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).
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.
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.
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
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.
The Archival Silence presenters and Team, Sept. 2022.
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.
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.
“Archival Silence: Closing Gaps in African American History in Bulloch County, GA” is day-long event, led by Dr. Alvin Jackson, historian, Board President and co-founder of WHHRC, in association with the Telfair Museum in Savannah.
Telfair Museums explore Savannah’s place in “our collective American past through art, history, and architecture,” including the historiography of the Owens-Thomas House, and the enslaved in Savannah, among other sites.
My own history is deeply intertwined with the WHHRC, as I’ve discovered in the last several years. The founders of Willow Hill include my 3rd great-grandparents Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish-Riggs, and 3rd great uncle Isaac Riggs, and aunt Harriet Lanier-Riggs. I will present on my journey to “close the archival gap” and discoveries that led me to discover my Riggs Parrish heritage, through archival research, oral history study, and DNA research.
Students of SE Georgia genealogy and history, won’t want to miss this event! It is free and open to the public.
“Do you want me to search for your father? I think we can find him, together,” I told Dad. He paused, a long while.
It had taken me several years to feel competent and confident to ask Dad that question. Since the early aughts, I had been building my skills as an amateur genealogist and family historian of the Johnson – Bobo family, my paternal line. The question of my grandfather’s identity is the source of a many decades-old gulf between my father, his sisters, and mother, and now deceased stepfather. They all love each other dearly, and that’s both a source of joy, but also part of the divide.
My father Richard B. Johnson was born in Chester, Pennslvania in 1947. He grew up there and attended Wilberforce College in Ohio before being drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam. He left behind a wife and young son and that marriage ended before he could return. He remarried, adopting a son, and had three more children with my mother Carol Mays Johnson (b. 1941 – d. 1999).
The fact is my Dad’s biological father was unknown to him but was also a very public secret. While he was certain that at least one or more of his sisters knew the identity of his father, that his mother and step-father knew, no one would divulge it for fear of causing pain. To who? To everyone, to him, but especially my grandmother. Even my father had only ever asked his mother once. Grandmom said it was a long time ago and difficult to recall, so Dad was rebuffed with half-answers and half-remembrances and told to let sleeping dogs lie.
Clues, however, came in fleeting conversation and memories over the years. In the many genealogy discoveries I made about my father’s maternal line (the Johnson and Bobo family), I quietly and consistently blew on the embers of his desire to know until it became a flame.
Two summers ago while the family was at our annual vacation in Chincoteague, while we sat around the beach house, I shared with him his High School Yearbook. The pictures triggered many fond memories. After many conversations, like a veil lifting, Dad recalled being told once not to play with a certain kid on the playground when he was just a boy. It may have been because the boy was his half-brother, and his father was “no good.” After a long silence, Dad recalled the boy’s name was Jimmy Hall, and he was close in age. We searched the yearbook. Jimmy and my Dad may have played on the same High School baseball team.
Maybe something truly terrible happened to my Grandmother when she was 18 years old? I had come to believe that they were all just too young and not ready. The question has been dormant some seventy-five years, waiting for people to get old or die so the secret could die with them. Aware the facts could be difficult and painful, but less interested in the how than the who, I believe the truth is healing, no matter how you come by it. By adopting the role of family historian, my generation was coming to a crossroads. Would we also take responsibility for not knowing too? Would we accept the burden, the trauma? The secret itself had become a malignant force, and it was spreading.
To even talk about unraveling the mystery caused my father to choke up, which the grizzled Vietnam-vet and hardened former-civil rights activist rarely did, but he said, “Son, yes, let’s do it.”
The Riggs Brothers Come to Chester.
By the late winter of 2018, I had Ancestry DNA tests gathered from my father, myself, and my grandmother to identify and separate family lines at the genetic level. This was namely for my own work, it’s easy to tell which line a DNA match is on if you have older family members test. But I could apply it to this research question too. By sorting the thousands of DNA cousins who matched my father but not my grandmother, a large group of matches on Ancestry revealed themselves. They all had deep roots in Bulloch County, Georgia. These paternal cousins were the Riggs, Parrish, Hall, and Love, families by surname. Several family trees posted by these DNA cousins led back to a family matriarch named Harriet Riggs (b. 1820 – 1874). I spent several months researching them. Fortunately, they were already well-documented. This work on the early Riggs in Georgia informed The Riggs Family (part 1): New Kin and The Riggs Family (part 2): Harriet Riggs the Matriarch of this series. I’ve focused the next chapter of this series around finding my grandfather’s identity.
I couldn’t help myself and so got started without much of a research plan. With some basic info in hand, I searched for Riggs in Chester through US Census Records and quickly identified four of Harriet’s grandsons living in Chester with their families. I even identified other surnames from Bulloch County in Chester. In the Great Migration, many Bulloch families had come North, including the Riggs. They included William Henry Riggs, Thomas Jefferson Riggs, Nathaniel Riggs, and Solomon H. Riggs. Each family had migrated around 1920. They were all the children of Daniel and Audelia Riggs. Now I had a big lead and I would need to thoroughly research each family. Developing a plan, I used the FAN method (researching all known “friends, family, and known associated”) of the Riggs. I intended to use Ancestry, FamilySearch, and archives, public and private info.
Outside the census records, the first major document I found was the obituary of William Henry Riggs which showed that he attended Morehouse College, taught in Fitzgerald, GA, and later in Chester. I would come to learn that he also taught at The Willow Hill School in Statesboro. Began during Reconstruction, it was the first black school in the county according to Dr. Alvin Jackson, the foremost scholar on the black history of Statesboro and a founder of The Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center, a preservation society dedicated to the school’s history. Dr. Jackson knew the Riggs story well and shared that Daniel Rigg’s store in Statesboro was right across the street from the Willow Hill School.
Willie worked at the store because he didn’t want to return to the field after attending Morehouse College in Atlanta, according to an interview conducted with his sister Rosa Riggs several years ago when she was 100 years old. I later learned Willie would have seen first hand how the white people had treated his uncle Isaac Riggs, who was brutally beaten by a white mob for having the audacity to educate the area’s black children. It’s clear now these four brothers went North to escape racial violence and find new economic opportunities. Willie’s obituary included the names of his kin which further helped me uncover and track the lives of the four Riggs families in Chester in the early 1900s. I was on my way to identifying my father’s Riggs line in Chester. But which line of the four brothers was it? It was time to buckle down and dig.
Daniel Samuel Riggs (b. 1842 – d. 1895) and Audelia “Delia” Parrish (b.1858 – d. 1935) had twelve children.
Nathaniel (b. 1865 -d. 1946)
William Henry (b. 1868 – d. 1963)
James R. (b. 1871 – d. 1953)
Agnes (b. 1872 – d. 1956)
Martha (b. 1876 -?)
Solomon H. (b. 1878 – d. 1952)
Emma (b. 1879 – ?)
Benjamin (b. 1883 – d. 1917)
Rose (b. 1890 – ?)
Pearl R. (b. 1892 – d. 1972)
Thomas Jefferson (b. 1894 – d. 1962)
Maude (b. 1895 – ?)
Nathaniel, William, Solomon and Thomas went to Chester between 1900 and 1920. While today, Chester Pennsylvania is little known, at the turn of the 20th century it was a booming industrial port on the banks of the Delaware River. For at least a half a century before that it was the one-time seat of government for Pennsylvania before it transferred to Philadelphia, and it was well known for it ship-building and garment factories and Quaker citizens. Chester was booming in the early 1900s, producing hundreds of the largest iron vessels and steamships in the Sun Ship Yards alongside steelmakers Penn Steel, and paperworks, Scott paper. Chester became home to the first public art gallery in the Eastern US, the Deshong Museum, and a Ford Motorworks factory.
The African American community was large and swelled during Reconstruction with blacks from Maryland, Virginia, and further south. It became a center of black life and culture and the country’s burgeoning black elite stopped often there to preach, sing, and entertain. Stimulated by World War I, the population swelled between 1900 and 1920 from 38,000 to 58,000 with newly created jobs. The population peaked at about 66,000 in the mid-50s and since then has been in steady decline. Sadly, the city has been in serious decline these last 70 years as industry dwindled and went off-shore, and whites moved to the suburbs. In the shadow of Philadelphia, without adequate resources, without support from the State, Chester suffers.
In 1888, Nathaniel Riggs (b. 1865 – d. 1946) married Anna Moore (b.1870 – d. 1941) in Screven County, Georgia. Census records show they lived in Statesboro, Georgia until 1900 then moved to adjacent Irwin County. At this time, they had their first and only daughter Harriet “Hattie” in 1890. Their first and only son Jesse Riggs was born on August 7th, 1908 in Fitzgerald, GA. By 1920, they had moved to Rahway, NJ (Hattie Riggs married Oscar Hippert there). Nathaniel and Anna Riggs can be found in the census living in Chester, PA between 1920 and 1925. In 1936, they sold their house to their son Jesse. Nathaniel was a railroad worker and lived a long time in Chester.
In 1903, Solomon H. Riggs (b. 1878 – d. 1952), married Mary Tucker in Irwin County, Georgia. Census records show they lived in Statesboro, Georgia. By 1920, Solomon and Mary were living in Chester, Pennsylvania. Solomon was a builder, working on the Roxy Theater, and several stores in Chester. He worked in several factories in Chester, including Penn Steel and Scott Paper. Solomon died in Atlantic City, NJ. It’s unclear if Mary Tucker is in fact Mentoria, his wife, or if she is a second wife. Solomon and Mentoria did not have any children.
Like his brothers, William “Willie” Henry Riggs Snr. (b. 1868 – d. 1863) got married in Irwin County, Georgia in 1906 to Lula Whitfield (b. 1873 – ?). All three of their documented children were born in Georgia before the family arrived in Chester by 1920.
Daisy b. 1896 – d. 1947
William H. Jr. 1903 – ?
Willamina “Willie Mae” b. 1911 – ?
Willie Sr. didn’t teach in Chester, his occupation was listed as “Carpenter” in the 1940 census. By the time Willie Sr. passed in 1963, Willie Jr. was his last surviving child and living in New York according to his obituary. Willie Jr. married Cora Fleming in New York in 1930. His sister Daisy was married twice and died in Chester.
The last of Daniel’s sons who moved to Chester was Thomas Jefferson Riggs (b. 1894 – d. 1962). Thomas married Laura B. Gaffrey (b. 1898 – d. 1945) in Irwin County in 1916. By 1919, their family too was living in Chester. Thomas and Laura had five children.
William Riggs III b. 1916 – ?
Willie Mae b. 1917 – ?
Rosalee b. 1919 – d. 1946
Lillian Rebecca b. 1919 – d. 1989
Thelma b. 1922 -?
William III and Willie Mae were born in Georgia, the remaining three girls were born in Chester. Thomas was a laborer in one of Chester’s many steel mills for more than twenty years.
So what evidence can we use to determine which line my grandfather is on?
Clue 1. – We Are Riggs Parrish People
Through pedigree triangulation on Ancestry, and using a documented paper trail, I concluded that Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish were my father’s 2nd great-grandparents. An examination of several Ancestry DNA matches (second, third, and fourth cousins) matched with other family tree info and public records, shows that Daniel and Audelia were the most recent common ancestors(MRCA) these matches shared. These matches are the descendants of Thomas Riggs or their siblings (but not Solomon, Willie Jr., or Nathaniel Riggs so far).
Clue 2. – Not Solomon
We can probably eliminate the line of Solomon Riggs – he and his wife had no documented children.
Clue 3. – Not Thomas
We can eliminate Thomas Jefferson Rigg’s line. A recent DNA match of a well-documented 4th cousin who descends from Thomas Jefferson Riggs shows we are related through great-great-granduncle and aunt thus we are not on the same line.
Clue 4. – Moore DNA Reveals Which Riggs Brother
Turns out, my father and I match several descendants of the mother and father of the wife of Nathaniel Riggs, Anna Moore (b. 1870 – d. 1941). Jackpot!
Two of my DNA cousins descend directly from Anna Moore’s mother Harriet Kent. Recall, Nathaniel Riggs and Anna Moore had two children, Jesse, and Harriet “Hattie.” Could Jesse or Harriet be one of my father’s grandparents? Seems increasingly likely.
Let’s dive into Anna Moore’s own line for a moment.
I first learned of Anna Moore’s mother Harriet when her name appeared on the death certificate of Anna Riggs as “Harriet Kent.” The name of her father “William Moore,” was listed, along with a birthplace Dover, Georgia.
The death certificate states Anna Moore had been living in Chester for 20 years at the time of her death. Harriet Kent had a death certificate registered in 1930 in Dover, Screven County, Georgia that provided more detail. Harriet Kent was born 1848 in Emanuel County, Georgia (close to Statesboro and adjacent to Bulloch and Screven Counties), and lived in Dover for at least 50 years. She was 82 when she passed, a widower, and her husband’s name was “Aaron Kent”. From this document, I gleaned that “Kent” is a married name and not her maiden at all. Her parents were not named.
Harriet Kent’s death certificate led me to uncover that she had at least one other husband or partner, Peter J. Humphries (b. 1851 – d. 1890). Harriet had at least four children with Peter. The 1880 census lists the family.
Peter J. Humphries, age 17
Harriet Humphries, age 25
Anna, age 9
Frank, age 7
Miles, age 5
Amy, age 3
Laura, 11 months
However, Anna Moore’s death certificate lists “William Moore” as her father. On the 1870 US Census, a “William Moore”, black, age 18, can be found living in a boarding house in Dover, Screven County, working as a railroad hand. The name and age fit making this William a likely candidate.
Further DNA research in Screven and Emanuel counties shows I am related to several white Moore descendants (5th-6th cousins) that lived in Emanuel, Georgia since at least the late 1700s. It’s likely “William Moore” was enslaved and had a white Moore ancestor (a 5th or 6th great-common ancestor).
So there are at least two DNA connections to Emanuel County and Screven County, to the Moore family and descendants of Anna Moore’s mother Harriet (two half-cousin relationships).
Clue 5. – Enter The Davis Family
While researching Thomas Jefferson Riggs’ family, I came across his child Rosalee Riggs (b. 1919 – d. 1949) and her spouse Thomas Davis (b. 1915 – ?). I happened upon a family tree in Ancestry for the Davis family. Because I was researching the friends, family, and acquaintances (or the F.A.N. Method), I immediately started to explore the Davis family and dug into the connection. Little did I know the twists and turns would weave a thread to some surprising revelations.
I won’t go into the details, but the rabbit hole of Rosalee Riggs led me to new cousins but no answers. So I turned to the family of Thomas Davis. Thomas had three siblings, all born in Chester, their parents were born in Chatham, in Pittsylvania County in southern Virginia. Thomas Davis’s oldest sibling, his sister, Alice Faye Davis (b. 1911 – d. 1983), had conflicting or little information on her husband but the public profile happened to have pictures of her and her son. Alice looked vaguely familiar, deep smile, high cheekbones, dimples for days, but it was the picture of her son, George Davis (b. 1927 – d. 1986) that took my breath away. He looked so much like my father that I simply froze. I couldn’t move. I had to force myself to breathe.
I knew I had found something significant. Examining George Davis’s records, I learned he listed his father’s name as John Hall on his own marriage certificate to Carrie Badgley (b. 1929 – d.2016) in March 1946 when he was just 18. However, there was no marriage certificate between Alice Faye Davis and John Hall. In fact, Alice, 19, was single in the 1930 US census with a 2-year-old son. George, it appeared, was something of a rolling stone. He was married at age 18 in 1946, and then three more times in his life, fathering several children with three different women. He had his first child when he was just 15 years old with Gladys Harris (b.1927 – d. 1975), also 15. He had no children with Carrie, but when he settled down in the third marriage to Alice Geraldine Parker (b.1928 – d.1988), he had at least 6 more children by my count.
My gut told me there was a connection, but I could not puzzle it out. The timeline fit, but who was John Hall, and how the heck could he have been a Riggs? Why did this guy look like my dad? My grandmother and George Davis were contemporaries in 1946 Chester, just a year apart in age. The information was incomplete, but I had to share the intriguing picture and what I had with my father.
Of course, upon seeing the photo, Dad was as shocked as I was at the resemblance and had many more questions. He was now, feeling driven to get answers. When my father saw his sister not too long after I shared the picture he resolved to ask her if she recognized the name.
Who knows how it feels to withhold something so precious to someone for so long, what the burden might be, the rationalizations, the fear, the pain? Whatever demons my aunt had to face, she met. Whatever decision my aunt had to make, she made.
“George Hall! Your father’s name is George Hall,” she exclaimed before my father could even utter a word.
From Clues to Evidence
Clue 6. – Davis DNA Matches
None of the Davis descendants have tested with Ancestry. My sole contact in that family did not appear interested in exploring the theory or testing, so I began to look among my DNA matches for connections to Alice Faye Davis’s parents using Ancestry and Genetic Affairs’ Autocluster tool.
Jackpot (again)! I soon found a cluster of several matches with common ancestors on Alice Davis’s maternal line with the Davis surnames in Chatham, Pittsylvania County in Virginia about 4 – 5 generations back. Pedigree triangulation on Thrulines on Ancestry also identified a distant cousin on the same Davis line as Faye Davis, George’s mother. I could now connect the dots on my pedigree chart.
Recall the story about Jimmy Hall, the boy my father was warned away from, his “half-brother?” James Davis is the name of one of the documented sons of George Davis in the same public family tree I found.
Without a DNA test of another descendant of George Davis, I could not definitively say George Davis was my biological grandfather. I did make contact with descendants of Hattie Riggs, the first child of Nathaniel Riggs and Anna Moore. At that stage, the clues were fast becoming evidence…hearsay, distant Davis DNA relationships… A preponderance of evidence connected my father to Alice Faye Davis, George Davis, and pointed to George Davis’s father as being a Riggs.
Will George’s father please stand up?
My hypothesis at that point was that Jesse Riggs (son of Nathaniel Riggs and Anna Moore) was the father of George Davis Hall, unknown or unrecognized to him, and George Davis was my biological grandfather.
Jesse Riggs was the only documented son of Nathaniel and Anna Moore (recall clue 4, we have both Riggs and Moore DNA). We’ve eliminated the other Riggs brothers’ lines in Chester (clue 2 and 3). So did Jesse Riggs have a relationship with Alice Faye Davis (clue 6), which resulted in George Davis’s birth in 1927? Probably.
Could “John Hall” have been a pseudonym for Jesse Riggs or just an adopted father? Did George Davis really know his biological father’s true identity?
The Riggs and Davis family would later be connected by marriage when Alice’s brother Thomas married Rosalee Riggsafter Alice and Jesse’s speculated tryst. Jesse and Alice were likely in the same circle as teens (Alice was 17 years old when she had George).
While there were a couple of John Hall’s living in Chester in 1927, I can find no record of a John Hall in a relationship with Alice Faye Davis, and I’ve become a pretty good sleuth of this particular period in Chester. Hall is a Riggs family name, but not on Daniel and Audelia Rigg’s line. Though it can be misinterpreted, the DNA doesn’t lie. It just wouldn’t make sense that John Hall was George’s father (AND the undocumented son of Anna Moore and Nathaniel Riggs).
Go for it.
In April 2021, my father texted me a picture of an envelope. The elegant cursive handwriting revealed it was addressed to the Department of Health, Division of Vital Records in Pennsylvania. My enthusiastic response – “Go for it!”
But we were both skeptical. Pennsylvania law allows birth parents to redact the names of birth parents. The only birth certificate my father carried for 75 years was a “Notification of Birth Registration” that listed his adopted father, Garland H. Johnson (b.1925 – d. 2011), and his mother.
Birth records of adopted children in Pennsylvania were sealed to protect the privacy rights of birth parents (my father was adopted by his stepfather), but we didn’t know the law had changed in 2017.
A few days ago I got another text from my dad.
“It’s official, George Davis was my biological father.”
The accompanying picture was a noncertified copy of the original birth record listing my father’s two parents – both 18.
My father shared that it was the “ultimate 75th birthday present.” I told him, now we have to find the record that connects George Davis to Jesse Riggs.
As I write this, my grandmother is 94 years old, and her life, vast, beautiful, tragic, and interesting in its own way is sunsetting. She did what she was put on this Earth to do. My fatherRichard is now a great-grandfather. How will this new knowledge and insight about his father impact the rest of his life and that of his children? He has said not knowing the identity of his biological father was never an impediment, he had a loving adopted father, but not knowing is still trauma. Unlike his mother, he has more time left to heal it. That’s what I wanted for him from this project, for all of us. More time to heal.
My father is a Riggs, a Davis, a Bobo, and a Johnson. He has been a soldier and recipient of the Bronze Star, law student, husband, teacher, carpenter, educator, civil rights investigator, and school board member. He has six children, each with graduate education, 17 grandchildren, and 2 great-great-grandchildren.
It was my father who kindled my passion for genealogy. Before the internet, he roamed the stacks of the National Archives in the 1980s with my mother, and his yellowed notes in beautiful cursive his own mother, a teacher, drilled into him, was the starting point for my journey. Of course, fathers aren’t perfect beings, no one is, but he always encouraged us to leave no stone unturned, to keep digging and pushing against the status quo, and to never let sleeping dogs lie.
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.
It is April 1847, in Statesboro, Georgia in the low country.
On an unpaved dusty street in front of a two-story log building, the rough and tumble courthouse of Bulloch County, not far from wiregrass fields and endless rows of rice. Below a longleaf pine, a 27-year-old enslaved black woman named Harriet clutched her children close to her in a throng of indifferent white men and women covered in red clay dust.
Could no one sense her dread but her children? Daniel, 5 years old cried softly into the folds of the roughspun woolen dress. He didn’t know what was wrong, just that something had his Mama scared. Isaac stared off into the distance, his face simmering with anger and defiance that belied a 10-year-old’s age. Peter hid behind his mother while she clutched her infant, Susan, to her breast. The girl was silent, staring into her mother’s face with a depth of curiosity and wonder only known to babies as if she were asking, “what’s next?”
Indeed, my 4x great-grandmother well understood what happened next in these situations. Her name was Harriet, and she and her children stood outside the front door of the Bulloch County on the auctioneer’s block. Beside her, the auctioneer likely conferred with her present owner and enslaver, Dicey Mikell, age 41, formerly Dicey Donaldson, and before that, Dicey Neville. Dicey’s first husband was James Donaldson, farmer, and son of a local preacher born in Scotland who founded several Primitive Baptist Churches in the county. Her second husband, David Mikell, had recently died and she was in dire need to get her business affairs in order. A two-time widower, her second marriage only lasted three years, and now she had children from both marriages to care for, and an enslaved family. At the same place, and three months later, Dicey Mikell would sell the entirety of David Mikell’s estate as well. But now, she was faced with how to get cash, and to get it quickly. She was going to sell off her enslaved.
The auctioneer would have called for order, as a small press of local farmers and merchants from Bulloch county, and perhaps a slave trader or two would begin the bidding. Harriet and Dicey both noticed an eager man step forward in the crowd. Sharing a look, tears began to stream down Dicey’s face for it was her salvation, her brother, Thomas Neville. Harriet knew him. She did not beg, but she stared Thomas in the face and uttered a few simple words, “my children…my children.”
Despite fierce rounds of bidding, again, and again, Thomas Neville outbid the surrounding crowd. First, he bid on Harriet and her child, packaged together, winning at $797, a stunning figure for this small Georgia backwater deep in the low country. Then, in turn, he bid on Isaac, $493. Next came Daniel, $421. Finally, he began to bid for Peter, but either he was running low on cash, resolve or both. Zachariah Bennett, a wily old farmer kept going and won Peter for $450. I imagine Harriet shrieked and Dicey gasped in defeat. Isaac pulled on his Mama’s hand and whispered that old Zach’s farm was not far away, she might still get to see him at Christmas. Then the auctioneer sold off more land in the estate of James Donaldson, Dicey’s first husband. The morning produced $2,308 in sales, of which Dicey kept a large portion.
Thomas Neville stepped forward to whisper something to his sister Dicey. Then Dicey turned to Harriet ordering her and children, without Peter, to follow her home. Harriet kissed and hugged her boy, and then watched as Zachariah lead the screaming child away. Thomas turned to Harriet and told her to continue to be attentive and subservient to his sister Dicey, but that she and her family now belonged to him, now and forever, and walked away.
But Thomas would be wrong. Dead wrong, for history had already set in motion the impending conflict that would free Harriet and her kin, and begin to set the scales of injustice right. A year before, Dred and Harriet Scott initiated a suit for freedom in the St. Louis Circuit Court. Under Missouri statutes, the suit was allowed based on their previous residence in a free territory (Wisconsin) before return to the slave state of Missouri. The same year, Frederick Douglas, himself a self-emancipated man, had founded The North Star to further spread his eloquent brand of abolitionism. And Liberia, on the west coast of Africa, was founded by free and formerly enslaved black men and women.
The remarkable account of the estate sale of Harriet, my 4th great-grandmother, once buried in the courthouse records of Bulloch County reads as follows:
“To Account of a Sale held on the sixth day of April 1847 before the Court House door in Bulloch County by Dicey Mikell, Administrator on the Estate of James Donaldson, deceased
Harriet, a woman +
Susan, a child……..Thomas Nevill $797.00
Isaac a Boy…………Thomas Nevill 423.00
Peter a Boy………..Zacarahia Bennet 450.00
Daniel a Boy………Thomas Nevills 421.00″
Estate Sale of James Donaldson, Sr. Administrator Dicey Mikell, 6 April, 1847, Bulloch County, Georgia
Why did Thomas Neville step in? To bail out his sister? To secure a good investment? At this time, enslaved people often made up the majority of the wealth of enslavers, more valuable than land or nearly any other item they could own or purchase. They were useful for obtaining credit as they could be mortgaged. They brought labor and status and more.
As I shared in The Riggs Family: New Kin (Part 1), I believed Harriet’s first enslaver was James Donaldson, however, further research produced the bill of sale that led to the discovery of the Neville family’s deep involvement in Harriet’s life, and to a stunning revelation about Harriet’s parentage through genetic genealogy.
Harriet in slavery, a Timeline
1790 – John Oliver Neville, age 46, (formerly of Beaufort County, NC) gives to son Jacob Neville Sr., age 21, 200 acres of land in Nevils Creek in Burke County, Georgia. John also donates land for Nevils Creek Primitive Baptist Church.
1796 – Bulloch County is formed out of Burke, Screven, and St. George’s Parish.
1803 – John Neville dies, age 60.
1806 – Dicey Neville born (this date is probably earlier), daughter of Jacob Neville Sr. b. 1769 and Nancy Henderson, in Bulloch County, GA.
1810 – 1820 – Harriet (my 4x great grandmother, enslaved) is born in GA, likely on the Neville (51 – 61 y.o.) plantation on Lotts Creek.
1814 – March 17, Dicey Neville, a child bride, is married to James Donaldson (son of Robert Donaldson according to tax receipt). Both Dicey and James are mere children. Harriet moves to the Robert Donaldson plantation.
1814 – Abraham B. Riggs was born to Stephen Riggs and Rachel Martin in Bulloch, County Ga.
1815 – Frances Ann Mixon-Neville (wife of John Neville) dies, age 63.
1830 – Jacob Neville Sr. owns no slaves on the 1830 census.
1840 – James Donaldson has 3 slaves on the 1840 census (likely Harriet, Isaac, Daniel, and Peter). David Mikel owns no slaves on the 1840 census.
1831 – April 21, Dempsey Riggs b. 1808 (brother of Abraham) marries Frances Neville (daughter of Jacob Neville and Nancy Henderson).
1834 – Nov 6, Abraham B. Riggs marries Nancy Cannon.
1837 – 18 Dec, Harriet’s sonIsaac (enslaved) is born. Sometime after, Peter and Daniel are born.
1840 – James Donaldson dies. In his September estate inventory appears the following enslaved ancestors: Harriet, and inferred children Isaac, Peter, and Daniel (order appears to be an age order, Susan and Eliza are not yet born).
1844 – March 24, Dicey Neville Donaldson marries David Mikell. Harriet is living on the Mikell plantation.
1847 – David Mikell dies and his entire estate is sold to pay debts.
1847 – April 6, Dicey Neville Donaldson sells her enslaved on the Statesboro courthouse steps: Harriet, Susan, Isaac, and Daniel are sold to Jacob Neville’s son, Thomas Neville. Peter is sold to area planter Zachariah Bennett (Bennett has one 45 yo male slave in the 1860 census). Thomas Neville is Dicey’s brother. Thomas Neville technically owned Harriet and her family but clearly let them continue to live with Dicey.
1849 – Sept 5, Abraham B. Riggs marries 2x widow Dicey Neville Donaldson (presumably Nancy died). Dicey likely lived between 1847 and 1849, with her brother Thomas Neville.
1850 – Abraham B. Riggs has 5 slaves on the Slave Schedule (probably Harriet and her family), his wife Dicey is 44 yo.
1850 – Thomas Neville has 4 slaves on the Slave Schedule. Male 30, female 30, female 12, male 1 (doesn’t appear to be Harriet and her family).
1860 – Abraham B. Riggs (44) has 14 slaves in 2 cabins on the Slave Schedule. Dicey Riggs is 55 yo.
1865 – April, Nathaniel Riggs is born to Daniel Riggsand Audelia Parrish, my great-great-grandfather in District 1209 on Ansel Parrish’s plantation.
1865 – Last Confederate troops in Georgia surrender on May 12, 1865. Harriet and her family are freed. Take the surname Riggs.
1872 – Jacob Neville Sr. dies age 104.
Harriet Riggs by name, Neville by blood
The white Riggs family and Neville family of Bulloch County, Georgia were close by marriage and proximity. The area that John Neville (father of Jacob Neville Sr.) settled in Georgia, after moving from Nevil’s Creek in Beaufort, NC, was at one time several different counties. They included St. George’s Parish, Burke County, and Screven County. The area was carved from the said counties and became Bulloch County in 1796. John Neville is in the records of these various counties, however, he never actually moved.
In two plats from 1804 and 1819, show Jacob Neville and his family (and enslaved) resided on nearly a thousand acres along Boggy Branch and Lotts Creek in Bulloch. Along with the other Neville’s, this is likely where Harriet was born.
Jacob Neville 1769 – 1863 married Nancy “Nissy” Henderson 1780 – 1889
Thomas Neville 1808 – 1870
Delilah “Lilly” Neville 1806 –
Jacob “Jake” Neville Jr. 1812 – 1880
Phoebe Ann Neville 1825 – 1903
In 1849, Dicey Neville, daughter of Jacob Neville and Nancy Henderson, married A.B. Riggs (it was her 3rd marriage and produced no children). Abraham’s brother, Dempsey Riggs, son of Stephen Riggs and Rachel Martin, married Dicy’s sister Frances Neville. I believe Dicey Neville had dower slaves when she married James Donaldson in 1814. The 1830 census shows James owned no slaves prior to marrying Dicey. As I shared, after James Donaldson’s death Harriet and 3 of her 4 children were sold to Thomas Neville, Dicey’s brother. However, Harriet and her family stayed on with Dicey in the Riggs household. Wealthy, Abraham Riggs had 400 acres of land in 1860 and an estate worth $13,564, including 14 enslaved people living in two slave cabins, among them Harriet and her family.
Using genetic genealogy, I have uncovered several distant DNA matches who are direct descendants of Jacob Neville Sr. including his parents John Oliver Neville (Beaufort, NC clan) and Frances Ann Mixon (Effingham County, SC clan). Triangulation through Ancestry’s Thrulines tool shows these cousins confirm common ancestry. Not surprisingly, Jacob was Harriet’s biological father, no doubt her mother was a victim of rape in bondage. This DNA evidence further supports the timeline that Harriett and her children were dower slaves…originally enslaved by Jacob but given to James Donaldson’s estate as part of his daughter’s marriage to his future son-in-law.
And so now we know that Thomas Neville wasn’t just purchasing Harriet and her family. He was purchasing his father’s daughter, and his own nephews and niece, as well as bailing out his sister, and keeping the wealth of the family, in the family.
Some realizations occur to me. 1) Dicey had for several years, her enslaved half-sister Harriet waiting on her and her family. This reminds me of the story of Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha Skelton. Martha’s marriage to Jefferson included dozens of dower slaves, including Martha’s half-sister Sally Hemings. 2) Jacob Neville, though still living, did not come to Dicey’s rescue. Were they estranged? 3) Thomas Neville technically owned his half-sister Harriet and her family but clearly wanted them to continue to live with Dicey. 4) I can see now why Harriet and her family took the Riggs name instead of Dicey’s surname or the Donaldson’s. It wasn’t out of convenience. Would you take the surname of the woman and men who split up your family?
Next, freedom and prosperity
After the Civil War swept through southern Georgia, Harriet and her family found themselves, like many recently freed people, pondering “what’s next?” But they did not wait long. They had been working the Riggs plantation for nearly twenty years now. They knew how to farm corn, rice, wheat, and tobacco. They knew how to manage a household. They knew animal husbandry. They just needed a foothold to get started.
By February 1866, the Freedmen’s Bureau was on the ground in Georgia, probably sending representatives from the nearby Savannah Station, to counsel the people of Bulloch. Harriet Riggs (and two children, presumably Susan and Eliza), Isaac Riggs, Paul Riggs (probably Peter), along with Tom Williams, and Doris Hall (and her two children enter into a one-year labor contract in Bulloch County with the Freedmen’s Bureau to continue to live and work on Abraham B. Riggs plantation. Isaac was to receive $13 a month, food and clothing, Tom and Paul were to receive $8 per month, and Harriet and Doris food and clothing.
Paul Riggs likely dies soon after and is not present in the record afterward. Tom is probably not the same Tom (col, 21 y.o.) who also worked on Neville’s plantation. Tom Neville’s (col) birth date is derived from his voter registration in 1867. His surname is also Neville according to the 1866 poll tax.
Harriet in Reconstruction, a Timeline
1866 – Feb 6, Harriet Riggs, Isaac Riggs, Paul Riggs (probably Peter), along with Tom Williams, and Doris Hall enter into a labor contract with the Freedmen’s Bureau to continue to live and work on Abraham B. Riggs plantation.
1866 – Thomas Neville and Tom (colored) sign a labor contract in Bulloch County with the Freedmen’s Bureau to work Neville’s plantation. Witnesses include James Donaldson Jr.
1867 – Aug 15, Isaac Riggs and Tom Williams register to vote in Bulloch County. Isaac Riggs pays the 1867 poll tax.
1869, Feb 4, Eliza Saturday Riggs, Harriet’s daughter, marries Washington Hodges.
1869, Jun 1, Daniel Riggs applies for tax exemption on land he owns engaging a lawyer.
1870 – Oct 21, Thomas Neville dies.
1870 – Dec 4, Isaac Riggs purchases from Benjamin Wilson 100 acres.
1874 – Jun 25, Harriet Riggs dies. She is between 64 – 74 y.o. Her burial place is unknown.
1874 – The Willow Hill School is established on Daniel Riggs’s land
1876 – June, Isaac Riggs is threatened and beaten for opening and teaching at “Willie Hill”.
1879 – July 16, Elder Washington Hodges (husband of Eliza Saturday Riggs, daughter of Harriet) purchases from W.E. and Henry Parrish 229 acres.
1879 – Oct 28, Daniel Riggs purchases from David Bell 180 acres.
1883 – Sept 22, Elder Washington Hodges (husband of Eliza Saturday Riggs, daughter of Harriet) purchases from James Parrish 20 acres.
1885 – Jan 5, Daniel Riggs purchases from David Bird 115 acres.
1886 – Jul 12, Abraham B. Riggs, dies.
1895 – March, Daniel Riggs dies at age 53.
1897 – Jul 22, Isaac Riggs dies at age 59.
Harriet’s life during Reconstruction was markedly different.
Now, she chose when to rise in the morning, and when to sleep. No longer suffering under the yoke of Dicey and Abraham Rigg’s lash or order, she could breathe, cry, celebrate, even laugh whenever she wanted. She was reunited with her son Peter and watched her family begin to flower and flourish in freedom.
In just three years after emancipation, the Riggs family got access to capital through their PAID labor on Abraham Rigg’s plantation. Harriet’s sons purchased land of their own. They got credit, and mortgages and began to build their lives as free people. Her sons and daughter married and started their own families. In 1867, Isaac voted on the new Georgia Constitution, a requirement by the federal government that each Confederate state had to write and ratify a new state constitution. The military held massive voter registration drives and for the first time, black men and white men appeared alongside each other on voter rolls. The Georgia Constitution Convention had 33 African American delegates and 137 white delegates.
In 1869, my 3x great-grandfather Daniel Riggs was either given or acquired land which was obviously intended to be used for tax-free purposes like education or a church. He applied for a tax exemption that was published in the paper. He and his wife Audelia Parrish, brother Isaac Riggs and his daughter Georgiana would found The Willow Hill School in 1874, the same year that Harriet passed away.
Harriet’s final resting place may be on or near the grounds of the Nevils Creek Primitive Baptist Church where there is a single headstone, that of her white grandfather John Neville. The black congregants of Nevils Creek eventually left in 1879 when Aaron Munlin and several elders formed Banks Creek Primitive Church. Wherever she is buried, her blood and toil infuses the soil of Bulloch County and mixes with the descendants of so many.
I am an exceedingly lucky descendent of Harriet, and especially grateful for one David Beasley who lived in Statesboro in 1866. General Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea on the wain of the Civil War in Georgia destroyed several county courthouses and their records. According to The True Story of the Bulloch County Courthouse, “David Beasley, the Ordinary (lawyer), was aware of the approach of Sherman’s Army, and had heard that the soldiers were burning both private homes and public buildings. Mr. Beasley had the Bulloch County records removed from the courthouse and concealed near his home where they remained until the danger had passed.”
Without Beasley’s foresight, I would not have been able to tell Harriet’s story. Furthermore, I am deeply grateful to Dr. Alvin Jackson who told me in an interview in 2019 that he knew of a document that mentioned Harriet’s sale on the courthouse steps.
What is family? Is it a blood tie? Is it kinship? Though I have had no relationship with my ancestors (I didn’t know them) they are my family because I have found a connection with them through my feelings. When I learn about their lives, for better or for worse, I can’t help feel a bond with them. I count my living family now as extraordinarily tight, but in my life have seen how the relationships that make family come and go. Family is impermanent and often what we define.
Growing up in the industrial waterfront town of Chester, Pennsylvania, my father had a large and loving family, and yet he did not know his biological father, and his father’s kin, despite the fact that they were all around him, hidden in plain sight, his whole life. His biological father’s identity was a mystery. But he has always wanted to know more, as did I, and so we set out to use traditional and genetic genealogy to uncover what we could. In our research, we learned my biological grandfather had died in the 80s, and so while we could never know him personally, we did find his people, from their roots in the deep south to the lives they made in Chester after the great migration. And now, for the better, we have a relationship with them. Does that make them family?
Looking for Harriet
The white planter Abraham B. Riggs was not the first enslaver of my fourth great-grandmother, HarrietRiggs, and her children. **See The Riggs Family: Harriet Rigg’s Story (Part 2)** for an update on Harriet’s remarkable life. Despite this, she took Riggs as her surname after emancipation when she could have any she liked. Like many enslaved blacks in the Lowcountry of Georgia, Harriet faced the cruel chattel slavery system that traded human life like a gold watch or a prized axe, a valuable commodity to be passed along after death to provide wealth to those left behind. Harriet and her kin were victims of legacy-based enslavement, passed on paper as well as on the auction block of Statesboro, Georgia. Her first enslaver was an Scot by the name of James Donaldson, whose father followed the Ogeechee River south to Statesboro in the late 1700s. In 1834 Donaldson married a local girl Dicy Neville. When James died, Dicey Donaldson remarried in 1844 to David Mikell, and then when David died, Dicey once again remarried to Abraham B. Riggs on September 8, 1849. Through each marriage, Dicey inherited land and more enslaved people, and so Abraham and Dicey became Harriet’s last enslavers before emancipation.
Harriet, b. 1820 – d. 1874, my 4th great-grandmother had four known children all born before the Civil War with an unknown partner:
Isaac Riggs b. 18 Dec 1837 d. 22 July 1897
Daniel Samuel Riggs, b. 1842 d. 1895
Susan Riggs, b. 1846, death unknown
Eliza Saturday Riggs, b. Jan. 1857 death unknown
Harriet’s children’s father may have gone by the surname Saturday, as her daughter Eliza listed her surname as Saturday on her 1869 marriage certificate to Washington Hodges.
One of Harriet’s enslavers, James Donaldson can be found in the 1830 Census for Bulloch County, between 15 and 19 years old at the time. In the 1840 Census, James has three slaves, one is a female between 10 and 23 years. In the 1850 and 1860 Census his son, James Donaldson Jr. b. 1829. James Jr. is in the 1870 and 1880 census so we can conclude it was James Donaldson Sr. definitely died sometime around 1840.
In the 1850 Slave Schedule for Bulloch County, Abraham Riggs is found enslaving five souls, Harriet almost certainly among them. Abraham was born in 1814 to Stephen and Rachel Riggs in Statesboro. He was married first to Nancy Cannon, then remarried Dicey Donaldson at age 35. He had several children with Nancy, none with Dicey. Abraham Riggs owned Riggs’ Old Mill and his house still stands on Cypress Lake Road across from the lake’s dam according to his descendent Rebecca Riggs Boone. Harriet and her family no doubt lived on the Mill grounds until emancipation. Abraham’s parents sold to their neighbor Jordan Lewis 500 acres of land in two transactions in 1817. Upon Abraham’s death in 1884, he willed his land, some 200 acres between Big Lotts Creek and Big Branch Creek to his sons Abram Jr. and Thomas Riggs. Abraham is buried in Lower Lotts Creek Church Cemetery along with several of his family members.
In 1870, Harriet is found living with her daughter Eliza (16) and son-in-law Washington Hodges (19) and a relative Dina Munlin (25). Her occupation was as a seamstress. In 1880, Harriet (60) is still living with the Hodges and her four grandchildren. The consensus on her death date is June 25, 1874, though her burial place is unknown. Just eight years after her death, her son-in-law Washington Hodges became Elder Washington Hodges and founded the Old Bethel Primitive Baptist Church in Statesboro. Several Riggs descendants are buried in the church cemetery.
How did I find my biological grandfather’s great-great-grandmother Harriet? Her identity, as well as that of an entire clan of intertwined families, began to emerge in dozens of DNA matches and my father’s DNA matches in the last several years. In 2019, I was finally able to isolate my father’s DNA from his mother’s (my grandmother), and it became clear the African American Riggs were the ancestors of my biological grandparents. Several surnames merged in Statesboro with two sets of common ancestors, Harriet Riggs, and Cain Parrish and his wife Isabella Donaldson. Statesboro, about an hour West of Savannah Georgia has a rich history and is well-researched. Fortunately, the Riggs and Parrish family histories are well-documented in family trees by numerous family historians and amateur sleuths like myself. In particular, the remarkable work of Dr. Alvin Jackson, also a descendant of Harriet Riggs, has become a useful guide to antebellum Statesboro’s black community. Dr. Jackson’s remarkable life’s work has been to educate, research, and preserve the story of the legacy of his family and community. He has collected thousands of obituaries and funeral programs of black elders (read them here) from Statesboro, conducted hundreds of interviews that have resulted in digital collections at the Georgia Southern University And he has worked hard to preserve the cultural history of one of area’s seminal colored school founded byHarriet’s children during Reconstruction, the Willow Hill School.
A willow bends but does not break
The Willow Hill School was founded in 1874 by former slaves, initially on land donated by my 3rd great-grandparents Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish (Daniel was my fourth great-grandmother Harriet Riggs’ son). The school was in existence for 125 years; the longest for any school in Bulloch County, Georgia. In 2005, concerned citizens of Statesboro and several trustees founded the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center to preserve The Willow Hill School. A fount of knowledge, Dr. Jackson is the Chairman of the Center.
“A little history – Sometime after the “Great Surrender,” a group of former slaves, lead by Moses, Andy and Sam Parrish, Andy Donaldson and his sisters, Mary, Dorah and Isabelle and Moriah, along with their sons, good friends and in-laws, saw a great need for their children to get an education. The group established the first community/family school (1874-1999) for colored children in Bulloch County, GA and called it the “Willie Hill School” in 1874 after the son of Daniel and Audelia (Parrish) Riggs. The school grew, moving from the farm of Daniel and Audelia, Moses and Isabelle to its final location. It became officially known as Willow Hill School and was sold to the Bulloch County Board of Education for $18.00 in 1920 by Moses Parrish. In 1930 Julius Rosenwald of Sears & Roebuck donated a large sum of money to construct a new building on the school which served as the main academic building for about 20 years. In 1965 the Courts ordered the integration of the Bulloch County Schools and in 1969 Whites forced the closing of the Willow Hill school and other black schools because they refused to integrate. The Willow Hill was was reopened in 1971 but officially closed in 1999. There were more that 40 Colored/Negro community/family schools through Bulloch County but as the schools were integrated into the public school system, they were closed or lost their identity. “
from the website of Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center
The history of the Willow School has been covered widely in Georgia, accompanied by archival documents and photographs of the Riggs, Donaldson, Love, Parrish families who were instrumental to its founding.
Nathania B. Miles, a Riggs descendent has also researched The Willow Hill School and published in several forums and genealogical magazines.
“The Willie Hill school grew rapidly and in 1890 moved to Handy and Agnes (Parrish) Donaldson’s farm for five (5) years where it grew to a two room building. Then, 1895 the school moved to its final location on land donated by Moses and Isabella (Donaldson) Parrish, in Portal, Georgia. The Willie Hill School would evolve three times during its lifetime and become the only community/family school to become a part of the Bulloch County Board of Education in the 1920s. In 1999, the school officially closed its doors.”
Nathania B. Miles, Afrigeneas
The first teacher at the school was Georgianna Riggs, b. 1859, the daughter of my 3rd uncle Isaac Riggs and Harriet Lanier. Harriet Lanier was said to be the mulatto child of “old lawyer Johnson” according to Dr. Jackson. Georgianna was only 15 years old when she began to teach her cousins and community. A former slave herself, and the granddaughter of Harriet Riggs, she learned to read and write during a time when African Americans were outlawed from education. Dr. Erik Brooks, the author of Defining Their Destiny: The Story of the Willow Hill School, writes, “Most likely, Georgianna Riggs learned how to read from the slave owner’s children as they ‘played school.’ She was too young to carry out the duties of plantation work as a slave. The other possibility is that she was educated at one of the underground schools in the Bulloch County or Savannah area.”
Georgianna taught the children to read and write, math and bible-reading. Her father Isaac Riggs was also a teacher at the school, as well as her cousin Willie Riggs. Willie Riggs was the son of Daniel and Audelia (Parrish) Riggs. Willie later traveled to Atlanta and there graduated from Atlanta Bible College (later Morehouse College) in 1894 before returning to teach at Willow Hill.
Unfortunately, the prejudices of the white community of Bulloch County were vast and emboldened by the rise of the Klu Klux Klan. Throughout Reconstruction, colored education in the south came under fierce attack. Whites wanted the black population of the South docile, their station reduced, and back under the heels of racist politicians. At the Willow School, Harriet’s son Isaac was targeted for terror in 1876.
Despite the compromise of 1877 that withdrew the last federal troops from the South to protect recently emancipated blacks and free black communities, blacks would not bend against the onslaught of terror. The Willow School persisted even as the violence escalated throughout the south.
The Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal counsel to the poor, calculates that there were 3,959 lynchings in the South from the end of the Reconstruction era in 1877 to 1950. However, Captain Robert Smalls, later Representative Smalls of Charleston, SC, a black Civil War hero and public figure, stood up in the state capitol Columbia in 1895 and proclaimed that nearly 53,000 African Americans had been killed since Emancipation…in just thirty years. This staggering number included Paul Reed and Will Cato of Statesboro.
There are at least four documented acts of terror in Statesboro between Reconstruction and the turn of the century, not including the infamous lynching case of Paul Reed and Will Cato, in retaliation for the alleged murder of four members of the Hodges family (a white family) in a house fire in 1904. With over 1000 white onlookers (including men, women, and children) Reed and Cato were burned alive without mercy in a forest in Statesboro. After the lynching, four more blacks were murdered in the aftermath. Black citizens were routinely attacked, beaten and whipped. It is reported that many black families left Statesboro soon after for nearby Portal. Many left the state. Not a single person was brought to justice for the lynchings.
It was against this backdrop of racial terror, the sons of my third great-grandparents began to pick up their families and leave town. Perhaps, like blues singer Blind Willie McTell, they got the Statesboro Blues.
Delia on the Parrish Plantation
Audelia “Delia” Parrish whose family is well established in Statesboro, was born in 1858. She married Daniel Samuel Riggs, Harriet’s son. My third great-grandmother Audelia was formerly enslaved by Ansel Parrish a prominent slave owner in Bulloch Co, the son of Henry Parrish and Nancy Williams. Records indicate Delia Parrish was born to Cain Parrish b. 1810 and Isabella b. 1822, all in Bulloch County. On Ancestry, I have a few 6th – 7th cousin DNA matches who have in their trees the white Parrish family. This means we share an ancestor, and very likely Cain Parrish was the mulatto son of Henry Parrish.
Cain Parrish m. Isabella children:
Lucinda b. 1834
Hannah b. 1840
Moses P. b. 1842
Samuel b. 1844
Andrew b. 1850
Agnes b. 1856
Audelia b. 1858
Cain Jr. b. 1864
Henry Parrish received two grants of land in what is now Candler County, and on one built a millpond in Statesboro where Bay Branch Creek and Lotts Creek come together in early 1800s. His son Ansel built his own home a mile west of the creek on a road that branched off Monk’s Ford. He also built a large millpond there. Ansel married on March 3, 1814, and ultimately had 18 children. Audelia lived with her seven brothers and sisters, and parents on the Parrish settlement.
“By Bulloch County standards, Ansel was a very large slave holder. He housed them in a long string of cabins stretching back on a quarters road toward the mill. But rather than having them cooking in their individual cabins with resulting deficiency diseases such as scurvy and pellagra, he provided for them in common, feeding them in a big dining shed back of his house where two responsible women presided. By the time of the Civil War this population had grown so large it took a beef a week to feed them, as well as hogs, goats, game, fish, corn, potatoes, vegetables, rice, syrup and molasses, all produced on the place. He produced rice in large quantities on an island between the forks of the creek where he could raise and lower the level of the water with the sluice gates of the pond. When word came of Sherman’s approach (during the Civil War), old Ansel, then seventy-six years old, sent his people to secure the stock in the swamps and hummocks of the creek. How well they succeeded can be seen by his inventory when he died the following July. That inventory counted 5 horses and mules in addition to the fine saddle horse stolen by his black sheep son the night he died, cattle, hogs (and outlying hogs) sheep, goats, fowls.”
Rita Turner Hall, Lest It All Gets Away From Us
Audelia who may have also gone by Emma lived on the rice plantation during enslavement, and later with her husband and children in an area described as swampy and full of briars and pokeweed in Statesboro after emancipation. Given that Ansel cultivated rice, and the proximity to the Georgian coast and Ogeechee river, the enslaved Parrish family may have been Gullah Geechee, though there is no direct evidence of this.
Audelia Parrish and Daniel S. Riggs had 12 children including:
Nathaniel b. 1865
William Henry b. 1868
James R. b. 1871
Agnes b. 1874
Martha b. 1876
Solomon H. b. 1878
Emma b. 1879
Benjamin b. 1883
Rose b. 1890
Pearl R. b. 1892
Thomas Jefferson b. 1894
Maude b. 1895
In 1864 when General Tecumseh Sherman’s army came marching into Statesboro, during their infamous March to the Sea, they found a pretty pitiful sight while foraging for supplies. No large buildings, a couple of whiskey and turpentine shacks, barren fields, a log courthouse which they promptly burned, and empty farms. Sherman’s men raided several farms mercilessly for supplies. With no railroad, Statesboro was a somewhat impoverished area and didn’t start to prosper until the late 1890s as a town, becoming a large producer of Sea Island Cotton and mules.
Remarkably, by 1869, just three years after emancipation, Daniel Riggs and his family acquired land according to tax assessments. Clearly, they were busy working their farm, and perhaps under contracts with Ansel Parrish’s family coordinated by the Freemen’s Bureau. In an article in the Milledgeville Federal Union newspaper, Daniel’s lawyer, C. A. Sorrier, sought an exemption status from taxation on his land.
In 1882, the state assessed that the total value of Daniel Rigg’s property, which included a farm, 115 acres of land, and various animals to be worth $376. His brother Isaac had 105 acres assessed at $750.
Many nice things
Several remarkable things took place in 1889, the Eiffel Tower opened, Vincent Van Gogh painted Starry Night, the great land rush created Oklahoma City, a city of 10,000 – in a single day. Montana, South and North Dakota and Washington became states showing just how very young indeed the country really was. And on a sunny but crisp Tuesday morning in March, Agnes Riggs and Johnson Rozier were married by Rev. Washington Hodges. Agnes, the 17-year-old daughter of Daniel and Audelia Riggs, was waited on by her cousin Henry, brother Willie, Sarah Parrish, and Maggie Riggs. In the afternoon they took a fine buggy ride about the neighborhood of Blitch, about 10 miles north of Statesboro.
This remarkable bit of news made its way to the Savannah Tribune and was published in April. Unfortunately, sometime between the wedding and Christmas, Daniel Riggs passed away. Daniel lived long enough to see his daughter marry the man who was already the father of Agnes’s son John born in January. Agnes and Johnson would go on to have 11 children, and Agnes would live a long life, passing away in Coffee, Georgia at the age of 83.
By the time of the census in 1900, Delia Riggs was widowed. Over the next 10 years, the escalating violence, racism and lack of opportunity drove some of Delia’s children to pack up and head North.
It’s unclear why Chester, Pennsylvania, and not Atlanta or any of the other major cities along the mid-Atlantic coast became the preferred destination of four of Delia’s six sons and their families. According to Dr. Jackson, Willie Riggs, the namesake for the Willow Hill School, was known to be a “traveling person” and in the club scene in Chicago, perhaps as a musician. Willie already had a taste of travel and freedom from his time in Atlanta. Uncle Isaac had traveled to Savannah after his terrible beating. Perhaps the reality became that there was more to life than the oppression of Bulloch County, maybe even a better life. After all, with their growing education and literacy, they must have asked themselves around the kitchen table and on the walk home from church, what more could they do, what more could the Riggs family become, somewhere else?
In Part 2: The Riggs Family: Harriet Riggs Story I’ll explore the life of Harriet Riggs, including a timeline for her life enslaved and free. I’ll share some surprising revelations about her biological father.
In Part 3: The Riggs Family: New Kin I’ll share how the Riggs who came to Pennsylvania, their lives and families in Chester, and how using traditional and genetic genealogy, I’ve identified my father’s grandfather among them.
Agnes Riggs Marriage Announcement, Savannah Tribune. Savannah, GA. April 4, 1889.
Bonds, Charles; Brannen, Dorothy; Collins, Maggie; Good, Daniel B.; Jackson, Nkenge; Mabry, Evelyn; Postell, Carolyn; Seel, Robert M.; Wall, Rita Turner; and Ariail, Julius, “From Aaron to Ivanhoe” (1988). Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
Bulloch County Tax Assessment, 1882 – 1888.
Daniel Riggs (Colored), Milledgeville Federal Union, Milledgeville, GA. June 1, 1869.
F. Erik Brooks. Defining Their Destiny: The Story of the Willow Hill School. (Savannah: The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center Publishing Group, 2011).
Rita Turner Hall (illustrations) Lest It All Gets Away From Us. Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
“Negroes Shot Flogged In Georgia Statesboroughs Double Lynching,” NY Times, New York, NY, 1904.
“School Teacher Whipped in Bullock County” Colored Tribune, Savannah, GA. June 3, 1876.
US Census, Bulloch County, GA. 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900, 1910.
US Census, Delaware County, PA. 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940.