Abraham “A.B.” Riggs (1816 -1886) listed 14 enslaved souls in the 1860 census, among them my 4th great-grandmother Harriet Riggs (1820 -1874) and her family. Harriet and her children were enslaved by Abraham Riggs from 1849 – 1865, prior to that by Dicey Nevils-Donaldson-Mikell (as dower slaves) and formerly belonging to Jacob Nevils, my white 5th great-grandfather. Abraham Rigg’s enslaved labor increased by marriage by 9 since the 1850 slave census. Dr. Alvin Jackson, a historian, and director of the Bulloch county-based Willow Hill School Heritage & Renaissance Center, has shared that Harriet may have had another son named “William.” William Riggs does not show up in records connected to Harriet, but a recently added collection of documents to Ancestry reveals an enslaved man named William labored for the Confederacy against his will in Savannah – loaned out by Abraham Riggs to support white supremacy.
I’ve shared previously, Abraham Riggs was a large planter in Statesboro, Georgia, about 55 miles west of Savannah. in 1860, Abraham Riggs land was worth $400, but his personal estate was worth, $13,564 (wealth tied up in slaves that would be over $450,000 today). In 1870 after the war, his personal estate was just $150.
In January 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued and signed the Emancipation Proclamation declaring “all persons held as slaves,” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward, shall be free.” The proclamation was anticipated in advance by the black community (free and enslaved) as Lincoln made the promise in the fall over a hundred days earlier and word had spread it was coming. As ambitious as the proclamation was, it meant nothing to the Confederates except further provocation to battle to keep the institution of slavery, and their wealth.
Ever the profiteer of misery, Abraham Riggs sent one of his enslaved, William Riggs, to labor for the Confederacy in December 1863, just under a year after the proclamation. William worked for just over 3 months. Abraham earned about $80 for William’s toil. Abraham’s recognizable signature can be found on the payroll listing the enslaved and amounts he was paid.
“We, the Subscribers, acknowledge to have received of Captain John McGrady, C.S. the sums set opposite our names respectively, being in full for the service of our Slaves at Savannah, GA during the months of Aug. Sept. Oct. Nov. Dec. 1863 having signed duplicate receipts”
US, Confederate Payrolls for Enslaved Labor
Throughout the Civil War, Savannah was well-fortified by Confederate forces. Fort McAllister lay along the Ogeechee River to the South and guarded entry from the South through the Ossabaw area. To the North of the city, Fort Jackson protected just a few miles upstream on the Savannah River. However, the Union army was a constant and ever-present threat. Since 1862, Union forces occupied Fort Pulaski in Tybee just 18 miles south on the Savannah River. The Commander of the South was Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, infamous for leading the attack on Fort Sumter that started the war in 1861. He approved the evacuation of Savannah when General Sherman’s fateful march arrived with 62,000 Union soldiers. Several naval battles took place between raiders and ironside vessels in the rivers and seas around Savannah.
Confederate President Jefferson Davis toured Savannah in October 1863 and surely admired the fortifications that stolen labor created to buttress white supremacy. He couldn’t realize that a little more than a year later, Fort McAllister would fall ahead of Sherman’s siege of Savannah.
What was life like for William while he was in Savannah those short three and a half months? First, Savannah was a porous city, where Confederates, enslaved blacks, free blacks, Irish and German immigrants, intermixed relatively freely. Union spies traveled through Georgia’s largest port where cotton was exported throughout the war. In fact, Savannah exported over $18 million dollars of cotton in 1860, nearly half a billion in today’s dollars. Rice, lumber, indigo were other common exports. Savannah’s population was about 23K with about 7.5K enslaved souls in 1860 but the number swelled throughout the war with refugees, enslaved forcibly brought into the city to dig trenches and battlements, and of course soldiers. William was in all likelihood, a fish-out-of-water in the city where urban enslaved understood how to navigate the customs, laws, and city life. Blacks worked on riverboats, hotels, grocers, with most at the railyards where the Central Railroad or Savannah, Albany, and Gulf Railroad intersected.
Perhaps William took spiritual refuge in the church? The First African Baptist Church in Savannah pre-dated emancipation and was constituted in 1777. The oldest black church in North America was home to free blacks and enslaved, and even whites attended sermons by black pastors. There is evidence that the First African Baptist Church was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.
After the war, Abraham Riggs returned to his plantation in Bulloch County where he eventually signed a Reconstruction Oath to the United States in August 1867 in order to participate in a vote to send delegates to the Georgia Constitutional Convention. In all 33 African Americans attended and 137 whites as delegates. At the desk of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Riggs signed contracts with his formerly enslaved to pay them for the labor on his farms. Eventually, the formerly enslaved Riggs became landowners themselves.
What happened to William? It is unclear whether William returned to the Riggs plantation or slipped away to freedom. Or perhaps he died there among the hundreds of enslaved who became sick and ill. His service lasted three months and twelve days, until mid-March, according to the payroll. William Riggs can not be found in the record afterward. We don’t know how old he was when he went to Savannah, nor if he was buried by family. William is a ghost, a cipher in payroll account, and yet, we knew that he was likely loved and missed by the 14 enslaved souls on Abraham Rigg’s plantation. He was lost, but had a life, even if it was a miserable one.
Harriet’s grandson William Henry Riggs was born in 1868 to Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish-Riggs. “Willie” Riggs may have been named for the man who labored against his will in Savannah in defense of slavery. But what a difference a generation makes. My great-great-granduncle William Henry Riggs graduated from Morehouse College and went on to teach young blacks during Reconstruction.
“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 not 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.
There are layers to us. Just below the skin and as deep as the heart. In the quiet, when we go through our family albums and we see the faces and read the names, when we stare into long-lost eyes, we hear the call and it goes right to the core of our being. It is the call to be remembered.
And sometimes memory is justice. The call of the ancestors is not to root them up from the dust heap of history for nostalgia’s sake. The call is to answer who we are and to find the homeplace of our souls.
Like a great many things, I first heard the call by accident. And yet my whole life, every choice, every chance meeting, prepared me to be able to hear it. I am a writer. I tell my young daughter that I am storyteller if anyone asks. This is a modest way of saying I’ve spent my life chasing writing, first in theater, then later in a career in advertising. Writers are always concerned at first about themselves, but eventually, other people’s stories become a far more interesting subject. We stir at the notion of sharing the turning points in other people’s lives with, well, other people.
In the early 2000s, I joined Ancestry.com spurred by the work of a cousin and Mays family historian, Patricia Thompson. Pat’s work goes back to 1975! She later published a Mays family history, I Came By Way of Somebody, that I used to create a cursory family tree on Ancestry.com. I owe Pat a debt of gratitude for her decades-long interest in research and telling the Mays story laid the foundation to tell my own. In 2006, I watched an episode of African American Livesand saw Dr. Henry Louis Gates illuminate the life of a black family through records and research, and share his revelations, the turning points of a black family (and his own) with their descendants. This was my “Roots” moment, which inspired countless black genealogists before me. His show illuminated black people. It revealed and reminded us that our ancestors lived through the birth of this nation, and how we are an integral part of its creation, development. And I marveled that history could reveal us, and perhaps my own roots. For a son whose father held secret pains and hidden memories, for a son whose mother departed far too soon and took a family history with her, the thought of learning my own family’s story exhilirating.
Could I locate the Mays’ and Redd’s, the Johnson’s and Bobo’s– my family’s place– in our collective American history? Could I learn why my family migrated from places like Greenville to Cleveland, and Dallas to Pennsylvania? Would I uncover the ancestor that helped shape a pivotal moment in American life? Dr. Gates work and the subsequent explosion in genealogy entertainment and education (from television shows to podcasts), along with the ever-increasing amount of records filling the databases at Ancestry and FamilySearch spurred me on. Later, visits to archives, libraries, even cemeteries would finally make the reality of so many lives palpable to me. I would use them to pioneer my own journey into my family’s past. I would go back over 8 generations to the 1700s and map the contours of a river long forgotten, moving ever forward in time, to connect its tributaries and find its headwaters, from Africa to the new world.
In the dozen years of research that followed, I have heard the call take many forms. There are as many ways to piece together a family’s history as there are songs and styles of music in the world. Like songs with familiar melodies, there are many similarities to be found across geography and genealogy. My work is the call-and-response of the ancestors, like the field hollers of the enslaved Africans working the plantation. I hear. I respond. I search. And while I can not work all the time, I find myself returning to the work again and again. I do it partially because the discoveries provide their own secret joy and rush, and partially because I have always sought justice for African Americans – and yes, memory is justice. Reclaiming memory is part of the ongoing history project of America where we find, lose, and find again the truth about how our people lived, struggled, and progressed. I also do it because I have a family of my own now – a giant rainbow family that in many ways represent America’s many cultural and ethnic threads. I see my brothers and sisters and their many children who now represent the world’s diaspora, not just the African one, and I want them all to know their roots, how they came to be, and where they come from. They will have the power of that knowledge for years to come and wield it in ways I cannot yet imagine I’m sure.
I’ve learned that the world is a great pattern bearing form and repetition, like a song. These connections aren’t the clearest explanation of maybe why we do things in our current lives, but they provide understanding. That is the power of history. The research has revealed deep patterns of woe, joy, and whimsy, adventure, craftiness, resilience, and bravery in my family. It shows that the choices my family made through the ages, the places they lived, the professions they held, the partners they took, the wars they fought, they land they worked, were both their own and dependent on their immediate and long-forgotten past. Knacks, rituals, and sayings have come to make sense. Lore has become reality. And through the work – I can call them distinctly ‘ours.’ The Bobo-nose. The Johnson-whit. The Mays-determination. It all comes from somewhere.
I’ve found and used countless birth records and death certificates, census records and slave schedules, wills and probate records, manumissions and certificates of freedom, newspaper articles, church records, land records and deeds, history books, digital and physical archives to piece together a family record.
If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its mighty waters.
The struggle may be a moral one or it may be a physical one, or it may both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.
…If we ever get free from the oppression and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and, if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.
from an address by Frederick Douglass on West India Emancipation, delivered August 4, 1857.
And so welcome to this family history with a caveat. These stories are always just snippets, never in full, never complete. My intention is to first and foremost capture the record. In time, other historians and descendants of the many families therein will build and improve upon them with their own research. Some stories I share here may never go further. Where possible, I intend to revise and further detail the stories as I learn and apply more history and genealogical technology. This collection is an object of its own time as well. I hope its format will evolve. I intend to continue to use archival research, digital research, and DNA to further the record. It’s part of the constant revision of history as more questions reveal new truths, and more history reveals itself. If you want to contribute, please let me know. Feedback is always welcome. If you find you have a family story that needs telling. Heed the call.