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 Bobo Family and Spanish Flu A Century Ago

Just over 100 years ago, the “Spanish Flu”, an especially virulent 2nd wave of influenza swept the planet. Transmitted by soldiers from Europe after World War I ended to the US, South Africa, and Latin America. The flu claimed millions of lives between 1918 and 1920. Sadly, the flu’s spread through the military was kept secret and under wraps, because there was an active theater of war. Only Spanish journalists could report on it, hence the name. So many were caught up by a widespread lack of knowledge and deliberate ignorance. Today, Covid-19, a hundred years later, is marching across the planet, but we’re fortunate to have a more widespread knowledge, and increasingly, a coordinated effort to flatten the curve of transmission.

Naturally, the recent news made me think about my family their lives during a pandemic. There is at least one documented victim of the flu on the Bobo line of my family, my 2nd great-aunt Annie Bobo-Thomas. In 1920, Aunt Annie Bobo-Thomas was living in Los Angeles with her husband. She was 26 years old, and a court stenographer. She had been there for less than a year when she abruptly returned to her family’s home in the Booker T. Washington Addition neighborhood in Dallas, Texas in May. The Booker T. Washington Addition in Precinct 1 in Dallas was near Flora Ave and McKinney Ave just a few blocks north of downtown Dallas. Anna was very ill, as reported in the Dallas Express (a black newspaper published from 1892 – 1970). The Dallas Morning News reported that the flu had burned itself out by the end of 1919, so was it the Spanish flu?

The Dallas Express, 29 May 1920, Annie Bobo Thomas.

During this period, Anna’s father Dave “Lee” Bobo worked at the Central Christian Church in Dallas as a Sextant and custodian, her mother Bessie Demings-Bobo was a maid at nearby Southern Methodist University. Annie, the namesake of her grandmother Annie Turner Demings, was the oldest child, one of nine (six survived). None of her family or siblings appear to have caught the flu.

In 1918, World War 1 ended in November and returning troops from Europe brought the Spanish Flu with them to a number of American cities. When the Spanish Flu hit the Dallas, Texas area particularly at Army Camps like Fort Dick, that were full of young men who had been training to fight in the War. The second wave of Spanish Flu was a mutation that hit young men and women hard, with some victims dying within 24 hours. September saw it’s first quarantines. Dr. A.W. Carnes, Dallas’s health officer at the time underestimated the flu, and local officials waffled against his recommendations to start taking action. The Mayor and Chambers of Commerce argued and eventually kept cinemas, churches, and schools open, ultimately worsening the effects of the impact until mid-October when several deaths and hundreds of victims pouring into emergency rooms threatened to overwhelm the city’s health infrastructure. Dallas only had 150,000 people living there at the time. Over 456 people died in the city by year’s end. Ultimately, more U.S. soldiers died of Spanish Flu (63,114), than in combat during the war (53,402).

Dallas Morning News headline, October 1918.

Annie’s death certificate shows that she had contracted pulmonary tuberculosis, “TB”, while living in Los Angeles. She suffered from the bacterial infection from May to July in 1920, but complications from the flu hastened her to her death. Perhaps it was during her work as a stenographer, that she contracted TB. She would have been exposed continuously to people as she transcribed notes into shorthand, in a Los Angeles County Court. While recovering in Dallas, she got the flu, and as we’ve learned more recently, viruses tend to target the most vulnerable among us. While it’s not precisely clear that the strain she had was Spanish Flu, the timing aligns.

Annie Bobo Thomas died on July 14, 1920, and was buried on Dallas’s southside in the Woodlawn Cemetery. Her grandfather John Bobo was previously buried there in 1917. Later, her father Dave, grandmother Alice, and uncle A.K. Bobo would also be buried at Woodlawn.

Annie Bobo-Thomas death certificate, 1920, Dallas, Texas.

According to another report in the Dallas Express, before she died, my great-grandfather, David Newton Bobo, 21 years old and married, traveled from Chester, PA in June, home to Dallas. Likely, he was called by his mother to see his older sister, in anticipation that they might lose her.

The Dallas Express, 12 June 1920, David Bobo Jr.

The lessons of the Spanish Flu were profound. Studies by the CDC about how over 40 American cities responded to the 1918 pandemic lead to the creation of pandemic protocols and policies that protect us today. Key was the many insights learned about social distancing as a communal effort to stop the spread of a virus. During the Spanish Flu pandemic, where one city shut down, lives were saved, where another went ahead blindly, like Dallas or Philadelphia, far more lives were lost.

The point of understanding history, even family history is not to drum up nostalgia or melancholy for the past, but to learn from it. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Los Angeles had shut down the courts during the pandemic? What could have happened had the greedy Mayor and myopic Chamber of Commerce in Dallas had heeded their health officials? Or if Anna was able to recover in isolation. Would she have survived or was it already too late?

What we are presented with today is not exactly unprecedented, though it may feel that way to us. We have history and its lessons to draw upon. We know it takes a community, not just the government to fight a pandemic. We don’t have to wonder what might have been. We have to act now for what could be.

Please, stay home, stay safe, and help flatten the curve of Covid-19.

Sources.

  • Dallas County Death Certificate, Annie Bobo Thomas, 1920.
  • The Dallas Express, 29 May 1920, Annie Bobo Thomas.
  • The Dallas Express, 12 June 1920, David Bobo Jr.
  • The Dallas Morning News, 1920.
  • Tarrant, David. “100 years ago, the deadliest flu of all time devastated Dallas as it swept through the world” The Dallas News, October 2018.
  • US Census, Dallas County, Dallas, 1910, 1920.

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.

Erenow.com, Lawful to Set to Sea, Chapter 11

EMORY CHASE – FREE

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

A FAMILY FREE AND ENSLAVED

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.

FREE TO FIGHT

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.

MOSS TRACT

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.

Sources.

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 Ancestry.com spurred by the work of a cousin and Mays family historian, Patricia Thompson. Pat’s work goes back to 1975! She later published a Mays family history, I Came By Way of Somebody, that I used to create a cursory family tree on Ancestry.com. I owe Pat a debt of gratitude for her decades-long interest in research and telling the Mays story laid the foundation to tell my own. In 2006, I watched an episode of African American Livesand saw Dr. Henry Louis Gates illuminate the life of a black family through records and research, and share his revelations, the turning points of a black family (and his own) with their descendants. This was my “Roots” moment, which inspired countless black genealogists before me. His show illuminated black people. It revealed and reminded us that our ancestors lived through the birth of this nation, and how we are an integral part of its creation, development.  And I marveled that history could reveal us, and perhaps my own roots. For a son whose father held secret pains and hidden memories, for a son whose mother departed far too soon and took a family history with her, the thought of learning my own family’s story exhilirating.

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.