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.
“Before the Courthouse Door”
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 son Isaac (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 Riggs and 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.
- Banks, Smith Calloway; Collins, Scott; Good B., Daniel; Mitchel P., Cloe; Rahn, Milton; “Old Bulloch Personalities” (1993).
- Blitch, Parris, “The True Story of the Bulloch County Courthouse” (2004). Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
- Deed, Bulloch County, Jacob Neville to James Donaldson, 1833. pg. 154.
- 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.
- Estate Sale of James Donaldson Sr. Administrator Dicey Mikell, 6 April 1847, Bulloch County, Georgia.
- Estate Inventory of James Donaldson Sr., 1840, Bulloch County, Georgia. pg. 124.
- Freedmen’s Bureau, Savannah, Roll 82, Labor Contracts; Harriet Riggs, Isaac Riggs, Daniel Riggs, Paul Riggs, Tom Williams, Doris Hall, Abraham B. Riggs; Feb 6, 1866.
- Georgia Returns of Qualified Voters and Reconstruction Oath Books, 1867 – 1869, Bulloch County.
- 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).
- US Census, Bulloch County, GA. 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900.
- US Census, Slave Schedules, Bulloch County, GA.1850, 1860.
- U.S. Find-A-Grave Index, Bulloch County, Georgia.
- Will, Henry J. Parrish, 1800, Bulloch County, Georgia.
- The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center.
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, Harriet Riggs, 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 by Harriet’s children during Reconstruction, the Willow Hill School.
A willow bends but does not break
The Willow Hill School was founded in 1874 by former slaves, initially on land donated by my 3rd great-grandparents Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish (Daniel was my fourth great-grandmother Harriet Riggs’ son). The school was in existence for 125 years; the longest for any school in Bulloch County, Georgia. In 2005, concerned citizens of Statesboro and several trustees founded the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center to preserve The Willow Hill School. A fount of knowledge, Dr. Jackson is the Chairman of the Center.
“A little history – Sometime after the “Great Surrender,” a group of former slaves, lead by Moses, Andy and Sam Parrish, Andy Donaldson and his sisters, Mary, Dorah and Isabelle and Moriah, along with their sons, good friends and in-laws, saw a great need for their children to get an education. The group established the first community/family school (1874-1999) for colored children in Bulloch County, GA and called it the “Willie Hill School” in 1874 after the son of Daniel and Audelia (Parrish) Riggs. The school grew, moving from the farm of Daniel and Audelia, Moses and Isabelle to its final location. It became officially known as Willow Hill School and was sold to the Bulloch County Board of Education for $18.00 in 1920 by Moses Parrish. In 1930 Julius Rosenwald of Sears & Roebuck donated a large sum of money to construct a new building on the school which served as the main academic building for about 20 years. In 1965 the Courts ordered the integration of the Bulloch County Schools and in 1969 Whites forced the closing of the Willow Hill school and other black schools because they refused to integrate. The Willow Hill was was reopened in 1971 but officially closed in 1999. There were more that 40 Colored/Negro community/family schools through Bulloch County but as the schools were integrated into the public school system, they were closed or lost their identity. “from the website of Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center
The history of the Willow School has been covered widely in Georgia, accompanied by archival documents and photographs of the Riggs, Donaldson, Love, Parrish families who were instrumental to its founding.
Nathania B. Miles, a Riggs descendent has also researched The Willow Hill School and published in several forums and genealogical magazines.
“The Willie Hill school grew rapidly and in 1890 moved to Handy and Agnes (Parrish) Donaldson’s farm for five (5) years where it grew to a two room building. Then, 1895 the school moved to its final location on land donated by Moses and Isabella (Donaldson) Parrish, in Portal, Georgia. The Willie Hill School would evolve three times during its lifetime and become the only community/family school to become a part of the Bulloch County Board of Education in the 1920s. In 1999, the school officially closed its doors.”Nathania B. Miles, Afrigeneas
The first teacher at the school was Georgianna Riggs, b. 1859, the daughter of my 3rd uncle Isaac Riggs and Harriet Lanier. Harriet Lanier was said to be the mulatto child of “old lawyer Johnson” according to Dr. Jackson. Georgianna was only 15 years old when she began to teach her cousins and community. A former slave herself, and the granddaughter of Harriet Riggs, she learned to read and write during a time when African Americans were outlawed from education. Dr. Erik Brooks, the author of Defining Their Destiny: The Story of the Willow Hill School, writes, “Most likely, Georgianna Riggs learned how to read from the slave owner’s children as they ‘played school.’ She was too young to carry out the duties of plantation work as a slave. The other possibility is that she was educated at one of the underground schools in the Bulloch County or Savannah area.”
Georgianna taught the children to read and write, math and bible-reading. Her father Isaac Riggs was also a teacher at the school, as well as her cousin The Willie Riggs. Willie Riggs was the son of Daniel and Audelia Riggs. Willie later traveled to Atlanta and there graduated from Atlanta Bible College (later Morehouse College) in 1894 before returning to teach at Willow Hill.
Unfortunately, the prejudices of the white community of Bulloch County were vast and emboldened by the rise of the Klu Klux Klan. Throughout Reconstruction, colored education in the south came under fierce attack. Whites wanted the black population of the South docile, their station reduced, and back under the heels of racist politicians. At the Willow School, Harriet’s son Isaac was targeted for terror in 1876.
Despite the compromise of 1877 that withdrew the last federal troops from the South to protect recently emancipated blacks and free black communities, blacks would not bend against the onslaught of terror. The Willow School persisted even as the violence escalated throughout the south.
The Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal counsel to the poor, calculates that there were 3,959 lynchings in the South from the end of the Reconstruction era in 1877 to 1950. However, Captain Robert Smalls, later Representative Smalls of Charleston, SC, a black Civil War hero and public figure, stood up in the state capitol Columbia in 1895 and proclaimed that nearly 53,000 African Americans had been killed since Emancipation…in just thirty years. This staggering number included Paul Reed and Will Cato of Statesboro.
There are at least four documented acts of terror in Statesboro between Reconstruction and the turn of the century, not including the infamous lynching case of Paul Reed and Will Cato, in retaliation for the alleged murder of four members of the Hodges family (a white family) in a house fire in 1904. With over 1000 white onlookers (including men, women, and children) Reed and Cato were burned alive without mercy in a forest in Statesboro. After the lynching, four more blacks were murdered in the aftermath. Black citizens were routinely attacked, beaten and whipped. It is reported that many black families left Statesboro soon after for nearby Portal. Many left the state. Not a single person was brought to justice for the lynchings.
It was against this backdrop of racial terror, the sons of my third great-grandparents began to pick up their families and leave town. Perhaps, like blues singer Blind Willie McTell, they got the Statesboro Blues.
Delia on the Parrish Plantation
Audelia “Delia” Parrish whose family is well established in Statesboro, was born in 1858. She married Daniel Samuel Riggs, Harriet’s son. My third great-grandmother Audelia was formerly enslaved by Ansel Parrish a prominent slave owner in Bulloch Co, the son of Henry Parrish and Nancy Williams. Records indicate Delia Parrish was born to Cain Parrish b. 1810 and Isabella b. 1822, all in Bulloch County. On Ancestry, I have a few 6th – 7th cousin DNA matches who have in their trees the white Parrish family. This means we share an ancestor, and very likely Cain Parrish was the mulatto son of Henry Parrish.
Cain Parrish m. Isabella children:
- Lucinda b. 1834
- Hannah b. 1840
- Moses P. b. 1842
- Samuel b. 1844
- Andrew b. 1850
- Agnes b. 1856
- Audelia b. 1858
- Cain Jr. b. 1864
Henry Parrish received two grants of land in what is now Candler County, and on one built a millpond in Statesboro where Bay Branch Creek and Lotts Creek come together in early 1800s. His son Ansel built his own home a mile west of the creek on a road that branched off Monk’s Ford. He also built a large millpond there. Ansel married on March 3, 1814, and ultimately had 18 children. Audelia lived with her seven brothers and sisters, and parents on the Parrish settlement.
“By Bulloch County standards, Ansel was a very large slave holder. He housed them in a long string of cabins stretching back on a quarters road toward the mill. But rather than having them cooking in their individual cabins with resulting deficiency diseases such as scurvy and pellagra, he provided for them in common, feeding them in a big dining shed back of his house where two responsible women presided. By the time of the Civil War this population had grown so large it took a beef a week to feed them, as well as hogs, goats, game, fish, corn, potatoes, vegetables, rice, syrup and molasses, all produced on the place. He produced rice in large quantities on an island between the forks of the creek where he could raise and lower the level of the water with the sluice gates of the pond. When word came of Sherman’s approach (during the Civil War), old Ansel, then seventy-six years old, sent his people to secure the stock in the swamps and hummocks of the creek. How well they succeeded can be seen by his inventory when he died the following July. That inventory counted 5 horses and mules in addition to the fine saddle horse stolen by his black sheep son the night he died, cattle, hogs (and outlying hogs) sheep, goats, fowls.”Rita Turner Hall, Lest It All Gets Away From Us
Audelia Riggs who may have also gone by Emma lived on the rice plantation during enslavement, and later with her husband and children in an area described as swampy and full of briars and pokeweed in Statesboro after emancipation. Given that Ansel cultivated rice, and the proximity to the Georgian coast and Ogeechee river, the Riggs family may have been Gullah Geechee, though there is no direct evidence of this.
Audelia Parrish and Daniel S. Riggs had 12 children including:
- Nathaniel b. 1865
- William Henry b. 1868
- James R. b. 1871
- Agnes b. 1874
- Martha b. 1876
- Solomon H. b. 1878
- Emma b. 1879
- Benjamin b. 1883
- Rose b. 1890
- Pearl R. b. 1892
- Thomas Jefferson b. 1894
- Maude b. 1895
In 1864 when General Tecumseh Sherman’s army came marching into Statesboro, during their infamous March to the Sea, they found a pretty pitiful sight while foraging for supplies. No large buildings, a couple of whiskey and turpentine shacks, barren fields, a log courthouse which they promptly burned, and empty farms. Sherman’s men raided several farms mercilessly for supplies. With no railroad, Statesboro was a somewhat impoverished area and didn’t start to prosper until the late 1890s as a town, becoming a large producer of Sea Island Cotton and mules.
Remarkably, by 1869, just three years after emancipation, Daniel Riggs and his family acquired land according to tax assessments. Clearly, they were busy working their farm, and perhaps under contracts with Ansel Parrish’s family coordinated by the Freemen’s Bureau. In an article in the Milledgeville Federal Union newspaper, Daniel’s lawyer, C. A. Sorrier, sought an exemption status from taxation on his land.
In 1882, the state assessed that the total value of Daniel Rigg’s property, which included a farm, 115 acres of land, and various animals to be worth $376. His brother Isaac had 105 acres assessed at $750.
Many nice things
Several remarkable things took place in 1889, the Eiffel Tower opened, Vincent Van Gogh painted Starry Night, the great land rush created Oklahoma City, a city of 10,000 – in a single day. Montana, South and North Dakota and Washington became states showing just how very young indeed the country really was. And on a sunny but crisp Tuesday morning in March, Agnes Riggs and Johnson Rozier were married by Rev. Washington Hodges. Agnes, the 17-year-old daughter of Daniel and Audelia Riggs, was waited on by her cousin Henry, brother Willie, Sarah Parrish, and Maggie Riggs. In the afternoon they took a fine buggy ride about the neighborhood of Blitch, about 10 miles north of Statesboro.
This remarkable bit of news made its way to the Savannah Tribune and was published in April. Unfortunately, sometime between the wedding and Christmas, Daniel Riggs passed away. Daniel lived long enough to see his daughter marry the man who was already the father of Agnes’s son John born in January. Agnes and Johnson would go on to have 11 children, and Agnes would live a long life, passing away in Coffee, Georgia at the age of 83.
By the time of the census in 1900, Delia Riggs was widowed. Over the next 10 years, the escalating violence, racism and lack of opportunity drove some of Delia’s children to pack up and head North.
It’s unclear why Chester, Pennsylvania, and not Atlanta or any of the other major cities along the mid-Atlantic coast became the preferred destination of four of Delia’s six sons and their families. According to Dr. Jackson, Willie Riggs, the namesake for the Willow Hill School, was known to be a “traveling person” and in the club scene in Chicago, perhaps as a musician. Willie already had a taste of travel and freedom from his time in Atlanta. Uncle Isaac had traveled to Savannah after his terrible beating. Perhaps the reality became that there was more to life than the oppression of Bulloch County, maybe even a better life. After all, with their growing education and literacy, they must have asked themselves around the kitchen table and on the walk home from church, what more could they do, what more could the Riggs family become, somewhere else?
In Part 2: The Riggs Family: Harriet Riggs Story I’ll explore the life of Harriet Riggs, including a timeline for her life enslaved and free. I’ll share some surprising revelations about her biological father.
In Part 3: The Riggs Family: New Kin I’ll share how the Riggs who came to Pennsylvania, their lives and families in Chester, and how using traditional and genetic genealogy, I’ve identified my father’s grandfather among them.
- Agnes Riggs Marriage Announcement, Savannah Tribune. Savannah, GA. April 4, 1889.
- Bonds, Charles; Brannen, Dorothy; Collins, Maggie; Good, Daniel B.; Jackson, Nkenge; Mabry, Evelyn; Postell, Carolyn; Seel, Robert M.; Wall, Rita Turner; and Ariail, Julius, “From Aaron to Ivanhoe” (1988). Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
- Bulloch County Tax Assessment, 1882 – 1888.
- Daniel Riggs (Colored), Milledgeville Federal Union, Milledgeville, GA. June 1, 1869.
- F. Erik Brooks. Defining Their Destiny: The Story of the Willow Hill School. (Savannah: The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center Publishing Group, 2011).
- Rita Turner Hall (illustrations) Lest It All Gets Away From Us. Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
- “Negroes Shot Flogged In Georgia Statesboroughs Double Lynching,” NY Times, New York, NY, 1904.
- “School Teacher Whipped in Bullock County” Colored Tribune, Savannah, GA. June 3, 1876.
- US Census, Bulloch County, GA. 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900, 1910.
- US Census, Delaware County, PA. 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940.
- Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center