What is family? Is it a blood tie? Is it kinship? Though I have had no relationship with my ancestors (I didn’t know them) they are my family because I have found a connection with them through my feelings. When I learn about their lives, for better or for worse, I can’t help feel a bond with them. I count my living family now as extraordinarily tight, but in my life have seen how the relationships that make family come and go. Family is impermanent and often what we define.
Growing up in the industrial waterfront town of Chester, Pennsylvania, my father had a large and loving family, and yet he did not know his biological father, and his father’s kin, despite the fact that they were all around him, hidden in plain sight, his whole life. His biological father’s identity was a mystery. But he has always wanted to know more, as did I, and so we set out to use traditional and genetic genealogy to uncover what we could. In our research, we learned my biological grandfather had died in the 80s, and so while we could never know him personally, we did find his people, from their roots in the deep south to the lives they made in Chester after the great migration. And now, for the better, we have a relationship with them. Does that make them family?
The white planter Abraham B. Riggs was not the first enslaver of my fourth great-grandmother, Harriet Riggs, and her children. **See The Riggs Family: Harriet Rigg’s Story (Part 2)** for an update on Harriet’s remarkable life. Despite this, she took Riggs as her surname after emancipation when she could have any she liked. Like many enslaved blacks in the Lowcountry of Georgia, Harriet faced the cruel chattel slavery system that traded human life like a gold watch or a prized axe, a valuable commodity to be passed along after death to provide wealth to those left behind. Harriet and her kin were victims of legacy-based enslavement, passed on paper as well as on the auction block of Statesboro, Georgia. Her first enslaver was an Scot by the name of James Donaldson, whose father followed the Ogeechee River south to Statesboro in the late 1700s. In 1834 Donaldson married a local girl Dicy Neville. When James died, Dicey Donaldson remarried in 1844 to David Mikell, and then when David died, Dicey once again remarried to Abraham B. Riggs on September 8, 1849. Through each marriage, Dicey inherited land and more enslaved people, and so Abraham and Dicey became Harriet’s last enslavers before emancipation.
Harriet, b. 1820 – d. 1874, my 4th great-grandmother had four known children all born before the Civil War with an unknown partner:
- Isaac Riggs b. 18 Dec 1837 d. 22 July 1897
- Daniel Samuel Riggs, b. 1842 d. 1895
- Susan Riggs, b. 1846, death unknown
- Eliza Saturday Riggs, b. Jan. 1857 death unknown
Harriet’s children’s father may have gone by the surname Saturday, as her daughter Eliza listed her surname as Saturday on her 1869 marriage certificate to Washington Hodges.
One of Harriet’s enslavers, James Donaldson can be found in the 1830 Census for Bulloch County, between 15 and 19 years old at the time. In the 1840 Census, James has three slaves, one is a female between 10 and 23 years. In the 1850 and 1860 Census his son, James Donaldson Jr. b. 1829. James Jr. is in the 1870 and 1880 census so we can conclude it was James Donaldson Sr. definitely died sometime around 1840.
In the 1850 Slave Schedule for Bulloch County, Abraham Riggs is found enslaving five souls, Harriet almost certainly among them. Abraham was born in 1814 to Stephen and Rachel Riggs in Statesboro. He was married first to Nancy Cannon, then remarried Dicey Donaldson at age 35. He had several children with Nancy, none with Dicey. Abraham Riggs owned Riggs’ Old Mill and his house still stands on Cypress Lake Road across from the lake’s dam according to his descendent Rebecca Riggs Boone. Harriet and her family no doubt lived on the Mill grounds until emancipation. Abraham’s parents sold to their neighbor Jordan Lewis 500 acres of land in two transactions in 1817. Upon Abraham’s death in 1884, he willed his land, some 200 acres between Big Lotts Creek and Big Branch Creek to his sons Abram Jr. and Thomas Riggs. Abraham is buried in Lower Lotts Creek Church Cemetery along with several of his family members.
In 1870, Harriet is found living with her daughter Eliza (16) and son-in-law Washington Hodges (19) and a relative Dina Munlin (25). Her occupation was as a seamstress. In 1880, Harriet (60) is still living with the Hodges and her four grandchildren. The consensus on her death date is June 25, 1874, though her burial place is unknown. Just eight years after her death, her son-in-law Washington Hodges became Elder Washington Hodges and founded the Old Bethel Primitive Baptist Church in Statesboro. Several Riggs descendants are buried in the church cemetery.
How did I find my biological grandfather’s great-great-grandmother Harriet? Her identity, as well as that of an entire clan of intertwined families, began to emerge in dozens of DNA matches and my father’s DNA matches in the last several years. In 2019, I was finally able to isolate my father’s DNA from his mother’s (my grandmother), and it became clear the African American Riggs were the ancestors of my biological grandparents. Several surnames merged in Statesboro with two sets of common ancestors, Harriet Riggs, and Cain Parrish and his wife Isabella Donaldson. Statesboro, about an hour West of Savannah Georgia has a rich history and is well-researched. Fortunately, the Riggs and Parrish family histories are well-documented in family trees by numerous family historians and amateur sleuths like myself. In particular, the remarkable work of Dr. Alvin Jackson, also a descendant of Harriet Riggs, has become a useful guide to antebellum Statesboro’s black community. Dr. Jackson’s remarkable life’s work has been to educate, research, and preserve the story of the legacy of his family and community. He has collected thousands of obituaries and funeral programs of black elders (read them here) from Statesboro, conducted hundreds of interviews that have resulted in digital collections at the Georgia Southern University And he has worked hard to preserve the cultural history of one of area’s seminal colored school founded by Harriet’s children during Reconstruction, the Willow Hill School.
A willow bends but does not break
The Willow Hill School was founded in 1874 by former slaves, initially on land donated by my 3rd great-grandparents Daniel Riggs and Audelia Parrish (Daniel was my fourth great-grandmother Harriet Riggs’ son). The school was in existence for 125 years; the longest for any school in Bulloch County, Georgia. In 2005, concerned citizens of Statesboro and several trustees founded the Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center to preserve The Willow Hill School. A fount of knowledge, Dr. Jackson is the Chairman of the Center.
“A little history – Sometime after the “Great Surrender,” a group of former slaves, lead by Moses, Andy and Sam Parrish, Andy Donaldson and his sisters, Mary, Dorah and Isabelle and Moriah, along with their sons, good friends and in-laws, saw a great need for their children to get an education. The group established the first community/family school (1874-1999) for colored children in Bulloch County, GA and called it the “Willie Hill School” in 1874 after the son of Daniel and Audelia (Parrish) Riggs. The school grew, moving from the farm of Daniel and Audelia, Moses and Isabelle to its final location. It became officially known as Willow Hill School and was sold to the Bulloch County Board of Education for $18.00 in 1920 by Moses Parrish. In 1930 Julius Rosenwald of Sears & Roebuck donated a large sum of money to construct a new building on the school which served as the main academic building for about 20 years. In 1965 the Courts ordered the integration of the Bulloch County Schools and in 1969 Whites forced the closing of the Willow Hill school and other black schools because they refused to integrate. The Willow Hill was was reopened in 1971 but officially closed in 1999. There were more that 40 Colored/Negro community/family schools through Bulloch County but as the schools were integrated into the public school system, they were closed or lost their identity. “from the website of Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center
The history of the Willow School has been covered widely in Georgia, accompanied by archival documents and photographs of the Riggs, Donaldson, Love, Parrish families who were instrumental to its founding.
Nathania B. Miles, a Riggs descendent has also researched The Willow Hill School and published in several forums and genealogical magazines.
“The Willie Hill school grew rapidly and in 1890 moved to Handy and Agnes (Parrish) Donaldson’s farm for five (5) years where it grew to a two room building. Then, 1895 the school moved to its final location on land donated by Moses and Isabella (Donaldson) Parrish, in Portal, Georgia. The Willie Hill School would evolve three times during its lifetime and become the only community/family school to become a part of the Bulloch County Board of Education in the 1920s. In 1999, the school officially closed its doors.”Nathania B. Miles, Afrigeneas
The first teacher at the school was Georgianna Riggs, b. 1859, the daughter of my 3rd uncle Isaac Riggs and Harriet Lanier. Harriet Lanier was said to be the mulatto child of “old lawyer Johnson” according to Dr. Jackson. Georgianna was only 15 years old when she began to teach her cousins and community. A former slave herself, and the granddaughter of Harriet Riggs, she learned to read and write during a time when African Americans were outlawed from education. Dr. Erik Brooks, the author of Defining Their Destiny: The Story of the Willow Hill School, writes, “Most likely, Georgianna Riggs learned how to read from the slave owner’s children as they ‘played school.’ She was too young to carry out the duties of plantation work as a slave. The other possibility is that she was educated at one of the underground schools in the Bulloch County or Savannah area.”
Georgianna taught the children to read and write, math and bible-reading. Her father Isaac Riggs was also a teacher at the school, as well as her cousin The Willie Riggs. Willie Riggs was the son of Daniel and Audelia Riggs. Willie later traveled to Atlanta and there graduated from Atlanta Bible College (later Morehouse College) in 1894 before returning to teach at Willow Hill.
Unfortunately, the prejudices of the white community of Bulloch County were vast and emboldened by the rise of the Klu Klux Klan. Throughout Reconstruction, colored education in the south came under fierce attack. Whites wanted the black population of the South docile, their station reduced, and back under the heels of racist politicians. At the Willow School, Harriet’s son Isaac was targeted for terror in 1876.
Despite the compromise of 1877 that withdrew the last federal troops from the South to protect recently emancipated blacks and free black communities, blacks would not bend against the onslaught of terror. The Willow School persisted even as the violence escalated throughout the south.
The Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal counsel to the poor, calculates that there were 3,959 lynchings in the South from the end of the Reconstruction era in 1877 to 1950. However, Captain Robert Smalls, later Representative Smalls of Charleston, SC, a black Civil War hero and public figure, stood up in the state capitol Columbia in 1895 and proclaimed that nearly 53,000 African Americans had been killed since Emancipation…in just thirty years. This staggering number included Paul Reed and Will Cato of Statesboro.
There are at least four documented acts of terror in Statesboro between Reconstruction and the turn of the century, not including the infamous lynching case of Paul Reed and Will Cato, in retaliation for the alleged murder of four members of the Hodges family (a white family) in a house fire in 1904. With over 1000 white onlookers (including men, women, and children) Reed and Cato were burned alive without mercy in a forest in Statesboro. After the lynching, four more blacks were murdered in the aftermath. Black citizens were routinely attacked, beaten and whipped. It is reported that many black families left Statesboro soon after for nearby Portal. Many left the state. Not a single person was brought to justice for the lynchings.
It was against this backdrop of racial terror, the sons of my third great-grandparents began to pick up their families and leave town. Perhaps, like blues singer Blind Willie McTell, they got the Statesboro Blues.
The Parrish Plantation
Audelia “Delia” Parrish whose family is well established in Statesboro, was born in 1858. She married Daniel Samuel Riggs, Harriet’s son. My third great-grandmother Audelia was formerly enslaved by Ansel Parrish a prominent slave owner in Bulloch Co, the son of Henry Parrish and Nancy Williams. Records indicate Delia Parrish was born to Cain Parrish b. 1810 and Isabella b. 1822, all in Bulloch County. On Ancestry, I have a few 6th – 7th cousin DNA matches who have in their trees the white Parrish family. This means we share an ancestor, and very likely Cain Parrish was the mulatto son of Henry Parrish.
Cain Parrish m. Isabella children:
- Lucinda b. 1834
- Hannah b. 1840
- Moses P. b. 1842
- Samuel b. 1844
- Andrew b. 1850
- Agnes b. 1856
- Audelia b. 1858
- Cain Jr. b. 1864
Henry Parrish received two grants of land in what is now Candler County, and on one built a millpond in Statesboro where Bay Branch Creek and Lotts Creek come together in early 1800s. His son Ansel built his own home a mile west of the creek on a road that branched off Monk’s Ford. He also built a large millpond there. Ansel married on March 3, 1814, and ultimately had 18 children. Audelia lived with her seven brothers and sisters, and parents on the Parrish settlement.
“By Bulloch County standards, Ansel was a very large slave holder. He housed them in a long string of cabins stretching back on a quarters road toward the mill. But rather than having them cooking in their individual cabins with resulting deficiency diseases such as scurvy and pellagra, he provided for them in common, feeding them in a big dining shed back of his house where two responsible women presided. By the time of the Civil War this population had grown so large it took a beef a week to feed them, as well as hogs, goats, game, fish, corn, potatoes, vegetables, rice, syrup and molasses, all produced on the place. He produced rice in large quantities on an island between the forks of the creek where he could raise and lower the level of the water with the sluice gates of the pond. When word came of Sherman’s approach (during the Civil War), old Ansel, then seventy-six years old, sent his people to secure the stock in the swamps and hummocks of the creek. How well they succeeded can be seen by his inventory when he died the following July. That inventory counted 5 horses and mules in addition to the fine saddle horse stolen by his black sheep son the night he died, cattle, hogs (and outlying hogs) sheep, goats, fowls.”Rita Turner Hall, Lest It All Gets Away From Us
Audelia Riggs who may have also gone by Emma lived on the rice plantation during enslavement, and later with her husband and children in an area described as swampy and full of briars and pokeweed in Statesboro after emancipation. Given that Ansel cultivated rice, and the proximity to the Georgian coast and Ogeechee river, the Riggs family may have been Gullah Geechee, though there is no direct evidence of this.
Audelia Parrish and Daniel S. Riggs had 12 children including:
- Nathaniel b. 1865
- William Henry b. 1868
- James R. b. 1871
- Agnes b. 1874
- Martha b. 1876
- Solomon H. b. 1878
- Emma b. 1879
- Benjamin b. 1883
- Rose b. 1890
- Pearl R. b. 1892
- Thomas Jefferson b. 1894
- Maude b. 1895
In 1864 when General Tecumseh Sherman’s army came marching into Statesboro, during their infamous March to the Sea, they found a pretty pitiful sight while foraging for supplies. No large buildings, a couple of whiskey and turpentine shacks, barren fields, a log courthouse which they promptly burned, and empty farms. Sherman’s men raided several farms mercilessly for supplies. With no railroad, Statesboro was a somewhat impoverished area and didn’t start to prosper until the late 1890s as a town, becoming a large producer of Sea Island Cotton and mules.
Remarkably, by 1869, just three years after emancipation, Daniel Riggs and his family acquired land according to tax assessments. Clearly, they were busy working their farm, and perhaps under contracts with Ansel Parrish’s family coordinated by the Freemen’s Bureau. In an article in the Milledgeville Federal Union newspaper, Daniel’s lawyer, C. A. Sorrier, sought an exemption status from taxation on his land.
In 1882, the state assessed that the total value of Daniel Rigg’s property, which included a farm, 115 acres of land, and various animals to be worth $376. His brother Isaac had 105 acres assessed at $750.
Many nice things
Several remarkable things took place in 1889, the Eiffel Tower opened, Vincent Van Gogh painted Starry Night, the great land rush created Oklahoma City, a city of 10,000 – in a single day. Montana, South and North Dakota and Washington became states showing just how very young indeed the country really was. And on a sunny but crisp Tuesday morning in March, Agnes Riggs and Johnson Rozier were married by Rev. Washington Hodges. Agnes, the 17-year-old daughter of Daniel and Audelia Riggs, was waited on by her cousin Henry, brother Willie, Sarah Parrish, and Maggie Riggs. In the afternoon they took a fine buggy ride about the neighborhood of Blitch, about 10 miles north of Statesboro.
This remarkable bit of news made its way to the Savannah Tribune and was published in April. Unfortunately, sometime between the wedding and Christmas, Daniel Riggs passed away. Daniel lived long enough to see his daughter marry the man who was already the father of Agnes’s son John born in January. Agnes and Johnson would go on to have 11 children, and Agnes would live a long life, passing away in Coffee, Georgia at the age of 83.
By the time of the census in 1900, Delia Riggs was widowed. Over the next 10 years, the escalating violence, racism and lack of opportunity drove some of Delia’s children to pack up and head North.
It’s unclear why Chester, Pennsylvania, and not Atlanta or any of the other major cities along the mid-Atlantic coast became the preferred destination of four of Delia’s six sons and their families. According to Dr. Jackson, Willie Riggs, the namesake for the Willow Hill School, was known to be a “traveling person” and in the club scene in Chicago, perhaps as a musician. Willie already had a taste of travel and freedom from his time in Atlanta. Uncle Isaac had traveled to Savannah after his terrible beating. Perhaps the reality became that there was more to life than the oppression of Bulloch County, maybe even a better life. After all, with their growing education and literacy, they must have asked themselves around the kitchen table and on the walk home from church, what more could they do, what more could the Riggs family become, somewhere else?
In Part 2: The Riggs Family: Harriet Riggs Story I’ll explore the life of Harriet Riggs, including a timeline for her life enslaved and free. I’ll share some surprising revelations about her biological father.
In Part 3: The Riggs Family: New Kin I’ll share how the Riggs who came to Pennsylvania, their lives and families in Chester, and how using traditional and genetic genealogy, I’ve identified my father’s grandfather among them.
- Agnes Riggs Marriage Announcement, Savannah Tribune. Savannah, GA. April 4, 1889.
- Bonds, Charles; Brannen, Dorothy; Collins, Maggie; Good, Daniel B.; Jackson, Nkenge; Mabry, Evelyn; Postell, Carolyn; Seel, Robert M.; Wall, Rita Turner; and Ariail, Julius, “From Aaron to Ivanhoe” (1988). Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
- Bulloch County Tax Assessment, 1882 – 1888.
- Daniel Riggs (Colored), Milledgeville Federal Union, Milledgeville, GA. June 1, 1869.
- F. Erik Brooks. Defining Their Destiny: The Story of the Willow Hill School. (Savannah: The Willow Hill Heritage and Renaissance Center Publishing Group, 2011).
- Rita Turner Hall (illustrations) Lest It All Gets Away From Us. Bulloch County Historical Society Publications.
- “Negroes Shot Flogged In Georgia Statesboroughs Double Lynching,” NY Times, New York, NY, 1904.
- “School Teacher Whipped in Bullock County” Colored Tribune, Savannah, GA. June 3, 1876.
- US Census, Bulloch County, GA. 1840, 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900, 1910.
- US Census, Delaware County, PA. 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940.
- Willow Hill Heritage & Renaissance Center