The Mays: One Step Closer to Home

The word “Africa” lept off the page like lightning. I jumped from my chair as if a thousand volts had snuck out of the keyboard and into my fingertips. I did the geni-happy dance around my basement den for several minutes. Then I cried, tears of joy, relief, exasperation, and pain (in genealogy, you cry a lot, and often).

On the 1870 census of Greenville, South Carolina, there next to my ancestor Alex Choice’s name were the undescribable letters A-F-R-I-C-A indicating where Alex was born, and equally remarkable, his age, 100. Homespun family genealogists hate the word impossible. African American family genealogists usually just use the word “rare” when asked if we may ever find a direct link to an ancestral nation in Africa. Sure, it’s “rare, but not impossible” to find your enslaved ancestors slaveholder, we agree, especially if you’re willing to dig into local archives and study the white slaveholders in a community as deeply you would your own ancestors. It’s “rare, but not impossible” to find a descendant’s Civil War pension from the United States Colored Troops. But this type of find can be classified as “exceedingly rare.” To find a genetic descendant who was enslaved, whose birthplace is identified in a census as “Africa” is frankly, damn near impossible.

To arrive at Alex Choice and his family is a journey that uses all the tools of genealogy – from the scrutiny of records to modern DNA-testing, as well as recognizing the fact that it takes family to find family. The journey would go through the Mays family (my mother’s father’s line), the Choice line, and the Walker line. And as we shall see it also yielded a second powerful revelation about my lineage.

Jim Mays

It begins with my maternal line, the Mays family from Greenville, South Carolina, and their relationship with another family of formerly enslaved people, the Walkers, whom they lived beside, and farmed corn, wheat, wool and cotton with, and built business and religious enterprises with from the early 1800s throughout the 1900s. The Mays family is absolutely enormous, but my eldest Mays ancestor on record is my second great-grandfather, James Mays, born in March 1847, a farmer who was previously enslaved, who died in 1910. His wife, Harriet Sherman, born in Charleston to Joseph and Mariah Sherman in 1848, outlived him and died in 1929. No picture of Jim survives, only Harriet. Jim never knew his parents, family oral history suggests and I have not identified them on any record so far.

Harriet Sherman, b. 1848. Wife of Jim Mays

Once free, Jim Mays and his wife Harriet were tenant farmers the rest of their lives, never owning property, probably never getting out from under unfair labor contracts that kept them poor. While I can find labor contracts between other Greenville family lines, which I will write about in due time, I have not found any between Jim Mays and white farmers during Reconstruction. There are no records either of whose property he farmed, first in Gantt and later the Grove district. In 1868, Jim registered to vote and signed up for the local militia. Jim and Harriet were the parents of 11 children.  Benjamin Franklin aka Frank, John, Judge, Van Matthew, William aka Will, Lula, Hattie, Maggie, Nellie, Jessie Lee, and an unknown named child.  They had rich lives still in their community and church. They were affiliated with Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church and Flat Rock Baptist Church in Greenville. Their children, one generation out of slavery broke the cycle and gained upward mobility which I’ll detail in a later post. The 1900 census shows  Harriet was the mother of 11 children but only 10 was living. Van Matthew Mays, the fifth son, left Greenville for Cleveland, Ohio between 1910 and 1920 as part of the great migration. I am the grandson of Van’s second son Arthur O’Neal Mays and Dorothy Alberta Redd.

The 1880 US census enumerates the Mays family as:

  • Jim Mays, 30, farmer
  • Harriet (nee Sherman), 23
  • Frank, 10
  • John, 8
  • Judge, 6
  • Willie, 4
  • Lula, 1

The northernmost corner of South Carolina was for a long time an American frontier, with Native Americans, Cherokee and Catawbas, trading with some intrepid trappers and farmers along the foothills of the Appalachian mountain range. The Cherokee accepted traders like Tory explorer and farmer Richard Pearis under British rule and granted him the first 100,000 acres of Cherokee land that stretched across the Piedmont North to Virginia in the late 1700s. Families followed the wagon road and the area’s earliest white settlers set up homes along the waterways. Eventually, Lemuel J. Alston purchased a good deal of Pearis’s lands and Alston set up the plat, called Pleasantburg, that became Greenville by the early 1800s. The area was attractive to speculators and wealthy planters like Vardry McBee who purchased land from Alston. McBee was an ardent recruiter for Greenville convincing Furman University to relocate there. Meanwhile, planters who fought in the Revolutionary War, like Captain Samuel Walker and Captain Robert Cleveland, established their farms in the late 1700s. Though the majority of enslaved in the state resided around plantations on the coast and outside Charleston, enslaved from farms on Ninety-Six, Abbeville, and Edgefield were imported to the county farms. By 1800, Greenville district had 10,029 whites and 1,475 blacks, a 10-to-1 ratio and by 1870 the ratio was 2-to-1 with 15,121 whites and 7,141 blacks. The town proper population in 1870 was 2, 757, showing most lived on the surrounding farms. Black labor was small, but grew steadily as Greenville went from frontier-town to established trading post, and finally, the northern agricultural center of the state.

James Mays, family oral history says, that he was born on or near the James Moon plantation known as “Moonville” though this is currently uncorroborated. An 1882 map shows two Mays/Mayes families living along the White Horse Pike in between the Lenhardt lands and Moon farms. A. Walker and P. Walker also have nearby farms which will prove consequential later.

1882 County Map, Gantt District, Greenville, SC.

In fact, there are three white James Mays living in Greenville in about 1850 when my great-great-grandfather was born. Its unclear if Jim took the surname of a slaveholder, or a merely common name post-emancipation.

On the 1850 Slave Schedule, James B. Mays (white farmer) lists a male age of 4 on James B. Mays farm, and the 1860 Slave Schedule lists a male age of 12. This tracks with Jim’s age at the time. On the 1860 Census, Dr. James B. Mays, now age 24, lives in “Oil Camp district in Greenville, SC with his brother Samuel E. Mays whose farm is valued at $20,000, with a personal estate valued at $14,000.

In 1850, another James Mays (white) born in England in 1780 is living in Gilford, in Greenville. In 1860 his farm is worth $5000, and he has $4000 in personal wealth. Jim Mays may have come off either plantation, or neither. There is more research to be done on these slaveholding planters.

The Walker Connection

I started to investigate the Walker family of Greenville in earnest after I learned that genealogists could use the “F.A.N. Club” approach to break down brick walls in your research. Brick walls are deadends on the genealogy paper trail where the ink runs dry on the usual records and sources and an ancestor disappears from the record for any number of reasons. Could be a name-change, move, or death, etc. F.A.N. stands for “friends and neighbors” and when researching the census, we use the F.A.N. Club approach to examine the friends and neighbors of relatives, identifying and tracking them on subsequent censuses, and census records in neighboring counties, and even across the district for more relatives and their neighbors. Because enslaved and free black communities were tight-knit, interwoven by family and marriage, they often moved together in groups. In some cases, entire black communities would pull up the welcome mat and move, for opportunity or to escape violence. It’s especially helpful for ancestors with difficult to spell surnames. The Walkers, I knew were connected to my family because several early 20th-century death certificates of the Mays family referenced the Mayes & Walker Funeral home for burial services. My cousin Pat Thompson, the Mays family genealogist had discovered the clues years ago, but now the lead was mine.

I used newspaper archives and city directories to identify that John Henry Mayes and Clifford C. Walker were partners and funeral directors at Mayes & Walker, at 510 McBee Avenue in the early 1930s. John’s son James W. Mayes was also an embalmer there. John Mayes, born May 1872 and died in 1864, was my great-grandfather Van Matthew Mayes’ brother, and son of Jim and Harriet Mays. The 1930 census classified John as an “undertaker” and “owner” living in a home on Chicora St. above the funeral home (valued at $2000) with his wife “Jannie” Gamble and several children. His partner, Clifford C. Walker, born Jan 1877, was single and living at St. John St in 1930. Clifford never married and died in 1934 at age 54. No further record of Mayes & Walker suggests the business did not last much longer.

John H. Mays, b. 1872.

The Mays and Walkers were also founders of the Mt. Pleasant Church in Greenville on White Horse Pike Road. When the church reorganized in 1938, J. Walker, G. Walker, and J. Mays were carved into the new church cornerstone. Walkers and Mays both, are buried at the Mt. Pleasant cemetery behind the church and across the railroad tracks.

Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church cornerstone. Reorganized 1938.

Furthermore, Mays and Walkers intermarried. Florella Walker, born 1845 died 1947, married Samuel Mays Sr. (another probable brother or first cousin of Jim Mays) born 1843 died sometime after 1900. Clearly, the Mays and Walker families are deeply connected throughout their lives in post-emancipation Greenville right up through the 20th century. However, it is 21st-century technology that further unites these families.

A New Revelation

Last year, after taking an AncestryDNA test I identified two 4th cousins with well-developed family trees who match me, and match each other. The DNA result meant I share a common ancestor, a 3rd great grandparent with each.

I share 21 CM across 3 segments with Cousin A, and 36 CM across 4 segments with Cousin B. Ancestry only shows shared match in the same range meaning we’re all 4th cousins. It does not mean we’re all descended from the same 3rd great grandparent.

My Cousin B’s mother’s father’s line’s 2nd great-grandparent is, in fact, Samuel Mays Sr. This possibly corroborates that Sam Mays and Jim Mays are brothers, the 3rd great grandparent being the in-common “missing” ancestor for both. I believe he’s also the “S. Mayes” listed on the 1882 Greenville map above, living a stone’s throw from Alfred and Pleasant Walker.

Here’s where things get interesting… Both of these 4th cousins are Greenvillians and descendants of Walker family lines between the 6th and 7th generations. Both DNA cousins’ share 4th great-grandparents Limb Walker and Betty Walker, both born before 1815. Limb and Betty Walker are found on the 1917 death certificate of Alfred Walker Sr. born 1826 and died 1917. Alfred is a son. He is also the father of Florella Walker who married Samuel Mays Sr.

Cousin A’s 3rd great-grandparents are Alfred Walker his wife “X” and Samuel May’s father and an unidentified woman (for now). For the sake of the test, I’ve eliminated Cousin A’s other 3rd great-grandparents based on surname matching.

On Cousin B’s line, Pleasant Walker born 1825 and died 1890, is also the son of Limb Walker and Betty Walker, and married to Mariah Choice. Pleasant Walker and Mariah Choice are her 3rd great-grandparents. For the sake of the test I’ve eliminated Cousin B’s other 3rd great-grandparents based on surname matching here again.

So possible 3rd great grandparents of Cousin B (and probably Jim Mays father or mother) include, Pleasant Walker OR Mariah Choice.

Cousin A and I have only one shared match – with Cousin B. Cousin B and I, however, share many shared matches. This is tricky as DNA is lost from generation to generation…but Cousin A and I don’t share matches with other genetic relatives with Choice surnames. I do share several Choice descendant matches with Cousin B.

So here are my best guesses.

A) Either Jim is the son of Mariah Choice and Alfred Walker Sr,

Or

B) Jim is the son of an unidentified man (who is also Samuel Mays father and likely has the surname Mays) and Mariah Choice.

My own Greenville line is well-researched, but in a combined 65 years of research between myself and Pat Thompson, we’ve never identified the parents of my second great-grandfather Jim Mays, never got close, until now.

Why isn’t Jim the son of Alfred Walker’s wife “X” and Pleasant Walker? Turns out, Cousin B and I share “Choice” family DNA shared matches in common on Ancestry, but Cousin B does not with Cousin A. That puts the spotlight on Mariah Choice as his mother, at least. Why can’t Jim just be descended from Pleasant and Mariah? Because my second 4th DNA cousin is descended from Pleasant’s brother, Alfred (at least on paper).

There is more DNA research to be done and these are just theories. Triangulation will enable me to further explore, confirm or refute these theories once I get Cousin A and B to post their data to GedMatch, but I feel it in my bones that Mariah Choice is my likely 3rd great-grandmother, mother of Jim Mays, most likely with an unidentified Mays man who also fathered Samuel Mays Sr. Furthermore, Oliver Mays, born 1845 is also found living in Mariah and Pleasant’s home in 1870, another probable son or nephew. Mariah was born about 1825 but did not start having children with Pleasant until 1852, when she was 27. There was plenty of time for her to have children before that relationship, and it would have been quite common among the enslaved to be forced to increase the slaveholder’s lot. Perhaps she had Jim, Samuel, and Oliver in a quasi-relationship with a white Mays? Perhaps she had no say in the matter as was often the case during slavery.

Mariah found something, hopefully, happiness, with Pleasant Walker raising a large family. But not so Jim. He may have been given up to be raised by another family member. He may have known all along Mariah was his mother and chose not to acknowledge her or she him. If it was rape, repeated rape by a white Mays, then one can understand the unfathomably deep pain and trauma that may have caused and…the distance. Or the family oral history is wrong and he did know his Mother. One can only speculate.

Jim’s son Benjamin Franklin Mays was a very light-skinned man. In his picture, he could pass for a white man. I believe Jim’s father was white (I have no picture of Jim and his census records show him as “black”). This leads me to believe Mariah’s partner was likely white or she herself was bi-racial. I do have a 5th DNA cousin who lists an ancestor Caroline Choice “black” as the bi-racial daughter of William Choice b. 1756, the white enslaver and plantation owner who lived in Greenville. However, no other matches suggest this relationship.

Benjamin Franklin Mays, b. 1865 d. 1941, son of Jim Mays.

Mariah’s brother Jack Choice is also found living one home away, right next door to Jim Mays in 1870. This is no coincidence and continues to point to a nexus between the Mays, Walker, and Choice families.

A Father From Africa

Mariah Walker-Choice disappears from the record after 1880, probably passing away shortly after, but her parents are documented in several records. At the close of the Civil War, Mariah’s parents are “Ellick Choice + wife” on a Freedmen’s Bureau ration report in 1865, listed as “very old.” On a second ration document, they’re listed as follows, “Alech” Choice, 75 years old, “Sylvia,” 70 years old, and they “live at Lenhart’s” (living on the Lawrence Lenhardt plantation — see Map). Each received 1 corn bushel and 8 lbs of bacon from the government. Such sustenance was desperately needed in Greenville during and immediately after the war. Two harsh winters, the loss of enslaved labor for farming, and war had impoverished the Piedmont region of South Carolina. Thousands of free blacks and poor whites were starving, thousands died. The Freedmen’s Bureau literally saved millions of black and white lives post-emancipation.

A search of the 1870 census for the Walkers turned up Alex Choice still living, but widowed. His wife Sylvia had died between 1865 and 1870.

Here is the remarkable enumeration of the Walker family on the 1870 US Census that has brought me one step closer to my ancestral home:

  • Pleasant Walker, 45, personal estate, $200
  • Mariah Walker nee’ Choice, 45, keeping house
  • Washington, 18
  • Elizabeth, 16
  • Rosa, 16
  • Alfred, 14
  • Tobias, 12
  • Elizabeth, 11
  • Logan, 10
  • Francis, 9
  • Wiley, 7
  • John, 2
  • Oliver Maize (Mayes), 22, laborer (possible son of Mariah, brother to Jim)
  • Alex Choice, 100, birthplace, Africa

Alex Choice, my 4th great-grandfather, was born in Africa. Thanks to the new DNA communities added to Ancestry, I can identify which native regions are most closely associated with African Americans in the Piedmont of South Carolina. They are Cameroon, Congo and Southern Bantu regions, as well as Benin and Togo, taken together more than half of my DNA admixture.

Alex may yet be the link to Africa, but I wish to learn about his life and to identify his slaveholders. His last name, Choice, has pointed me in the direction of early Greenville founders, William Choice, and his descendants, as well as Sylvanus Walker. Both were prominent, wealthy slaveholding planters, both are well-researched, descendants of Patriots from the American Revolution. Because so many Greenvillians today have Mays and Walker roots, I look forward to searching for my ancestors among the Walker and Choice records.

Source.

  • US Census, South Carolina, Greenville District County, 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930
  • Ancestry.com, DNA Summary, and matches of Joel R. Johnson
  • Huff, Archie Vernon Jr. Greenville: The history of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont, University of South Carolina Press, 1995
  • US Census, Slave Schedules, Greenville District, 1850, 1860
  • Selected US Federal Non-Population Schedules, Agriculture, Gant Greenville, South Carolina, 9 June 1880
  • Ancestry.com, US City Directory, Greenville, South Carolina, 1930, 1931, 1933, 1934
  • Mays Thompson, Patricia, I Came By Way of Somebody, Sixth Edition, 2004.