The Riggs Family: Visiting the Willow Hill School

As I drove through southern Georgia on the way to Savannah, I noticed fields of soybeans and corn. I was startled by other fields blooming with large flowers reminiscent of hibiscus, white and pink. Of course, being a Northerner, I had never seen blooming cotton. I pulled the rental car over and got out to stand on the edge of a field and catch the setting sun. I was on my way home after two remarkable days in Statesboro, Georgia, home of the Riggs and Parrish clan, meeting new family, kin, and exploring a new found heritage.

My visit began with a stop at the Statesboro public library, and the Brannen room, where I met Lillian Wingate, a talented young genealogist and employee of the library. She introduced me to my cousin, Tonya Donaldson, a firecracker of a woman, who was quick to interrogate and discuss our relationship and talk shop. Tonya and I are both descended from Jacob Nevils Snr. (1769 – 1862). His daughter Harriet was my 4th great grandmother, born enslaved and kept enslaved by Jacob’s daughter and her half-sister Dicey for most of her life, until emancipation. Tonya is descended from Dicey Donaldson-Mikel-Riggs. See The Riggs Family (Part 2): Harriet Riggs – the Matriarch.

Well, we shook hands when we met, but we hugged hard we I departed. Through the many well-organized files and shelves, Lillian, Tonya, and I discussed life in old Bulloch County, the wealth of records at the library, and the uncanny journey that led me there. As I have written previously, I’ve only recently discovered my Riggs Parrish lineage through traditional and genetic genealogy. Sharing my story led to an invitation by Dr. Alvin Jackson, Board Chair of the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center, to the Willow Hill Festival, and to speak at a joint event with Telfair Museums as part of their Legacy of Slavery in Savannah Initiative.

But first, Lillian had something to share. She had come across Struggle and Progress – Tonya tipped her off – and curious, looked into the life of my 4x great grandmother Harriet Riggs. She emailed me before my trip asking a provocative question, how had I arrived at Harriet’s death date of 1874? She had intriguing information to share…

Comfortable in her busy office, surrounded by stacks of books and files, Lillian opened the minutes of the Lott’s Creek Primitive Baptist Church and shared several notations made in the minutes about one Harriet Riggs and Sister D. (Dicy) Donaldson. This interesting information shows that Harriet was introduced to the church by her half-sister and enslaver Dicey (in 1843).

Harriet Riggs, 1843, received at Lower Lott’s Primitive Baptist Church.

However, less than a year later, by a complaint made by Dicey, Harriet was excommunicated in 1844. Jacob Nevils Sr., Dicey and Harriet’s father, and a member of Lower Lott’s is also mentioned on several instances as struggling with drinking and being “in passion” which likely refers to infidelity. It’s no surprise Jacob was forgiven – often – for his transgressions. More importantly, the minutes reveal Harriet was also re-admitted in 1882, after her suspected death date of 1874. And in 1884, she “called for a letter” to leave the church, necessary to be admitted to another in good standing, according to Ms. Wingate.

Harriet Riggs, 1844, excommunicated at Lower Lott’s Primitive Baptist Church.

Of course enslaved blacks were in many cases members of the church of their enslavers in antebellum America. Ansel Parrish (1789-1865), son of Henry Jackson Parrish (1740 – 1800), enslaver of my 4th great grandparents, Cain Parrish and Isabella Donaldson, was also a deacon at Lower Lott’s. Not incidentally, genetic genealogy also reveals Ansel Parrish was also Cain’s half-brother. Ansel was my 3rd great-grandmother Audelia’s last enslaver. Audelia married Harriet Rigg’s son Daniel Riggs. See The Riggs Family (Part 1): New Kin.

This remarkable information placed Harriet Riggs’ birthday after 1884 and opened a whole host of questions. When did she die exactly? What church did she move to? Would she be in that church’s minutes or cemetary? Some of Harriet’s children moved from Bulloch County south to Irwin County to the town of Fitzgerald, and further out of town to Blitch. This was another breadcrumb to finding her final resting place, and it shed light on the complex interrelationship between enslaved and enslaver, family, friend and foe.

One critical question I have is why would Harriet return to Lower Lott’s in 1882, almost twenty years after emancipation, when her son-in-law, Elder Washington Hodges (who married her daughter Eliza Saturday Riggs) had with other black community members, founded a separate black primitive baptist church, Old Bethel Primitive Baptist Church, in 1882? Perhaps it was just too far to travel too on a weekly basis in her advanced age, certainly, the first black church in the area founded during Reconstruction, Banks Creek Primitive Baptist Church, was a long journey from Lott’s Creek too. Perhaps Harriet considered Lower Lott’s her family church, after all, she had black and white family members there.

Eliza Saturday Riggs-Hodges (1857 – 1910), daughter of Harriet Riggs. There is no surviving image of Harriet, but I imagine Eliza looked like her mother.

I shared these new findings, thanks to Lillian Wingate’s talents, with an audience of “cousins by the dozens” at Willow Hill in a presentation, “Many Nice Things – Discovering a Georgia Lineage” that weekend, as part of Archival Silence: Closing Gaps in African American History in Bulloch County, Georgia. The presentation captures my journey of discovery and explores the wider diaspora around Willow Hill – indeed, former teachers and students and their families have spread far and wide beginning with the great migration of blacks North in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In my case, five brothers, the sons of Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish, moved from Statesboro, GA , 750 miles north to Chester, Pennsylvania. See: The Riggs Family (Part 3): Finding Fathers.

Many Nice Things: Discovering a Georgia Lineage

“Many Nice Things: Discovering a Georgia Lineage” by Joel R. Johnson, part of Archival Silence: Closing Gaps in African American Research, September 2022.

Highlights of the weekend include meeting Dr. Alvin Jackson and his family, board members at Willow Hill, as well as listening to other presentations, including one by Rev. Bill Parrish, a cousin, who presented his remarkable story of a line of Parrish family that migrated to Cincinnati, Ohio and there attended and led the preservation of the historic Eckstein School which served the African American community from 1915 – 1958. Read more about the Eckstein School.

We also heard from Rev. Steve Taylor, who is a descendant of the Lester and Everett families, some of the earliest white settlers of Bulloch County. His Lester ancestor, James Lester, enslaved Vilet Lester. Vilet wrote one of the few known letters, by an enslaved woman, during the era of slavery. She wrote to her former enslaver in North Carolina, seeking information about her daughter and family. It is a heartbreaking letter, but one that demonstrates the agency that enslaved people took when the opportunity presented itself. It’s not clear that she actually wrote the letter, she may have just dictated it, but it is a masterclass in enslaved-enslaver diplomacy, in that it created the rare opportunity to see her daughter purchased by James Lester.

Vilet’s letter is archived in the Special Collections of the Duke University Archives, but a copy is available to read at the Statesboro Public Library in the genealogy collection. Steve Taylor is searching for descendants of Vilet Lester and actively researching to learn whether Vilet’s wish to be reunited with her daughter ever took place.

The weekend was a family reunion in many ways – I also met with another Riggs Parrish family historian I was in correspondence with, Dr. Brenda Hagan Malik, a Holland Riggs descendant. Her own research into the historic funeral homes owned by the Riggs family in two locations shines a light on black entrepreneurship during Jim Crow.

Willow Hill School, early 1900s, (enhanced) Georgia State Archives.

While I was jubilant to finally visit Bulloch County, I was haunted by the words of Bill Parrish’s brother who shared with the audience his own deep realization, that he was “visiting the plantation.” This is a out-of-date term that present generations of African Americans aren’t really familiar with, but I heard it often growing up because my Mother’s family, despite growing up in urban Cleveland, was from Greenville, SC, the place of their enslavement. It was a term for visiting family in the homeplace, and seeing kin, usually from the South, who everyone understood was only one or two generations away from enslavement.

“Visiting the plantation.” The words are loaded like a gun, ready to go off, simultaneously protecting and simultaneously harming. The words announce that one is undertaking a journey home to family from the North to the South that will produce a reckoning with the past. And there can be dread in knowing you will be exposed to the trauma of enslavement.

Fortunately, the diaspora of the Willow Hill, overflows with examples of our people overcoming adversity through Jim Crow to present day. The school was a beacon, a fortress, a launching pad, for so many, black and white. It wasn’t lost on me that there were fully four or five generations of family attending the Willow Hill festival that weekend. As I walked the halls and visited the one-room school house on the site, Bennet Grove, I felt a gentle spirit on my shoulder. Dr. Nkenge Jackson calls it, “the Willow Hill spirit.” And I certainly felt the spirit chase away the dread, as a growing feeling of peace washed over me.

Instead of “visiting the plantation,” I came to realize that I was “visiting the school,” and I am forever grateful, that the ancestors revealed this lineage to me.

Sources.

  • Lower Lott’s Primitive Baptist Church Minutes, Statesboro Public Library.
  • Hendrix Hope, Dorothy, “The Story of Bulloch County” (1996). Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
  • Life in Old Bulloch, The story of a Wiregrass County in Georgia, 1796 -1940, Dorothy Brannen, Statesboro Public Library (1992).
  • Bonds, Charles; Brannen, Dorothy; Collins, Maggie; Good, Daniel B.; Jackson, Nkenge; Mabry, Evelyn; Postell, Carolyn; Seel, Robert M.; Wall, Rita Turner; and Ariail, Julius, “From Aaron to Ivanhoe” (1988). Bulloch County Historical Society Publications. pg. 36.
  • US Census, Bulloch County, GA. 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900.
  • US Census, Slave Schedules, Bulloch County, GA.1850, 1860.
  • The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center.
  • Ancestry.com

Joel R. Johnson to speak to ‘Discovering Riggs’ lineage at Telfair Museum/Willow Hill Heritage Event

I’m delighted and honored to announce that I’ve been invited to speak at the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center (WHHRC) on September 3rd, in Portal, GA, northwest of Savannah.

“Archival Silence: Closing Gaps in African American History in Bulloch County, GA” is day-long event, led by Dr. Alvin Jackson, historian, Board President and co-founder of WHHRC, in association with the Telfair Museum in Savannah.

Telfair Museums explore Savannah’s place in “our collective American past through art, history, and architecture,” including the historiography of the Owens-Thomas House, and the enslaved in Savannah, among other sites.

My own history is deeply intertwined with the WHHRC, as I’ve discovered in the last several years. The founders of Willow Hill include my 3rd great-grandparents Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish-Riggs, and 3rd great uncle Isaac Riggs, and aunt Harriet Lanier-Riggs. I will present on my journey to “close the archival gap” and discoveries that led me to discover my Riggs Parrish heritage, through archival research, oral history study, and DNA research.

Students of SE Georgia genealogy and history, won’t want to miss this event! It is free and open to the public.

Learn more and register.

Explore my Riggs journey:

 The Riggs Family (part 1): New Kin

The Riggs Family (part 2): Harriet Riggs the Matriarch 

The Riggs Family (part 3): Finding Fathers

The Riggs Family: Forced Labor During the Civil War

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Sharing Harriet Riggs Story on BlogTalk Radio

Recently I was a guest on RESEARCH AT THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES & BEYOND, a podcast on Blog Talk Radio with professional genealogist and author, Bernice Bennett. I’ve long been a fan of her genealogy podcast, and have frequently worked with Bernice to conduct research in the National Archives. In our brief discussion, I shared my 4x great-grandmother Harriet Riggs’ story. I explained how traditional and genetic genealogy led to a deeper understanding of my enslaved ancestor in Bulloch County, Georgia. I discussed how research into county records revealed Harriet and her family had five enslavers, all in the same town of Statesboro, GA, and their transition to freedom from clues within two key documents, an estate sale in 1847, and a labor contract with the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1866. You can read Harriet’s story here.

The Riggs Family (Part 2): Harriet Riggs – the Matriarch

“Before the Courthouse Door”

It is April 1847, in Statesboro, Georgia in the low country.

On an unpaved dusty street in front of a two-story log building, the rough and tumble courthouse of Bulloch County, not far from wiregrass fields and endless rows of rice. Below a longleaf pine, a 27-year-old enslaved black woman named Harriet clutched her children close to her in a throng of indifferent white men and women covered in red clay dust.

Could no one sense her dread but her children? Daniel, 5 years old cried softly into the folds of the roughspun woolen dress. He didn’t know what was wrong, just that something had his Mama scared. Isaac stared off into the distance, his face simmering with anger and defiance that belied a 10-year-old’s age. Peter hid behind his mother while she clutched her infant, Susan, to her breast. The girl was silent, staring into her mother’s face with a depth of curiosity and wonder only known to babies as if she were asking, “what’s next?”

Indeed, my 4x great-grandmother well understood what happened next in these situations. Her name was Harriet, and she and her children stood outside the front door of the Bulloch County on the auctioneer’s block. Beside her, the auctioneer likely conferred with her present owner and enslaver, Dicey Mikell, age 41, formerly Dicey Donaldson, and before that, Dicey Neville. Dicey’s first husband was James Donaldson, farmer, and son of a local preacher born in Scotland who founded several Primitive Baptist Churches in the county. Her second husband, David Mikell, had recently died and she was in dire need to get her business affairs in order. A two-time widower, her second marriage only lasted three years, and now she had children from both marriages to care for, and an enslaved family. At the same place, and three months later, Dicey Mikell would sell the entirety of David Mikell’s estate as well. But now, she was faced with how to get cash, and to get it quickly. She was going to sell off her enslaved.

The auctioneer would have called for order, as a small press of local farmers and merchants from Bulloch county, and perhaps a slave trader or two would begin the bidding. Harriet and Dicey both noticed an eager man step forward in the crowd. Sharing a look, tears began to stream down Dicey’s face for it was her salvation, her brother, Thomas Neville. Harriet knew him. She did not beg, but she stared Thomas in the face and uttered a few simple words, “my children…my children.”

Despite fierce rounds of bidding, again, and again, Thomas Neville outbid the surrounding crowd. First, he bid on Harriet and her child, packaged together, winning at $797, a stunning figure for this small Georgia backwater deep in the low country. Then, in turn, he bid on Isaac, $493. Next came Daniel, $421. Finally, he began to bid for Peter, but either he was running low on cash, resolve or both. Zachariah Bennett, a wily old farmer kept going and won Peter for $450. I imagine Harriet shrieked and Dicey gasped in defeat. Isaac pulled on his Mama’s hand and whispered that old Zach’s farm was not far away, she might still get to see him at Christmas. Then the auctioneer sold off more land in the estate of James Donaldson, Dicey’s first husband. The morning produced $2,308 in sales, of which Dicey kept a large portion.

Thomas Neville b. 1808 – d. 1870. Source unknown.

Thomas Neville stepped forward to whisper something to his sister Dicey. Then Dicey turned to Harriet ordering her and children, without Peter, to follow her home. Harriet kissed and hugged her boy, and then watched as Zachariah lead the screaming child away. Thomas turned to Harriet and told her to continue to be attentive and subservient to his sister Dicey, but that she and her family now belonged to him, now and forever, and walked away.

But Thomas would be wrong. Dead wrong, for history had already set in motion the impending conflict that would free Harriet and her kin, and begin to set the scales of injustice right. A year before, Dred and Harriet Scott initiated a suit for freedom in the St. Louis Circuit Court. Under Missouri statutes, the suit was allowed based on their previous residence in a free territory (Wisconsin) before return to the slave state of Missouri. The same year, Frederick Douglas, himself a self-emancipated man, had founded The North Star to further spread his eloquent brand of abolitionism. And Liberia, on the west coast of Africa, was founded by free and formerly enslaved black men and women.

The remarkable account of the estate sale of Harriet, my 4th great-grandmother, once buried in the courthouse records of Bulloch County reads as follows:

“To Account of a Sale held on the sixth day of April 1847 before the Court House door in Bulloch County by Dicey Mikell, Administrator on the Estate of James Donaldson, deceased

Harriet, a woman +

Susan, a child……..Thomas Nevill $797.00

Isaac a Boy…………Thomas Nevill 423.00

Peter a Boy………..Zacarahia Bennet 450.00

Daniel a Boy………Thomas Nevills 421.00″

Estate Sale of James Donaldson, Sr. Administrator Dicey Mikell, 6 April, 1847, Bulloch County, Georgia

Why did Thomas Neville step in? To bail out his sister? To secure a good investment? At this time, enslaved people often made up the majority of the wealth of enslavers, more valuable than land or nearly any other item they could own or purchase. They were useful for obtaining credit as they could be mortgaged. They brought labor and status and more.

As I shared in The Riggs Family: New Kin (Part 1), I believed Harriet’s first enslaver was James Donaldson, however, further research produced the bill of sale that led to the discovery of the Neville family’s deep involvement in Harriet’s life, and to a stunning revelation about Harriet’s parentage through genetic genealogy.

Harriet in slavery, a Timeline

  • 1790 – John Oliver Neville, age 46, (formerly of Beaufort County, NC) gives to son Jacob Neville Sr., age 21, 200 acres of land in Nevils Creek in Burke County, Georgia. John also donates land for Nevils Creek Primitive Baptist Church.
  • 1796 – Bulloch County is formed out of Burke, Screven, and St. George’s Parish.
  • 1803 – John Neville dies, age 60.
  • 1806 – Dicey Neville born (this date is probably earlier), daughter of Jacob Neville Sr. b. 1769 and Nancy Henderson, in Bulloch County, GA.
  • 1810 – 1820 – Harriet (my 4x great grandmother, enslaved) is born in GA, likely on the Neville (51 – 61 y.o.) plantation on Lotts Creek.
  • 1814 – March 17, Dicey Neville, a child bride, is married to James Donaldson (son of Robert  Donaldson according to tax receipt). Both Dicey and James are mere children. Harriet moves to the Robert Donaldson plantation.
  • 1814 – Abraham B. Riggs was born to Stephen Riggs and Rachel Martin in Bulloch, County Ga.
  • 1815 – Frances Ann Mixon-Neville (wife of John Neville) dies, age 63.
  • 1830 – Jacob Neville Sr. owns no slaves on the 1830 census.
  • 1840 – James Donaldson has 3 slaves on the 1840 census (likely Harriet, Isaac, Daniel, and Peter). David Mikel owns no slaves on the 1840 census.
  • 1831 – April 21, Dempsey Riggs b. 1808 (brother of Abraham) marries Frances Neville (daughter of Jacob Neville and Nancy Henderson).
  • 1834 – Nov 6, Abraham B. Riggs marries Nancy Cannon.
  • 1837 – 18 Dec, Harriet’s son Isaac (enslaved) is born. Sometime after, Peter and Daniel are born.
  • 1840 – James Donaldson dies. In his September estate inventory appears the following enslaved ancestors: Harriet, and inferred children Isaac, Peter, and Daniel (order appears to be an age order, Susan and Eliza are not yet born).
  • 1844 – March 24, Dicey Neville Donaldson marries David Mikell. Harriet is living on the Mikell plantation.
  • 1847 – David Mikell dies and his entire estate is sold to pay debts.
  • 1847 – April 6, Dicey Neville Donaldson sells her enslaved on the Statesboro courthouse steps: Harriet, Susan, Isaac, and Daniel are sold to Jacob Neville’s son, Thomas Neville. Peter is sold to area planter Zachariah Bennett (Bennett has one 45 yo male slave in the 1860 census). Thomas Neville is Dicey’s brother. Thomas Neville technically owned Harriet and her family but clearly let them continue to live with Dicey.
  • 1849 – Sept 5, Abraham B. Riggs marries 2x widow Dicey Neville Donaldson (presumably Nancy died). Dicey likely lived between 1847 and 1849, with her brother Thomas Neville.
  • 1850 – Abraham B. Riggs has 5 slaves on the Slave Schedule (probably Harriet and her family), his wife Dicey is 44 yo. 
  • 1850 – Thomas Neville has 4 slaves on the Slave Schedule. Male 30, female 30, female 12, male 1 (doesn’t appear to be Harriet and her family).
  • 1860 – Abraham B. Riggs (44) has 14 slaves in 2 cabins on the Slave Schedule. Dicey Riggs is 55 yo.
  • 1865 – April, Nathaniel Riggs is born to Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish, my great-great-grandfather in District 1209 on Ansel Parrish’s plantation.
  • 1865 – Last Confederate troops in Georgia surrender on May 12, 1865. Harriet and her family are freed. Take the surname Riggs.
  • 1872 – Jacob Neville Sr. dies age 104.

Harriet Riggs by name, Neville by blood

The white Riggs family and Neville family of Bulloch County, Georgia were close by marriage and proximity. The area that John Neville (father of Jacob Neville Sr.) settled in Georgia, after moving from Nevil’s Creek in Beaufort, NC, was at one time several different counties. They included St. George’s Parish, Burke County, and Screven County. The area was carved from the said counties and became Bulloch County in 1796. John Neville is in the records of these various counties, however, he never actually moved.

In two plats from 1804 and 1819, show Jacob Neville and his family (and enslaved) resided on nearly a thousand acres along Boggy Branch and Lotts Creek in Bulloch. Along with the other Neville’s, this is likely where Harriet was born.

Property of Jacob Neville 1804. Source: Bulloch County Records.

Jacob Neville 1769 – 1863 married Nancy “Nissy” Henderson 1780 – 1889

  • Thomas Neville 1808 – 1870
  • Delilah “Lilly” Neville 1806 –
  • Jacob “Jake” Neville Jr. 1812 – 1880
  • Phoebe Ann Neville 1825 – 1903
Jacob Neville Sr. b. 1769 d. 1863. Enhanced. Source unknown.

In 1849, Dicey Neville, daughter of Jacob Neville and Nancy Henderson, married A.B. Riggs (it was her 3rd marriage and produced no children). Abraham’s brother, Dempsey Riggs, son of Stephen Riggs and Rachel Martin, married Dicy’s sister Frances Neville. I believe Dicey Neville had dower slaves when she married James Donaldson in 1814. The 1830 census shows James owned no slaves prior to marrying Dicey. As I shared, after James Donaldson’s death Harriet and 3 of her 4 children were sold to Thomas Neville, Dicey’s brother. However, Harriet and her family stayed on with Dicey in the Riggs household. Wealthy, Abraham Riggs had 400 acres of land in 1860 and an estate worth $13,564, including 14 enslaved people living in two slave cabins, among them Harriet and her family.

Using genetic genealogy, I have uncovered several distant DNA matches who are direct descendants of Jacob Neville Sr. including his parents John Oliver Neville (Beaufort, NC clan) and Frances Ann Mixon (Effingham County, SC clan). Triangulation through Ancestry’s Thrulines tool shows these cousins confirm common ancestry. Not surprisingly, Jacob was Harriet’s biological father, no doubt her mother was a victim of rape in bondage. This DNA evidence further supports the timeline that Harriett and her children were dower slaves…originally enslaved by Jacob but given to James Donaldson’s estate as part of his daughter’s marriage to his future son-in-law.

And so now we know that Thomas Neville wasn’t just purchasing Harriet and her family. He was purchasing his father’s daughter, and his own nephews and niece, as well as bailing out his sister, and keeping the wealth of the family, in the family.

Some realizations occur to me. 1) Dicey had for several years, her enslaved half-sister Harriet waiting on her and her family. This reminds me of the story of Thomas Jefferson’s wife Martha Skelton. Martha’s marriage to Jefferson included dozens of dower slaves, including Martha’s half-sister Sally Hemings. 2) Jacob Neville, though still living, did not come to Dicey’s rescue. Were they estranged? 3) Thomas Neville technically owned his half-sister Harriet and her family but clearly wanted them to continue to live with Dicey. 4) I can see now why Harriet and her family took the Riggs name instead of Dicey’s surname or the Donaldson’s. It wasn’t out of convenience. Would you take the surname of the woman and men who split up your family?

Next, freedom and prosperity

After the Civil War swept through southern Georgia, Harriet and her family found themselves, like many recently freed people, pondering “what’s next?” But they did not wait long. They had been working the Riggs plantation for nearly twenty years now. They knew how to farm corn, rice, wheat, and tobacco. They knew how to manage a household. They knew animal husbandry. They just needed a foothold to get started.

By February 1866, the Freedmen’s Bureau was on the ground in Georgia, probably sending representatives from the nearby Savannah Station, to counsel the people of Bulloch. Harriet Riggs (and two children, presumably Susan and Eliza), Isaac Riggs, Paul Riggs (probably Peter), along with Tom Williams, and Doris Hall (and her two children enter into a one-year labor contract in Bulloch County with the Freedmen’s Bureau to continue to live and work on Abraham B. Riggs plantation. Isaac was to receive $13 a month, food and clothing, Tom and Paul were to receive $8 per month, and Harriet and Doris food and clothing.

Labor contract between Harriet Riggs and her family and Abraham B. Riggs, Feb. 6, 1866, administrated by The Freedmen’s Bureau, Savannah Station.

Paul Riggs likely dies soon after and is not present in the record afterward. Tom is probably not the same Tom (col, 21 y.o.) who also worked on Neville’s plantation. Tom Neville’s (col) birth date is derived from his voter registration in 1867. His surname is also Neville according to the 1866 poll tax.

Harriet in Reconstruction, a Timeline

  • 1866 – Feb 6, Harriet Riggs, Isaac Riggs, Paul Riggs (probably Peter), along with Tom Williams, and Doris Hall enter into a labor contract with the Freedmen’s Bureau to continue to live and work on Abraham B. Riggs plantation.
  • 1866 – Thomas Neville and Tom (colored) sign a labor contract in Bulloch County with the Freedmen’s Bureau to work Neville’s plantation. Witnesses include James Donaldson Jr.
  • 1867 – Aug 15, Isaac Riggs and Tom Williams register to vote in Bulloch County. Isaac Riggs pays the 1867 poll tax.
  • 1869, Feb 4, Eliza Saturday Riggs, Harriet’s daughter, marries Washington Hodges.
  • 1869, Jun 1, Daniel Riggs applies for tax exemption on land he owns engaging a lawyer.
  • 1870 – Oct 21, Thomas Neville dies.
  • 1870 – Dec 4, Isaac Riggs purchases from Benjamin Wilson 100 acres.
  • 1874 – Jun 25, Harriet Riggs dies. She is between 64 – 74 y.o. Her burial place is unknown.
  • 1874 – The Willow Hill School is established on Daniel Riggs’s land
  • 1876 – June, Isaac Riggs is threatened and beaten for opening and teaching at “Willie Hill”.
  • 1879 – July 16, Elder Washington Hodges (husband of Eliza Saturday Riggs, daughter of Harriet) purchases from W.E. and Henry Parrish 229 acres. 
  • 1879 – Oct 28, Daniel Riggs purchases from David Bell 180 acres.
  • 1883 – Sept 22, Elder Washington Hodges (husband of Eliza Saturday Riggs, daughter of Harriet) purchases from James Parrish 20 acres.  
  • 1885 – Jan 5, Daniel Riggs purchases from David Bird 115 acres.
  • 1886 – Jul 12, Abraham B. Riggs, dies.
  • 1895 – March, Daniel Riggs dies at age 53.
  • 1897 – Jul 22, Isaac Riggs dies at age 59.

Harriet’s life during Reconstruction was markedly different.

Now, she chose when to rise in the morning, and when to sleep. No longer suffering under the yoke of Dicey and Abraham Rigg’s lash or order, she could breathe, cry, celebrate, even laugh whenever she wanted. She was reunited with her son Peter and watched her family begin to flower and flourish in freedom.

In just three years after emancipation, the Riggs family got access to capital through their PAID labor on Abraham Rigg’s plantation. Harriet’s sons purchased land of their own. They got credit, and mortgages and began to build their lives as free people. Her sons and daughter married and started their own families. In 1867, Isaac voted on the new Georgia Constitution, a requirement by the federal government that each Confederate state had to write and ratify a new state constitution. The military held massive voter registration drives and for the first time, black men and white men appeared alongside each other on voter rolls. The Georgia Constitution Convention had 33 African American delegates and 137 white delegates.

In 1869, my 3x great-grandfather Daniel Riggs was either given or acquired land which was obviously intended to be used for tax-free purposes like education or a church. He applied for a tax exemption that was published in the paper. He and his wife Audelia Parrish, brother Isaac Riggs and his daughter Georgiana would found The Willow Hill School in 1874, the same year that Harriet passed away.

Nevils Creek Primitive Baptist Church, Bulloch County. Source unknown.

Harriet’s final resting place may be on or near the grounds of the Nevils Creek Primitive Baptist Church where there is a single headstone, that of her white grandfather John Neville. The black congregants of Nevils Creek eventually left in 1879 when Aaron Munlin and several elders formed Banks Creek Primitive Church. Wherever she is buried, her blood and toil infuses the soil of Bulloch County and mixes with the descendants of so many.

PostScript.

I am an exceedingly lucky descendent of Harriet, and especially grateful for one David Beasley who lived in Statesboro in 1866. General Tecumseh Sherman’s march to the sea on the wain of the Civil War in Georgia destroyed several county courthouses and their records. According to The True Story of the Bulloch County Courthouse, “David Beasley, the Ordinary (lawyer), was aware of the approach of Sherman’s Army, and had heard that the soldiers were burning both private homes and public buildings. Mr. Beasley had the Bulloch County records removed from the courthouse and concealed near his home where they remained until the danger had passed.”

Without Beasley’s foresight, I would not have been able to tell Harriet’s story. Furthermore, I am deeply grateful to Dr. Alvin Jackson who told me in an interview in 2019 that he knew of a document that mentioned Harriet’s sale on the courthouse steps.

Sources.

  • Ancestry.com
  • Banks, Smith Calloway; Collins, Scott; Good B., Daniel; Mitchel P., Cloe; Rahn, Milton; “Old Bulloch Personalities” (1993).
  • Blitch, Parris, “The True Story of the Bulloch County Courthouse” (2004). Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
  • Deed, Bulloch County, Jacob Neville to James Donaldson, 1833. pg. 154.
  • Bonds, Charles; Brannen, Dorothy; Collins, Maggie; Good, Daniel B.; Jackson, Nkenge; Mabry, Evelyn; Postell, Carolyn; Seel, Robert M.; Wall, Rita Turner; and Ariail, Julius, “From Aaron to Ivanhoe” (1988). Bulloch County Historical Society Publications. pg. 36.
  • Estate Sale of James Donaldson Sr. Administrator Dicey Mikell, 6 April 1847, Bulloch County, Georgia.
  • Estate Inventory of James Donaldson Sr., 1840, Bulloch County, Georgia. pg. 124.
  • Freedmen’s Bureau, Savannah, Roll 82, Labor Contracts; Harriet Riggs, Isaac Riggs, Daniel Riggs, Paul Riggs, Tom Williams, Doris Hall, Abraham B. Riggs; Feb 6, 1866.
  • Georgia Returns of Qualified Voters and Reconstruction Oath Books, 1867 – 1869, Bulloch County.
  • Hendrix Hope, Dorothy, “The Story of Bulloch County” (1996). Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
  • Life in Old Bulloch, The story of a Wiregrass County in Georgia, 1796 -1940, Dorothy Brannen, Statesboro Public Library (1992).
  • US Census, Bulloch County, GA. 1820, 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900.
  • US Census, Slave Schedules, Bulloch County, GA.1850, 1860.
  • U.S. Find-A-Grave Index, Bulloch County, Georgia.
  • Will, Henry J. Parrish, 1800, Bulloch County, Georgia.
  • The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center.