The Chase Family: Founding Queen Anne’s Black Churches 150 Years Ago

In 1872, six years after the close of the Civil War, and 8 years after the abolishment of slavery in the State of Maryland, a community of African Americans in Queen Anne’s County made a remarkable transaction that lead to the founding of one of the county’s oldest African Methodist Episcopal churches. Many of these men and women, trustees and grantors, were family intertwined by marriage and blood, and also by the recent bonds of enslavement.

Out of the ashes of the war arose Reconstruction, and African Americans became busy establishing the institutions that would serve as bedrock foundations for the spiritual life, education, and economy of their community for generations to come. It was a time of great contrast. W. P. S. Pinchback became the first African American Governor of a state (Louisiana). Morgan State University opened its doors in Baltimore. President Ulysses Grant won re-election but restored the full rights of Confederate soldiers. All this happened against a tidal wave of black enfranchisement and growth.

The Appeal of Methodism

The black Episcopal Methodists of the Eastern Shore, Kent and Queen Anne’s County (QAC) began numerous schools and churches. While it is unclear where the early black community of my ancestors worshipped (between Sudlersville and Crumpton) between 1864 and 1872, it was likely that enslaved and free people of color previously worshipped in white churches like Dudley’s Chapel built around 1873. Relegated to sit in the upper pews in the “colored” section listening to white preachers, my ancestors and other black Methodists eventually became desirous of their own places of worship and preachers.

African Americans free and enslaved were drawn to Methodism because the denomination treated blacks differently, even calling for the abolishment of slavery and casting out of white members who enslaved blacks. In 1785 the Methodist discipline denied membership to slaveholders (although it was not followed closely), and itinerant preachers actively converted blacks through the early 1800s. It’s safe to say my early Maryland Eastern Shore ancestors (black and white) were Methodists. My third great grandfather Asbury Johnson lived in Queen Anne’s County near Double Creek and is almost certainly named for Francis Asbury, the methodist preacher who toured the area extensively with other circuit riders in the late 1700s. Bishop Francis Asbury ordained Richard Allen a deacon in 1799 and Allen went on to found the African Methodist Episcopal church in 1816.

“The first truly independent black denomination, the Union Church of Africans, was founded in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1813 by Peter Spencer, who was born a slave in Kent County in 1782. In the mid-1860’s Spencer’s church split into two rival denominations, the Union American Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Union Methodist Protestant Church. The most successful move for independence, headed by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, led to the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church in 1816.”

Historic African American Churches of Kent County, Kent County Historical Society, 2019.

In 1864 the new Delaware Conference began with about 5,000 church members and 34 churches, with black clergy members in the Episcopal Church from New Jersey, Eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, and Maryland. Black Methodists promoted education, training teachers and starting schools. Preachers taught, and teachers preached. Thousands of formerly enslaved and free blacks shifted from participating in predominately white churches with white elders, to black churches with black clergy.

“Black local preachers were recruited to serve their congregations, supervised by white elders and annual conferences. Eventually, an ongoing Conference of Colored Local Preachers was organized at Zoar M.E. Church in Philadelphia in 1857 under Bishop Levi Scott.

A Brief History of the Former Delaware Conference

Mt. Pleasant UMC (Pondtown)

An 1877 map of QAC District 2 (Sudlersville, Church Hill, Crumpton) shows at least one “colored church” on the road between Crumpton and Sudlersville next to “School No.2” On the street are the homes of William D. Tarbutton (a justice of the peace), the Cooper brothers (James and John), A. Brooks, and a second school on the crossroads to Sudlersville “School No. 8”. Down Pondtown Road can be found the Doman and Milburn families. All would be instrumental in founding Mt. Pleasant. Nearby are three white Methodist Episcopal Churches including Dudley’s Chapel. The white Goodhand, Tarbutton, and Roberts families are living side-by-side their formerly enslaved who are now free farmers, millers, and even seamen on the nearby Chester River. At this time, my 2nd great-grandfather Walter “Wallis” Johnson is living in Crumpton as a laborer. He would go on to marry my 2nd great-grandmother Sarah Catherine Milbourn, daughter of James Milbourn and Harriet Ann Chase, my 3rd great-grandparents. Emory and Charlotte Chase, my 4th great-grandparents also lived in Pond Town, though I have found no record for their precise dwelling.

Mt. Pleasant UMC, a few miles south of Crumpton, is listed as “Col’d Church” between the Tarbutton and Cooper homes in this 1877 Mam of Queen Anne’s County.

Emory Chase Senior, my fourth great-grandfather (a previously free man of color and blacksmith), and my third great-grandfather James Milbourn (formerly enslaved) along with several other trustees of the first African Methodist Episcopal church in Pond Town purchased land from two black farming families, Thomas and Mary Gafford, and William and Eliza Holliday. The trustees include George Brown and Joseph Doman, husbands to my third great aunts, Emeline Johnson and Juliette Johnson, respectively. Emeline and Juliette were the daughters of Asbury Johnson (born free about 1823 and died before the church’s founding in 1863). The trustees sought to site and build their church and cemetery next to the Public School on the road to Crumpton. For the sum of $30 they obtained “seventeen parcels” of land on September 27, precisely 147 years ago, making the current church Mt. Pleasant at 1701 Dudley Corner Rd, nearly 150 years old. Mt. Pleasant is now under the United Methodist Church Charge with locations at Millington and Pond Town). 

The entrance to Mt. Pleasant UMC on Dudley Corners Road taken during my 2019 visit.


This Deed made this twenty-seventh day of September in the year one thousand and eight hundred and seventy-two by Thomas Gafford and Mary Gafford his wife, and William Holliday (colored) and Eliza Holliday his wife all of Queen Anne’s County, State of Maryland. Witnesseth that in consideration of the sum of thirty dollars, the receipt hereof is hereby acknowledged, the said Thomas Gafford and Mary Gafford and William Holliday and Eliza Holliday do grant unto Emory Chase Snr., Suel Books, James Cooper, Joseph Doman, John H. Cooper, James Milbourn, George Woodland, and George Brown (colored) all of Queen Anne’s County, State of Maryland (these parties being the Trustees of M.E. African Church at Pond Town) all that contains lot of land in the Second Election District of Queen Anne’s County, state aforesaid, lying on the main road leading from Crumpton to Pond Town adjoining lands of Mrs. Matilda Fowler, Mary Gafford, Reuben Newcomb, and the Pond Town Public School house lot and which may be better known by the following meters and bounds, courses and distances. Viz: Beginning at a Stone on the said main Road at the corner of said School House Lot and running thence South ten degrees west four rods and twenty one links to a Large Stone on same road, thence South eighty six and a half degrees west xxx rods and twenty one links to a Large tree, thence North ten degrees east six rods and twenty links to Reuben Newcomb’s line, thence along and with said Newcomb’s line and the line of said School House Lot South eighty-seven and a half degrees east eighteen Rods and twelve links to the place of Beginning, containing two rods and Seventeen parcels of Land, more or less in the Simple. And the said Thomas Gafford and William Holliday together with their wives do hereby covenant that they will defend the same from all claims and encumbrances that may be brought against it. Witness our hands and Seals the day and date above written.
Test: William D. Tarbutton
Thomas Gafford, seal
Mary Gafford, seal
William Holliday, seal
Eliza Holliday, seal

State of Maryland, Queen Anne’s County, to wit:
I hereby certify that on this twenty seventh of September in the year one thousand eight hundred and seventy two, before the subscriber a Justice of the Peace for said County, personally appeared Thomas Gafford (colored) and Mary Gafford his wife and WM. Holliday and Eliza Holliday his wife and did each acknowledged the aforegoing Deed to be true respective acts. Acknowledged before me…William D. Tarbutton J. P. 

The following trustees are listed below with further information from my research. 

  • Emory Chase Snr. b. 1810 – 1880 (4th GGF)
  • Suel (Samuel) Brooks
  • James Cooper (brother of John Cooper, freedom papers testified to in 1857 by Col. Lemuel Roberts who on the same day testified on my 3rd GGF Asbury Johnson’s “Certificate of Freedom”)
  • Joseph Doman II or III b. 1817 or 1841 (father-in-law of 3rd great aunt, or husband of the 3rd great aunt Juliette Johnson)
  • John H. Cooper (brother of James Cooper, freedom papers testified to in 1857 by Col. Lemuel Roberts who on the same day testified on my 3rd GGF Asbury Johnson’s “Certificate of Freedom”)
  • James Milbourn b. 1820 (3rd GGF married to Henrietta Chase, my 3rd GGM, daughter of Emory Chase Snr.)
  • George Woodland (may have been related to Charles Woodland of Kent County who founded other M.E. churches around the same time, namely Mt. Pleasant UMC in Fairlee in the 1880s)
Pond Town Colored School erected in 1902, moved to Mt. Pleasant Church grounds in 1926, demolished in 1927.

While whites attended School No. 2, the closest “colored school” was in Beaverdam, several miles to the south according to the 1877 map. Anectdotes suggest a closer colored school existed on the crossroads of Sudlersville Road and Route 290. By 1926, Mt. Pleasant had purchased and placed a colored school on its property.

“Originally built in 1902 at a different location, the one-room schoolhouse was first purchased by Queen Anne’s County Public Schools as an all-white school. It was moved to the northern part of Queen Anne’s County and eventually became Pondtown Colored School in 1926. The school closed in the mid-1950s. In 1956, Mt. Pleasant Church purchased it from the school board for $800. Segregation ended in Queen Anne’s County in 1967. Over the years, the old Pondtown school building fell into disrepair. The Crumpton Volunteer Fire Department was asked to dispose of the building. They burned it to the ground Aug. 6, 2017.”

Former Pond Town School Demolished,

John Wesley Methodist (Millington)

Other area ancestors were involved in the founding of churches in Queen Anne’s County and adjacent Kent County around the same period. The congregation of John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church in Millington met as early as 1855, under the supervision of white Methodists at Asbury Church. Research shows that the deed for the property purchased in 1863 was processed on December 18, 1877, and the among the trustees listed was Joseph Jeffers, the father-in-law of my 4th great aunt, Mary Jane Chase, the daughter of Emory Chase Snr.

Jeffers Chapel (Sagefield), Boardley AME (Pondtown)

The predominately black Jeffers Chapel of Sagefield in Queen Anne’s County, a small chapel on the crossroads to Sudersville and around the corner from Dudley’s Chapel was presumably built by a QAC ancestor as well in 1894. Johnson’s were also founding members of the Boardley AME Church in Pondtown at the founding in 1903. Both Jeffers Chapel and Boardley AME are still active churches serving their communities today, over a hundred and ten years later.

Jeffers Chapel, founded in 1894.

Price’s Chapel (Sudersville)

On a 2019 research trip to Sudlersville, I found yet another family church. Working with local historian and librarian Lucille Kuntz, we visited Price’s Chapel to explore a lead on a tombstone. The Historical Society had indexed a handful of tombstones at the cemetery behind Price’s Chapel in Sudlersville. One tombstone read “Sarah A Johnson, wife of Asbury Johnson.”

Upon locating the actual tombstone, we learned it read further: “Died May 2st 1921, age 49 years.” Through followup research I learned more: Sarah Annie Brooks, born 1872 in Sudlersville, died 1921 in Chester, Pennsylvania as Sarah A. Johnson. Sarah was married to my 3rd great-grandfather’s grandson Asbury Johnson. Asbury was descended from Lucy Johnson and Isaac Johnson. Lucy was the daughter of my 3rd great grandfather Asbury. Her son, Asbury moved to Chester between 1880 and 1900. Upon examining Sarah Annie Brook’s death certificate it revealed she was removed for burial to Sudlersville.

Tombstone of Sarah Johnson, wife of Asbury Johnson, grandson of Asbury Johnson and Henrietta Johnson, my 3rd great-grandparents.

In 1824, a free black man, James Price, was sold land by Samuel and Hannah Spry (QAC deed book T. M. No. 3 Pg 415). Spry’s widow Hannah also sold land to Aaron Johnson, my 4th great-grandfather. As we saw in the 1877 map, it was indeed a “colored” Methodist church and cemetery, with a J. Price living nearby in 1870. Furthermore, an “E. Brooks” is found living across the street on the map from J. Price. Sarah Annie Brook’s father was Eli Brooks. Lucille and I encountered other Brooks headstones in the Price Chapel cemetery so I can only conclude some Johnsons, Brooks, and Price family worshipped at Price’s Chapel.


The Bobo Family: Mama Bessie

I drove up to the cemetery office with more than a little trepidation. Tired from the early morning flight from Washington, DC to Denver, and then the tedious drive South to Colorado Springs, I did not know what to expect. The front range of Colorado and the wall of the Rocky Mountains to the immediate West loomed over me, an omnipresent voiceless giant, glimpsed occasionally through the clouds. I went into the office of the Evergreen Cemetery and requested a map. I already had a plot number from earlier research, even a picture of the tombstone.

The helpful office attendant drew a line from the office down a road to plot 228. After 45 years it was my first time in a cemetery. I didn’t know the protocol. I got in the rental and drove slowly up the hill, flagged by all manner of headstone and grave markers like soldiers at guard duty. Most were dull and lifeless, occasionally one would be marked by fresh flowers, a beacon in a field of gray. The leaves were turning and falling. How was I going to find her grave in time? The sun was setting and I did not bring a flashlight. Even with the plot number, I guessed there would be thousands of headstones.

I parked and glanced out the window, yes hundreds of markers. I sighed and got out and resolved to begin at the beginning. And then I froze in my tracks. “Harper”, I read. I know that name. I walked over. Here were two stones side by side, Ethel Harper and Andy Harper, my great aunt and great uncle. And there, to the left another marker an unmistakable name.

“Bobo” it read.

The inscription read, “Mother, Bessie F. Bobo, 1877 – 1952.” I got on my knees to touch the cool stone running my fingers across the surface. I felt the omnipresent mountains at my back. Somehow I knew she wanted to face the setting sun over the mountains. In the stretching shadows, the tears came. I could not hold them back.

My great-great grandmother, Bessie Fredonia Demming Bobo, was born in Mexia, Texas, 800 miles away and though she lived in rural places, and urban places like Dallas and the Bronx, she lived her last twenty years of life in Colorado Springs, in a small house near the base of the enchanting natural foothills of the Rocky Mountains known as the Garden of the Gods. The red rocks and white covered granite peaks overlook all who live in the valley. Here in Colorado she went to church and tended to her family for her remaining days. But not after a long life as the matriarch of the Bobo clan.

A day later in the Colorado Springs library, in the old opulent basement wing built by Andrew Carnegie, I found Bessie’s death notice and obituary on microfilm.

“Mrs. Bessie Bobo Dies Here Tuesday”

Mrs. Bessie Fredonia Bobo, 74, a resident of Colorado Springs for 10 years, died Tuesday at a local hospital. A retired school teacher, Mrs. Bobo was born at Mexia, Texas. She was a member of the People’s Methodist Church of this city, and is survived by two sons, Earl Bobo, New York City, and David Bobo, Chester, PA. ; four daughters, Mrs. Susie Mae Davis, New York City; Mrs. Thelma Swann, Colorado Springs; Mrs. Birdie Sanders, Denver, and Mrs. Ethel Harper of Manitou Springs; one brother, William Bobo, Dallas, Texas.

-Colorado Springs Free Press, January 2, 1952

Demmings Roots

Bessie was born to Henry “Rufas” Demings and Ann Miles or possibly Wood, in the small town of Mexia on the 8th of February in 1877. This was the year Reconstruction ended. The so-called Compromise of 1877 was an informal, unwritten deal, that settled the intensely disputed 1876 U.S. presidential election that resulted in the United States federal government pulling the last troops out of the South, and formally ending the Reconstruction Era. Black Republicans felt betrayed as President Grant removed troops from Florida and later that year the newly installed President Hayes would remove the rest of the federal troops from the South. The birth of Jim Crow had arrived. Mexia was a frontier town originally on Comanche land. The town is named after General Jose Mexia, a Hispanic general of the Republic of Texas Army during the Texas Revolution, the town was founded near his estate.

Ann was born in August in 1849 a slave. She had three children, Mary Bell in 1871, twins girls, Zora and Ora Demmings in 1874, making Bessie the fourth child, but not the last. Bessie had a younger brother Willie, and infant brother, Herman, according to the 1880 census. On the census, her children, Mary Bell, Bessie, and the infant boy are listed as “mulatto”, the others “black.” In 1880 she lived near several perceptibly middle-class whites, including a carpenter, railroad agent, lumber merchant, and a minister in the middle of town. At 37 years old she could not read and write, but her children could and were most likely in a Negro school. In the 1900 census, Ann’s profession is “nurse”.

The 1880 US Census enumeration for the Ann Deming family is as follows:

  • Ann Deming, 37, birthplace Mississippi, “keeping home”
  • Mary Bell Deming, 9
  • Ora Deming, 6
  • Zora Deming, 6
  • Bessie, 3
  • Willie L., 2
  • Deming (Herman), under 1

Ann was mulatto, and the daughter of Aaron Turner Senior. With such racial status, it might also be why Ann was allowed to live among whites in central Mexia — because let’s face it, it was highly unusual for a black woman to leave among the middle-class whites in the manner she did in 1880.

Ann Demming’s married name on the 1880 census was spelled D-e-m-m-ing (no “s”). Research indicates not all of Ann’s children could not identify their father and its likely they did not all share the same father, but at least Zora, Ora and Bessie, were likely the daughters of Henry Demming who is named on Bessie’s January 1938 social security application. Henry Demming is also listed on the 1927 death certificate of Ora Demings Butler (Ann’s daughter) attested to by her brother Herman Demming.

A Married Name

By 1857 according to tax rolls in nearby Wortham, Freestone County, about 8 miles from Mexia, a large white family with the surname originally spelled D-e-m-ings had immigrated from Greenville, Alabama. This family was lead by Lewis Demming b. 1811 in South Carolina to Simeon Demming and Mary Webb, originally from Connecticut. Lewis married Catherine Baldaree, a German immigrant in 1861. His brothers Albert and William appear to have moved to Texas with him or about the same time. Lewis Demings was a slaveholder and the Demings families are connected through Henry Deming (the man who appears on Bessie’s social security application as her father)…and by blood. Ann’s daughter Minnie marries in the area to a Wesley Dunbar whose father is probably Jacob Dunbar. Jacob is listed on various 1860 Freestone County poll taxes with other black Demmings men, Sam, Jacob, and Edward. In 1867, Henry Demming “colored” registered to vote in Freestone. The record indicates he was born in Alabama and lived in Texas for 13 years prior, since at least 1854. Henry Demming may have been a son or brother to Sam, Jacob or Edward, but he was also most certainly related to Lewis Demming.

DNA research shows descendants of Bessie Demmings share common ancestry to the white colonial Deming family who settled in the Hartford Connecticut area in the 1600s. I have living 5th-8th cousins with the same Deming roots. This family’s scion is Jonathan Deming (one “m”) born in France in 1585 whose descendants came to the colonies in the 1630s. Lewis Deming’s father Simeon Deming born 1786 in Wethersfield, Connecticut, died 1858 in Alabama and is descended from Jonathan Deming. While living in Alabama in 1840, Simeon enslaved two people, a woman between the ages of 24 – 35, and one male under 10 years old, presumably the son of the woman. By 1850, Simeon enslaved 11 souls, 7 females, and 4 males. Lewis Demming died in 1870 and is buried in Freestone at Oak Island Cemetery.

By 1880 Ann Demming is the head of her household. Her record shows a “D” for divorced, and she raises her children alone. She does not live in the black section of town, all her neighbors are white. Annie lived until 1917 and was known as “Mamie Bobo” while living in Dallas near her daughter Bessie’s family. She was buried, however, in Mexia Memorial Cemetery. When Bessie attested to and signed her younger brother Herman’s death certificate, she listed her mother’s maiden name as Wood and her brother’s father name as “Rufas” Deming, perhaps a nickname for Henry. DNA points to Miles (Day) and it’s unclear where Wood came from.

At age 18 Bessie met and married David F. “Lee” Bobo, age 22, on the 10th of April in 1895 in nearby Navasota, Texas. Dave’s parents were John Bobo and Alice (maiden name Craig). John was an expressman in town and had four sons. By 1900, the turn of the century, Bessie and Lee had four children while they lived in Navasota on Lee’s property in town.

The 1900 US Census enumeration for David and Bessie Bobo’s family when they lived in Navasota reads as follows:

  • David Bobo, 27, born Texas, works at oil mill, can read, can write
  • Bessie Bobo, 24, can read, can write
  • Annie Bobo, 4
  • Earl Bobo, 2
  • David Bobo, 1
  • Susie Bobo (infant), under 1

Straight to Hell

Navasota was a true frontier town, east of the Brazos River and about 70 miles north of Houston. Since its founding in 1831, the town was primarily a stagecoach shop surrounded by farms worked by European Americans and slaves brought in and sold to work the land. In 1859 a major railroad made the area more important for shipping. But life in Navasota was unluckly and dangerous. Throughout the 1860s disaster after disaster hit the town, including a Yellow Fever epidemic, Cholera outbreak, and arson that lead to the death of many in a gunpowder warehouse explosion. Throughout the Civil War, whites fleed to Navasota with their slaves who became refugees.

The county’s adoption of the Old South pattern of plantation agriculture was evident in the census of 1850, which found 1,680 slaves and two free blacks residing amidst a white population of 2,326. The county’s slave population continued to increase at an astonishing rate during the last decade of antebellum Texas, as a result not only of purchases by current residents but also of continuing heavy migration of slaveholders from the lower
South. In 1855 the county tax rolls enumerated 3,124 slaves, representing an almost 86 percent increase over the 1850 level. The 1858 county tax roll listed forty-two residents as holders of twenty or more slaves, the index of wealth often used to define a “planter,” while the 1860 census listed seventy-seven individuals owning twenty or more slaves. By 1860 there were 4,852 whites in the county and 5,468 slaves, constituting 53 percent of the population. Thus, though the white population had doubled in the preceding
decade, the slave population had tripled. With 505 slaveholders, Grimes was one of only seventeen counties in the state in which the average number of slaves per slaveholder was greater than ten.

Grimes County Historical Society Newsletter, January 2016

In the aftermath of the Civil War, Blacks in Navasota began to vote and most Republican. The KKK began to infiltrate the town and a sense of lawlessness became pervasive despite the election of several black politicians. The Freedmen’s Bureau reported over a dozen homicides in 1867 most against Blacks. By 1870, 60% of the population was Black.

Railroad Street, Navasota, 1910.

A deed between Ira C. Camp, and Lee Bobo’s father, John Bobo, dating to 1881 show John originally purchased for $125 two lots of land each 25 feet by 118 feet on the Daniel Tyler League (Daniel Tyler was one of the original Grimes County land grantees). Lee was probably conveyed one of the tracts by his father as he is found on the 1895 tax rolls. Father, John, was an “expressmen” delivering all manner of goods throughout the town and county on his wagon and horse. In 1867, just after the war, John is found on the voter registration list. His ownership of his labor and political will was no doubt instrumental in establishing a foothold in the town that would payoff for the Bobo family.

Ira C. Camp was a notable figure and slave-holder in Navasota prior to the Civil War. The 1850 Slave Schedule indicates Camp enslaved 13 individuals, 7 men, and 5 women. Well-known for his real estate and development projects, Camp moved from Mississippi in 1846 with his wife Eliza and acquired a lot of land in Grimes County. He built a large home that served as an inn and befriended Sam Houston and supported Baptist causes his whole life. After the Civil War, Camp petitioned President Johnson for a pardon for his support of the Confederacy and received it, like most Confederates.

Camp Addition and Camp Subdivision were sold to white settlers but a part of the town which Ira Camp named “Canaan” was sold to freed black men and became Freedman town. This is where Bessie and Lee Bobo settled in South Navasota. But even owning land offered little security. From emancipation to the turn of the century, blacks were continuous victims of white violence in Grimes County.

1890, Galveston Daily News

Despite the violence, the Bobos sought out an existence in the troubled frontier town. Lee’s brother Kelly “A.K.” was working on the river wharf, and brother John Wesley was working on a farm. By 1900 Lee worked at an oil mill and claimed his father was born in Louisiana and his mother in Texas. In 1889 Lee purchased more land in the Horlock and Deadrick addition to the city of Navasota for $150. However, by 1902, Lee and Bessie uprooted the family and moved to Dallas, Texas. They sold their land for $200. They were no doubt thinking about the safety of their family and children, Annie (named for Bessie’s mother), Earl Dewitt, David Newton, and Susie Mae. Parents, John Bobo and his wife Alice Craig left Navasota as well. Navasota had gone from outright lawlessness and straight to hell.

In 1900, a secret all-white, all-male society, known as the White Man’s Union made up of the white merchants and leaders of Navasota began to terrorize the large black population of Navasota. The white Populist Sheriff Garett Nelson who had a good relationship with the black community was targeted in a daylight attack on the streets of the city. An all-white mob murdered three men and shot the sheriff in November and trapped him and his family in the courthouse. State militia was needed to rescue Scott, his family, and several other men. Scott left Navasota, divested his land and brought a successful lawsuit against EVERY white merchant in town. They were all WMU. The black population, and the Bobo family, left Navasota in droves in 1902 so much so the crops in the area failed because there was no one to bring them in. Today the population of Navasota is 54% white and 30% black.

Not Without Difficulty

Lee and Bessie and the family settled into Armstrong’s Booker Washington Addition of Dallas, Texas near Highland Park. Mother, Annie Demmings moved to Dallas to live with them. Records indicate they owned their own home. Bessie had six more children, twins, Thelma Valentine and Ethel Tobie, as well as Birdie, and unbelievably, another set of twins, Bell Zora and Ell Ora Bobo. Fourteen years separated Bessie’s oldest Anna, and her twin daughters born in 1910. Sadly, her twin daughters lived just three months before perishing according to announcements in the Dallas Times. Tragedy struck again in 1911 when her daughter Gregory died. She survived just 10 days.

Bessie Bobo with grandson Leslie Bobo, 1940 in the Bronx, New York City.

During the early 1900s in Dallas, the Bobo family went through remarkable changes from a rural to urban life. Their community and lives were documented frequently in the Dallas Times, Dallas Express (the city’s African American newspaper), as well as the Dallas Morning News. “Mama Bessie” as she became known, was a devout churchgoer at Central Methodist Church, a teacher, a nursery head, and taught Sunday School. Lee was a sextant for their church. They both worked for and were affiliated with Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

1920, The Dallas Express

According to a 1930 Dallas Morning News article, Bessie Bobo was also head of a negro daycare for children ages 2-8 at the Highland Park United Methodist Church, part of the A.M.E. church grounds onsite. The site was rented by the Highland Park Women’s Missionary Society. It’s unclear, but Bessie probably also taught at the nearby negro Sunday School. Despite the racial slur in the headline and demeaning view of black progress, the article places Bessie at the center of the nursery entrusted to her by her community and the Highland Park Society.

1930, Dallas Morning News

Bessie’s father-in-law John Bobo died in 1917, and her mother-in-law “Nannie” Bobo died in 1929. The 1910 census indicated John was widowed by then at the age of 58. John was living with his younger sister Lilly and her husband Henry Bolden at that time in Dallas (according to the 1910 census and Directory information). However, I believe he was actually separated from Alice. Alice was living not too far away in fact according to the Directories. This intriguing bit of information recently lead me to learn that John Bobo’s younger sister (and possibly a parent or two) lived not too far from Navasota in the 1880s. Research on Lilly reveals her surname as “Johnson” and that she and her husband lived in and were married in Montgomery, Texas prior to moving to Dallas. It’s possible her mother remarried as “Johnson” or it was an adopted name. Its also possible Lilly was John’s sister-in-law, the sister of his wife Alice Craig. John’s death certificate lists his parents as Cornelius Bobo and Emma Brown in testimony by Bessie Bobo. There is considerable more research needed here.

In 1920, Annie, Bessie’s first daughter died. She was living in Los Angeles, a stenographer and recently married when she contracted pulmonary tuberculosis. She traveled home to Dallas where she passed away in July from complications from the flu. She was buried in Woodland Cemetery near the Booker Addition. John Bobo and wife Alice “Nannie” Bobo, and AK Bobo, are also interred at Woodland. Crawford was the family undertaker.

In 1932, Lee Bobo, 60, died and was laid to rest in Woodland Cemetery in Dallas as well. Lee had several jobs over the years. He worked as a driver for the Armor Package Co (1903), a fireman at the Linz building (1904-06), an engraver (1907-1909) and then worked for 26 years at the Central Christian Church (1910 -1932) in Highland Park, one of the oldest Protestant congregations in Dallas (established in 1863), as a Sextant and Custodian. David could read and write by age 7 according to the 1880 census, and clearly, had attended a negro school in Navasota.

Apparently, Lee was quite the barbecue pitmaster. His smokehouse was cleared out by a “sneak thief” in a theft that made the Dallas Express newspaper in 1919.

1919, Dallas Express

A Remarkable Feat

A persistent family story about Bessie Bobo was that she earned a college degree in her lifetime. Indeed, I learned after examination of the 1940 census record that she had earned a 4-year college degree between 1930 and 1940 in her 50s, a remarkable feat. The search continues to find her alma-mater. Almost certainly she was one of the first in the Bobo line to graduate from college. Daughter Thelma did have a 4-year college degree from Wilberforce University in Ohio.

After Lee’s death, Bessie left Dallas and traveled to New York where her daughter Thelma had relocated with her husband Bill Swann, a Bermudian immigrant. The Swann’s lived in Harlem on E. 99th Street according to the 1930 census. Their eldest daughter Gloria was born in New York eight years prior meaning Bill and Thelma had been living in New York since at least 1922. Maude Hale (Bessie’s granddaughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law of Tobie Bobo) shared that “Mama Bessie” had worked in the offices of Asa Philip Randolph, the noted Civil Rights and labor movement organizer while living in New York in the 30s.

On the application for a social security account number on January 19, 1938 that Bessie made, she listed her address as 129 St. Ann’s Avenue, Bronx, New York. She listed her mother’s full maiden name as Ann Miles. Her home in the NY was just off Bronx Kill on the peninsula of the borough. Across the kill was Harlem and Randall’s Island, and the East River- Rikers Island. Bessie’s daughter Birdie and her husband Leo Leslie Saunders relocated from Dallas to Harlem in late 1940 also to E. 99th St. There Leo registered for the draft while working at the Adolphus Hotel. He was never drafted. After Susie Mae’s first husband, Chester Nash passed in 1947, she left Dallas and lived the rest of her life in New York.

By 1931, Ethel and husband Andy Harper had relocated from Dallas to Colorado Springs. Cousin Leslie Stephens, grandson of Birdie Bobo and Adolph Jordan, informed me that Ethel and Andy owned a restaurant serving black soldiers and airmen from the nearby Air Force Academy out of the back of their home. Andy was a great cook and well known and beloved in the Colorado Springs community. Ethel was a social worker for nearly 20 years. Ethel had a son from a previous relationship when she was 14 years old in Dallas, Herman Atcherson Jones. Ethel passed in 1989, her husband Andy in 1958.

By 1935, Thelma and Bill and their family followed family to Denver, Colorado from Harlem. Bill was an independent trucker most of his life and passed in 2000. Around 1950, Birdie and Leo and their family also relocated to Denver from New York as well. Leo was a waiter at the Navarre Club, the hottest jazz club in Denver. He later worked as a realtor. Birdie had two children from a previous marriage in Dallas to Adolph Jordan born 1899.

According to Leslie Stephens, Adolph Jordan was the first black pharmacist in Dallas, TX. He was well-known and respected and later sent three children (not his own) to college. His first families (the Bobos) were more complicated and difficult. He married Thelma V. Bobo but later had an affair with Thelma’s younger sister Birdie, producing two children, Everett Alvin b. 1924 and Ernestine b. 1925. A third child, Charles, may also be attributed to Adolph but is more likely Leo Leslie Sanders’ son. Adolph eventually moved to Houston (presumably when the relationship with Birdie ended). He lived there until his death in 1991.

Bessie’s son David N. Bobo b. 1898, my great grandfather, lived most of his life in Chester, Pennsylvania, locating there when he was just eighteen where he met and married Edith Johnson b. 1893, the daughter of a grocer and city councilman. He had divorced and remarried Edith’s distant much younger cousin Mario Rae Henry, but large remarkable families with both women. He also had an illegitimate child with Gertrude Palm all of Chester in 1923, but that is yet another story. David passed in 1990, Edith ten years earlier. David Johnson or “Curly Dave” as he was known, lead a very complex life that I will explore in a later post.

Dave N. Bobo fishing on his boat on the Chesapeake Bay 1950 – 60s.
In the 1980s – Bessie Bobo’s son David N. Bobo with his sister Ethel “Tobie” Bobo, sister-in-law Mary Catherine Johnson-Bobo (Earl Dewitt Bobo’s wife), and Maude Hale, Tobie’s daughter-in-law and wife of Herman Jones).

Bessie lived the last 10 years of her life with her daughter Ethel in a modest home on Fountain Place in Manitou Springs. Records show she was living in Colorado Springs since at least 1946.

Bessie’s home was just a few miles from The People’s Methodist Episcopal Church on East Vrain in Colorado Springs. The church was formed in 1903 by a group of ex-slaves and began meeting at the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows Hall. The church provided meeting space for the DuBois Study Club, People’s Literary Society, NAACP, Women’s Home Missionary Society, Ladies Aid Society, and Colorado Springs Unity Council. I imagine Bessie must have been quite a force in life. She was wise and well-traveled, and her experiences with her family and their complicated relationships showed how much she loved and cared for them. Her leadership and guidance as a teacher set a powerful example. It’s no wonder that ten years after her death, in 1963, the Woman’s Society of Christian Service of People’s Methodist Church named a new circle in Bessie’s honor.

1963, Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph


Using DNA research and other methods, I determined the paternity of Ann Demings. Her father is Aaron Turner Sr., a white enslaver, farmer, and Methodist preacher who was born in North Carolina, likely Richmond County, who migrated to Marlboro County, South Carolina, then Georgia, Alabama, and finally to Leon County, Texas. He enslaved two adult women and two children, one of whom was Ann’s mother. Ann is likely referenced in the 1850 Leon County Slave Schedule of 1850 as an 11-month old living in the Turner homestead. See: Ann Turner Demings: Her Enslaver, Her Ancestor, Her Country.


  • Dallas Morning News
  • Dallas Express
  • Dallas Times
  • Land Deeds, John Bobo, 1881
  • Land Deed, David Bobo, Bessie Bobo, 1902
  • Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph
  • US Census, Texas, Mexia and Navasota, 1850, 1860, 1870, and 1880, 1900
  • US Census, Texas, Dallas County, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940
  •, DNA Summary and Matches, Joel R. Johnson, Cherita E. Bobo
  • US Census, Slave Schedules, Greenville, Alabama, 1840, 1850, 1860
  • Slave Schedules, Freestone County, 1840, 1850, 1860
  • Pikes Peake Library, Colorado Springs
  • Evergreen Cemetery, Colorado Springs
  • Wikipedia

The Mays Family: One Step Closer to Home

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

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

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

Jim Mays

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

Harriet Sherman, b. 1848. Wife of Jim Mays

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

The 1880 US census enumerates the Mays family as:

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

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

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

1882 County Map, Gantt District, Greenville, SC.

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

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

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

The Walker Connection

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

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

John H. Mays, b. 1872.

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

Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church cornerstone. Reorganized 1938.

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

A New Revelation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So here are my best guesses.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Father From Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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


Since, this post was published, Ancestry launched ThruLines, a DNA family tree tool that combines DNA evidence of Ancestry DNA tests and family tree profiles for researchers to evaluate potential theories on the relationship. Below is a visualization using Thrulines of the Choice-Walker-Mays relationship based on an analysis of the DNA relationship between myself and Cousin A and Cousin B, adding validation to my initial theory.


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

The Johnson Family: Roots on Comegys Reserve

Written Apart

Where did Asbury Johnson, my 3rd great grandfather, a free black on Maryland’s Eastern shore and a well-documented scion of the Johnson family come from? An examination of the book, Free African Americans of Maryland 1832 by Jerry Hynson, a census of free blacks taken to inform the Maryland Colonization effort to ship free men to Liberia, shows several “Johnson” family groups listed in Queen Anne’s County living between Sudlersville and Crumpton. Among Asbury’s family group was the following information:

Group 1: Johnson, page 115

Males (as listed in order)

  • Aaron Johnson, 30
  • Philip Johnson, 45
  • Asbury Johnson, 9
  • Alfred Johnson, 5
  • James Johnson, 23
  • Nat Johnson, 49

Unfortunately, this part of the census is separated into male and female groups (other counties are not). It is possible however to identify families by matching listed associates with each male and female family group to build a preponderance of evidence to recombine the family units.

I found separated several male and female Johnson groups and then matched most of them by examining the surnames before and after each group, and the order of listing. So for example, if one male group had Gould, Comegys and Little surnames surrounding it, and one female group had the surnames, and they were in the same order of appearance in the list Johnson male group 5, Johnson female group 5, I could reconnect families. In my case, matching surnames included Massey, Anderson, Warwick, Faulkner, and Blake. In this way, I identified the correct Johnson female group linked to Asbury’s family. The female group is as follows:

Group 2: Johnson, page 126

Females (as listed in order)

  • Jenny Johnson, 52
  • Hester Johnson, 20
  • Sarah Johnson, 2
  • Charlotte Johnson, 26
  • Netta Willamson, 90 (possible mother/grandmother to Charlotte or Hester)
  • Adeline Johnson, 2 Ana Maria Johnson, 2 (twins)

It’s incredibly exciting to have reunited the family and it will give me countless new leads to follow. Furthermore, revisiting the census leads me to new conclusions about Asbury’s lineage. I’ve deduced that Aaron is probably Asbury Johnson and Alfred Johnson’s father based on their proximity in the census. A second clue lay in the fact that Asbury is a wealthy landowner in 1860 as documented on that census. Where did he get the money to buy a farm? How did he build his wealth? Did he have a headstart?

Land in the Family

A thorough review of Queen Anne’s County land records from 1707 – 1851 (MSA CE 144 – 145) reveals no sales of lands to Asbury Johnson, my 3rd great grandfather. Ditto in the second set of records 1851 – 1965 (MSA CE 146 – 147). I did, however, discover a sale of land from James Wilson Browne and wife Hannah Spry-Browne to Aaron Johnson (free negro) in 1829. I’ve often wondered how Asbury could come to own land by the 1850 census without a deed. I can only conclude that he inherited it from his father, Aaron.

Excerpt from deed between James W. Browne and Aaron Johnson, December 1829.


“Queen Anne’s County, to wit. Be it remembered that on the Sixth day of anno Eighteen hundred and Twenty-nine, the following Deed was brought to be recorded to wit,This indenture made and registered this 29th day of December Eighteen hundred and twenty eight between James Brown and Hannah his wife formerly the widow Samuel Spry of the one part and Aaron Johnson free negro of the other part, all of Queen Anne’s County and the state of Maryland, Whosotheth, that the said James Brown and Hannan Brown his wife for and in consideration of the sum of fifty four dollars current money of Maryland to them in hand paid for the said Brown Johns the receipt whereof whereby acknowledged hath granted bargained and sold, a xxx and xxxx conveyed and conferred and by these present doth give grand bargain and sell  xxxx release xxx off convey and confer unto the said Aaron Johnson and his heirs forever all that messages? or tenament? of land being part of two tracts of land called and known as Guyders range and Comegys Reserve or by whatever name or names the same may be called lying and being on the upper kent of Queen Anne’s County and situated on the North side of the public road leading from J. B. to the heart/head of Chester and on the west side of the Red Lyon Branch near where the Camp meetings have been held annual thing….now laid down for six acres of land more or less, together with all and singular the houses buildings gardens fences has woods underwoods ways water profits commodity hereditaments and advantages to the said part of tracts or parcel of lands called + known by the name of Gyders range + Comegys Reserve .”

I’ve thoroughly researched every transaction (deed, bill of sale, manumission) made by James Browne and found only one sale of land to a free negro, Aaron Johnson. Browne was a wealthy planter. The 1810 census shows he owned 5 slaves, and the 1820 census shows Browne owned 4 slaves at that time. Browne has several transactions in the QAC Land Records which I’ll detail later. He was also living on a tract on Comegys Reserve. He sold part of that tract to Aaron.

Comegys Reserve first appears named in the will of Andrew Cornelius who died in 1796. He left the land to his son Andrew Cornelius Jr. It’s unclear when Andrew Cornelius gained his tract on Comegys Reserve, however, sources suggest that  William Comegys III (of Kent Island) gave his brother Isaac Comegys land in Queen Anne’s County called “Comegys Reserve” containing 103 acres. The Comegys were Swedes from the Swedish colony in Delaware who became planters in Kent County and Queen Anne’s County in the mid-1700s. On 16 Jan 1765, Isaac Comegys sold the reserve to Joseph Ireland. Its likely Ireland (a Calvert County native) sold the land to James Brown so the chain of ownership would look like the following:

William Comegys III (103 acres) > Isaac Comegys (103 acres) > 1765 Joseph Ireland > James Brown OR Hannah Spry (wife) > 1829 Aaron Johnson ( 6 Acres)

To my son Daniel Cornelius, all those parts of two tracts of land in Queen Anne’s County upon which I now live the one called Comegy’s Reserve, the other Gunthers Lot; except the part of Comegys Reserve which is hereafter devised by me to my son Andrew Cornelius. In case my son Daniel shall die without lawful issue of his body, then the sd. to my son Nicholas Cornelius.

To my son Andrew Cornelius all that tract of land called The Pearl lying in Queen Ann’s Co. containing one hundred a. of land, also sixty a. of my xxx. part of the tract of land called Comegys Reserve (being the part excepted in the above devise
to my son Daniel), to be laid off for my son Andrew so as to include the north end of the part of the sd. tract now held by me and adjoining the one hundred a. of land called the Pearl. In case my son Andrew shall die without lawful issue of his body, then I give the sd. part of the tract of land called The Pearl and also that part of Comegys Reserve to my son Joseph Cornelius.

To my son Andrew Cornelius two Negro men: Cesar (and) Robert.
To my son Daniel Cornelius one Negro boy James, Negro girl Margaret.
To my son Joseph Cornelius Negro girl Rachael and two Negro children Temperance (and) William.
To my dau. Mary Cornelius Negro boy Richard.
To my dau. Rebecca Cornelius Negro boy Jacob.
To my dau. Elizabeth Cornelius Negro girl Esther. 

The residue of my personal estate to my sons: John, Daniel, Nicholas, Andrew & Joseph & to my daus. Mary, Rebecca & Elizabeth – equally divided between them. I appoint my son Daniel Cornelius sole executor.

Will of Andrew Cornelius 1796

Logically, I wondered if Aaron Johnson or his parents were formerly enslaved by either the Cornelius, or Brown, or Spry family. An examination of land records, bills of sale, and manumissions reveal some incredible and sometimes heart-wrenching facts about these family’s business transactions.

First, Andrew Cornelius’ son, Daniel Cornelius – sole executor of his estate, lead his siblings, Mary, Elizabeth, and Andrew Jr. to the courthouse in 1796 right after their father’s death. There they freed the Cornelius enslaved willed to them by their father. The remarkable manumission lists the following enslaved and the date they were to be freed; Robert 1803, Richard 1805, Jacob 1808, Esther 1805, Margaret 1808, James 1808. Witnesses inclu Thomas Roberts and Samuel Cook. 

Joseph Cornelius, another son of Andrew and who received 3 enslaved in the will, did not participate in the mass manumission of the “sundry negros.” There was no clear record connecting Aaron or his presumed father Phillip to the Cornelius family.

Records show James Browne, who sold the land to Aaron, made 3 sales of his enslaved in 1816. His first sale was South to feed the beast that was King Cotton. Browne sold Sophia, age 15, to a slave trader in South Carolina. He then sold 9 of his enslaved to Edward Brown (presumably his brother) Hannah -34, Ned -21, Nance -7, Margaret -4, Bill -9 mos (son of Hannah), Noah -19, Doll -21, Beck -17 with male child 8 yrs. The last sale was of a girl -11, Ellen, to Stephen Wycoff of the county. Clearly, Browne was fully utilizing of enslaved labor, and willing to participate fully as a trader and purchaser of enslaved labor to his benefit.

Given that Browne was embroiled in the business of enslaved labor, perhaps it was his wife Hannah Spry that instigated and approved of the eventual sale of Browne’s portion of Comegys Preserve to a free negro Aaron Johnson? After all, records show that while she was married to her first husband Samuel Spry, the family sold a portion of their land on Guyders Range to another free negro by the name of James Price. Or perhaps for Browne, it was just business.

Maryland was a tobacco-growing state throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Cultivating tobacco was labor-intensive and depleted the land fast. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Maryland planters shifted to wheat and other crops. They needed less labor for these less-intensive crops and started selling their enslaved south or freeing them to save money. This could have been a factor in the Cornelius family’s mass manumission as well.

Clearly, the source of Asbury’s ability to build a prosperous free family and farm thirty years before emancipation came from his father’s ability to purchase those first 6 acres of land. Make no mistake, this was a mighty act of self-sufficiency in 1829 for a free black. I can only imagine how Aaron, his wife, and their children must have felt at the end of the exchange of those $54 hard-earned dollars.

So while there are no other clues about Aaron’s lineage in the Brown and Spry records, one tantalizing clue appears in the 1850 census. Living immediately next door to Asbury Johnson and his family are William Cornelius and family, descendants of Andrew Cornelius. Furthermore, I’ve now identified the Cooper brothers family. Recall the Cooper brothers also received a Certificate of Freedom witnessed by Col. Lemuel Roberts in 1857 on the same day as Alfred and Asbury Johnson. One Michael Cooper was listed as living on land in the will and probate of Christopher Goodhand. Michael and his family including sons James and John Cooper are found in the 1850 census. Perhaps the Coopers and Johnson family were related? And in Andrew Cornelius will, I find one Cesar (negro man) left to Andrew Jr. A free black man Cesar Faulker also appears in the 1832 census. Could the Faulkners be related to the Johnson clan? Separately, a Cesar Johnson (free negro) appears to have purchased on Kent Island in QAC from one Thomas Lynch in 1822 (QAC Land deeds TM No. 3 page 331). Could Cesar Johnson be the same Cesar enslaved by Andrew Cornelius and willed to Andrew Jr?

Together Again

The search continues to identify who freed the Johnson family among the dusty digitized records of Queen Anne’s County. My reconstituted and combined Johnson family group of the 1832 census is now as follows:

Philip Johnson, 45 married Jenny Johnson, 52

  • Aaron Johnson, 30
  • James Johnson, 23

Aaron Johnson, 30 married Charlotte Johnson, 26

  • Asbury Johnson, 9
  • Alfred Johnson, 5
  • Adeline Johnson, 2 (twin)
  • Anna Maria Johnson, 2 (twin)

James Johnson 23 married Hester Johnson 20?

  • Sarah Johnson, 2

With this construction, I reclaim the women ancestors whom I thought lost to time, including my 4th great-grandmother Charlotte, and 5th great-grandmother Jenny. I say your names.

By the 1840 census, the Browne and the Johnson family are still neighbors. Phill Johnson is listed as the head of household. There 6 in the household, 1 male under 10 (born btw 1830-1840), 2 males between 10 – 23, 1 female 36-54, and 1 female 10-23, 1 male over 36 – 54 (Phill). By this time James Browne wife’ Hannah is dead and his son and daughter live in his home with 2 children under 6 years old.

Field Hands in Maryland. Source unknown.

I can see these early Johnsons in my mind’s eye walking their fields at dusk on a cold crisp January evening, the winter sun setting behind the trees and over the fallow fields. I envisage Aaron holding Charlotte’s hand as six-year old Asbury ran amok chasing the wild geese holding over in the field. He’d squeal and laugh as loud as he liked – for there was no White man to offend, no overseer to anger with his exuberance and joy. His father Aaron’s mind would turn to distant memories of people he had known and loved who were sold on from this county, neighbors, friends, perhaps even family. He would shed a few tears, and then would be thinking hard about what to plant as soon as the freeze was over and wondering how much firewood he could chop from his new land to last the rest of winter. Charlotte would be wondering about her one-year old son Alfred back home in the old cabin and under the care of her mother-in-law, Mama Jenny. Maybe now they’d get a cow for fresh milk so the children could grow tall and strong. Charlotte could find a good place for the animals behind the new cabin they’d start to build that very winter. As the geese scattered, Asbury would stop at the edge of the woods and turn around to look back at their parents, and be still, for just a moment, to take it all in.

In a world that guaranteed their people absolutely nothing, not even the dignity of familial bonds, they’d survived, they’d lived and thrived. And now this land, impossibly, incredibly, was theirs. They would choose when to rise and till the land. They would choose where to build the homestead. They would choose what crops to plant, which animals to raise. They would choose were to plant the well. They would choose which parcel of their six acres to set aside for the family cemetery. They would choose whom to hire, if need be, to help them work their own corner of Comegys Reserve.


  • US Census, Maryland, Queen Anne’s County, 1810, 1820, 1850, and 1860
  • Jerry M. Hynson, Free African Americans of Maryland 1832, Heritage Books, 2007
  • Will of Asbury Johnson, 1866. Maryland State Archives
  • Deed of Aaron Johnson, QAC Deed Books, T.M. No. 5 page 222
  • Will of Andrew Cornelius, Queen Anne’s Co., MD, W.H.N. No. 3 page
  • Bill of Sale, James Browne to George Lake, QAC Deed Books, T. M. No. 1 page 228
  • Bill of Sale, James Browne to Edward Browne, QAC Deed Books, T. M. No. 1 page 233
  • Bill of Sale, James Browne to Stephen W. Wickoff, QAC Deed Books, T. M. No. 1 page 236
  • Deed, Samuel Spry to James Price, QAC Deed Books, T. M. No. 3 page 415
  • Brown, June D. Cecil County, Maryland Land Records, Abstracts. (Willow Bend Books, Westminster MD, 1999), Liber RT G, folio 134
  • Queen Anne’s County MD Land Records, Liber RT G folio 194
    Moss, Ernestine Parke. Cornelius Comegys of Kent County, Maryland. (Published by the Author, 658 Stonewall Memphis, TN 38107, 1982)
  • Skinner, Vernon L Jr. Abstracts of the Prerogative Court of Maryland 1674-1774. Family Archive CD number 206. (Broderbund, 1998), Inventories 1763-1766 page 35

The Johnson Family: Free Blacks of the Eastern Shore

In 1832, a very remarkable event took place in Maryland. No, it wasn’t the escape of Frederick Douglas, that would come five years later. No, it wasn’t the escape of Harriet Tubman, that would come 17 years later. No, this event would not impact the enslaved Marylander, initially. In fact, thousands of free black men, women, and children, had their names and ages written down. Furthermore, they were enumerated in their county. This was the first official and comprehensive state census of free black people in the United States I believe. It came 42 years after the first federal census of white Americans (men and their households) across the United States. This census took place a full 31 years before the Emancipation Proclamation, and 32 years before Maryland would take up a new state constitution after being left out of the Emancipation because it was a border state with secessionist sympathies at the time.

Bridge crossing Chester River, near Crumpton, circa 1912.

Among the enumerated, were the free blacks living on the Eastern Shore, along the banks of the Chester River in Queen Anne’s County. They were farmers, blacksmiths, bootblacks, servants, sailors, dressmakers, and washers. Across the Chesapeake Bay were the two great cities of Annapolis and Baltimore, but in Queen Anne’s County, the census takers wandered from port to port, farm to farm. Perhaps they knocked on the cabins and homesteads of free black people or took up the questions at the local colored churches. Surely they stopped too at the smarter looking homes and big houses of farmers and wealthy planters, the merchant shops and offices in town, asking, perhaps even demanding that free blacks come forward and be named, by law.

An Arrival on Double Creek

The census taker eventually arrived on a farm in Double Creek, in the Church Hill neighborhood. Double Creek was first mentioned in a 1709 deed, “part of a track known as Tilghman’s Discovery, lying on the south side of the Chester River and on the east side of Double Creek, adjoining George Powell’s land.” The people here, free and enslaved, were Methodists, according to Frederic Emory’s History of Queen Anne’s County. Among Double Creek’s farmers was a free black family group first enumerated in the 1832 Census of Free Blacks of Maryland.

  • Philip Johnson, 45
  • Aaron Johnson, 30
  • Asbury Johnson, 9
  • Alfred Johnson, 5

Unlike other county censuses, the Queen Anne’s county census taker would split men from women, making it damn near impossible to put together an intact family group. Nonetheless, there was a group, according to my own research, the scions of the Johnson family in America, and they were free. Not too far away on the census, other Johnsons are listed, James Johnson 23, Philemon, 45, and Nat, 49. While my research has not turned up an enslaver, its very likely the Johnson’s worked the farms in District 1 of Queen Anne’s County, an area between Church Hill to the South, Chesterton to the West, and Crumpton to the East.

At 9 years old, young Asbury Johnson probably stood by his father, presumably, Philip or Aaron, as he watched the important white man ask questions about his family, mentioning a place with a name he’d heard elders discuss, but perhaps only in hushed tones, out of the earshot of whites, a place called, Liberia. My 3rd great-grandfather could not have understood fully the meaning of the words Liberia or Africa, but he knew what free meant. Because he lived and worked alongside people who looked just like him, friends, even family, who were not free as he was. He knew he and his brother Alfred, and his family could, if they wanted too, simply move, pick up their belongings and walk up the dirt road and away. He knew others in his village, could not. His father and the vast majority of free blacks did, however, understand precisely what the state of Maryland wanted to do to free blacks, and they wanted no part of it. The 1832 Maryland census was executed to take the pulse of free blacks on a controversial topic, not just to capture their names.

Among the legislative actions of the Maryland General Assembly of 1831 was the passage of “an act relating to the People of Color in this state…The primary intent of the act was to achieve the removal of free African Americans from the state of Maryland in their entirety, sending free blacks to the colony of Liberia.” 

The state undertook the census to enumerate the free black population. In some counties, free men were asked directly if they would remove themselves to Liberia. The Maryland Colonization Society, founded in 1827 by wealthy planter Charles Caroll of Carrollton, he himself a large slaveholder who feared to emancipate his own slaves, lead the effort. The Society saw colonization as a remedy for slavery and its implicit violence. Terrified by Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia, Maryland’s lawmakers and elite planters, and other states passed laws against the freedoms of free blacks. Freed blacks had to reported to the county clerks, and were given a deadline to leave the state after manumission or petition the state to remain. These restrictions on free blacks were also set out to encourage emigration to Liberia.

“They were not permitted to vote, serve on juries, or hold public office. Unemployed free people of color without visible means of support could be re-enslaved at the discretion of local sheriffs. By this means the supporters of colonization hoped to encourage free blacks to leave the state.[41]”

Fortunately, the Johnson family did not pack it in and leave for the American colony of Liberia or the Republic of Maryland in West Africa, an experiment in West Africa that ultimately was annexed to Liberia in 1857. Free passage, free rent, and loans were a slap in the face to blacks who fought and bled in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and the thousands of enslaved that would be left behind. In fact, very few free blacks left at all.

1850 Census, Queen Anne’s County, District 2, Asbury Johnson household.

In the next 18 years, Philip and Aaron fall off the record. By 1850, Asbury Johnson is farming in District 2 of the county, in Double Creek, south of Deep Landing. I triangulated the Double Creek location on a 1860s Queen Anne’s County map by following corresponding family names on the 1850 and 1860 census to the surnames positions on the map.

  • Asbury Johnson, 27
  • Henrietta, 20
  • Julia, 5
  • Lucy, 3
  • Sarah, under 1 year

Asbury was twenty-seven years old, married to Henrietta, 20, with three girls. The youngest, Sarah, was just a few months old. The family also had a boarder, James West (an 18-year-old laborer), presumably a brother of Henrietta though I have not found a corroborating record. The census shows he was perhaps the only free black farmer in the immediate vicinity with other free blacks listed only as laborers and sailors (most likely on white-owned farms or in nearby Deep Landing. I can not, however, find a land deed to show Asbury owned his farm at this time.

Map of District 2, Queen Anne’s County, 1866.

On the 1860 Census, Asbury Johnson’s household has changed. Asbury is now about 41 years old, and it is clear he owns his farm. He has either raised the money to buy the land or it was inherited. It’s appraised value is no less than $1500, his personal estate is $400.

  • Asbury Johnson, 41
  • Henrietta “Heney”, 35
  • Sally, 10
  • Julia, 8

His family has really grown, as we’ll see. His third daughter Julia is 8. Lucy, 18 is out of the household, and married to an Isaac Johnson from Kent County, a free black formerly enslaved by one Jack Dorsey. Isaac was freed at age 25 according to the wishes of his enslaver.

Isaac Johnson, Manumission by Jack Dorsey, April 18, 1855

It is at this point, the Doman family and the Asbury family connect as neighbors. The Doman family record shows it was lead by three generations of patriarchs under the namesake Joseph Doman, and that they were free black farmers who also appear in the 1832 Maryland Census of Free Blacks. By 1850, the current patriarch is Joseph Doman II and he too owns his own farm with a value of $1000 and $400 in the estate. His son, Joseph Doman III, a sailor, would later marry Asbury’s daughter Juliette A. Johnson, and as an accountant, write, and administer the will of his father-in-law in 1866.

1860 Census, Queen Anne’s County, District 2, Asbury Johnson and Joseph Doman households.

Around 1855, Asbury and Henrietta had another daughter, Emily, and sometime between 1857 and 1860, a son, Walter “Wallis” Jason Johnson, my 2nd great-grandfather. Although neither Emily or Walter Johnson are on the census, other records including later census records, Asbury’s will, and death certificates show they are the children of Asbury and Henrietta. Additionally, there are two more girls, GeorgeAnna and Eleanora, born between 1861 and 1866 (Asbury’s death) for a total of 7 children born over twenty years between 1845 and 1866 in Double Creek area, south of Deep Landing.

Heirs of Asbury Johnson, Queen Anne’s County, Probate, 1867.

Perhaps the birth of several children in a short span of time worried Asbury. Could his children be taken back into slavery, stolen? Could an unscrupulous planter try to claim them? What if he were to fall ill and die? Could his wife’s freedom be challenged, thereby making all seven of his children legally, slaves? For whatever reason, whether as a concerned parent, or ever-watchful free man, he went to one of the most influential planters in the county, Colonel Lemuel Roberts, and asked him to go to the County courthouse with him and there to attest to his freedom. This would, legally, create a Certificate of Freedom to protect his free identity. Asbury wasn’t alone, his brother Albert joined him and two other brothers.

Certificate of Freedom granted simultaneously to Asbury and Albert Johnson, 1857 by Col. Lemuel Roberts.

Reuniting a Family on the Record

As I’ve written previously, I was able to confirm the Johnson family group relationship in the 1832 Maryland Census of Free Blacks when I uncovered both Asbury and Albert both had Certificates of Freedom signed by Col. Lemuel Roberts in 1857. Roberts attests to the fact that they were “born free.” I speculated that it is plausible Asbury’s father or mother was enslaved by Col. Roberts. Roberts was a wealthy planter and owned farms, and a mill along the Red Lion Branch of the Chester River in nearby Sudlersville, as well as property in town. He was an enslaver according to census records. Roberts was also a delegate to the Maryland State Senate and served in several official roles in the county. Roberts and the Johnson family clearly had a prior relationship, one that went back far enough that he could attest to the freedom of the brothers, one the brothers could rely upon. Col. Roberts was also a Register of Wills so perhaps he also knew the Johnson brothers’ freedom stemmed from a manumission given in a will. He was a witness to only 2 more free blacks, James and John Cooper (probably also family). Since freedom (or enslavement) falls from the line of the mother, perhaps Roberts manumitted the mothers of the Johnson and Cooper brothers? The Coopers and Johnsons went together, I believe, with Col. Roberts on the same day – Feb 25th as their certificates follow one after another. A thorough investigation of the Roberts family papers is warranted.

In 1862, Asbury Johnson was taxed $10.00 by the government for “retail lumber” indicating that despite farming, he was diversified as well and a woodsman. Perhaps the lumber was used for shipbuilding or repairs in nearby Deep Landing.

US IRS Tax Assessment, Queen Anne’s County, District 2, Asbury Johnson, 1862.

To War

By 1860, the free black population of Maryland was approximately 50% of the State’s black population and had the largest free black population of any state. In 1861, word no doubt reached Asbury Johnson and his family of the first skirmishes of the Civil War in their state. Maryland Confederates, some 60,000, in the Tidewater wanted to secede. Sympathizers shot on Union troops in Baltimore. The Mayor of Baltimore and Governor, in coordination with the federal government, put down the dissent. President Lincoln then attempted to broach emancipation of slaves in the state but was rebuffed. In 1862, Congress passed a Second Confiscation Act “which permitted the Union army to enlist African-American soldiers and barred the army from recapturing runaway slaves.[49] In the same month, Lincoln offered to buy out Maryland slaveholders, offering $300 for each emancipated slave.”

By the end of 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing enslaved people in southern states. Because border states had stayed loyal throughout the war, they were exempted, but clearly, the tide was turning. In 1862, the Fourth United States Colored Troops regiment marched in full dress parade in the city of Baltimore. The United States was recruiting heavily from Baltimore, the Tidewater, and inroads into the Eastern Shore across the Chesapeake were causing consternation among white planters. Emory reported that “recruitment of colored troops began in Queen Anne’s County in the summer of 1863 at Queenstown and Kent Island.” Slaves left in droves. On September 13 he continues, “the steamer Cecil arrived in Queenstown Creek and remained until Tuesday, taking in slaves, when she left for Baltimore. There were several white officers on board said to belong to Col. Birney’s Regiment of colored troops.” So much so that they directly petition President Lincoln to suspend enlistment of slaves without permission of the slaveholder. However, President Lincoln shrewdly waited them out for the November 1863 State House election. Though Queen Anne’s County voted with the “Conditional” party that desired to keep slavery for gradual emancipation, the election replaced secessionist sympathizing delegates with a new house that would go on to fully emancipate the enslaved of Maryland in 1864 in a new state constitution.

“In the run-up to the election, “Unconditional Unionists,” led by the flamboyant former congressman Henry Winter Davis, launched the most withering political campaign against slavery ever to take place in a slave state. They blamed slaveholding rebels for having made the reckless and suicidal decision to go to war. And they urged Maryland’s nonslaveholders to embrace “the policy of lightening the burden of the white man by allowing the negro to fight for his own Emancipation.” 

Holding the Line in Maryland, Daniel Crofts, NY Times, 2013.

Recruiters were stalking the rivers and tributaries of the Eastern shore looking for recruits. The 1863 Civil War Draft registrations spread far and wide. In the records for the county are several ancestors, including Asbury Johnson, members of other related families, Doman and Jeffers. Asbury is listed as “colored” and age 34 on one registration, and 41 on another.

Asbury Johnson, 1863 Civil War Draft registration, Queen Anne’s County, District 1.

While there is no definitive record of Asbury Johnson actually joining the Union Army, there is a single muster roll for an Asbury Johnson of Maryland in a regiment that is known to have soldiers from the Eastern Shore, the 38th Regiment, Company J, USCT. The record states Private Asbury Johnson was “absent, sick” in March, 1865. I’ll continue to research this line but it does not appear the National Archives has additional muster cards for this soldier.

By 1866, Asbury Johnson has worked the land for over forty years, bore witness to the surrender of General Lee and his treasonous Confederacy, and the terrible assassination of President Lincoln. Asbury’s body is spent, and he dies. While there isn’t a death certificate or written will, it’s remarkable that Asbury had an inheritance to pass on and that Joseph Doman II, his son-in-law became his executor and accountant. The 35-page probate document reveals more about Asbury Johnson than any other record, in life and death. It was a critical instrument in my genealogical research in revealing the relationships between the Johnson family and his surrounding community, both enslaved and free prior to the Civil War. The document helped me track down and illuminate his daughter’s lives. It is notoriously difficult to track women whose last names change through marriage but the will created a roadmap. In addition, his life as a farmer is revealed in the inventory of the items in his household and from his farm. Asbury left an inheritance for each of his seven children and wife, including Walter Johnson, my great-great-grandfather. I truly believe the inheritance is one reason why Walter had such a great start when he, and his sisters’ Julia and Georgeanna’s families migrated from the Eastern Shore to Chester, Pennsylvania in the 1880s. Walter Johnson will face new trials in Chester and ultimately successfully lead his family into a dawn of new found freedom. For can we really say the earliest Johnson’s were “free” when their people, their friends, their family, their countrymen, were enslaved too?

In a future post, I will detail Asbury’s probate in-depth and begin to explore the lives of his children from the Civil War through the turn of the century.


  • US Census, Maryland, Queen Anne’s County, 1850, and 1860
  • U.S., Civil War Draft Registrations Records, 1863-1865,
  • J. G. Stong, Map of Queen Anne’s County, 1866
  • Jerry M. Hynson, Free African Americans of Maryland 1832, Heritage Books, 2007
  • Frederic Emory, History of Queen Anne’s County, Queen Anne’s Historical Society, 1950
  • Will of Asbury Johnson, 1866. Maryland State Archives
  • Certificate of Freedom, Asbury Johnson, Albert Johnson, 1857. Maryland State Archives
  • Maryland State Colonization Society, Wikipedia
  • Holding the Line in Maryland, Daniel Crofts, NY Times, 2013.
    Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619–1877, New York: Hill and Wang, 1993
  • Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops: Infantry Organizations, 36th through 40th, Asbury Johnson, National Archives

The Chase Family: Documenting the Free, the Enslaved, and Enslaver

The Christopher Goodhand family of Kent and Queen Anne’s County, Maryland were wealthy landowners, farmers, and enslavers originating in England. Christopher Goodhand born 1650, in Lincolnshire, England, arrived on Kent Island in the late 1660s as an indentured servant. He served his contract and received a land grant.  His family and descendants are well-documented on Kent Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Goodhands later settled in the Sudlersville area between Dudley Corners and Crumpton on the Chester River.

Speedwell-type ship, Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, Netherlands.

Christopher Goodhand’s brother Capt. Marmaduke Goodhand commanded the Speedwell of Dartmouth, owned by the Royal African Company, and made voyages Senegambia, to purchase African slaves and take them to the colonies, the first in 1868. The Speedwell also took 170 slaves to Barbados from Mozambique in 1682. The Speedwell was the second ship in the pilgrim contingent that included the infamous Mayflower, but was abandoned for its lack of seaworthiness. Were it not overmasted and leaky, it may have had a much better and positive provenance than as a slave ship. It turns out the pilot of the Mayflower was my 10th great grandfather, but that’s another story.

Only in 1685 did a serious slave trade to Maryland tentatively begin: in that year, instructions from the RAC’s Committee on Shipping (the ever-active Lord Berkeley was on it) asked a sea captain, Marmaduke Goodhand, to deliver two hundred slaves to be shared among Edward Porteus (a merchant of Gloucester County, Virginia), Richard Gardiner, and Christopher Robinson (a future secretary of the colony), on the Potomac River. Next year, there was a reference to a consignment of “slaves and sugar” in Maryland from Barbados. The intention had been to load tobacco, as if the transaction were normal; and there are some other isolated references to slaves arriving at Annapolis or smaller ports on Chesapeake Bay., Lawful to Set to Sea, Chapter 11


The Emory Chase family of Queen Anne County begins as a family of free blacks and enslaved in Kent County in the 1830s. Some of my eldest ancestors on the Upper Shore, the Chases were both free and enslaved by the Goodhand family up to and through the Civil War. While there is no documentation to indicate the Chases descended from Capt. Goodhand’s cargo of slaves, DNA research does indicate my own family has roots in the Senegambia region.

Emory Chase Sr. first appears on the written record in the 1832 Free African-American Census of Maryland in Kent County.

“Emory Chase, 28”

The census was taken in response to the growing population of free blacks living in Maryland. There are no other Chases in the immediate vicinity of Emory’s name on the list.

Among the legislative actions of the Maryland General Assembly of 1831 was the passage of “an act relating to the People of Color in this state…The primary intent of the act was to achieve the removal of free African Americans from the state of Maryland in their entirety, sending free blacks to the colony of Liberia.” The state undertook the census to enumerate the free black population. In some counties, free men were asked directly if they would remove themselves to Liberia. The Maryland Colonization Society which led the local effort was founded in part as a response to the threat of slave rebellion (Nat Turner’s uprising in Virginia was in 1831). The Society saw colonization as a remedy for slavery.

“In 1832 the legislature placed new restrictions on the liberty of free blacks, in order to encourage emigration. They were not permitted to vote, serve on juries, or hold public office. Unemployed ex-slaves without visible means of support could be re-enslaved at the discretion of local sheriffs. By this means the supporters of colonization hoped to encourage free blacks to leave the state.”

Goodhand Plantation, Queen Anne’s County, 1866.

Four generations later, the great-great-grandson of the original scion of the family, Christopher Goodhand b.1787, was dying around 1857 on his plantation southeast of Crumpton and near Sudlersville, Maryland. He had served as a Private in the 38th Regiment, Wright’s Militia during the War of 1812, a state delegate, a farmer and hotel owner. By 1850 he had at least five children (Hiram, Josephine, Eugenia, Martha, and Samuel), was married to Susan Pope Sturgess of Baltimore County, and had an estate worth $16,000 according to the Census. According to the US Federal Slave Schedule he owned 10 slaves of various ages by 1850.

  • 25, female
  • 22, male
  • 18, male
  • 17, male
  • 14, male
  • 13, male
  • 21, female
  • 6, female
  • 4, male
  • 8 months, male

Several enslaved individuals appear in the inventory of the will of Christopher Goodhand. Remarkably, his will provided for gradual freedom to all of his enslaved, which numbered 11 by then.

1857, Christopher Goodhand will lists 11 enslaved, several confirmed Chase family members.

This is my last will and testament, that the following named negroes shall be outfitted to their freedom at the time as specified –

Negro woman Maria to be free 1st January 1859
Negro woman Harriet to be free 1st January 1864
Negro girl Amanda to be free 1st January 1873
Negro woman Mary to be free 1st January 1879
Negro woman Mary Ann to be free 1st January 1882
Negro man Richard to be free 1st January 1862
Negro man Emory to be free 1st January 1868
Negro boy Henry to be free 1st January 1870
Negro boy Levi to be free 1st January 1872
Negro boy James to be free 1st January 1882
Negro boy William Emory to be free 1st January 1890

Will of Christopher Goodhand, 1857, Maryland State Archives.

The manumission dates appear to point to the age of the enslaved. The later the date, the younger the enslaved. Goodhand indicated his wife should take a third of the enslaved and the rest be divided by his heirs.

The Emory Chase Sr. family appear in the 1850 and 1860 census reserved for freemen. However, some of his presumed children or nieces/nephews also appear in Christopher Goodhand’s will probated in 1857. The Chase Sr. family group in the 1850 census includes:

  • Emory Chase, 40
  • Charlotte, 40
  • Mary Jane, 8
  • Addison, 6

By 1850, Emory Chase Sr. is a blacksmith. The Chase Sr. family group in the 1860 census includes:

  • Emory Chase, 60
  • Charlotte, 55
  • John, 21
  • Mary Jane, 18
  • Addison, 16

By 1860, Emory Chase Sr. is a farmer with a personal estate worth $400. The Chase Sr. family group in the 1870 census includes:

  • Emory Chase, 65
  • Charlotte, 64
  • Levi, 29
  • Emory Jr., 32 (Jr. my addition)
  • Addison, 24


By 1870, Emory is still farming with $1100 in real estate and $300 in his personal estate. Among the listed enslaved in Christopher Goodhand’s will, my own confirmed ancestors from this group include Emory Chase Jr., Harriet Ann Chase, and Levi Chase. It is also plausible Mary is also my ancestor Mary Jane Chase, another daughter or niece of Emory Chase Sr. Perhaps Maria, to be manumitted the earliest via the Goodhand will, was a sister of Emory Chase Senior? After emancipation, Richard Chase appears in Sudlersville on the draft registration record for 1863, less than a year after his manumission. Richard and other members of the family group appear in the county, but it’s not possible to determine their exact relationship.

At first, I was really confused as to how several chase family members could appear in the 1850 and then it occurred to me that you simply can not assume that just because a black family appears in a pre-1870 census that the ENTIRE family is free. Slavery fell from the mother and clearly some of Charlotte’s children were enslaved before she gained her freedom.

Levi and Emory Jr. join the household of Emory Chase Sr. by 1870 according to the census. While Harriet never appears in the Chase Sr. household (she is married to neighbor James Milbourne by 1850), her younger brother John who is living with her in 1850 according to the census appears in the Chase Sr. household in 1860 (she is likely still enslaved but married). Later death records of Milbourne children identify Harriet as “Harriet Ann Chase.”

Sadly, the executor of the Goodhand will, Lemuel Roberts notes during the probate, “Boy, William Emory, mentioned in the will has died since the will was made.” William Emory was likely a Chase relation, perhaps Harriet or Maria’s son. By the time of the probate of Christopher Goodhand’s will, a young girl “Sarah” is also appraised in the inventory. After the 1870 census, Emory Chase Jr. disappears from the record. Others, Maria, Amanda, Henry, Maria, James, and Mary Ann never appear in the record after emancipation, leaving much to explore in neighboring counties.

It isn’t clear why Christopher Goodhand, who died by 1857, set out to emancipate his slaves gradually according to his will. They were a considerable part of the wealth of his estate. The probate inventory appraised the enslaved at over $6000. Perhaps the Goodhand family was Methodists. There were Methodist Episcopal churches in Dudley Corners, Crumpton, and Sudlersville about this time. Since its founding by John Wesley in the 1700s, Methodism wrestled with slavery. Generally, northern Methodists were opposed to slavery and southern Methodists saw slavery as essential to their way of life and legal. Maryland was very much on the border, sending its youth into both the Union and Confederate armies at the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1844, a Georgian Bishop and slave owner, James O. Andrew, was asked to resign his title after a 12-day conference but was convinced by South Carolinian Methodists not to resign. Thus Northern and Southern Episcopalians split over slavery began only a little more than a decade before Goodhand wrote his will. This may have influenced the treatment of his enslaved – and why the Chase family appeared as free blacks on the census as early as 1850. I can only speculate how some of the Chase family lived were free while others were enslaved. Perhaps, since Emory Chase Sr. had a personal estate, he was purchasing the freedom of family members gradually, when and as he could. Perhaps the Goodhand Chase enslaved were children of an enslaved sibling.

Christopher Goodhand’s executors – wife Susan Pope Goodhand b.1812 nee Sturgis, son Hiram Goodhand, and Col. Lemuel Roberts (a neighbor, farmer, friend, slaveholder, and co-delegate to several State and Congressional conventions) followed the will’s instruction, as they did split up the enslaved. Levi was given to Samuel Goodhand (son of Christopher Goodhand) to “serve 15 years.” Emory Jr. was to serve Susan for 11 years before being emancipated.


Susan Goodhand, widowed, eventually emancipated Levi Chase, my 3rd great-uncle during the Civil War –but for a fee.

“Whereas my slave Levi Chase has enlisted in the service of the United States now in consideration thereof I, Susan P. Goodhand, guar Samuell S. Goodhand of Queen Anne’s County, State of Maryland do hereby in consideration of said enlistment, manumit, set free, and release the above named Levi Chase from all service due me; his freedom to commence from the date of his enlistment as aforesaid in the Regiment of Colored Troops in the service of the United States.”

Manumission of Levi Chase, Queen Anne’s County Land Records, Maryland State Archives.
Levi Chase Manumission 1864

Goodhand took advantage of an offer from the War Department and offered Levi Chase to the US Army for a bounty and filed manumission for Levi in September 1864.

“To facilitate recruiting in the states of Maryland, Missouri, Tennessee, and eventually Kentucky, the War Department issued General Order No. 329 on October 3, 1863. Section 6 of the order stated that if any citizen should offer his or her slave for enlistment into the military service, that person would, “if such slave be accepted, receive from the recruiting officer a certificate thereof, and become entitled to compensation for the service or labor of said slave, not exceeding the sum of three hundred dollars, upon filing a valid deed of manumission and of release, and making satisfactory proof of title.”

Civil War Soldiers, Union, Colored Troops 56th – 138th Infantry Fold3.

Records indicate she was paid $100 bounty after the war. The remaining enslaved Chases were freed when slavery officially ended in Maryland on November 1, 1864 after the Maryland General Assembly wrote a new constitution for the state that made slavery illegal upon that date. Thankfully, the Chases did not have to wait for freedom long.

Bounty Record, Maryland State Senate showing payment to Susan Goodhand after the Civil War.

Private Levi Chase served in the United States Colored Troops in Company I of the 39th Regiment until the end of the war. According to rolls he mustered in March 31st, 1864 in Baltimore. The 39th U.S. Colored Infantry was organized in Baltimore, Maryland beginning March 22, 1864 for three-year service under the command of Colonel Ozora P. Stearns. The 39th participated in several battles including the Siege of Petersburg and Richmond, and the infamous Battle of the Crater in Richmond, VA.

The Battle of the Crater, part of the Siege of Petersburg, took place on July 30, 1864, between the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee, and the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade (under the direct supervision of the general-in-chief, Lt. Gen.Ulysses S. Grant).

On July 30, Union forces exploded an 8,000 lb mine to blow a gap in the Confederate defenses. Less seasoned white troops were sent in after the explosion and cut down. Colored units were sent in to save them and further massacred while in a poor position. The attack was a failure resulting in thousands of Union casualties. The Confederates launched several counterattacks. The breach was sealed off, and Union forces were repulsed with severe casualties. The siege lasted another eight months.

Muster Record for Levi Chase, USCT 39th Regiment.

Levi’s regiment also participated in the bombardment of Fort Fisher in North Carolina, and its capture, the capture of Wilmington, and the surrender of Confederate General Johnston and his army. The 39th U.S. Colored Infantry mustered out of service on December 4, 1865 in North Carolina. Levi returned home to Queen Anne’s county by 1870 according to census records.


In 1869, Susan Goodhand, three years after the close of the war, daughter Martha Sudler nee Goodhand, and Susan’s son-in-law J. Morling Sudler, later sold land known as “the Moss Tract” to Emory Chase Sr., Emory Chase Jr., and Levi Chase, and to son-in-law John Jeffers (husband of Mary Jane Chase). Moss Tract directly adjoined the lands of Lemuel Roberts and James Dudley according to the deed. Emory Chase Sr. acquired two fifths and other purchasers –the remaining three fifths. The father and son relationship between Emory Chase Senior and Junior is confirmed in this deed.

Deed between Goodhands and Emory Chase Sr., Levi Chase, Emory Chase Jr.

In freedom, the Chase family along with the other formerly free black families they married in to (Doman, Jeffers, Johnson, and Milbourne families) were active members of their community, farming and educating their children, building schools and churches. In 1872, Emory Chase Sr., my 4th great-grandfather, and several other “trustees” including my 3rd great-grandfather James Milbourne, purchased land to found an African Methodist Church, later known as Mt. Pleasant United Methodist Church in Pondtown, just northwest of Sudlersville. The trustees purchased land from the Gafford and Holliday families (African Americans), “being on the main road leading from Crumpton to Pondtown, adjoining lands…and the Pondtown Public School House.” The deed was testified to by William Tarbutton, on whose land both Christopher Goodhand and Lemuel Roberts are buried. None of the Chases have headstones at Mt. Pleasant UM Church. The search goes on for their burial place.

Deed for land in Pondtown for African Methodist Episcopal Church, later, Mt. Pleasant UMC with family member trustees, Emory Chase Sr, Joseph Doman, James Milbourn, George Brown.

Levi Chase was my 3rd great-uncle by marriage and blood, as he married my 3rd great-aunt, Sarah “Sally” Johnson born 1850 to Asbury Johnson, my 3rd great-grandfather. The marriage took place in Pondtown between 1870 and 1880.

I am the great-great-grandson of Sally’s brother Walter “Wallis” Johnson. Furthermore, Walter Johnson married Sara Catherine Milbourn between 1870 and 1880 in Pondtown. Sarah “Katie” Milbourn was the daughter of Harriet Ann Chase and James Milbourn, my 3rd great-grandparents, and granddaughter of Emory Chase Snr.

Walter Johnson’s father and uncle, Asbury and Alfred, were born free to Phillip Johnson in the early 1820s. Philip, Alfred, and Asbury Johnson appear as a family group in the same 1832 Free African-American Census of Maryland that Emory Chase is recorded in.

Asbury Johnson’s 1866 will, just one year after the Civil War ends, shows he was an industrious farmer with dozens of farming tools, cows and horses. But he also owned items that suggested his eyes were on the horizon. He owned a looking glass, 3 pictures, and a clock. He wasn’t rich, but he was free and able to leave an inheritance that included money to each of his seven children and wife.

Certificate of Freedom granted simultaneously to Asbury and Albert Johnson, 1857 by Col. Lemuel Roberts.

Asbury and Albert both had Certificates of Freedom signed by Col. Lemuel Roberts in 1857, Christopher Goodhand’s estate executor. Roberts attests to the fact that they were “born free.” In 1805 the Maryland General Assembly passed a law to identify free African Americans and to control the availability of freedom papers. As the lawmakers explained: “great mischiefs have arisen from slaves coming into possession of certificates of free Negroes, by running away and passing as free under the faith of such certificates“. The law required African Americans who were born free to record proof of their freedom in the county court. The court would then issue them a certificate of freedom. If the black person had been manumitted, the court clerk or register of wills would look up the manumitting document before issuing a certificate of freedom. It is plausible Asbury’s father or mother was enslaved by Col. Roberts though I have no documentation yet. The Roberts family connection to the Johnson and Chase family is palpable and leaves much to be explored.

Susan Goodhand passed away in 1877, about 10 years after her last documented contact with the Chase family. Presumably, she is buried on the Tarbutton farm with her late husband Christopher Goodhand in an unmarked grave. I have yet to find the Johnson family in QAC cemeteries.

*Update – for more on the Johnson family, see Johnson Roots on Comegys Reserve.


Heed the Call: An Introduction

1944, Van Matthew Mays and Elvira Higdon Family, Cleveland, OH. L-R, Nathaniel, Evonghan, Arthur, Van, Ralph, Leon, James, Theresa, Elvira, Dorothy, Ethel (in picture on wall).

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 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 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.

The Rosemond Family, circa 1900, Greenville, SC.

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.