylor, who is a descendant of the Lester and Everett families, some of the earliest white settlers of Bulloch County. His Lester ancestor, James Lester, enslaved Vilet Lester. Vilet wrote one of the few known letters, by an enslaved woman, during the era of slavery. She wrote to her former enslaver in North Carolina, seeking information about her daughter and family. It is a heartbreaking letter, but one that demonstrates the agency that enslaved people took when the opportunity presented itself. It’s not clear that she actually wrote the letter, she may have just dictated it, but it is a masterclass in enslaved-enslaver diplomacy, in that it created the rare opportunity to see her daughter purchased by James Lester.

Vilet’s letter is archived in the Special Collections of the Duke University Archives, but a copy is available to read at the Statesboro Public Library in the genealogy collection. Steve Taylor is searching for descendants of Vilet Lester and actively researching to learn whether Vilet’s wish to be reunited with her daughter ever took place.

The weekend was a family reunion in many ways – I also met with another Riggs Parrish family historian I was in correspondence with, Dr. Brenda Hagan Malik, a Holland Riggs descendant. Her own research into the historic funeral homes owned by the Riggs family in two locations shines a light on black entrepreneurship during Jim Crow.

Willow Hill School, early 1900s, (enhanced) Georgia State Archives.

While I was jubilant to finally visit Bulloch County, I was haunted by the words of Bill Parrish’s brother who shared with the audience his own deep realization, that he was “visiting the plantation.” This is a out-of-date term that present generations of African Americans aren’t really familiar with, but I heard it often growing up because my Mother’s family, despite growing up in urban Cleveland, was from Greenville, SC, the place of their enslavement. It was a term for visiting family in the homeplace, and seeing kin, usually from the South, who everyone understood was only one or two generations away from enslavement.

“Visiting the plantation.” The words are loaded like a gun, ready to go off, simultaneously protecting and simultaneously harming. The words announce that one is undertaking a journey home to family from the North to the South that will produce a reckoning with the past. And there can be dread in knowing you will be exposed to the trauma of enslavement.

Fortunately, the diaspora of the Willow Hill, overflows with examples of our people overcoming adversity through Jim Crow to present day. The school was a beacon, a fortress, a launching pad, for so many, black and white. It wasn’t lost on me that there were fully four or five generations of family attending the Willow Hill festival that weekend. As I walked the halls and visited the one-room school house on the site, Bennet Grove, I felt a gentle spirit on my shoulder. Dr. Nkenge Jackson calls it, “the Willow Hill spirit.” And I certainly felt the spirit chase away the dread, as a growing feeling of peace washed over me.

Instead of “visiting the plantation,” I came to realize that I was “visiting the school,” and I am forever grateful, that the ancestors revealed this lineage to me.

Sources.

  • Lower Lott’s Primitive Baptist Church Minutes, Statesboro Public Library.
  • Hendrix Hope, Dorothy, “The Story of Bulloch County” (1996). Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
  • Life in Old Bulloch, The story of a Wiregrass County in Georgia, 1796 -1940, Dorothy Brannen, Statesboro Public Library (1992).
  • 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. pg. 36.
  • US Census, Bulloch County, GA. 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900.
  • US Census, Slave Schedules, Bulloch County, GA.1850, 1860.
  • The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center.
  • Ancestry.com

2 thoughts on “The Riggs Family: Visiting the Willow Hill School”

  1. This is a beautiful story. It evokes a nostalgic response, as if I’ve heard it before or as if I had been present at the locations visited and had experienced first-hand the emotional and physical heaviness of my enslaved ancestors, other family and kin.

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