This blogpost is dedicated to my 2nd great-grandfather, Juan Eusebio Bonilla Salcedo, who was assassinated in 1890 by the Spanish Civil Guard for being a member of the Puerto Rican Autonomous Party. Juan Eusebio pre-deceased his comrades, who in 1897, took part in La Intentona de Yauco, the last uprising against Spanish colonial rule. It is likewise dedicated to my 3rd great-uncle, Pedro Lajara Guerra-Mondragon, a captain in the Spanish Militia, who took part in El Grito de Lares — the first uprising against The Spanish in 1868. These men spoke truth to power about the conditions of the Boricua people. I am humbled to know that I descend from Puerto Rican revolutionaries who were truth-tellers. Me siento honrado de saber que su espíritu de resistencia está en mis genes. Que descansen en paz eterna.
Finally, this blogpost is dedicated to each and every one of my Boricua Branches. Like branches of a tree, we will continue to grow together. I have been blessed to have made all of your acquaintances. There are way too many names to list, but you know who you are. Besitos y un abrazo fuerte.
On Becoming Comfortable with My Rice & Beans & Collard Greens Self
On December 27th, 2013, I wrote one of my first blogposts about what it meant to find my Boricua Branches — my father’s side of my family. I will always say, without an ounce of hesitation, that the best part of taking my DNA tests was finding my Puerto Rican cousins. My father’s absence for 20 years of my life — from the age of 3-years old until 23-years old — resulted in a critical disjuncture in how I saw myself. While I always knew I was half-Puerto Rican, my pre-23 year old self did not know what that meant having been born and raised in Brockton, MA, a suburb of Boston. Brockton was not the diverse community it is today when I was growing up. It was a predominately white community with a small African-American and Cape Verdean population. We were often seen as Black and sometimes as Cape Verdean. Pre-23-year old Teresa was definitely Black culturally-identified. Though I always knew I had a diverse maternal extended family and equally diverse ancestors, having been raised by my maternal grandparents, I grew up within the confines of an African-American community.
I arrived in New York City in the Fall of 1990 to attend graduate school in a city that had one of the largest populations of Puerto Ricans outside of Puerto Rico. With a name like Teresa A. Vega, I had a hard time convincing anyone that I was anything other than a Latina. People assumed that I was either in denial about being a Latina or had some sort of hangup about speaking Spanish. It never occured to most people that maybe I didn’t grow up with my Puerto Rican father, that maybe Spanish wasn’t my first language, or maybe I was raised in a place that didn’t have a Latino community.
Two months after my mother passed away in December 1990, my father walked back into our lives. Boom! There he was. It was nothing short of an earthquake that shook up our lives. My siblings and I had different reactions to his re-emergence. None were more valid than the others. Our reactions were what they were. As I stated in another post, I left graduate school in the Fall of 1991 and moved to Cordoba, Spain, where my father retired, to get to know him. That is a decsion I will never regret. For all his faults — he had many — I learned what I inherited from him and, more importantly, what I didn’t.
Though I had 10 years (1991-2001) with my father before he passed away, he was always a step away from Puerto Rico for me. There was only so much I could learn from him about Puerto Rico as he left the island when he was a child and was raised in New York City. Even though I had been to Puerto Rico before, I felt disconnected to the island because I didn’t know anyone who was related to me and he didn’t remember any relatives there either. When I thought of Puerto Rico, there was always a sadness present due to the loss of family. Sometimes we mourn for that which we know we should have received automatically, but we didn’t. We are just left with a bottomless void…. so I thought.
Receiving my first DNA test results in December 2013 was certainly a life-changing event. I went from having 1200 DNA cousins on 23andme in December 2013 to having 1933 in 2017. On AncestryDNA, I went from having 1800 DNA cousins to over 35,000 today and, on FTDNA Family Finder, I went from having 145 DNA cousins to having 1489. On all three of my DNA tests, the great majority of my matches are Puerto Rican. So, now I know that voids can be filled and hope should ALWAYS be kept alive.
When I look back over the last 4 years, I realize just how blessed I’ve been in the company of my Boricua Branches. Just knowing and being among them gave me my birthright — my ancestral heritage — back. My cousins have always maintained ties to Puerto Rico. They were never one step away from the island, but always kept one foot there. Over the past couple of years, in addition to meeting my cousins here in New York from all over the country, I’ve also traveled to Puerto Rico and met my cousins there. Like I’ve said before, we are all branches on the same tree that is firmly rooted on the island. It has been my Boricua Branches who taught me what being Puerto Rican truly meant and there is nothing like two back-to-back hurricanes, Irma and Maria, that have brought that message home to me in stark terms.
Happy 100th Anniversary: American Citizens and Colonial Subjects
When Hurricane Irma and Maria hit, my Boricua Branches and I were frantic. Phones were ringing off the hook and FaceBook IMs and text messages were flying back and forth. All of us trying to locate our family and friends. Some of our kin were readily located and others went missing for weeks. For the first time in my life, I feared for my family and friends in Puerto Rico. My cousin Maddy and I called each other trying to find out about our relatives in Yauco and San Juan. So many calls were made to my cousins to find out if they heard from their relatives that I lost count. Every day we checked in with each other to see who had been located and who was still missing. Sometimes all we could do was pray as we waited. Tears flowed as the devastation became known bit by bit.
Four years earlier, I didn’t know one relative in Puerto Rico and now I had so many to track down. One of the longest waits I had was for Theresa and Ralph to show up. It took a month. The two of them have the honor of being designated as my “First LIVE Puerto Rican cousins that I met in Puerto Rico.” The NYC honor goes to my cousin, Raul Cruz Delgado, who earned that title back in 2013. Though Theresa, Ralph and I are forever linked in the AncestryDNA commercial we filmed together, we are also spiritually-bonded through the libation ceremony — overseen by our primo Luis Sanakori Ramos — that we gave my 2nd great-grandfather that honored both his Taino ancestry and his Puerto Rican revolutinary spirit. Both were with me when I met my Bonilla cousins for the first time, an experience that is forever seared in my mind that is too precious to adequately put into words even today.
My Boricua Branches and I watched as the President of the United States sat by as both hurricanes devastated our beloved island and offered minimal help. As American citizens, we expected more. We did not ask to become United States citizens, it was a condition imposed on us by the United States in the form of the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917which granted Puerto Ricans full American citizenship. A couple of months later, in May 1917, Puerto Ricans began to be drafted to fight in World War I. Over 20,000 Puerto Ricans served in the military then and continue to do so today.
Puerto Rico has been a colony of the United States ever since it was won as a result of The Spanish-American War of 1898. At no point ever have Puerto Ricans been able to control their island. Though Puerto Rico is self-governed through a local constitution whereby Puerto Ricans can elect their own Governor, Assembly and Senate, the United States government still oversees and controls the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. There is no President of Puerto Rico other than the President of the United States. We are not citizens of some other country. We are citizens of the United States of America. It’s a damn shame that I even have to say that in 2017, but I do.
When the current President of the United States, in a heinous, blatantly ignorant act of utter disrespect, threw paper towels at us and joked about about how Hurricane Maria was not that bad compared to Hurricane Katrina, my Boricua Branches — even those cousins who voted for him — and I cringed. It was as clear as day that we did not matter to HIM. We were seen as “The Other” because of the color of our skin and the language that rolled off of our tongues. It did not matter that we were American, that a lot of us were bilingual or only spoke English, or that we only had to move to the mainland for our votes to count.
We also sat by and watched as the Governor of Puerto Rico became politically impotent and agreed with the President’s shenanigans in early October. We were all shocked as both the President and Governor undercounted the death toll by the hundreds, if not thousands, and made light of our very real pain and denied what our own eyes were witnessing. The gaslighting of Puerto Rico’s hurricane victims was in full effect on every television network worldwide. Though the Governor now realizes his mistake, the damage was done. History will remember that it was the Mayor of San Juan who stood up with cojones and spoke truth to power in real time. She represented all Boricuas wherever we are found in the world. Her name is Carmen Yulin Cruz. Say HER name, Say HER name, Say HER name…
It was Carmen, along with many other Puerto Rican activists, who sounded the alarm about the compounded impact that the Jones Act of 1920 would have on Puerto Rican hurricane victims. Under the Jones Act, any foreign vessel must pay expensive tariffs, fees, and taxes to deliver goods to Puerto Rico. These taxes are then passed on to the Puerto Rican consumer. As a result, consumer goods are much more expensive. Of course, humanitarian aid was and has been hindered by this Act which was waived for a month after Hurricane Maria. The United States has since let that waiver expire.
There are many government officials and other Americans who look to blame Puerto Ricans for their current situation. It is far too easy to render blame to people who don’t look like you and who speak a different language than you. It’s so easy to also assign blame to others when you yourself are ignorant of United States history as well as the definition of what a colony is. Puerto Ricans are not responsible for their current situation when the US government calls all the shots, especially as they relate to the Puerto Rican economy. For example, when we look back to 1976, we see that Congress decreed that American companies could relocate to Puerto Rico and operate tax-free and many pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies did just that. However twenty years later, Congress then decided this was too costly and ended these tax breaks. Companies fled the island and took their jobs with them. This pullback ultimately led to the current debt crisis that existed before the hurricanes hit — a crisis that has meant that the Boricua people are at the whim of the United States government (e.g., PROMESA). As far as I am concerned, every president who has been in office has been complicit in the underdevelopment of Puerto Rico. Over the past decade, thousands upon thousands of Puerto Ricans have fled the island for the mainland and poverty has become deeply entrenched. Again, the Boricua people are victims of policies that are regulated by Washington by people who have no ties to the island. We are at the mercy of a President and government that believes that Puerto Ricans don’t matter.
How can you explain the fact that Puerto Ricans have been left to die by the hundreds, if not thousands, and the real body count will never be known? How do you explain that, 100+ days after Hurricane Maria, only half the island has power and may have to wait until Spring to get it —-in the “greatest” country in the world? How can you even look the world in the eye and claim that you want to “Make America Great Again” when the policies that you espouse have resulted in the PREVENTABLE death of innocent people? How can you sleep at night when you just passed a tax-reform bill that treats Puerto Rico like a foreign country and will further devastate and economically ruin American citizens of Puerto Rican descent? It is so clear that the United States is are being led by people who follow a false prophet and adhere to a false religion. Do not talk to me about a Christianity that is 1000% un-Christian. Talk to my hand because the God I KNOW would never let his flock suffer like we are now. NEVER! The devil is real, folks!
Anyone with a heart and soul knows that Puerto Ricans matter. We matter because we are human. How do you not recognize another person’s basic humanity? Throughout history, I know there have been those who walked among us and denied others the right to exist just because they were different from them. I will never understand that.
Some of us are brave though and we follow the ways and knowledge that our ancestors passed down to us. We will stay, resist and fight back against our intended demise, and aid our brothers and sisters by any means necessary in their time of need. We are here for the long-term. Puerto Ricans MATTER! We don’t need anyone’s pity and we are not asking for unjust handouts. We ask for that for which we are due for all 119 years of colonial subjugation. People and companies profited off of Puerto Rico and it is time that the Boricua people receive payment back. We want hurricane relief with no strings attached. We don’t want to be saddled with outrageous debt that we did not create. We want the Jones Act repealed as it has placed an unfair burden on the Boricua people. We want something that goes beyond the current FEMA programs whereby people are able to stay in their homes or are able to be resettled nearby. We want to live in a clean environment with toxin-free water…..among other things.
We are, without a doubt, the canaries in the coal mine. Just a thought, if the current US government does this to us, as American citizens, who else is next given all the forthcoming cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, the ACA, health organizations, etc.?
We Are RESILIENT!!!
“We Puerto Ricans are also a heroic people, because we resisted Spain for five hundred years, and now we have resisted the United States for a hundred and nineteen years. We are like trees that not even a hurricane has been able to uproot, because our roots grow so deeply. Our leaves may be torn off, but they will grow again. These are the fruits of what we have sown
-Heriberto Marin, one of the last survivors of the Jajuya Uprising in 1950
(The New Yorker Magazine, 12/27/2017)
I am proud of the Boricua Branches that I have because they prove time and time again just how resilient we are as a people. I can’t stop bragging about them. Here are just some of the cousins I have who have stepped up, before and after the hurricanes, and set an example to be followed.
In the days after they resurfaced, Theresa and Ralph started to immediately organize to not only help others in need, but also to coordinate hurricane relief donations from the mainland to their home. They then began distributing these donations to places that were not being reached by anyone and they have continued to do so ever since. They even created a Closed FB group, along with Dee Smalling, Rose Turner and others, where they keep track of donations sent, when they are received, and then they post where those donations ended up. This is the only Puerto Rican relief group that I am working with that I can 100% confirm are legitimate and do what they say they are going to do so. They have been delivering food donations, sanitary supplies, solar lights, water filters, tarps, and other items. They have also been working with our other cousins on the island and conscripting them into their great cause. Of course, our mainland Boricua Branches have also been sending supplies in earnest. Together, we are handling it BIG TIME.
Adopt Arecibo started out as a small relief organization, but is turning out to be a lot more. Adopt Arecibo now partners with the following organizations:
American Black Cross
Boondocks K-9 Search & Rescue Unit Inc. – CERT
Caras Con Causa
Coalition of Hope
Commit 2 PR
Cuerpo De Emergencias Medicas Estatal Base De Arecibo
Disaster Relief Alliance – DRA
Empowered by Light
Familiares en Puerto Rico,Comunicate aqui,con tus fami
Fundación Stefano Steenbakkers Betancourt
Fundacion Surfrider Rincon
Fundadacion Oye Aguadilla
Generate Some Love
H3 Tech Conference
Habitat for Humanity, PR
Heath Pro Med
Institute for Socio-Ecological Research
Levantando el Valle Relief
Mano A Mano Aydando Puerto Rico
Mentes Puertorriqueñas en Acción
New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS)
Operation Puerto Rico
Para La Natureleza
Power 4 Puerto Rico
Programa de Asistencia Tecnológica de Puerto Rico
Project Coqui_Puerto Rico Relief
proyecto esparciendo amor inc.
Puerto Rican Family Institute, Inc
Puerto Rican National Chamber of Commerce
Puerto Ricans in Action
Puerto Rico Diseña
Puerto Rico Distribución de Filtros de agua/ Water Filter distribution
Puerto Rico Love—Disaster Online Support Team
Puerto Rico Mercy Corps
Puerto Rico por Puerto Rico PRxPR
Puerto Rico Recovery Fund
Raices Cultural Center, A NJ Nonprofit Corporation
Raise Your Hands For PR, Inc.
RBC Maria Relief
Reconstruccion de Puerto Rico
Remote Area Medical
Rescate Playas Borinquen
Ricky Martin Foundation
Texas United for Puerto Rico
Together Puerto Rico / Juntos Puerto Rico
Tree of Life Counseling Center & Foundation
U Mass Amherst
Unity Warriors Group
Veterans At Sea
Veterans For Puerto Rico
Warrior Angels Rescue
Water Filters for Puerto Rico
Water For Puerto Rico Foundation
Waves 4 Water
World Water Solar
If anyone one has a charity organization that would like to deliver hurricane relief items to Adopt Arecibo, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org directly for further info.
Padre Jose Antonio Oquendo-Pabon
What can I say about a cousin who truly lives according to the word of God and could teach those in Washington a thing or two (make that many things) about how to live a Christian life? What can I say about a man, who could leave Puerto Rico in a minute, but has chosen to remain in horrible conditions to minister to his flock despite his own medical problems? What can I say about a man who is keeping a Hurricane Maria Diary to bear witness to all he has seen and who is intent on telling the truth until the very end? This cousin of mine has my utmost respect. He is a true man of God and I KNOW God knows his name. I pray for him every day because the work he has to do is more than noble. I ask people to also send prayers, love and light his way to lift Padre Jose Antonio Oquendo-Pabon up because the work he is doing is not easy. May the blessing of the Lord be with him always. Amen.
A big thank you goes to my cousin Jesse, the founder and CEO of Comelco, Inc., who stepped up and donated a 1-million watt generator to The Mennonite General Hospital in Aibonito, PR, an area that was heavily hit by Hurricane Maria. That act of generosity, not only saved 209 jobs, but will also save countless future lives. The generator left Jacksonville, FL last Thursday and will be received shortly. Jesse is one of the most generous people I know and I love that he has never forgotten where he came from. He is still that kid who grew up in the projects on the Lower East Side. Respect in the highest of the high!
Luis Sanakori Ramos
My cousin Luis is a treasure, not only to me, but to many of our cousins. We met almost 4 yeara ago. He is our cultural ambassador and educator who connects us to our Indigenous ancestors in very tangible ways. He guided Maddy, Theresa, Ralph and me as we sought to honor Maddy and my 2nd great-grandfather in the way that celebrated his Indigenous Tano roots. Luis has also aided many cousins on their own quests to connect with their Indigenous ancestors and has given them their Indigenous names in a beautiful naming ceremony. He is the founder of the Mobile Indigenous Library, a Fancy Dancer who connects with various Indigenous cross-cultural groups nationwide. Moreover, he also performs healing ceremonies and acts as an Indigenous educator throughout NYC. Luis is a member of theNaguake Indigenous Community in Puerto Rico/Boriken and is working on fostering greater ties with this community in the future.
Our Leaves May Be Torn off, But They Will Grow Again….And Again
It’s the very end of 2017 and around 300,000 Puerto Ricans have already left the island for the mainland and more are packing up ready to go. 2018 is now here. Because we are resilient and love our island, we will never forget those who left us to suffer and die in prime time. We will vote, as American citizens, this coming year, and in 2020, and our votes and voices will be heard nationwide. Make no mistake. Our votes will be our greatest form of resistance.
We WILL remember EVERY name on the lists below.
Here is the full list of Representatives that voted against disaster relief for Puerto Rico:
Justin Amash (R-Michigan)
Jim Banks (R-Indiana)
Andy Burr (R-Kentucky)
Joe Barton (R-Texas)
Jack Bergman (R-Michigan)
Andy Biggs (R-Arizona)
Mike Bishop (R-Michigan)
Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee)
Rod Blum (R-Iowa)
Dave Brat (R-Virginia)
Mo Brooks (R-Alabama)
Ken Buck (R-Colorado)
Ted Budd (R-North Carolina)
Steve Chabot (R-Ohio)
James Comer (R-Kentucky)
Warren Davidson (R-Ohio)
Scott DesJarlais (R-Tennessee)
Sean Duffy (R-Wisconsin)
Jeff Duncan (R-South Carolina)
John Duncan (R-Tennessee)
Tom Emmer (R-Minnesota)
Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina)
Trent Franks (R-Arizona)
Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin)
Thomas Garret (R-Virginia)
Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio)
Louie Gohmert (R-Texas)
Bob Goodlatte (R-Virginia)
Paul Gosar (R-Arizona)
Morgan Griffith (R-Virginia)
Andy Harris (R-Maryland)
Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas)
Jody Hice (R-Georgia)
French Hill (R-Arkansas)
George Holding (R-North Carolina)
Richard Hudson (R-North Carolina)
Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana)
Walter Jones (R-North Carolina)
Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)
Trent Kelly (R-Mississippi)
David Kustoff (R-Texas)
Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado)
Jason Lewis (R-Minnesota)
Barry Loudermilk (R-Georgia)
Kenny Marchant (R-Texas)
Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky)
Mark Meadows (R-North Carolina)
Luke Messer (R-Indiana)
Alex Mooney (R-West Virginia)
Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma)
Kristi Noem (R-South Dakota)
Ralph Norman (R-South Carolina)
Gary Palmer (R-Alabama)
Steve Pearce (R-New Mexico)
Scott Perry (R-Pennsylvania)
Robert Pittenger (R-North Carolina)
John Ratcliffe (R-Texas)
Todd Rokita (R-Indiana)
Keith Rothfus (R-Pennsylvania)
David Rouzer (R-North Carolina)
Mark Sanford (R-South Carolina)
David Schweikert (R-Arizona)
Jamex Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin)
Jason Smith (R-Missouri)
Chris Stewart (R-Utah)
Mark Walker (R-North Carolina)
Jackie Walorski (R-Indiana)
Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio)
Roger Williams (R-Texas)
Here is the full list of Senators that voted against disaster relief for Puerto Rico:
This is Part III of a blog series about my Malagasy ancestry. This time, I will be discussing my Malagasy ancestors who arrived in the Tidewater region of Virginia in the early 18th century. In Part I, I showed how one can still see the ethnic admixture that our Malagasy ancestors left our family with that show up in our DNA even today. Part II discussed how my NY Malagasy ancestors, now admixed with West African, Dutch, and Native American DNA, left New Amsterdam/New York in the late 1600s and ended up in the Tappen Patent in Bergen County, NJ.
This blogpost is dedicated to my VA Malagasy, West African, Native American and European ancestors whose lives were dictated and circumscribed by the institution of slavery in VA. I especially dedicate it to all those ancestors who were sold South as slaves out of Richmond, VA and whom will remain unknown to me forever. That being said, their DNA still lurks in my veins leaving a tie that still binds us together after all these years. I may not know my unknown ancestors’ names, but, thanks to DNA, I now know cousins who link me to them. May these ancestors all rest in eternal peace knowing that they are still remembered. We are because they were. I am a proud descendant of slaves indeed.
I would like to thank the following people for inspiring me to write this blog:
Wendy Wilson-Fall for writing her book, Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic, which detailed my 8th great-grandfather, Robert “King” Carter’s participation in the Madagascar to Virginia slave trade. More importantly, it detailed what my Virginia Malagasy ancestors faced once they arrived in Virginia and how their memories of Madagascar were passed down to their descendants in an oral form. From one Malagasy descendant to another, I want to say thank you for telling our ancestors’ stories.
Reber Dunkel, retired professor and sociologist at Randolph-Macon College, for his endless assistance in helping me find out more information about my 3rd great-grandmother Crittie Anna Lee, who was born on Shirley Plantation, in Charles City, VA, as well as her mother, Ann Perkins. They are my earliest known Virginia Malagasy-descended ancestors.
Fonte Felipe for his amazing blog, Tracing African Roots, in general as well as for him sharing DNA information that he has collected from Malagasy AncestryDNA tested individuals with me for this blog. Please click here to read his post on Southeast African DNA in the Americas. Fonte has been on the vanguard of analyzing African DNA throughout the African Diaspora.
Phillip Troutman, Assistant Professor of Writing and History at George Washington University, for his research on the domestic slave trade out of Richmond. His blog on the Virginia Slave Trade visually shows the numbers of enslaved people from Virginia who were sold South between 1790-1860. His current work on “crowdsourcing genealogy” is also very commendable as he has been re-creating family trees based on Information Wanted ads that were placed in newspapers after the Civil War by recently freed enslaved people seeking to locate their relatives.
Ana Edwards, Chair, Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project, for being a kindred spirit who has been speaking truth to power on behalf of all the enslaved people who were sold South out of Shockoe Bottom and their descendants wherever they may be. In words matched with deeds and alongside of Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality, Ana has been on the frontlines in Richmond,VA advocating for the preservation of Shockoe Bottom as an historic site.
Joseph McGill, Founder, The Slave Dwelling Project, for continuously and unflinchingly telling the stories of enslaved people and being the current voice for all those who lived and labored in houses/homes that weren’t built for them. The public outreach and education he has and is providing is a noble act indeed. I am thankful for his friendship.
On Truth Telling….
Within the past few months, two white supremacists marches have taken place in Charlottesville, VA — one where a true truth teller was killed — over the removal of Confederate statues. While the Confederate statue issue and the NFL #TakeAKnee protests have dominated national headlines, the issue of how this country has represented itself comes into view ever more clearly. How can we, as Americans, have a fruitful, productive conversation about race when we can’t even acknowledge the stain that slavery left us with centuries after the fact? Slavery is not a black issue. It is an American issue. At it’s root, the colonization of this country was built on Native American genocide and African chattel slavery. It was a long thought out process that led to the death, rape, and enslavement of people, including my ancestors. It was, by no means, a pretty process as portrayed by those in power then and now. On the contrary, it was a very ugly venture undertaken by those who laid claim to a land already inhabited by millions and who brought in enslaved people of African descent to meet their labor demands. The history of how this nation came into existence is now being contested by those of us who are intent on making sure historical truth matters. And it matters now more than ever.
The obligation that I have to my all my ancestors is to tell the truth. As their descendant, I have the benefit of historical hindsight which provides me with a lens whereby I can tell their true stories — the good, bad, and ugly. If this country is to be made GREAT(ER), then all of our diverse histories need to be told and not just the history of the majority. My Native American ancestors were here from the beginning of time and some of my Atlantic Creole African ancestors arrived at the same time as my European ancestors in the early 1600s. Make no mistake though, most of my ancestors were here before the mass migration of European immigrants arrived in this country starting in the mid-1800s. I am not alone as there are many, many African-Americans with deep colonial roots in this country. We, too, sing America and our ancestors built America — for FREE.
I want to point out that while this blogpost is focused solely on the enslaved Malagasy, who arrived in Virginia in the early 1700s, it details how the institution of slavery made them “African-American” over time and led to their dispersal all over the Deep South.
[For a discussion of the enslaved Malagasy who arrived via the illegal slave trade or came as indentured servants, please consult Wendy Wilson-Fall’s book]. Because of the oral histories passed down by our Malagasy ancestors and now because of the availability of mtDNA/Y-DNA tests, many African- and Euro-Americans have been able to discover their Malagasy roots. I hope this blogpost helps people with Malagasy ancestry to understand how their ancestors arrived in Virginia and then ended up elsewhere. The migration of enslaved Malagasy people can be traced —even without a known Malagasy ancestor — because of the genetic map they left behind in our DNA.
Pre-1700 Tidewater Virginia: We Were Here From the Beginning
The invented history of Europeans being solely responsible for making this country what it was, or came to be, is based on lies. The success of European colonization was built on the subjugation of Native Americans and Africans. Native Americans provided their colonizers with the skills they needed to survive in a land that was “new” to them as they were original occupiers of this country. When Europeans did arrive in the Tidewater region of Virginia in the early 1600s, there were around 14,000 Native Americans — the Powhatan, the Pamunkey, the Chickahominy, the Patawomeck, and the Rappahannock — residing there. Their interactions with these Native Americans resulted in a vicious land grab that ultimately led to Native American genocide within the first 100 years of contact. By 1700, the Native population declined to 1,900 individuals, an 85% decline in population, due to slavery, disease, and non-stop warfare which ended in their deaths, according to Anthony Parent.
The first Africans to arrive in the Tidewater region of Virginia in 1619 were Atlantic Creoles. They were part of the transatlantic exchange of cultures that resulted from the initial contact between Europeans and Africans on the West Coast of Africa, starting in the 15th century , which was transported to the Caribbean and the Americas. Atlantic Creoles had already mastered the languages and cultures of diverse European colonizers, were familiar with their trading ventures, and utilized this knowledge to better their circumstances when they were able. They arrived in VA as both indentured servants and as enslaved persons. Some were freed after their indentured service ended and became property owners. Others were enslaved for life. With the English discovery that this “new” land supported tobacco growing, the rush to settle the colony and profit from it became greater. Between 1619-1697, 13,000-20,000 Africans were brought to VA to begin a lifetime of perpetual servitude. The number of Africans dramatically increased with “blackness” alone becoming associated with slavery. From 1698-1774, 96,000 Africans were imported into the Virginia colony as slaves.
The Europeans — primarily the English, Scots, and Irish — who arrived in Virginia in the early 1600s, were a hodgepodge mix of characters, including sons of elite English gentry, merchants, adventurers, ex-convicts, etc. The Virginia Companydeveloped a “headright” system to encourage immigrants to settle there. Starting in 1617, elite planters who sponsored an indentured servant received 50 acres of land for paying their fare to VA. Indentured servants then had to labor for a period of 7 years under strict terms. These indentured servants saw their service as a means to an end — one in which they became landowners as well. It should also be noted that these indentured servants routinely worked along side of, intermarried and had children with, and ran away with enslaved people and Native Americans.
From the beginning, the elite class of planters controlled the governing branch of the Virginia Company and later the House of Burgesses. This enabled them to exploit the headright system to their advantage which led to the ownership of large tracts of land for themselves and their families. Land speculation soon surfaced and had devastating consequences for those indentured servants who completed their service terms. Faced with not being able to purchase land, they were forced to become tenant farmers or move to frontier areas that were considered dangerous due to Native American incursions. In 1676,Bacon’s Rebellion became the first uprising in VA. It was a rebellion that saw white indentured servants uniting with enslaved Africans against the ruling class in power. In response to the Rebellion and, in recognition that the supply of white indentured servants was drying up, numerous laws were enacted to codify the institution of slavery in Virginia and forever separate the poor from aligning together in the future.
A timeline of laws codifying slavery in Virginia can be found here.
The Importation of Enslaved Malagasy (1719-1721)
Between 1719-1721, there were seven slave ships that arrived in the Tidewater region of Virginia with enslaved Malagasy in their cargo holds. These vessels were the Prince Eugene and the Henrietta, which both sailed twice, the Mercury, the Gascoigne Galley, the and the Rebecca Snow. As I previously noted in my Part II blogpost, the voyage from Madagascar to the East Coast of the US was 4-6 months long and most likely included a stopover on the island of St. Helenato replenish supplies. I can only imagine the horrors that enslaved people went through during this Middle Passage. That they even survived is a miracle in itself as well as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. It’s no wonder that the average mortality rate was as high as 31% on these voyages. Part of the mortality rate was due to the fact that the enslaved were already slaves in Madagascar having been captured by other ethnic groups before being sold. The rest had to do with the despicable, inhumane conditions inherent on any transatlantic slave ship voyage. One of the most harrowing accounts is that of the Gascoigne Galley slave ship that arrived in VA in 1721 from Madagascar with 133 slaves, out of 192 individuals purchased. The slaves on this ship had contracted a disease that caused their eyes to come out of their sockets. There were roughly 1,300 enslaved Malagasy who ended up in Virginia during the 1719-1721 time period.
Please note that there was also an unknown slave ship that arrived in Virginia from Madagascar in 1686 that had 210 Malagasy onboard. This would mean around approximately 1,500 enslaved Malagasy survived the Middle Passage and took up residence in Virginia.
It should also be noted that the Carolinas received an unknown number of enslaved Malagasy as Charleston was settled by planters from Barbados. Enslaved Malagasy were imported into the Carolinas for their rice production skills. By 1700, half of the slaves — roughly 16,500 individuals — in Barbados were of Malagasy descent. Between 1679-1718, there were 27 voyages from Madagascar to Barbados. Likewise, Jamaica also received 2,000 slaves between 1685-1719.
Robert King Carter: My Slave Owner 8th Great-Grandfather and Major Importer and Purchaser of The Enslaved Malagasy in VA (1719-1721)
As Wendy Wilson-Fall discusses in her book Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic,Robert “King” Carter was the major investor in the Madagascar to Virginia Slave Trade as well as the major purchaser of the enslaved Malagasy who arrived in the Tidewater region of Virginia. He also was my slave owner 8th great-grandfather. No one chooses their ancestors and I, in no way, shape, or form, will ever condone his abhorrent behavior as it relates to slavery. I just can’t as long as the blood of people he enslaved still runs through my veins. However, I will tell the truth about his life.
When Robert “King”Carter (1663-1732) died, the inventory of his 40 page will was a testament to his status as “King” of colonial Virginia. His will stated that he owned 300,000 acres of land, 57 plantations and quarters, around 800 slaves (click here for a list of names of the enslaved) and £10,000 of cash. He added a codicil in his will that forever linked the enslaved and their descendants to a particular plantation or quarter. An enslaved person could be relocated to a different plantation if a Carter daughter inherited those slaves as part of her dowry and they would become part of husband’s property. Of course, enslaved people could be sold at any time.
Over the course of his lifetime, Robert “King” Carter amassed great wealth from the tobacco trade and other businesses which led him to become one of the wealthiest men in Virginia. He also was very much a part of the elite ruling class and served in the House of Burgesses for years. His sons followed in their father’s footsteps and later maintained the family’s wealth and political dynasty for generations. One of the ways he increased his family’s wealth was to form alliances, via the marriages of his sons and daughters, to other“First Families of Virginia.” The Byrd, Burwell, Randolph, Armistead, Page, Fitzhugh, Harrison, Braxton, Wormeley, Mann, and Berkeley families, among others, were all affiliate families to the Carters. His extended family and businesses were completely intertwined. Wealth begat wealth.
While Robert “King” Carter was certainly a man of great wealth, that wealth came at the expense of my enslaved ancestors and others. In order to harness this free labor force, Carter employed several methods to exert his control. One of the ways was for him to strip these saltwater Africans of their ethnic/tribal identity by giving them English first names only. He also separated members of the same ethnic group into different quarters where they could not communicate with each other. Within a generation or two, we can easily see how enslaved Africans became “African-American” as they began to lose knowledge of their own African cultures though not entirely.
Robert “King” Carter also used violence to manage his enslaved population. Whippings, beatings, and the killing of the enslaved were routine during slavery. The Carter Papers provide us with a goldmine of information in HIS words. In these papers, we learn about a runaway slave named Madagascar Jack — whose name clearly reflected his Malagasy roots — who on August 22,1722 was returned to Robert “King” Carter as a runaway slave. Carter then sought permission to have him mutilated in order to cure him of his runaway habits. Despite having his toes amputated, Madagascar Jack apparently continued to runaway. Five years later, on October 10, 1727, Carter wrote about how he didn’t want Madagascar Jack to go to his new Corotoman Plantationthoughmany other enslaved people ended up at there. In one letter, Carter also mentioned mutilating another slave named Ballazore. Back in1710, he mutilated Bambara Harry and Dinah. These mutilations were a form of torture that my 8th slave owner great-grandfather boasted of “having cured many a negro of running away by this means.” I can’t help to wonder if any of my Malagasy-descended ancestors were the subjects and victims his abuse.
Most of the enslaved Malagasy that Robert “King” Carter purchased in the early 1700s were women and children. These women would have been coerced into mating with men of West African or European descent when they first arrived —most likely not of their own choosing considering they had no control over their fates or bodies. The formation of somewhat more stable families would only come later. Such was the nature of slavery. The children born from these enslaved Malagasy women would have been first generation ”African-Americans.” As you will see from the admixture charts later, African-Americans are truly a diaspora population. But, some of these children would have also “passed” as Euro-American with their African-American and Malagasy roots being totally obscured.
I want to add here that Robert “King” Carter did have a grandson, Robert Carter III (my 1st cousin 8XR), who became known as “The Great Emancipator.” In 1791, Robert III signed a Deed of Giftthat led to the emancipation of 500-600 enslaved people over the course of 30 years. This was one of the largest number of enslaved people being emancipated prior to the Civil War. Nomini Hallis the plantation that he inherited from his grandfather and where his enslaved people labored. Robert III was clearly influenced by his Baptist religion. He was one of many slave owners who began to question slavery and start to embrace abolitionism. John Pleasants III, a Quaker, also emancipated his slaves in his will. When his son, Robert Pleasants started to execute his wishes after his death, other family members sued him to prevent these emancipations from going forward. He was successful in court and went on to free hundreds of enslaved people. He then hired his formerly enslaved back as paid laborers and provided schooling for them. Robert went on to become an ardent abolitionist. Curles Neck Plantation, which was owned by the Pleasants, was only 8 miles from Shirley Plantation and the Pleasants no doubt owned enslaved Malagasy and their descendants.
My Family’s DNA Trail From Madagascar to VA
I have five colonial lines that can be traced to Virginia on my maternal African-American side. One line is from my 3rd great-grandmother Mary Johnson, on my maternal grandfather’s side, from Greenwich, CT who was born in VA in the early 1800s. She somehow ended up in CT, but we have no idea where in VA she was born. My maternal 2nd great-grandparents on my grandfather’s maternal side, William H. Jackson and Katherine Davis Jackson, were born in VA, but they moved to Newark, NJ sometime by 1880. My Jackson/Davis/Thomas/Brookins line was from Charlottesville, Fork Union (Fluvanna County) Fredericksburg, Lynchburg, Waynesboro, and Farmville, VA. On my maternal grandmother’s side, my great-grandmother’s Lee/Carter/Mitchell line was from Charles City, Petersburg, Richmond, and Dinwiddie County, VA. My 2nd great-grandfather, James D. Mitchell, moved to Boston, MA after the Civil War and married a first generation Irish-American woman named Julia Lennihan. It is his maternal line that was of Malagasy descent. I have every reason to suspect that some of my grandfather’s VA ancestors also included people who had Malagasy roots as we shall see.
On my Lee/Carter/Mitchell line, we have oral history that was passed down indicating that my 3rd great-grandmother, Crittie Anna Lee, was born on Shirley Plantation and that she was the daughter of Charles Carter Lee, an older brother of Gen. Robert E. Lee, and an enslaved woman named Ann Perkins. She was married to Mortimer Mitchell, another mulatto. We had a male Mitchell tested amd hie has a Euro Y-DNA.We don’t know much about how she met Mortimer or where he came from. His background may have been similar to hers. Our Mitchell ancestors found their way to Union troops where Crittie and Mortimer worked as a nurse and cook until the end of the war. After the Civil War, they resided in Namozine, Dinwiddie County, VA until their deaths. They were farmers who owned their property. Five of their children ended up moving to MA, PA, and NY by the late 1800s.
We were told that Crittie was Black and Native American on her mother’s side. This was quite plausible since African-Americans with colonial roots in Virginia were known to have intermarried with Native Americans in the area. Her son James was also referred to as “The Old Indian” in the Stoughton, MA where he owned a farm and a store in the early 1900s. My aunt Helen also told me of how many people thought that James’s son, my Uncle Bill, was of Asian descent as well (see photo below).
In her book, Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic, Wendy Wilson-Fall points out that the oral history of Malagasy descendants often includes mention of their phenotype. The physical descriptions of enslaved Malagasy includes references to their yellow skin, hair, and eyes. Because Madagascar was settled by people from East Africa and Southeast Asia, their phenotype was probably similar to those enslaved people who were of African and Native American descent. Again, Native Americans and Africans were slaves who labored together in the early years of colonization. Generations after the first Malagasy arrived in VA, some of their descendants may have forgotten their family origins and chose to remember what their ancestors looked like. Hence, many people may have oral history of ancestors being Black and Native American when they were in fact of Malagasy descent or, more likely, were of West African, Malagasy and Native American descent like my family.
Returning to Crittie’s death certificate, her age at the time of her death was 69 years old. However, on US Census records from 1870-1910, her birth year ranges from 1825 to 1846 so it is hard to confirm her exact age. Reber Dunkel, retired professor of Randolph-Macon College, has been helping me locate Crittie and her mother at Shirley Plantation. He believes her first name is unique and uncommon for the time so it may have been a first name that was passed down. In his research, he has found 2 Critties listed as slaves at Shirley Plantation’s sister plantation, Hickory Hill in Hanover County. Ann Butler Carter (my 1st cousin 6XR), daughter of Robert Hill Carter, received 1717 acres of land and 70 slaves from Shirley Plantation from her father, a brother of my 5th great-grandmother Anne Hill Carter, as a dowry when she married William Fanning Wickham. Her sister, Lucy Carter (also my 1st cousin 6XR), received a similar dowry when she married William’s brother, Edmund Fanning Wickham. It has been documented that the first enslaved people employed at Hickory Hill came from Shirely Plantation. It is quite possible that my Crittie may have descended from one of these two Critties. Likewise, Reber is also exploring the possibility of an ancestral link with the Hickory Hill Critties and Critta —Crittie is the diminutive form of the name —Hemings, sister of Sally Hemings. John Wayles, their father, owned The Forest plantation which was located in Charles City County where Shirley Plantation is located. I’m still searching for more info on Crittie, Ann Perkins, and her Perkins slave owners. I expect to take more trips to Virginia to do more family research.
What we do know about Crittie is that her line connects to known Malagasy descendants like the Raglands, Dickersons, Parhams, Carters, Lees, etc. via our DNA cousins. Given the fact that Robert “King” Carter tied his enslaved people to the properties where they were born, coupled with him being the major purchaser/importer of enslaved Malagsy, and our oral history as well, we can assume that her matrilineal line may be a Malagasy one. Crittie has an elderly great-granddaughter in NYC, who also has a daughter, that we can administer a Full Sequence mtDNA test to confirm definitively. We are tracking them down now to test as I write this blog post.
The major goal of FTDNA’s Malagasy Roots Project is to identify people who have Full Sequence mtDNA or Y-DNA haplogroups that are found in Madagascar and connect them to their cousins who are of Malagasy descent. These particular DNA tests offer the most conclusive evidence of Malagasy ancestry. That being said, there are indicatorsof Malagasy ancestry that can be found by looking at autosomal DNA test results in combination with local history, Malagasy entry points into the US, oral history, etc. I want to be very clear that admixture tests alone are NOT an indicator of Malagasy ancestry. There needs to be more corroborative proof. My fellow blogger Melvin Collierdocuments his discovery of his Malagasy roots in his blogpostdoing exactly what I have always recommended. Through his analysis of his family’s autosomal results, he has been able to confirm his Malagasy roots and connect with a Malagasy DNA cousin.
Detecting Indicators of Malagasy Ancestry Using AncestryDNA
Fonte Felipe, a fellow blogger, has graciously shared some of the data he has been analyzing related to Malagasy people who have DNA-tested at AncestryDNA. He has documented the country backgrounds of Malagasy descended individuals. It is striking to note that most Malagasy-descended people who have tested at AncestryDNA are African-American and/or of West Indian descent followed by people of Euopean descent from the United States and Europe and the Spanish Caribbean. This is a testament to just how large the Madagascar Slave Trade to the Caribbean and the Americas was in the late 1600s to early 1700s.
For the past few years, I have been analyzing how Malagasy ancestry manifests itself across all DNA testing companies. Using my family’s M23 haplogroup — which is only found in Madagascar — as a control group, I have been documenting the geographical regions that may be indicative of Malagsy roots. On AncestryDNA, we definitely see a combination of East/South/Central Africa geographical areas along with an Asian component which isn’t surprising since Madagascar was settled by people from SE Asia and East Africa. Regarding the African geographical areas, one of the things Fonte noted is that, in addition to SE Bantu as a region, one also sees that the Cameroon/Congo region is also somewhat high. The Cameroon/Congo admixture may be coming from Mozambique. This no doubt reflects how the Bantu Expansion spread from West to East Africa. Please note that the West African trace regions found in today’s Malagasy would not be the same trace regions as our Malagasy ancestors who arrived in the United States centuries ago though.
Fonte also shared three Malagasy AncestryDNA ethnic admixture profiles with me. In the first chart, this Malagasy individual is probably Merina from the Highlands because of the higher percentage of Asian admixture. Fonte didn’t have much info on the 2nd Malagasy profile other than that person was from Southwest Madagascar from the Atsimo-Andrefana region, but you can see how this person has more East African admixture than Asian admixture.
Fonte has had the most contact with the 3rd Malagasy profile. This Malagasy person had a Makua ancestor from Mozambique. He is from Northeast Madagascar and is also part Antankarana and Antaimoro.
In general, looking at these three profiles, we can gather that the African components include SE African Bantu and Cameroon/Congo. I did notice that in Malagasy-descended African Americans, we also see South-Central Hunters and Gatherers. This designation may have to do with where enslaved Malagasy originated from centuries ago which is why we don’t see it in these present day Malagasy profiles. The Asian component could be any combination of Asia East, Asia South, Asia Central, and/or Pacific Islander (Polynesia and Melanesia).
Here are three profiles representing my family. My cousin Mildred is a direct matrilineal descendant of our shared 2nd great-grandmother, Laura Thompson who had the M23 haplogroup. Helen is my maternal aunt and reflects our two Malagasy lines from NY (Thompson/Pickett/Snyder) and VA (Lee/Carter/Mitchell line). Our cousin Barbara is on our Jackson/Davis/Thomas/Brookins line. As a point of clarification, any of the geographical regions included as main regions may reflect recent ancestry coming from other ancestors from those regions as well. Most of the Malagasy indicators would be found in “Low Confidence Regions” as this would reflect ancestry from those areas centuries ago. For a more detailed discussion of Malagasy admixture, please refer to my Part I blog post which can be found here.
My cousin Mildred has a DNA match whose family is from Edgecombe County, NC and has an ancestor from Madagascar.
Here are 2 of my Mitchell 2nd cousins 1XR. We share the same 2nd great-grandfather, James D. Mitchell. They would be my aunt Helen’s 2nd cousins. Their grandfather was my great-grandmother’s brother, James W. Mitchell.
Please note that the profile below is of my 3rd cousin 1XR. Cyntania is a descendant of my 2nd great-grandfather’s brother George Mitchell. Notice how Cyntania admixture profile doesn’t show any Asian component. DNA is randomly inherited so this should not be a surprise. She is a perfect example of why it is best to test multiple people within a family. She is a direct descendant of our Crittie, but apparently she didn’t inherit her Asian DNA, according to AncestryDNA, and neither did I as a matter of fact though it does show up on my other DNA admixture tests.
Though I have five colonial lines that begin and end in Virginia, my family never had any oral or written history that documented our ancestors in the Deep South. After taking several DNA tests, I now am acutely aware of the fact that I have VA ancestors who were sold South out of Richmond, VA. With their permission given, here are a few DNA cousins I match whose AncestryDNA admixture charts, surnames, and locations match my Virginia Malagasy-descended ancestors and other VA DNA cousins.
Here are some of the DNA Malagasy-descended cousin matches that my aunt Helen and I have that reflect surnames on our family tree either via VA slave owners or their slaves of Malagasy descent who were sold South out of Richmond, VA.
Surnames of Malagasy Descendants
Here is a list of surnames that are found among both my VA and NY Malagasy-descended ancestors AND NY and VA slave owner ancestors who purchased the enslaved Malagasy who arrived in NY and VA in between 1664-1698 and 1719-1721. Some of these surnames are found in both states. I have also added the surnames that Wendy-Wilson Fall compiled on her Ancestry.com Rootsweb page back in 2003. Click here to see her original list.
Please note that Wendy Wilson-Fall has started a Mapping Memories of Madagascar site where she seeks to document both enslaved and free Malagasy-descended individuals. Please click on the red hyperlink above to add your ancestor’s name to her interactive map.
Ragland and Dickerson Connections: It’s a Small Colonial World After All
I want to mention the Ragland family in colonial VA as this family routinely purchased slaves of Malagasy descent. On our Carter and Lee side, my family is related to Evan Ragland, the “immigrant,” who arrived in VA from Somerset, England in the mid-1600s. The Raglands were of English and Welsh descent. Evan was 14 years old when he was kidnapped, along with John Davis, from Somerset and shipped out of Bristol, England to labor as an indentured servant for Stephen Pettus in colonial Virginia. He then married Stephen’s daughter Susana after his term expired and went on to inherit land. He also owned an unknown number of enslaved people. Evan’s personal history was indeed the stuff that indentured servants dreamed of when they arrived in this country.
Charles Ragland, a descendant of Evan, wrote a book where he estimated that between “1640 and 1680 up to 100,000 children may have been kidnapped in Britain and sold to the highest bidders in America.” As indenture servitude began to decline after the 1660s, abduction became a common practice. Ragland states, that “such protests (and increased interest in voluntary emigration) had brought the practice to an end around 1679, in which year a captain was hung for kidnapping an eleven year old boy.”
All Euro-descended Raglands in the US are related to Evan Ragland. Their extended family spread out from VA and ended up in West Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, and Pennsylvania throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. They took their enslaved people with them as they moved out of VA and purchased more enslaved people as they built their wealth off of the backs of the enslaved. The dispersal of these white planters and their slaves went hand in hand with Native Americans being subjected to both physical relocation to other parts of the country as well as policies that can be considered genocidal.
African-American Raglands are descendants of children fathered by Ragland men and Malagasy/West African/Native American women and those unrelated enslaved people who took their surname before and after they were emancipated. The Raglands lived in the same locations as my Carter ancestors — Charles City, Richmond, Spotslyvania, New Kent County, Dinwiddie County, Prince George County and other VA locations. The two families also intermarried. It should come as no surprise that my family shares a genetic tie with both Euro- and African-American Raglands who descend from the early Malagasy people, who were bought and sold, in Tidewater region of Virginia.
Although Jill Ragland has the Ragland surname, her mother Janine is the one we are related to via a distant Malagasy ancestor though her dad may also be a Malagasy descedant. They are part of the Malagasy Roots Project and her mtDNA haplogroup is F3b1 which is one of the Malagasy haplogroups that is found in Asia and Madagascar. Though for some reason they didn’t show up on her main AncestryDNA page, Janine also has Asia South and Asia Central admixture on the AncestryDNA phone app. Janine’s maternal Malagasy F3b1 ancestors probably arrived in Georgia from Virginia. It looks like her connection to my family is because of ancestor who was sold South.
It should be pointed out that the Ragland Plantation in Petersburg is now a Bed & Breakfast. The website is geared towards promoting the aesthetics of the place. However, there is a history of the Ragland Plantation on the site that mentions both Reuben and John Davis Raglands’ active involvement in the domestic slave trade out of Richmond as slave traders, bankers, and as part of the insurance industry that oiled the engines of slavery. It also appears that John Davis dropped his Ragland surname when he was a slave trader which was a great way to disguise his hideous complicity in the slave trade for future generations.
There was another Ragland descendant who owned Sylvie, a woman of Malagasy-descent, whom he later freed in his will along with their children and his other enslaved people. His name was William Ragland, Jr. (1780-1849) from Louisa County, VA who was a descendant of Evan Ragland via William, Sr. > Samuel> John > Evan. He died at the age of 69 of typhoid fever in 1849. Sylvia/Sylvie was 40 years younger than William. This type of situation was common among some slave owners and their relationship reminds us of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. From the newspaper below, we learn that in addition to emancipating his enslaved people, William had set aside $20,000 (which would be $617,000 in 2017) when he died and instructed his executers to buy land in Pike and Jackson Counties in Ohio. The executers related how they bought land and settled almost 100 formerly enslaved people between 1855-1860.
In the book Free Blacks of Louisa County Virginia, it’s worth noting that William Ragland, not only emancipated Slyvia/Sylvie and their children (Lousia, Martha, Lucy, Ellen, Betsy, Sylvia/Sylvie, Jr., William, Jr, and Samuel), but may have also emancipated her sisters, Mary (mother of Thomas, Margaret, Henry, David, William, Nathan, and Franklin) and Esther (mother of Nathaniel, John, Catherine, George, Polly, and Sally) and their children. Sylvia/Sylvie, Mary, and Esther were 34, 37, and 42 years old when they were granted their freedom. There was a 70-year old woman named Judith Ragland who may have been their mother or aunt. It seems like William Ragland was another slave owner, like Thomas Jefferson, who kept his very enslaved family close to him. I am certain that these African-American of Malagasy descent women exercised their own agency as they recognized the privilege they had relative to other enslaved people.
Another William James Ragland (1810-1876) who was a cousin of the William above and also a descendant of Evan Ragland via Fendall> Pettus> John > Evan, listed Mary Agnes Meriwearther (1829-1892) as a “friend” in his will and left his entire estate to her and his “natural” and “confirmed heirs” — Nannie James Meriweather, Mary Adeline Meriweather, James Edward Meriwearher and John Meirweather. In the 1880 census, Mary Agnes is listed as a widow and is living with her son Harry who is 14 years old. It’s uncertain if John’s middle name was Harry or if this is a son by a different father. We know very little about Mary Agnes and nothing about how she felt about her life other than what she wanted recorded on her tombstone for all to see. She simply stated “I fought the good fight.” Only she knew what that meant and the rest of us are left to wonder what she meant. Mary Agnes is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Richmond, VA alongside of many well-known African-Americans.
Another colonial family that had ties with both the Carters and the Raglands was the Dickerson family whose ancestors resided all over colonial Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, DC. They then moved to other states as the United States expanded South and West as they cleared the land of Native Americans. Griffin Dickerson/Dickinson/Dickenson, the “immigrant,” arrived in Virginia in the early-1600s. The spelling of their surname changed over time and is found in the historical records spelled as Dickerson, Dickinson, and Dickenson. Like the Carters and Raglands, the Dickersons accumulated their wealth initially due to the tobacco industry that was predicated on slave labor. They also lived in the same exact areas as the Carters and Raglands and no doubt procured their slaves from the same sources as those two families. [As an aside, one of Robert Carter III’s 300-acre property in Richmond County was named Dickersons Mill].The Dickersons certainly received a share of the enslaved Malagasy who arrived in the early 1700s as well as their descendants over time.
My family is related to both Euro- and African-American Dickersons. I have several Malagasy-descended DNA Dickerson cousins. One of whom is Eugene Dickerson. His Dickerson ancestors were from Spotsylvania County, VA, a location that matches one of Robert “King” Carter’s plantations. It appears that there was a Hugh Mercer Dickinson. (1811-1888) in Spotsylvania who was a slave owner with 26 enslaved people documented in the 1850 and 1860 census records. There was also an Elisha Dickinson who was a slave owner in 1783 in Spotsylvania with 11 slaves. More research needs to be done to see if this family was the slave owners of Eugene’s ancestors. Eugene and my family also have other DNA cousins in common like Shirese Louie and her siblings. By the way, in following Hugh Mercer Dickinson’s tree, I noticed his grandmother was a Quarles— a surname that Shirese also has in her tree.
Eugene also has a grandfather, Thomas Frazier Dickerson (1872-1992), who married Hallie Sandidge (1892-1934). Hallie’s side has 2 other Malagasy-descendant surnames, Scott and Jones. The white Sandidge family, another early colonial family, are found in New Kent, Lousia, Spotslyvania, and Amherst counties which again are where the Carters, Raglands, and Dickersons lived. There are records in the book Free Blacks of Louisa County Virginia which contains the names of several Sandidge enslaved people who were emanicpated in Richard Sandidge’s will.
Eugene and his family were unaware of their Malagasy ancestry. I truly hope that I have provided them with some clues to further investigate their Dickerson-Sandidge line. With the help of other DNA cousins, they may be able to find even more info. The next step for them should definitely be Full Sequence mtDNA and Y-DNA tests.
Another interesting Dickerson/Dickinson/Dickenson tidbit is Richard Henry Dickinson whose ancestors are probably related to Griffin Dickerson/Dickinson/Dickenson as well. R.H. Dickinson was one of the major slave traders in Richmond from 1840 up until the Civil War. He operated under the slave trading firms of Dickinson and Brothers and as Dickinson, Hill & Co. Between 1846-1849, he sold 2000 enslaved Virginians South annually. In 1857, his firm earned $2 Million in slave sales. Click here for a timeline of R.H. Dickinson’s slave trading years. I also found an ad that was placed in a Richmond newspaper where Dickerson was selling the slaves owned by John Wickham (my 2nd cousin 5XR), the son of Anne Butler (Carter) Wickham and William Fanning Wickham of Hickory Hill Plantation. That William Fanning Wickam used R.H. Dickerson’s slave trading firm attests to family ties that spanned generations. In the auction, 130 enslaved people were sold — some of whom may have been my ancestors as his mother was a Carter from Shirley Plantation. John was only 25 years old when he passed away and already was a man of wealth.
Richmond: The Epicenter of the Domestic Slave Trade (1790-1860)
A discussion of Richmond being an epicenter of the domestic slave trade, behind New Orleans, is essential if we are to understand the migration of African- and Euro-Americans with Malagasy roots to parts of the Deep South. After the African slave trade ended in 1808 in the wake of the Haitian Revolution, we see that the growth of the domestic slave trade coincided with the genocide and displacement of Native Americans from their lands and the rise of cotton and sugar plantations in the South and Southwest. Virginia was a tobacco growing state and, as the land became overworked and degraded over the years, the planter class looked for ways to harness and unload their surplus enslaved labor. They did this by first migrating to, and settling in areas, that had been cleared of Native Americans in the South and Southwest and they took their enslaved people with them. These VA planters also unloaded their surplus enslaved labor by selling these people South out of Richmond. As the cotton and sugar trade grew, the planter class were joined by others seeking to enrich their station in life by buying and trading enslaved people. The accumulative wealth of European-Americans in this country was built on the enslavement of millions of people of African descent.
From 1790-1860, as Phillip Troutman in his Virginia Slave Trade blog makes abundantly clear, 45% of enslaved people sold South came from Virginia. According to Michael Tadman, an estimated 350,000 enslaved Virginians were sold South out of Richmond from 1820-1860. That number is probably a lot higher as we will never know how many enslaved people were sold between 1790-1820 or how many free Blacks were kidnapped and sold South as well. I should also add here that, in 1850s, there were a quarter of a million mixed race slave children in Virginia. This means that slave owners were making and selling their own children for profit, according to David W. Blight.
Slavery was never designed to promote Black family reunification. On the contrary, it was an institution that was hellbent on destroying the ties that bind. When considering the impact of the domestic slave trade on African-Americans, whose ancestors were from Virginia, we need to be aware that most of the enslaved who were sold were between the ages of 15-25 years of age. However, according to the historian Steven Deyle, two-fifths of antebellum slaves were younger than 15 and one-third were younger than 10 years old. The youngest of enslaved victims may not have known who their parents were having been taken from them at a very young age, housed in slave pens, sold a couple of times before ending up at auction houses before being transported South. Even with DNA testing, while we may locate some of our DNA cousins who are the descendants of our VA ancestors, there will be many more ancestors who will remain lost to us forever. Slavery caused a major disruption in our family trees and family history. Tears.
I Like My History Black…Hold The Sugar: Historical Trauma and The Sanitization of Slavery
I was blessed to have the opportunity to speak at a symposium on “Universities, Slavery, Public Memory & The Built Environment” at the University of Virginia-Charlottesville this past October 18th-20th and I sat on a panel on “Cemeteries, Slavery, and History.” Over the course of 3 days, panel after panel was devoted to serving up history that was the blackest EVER. The true history of how this country was founded; how slavery was experienced by people of African descent, how certain individuals and institutions profited off of Black bodies before and after death; the role that universities played in propagating slavery and the corrections being made now to rectify the mistakes of the past; the current state of Black cemeteries and the need to preserve them; the current excavations of slave sites at plantations today; and the on-going incorporation of the voices of the descendants of slaves at plantations, among other topics, were discussed at length. The history at this conference was100% SUGAR-FREE! The “sugar” that was left out can be compared to all the myth-making, lies, and omissions that have been left out of the historical record in order to make slavery more palatable to the masses. At the conference, I was among kindred spirits who are promoting a corrected, more inclusive view of history. One that, I strongly believe, can heal this country in time. A history built on lies is just that as it obscures truth; whereas a history that is based on truth — one that embraces our diverse histories — allows us to have an honest discussion about how we can learn from this country’s past. It was only appropriate that I wore Joseph McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project fundraising t-shirt “I like my history black…hold the sugar” because it spoke to me. I like my history, in its truest state, with NO added sugar.
DISCLAIMER: I’ve debated for months now on how to handle this section of my blog because it is all bitterness that is based on truth. I have decided not to go into great detail as it may trigger people, but have included articles and books in my reference section for people to read more info on their own, if they choose to do so.
When we consider the legacy that slavery left that is still with us today, it should come as no surprise then that African-Americans suffer from historic trauma. Historic trauma is a term that refers to the collective emotional and psychological wounding of an individual or group of people caused by traumatic past experiences or events. As descendants of enslaved people, African-Americans suffered repeated personal traumas due to slavery for centuries. Some of those personal traumas included physical abuse, torture, slave killings via dismemberments, burnings, lynchings, mutilation, male and female rape, incest (slaveowner/sons and daughter), male and female forced slave breeding, family separations, etc. This country has done a very good job at minimizing and whitewashing it’s history when it comes to people of color. Why? Because the ugly truth hurts and the coffee is bitter beyond belief. Acknowledging and reconciling our shared historical truths is a necessary act that has the potential to heal this diabetic nation. Too much historical sugar is very bad for you.
This historical trauma is still with us and can be seen in Malagasy-descended African-Americans today. I think about my friend Michael Twitty, who just came out with his book, The Cooking Gene. In the book, he recounts how his 3rd great-grandparents, Jack and Arrye Todd, and their children were separated and sold South out of Shockoe Bottom via Lumpkin’s Jail, the Devil’s Half Acre, one of the worst slave jails in Richmond. Arrye was of Malagasy descent and the Todd family — whom I descend from on my Carter side — mostly likely acquired Malagasy enslaved people as the Todds owned plantations in Gloucester County, which is near the York River, and were in-laws to my Carter ancestors. That Michael carries intimate knowledge of his ancestor’s forced separation because he is a family historian with VA roots, shows exactly how some of us still carry the burden of our ancestor’s lived experiences with us every day. That Michael’s middle name “William” is a tribute to his 3rd great-grandfather’s younger brother who was sold South is another testament to the ties that bind us to our ancestors. I attended one of Michael’s talks where he was asked if he ever considered changing his name to an African one since he now knew one of his West African lineage names. His response was that, although he didn’t really like his first or last name, his middle name “William” was handed down for generations to family members as a way of remembering one who was lost to slavery. This is a perfect example of how our oral history reflects a proven historical truth. In case you are wondering, I proudly claim Michael as a distant Todd cousin.
Another person I claim as a cousin on my Lee/Carter/Mitchell side is my friend Sam Lemon. He wrote a book, Go Stand Upon This Rock, a novel about his 2nd great-grandparents who escaped from Virginia, at different times, as runaway slaves. His book is based on the oral history that was handed down to him. Sam’s family history is one of victorius survival. I call it that because it is filled with enough bitter coffee that you can drown in it. Yet, his 2nd great-grandparents were able to survive slavery — if you can even call it that— and go on to produce descendants who excelled beyond anything they could have imagined. We must remember that, as descendants of enslaved people, we ARE our ancestors’ hopes and dreams….or at least we should be.
Sam’s Malagasy ancestors were from the Tidewater region of Virginia, including Hanover, Sussex, Surry, and Southampton counties. Some of these counties are close to Dinwiddie County where my Lee/Carter/Mitchell ancestors were located. Among his many surnames, two are definitely associated with Malagasy ancestry. They are Byrd (in-laws to my Carter ancestors) and Parham (who married into my Mitchell line). He is also genetically related to Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings descendants as I am, but via a Bowles ancestor. Critta Hemings married Zachariah Bowles. Sam’s paternal grandmother was Annie Byrd Mickens, whose mother was Ella Bowles (1854-1936) from Hanover County, VA and she lived in the same location as Zaxhariah in 1820. In addition, Sam also has admixture indicators of Malagasy ancestry. I feel pretty confident that one or both of his 2nd great-grandparents had Malagasy ancestry.
Below is a Facebook correspondence I had with Sam about his 2nd great-grandmother, Martha Jane Parham. Tears, tears….
Martha Jane Parham was ”a slave breeding” woman. That description of her is way too sugary sweet for me. She was an enslaved, repeated rape/gang rape victim for a decade between the ages of 14-24 years old. Her lived experience was a crime against humanity. It is no wonder she never spoke about it for speaking about it would have certainly caused her to relive such horrific experiences over and over again. I completely understand that. Her experience was a traumatic one that occurred in her formative years. Her silence was an act of self-preservation — a necessary act of erasure in itself. For her, it was better to concentrate on the future. Martha Jane was probably like other formerly enslaved people whose experiences during slavery were so hellish beyond belief that they made a conscious decision to try to forget the past. As slave descendants this means that we have two levels of historic erasure to deal,with when researching our ancestors. On a macro-level, we have to deal with the historical erasure that this country has in general about slavery as well as, on a micro-level, the historical erasure that formerly enslaved ancestors employed to save and preserve their very souls. We can call this survival skill simply “soul preservation” which is similar to Daina Ramey Berry’s emphasis on the “soul value” that enslaved people placed on their own lives.
Martha Jane Parham married Cornelius Ridley in Virginia. Cornelius was the mulatto son of his slave owner, Col. Thomas Ridley, III (1809-1875) and an unknown enslaved woman. Thomas Ridley, III was one of the wealthiest men in Southampton, VA and owned Bonnie Doon Plantation (also known as “Jerusalem”). The Ridleys also owned the Buckhorn Quarters. [As an aside, I was able to recently tell Sam that, on Thomas Ridley, III ‘s maternal Wright side, he is related to George Washington.] Cornelius and his sister Rosa were raised in Thomas’s household and were house slaves as so many children of slave owners were.
According to Sam, Cornelius met Martha Jane, who was enslaved at the neighboring Fortsville Plantation and was owned by John Y. Mason. Cornelius married her knowing that her primary job was to be forced mated with other enslaved men to produce children that would add to her slave master’s cumulative wealth and those children could be sold away at anytime. I can only imagine how much pain that brought him just knowing what Martha Jane had to endure. In the early 1860s, because he could pass for white with his very fair skin, red hair and green eyes, he walked away and ended up with Quakers who shepherded to freedom in Media, PA. Martha Jane, with the help of the United States Colored Troops and Quakers as well, was reunited with him after she escaped from Virginia during the Civil War. However, Rosa’s fate was very different. More tears..
In looking into Cornelius’s family history, we learn that he had an older sister who was approximately 11-13 years older than him. He called her Rosa, but census records document her name as Mary Ridley. It is quite possible that her name was Mary Rose/Rosa Ridley. The oral history that was passed down to Sam and his family was that she was sold South never to be heard from again. A slave manifest lists her age as being 18 years old, born around 1826, and her skin was the color of “copper.” When she was sold, Cornelius would have been around the age of 12-13 years old. Surely, the loss of his older sister was seared in his memory at that age. Rosa may have been the closest person he had to a mother. Just looking at Mary Rose/Rosa’s full name among a list of other enslaved Virginians should break your heart. These were people who were separared from their own flesh and blood probably forever. They would now be known by their first name only —their prior identities submerged.
Cornelius’s Rosa was sold to George Apperson, a Richmond slave trader who also owned a slave jail across the street from Lumpkin’s jail. Apperson sent 308 people South to New Orleans between 1844-1847. His New Orleans slave trading partner was none other than Solomon Northrop’s slave trader/owner, Theophilus Freeman, who was considered one of the most violent slave traders. Starting in the 1840s, Apperson and Freedman sent VA enslaved people South by ship rather than overland chained together in coffles. Apperson advertised his trips in VA newspapers thus guaranteeing a scheduled time whereby those interested in buying enslaved people could plan their trips. These ships would sometimes make port calls in Charleston, the Lower Mississippi (Natchez), and finally New Orleans. Enslaved people would have been destined for the cotton fields of the Deep South or Lousiana sugar plantations.
Sam’s family never knew what happened to their Rosa after she was sold. Again, part of the generational historic trauma we suffer as descendants of enslaved people is not knowing what happened to the people we loved and lost due to slavery. If Rosa looked like Cornelius, she may have been sold South as “a fancy girl” which is to say sold to become a perpetual sex slave/rape victim. Fancy girls commanded very high prices. They were sold to the highest bidder to become sex slaves shared among slave traders themselves, forced into concubine arragements by sexual intimidation, or to become prostitutes in brothels. Many of these women appeared white in color which afforded those who bought them the right to live out sexual fantasies in ways that white women couldn’t because of cultural norms. There were cases when such “fancy girls” litigated their “whiteness” in court as a way to earn their freedom which I consider a form of resistance. It is a bit ironic that slave traders, who found people of African descent sub-human, would routinely engage in long-term relationships with “fancy girls,” have children with them, educate their children in the North, and emancipate them. A lot of those children later passed as white. Sam doesn’t know what happened to Rosa and it is this intergenerational grief that has kept him and his family in a state of mourning until today.
As a descendent of Crittie and her mother Ann, I pray for the day when I can learn more about them and the lives they lived. I only know what our oral history tells us. It’s only a very brief overview that was handed down in our family. I still want basic questions answered about them like did Crittie have siblings, did she have maternal grandparents, and where did Ann get her surname from, for example. Like many African-Americans, I live wiith the full knowledge that I have ancestors who will be forever unknown to me. Tears…But, I will always keep hope alive that someday, if I keep looking, I might just find something new about them. Hope is one thing I KNOW my ancestors had. You see, they hoped their descendants would do better than they did and we did.
As a descendant of slave owners whose lives were documented in prime time and whose words can be found in Carter Papers at various libraries and archives, I know more about them than I do about my own African-American Malagasy-descended VA ancestors. I struggle with acknowledging my slave owner roots simply because of the traumatic baggage this knowledge brings. I am the descendant of slave owners who became quite accomplished by benefiting from that evil institution called slavery. As part of the ruling planter class throughout the 17th-19th centuries, they were the architects of what the Virginia slave system came to be. It has taken me years to even put them on my family tree. Crittie knew who both her parents were. The oral history she passed down told us the story of how she came into being. She was a product of a slave rape. Because of that, I can’t drop the qualifier “slave owner” before naming my Carter-Lee ancestors. I’ve cried tears knowing that my 8th slave owner great-grandfather, Robert “King” Carter, took pleasure in mutilating, punishing his slaves, and stripping them of their original names; I was rendered silent when reading the words of my slave owner 8th great-uncle, Landon Carter, who portrayed himself as a “benevolent slave owner” while deeming his enslaved people —runaways — as ungrateful though he whipped, brutally punished, and sold their family members; and I was rendered utterly speechless when reading about how my slave owner 2nd cousin 7XR cousin, George Carter, who routinely purchased 13-15 year old virgins at slave auctions, wrote back to his sister Sophia that his business was between him and his God after she chastised him for his behavior.
Being the descendant of slave owners, like the Carters and the Lees, is mentally and emotionally burdensome. I have to remind myself often that they were products of their time and that slavery was just a fact of life for them. I have chosen to tell the truth though about how they accumulated their wealth off the backs of the enslaved, including my ancestors, and how they treated these people over time. I will continue to recognize those Carters and Lees who were on the right side of history. By the way, I have a distant cousin named Rev. Robert Lee whom I hear has been making waves down in Virginia. I hope to meet him one day. I am also more than willing to “Come to The Table” with any Carter/Lee descendant to have meaningful, productive conversations about our shared history. That is all that is required of me, as a descendant of Crittie and Ann, and that is all I am willing to do.
African-American Malagasy-Descended Slave Resistance: The Struggle to be Free
Though African-Americans of Malagasy-descent were enslaved, they did resist oppression in a number of ways in colonial Virginia. Despite having different levels of success or plain failures, these enslaved people engaged in acts of resistance and played an active role in trying to change the circumstances of their involuntary servitude. From escaping and ending up in maroon communities in The Great Dismal Swamp(much to the chagrin of my Carter and Byrd ancestors who were investors in the Swamp), to engaging in acts of abortion, infanticide and suicide, to seeking freedom on foot by running away, to performing every day acts of resistance to their very real oppression, the descendants of these first Malagasy enslaved exercised their right to self-determination. I don’t know if any of my ancestors were part of Gabriel’s Rebellion or Nat Turner’s Rebellion. What I do know is that my cousin Sam Lemon’s 3rd great-grandfather, Col. Thomas Ridley, III was in the Southampton Militia and took part in the capture and prosecution of Nat Turner and his followers. Four of his slaves at his Buckhorn Quarters took part in the insurrection. Curtis and Stephen Ridley were executed. Matt Ridley provided the evidence that was used against them all and his life was spared though he was banished from VA. The fourth unidentified Ridley slave was killed in the course of being captured. Curtis Ridley was worth $400 and Stephen was worth $450 at the time of their execution by hanging. However, their collective “soul value” was incalcuable. Did these four individuals have Malagasy roots? We can’t say for sure, but they were in the same places as others who did have Malagasy roots so I will proudly claim them as our own. As I said in my Part II blog, I would like to think that some of my Malagasy-descended ancestors stood up for themselves. Certainly, Black lives mattered to them then as they do to us now. I can only respect the decisions they made which no doubt did, or could have, resulted in their deaths. I praise their names for slavery was a hellish enough condition to be in that they chose to take a stand knowing full well the price they would pay if discovered. Respect!
Erased No More: The Historical Truth About Shockoe Bottom
When I first started doing the research for this blogpost, I had no knowledge of Shockoe Bottom. For years, I shied away from researching my Virginia ancestors because the research seemed so daunting and it is. I had no idea that Richmond was second to New Orleans as an epicenter of the domestic slave trade. Shockoe Bottom was the largest slave trading district on the East Coast. It was a concentrated area that was home to 40-50 auction houses, slaves jails and pens, banking and insurance industries, law firms, hotels, shipping and railroad lines offices, apparel stores for slave clothing, a cemetery, etc. An estimated 350,000 enslaved Virginians were sold out of Richmond forever separated from their loved ones via coffles, ships, and railroads. Many died there as well. Click here for a visual map of the district produced by the University of Richmond. This site was built over in 1816 and it’s past erased.
In 2008, during an archaeological excavation, Lumpkin’s Jail was found and just like that darkness came to light. Those of us who believe that there are places that are sacred understood immediately what a gift we had received and knew that we had to preserve this site for the future. However, the mayor of Richmond at the time, along with a public-private Richmond revitalization group, started to develop a plan that would turn Shockoe Bottom into a baseball field with a hotel and stores around it. The plan to re-bury such a sacred, historical, and culturally significant site for millions of people of African descent is as wrong as it is unconscionable. Moreover, it is an attempt to deny us a space to honor our ancestors in a respectful way at a time when the city of Richmond continues to embrace it’s Confederate history. This historical erasure and denial must stop. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has listed Shockoe Bottom as an endangered sitebecause of this.
Reber Dunkel, having read about my battle to preserve our extended family’s burial ground in Greenwich,CT, introduced me to Ana Edwards. She is indeed a kindred spirit who matches my passion for preserving sacred historical sites. I can’t add anything else to what she has already stated about the significance of Shockoe Bottom so I am going to end with her written words. Please click here to read her statement on the significance of Shockoe Bottomto African-Americans in particular, but to all Americans in general. I support her and the excellent work she is doing in Richmond.
I would also encourage others to start writing about their family histories so that we do not contribute to our own ancestors’ historical erasure. There is power in our pens which is why I chose to have blog pages devoted to my African-American, Latino, Caribbean and Cape Verdean fellow bloggers. I want to share and celebrate their ancestor discoveries with them. Remember that the act of writing itself was a form of resistance that some of our ancestors were punished for in their lifetimes. Let us elevate the memories of our ancestors as we write them back into historical record.
In conclusion, when I took my place at the podium at the University of Virginia-Charlottesville for my “Cemeteries, Slavery & History” talk, the first thing I said was that, after spending a year alone telling the story of the desecration of our extended family’s Byram Cemetery/Byram African-American Cemetery all over NY, NJ, and CT, I was happy to be among kindred spirits. I can’t thank Joseph McGill enough for inviting me to speak there in the first place. Although the topics that were discussed were not for people who want to consume vast amounts of historic sugar, it was the best place for me to be at this time. To be among so many black history truth tellers was a great experience. I especially want to salute all the people below for making my trip a memorable one.
McDonald, Kevin P. Pirates, Merchants, Settlers, and Slaves: Colonial America and the Indo-Atlantic World. CA: University of California Press. 2015.
Platt, Virginia Bever. “The East India Company and the Madagascar Slave Trade.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 26:4 (October 1969), pp. 548-577.
Wilson-Fall, Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic. OH: University of Ohio Press. 2015.
Colonial Virginia Slave Trade:
Berlin, Ira. “From Creole to African: Atlantic Creoles and the Origins of African-American Society in Mainland North America.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 53:2 (April 1996), pp. 251-288.
Gomez, Michael A. Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South. NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 1998.
Kulikoff, Allan. “The Origins of Afro-American Society in Tidewater Maryland and Virginia, 1700 to 1790.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol 35:2 (April 1978), pp. 226-259.
Lafoon, Florence. “Slave Life in Virginia Between 1736-1776 as Shown in the Advertisements of the Virginia Gazettes.” Honors Theses. University of Richmond: UR Scholarship Repository. 1940.
Morgan, Philip D. and Michael L. Nicholls. “Slaves in Piedmont Virginia, 1720-1790.” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 46:2 (April 1989), pp. 211-251.
Parent, Anthony S., Jr. Foul Means: The Formation of a Slave Society in Virginia, 1660-1740. NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 2003.
Stanwood, Owen. “Captives and Slaves: Indian Labor, Cultural Conversion and the Plantation in Virginia.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 114: 5(2006), pp.434-463.
Tilson, Albert H. “Friendship and Commerce: The Conflict and Coexistence of Values on Virginia’s Northern Neck in the Revolutionary Era.” .” Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 11:3 (2003), pp. 221-262.
Virginia Historical Society. “Slave Owners Spotsylvania County, 1783. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 4:3 (January 1897), pp. 292-299.
Walsh, Lorena S. “The Transatlantic Slave Trade and Colonial Chesapeake Slavery.” OAH Magazine of History, Vol. 17:3 (April 2003), pp. 11-15.
Wax, Darold W. “Preferences for Slaves in Colonial America.” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 58:4 (October 1973), pp. 371-401.
Carter/Lee Family Documentation:
“Carter Papers.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 5:4 (April 1898), pp. 408-428.
Epperson, Terrence W. “Race and Discipline of the Plantation.” Historical Archaeology, Vol. 24:4 , Historical Archaeology on Southern Plantations and Farms 91990), pp. 29-36.
Isaac, Rhys. Landon Carter’s Uneasy Kingdom: Revolution and Rebellion On a Virginia plantation. NY: Oxford University Press. 2004.
“Lee Family of York County,” Virginia. The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 24:1 (July1915), pp. 46-54.
Levy, Andrew: The First Emancipator: The Forgotten Story of Robert Carter, the Founding Father Who Freed His Slaves. NY: Random House. 2005.
Mapp, Alf, Jr. “ABright Thread of Virginia History: Notes on the Corotoman River.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 52:2 (April 1944), pp. 104-114.
Morton, Louis. “Robert Wormeley Carter of Sabine Hall: Notes on the Life of a Virginia planter.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 12:3 (August 1946), pp. 345-365.
Quisenberry, A. C. . “The First Pioneer Families of Virginia.” Register of Kentucky State Historical Society, Vol.11:32 (May 19113), pp. 55-77.
Wyrick, Connie H. “Stratford and Lees.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 30:1 (March 1971), pp. 71-90.
Domestic Slave Trade:
Baptist, Edward E. The Half Has Never Bee Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. PA: Perseus Books. 2014.
Bancroft, Frederic. Slave Trading in the Old South with New Introduction by Michael Tadman.SC: University of SC Press. 1996.
Deyle, Steven. Cary Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life. NY: Oxford University Press. 2005.
Gudmestad, Robert H. “The Troubled Legacy of Isaac Franklin: The Enterprise of Salve Trading.” Tennessee Historical Quarterly, Vol. 62:3 (Fall 2003), pp. 193-217.
Johnson, Walter, Ed. The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trade in the Americas. CT: Yale University Press. 2004.
Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. MA: Harvard University Press. 1999.
Mann, AlisonT. “”Horrible Barbarity”: The 1837 Murder Trial of Dorcas Allen a Georgetown Slave.” Washington History , Vol 27:1 (Spring 2015), pp. 3-14.
Martin, Bonnie. “Slavery’s Invisible Engine: Mortgaging Human Property.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol 76:4 (November 2010), pp. 817-866.
McInnis, Maurie. Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and The American Slave Trade. IL: The University of Chicago Press. 2011.
Schermerhorn, Calvin. The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860.CT: Yale University Press. 2015.
Sublette, Ned and Constance. The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry. IL: Lawrence Hill Books. 2016
Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. WI: University of Wisconsin Press.1996.
Trammel, Jack. The Richmond Slave Trade: The Economic Backbone of the Old Dominion. SC: The History Press. 2012.
Abercrombie, Janice. Free Blacks of Louisa County Virginia. GA: Iberian Publishing Company. 1994.
Araujo, Ana Lucia. Reparations For Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History. NY: Bloomsbury Academic. 2017.
Araujo, Ana, ed. et. al. Crossing Memories: Slavery nd African Diaspora. NJ Africa World Press. 2011.
Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. MA: The Belkap Press of Harvard University Press. 1998.
Gutman, Herbert G. The Black Family in Slavery & Freedom, 1750-1925. NY: Pantheon Press. 1976.
Hunter, Tera A. Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Marriages in Nineteenth Century.MA: The Beknap Press of Harvard University press. 2017.
Morgan, Philip. Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century in Chesapeake & Lowcountry. NC: The University of NOrth Carolina Press. 1998
Ramey Berry, Daina. The Price For Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, From Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation. MA: Beacon Press. 2017.
Resendez, Andres. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2016.
Sandefur, Timothy. “Why the Rule Against Perpetuities Mattered in Pleasants V Pleasants.” Real Property and Trust Journal, Vol. 40:4 (Winter 2006), pp. 667-677.
Schwartz, Philip. “Emancipators, Protectors, and Anomalies: Free Black Slaveowners in Virginia.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 95:3 (July 1987), pp. 317-338.
Williams, Heather Andrea. Help Me to Find My people: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery. NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 2012.
Slave Narratives/Slave Sexual Abuse/Interracial Gender Dynamics:
Baptist, Edward E. “Cuffy,” “Fancy Maids,” and “One -Eyed Men”: Rape , Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States.” The American Historical Review, Vol. 106:5 (December 2001), pp. 1619-1650.
Bardaglio, Peter W. “Shameful Matches”: The Regulation of Interracial Sex and Marriage in the South Before 1900″. In Martha Hodes, ed. Sex, Love Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History. NY: New York University Press. 1999.
Blight, David W. A Slave No More: Two Men Who Escaped To Freedom. NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2007.
Block, Sharon. “Lines of Color, Sex, and Service: Comparative Sexual Coercion in Early America.” In Martha Hodes, ed. Sex, Love Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History. NY: New York University Press. 1999.
Brown, Kathleen. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. NC: The University of North Carolina Press. 1996.
Derbes, Brett Josef. “Secret Horrors: Enslaved Women and Children in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, 1833-1862.” The Journal of African American History, Vol 98:2, Special Issue: “African Americans, Police Brutality, and the U.S. Criminal Justice System: Historical Perspectives” (Spring 2013), pp. 277-290.
Foster, Thomas A. “The Sexual Abuse of Black Men under American Slavery.” Intersections of Race and Sexuality, Vol. 20:3 (September 2011), pp. 445-464.
Gross, Ariela. “Litigating Whiteness: Trials of Racial Determination in the Nineteenth-Century South.” The Yale Journal, Vol. 108:1 (October 1998), pp. 10-188.
Hartman, Saidiya. “Seduction and the Ruse of Power.” Callaloo, Vol 19:2 , Emerging Women Writers: Special Issue, (Spring 1996), pp. 537-530.
King, Wilma. “Prematurely Knowing of Evil Things”: The Sexual Abuse of African American Girls and Yong Women in Slavery and Freedom.” Journal of African American History, Vol. 99:3 (Summer 2014), pp. 173-196.
Perdue, Charles L., ed. et al. Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves. VA: University of Virginia. 1976.
Stevenson, Brenda E. “What’s Love Got To Do With It: Concubine and Enslaved Women and Girls in the Antebellum South.” The Journal of African American History, Vol. 98:1 (Winter 2013), pp. 99-125.
White, Deborah Gray. Ar’n’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South. NY: W. W. Norton & Company. 1999.
Allmendinger, David F. Nat Turner and The Rising in Southampton County. MD: John Hopkins University Press. 2014.
Camp, Stephanie M. “The Pleasures of Resistance: Enslaved Women and Body Politics in the plantation South, 1830-1861.” Journal of Southern History, Vol. 68:3 (August 2002), pp. 533-572.
Diouf, Slyviane. Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons. NY: New York University Press. 2014.
Johnson, Walter. “The Slave Trader, the White Slave, and The politics of Racial Determination in the 1850s.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 87:1 (June 2000), pp. 13-38.
Lee, Deborah A and Warren Hofstra. “Race Memory, and the Death of Robert Berkeley: “A Murder…of…Horrible and Savage Barbarity.” The journal of Southern History, Vol. 65:1 (February 1999), pp. 41-76.
Perrin, Liese M. “Resisting Reproduction: Reconsidering Slave Contraception in the Old South.” Journal of American Studies, Vol. 35:2, Part 2: Warring America: Encounters of Gender and Race (August 2001), pp. 255-274.
Sayers, Daniel et.al. “The Political Economy of Exile in the Great Dismal Swamp. International Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 11:1 (March 2007), pp. 60-97.
Schiebinger, Londa. “Feminist History of Colonial Science.” Feminist Science Studies, Vol. 19:1 (Winter 2004), pp. 233-254.
Snyder, Terri L. “Suicide Slavery, and Memory in North America.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 97: 1 (June 2010), pp. 39-62.
Black Cemeteries/Archaeological Artifacts:
Rainville, Lynn. Hidden History: African American Cemeteries in Central Virginia. VA: University of Virginia. 2014.
Valch, John Michael. “Afro-American Domestic Artifacts in Eighteenth Century Virginia. Material culture, Vol. 19:1 (Spring 1987), pp. 3-23.
I dedicate this blog to my grandmother, Mildred Fischer Greene, as she was always the proud older sister of my Uncle Jimmie. She never stopped wanting to tell his story. I want to thank my aunt, Helen Singh, for sending me the documents she inherited from my grandmother. James H. Fischer, was, and shall always be, our Golden Aviator.
“On freedom’s wings bound for glory these intrepid men roamed the skies in defense of liberty for all men. Before the Air Force shattered the sound barrier, the Tuskegee Airmen shattered the race barrier. Their deeds will be forever etched in the annals of those who sought freedom and justice.”
—-The Original Tuskegee Airmen (1941-1949)
I was going to blog about the history of The Tuskegee Airmen and tell you all about them, but I have chosen not to do so at this time. Their service to this country is legendary. There are books, movies, and anyone can google the name “Tuskegee Airmen” and learn about the battles they fought on two fronts — racism here at home and Nazism abroad. No, this blogpost is solely about my Uncle Jimmie, a scrappy kid from Stoughton, MA who wanted to fly planes as long as he could remember. It’s about a young man who became a most unlikely hero who happened to be in the right place at the right time. It’s about a man who had a dream deferred, that then exploded, and shattered to the ground. Finally, it’s about my Uncle Jimmie’s dream, once shartered into pieces, rose up like seeds that had been planted, and allowed others to become the pilot he always wanted to be. It is because of men like him that others were able to suceed. This is my Uncle Jimmie’s story and I am blessed to be able to tell it.
Prelude to Tuskegee: Hometown Roots in Stoughton, MA
My Uncle Jimmie was born on March 11, 1924 in Stoughton, MA. He was the son of Helen Mitchell Fischer and Robert H. Fischer. He was born on the farm that my 2nd great-grandfather, James D. Mitchell, owned. James had been born in Petersburg, VA to two mixed race parents and moved to Boston where he owned a fish store. His wife, Julia Lennihan Mitchellwas a first generation Irish-American born in Boston whom he married in the mid-1890s. After Julia died of tuberculosis in 1905, James moved his family to Stoughton which is about 25 minutes south of Boston. It was a better place for them with plenty of fresh air and they wouldn’t have to deal with the racism that was prevalent in Boston at the time.
My great-grandmother, Nana Fischer as she was known, met Robert H. Fischer in NYC while visting her aunt, Laura Mitchell Wilson, around 1921. She brought Robert back home to live with her side of the family. Robert was said to have been the son of Cuban woman, who lived in Ponce, PR, and a man named Fischer who owned several stores in the Spanish speaking Caribbean. All we know about Robert, is that his mother died in childbirth, or shortly thereafter, and his Eastern European Jewish father brought him to NYC and left him in the care of another family. We don’t know much about Robert because he would later suffer a traumatic brain injury, as a result of a Stanely steam car engine explosion. One day he walked away from home in Stoughton, MA and never came back. Rumors swirled that he made it back to NYC, but I can’t find anything to confirm that though. He is one of my genealogy brick walls that I cant get pass yet. Maybe one day I will.
My Nana Fischer had to have her husband declared legally dead. She was a widow with three children to support — my Nana Millie, Uncle Jimmie, and her youngest son, my Uncle Sonny. Life was certainly not easy for her. She had to leave her children in the care of others and commuted to Boston to work each day. She did what she had to do in order to provide for her family. She was not the most nurturing type of woman because of the hand that she had been dealt in life, but I have nothing but the fondest of memories of summers spent with her sewing, gardening, and cooking for us. I will always remember my Nana Fischer as being stoic in the most New England of ways, resourceful, and brutally honest. She was known to tell it like it was and my Uncle Jimmie was just like her in that regard.
At the age of 4 years old, my Uncle Jimmie contracted tuberculosis and spent 4-5 years of his life living in a sanatorium until he recovered from it. According to my aunt, he had been taken to Florida on a visit and had contracted it there. By the time, he returned home, he was coughing. Tubercuosis is what caused the death of his maternal grandmother Julia. In the pre-antibiotic days, it was a killer. No one was immune. Because Julia had TB, her husband and children had been exposed and had to undergo repeated chest X-rays to see if they had active TB. In those days, people were sent to a tuberculosis sanatorium if they had an active case. This was a public health policy as there was no known cure for this illness.
Uncle Jimmie was sent to the Rutland State Sanatorium. Rutland was in Central Massachusetts and was quite a drive from Stoughton, MA. My Nana Fischer didn’t drive so she didn’t get to see her son that often the 4 years he was there. She would visit him on his birthday and when her sister Anna could drive her there. Though a postcard image makes it seem to be a picturesque place, my Uncle Jimmie, of course, did not have pleasant memories of being there. He didn’t like to eat macaroni and cheese for the rest of his life because that was what he had to eat there. He also never got over how he had to share his birthday cake with the other children at the sanatorium. One slice of cake was all he got for his birthday. I can imagine how much that cake meant to him and the brief time he had to spend with his mother. Rutland State Sanatorium, by the way, was the first public tuberculosis sanatorium in the country and was opened in 1898.
Uncle Jimmie was about 8 years old and in 3rd grade when he returned home. He was a survivor to be sure having conquered a disease that killed so many people. He was just an average boy who went to school, did his chores, and got into trouble on occasion. Even as a child, it was said he was fiercely independent, had a short fuse, and loved playing with model airplanes.
Uncle Jimmie took a serious interest in planes around the age of 12 and 13 years old. By the time he was 16 years old, he was spending weekends at the Brockton Airport performing odd jobs so that he could secure a ride on plane and learn to fly. He would find a way to get to get to the airport by bumming rides or hitchiking. In one interview, Uncle Jimmie said that he would be at the Brockton Airport every chance he could get. Working all weekend earned him a 15-minute ride in a plane. Brockton was the next town over from Stoughton and is where I was born. I never knew there was an airport in Brockton located on the Southside of Brockton near the West Bridgewater line. The Brockton Airport was routinely advertised in all the Boson newspapers in the 1920s and 1940s. According to my Uncle Jimmie, the airport closed with the advent of World War II and later re-opened afterwards.
Answering Uncle Sam’s Call
Uncle Jimmie graduated Stoughton High School in June of 1942 and World War II had already begun the December before. He volunteered to join the Army Air Corp after he graduated. He took a physical and went through all the Army Air Corp tests. He was then told that there were only a few spots for Blacks in the Air Force and that they would pass his name on to Washington. He was told to go home, with a 6-month deferment, and wait to be called. He never got the call. One day he was strolling through the town and saw someone who was on the draft board. That person was surprised to see him still around so my Uncle Jimmie explained that he was waiting to hear back from Washington. Ten days later he was drafted into the Army. He sent the letter below to the Army Air Corp Headquarters in Washington, DC asking for further clarification.
His letter was to no avail. In an interview, Uncle Jimmie remembered that a colonel, a doctor, typed on his record “Qualified Aviation Cadet.” But, the other officers looked at it and stamped “Infantry” on it. Segregation was not going to make an exception for him. So, off he went to Biloxi, MS for basic training in the Army. Uncle Jimmie was lucky though, because 8 month later, he finally got into the Army Air Corp. He said that you had to have two years of college to get in, but, if you passed a test, they would send you to Tuskegee University in Alabama for a 6-month university and flight training program. Needless to say, he passed the test. It was always his dream to be a pilot.
Heading south to Alabama was not his first time being in the South though. Growing up in Stoughton, MA made him a little naive about segregation. He was only one of 4-5 black kids in his high school and was treated like all the rest. When he was 14 years old, he ran away for a couple of months and ended up in Georgia which was an eye-opener for him. He would tell the story of how he hopped on a train and rode to New Orleans and worked for a few weeks. He then hopped back on a train and ended up in Georgia. He found work at a salad pantry and was told to get some suet at the butcher’s shop nearby one day. The butcher, who was cleaning chickens, told him to cut the suet off of a side of beef which he did, but Uncle Jimmie ended up placing the suet too close to a pile of chicken intestines. This set the butcher off and he started to call my uncle names, including the N-word. Uncle Jimmie ended up whacking the butcher in the face with a bunch of chicken guts. In Stoughton, MA, calling someone the N-word led to fist fights, but, in the South, he said that the N-word was used way too often. Whacking a White man in the face could have also led to my Uncle’s death though. When he was told to run, he had sense enough to run and kept on running. He ended up having to call his mother and have her wire him the $15 for a bus ticket home.
On Becoming A Tuskegee Airman: The Making of a Legend
Uncle Jimmie ended up at Tuskegee in the Spring of 1943. He was in the second or third class (44-G) of Tuskegee Airmen trained there. The Tuskegee Airmen included, not only pilots like my Uncle Jimmie, but also bombardiers, navigators, ground crews, medical staff, cooks, ambulance staff, and administrative staff. Most of the other Tuskegee Airmen were like himself — 18 and 19 years old.
All the flight training Uncle Jimmie received was done at the Moton Field (Tuskegee Army Air Field) at Tuskegee. In addition, Uncle Jimmie and the others took college courses at Tuskegee University which was a couple of miles away. As a Certified Aviation Cadet, Uncle Jimmie had a leg up on some of the other pilots. He had been hustling around the Brockton Airport for a couple of years by then. He was able to pay $3.50 for 15 minutes of flight time when the going rate was $12 an hour for flight instruction. He also bought aviation books in his quest for knowledge. His whole Brockton Airport experience taught him how to fly. But, at Tuskegee, he learned how to be a fighter pilot. Make no mistake about it, the Tuskegee Airmen knew they were up against the twin evils of racism and Nazism and they knew that they had to prove their naysayers wrong. They were Black excellence at its best and became the stuff that legends are made of during World War II. Failure was not an option for them and neither was it for the scrappy kid from Stoughton.
I also remember my Nana Fischer telling me the story of how she could only afford to buy a third class train ticket in the Colored section of the train to visit Uncle Jimmie at Tuskegee. She would tell the story of how the White train conductors would automatically assume she was White and tell her that a mistake had been made on her ticket. They would upgrade her to a First Class ticket and make sure she was in the White section of the train. She would always laughed because she felt she she pulled a fast one on them which she did. While my Nana Fischer could have “passed” as White, she never did.
Uncle Jimmie was part of the 332nd Fighter Group, the first black military aviators in the history of the United States Armed Forces, and a member of the 301st Squadron. The 332nd Fighter Group was deployed to Italy in early 1944 and their job was to fly heavy bomber escort missions. Uncle Jimmie arrived in December of 1944 and remembered flying P-51 planes. By this time, the planes the Tuskegee Airmen flew were named “Red Tails” as they painted the tails of their planes red and were easily identifiable because of that. I will never forget going to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC and seeing one of those rinky dink planes. I called Uncle Jimmie from the exhibit and asked him if he really flew one of those planes. He just talked about how cutting edge they were at the time and I just stood there in disbelief. Just seeing a plane similar to the one he flew gave me a greater appreciation of just how important the Tuskegee Airmen were to this country during a time of need.
My Uncle Jimmie was awarded a Purple Heart, 3 Bronze Stars with Two Oak Leaf Clusters, and a Distiguished Unit Badge for his service in World War II. He fought in the Battles of Rhineland (Germany), North Appennines (Italy) and Po Valley (Italy). He became well-known for having been shot down over Yugoslavia, an event that earned him a Purple Heart. In John B. Holway’s book, Red Tails Black Wings:The Men of America’s Black Air Force, Uncle Jimmie recounted his experience:
The son of a single mom, a tuberculosis survivor, and a teenage runaway, who managed to graduate from high school, my Uncle Jimmie had the deck stacked against him, but he was determined to live his dream of becoming a pilot—– fighting for a country that still saw him, and his people, as unequal before the law. Uncle Jimmie would tell stories of how Axis Sallywould taunt the Tuskegee Airmen. He said he would laugh at the things she would say because they were true in terms of the overt racism that existed back then. Even so, he acknowledged that this country was the only country known to Blacks who have fought for it from the beginning. With roots in Boston, Uncle Jimmie had no problem reminding people of the bravery of Crispus Attucks.
Uncle Jimmie was given a week off at a R &R camp in Naples after his plane went down over Yugoslavia in April of 1945. World War II ended a month later. He spent the Summer of 1945 attending the University of Florence. Uncle Jimmie returned home in October of that year thinking he would stay in Air Force. He went back to Tuskegee and then to Lockbourne Air Force in Columbus, OH working various military jobs. In the Fall of 1946, he left the Air Force for good hoping to get a job as a commercial airline pilot.
In 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 which led to the desegregation of the United States Armed Forces. The Tuskegee Airmen were no doubt one of the reasons that this order was issued.
Becoming Bitter: What Happens To A Dream Deferred?
My Uncle Jimmie came home and started applying for jobs at the major airlines at the time. Everything would be fine until he showed up for an interview. Then, he would be politely told that there were no jobs. Uncle Jimmie always said that getting into civilian aviation was harder than getting into the military because of racism. It would be in the 1970s before there would be Black pilots flying for the major airlines. The only pilot jobs he was able to get was a job as an instructor at the Brockton Airport, a pilot who towed advertising banners for a chain of drive-in theaters in Brockton, and as a crop duster flying pesticides over New England from Maine to Massachusetts. He was employed as a pilot for 3-4 years. And then his dream died a slow festering death before exploding into a sea of bitterness.
Uncle Jimmie left Massachusetts in the mid-1960s and went to California where his younger brother Sonny and his aunt Belle lived. He took on a variety of jobs to eek out a living without any government help. There is nothing spectacular to tell here about his life. His bitterness at not being able to be an airline pilot lingered for almost as long as he lived. He tended to look upon his WW II experience as somethimg that he did. But, at the same time, he would say that The Tuskegee Airmen were “just niggers who flew planes.”Those were HIS words and I will not sanitize what he said or how he felt. Now, he didn’t actually believe that because he knew what they had done and how important they were to this country. This statement was his way of describing how The Tuskegee Airmen were treated when they came home to this country meaning that they were good at being pilots only when the United Stares needed them otherwise they were just “n*****s,” a derogatory term that was, and unfortunately still is, commonly used to refer to Black people. He would often tell a story about how some Tuskegee Airmen were denied entrace to an American restaurant, but White servicemen allowed some captured Nazis to accompany them to the restaurant. It was not lost on him that, if he had been a White man with the military record that he had, he would have definitely been able to get a job working for a commercial airline.
We always heard about Uncle Jimmie from both Nana Millie and Nana Fischer. I remember meeting him for the first time in in 1981 at a family reunion. When my great-grandmother died in 1986, he came back East for her funeral. We had grown up knowing her youngest brother, my Uncle Sonny, because he brought his family back home often enough that we knew his daughters— two who were around my age. It was months after Nana Fischer died that Uncle Jimmie came home for good to help my grandmother settle her estate. By that time, he realized that he needed to be around family especially after he had a stroke in 1983 that left him with seizures. I always felt that my Nana Fischer sent him to us to ease the pain of her passing. We were also happy to have him back home with us.
For my siblings and cousins, Uncle Jimmie was a stark contrast to our grandmother. Whereas my Nana Millie was cautious with everything she said and was very proper, he was the exact opposite. He was very cantakerous. I usually refer to him as being a Black Archie Bunker in terms of his character. He spoke his mind and didn’t care how you felt. He was also that loving uncle who would give us lottery tickets at Christmas time, would celebrate his shared birthday with my cousin Mandi each year, would tell us the stories of his youth, and would send me subscriptions to The Smithsonian and National Geographic magazines. As a life-long bachelor with no kids, his nieces and great-nieces and nephews were surrogate children to him.
Once An Older Sister, Always An Older Sister
My Nana Millie was my Uncle Jimmie’s biggest and loudest cheerleader. She always looked after him. When he came back to Brockton in 1986, she made sure he got what was due to him from the Veteras Administration. She was also able to get him into a senior citizens apartment complex a few streets over from her house. She would take him shopping, take him to his,doctor appointmemts, and would cook for him on occasion. As the years went on, Uncle Jimmie came to rely on her memory of Word War II and her recounting all of his escapades because the stroke he had affected his memory. My Nana Millie loved telling his story and always added how she and others felt about the Tuskegee Airmen. She would also add her memories of the war as my Grandad also served in the Army in France. I am so lucky to have two transcripts of interviews they did together for a couple of books on the Tuskegee Airmen as well as for the Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project. When I read the transcripts, I can visually see them talking to each other the way they always did.
When HBO premiered The Tuskegee Airmen movie in 1995, Nana Millie, Uncle Jimmie, and other relatives watched it. Though a fictionalized account, the movie brought The Tuskegee Airmen story to a much larger audience. Uncle Jimmie had no idea just how inspiring the Tuskegee Airmen were to many people until the movie came out. Caught up in his own bitterness, he didn’t know, or certainly didn’t realize, that the seeds he and the other Tuskegee Airmen planted took root and grew into a field of new dreams for others. Even if Uncle Jimmie didn’t become the pilot he wanted to be because of racism, he and the other Tuskegee Airmen were heroes to the generations that came after them who had full knowledge of the battles they went up against and how they still suceeded despite the odds.
I was lucky enough to be surrounded by my elders growing up. I was that fly on the wall who listened to their stories over and over again so that they became etched into my memory. I heard Uncle Jimmie’s story enough times from enough relatives that his story became OUR family story. We were proud that he was a famed Tuskegee Airmen. I also remember the pain, anger, sadness, and bitterness he felt at being denied the future he so wanted for himself. I couldn’t imagine what it must have felt like to have society dictate how far you could go in life and to have dreams that went unrealized because of the color of your skin and not because you didn’t dream big enough or bold enough. But, just because you were born Black in America. As a child born after the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1960s, it was our generation that was the first generation that our elders placed their hope in for a better future that was unencumbered by the constraints of racism as they knew it. I’ve always been cognizant of the price my ancestors paid for me to live the life that I live today. They sacrificed so many dreams of their own hoping that their descendants would be able realize theirs. I have always felt that I couldn’t let them down because they were counting on me to do better than they had in life.
In March of 2007, I called my Nana Millie as I routinely did a few times a week. I was raised by my grandmother and had her around longer than I did my own mother who died at the age of 47. She was a second mother to me and we were very close. She didn’t sound like herself when she answered the phone that day so I asked her what was wrong. She said that Uncle Jimmie had received an invitation from Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) inviting him to the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Ceremony in Washington, DC because The Tuskegee Airmen were being awarded the Gold Medal. She had told him about it and he said he wasn’t going. His bitterness still festering even after all these years. I immediately told her not to worry and that I was going to call him. He was going to go no matter what because this honor wasn’t about just Uncle Jimmie now. It was about bringing honor to our family by celebrating Uncle Jimmie’s wartime record and the legacy of the each and every one of the Tuskegee Airmen. It was about correcting an historical wrong and making it right—- even if it did come sixty years after the fact. Uncle Jimmie NOT going to this event was never an option. My Nana Millie wished me good luck in trying to get him to go. I told her that I would call her back after I spoke to him.
So, I called Uncle Jimmie. The conversation went like this:
Me: Uncle Jimmie, what’s this about you not wanting to go to DC?
Him: We were just niggers who flew planes. That’s all we were before and after.
Me: Uncle Jimmie, I hate to tell you this, but this is not about you anymore. It’s about family honor. You’re going.
Him: I don’t have any money to go.
Me: Everything is being taken care of so you don’t have to worry. This is a family affair.
Him: I have epilepsy [He didnt actually have epilepsy, but had seuzures from the stroke he had.] and I can’t go alone.
Me: I am coming to get you so you don’t have to worry.
Him: I don’t have anything to wear.
Me: I think Nana and Auntie said they were going to buy a new suit.
Him: OK, I guess I can’t get out of this.
Me: No, you can’t. It’s about family honor and you finally getting your due! Now, I have to call Nana back and tell her your going.
Needless to say, when I called Nana Millie back, she made a joyful noise unto the Lord. That proud sister felt prouder than she ever had in the past. If anyone, other than Uncle Jimmie, had waited for this day, it was her and I am glad they both lived to see this blessed day come to fruition in their lifetimes.
Washington, DC Bound: On Our Way to the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Ceremony
I flew up to Boston on March 28,2007 to pick up Uncle Jimmie and take him to Washington, DC. He hadn’t been on a plane in decades and the post-9/11 changes to airline procedures took him by surprise. When asked to remove his shoes, he had more than a few choice words for people to hear. I remember passing the restrooms and asking if he had to use them and he near cussed me out. Ten minutes later, he said, “Doll baby, where is that bathroom again?” I knew then and there that it was going to be an interesting trip. My grandmother had warned me in advance how he was and she was right.
When we arrived at the gate, I went up to a crew member and asked if the pilot would make a special announcement that my uncle was a famed Tuskegee Airman who was flying to DC to be part of the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Ceremony. I wanted my uncle to feel anything other than a “N-word who flew a plane.” To my surprise, no sooner than I had said “Tuskegee,” she had upgraded our seats to First Class. When I told Uncle Jimmie that we were flying First Class, he was happy. The look on his face when we made our descent into DC and the pilot mentioned that there was a very distinguished passenger on board named James H. Fischer, who was a Tuskegee Airmen pilot, and that he was heading to the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Ceremony, was priceless. Believe me, he felt special when everyone on the plane broke out in applause just for him.
We arrived at the hotel that day and immediately were surrounded by other Tuskegee Airmen. Some instantly remembered my Uncle Jimmie. Lt. Col Harry Stewart made a beeline for Uncle Jimmie who remembered him. For the most part, Uncle Jimmie remembered some, but not all of the Tuskegee Airmen who came up to greet him because of his stroke. Another pilot who Uncle Jimmie remembered was Lt. Col. Leo Gray, the other Tuskegee Airman originally from Boston. When they both saw each other, they gave each other a big hug and stood there beaming. Robert Lawrence was another pilot who Uncle Jimmie remembered as well. Though Uncle Jimmie couldnt remember all of them, they certainly remembered him. I enjoyed watching him converse with his old friends. I could see it meant a lot to all of them that they were reunited one last time for this event. Uncle Jimmie for the most part was really enjoying himself just taking everything in minute by minute.
On the morning of March 29,2007, the day we had come to DC for had arrived. We started off going to a breakfast held in honor of The Tuskegee Airmen. At the breakfast, we watched a presentation about the history of The Tuskegee Airmen. It brought a lot of memories back to Uncle Jimmie and all the other Airmen. It was as if they were reliving their heyday. It was a great presentation with photos and interviews with Tuskegee Airmen, which featured Lt. Col Lee Archer and Captain Luther H. Smith. Captain Smith reminded me of Uncle Jimmie as he wanted to be a pilot in his teens.
We arrived at United Stares Capitol Rotunda for the 1 pm ceremony early. Uncle Jimmie and I were separated as they wanted all the Tuskegee Airmen to sit together. I tried to get a wheelchair for Uncle Jimmie, but he proudly refused one. I wasn’t going to argue with him, but I knew he probaby should have used one as he would be on his feet for a long time waiting to be seated. Sure enough, I saw him walk in holding onto the back of seats for balance. He later complained how his feet hurt. I could only sigh at that point.
The best part of the ceremony for me was when then President George W. Bush stood up and said, “I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities of the past. The Tuskegee Airmen helped win a war, and you changed our nation for the better,” the president said. “On behalf of the office I hold, and the country that honors you, I salute you for your service to the United States of America.” Almost immediately, hundreds of Tuskegee Airmen jumped up and saluted him back. They had waited a long time for this day to come.
After the actual ceremony, we went to the Library of Congress for the reception. We were able to see more of Uncle Jimmie’s old friends again. We met Lt. Col. George Hardy and Dr. Roscoe Brown. The press was out in full force because this was definitely an historic event. I could tell, by that time, that Uncle Jimmie was completely overwhelmed by everything.
After a long day, we returned to our hotel and the next morning headed for the airport. Once again, we were upgraded to First Class. This time, however, the pilot of the plane let us board before everyone in First Class. He came to our seats and explained that he was the ex-squandron leader of one of formerly all-Black desegregated Tuskegee Fighter Groups and considered himself to be a part of the Tuskegee Airmen history. He told Uncle Jimmie how proud he was of him and all the others. He also asked to take a photo with Uncle Jimmie holding his Bronze Medal. Uncle Jimmie obliged him, of course, and would only say,”Wow.” Like on the flight to DC, when we made our descent to Logan Airport, the pilot came on and gave Uncle Jimmie an awesome shoutout and told everyone about how special he felt about having Uncle Jimmie onboard his plane.
When we finally arrived home, I asked him what he thought of the ceremony. Never a man of many words, he said, “It was excellent,” as he held up his Bronze Medal of Honor. “It was one of those things, you know, it was about time. I’ll put it that way.”And I said to him, “You were always a hero and now everyone knows.”
I can definitely say that Uncle Jimmie never mentioned the N-word in reference to The Tuskegee Airmen after March 29,2007. Mission accomplished! I am so glad that I could accompany him to Washington, DC because it was an honor for me to witness history in the making.
While my great-uncle James Henry Fischer unltimately got his pension and due accolades at the end of his lifetime, I have to say that my heart still hurts for my 3rd great-uncle, James Henry Green, a 2nd Lieutenant who fought for the 29th Infantry from Connecticut during the Civil War. My other Uncle Jimmie applied for a government pension thirty years after his military service ended only to die in an unmarked grave somewhere in NYC before he received it. When I think of the Uncle Jimmie that I knew, I will always remember my other older Uncle Jimmie as well. God bless them both for their service to this country and may God bless each and every other veteran of color who fought and died for a country that did not honor them the way that it should have.
Arriving Home A Hero 60 Years Later
Four days after we arrived home from Washington, DC, Uncle Jimmie was featured on the front page of our hometown newspaper, The Enterprise. He had been interviewed the day before and held up his Bronze Medal of Honor proudly. In the last three years of his life, he would go on to reap more awards and acknowledgements for his WW II service this country. A salute long overdue indeed.
Our Last Goodbye: Honoring Our Golden Aviator
Uncle Jimmie passed away on May 26,2010 in Brockton, MA. He was buried with full Military Honors on June 4th, 2010 and is interned, with our other ancestors, in Maplewood Cemetery in Stoughton, MA. I wasn’t able to attend his funeral because of an illness, but I made sure my sister Lisa read a note for me at his funeral. I also sent a floral display to the funeral home for him. His funeral was a fitting end to a life lived.
In closing, to the man I refer to as my Golden Aviator, you earned your wings on earth and now you can fly forever in Heaven. Say hello to all my ancestor angels and let them know that I think of them often. Fly on, fly on, fly on.. .
This blogpost is dedicated to both my Lyon-Green-Merritt African-American ancestors who left the Byram and Sherwood’s Bridge (Glenville) sections of Greenwich to settle the neighborhood of Hangroot. It is also dedicated to all those African-Americans who made Hangroot their home for 100 years. I pray that this blogpost leads their descendants to discover their proud Black Greenwich roots. Lastly, I dedicate this blog to all my extended Lyon-Green-Merritt family who are following me on my journey to uncover the truth about all of our Greenwich family history.
I would like to thank the following people:
The following Greenwich historians and archivists who have helped me locate documents relevant to Hangroot. All of them have been more than generous with their time and no doubt share the same passion for Greenwich history as me: Anne Young, Christopher Shields, Nola Taylor, and Carl White.
Jeffrey Bingham Mead, as always, has been a great resource for me. I am grateful for his pioneer research on African-Americans in Greenwich, CT. I hope that I am telling the true stories he wanted to finally read about over the years.
I am particulary indebted to my 5th 2XR cousin and fellow family historian, Dennis Richmond, Jr. He gifted me with a photograph that shows Hangroot through the eyes of our ancestors. The photo below, which features, John Sherman Merritt, Dennis’s 2nd great-grandfather and my 3rd cousin 2XR as a young boy, is the visual sum of all our combined family history research on Hangroot. Much love and respect to him. I am looking forward to writing a blogpost where we discuss our five year relationship that ultimately brought us together today. I know, without a doubt, that our ancestors are now finally smiling down on us knowing that there is power in numbers. I can’t wait to read the stories he will be writing soon.
Finally a message to Cheryl Henson, Heather Henson and John Nelson: Going forth, I hope the image below contributes to the joy that you’ve always felt in the house that Allen Green built. How awesome it would be if my research on Hangroot leads to state and federal recognition of 30 Round Hill Road as an Underground Railroad site. I pray this will be true one day.
Defining Hangroot: A Colored Settlement
Hangroot is a geographically defined area in Greenwich, CT where formerly enslaved African-Americans sought to build a community of their own in the early 1800s.
The above 1887 Driving Road Chart indicates a “Colored Settlement” that shows the area that came to be known as the Hangroot of our ancestors. Hangroot, as a neighborhood, can be traced back to 1730 when the Town of Greenwich approved a bridge to be built over Horseneck Brook near Round Hill Road and, in 1757, when the Town also approved a sawmill to be built there as well (Mead:1857:122). As an FYI, the name “Hangroot” has been attributed to the fact that the homes there had root cellars where fruit/vegetables where hung from the ceilings to prevent rodents from reaching them. Well-off farmers, like the Husteds, were also known to have stocked their root cellars so that poorer farmers in the area could help themselves to produce in times of need. That being said, Hangroot was always connected to the area we still associate with being Hangroot today (i.e., the intersection of Round Hill Rd. and Horseneck Brook) but this area expanded over time to include the area we see in the 1887 map. There have been accounts that there were several Black rural settlements. I believe this is incorrect and that there was only one which is represented as this larger “Colored Settlement” area. Our Hangroot ancestors lived within all areas of the “Colored Settlement.”
Since no one has defined the actual boundaries of Hangroot previously, for the purpose of this blogpost, I am defining the boundaries of Hangroot as follows: the Eastern boundary is defined as being near Lake Avenue, the Western boundary near Pecksland Rd., the Northern boundary near Clapboard Ridge Rd., and the Southern boundary just north of Glenville Rd. These boundaries changed over time with the ebb and flow of the African-American population. By the late 1870s, Hangroot becomes restricted to the area around Round Hill Road and Horseneck Brook once again. It is important to note that Hangroot was never an all-Black area, but an area that had a higher concentration of African-Americans than other sections of Greenwich, CT. As someone who is also of Native American ancestry, I note that Hangroot was home to Native-Americans as well. That is a clear reminder that Native Americans were Connecticut’s first slaves. That fact must never be forgotten.
19th Century Residents of Hangroot: A Free Black Community For The Formerly Enslaved (1800-1900)
As a 7th+ generation descedant of pioneer African-Americans who settled Hangroot and gave rise to this community, I feel an urgent need to write this forgotten community back into existence. Many people are unaware of the early presence of African-Americans in the Town of Greenwich. My blog posts on TheByram African-American Cemetery detail the history of African-Americans in Greenwich going back to the 18th century. Though official records regarding African-Americans are not available for Greenwich because of slavery, it can be assumed that there were African-Americans in Greenwich going back to the 17th century as the earliest African slaves in Connecticut arrived at the same time as colonial white settlers. Our Black Greenwich ancestors were from Byram and Sherwood’s Bridge (Glenville) sections of Greenwich and they left those neighborhoods to make Hangroot their home for a little over 100 years.
I often ask myself the following questions: If a community isn’t documented, did it actually exist? Who gets to define a community and from what/whose perspective? In doing genealogy research, does one have an obligation to correct historical ommissions and the historical record itself, on behalf of their ancestors, when given the benefit of historical hindsight? Such questions motivate me to continue to always dig deeper and to provide a different view of Greenwich history that is an unapolegetically African-American one. It is the view of people who lived on the margins of recorded history whose lives were not remembered as they should have been. The more I learn, the more I want to make visible this Black Greenwich history. This blogpost is my attempt at defining the Hangroot community and a start at reclaiming it’s past. It is by no means perfect, but it is the foundation on which I will write future blogposts and a book. It is nothing less than a work in progess that focuses on an intrinsic part of 19th century Greenwich history that is Black Greenwich history.
The methodolgy I used to compile this list is based on 100 years of census records indicating the presence of African-Americans in the area known as Hangroot within the geographical boundaries specified above. I also cross-checked some of these names with emancipation records found in Jeffrey Bingham Mead’s book, Chains Unbound: Slave Emancipation in the Town of Greenwich, CT. Articles in various newspaper archives were also reviewed. Finally, I was able to secure documents regarding Hangroot from both the Greenwich Historical Society and the Greenwich Library.
Below are the names of African-Americans who owned homes in Hangroot from 1800-1900. I have also listed the approximate population of African-Americans who lived in Hangroot as this number also includes African-Americans who were living in white households at times as slaves and/or servants and farmhands/laborers.
NOTE: When I refer to “Black Greenwich,” I am specifically referring to only those African-American residents below who have the surnames listed and their descendants. They are people who either were born in Greenwich, CT or resided there before the Civil War. These African-Americans constitute the founding African-American population of Greenwich, CT.
Possible 1800-1809 Residents: Isaac Negro* (Carpenter), Ned Negro, Jeffrey Negro ** (Felmetta) York Negro (Mead), and Anthony Negro (Green)
*All African-Americans recorded in the first three census records for Greenwich, CT were given the surname “Negro.” I added the correct surnames of these individuals in parentheses when possible so that their descedants may one day be able to locate them. They are “Negro” no more.
** The surname Felmetta seems to be unique to Greenwich, CT. No connection to a white Felmetta has been uncovered yet. There is the possiblity that this surname was chosen by Jeffrey Felmetta himself. It was not unusual for former slaves to take on a surname of their own choosing as an act of self-determination. This name has many spelling variations and include Filmetta, Fellmote, Felmette, Felemetta, Fillmeter, Fillimetta, Felmestra, Felmetty, and others. I used the spelling Felmetta throughout this blogpost for consistency.
***Update: My cousin Dennis Richmond, Jr. on 8/19/17, found a 1947 obituary for Sarah Banks Green that indicated that the Felmettas were part Native American. Sarah’s father was William Banks, who is listed in the 1860 Greenwich census, and he was a Mohawk Indian. Her mother was Loretta Felmetta amd she was said to be part Native American (Mohawk)
In the 1800 census, 84 free African-Americans were recorded as living in Greenwich along with 39 enslaved people. The only free Black property owners listed were an Isaac Negro (Carpenter), Ned Negro and York (Mead). However, Jeffrey Negro (Felmetta) is not listed in the 1800 census, but we know via property records that he owned property as early as 1784 and he is listed in the 1790 census as being a free Black along with 8 other free Black heads of households. My 4th great-grandfather Anthony Negro (Green) and his wife Peg, who was freed in 1800, moved to Hangroot sometime before 1810.
Population: Approx 80 individuals
1810 Residents: Isaac Negro (Carpenter), Henry Negro (Seymour), Horace Negro (Watson), Jeffrey Negro (Felmetta), George Negro (Moore), Ned Negro, Obid Negro (Davenport), Anthony Negro (Green), Cull Negro (Bush), and Frank Negro (Husted).
Population: Approx. 126 individuals
1820 Residents: Harry Brown, John Indian*, Anthony Green, Isaac Carpenter, Jeremiah Mitchell, Frank Husted, Charles Negro (Merritt), Cuff Brown, Jeffrey Felmetta, Henry Seymour, Henry Santes, Allah African**, York Mead, Aaron Felmetta, Sarah More, Catherine Felmetta, and John Ellis.
*A Hardy Indian, who may be a possible descendant of the John Indian, is recorded on the 1850 census as being “mulatto” and working as a farmhand. It is important to note that the category “mulatto” actually erases Native-Americans in the historical record by conflating them with other people of color. We also see the surname “Indian” being given to people of Native American descent. Hardy Indian is considered to be one of the last Native Americans in Greenwich and is buried west of Round Hill Road in an unmarked grave.
**Allah African is the only African-American whom I found whose place of birth is listed as “Africa.” Given his first name, it can be assumed that he was born a Muslim somewhere in Africa. He was also the wealthiest African-American in Greenwich during the 1800s.
Population: Approx. 147 individuals
1830 Residents:Anthony Green, Sr., Anthony Green, Jr., Henry Green, Charles Merritt, James Mills, Sarah More, Ichabod Purdy*, John Ellis, Jeffrey Felmetta, Sam Carpenter, Robert Treadwell, Morris Mead, Henry Seymour, John Indian, York Mead, Wdw. Rose Felmetta, Thomas Carpenter, George Barker, Harry Bounds, Allah African, and Edmund Thompson.
*When Ichabad Purdy died in 1878 in Hangroot, at the age of 96 years and 8 months, he was considered to be one of the oldest residents. In various census records, his surname is listed as being Lars, St. Lair, Lair, and Lan for reasons unknown. The variations in these spellings may be a result of a mistake on the part of the census taker.
Population: Approx. 174 individuals
1840 Residents: Allen Green, Solomon Green, Henry Green, Charles Merritt, Isaac Carpenter, Floyd Mills, Henry Merritt*, Robert Merritt*, George Watson, Horace Watson, Henry Felmetta, Allah African, Henry Belcher, Joseph Brown, Horace Mead, James Felmetta, Emmeline Brown, Ichabod Purdy, John Lyon, Edmund Thompson, Charles Porter, and Joseph Davenport.
*Please note that Robert and his son Henry Merritt are not related to our Merritt line. They are the descendants of Whitman Merritt who was born around 1720. Whitman’s son Robert Merritt was born in 1737. This is the oldest African-American Merritt line from Greenwich that we know of at this time.
Population: Approx.182 individuals
1850 Residents: Allen Green, Solomon Green, Henry Green, Charles Merritt, Anthony Green, Henry Belcher, Ichabod Purdy, Edmund Thompson, Floyd Mills, Charles Brown, Isaac Merritt, Henry Felmetta, Horace Watson, George Watson, William Peterson, Henry Merritt, Allah African, Robert Merritt, and George Peck.
Population: Aprox. 113 individuals
1860 Residents: Allen Green, Solomon Green, Henry Green, Charles Merritt, Henry Brown, William Purdy, Ichabod Purdy, James Purdy, Joseph Carpenter, Charles Brown, Abraham Merritt, Samuel H. Merritt, Allah African, Henry Merritt, Robert Merritt, Caleb Webb, Delilah Bush, Theodore Anderson, William Peterson, Grace Belcher, Polly Merritt, George Felmetta, Charles Meyers, Robert Felmetta, Susan Green, Henry Felmetta, William Banks (Native American), William Mead, and Amos Carpenter.
Population: Approx. 134 individuals
1870 Residents: Allen Green, Samuel H. Merritt, Tempy Green, Theodore Mills, William Carpenter, Charles Brown, William Belcher, William Purdy, William Brown, William Peterson, Solomon Green, Samuel Merritt, Henry Husted, Abraham Merritt, Samuel Green, Isaac Merritt, Henry Merritt, Horace Treadwell, Charles Meyer, George Peck, Allah African, Henry Felmetta, Robert Anderson, Charles Banks, and Robert Peterson.
Population: Approx. 125 individuals
1880 Residents:Solomon Green, Henry Felmetta, Joseph Purdy, Maria Purdy, Joseph Carpenter, Charles Banks, Samuel H. Merritt, Theordore Mills, Charles Green, Isaac Merritt, Thomas Green, Harry Merritt, William Peterson, Joseph Purdy. Charles Merritt, and Robert Peterson.
Population: Approx. 53 indivduals
1900 Residents: Thomas Green, Joseph Merritt, James Banks, Samuel H. Merritt, Edward Merritt, Willis Merritt, Victoria Peterson, Charles Merritt, Alonzo Merritt, Adeline Merritt, Cornelius Purdy, Aaron Felmetta, and Maria Merritt.
Population: Approx. 58 individuals
Our Lyon-Green-Merritt Hangroot Connection
My 4th great-grandfather, Anthony Green, Sr., only 4 years after he was legally emancipated by the widow of Captain John Green, was included in an 1820 $5,000 land deal that was signed on April 17,1820. He went in as an equal partner along with Thomas Green (the nephew/son-in-law of John Green, Anthony’s former slave owner), Samuel Lyon (a Lyon relative of Anthony’s wife Peg who was emancipated by Benjamin Woolsey Lyon, her uncle), Zophar Mead, Isaac Mead, Jabez Mead, William Robbins, Carr Robbins, Samuel Pine, and Elisha Belcher. All of these men were neighbors either in Sherwood’s Bridge (Glenville) or in Rye, NY. This land deal included several pieces of land which included Anthony’s land in Hangroot near Round Hill Rd. and Horseneck Brook as well as his land near the Green family which was at the westernmost border of Hangroot near today’s Pecksland Rd. As previously stated in another post, Anthony and Peg were both mulattos and were slave descedants of both the Green and Lyon families and their interactions and those of their children and grandchildren are indicative of close kin ties. As will be seen, at no point in the 1800s did our Lyon-Green-Merritt ancestors NOT live near or interact with their former slave owners and their descendants.
The 1858 Clark mapbelow indicates where my 4th great-grandparents, Anthony and Peg Green, were living in 1810 which was right beside Anthony’s former Green slave owners. They owned their own property. Although Anthony wasn’t formerly emancipated until 1816, he was living with Peg and their three youngest sons (Allen, Solomon and Henry) probably earlier than 1810 as Peg was emancipated in 1800. It is a matter of pride to learn that, through their hard work, they were able to accumulate enough money to buy even more land of their own — land that they were able to then passed on to their descendants.
The 1820 census was enumerated on August 7th, 1820 which means that Anthony and Peg moved to their new home in Hangroot at the intersection of Round Hill Rd. and Horseneck Brook soon after he obtained his share of the land deal. In other woods, in true Jeffersonian fashion, they moved on up to “the East side (i.e., Round Hill)” and got a piece of the pie”—- initially speaking. Looking at the 1820 census, we see that they were living next to the Husted family which included Amos, Caleb, and Aaron as well as their father, Peter. As you will see, various members of the Husted family, who intermarried with our Lyon ancestors, lived alongside of Anthony and Peg and their descendants for decades.
According to the 1830 census record, Anthony, Jr. is living in the home that his father used to live in the 1810s. Our Green ancestors are still living next to their Green kin. Meanwhile, Anthony, Sr. is now living next to his sons Henry and Charles Merritt in a different section of Hangroot. His sons, Allan and Solomon, both moved to Hangroot’s Round Hill location in the late 1830s.
In 1837, one year after Anthony, Sr. died, his 5 sons (Charles, Allen, Henry, Solomon and Plato) sold part of his land to Henry Merritt, another African-American man. From the 1840s until the early 1900s, our African-American ancestors made Hangroot their home. They intermarried with the Watsons, Mills, Pecks, Petersons, Felmettas, Purdys, Banks, and other Hangroot families. They went to the same churches and socialized together. Throughout the 1800s, one can see how people in Hangroot took care of each other by taking in relatives and neighbors when required. Although our ancestors were farmers, stone masons, laborers, coachmen, and servants, they were part of old Greenwich from the beginning. As to not rehash what I have previously written, a more detailed account of our family history in Hangroot from 1850 onward can be found here.
The decline of our Hangroot community was the direct result of several factors. First, immigration starting in the early 1840s resulted in the Irish, Scottish, and other white immigrants moving to Greenwich and taking the jobs held previously by African-Americans — jobs like farmhands, laborers and servants. Second, industrialization brought the railroad and woolen mills (e.g., Hawthorne Woolen Mill and American Felt Company) to Greenwich in the mid-1800s. The jobs in those industries went to the English, Irish, Scottish, Polish, and other Eastern European immigrants. Perhaps the biggesr reason though had to do with the arrival of the Rockefellers to Hangroot which dramatically changed Greenwich by ushering in the NYC leisure class who then started to build massive country estates.
In regards to Hangroot, William Avery Rockefeller, brother of John D. Rockefeller and co-founder of Standard Oil, started purchasing property in the area in 1870 and his descedants continued doing so up until the early 1900s. As indicated in the 1887 map above, one sees how the Rockefellers had a dramatic impact on Hangroot that had been a home to our ancestors for decades. When the Rockefellers moved next door to them, it was hard for our ancestors to continue to exist as they had in the decades prior. I am also certain that other low and middle-class white farmers were equally displaced by the Rockefellers. According to its very definition gentrification is a process of renewal that occurs when there is an influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents. In the case of Hangroot, it resulted in a loss of of an historic African-American community and the erasure of its history.
The Green-Twachtman House: The House That Allen Green Built in 1845
My 3rd great-grandfather, Allen Green, lived in Rye, NY, in 1830. As you can see from the 1830 Rye, NY census record, he was living near Samuel Lyon and Samuel Pine, two of the people who went in on the 1820 land deal with his father Anthony in 1820.
Allen purchased property at 30 Round Hill Road from Walter Avery on April 8, 1839. It was Allen who built his house in 1845 — a house that is now affiliated more with John H. Twachtman. Walter Avery had lived in Hangroot as early as 1810 and resided in the same area as the Husteds. However, it was in the 1830s when he bought this particular property.
In 1990, Nils Kerschus, an architectural researcher at the Greenwich Historical Society, compiled the deed title search for the Green-Twachtman House. As Allen’s descedant, I quickly noticed what a genealogical goldmine this document was in terms of our own family history. Allen bought the property in 1839 and owned the property up until his death in 1878. A year later his estate sold his 3 acres of land with buildings to a Franz Stuba.
It was sold for $860. The Port Chester Journal on March 27, 1879 documented the sale as can be seen below.
Franz Stuba in turn sold the property to Lawrence Green who then sold it to David S. Husted. It is interesting to note that both men have kin ties to our Lyon-Green-Merritt line. Lawrence Green was a descendant of my 4th great-grandfather’s former slave owner, John Green. His grandfather, Benjamin Green, was the nephew of John Green, whom Anthony lived next to in 1810. David S. Husted was the great-grandson of Benjamin Woolsey Lyon who emancipated my 4th great-grandmother in 1800. David’s grandfather was William H. Husted whose wife, Mary Lyon, was the daughter of Benjamin Woolsey Lyon. Moreover, William’s brother Drake Husted, along with his wife, Nancy Marvin Lyon, were the couple, who raised my 4th great-uncle Jack Husted, Peg and Anthony’s son — the only son who never lived in Hangroot though it is clear he visited family there. The administrator of Allen’s estate, Joseph B. Husted was the son of Drake and Nancy Husted.
In this 1868 Town of Greenwich map, we observe that Mrs. Husted, David S. Husted’s mother, owned the property adjacent to Allen’s. In the 1887 Road map at the beginning of this blogpost, one sees that David S. Husted now owns Allen’s property having bought it in 1884. He sold Allen’s house to John H. Twachtman in 1890.
By 1890, the year John H. Twachtman arrived in the Hangroot that was our hood, it was already in decline. Twatchman was an artist looking to purchase land that he could afford. I don’t for one minute buy into the myth, propogated by Goodwin, that he just happened upon my 3rd great-grandfather’s property while following the bends of Horseneck Brook, was touched by the natural environment, and just had to live there. I simply see his arrival in Hangroot as part of the larger process of gentrification begun by the Rockefellers.
Twachtman was fully aware that, if he purchased property there, it would be cheaper because it was considered an area where poor Black farmers lived, an area that was filled with “Connecticut potatoes (i.e., stones),” and very difficult to farm. Moreover, Twachtman knew that the property would eventually increase in value given the nearby presence of the Rockefellers. In addition, since he wasn’t a farmer, he recognized that he could further increase the value of his property by using his creative and artistic skills to make improvements that would highlight the natural landscape. Twachtman did what every struggling artist-gentrifier has done throughout the ages when moving into an up and coming area. I don’t begrudge him for doing that and I am grateful to be able to look at his art and know that some of his inspiration came from Hangroot. But, let’s not deny the historical fact that he went to Hangroot because that’s where he could only afford to buy land at the time.
This gentrification of Hangroot continued. For example, in 1884, David S. Husted sold some of his land to William Rockefeller to satisfy a judgement against him as a result of a court case between him and Alexander Mead. Before he died, he sold the rest of his property to him as well. As noted below, he had to remove his family cemetery from the premises before he did. The Rockefellers would go on to buy more and more property so that, at one point, they owned about 400 acres of land. Later generations of Rockerfellers would go on to break up their large estates and sell off the smaller parcels of land. There was no way that our Hangroots ancestors could ever compete with this level of gentrification. No way at all.
Over one hundred years later, the Green-Twachtman House still stands for all to see. I was excited to learn about Sesame Street and The Muppets creator Jim Hensons’s ties to the Green-Twachtman House. As a child, who was born in the late 1960’s, and who grew up watching Sesame Street on PBS, I could not be happier. The affiliation with Sesame Street, I believe, was meant to be. Sesame Street always represented a world to me where everyone was accepted, diversity was celebrated, lessons were learned, and everyone was happy in the end. I have met members of the Henson family and I am looking forward to a guided tour of the house with the current owner, John Nelson, very soon. I look forward to having the Hensons and the Nelsons accompany our family on this journey of discovery that ultimately connects us all to the same house. I am blessed indeed.
Hangroot Heroes: Members of the 29th Infantry United States Colored Troops
Please note that information for this section comes from the National Archives (Fold3). Previous accounts of the Greenwich men who fought in the 29th Infantry of the United States Colored Troops included men who enlisted from neighboring communities in Westchester County, NY. The list below is accurate.
The following are the names of the 18 Hangroot African-American men who fought for the 29th Infantry of the Connecticut Colored Troops during the Civil War. These men volunteered to fight in a war that ultimately led to the freedom of their enslaved countrymen. They were John Banks, Amos T. Carpenter, Silas M. Carpenter, Charles E. Green (my 3rd great-uncle) George E. Green (my 1st cousin 4XR) James H. Green (my 3rd great-uncle), William Green (my 1st cousin 4XR), William H. Hicks, William Meade, Isaac Merritt (my 1st cousin 4XR), Whitman Merritt, Floyd T. Mills, William O. Mills, Charles Moore, Robert Peterson (brother of Emily Peterson, wife of my 3rd great-uncle Thomas Green), George Porter, Charles E. Treadwell, and Horace Watson (father of Annice Watson who married William Green). Out of 18 men from Hangroot, 7 (a 39% death rate) paid the ultimate sacrifice. They were John Banks, William Mead, Floyd T. Mills, Charles Moore, George T. Porter, Charles E. Treadwell, and Horace Watson. May God bless them, and all the other Greenwich men, for their service to this country. They were all on the right side of history.
Charles E. Green, George E. Green, William Green, Isaac Merritt, and Robert Peterson are buried in Union Cemetery in Greenwich. Silas M. Carpenter is buried in the Gethsamene (African-American) Cemetery, in Little Ferry, NJ. Floyd T. Mills died at Lovell General Hospital in Portsmouth Grove, RI and is buried in Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY. During the Civil War, Horace Watson, William Mead, and Charles E. Treadwell died in Beaufort, SC, John Banks and George Porter died in Fort Monroe, VA, and Charles Moore died in Brownsville, TX. The burial places of Amos T. Carpenter, Whitman Merritt, William H. Hicks, and William O. Mills are unknown. As for my 3rd great-uncle, James H. Green, the only Sergeant 1st Class from Greenwich in the 29th Infantry, it can be assumed that he died and is buried in a pauper’s grave somewhere in NYC. I look forward to the day when I will write a blogpost just on these 18 Hangroot heroes because they were our own.
The Problem With The Perspective Of Outsiders: A Hangroot Descendant’s View
Last week, I was directed to a photo taken behind the house that my 3rd great-grandfather built. I was made aware of three African-American people in the background looking down at the photographer taken this photo. According to Nils Kerschus, a former researcher at the Greenwich Historical Society who researched Hangroot between 1889-1902 before and after Twachtman arrived, the only ancestors we had left in Hangroot were: Samuel H. Merritt (my 1st cousin 4XR), his wife Catherine, sons Frank and Herbert (my 2nd cousins 3XR), and his granddaughter Sorelia (my 2nd cousin 4XR) in a house they owned; James Banks, his wife Josephine (Samuel’s daughter and my 2nd cousin 3XR), her brother Mandeville Merritt (my 2nd cousin 3XR) were in a 2nd house they owned, and Edward Merritt (Samuel’s son and my 2nd cousin 3XR), his wife Laura Green Merritt (my 2nd great-aunt) and their son Samuel (my 3rd cousin 2XR due to a cousin marriage) were in a 3rd house which they were renting. I should note that, in 1905, Samuel H. Merritt’s and James Banks’ properties were demolished by Frederic Maples, a real estate developer.
No one knows who the photographer was who took this 1890 photo. In any case, I can only imagine how our ancestors felt on that day. Our Hangroot community experienced an almost 50% decline in population from 1870 to 1900. When I saw the photo, I felt a sense of loss. I will never know who exactly those three individuals were just that they were our own. They are forever seared in my mind as three haunting spirits who were bearing witness to the loss of their land. However, I am glad to have this very poignant photo because it is a historic reminder of the displacement that our ancestors experienced. Between 1905 and 1910, our Hangroot community disappears as people have to relocate elsewhere as they become priced out of their neighborhood and work becomes hard to find. Hangroot then becomes the Hangroot of today and it’s history as an African-American commutity is erased. It is now a place more associated with the Rockefellers, Twachtman, and other individuals who came later. The “Allen Green” part of the “Green-Twachtman House” for all intensive purposes has been forgotten and is only mentioned in a footnote in the title deed history of the house and mentioned in a newspaper when it was sold in 1879.
In his often cited Country Life in America 1905 article, Alfred Henry Goodwin, seeks to detail all the improvements that Twachtman made to his property, but, in the process, makes elitest statements about the house before Twachtman bought it. He refers to the house that Allen built as being “ugly” and how this house “desecrated” the land. Of course, Twachtman is portrayed as the man who arrived to “beautify the property” and made it harmonize with the natural environment as only he could. Likewise, Susan G. Larkin in her article, On Home Ground: John Twachtman and the Familiar Landscape, not only quotes Goodwin, but even juxtoposes the 1890 photo of the back of 30 Round Hill Rd. featuring the Horseneck Falls above with a 1905 photo of the same Horseneck Falls that Goodwin presented in his article. While the 1890 photo was taken seemingly in the Winter and shows a barren landscape with my three ancestors present in the background, the 1905 photo was obviously taken the in the Summer and shows a much shadier, lush, and cultivated environment. They are meant to be Before and After photos clearly. Both Goodwin and Larkin see Twachtman as the “Great White Hope” who rescues the property from its poor Black farmer past. Clearly, they admire what Twachtman has done to the environment and his house. There is no need to elaborate on those who owned the property before or who still lived next to his property then. Unlike me, they are either unaware or not concerned with how their words negatively taint the community of Hangroot because they don’t see this community though they are right in the midst of it. All the focus on Twachtman’s “beautifying the property” obscures and renders invisible the community that was Hangroot. Defining Hangroot as “a Black settlement” or indicating that “poor Black farmers” lived there says nothing actually about this community itself. But, of course, people assume that they know everything when they hear such designations.
Standing Up For My Ancestors By Reclaiming Hangroot and Black Greenwich History: We Shall Be Erased No More
As a descendant of Hangroot ancestors, I am acutely aware of how our Black Greenwich family history has been lost, erased, and forgotten. In researching my own family history, I came across an article by Christine McKay titled African Americans in 19th Century Greenwich:Notes on New Research. It was published in 2001 in conjuction with a Greenwich Historical Society exhibit on African-Americans in Greenwich. Other than Jeffrey Bingham Mead, McKay is the only other historian that I know of who has sought to factually present a portrait of Black Greenwich. However, even she recognized that, although she had researched African Americans in Greenwich, the Abolitionist movement, and Underground Railroad for her article, there was much more research yet to be done.
Needless to say, my blogposts on Greenwich will eventually lead to a book on my family’s history as the descendants of both Lyon slaves and Lyon slave owners that traces back to the 17th century. I will be defining and reclaiming both the Hangroot and Byram sections of Greenwich as our home. I will be giving a “bottom up” perspective, rather than a “top down” perspective, that defines and accurately portrays my ancestors and their community. Our Lyon-Green-Merritts family history is nothing less than an African-American success story that was born of slavery personified in Greenwich, CT. I began this blogpost with the photo that was taken in Hangroot in 1897. This is the Hangroot that my family was part of for 100 years. It is a visual reminder of just how vibrant this community was even in the midst of being erased from history. This is the Hangroot that I will be researching for years to come. We shall be erased no more.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been kneep-deep in genealogical and family history research that I know has been guided by my Greenwich ancestors. I may not be a religious person, but I am a spiritual one. For almost a year, I have also been trying to get justice for my ancestors in the fight over the Byram African-American Cemetery where my ancestors reside in a peace that has been disturbed. When I first learned about my 4th great-grandparents, Anthony and Peg, I called their names and let them know that they were found and would never be lost to history or their descendants again. And I meant every word that I said when I said them. They have never left my side since then and they keep visiting me in my dreams — visitations that guide me and push me to continue telling their true stories.
What happened to my ancestors in Hangroot, when gentrification came, is just a continuation of gentrification that is still happening in Greenwich today, but on an even grander scale — a gentrification that originally included 19th and 20th century millionaires, now includes 21st century millionaires AND hedge fund billionaires. Historic homes and places are being demolished and replaced with larger homes and McMansions today. When this happens, local history is lost and family history is lost as well. If you are a person who has a long family history in Greenwich which was well documented, you may not feel the same impact as those of us, who also have long family histories in Greenwich as well, but our family histories were barely recorded in historical records because our ancestors were born slaves. When the places we occupied, in life and death, disappear, our family history disappears as well. The fight over the Byram African-American Cemetery is a fight, not only about whether or not the residents of 11 Byram Dock Rd. own and have a right to “beautify the property,” but, it is also a battle that I am engaged in to defend my ancestors’ burial place AND to prevent the loss of our larger family history in Greenwich itself. To be clear, when Twachtman arrived in Hangroot in 1890 and “beautified the property’, he made improvements on property that he owned. The couple at 11 Byram Dock Rd., however, don’t own — but are claiming to own — a burial ground that had always been a part of the Byram Cemetery of our Lyon ancestors. They acknowledge the two white cemeteries in our extended family, but want to deny the existence of our Black one so that my ancestors are now buried in what looks like someone’s front lawn. I remain resolute and steadfast in standing up for my ancestors and reclaiming and defending our family history. Why one may ask? Because of our Anthony and Peg, our esteemed slave ancestors. When the light of a freedom certain came, they crawled down that path to emancipation and stood up and took some steps so that their children and grandchildren could walk so that their descendants could run on and keep running so that their descedants today could fly. I know that they are counting on me to be the sum of their Byram and Hangroot hopes and dreams and to be their voice from beyond their Byram graves. I will be representing them for as long as I live with pride. I am a proud slave descendant who comes from good stock indeed.
On Documenting the Underground Railroad In Greenwich: Why These 5 Places Matter
While the role that Greenwich white abolitionists and anti-slavery activists has been researched in regards to the Underground Railroad, the role that the free Black population in Greenwich played in shepherding enslaved people to freedom has never been studied. Because of this, I have been complelled to first define the free Black community in Greenwich that existed in the 19th century. That community was Hangroot. At the end of my previous blogpost, I wrote about the direction of my current research which will also look at the history of the White anti-slavery activists/abolitionists in our extended Lyon family and their social networks as well. As I said then, it can’t just be a coincidence that our Hangroot Greens and Merritts have a cousin named Hawley Green, who along with his wife Harriet Peterson Green, were stationmasters on the Underground Railroad in Peekskill, NY in the 1830s. Its can’t be another coincidence that our Hangroot ancestors have ties to the free Black populations of Westchester County, NY that extend back to the late 1700s and early 1800s. Below are the places that matter in Greenwich to our Lyon-Green-Merritt family.
This house is the oldest house in Greenwich built by my 9th great-uncle. It is an historic house that is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and is also on the CT Freedom Trail list. This is the house where a distant cousin, Seth Lyon, harbored a fugitive slave named Peter John Lee for six years. As I documented in my blogpost Coming to The Table in Honor of Jack Husted, Seth and his cousin Gilbert Lyon were anti-slavery activists and members of the Whig Party (Northeast), an anti-slavery party. Their social network included known Greenwich abolitionists like Deacon Jonas Mead, a neighbor of Gilbert Lyon, a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad, and Vice-President of the Fairfield Anti-Slavery Society.
2) Our Byram Cemeteries : The Lyon, Byram and Byram African-American Cemeteries
These three cemeteries link our Lyon, Green and Merritt ancestors to both the Thomas Lyon House and to the Green-Twachtman House. Our family ancestors, on both sides of the color line, were born and bred in Byram and are buried there. The Lyon family is one of the 17th century founding families of Greenwich. It was our Lyon ancestors who created a section of their Byram Cemetery for their slaves and former slaves. The Byram African-American Cemetery is where our Anthony and Peg are buried. Lyon-Green-Merritt descendants trace their ancestry back to Peg, who was the mulatto daughter of Daniel Lyon, who is buried in the Byram Cemetery.
I am a proud member of the Greenwich Preservation Trust (GPT) an organization that stood up three years ago to defend the desecration of the Byram African-American Cemetery. Along with our Lyon cousins, we are now united in restoring The Thomas Lyon House and backing the Town of Greenwich’s acquisition of all three of our ancestral cemeteries and making all of them historic ones. I will continue to support this organization any way I can. I want to also take the time here to thank Jo Conboy, State Rep. Michael Bocchino, the GPT Board and members for advocating for the passage of a new law that will protect abandoned cemeteries in the State of Connecticut in lieu of our current battle to save the Byram African-American Cemetery. The new law passed the legislature last week and is now on to the Senate for final approval.
3) Union Cemetery (Lot 23)
Second Congregational Church opened Lot 23 for the poor and Colored people in 1851. Half the people buried in that lot are our Green, Merritt, Husted ancestors along with other Hangroot families like the Banks, Felmetta, Watsons, Petersons and others. Five members of the 29th Infantry are buried there as well. In addition, some of our white Lyon and Husted ancestors are buried in other sections of Union Cemetery.
4) Little Bethel AME Church
Little Bethel AME Church was founded in 1882 and was the first Black church founded in Greenwich, CT. It is also listed on the CT Freedom Trail. The founding members of this church included Charles E. Green, Allen Banks, George Treadwell, Augusta Felmetta, Ellen Banks, Caselia Merritt, Catherine Merritt, Mandeville Merritt, Ruben Belcher, Mr. and Mrs. Belcher, Cornelia Bush, and Esther Bush. All were originally from Hangroot. Later church members included the descendants of these families.
5) The Green-Twachtman House
This landmark house was built in 1845 by my 3rd great-grandfather, Allen Green, the 5th son of Anthony and Peg Green who settled in Hangroot in 1820. Allen arrived in 1839 when he bought property at 30 Round Hill Rd. His wife, Mary Johnson Green may have been born a fugitive slave from Virginia who made Hangroot her haven when she married the Allen. Allen and his extended family were cousins to Hawley Green and his wife Harriet Peterson Green, who owned an Underground Railroad House in Peekskill, NY in the 1830s.
If I can prove that Mary was in fact fugitive slave and/or I can prove a more definitve link between our Hangroot Greens and Merritts and Hawley and Harriet Peterson Green, then I will then make it my new mission to apply for state and federal recognition so the house that Allen built is recognized as an Underground Railroad House and the community that was Hangroot will be known as a confirmed depot stop on the Underground Railroad. One day soon I will proudly stand in front of 30 Round Hill Rd. and hold up a sign that says THIS PLACE MATTERED MORE THAN ANYONE KNEW. I already know in my heart of hearts that it does and always did.
May my ancestors continue to be my guide on my mission to seek their historical truths.
Goodwin, Alfred Henry. An Artist’s Unspoiled Country Home. Country Life In America. Vol. 8 (October 1905), pp. 625-630.
Larkin, Susan G. On Home Ground: John Twachtman and the Familiar Landscape. The American Art Journal, Vol. 29, No 1/2 (1998), pp. 52-85.
McKay, Christine. African Americans in Nineteenth Century Greenwich. Greenwich History. Vol 6 (2001), pp. 56-74.
Mead, Daniel. A History of the Town of Greenwich, Fairfield, CT. NY:Baker and Godwin Printers, 1857.
Peters, Lisa. John Twachtman (1853-1902) and The American Scene in the Late Nineteenth Century: Frontiers within the Terrain of the Familiar. 2 Vols. PhD Dissertation. City University of New York, 1995. (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms International, 1996).
This blogpost is dedicated to all my Lyon, Green and Merritt ancestors and their descendants who are our cousins. I would also like to thank Jo Conboy and her family as well as the Greenwich Preservation Trust for all of their support.
On The Lyon Moral Compass That Was Inherited
For the past six months, my family and I have had to deal with our ancestors’ burial ground being desecrated and our ancestors’ peace, above and below the boulder, being disturbed in Byram Cemetery. Though I am not an overtly religious person, I am a spiritual one. My mother, Joyce Green Vega, instilled in me a faith that anything was possible with God on our side. I was raised in Messiah Baptist Church in Brockton, MA and I have never forgotten the seeds of faith that were sowed in me there. If there is anything I’ve learned in the past six months, it is that my faith and connection to my ancestors have never been stronger. I know without a doubt that my family’s quest for justice for our ancestors is on the right side of history and that we can’t lose with God and all our ancestors are on our side.
Last August, my cousins and I visited our ancestral burial ground in Byram Cemetery in Greenwich, CT. We were all set to settle for a plaque on a tree commemorating what used to be called “The Colored Cemetery.” I’ve written about that visit in another post so I won’t rehash it here. I am now certain that God and our ancestors, above and below the boulder, were sending us a message on that day. That message was a simple one and it was that they gave us the same moral compass that they gave all their Lyon descendants. That moral compass was what led our Lyon ancestors to reserve a space in Byram Cemetery for their slaves, slave descendants and free blacks in the first place. It’s the same moral compass that they also gave Henry S. Lyon and all the other Lyons in Byram back in 1890 when the was first desecration of the Byram Cemetery occurred. Back then, the Lyons stood up for the people who were buried in “The Colored Cemetery” — some of whom they no doubt knew and remembered —-when they said that the land was consecrated and not meant for personal use. It’s the same moral compass that our Lyon cousins had almost three years ago when they, too, decided to take a stand against the current desecration of Byram Cemetery along with members of the Greenwich Preservation Trust and other concerned citizens. They, too, stood up for our ancestors in our family’s absence over these past three years. On September 22, 2016, I spoke on behalf of our ancestors buried in what is now known as the Byram African-American Cemetery as well as our Lyon ancestors who created that sacred space for them to rest in peace. In less than a month, I discovered that my cousins and I had also inherited that same moral compass. I considered it a gift that I hope will never stop ticking.
We Still Are United: Now More Than Ever
On March 26, 2017, I spoke, as part of the Greenwich Preservation Trust Heritage Speaker Series, at the Garden Education Center of Greenwich in the Cos Cob, NY. It was the first time I had ever spoken in Greenwich, our ancestral hometown with roots going back to 1600s. That my family, the descendants of Lyon slaves, was joined by our Lyon cousins, the descendants of our family slave owners was epic. I would never have predicted this day to happen six months earlier. It wasn’t even a thought. But, our ancestors willed it and so it came to be.
We Will Be Coming to the Table Again and Again
In my blogpost on my 4th great-uncle Jack Husted, I wrote about how my Lyon cousin Julie Pollock helped me discover what happened to Jack who was sold as a slave in 1796 at the age of 3. Julie later told me that her 3rd great-uncle, Seth Lyon, who along with his first cousin Gilbert Lyon, harbored a fugitive slave, Peter John Lee, for 6 years until he was recaptured and taken back to VA in 1836 and re-enslaved. It was Julie who led me to investigate what else our Lyon cousins were doing besides harboring a fugitive slave. This led to the discovery that they were members of the Northeast Whig Party which held anti-slavery views, socialized with a Greenwich Underground Railroad stationmaster, Deacon Jonas Mead, and may routinely interacted with people who attended one of the three known abolitionist churches in Greenwich. I am currently investigating the social networks of our Lyon ancestors as well as other Greenwich abolitionists and anti-slavery advocates. Likewise, I am also researching our Green family and their ties to other free black communities in Westchester County, NY and our family link to Hawley and Harriet Green of Peekskill, NY, both stationmasters on the Underground Railroad. That our Greens have ties to these people is very significant. I believe it is critical that we look at the unsung role of free blacks in Greenwich and in Westchester County, NY and how these free blacks may have aided their enslaved brothers and sisters in their quest for freedom via a route that cuts across Westchester County, NY and potentially ends up at our ancestors’ UGRR House in Peekskill, NY.
I am looking forward to telling the story of my Lyon, Green, and Merritt ancestors and how they came to the table in the early 1800s. I rejoice in knowing that I will be aided in some of my research by my Lyon cousins as well. Our joint history came out of the darkness of slavery personified in Greenwich, CT that was born and bred in Byram. It is my ultimate goal to render visible and bring to light all those good Greenwich people who worked together to make this country far greater than it was before. They may have been considered ordinary then, but history should remember them as anything but.
Hangroot Was Our Hood: Reclaiming Black Greenwich History will be my next blogpost. Stay Tuned……
Please note at the end of this blogpost I included a primer for those people who have DNA cousins of color. This blog is dedicated to all my Euro DNA cousins who have embraced me as a distant cousin and who are consistently working on finding our common ancestor. I consider all of you, and there are many, to be my distant cousins without hesitation.
There Sure Was Some Pepper Up in All That Salt: An Ode to Those Who Would Say Otherwise”
Oh DNA, the truth you revealed was received like a 75% off sale,
That which was hidden has been brought to light,
The darkness now gone with pure delight,
Oh DNA, the pepper you have exposed has led to salty souls,
That which is being denied has wounded someone’s white pride,
Our family will always proudly represent all our black, brown, red and white ancestors’ sides,
Oh DNA, the real history you discovered has led to a complicated situation,
That our family, from the start, was baked-up in a US mixed-race oven,
Our genes playing the historical dozens on all those who felt the need to racially govern,
Oh DNA, the overall message you represent will always be one of diversity and genetic unity,
That which is factually-based can never be destroyed,
By those who seem to be pumped up on family falsehoods and antagonistic racial steroids.
Oh DNA, the pepper in all that salt has been passed down to the present,
That which was inherited still remains,
A beautiful testament to all our ancestors in our veins.
DNA Doesn’t Lie: The Denial of the Pepper in Salted Histories
As a descendant of slaves and slave owners, I am always amazed at how my family history is often denied by some Euro DNA cousins or by descendants of my family’s slave owners despite DNA proof. Over the past 3-4 months, I’ve had a couple of individuals take issue with some of my blogposts that mentioned their ancestors or family surnames. The problems they have are rooted in the fact that I have shined a light into the dark closets of their own family histories. You know, the places where all the skeletons hang out and history is miraculously erased or revised.
Slavery was a very nasty, dehumanizing, ugly, and messy institution that lasted for centuries and impacted everyone. I’ve spent over a decade trying to break through all of my family’s genealogical brick walls that slavery left in its wake. My cousin Andrea and I turned to DNA testing to see if DNA would break down some of these walls. I’m happy to say that it has helped break down some walls as well as lead us to a better understanding of our family’s origins. We now know that we have a rich colonial family history in this country and that we descend from the original inhabitants of this land as well as the West African, Malagasy and European immigrants who arrived in the 1600s.
While I am proud of my family history, some people apparently take issue with a person of color, like me, being related to them or sharing ancestors with them. Of course, the first thing they think is that their ancestors couldn’t possibility have had children with a slave. Well, it seems that in my family that scenario was very common as it is in most African-American families. Black folks did not get their beautiful, varied hues — ranging from white to black— on their own. In my family, we also see some instances of consensual interracial relationships that happened centuries ago. For example, I have a Dutch 4th great-grandmother who married my mulatto 4th great-grandfather in the late 1700s. Going back further, some of my free Afro-Dutch ancestors also married Dutch women in the 1600s. Moreover, I am also a descendant of Irish immigrants who arrived in Boston, MA after the Civil War ended and Emancipation Proclamation was signed. My matrilineal haplogroup is H1ag1—European—by the way. It would be a failure on my part if I didn’t mention that my family also had ancestors who passed as white and whose descendants then became “white.” I am acutely aware of how different my family is from other African-American families. While being a slave descendant of a slave owner may be the primary way that I may be related to my Euro DNA cousins, there are other ways that I may be related to them other than via a slavery connection. In a nutshell, if I, or any of my relatives, show up on someone’s DNA Relative list, it is because we have an ancestor in common who shares a genetic tie to both of us. We are genetically related to each other regardless if that person considers us kin, related, or not. A DNA test is a great harbinger of truth and someone’s rejection of a genetic tie to me, or my family, doesn’t change that fact. It just doesn’t. You can’t wish away DNA.
A few months ago I wrote my 2nd blogpost on my Malagasy ancestors who arrived in Manhattan in the late 1600s and ended up in the Tappan Patent with my other West African, Lenapi, and Dutch ancestors. In my blogpost, I wrote the following:
DNA doesn’t lie. What I stated was and is the truth. My ancestors were related to the founding families of Bergen County, NJ and Rockland County, NY because they were either Tappan Patent land grantees, via the Manuel and De Vries Afro-Dutch families, or slaves of other Tappan Patent land grantees. The historical documentation on the formation of the Tappan Patent backs my claims up and our Euro DNA cousins further testify to our genealogical ties to the founding families of this area. Those founding families were the Blauvelts, Ackerman/Ackerson/Emerson, Demarest, Banta, VanBuskirk, Haring, Hopper, Zabriskie, Wortendyke, Van Winkle, Bogardus/Bogart, and others. They also intermarried among each other repeatedly. For example, Bantas married Blauvelts, Demarests, Ackermans, DeGroots and others. There are published Banta and Blauvelt genealogies onAncestry.com that serious researchers can access that documents these marriages.
Recently, I was contacted by a woman who initially portrayed herself to be a distant cousin of my 4th great-grandmother of Malagasy descent, Tun Snyder. This person was not a descendant of Tun at all. In fact, she was a descendant of people who had two surnames, Demarest and Banta, which were among the surnames I mentioned in my blogpost as well as just now. I spoke to her on 2 occasions and then received the email below from her.
It became apparent that she was phishing for information on my genetic ties to people who have the same surnames to the people on her family tree. She was looking for “proof” that I shared the same exact ancestors as her. She told me that she tested at FTDNA and if I wasn’t on her FTDNA Family Finder list, or matched her on Gedmatch, that I needed to follow her instructions above. I never responded to this person’s email as her claims are ridiculous. I never slandered or defamed her ancestors as I don’t even know who they are. Just because two individuals share the same surnames, does not mean they are even related to each other or share DNA with each other. The fact that I do have DNA cousins who have ALL the above surnames on their trees that go back to the same ancestors indicates that we have a genetic tie to someone in their family probably as a result of a Blauvelt marrying into their families. I may not be a DNA match to the above Banta/Demarest descendant, but several people in my family, myself included, have DNA Demarest and Banta cousin matches. In addition, her claims about me and CeCe Moore are totally unwarranted and baseless. And, no, she doesn’t have the right or privilege to take away my First Amendment right to free speech especially when I am discussing my own family history. Not today nor tomorrow.
On Demanding “Proof” from Slave Owner Descendants and Historical Amnesia: An Inconvenient Truth
The email reminded me of another Euro descendant and distant cousin related to my Lyon line from Greenwich, CT. That particular person not only demanded DNA proof of my DNA ties to the Lyon family, but also contacted a CT state archaeologist asking if it was even possible that I could be related to her ancestors via DNA and was asking around if I could make any claims in Probate Court to any thing related to the Lyon Family. Really? Do these folks even consider how offensive they are being? On both occasions, it became very clear that these two individuals hadn’t even read my blogpost or even considered how well-documented I intentionally make my blogposts, with included references, for people like them. They also have shown that they have no clue as to how DNA is inherited.
Both my Pickett-Snyder and Green-Merritt lines are slave owner descended lines. It is well documented that my ancestors were owned by their slave owners, lived in the same households, and no doubt had mixed-race children with their slave owners or male relatives of their slave owners. All of my family’s DNA tests point, not only to our tri-racial ethnic admixture, but also to our genetic ties to the slave owners and their descendants that were inherited because of consensual or nonconsensual relations. My family has colonial roots in NY, NJ, and CT that go back to New Amsterdam under the Dutch so it is not surprising that Dutch surnames appear on my family tree. To the above names, you can also add DeGroat/DeGroot, Vanderzee, Van Riper, Van Ness, Tenbroeck, and others. I strongly believe that my Dutch great-grandmother was a DeGroat/DeGroot based on DNA evidence.
The historical amnesia that some people have regarding slavery is immense. For the record, slavery did occur in the North and the rape of slave women is well documented in every society that was based on slavery—worldwide. These are historical facts that can’t be disputed. If someone is touchy that I mention slave rape aka nonconsensual relations, that’s their problem and not mine. I’m not going to sanitize what my ancestors went through in this country. Sorry, someone doesn’t get to claim that their ancestors, distinguished or not, would never have a child with a slave. How do they know that they didn’t? They weren’t around when their ancestors lived. When I can find my ancestors passed down in Blauvelt wills as property and listed as “slave servant” living with Ackermans, one can forever forfeit the right to ever claim their ancestors never owned slaves. Furthermore, it would really behoove people to research their own family history before trying to erase, or revise history, or critique my blogposts. When I provide references (i.e., books mentioning the NY-Madagascar Slave Trade) on, for example, Cornelius Van Horne, and can google a runaway slave ad that he himself placed in a colonial newspaper, clearly I did my research. They did not. The Van Horne family were well-known for owning slaves, as did most wealthy people of the time in NY and NJ, and they have been routinely written about in books on colonial New York history. No whitewashing will be done on my family history watch when I am trying to learn as much as I can about my family—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Regarding my family’s matches to these Dutch founders of the Tappan Patent, though we do have some 4th cousin matches, a majority of these DNA cousins are in the 5th-8th cousin range. To ask a slave descendant — when most people don’t have family trees going back to the 1600s and 1700s — for “proof” of the exact slave owner ancestor who raped her female ancestor, is insensitive and mindboggling given the very nature of slavery. The institution of slavery can be seen as an example of a rape culture where establishing paternity and parental legitimacy wasn’t even thought of— only the act of reproduction was seen as important. Trust me, though a few slave owners had long-standing ties to their slave children, like my ancestor Daniel Lyon, a majority did not. A majority of slave owner baby daddies weren’t rushing out to register the births of their slave children or leaving them inheritances though they were selling their slave children and willing them to others upon their deaths. The fact that someone can even ask for proof, despite a preponderance of other evidence along with DNA, smacks of privilege and entitlement. They do not own any historical narrative which includes my ancestors. My ancestors lives were valid and they lived during the same historical period as their ancestors. However, that doesn’t mean that my ancestors’ own history should be erased or denied because a slave owner descendant wants to close her eyes, twinkle her nose, nod her head, and shout, “History be gone.” Nah!
A Primer on How to Approach your DNA Cousins of Color
I came up with this primer because I think it is a topic that should be discussed. Many African-Americans have Euro DNA cousins which should come as a surprise to no one. There have been studies done that show African-Americans on average have 24% Euro DNA ( see http://www.cell.com/ajhg/fulltext/S0002-9297(14)00476-5 ). Southern white Americans have on average 1% African DNA. Once people accept the fact that slavery happened and DNA was shared between slaves and slave owners, we can have a real honest conversation, without judgement, about how we are related. African-Americans and other people of color, who have DNA tested, want to know what anyone else wants to know when they finally get their DNA cousin list. How are we related to these people? Given the nature of slavery, the separation of family members, the geographical dislocation of our ancestors, we are hungry for more info on our roots.
Here’s my advice:
1) Acknowledge that you DO have a genetic link with a person of color. DNA doesn’t lie. That link may be due primarily to slavery or it could be due to consensual interracial relationships, racial passing, white immigration not related to slavery, immigration of one Euro descendant to the US and their siblings/other relatives to other parts of the world like the Caribbean, Europe, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, etc. Keep an open mind as to all possibilities.
2) Don’t assume any guilt, or fear judgement, for actions that happened in the past. You are not responsible for the actions of your ancestors. That being said, don’t repeat the mistakes of the past by denying your DNA cousins in this day and age. While you can’t change the past, you can change the present. You are 100% responsible for educating yourself about all of your family history given the results of your DNA test and DNA cousin matches.
3) Don’t assume that your DNA cousins are looking for 40 acres and a mule, an inheritance, or any material gain from you. Your DNA cousins are looking for any info you can provide on your ancestors in relation to theirs. You may not be able to provide this info and that’s OK, too.
4) Share any info that you may have (e.g., names/surnames, family locations, names of slaves documented in family wills, cemetery locations, etc.). You never know what info may be valuable to someone. When you have nothing to go on, any info should be welcomed. Please be mindful that you may or may not share the same surnames. During slavery and after, African-Americans took on different surnames — either a slave owner surname or one of their own choosing. If you don’t match via a surname, then look for family records, like wills, that list slaves’ first names.
5) Don’t deny the other person’s family history. Don’t assume that because they provide you with new info on your family that what they are saying is a lie because it does not match up with what you’ve been told. Take seriously what has been relayed to you. Ask questions of your DNA cousins. Ask them where they got their info and then do your own research. You may just learn from a different perspective. It’s fine to be proud of your ancestors without denying historic reality. You may also find out more info on your family that expands your own view of your ancestors and the time period they occupied.
6) Take the time to learn about your local history so you can inform your DNA cousins about their potential ancestral geographic places of orgin(s). In addition, if you are related to an African-American from a different geographical location, remember that there was a Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade as well as a domestic slave trade. Your ancestors may have lived in the Northeast, for example, and were slave owners who sold slaves South. If you share cMs with someone, you share a genetic tie. Don’t discount differences in geographical locations. You may have to dig deep into your family history.
7) If your family history included hearing “whispers” of your ancestors having black children or other children of color, share that info with your DNA cousins as it just may be true. Not everything was recorded and oral history still counts as history. With DNA testing, that oral history may have been documented in someone’s genes.
8) Recognize that racial passing occurred whereby some African-Americans, especially mulattos, passed as “white.” If you match an African-American or other people of color, it may be because one of your ancestors racially passed. Their descendants were later recorded as white and their racial/ethnic origins were forever disguised. Also, recognize that slavery was not a monolithic experience and varied over place and time. In the 1600s, in Virginia, for example, white female indentured servants did in fact marry African slaves and freemen. Their children took the status of their mother before the Black Codes came into being.
9) Recognize that you have an opportunity to celebrate your family’s diversity and that is a good thing. Consider that the results of your DNA test provide you with a chance to let go of the notion of racial purity. It’s highly overrated. The concept of race is a social construct and our DNA link to each other proves that.
10) At a time when our country is at odds with itself over issues of race, embrace the opportunity to be part of the solution to bring about racial healing. If everyone would stop and think about how DNA testing offers us the PROOF of how we are all inextricably linked to each other, then maybe we can start a new chapter in race relations.
This blogpost is dedicated to Chris, Julie, and Charles. They are three of my Lyon cousins who have welcomed our family with open arms into the extended Lyon family. Today, we are unlocking the doors of our hidden shared family history together. This blogpost is an example of how “Coming to the Table” can benefit everyone. I would also like to thank Anne Young, a Greenwich historian, who has aided my research immensely.
Who Is Jack Husted?
Jack Husted is my 4th great-uncle, the 2nd son of my 4th great-grandmother Peg Green. Peg was a Lyon before she became a Merritt and later a Green. Peg was born around 1770 in Greenwich, CT and was raised in the household of Daniel Lyon (son of James, John, John and Thomas). Through our AncestryDNA Lyon cousin matches, we are connected to the Daniel Lyon line as well as other Lyon family lines. Peg was mulatto and it is highly likely that she was Daniel’s daughter by a slave. During slavery, it was quite common for slave owners to keep the children they had fathered with slaves around as house servants. Her actual relationship with her father may not have been publicly spoken about or acknowledged due to the nature of slavery. But, DNA doesn’t lie and there is an undisputed genetic link between our family and the family of Daniel Lyon. Peg was 5-10 years older than his other 4 daughters (Hannah, Lavinia, Elizabeth, and Loretta) and worked as a servant slave in his household. In 1790, Daniel sold Peg to Nathan Merritt, Jr. While she was in Nathan Merritt, Jr.’s household, she gave birth to Charles in 1791 and Jack in 1793. We know via our DNA cousins that Charles was fathered by a Merritt and we can assume the same now for Jack.
On Peg’s Return to the Lyon Family
Peg returned to the Lyon family around 1794 and was living with Benjamin Woolsey Lyon in the James Lyon House near the Lyon Cemetery. Benjamin Woolsey Lyon was Daniel Lyon’s brother. In his household, she gave birth to Anthony Jr. in 1795 and Platt in 1798. These two sons were fathered by my 4th great-grandfather Anthony Green. Peg definitely met Anthony while she was in the Merritt household as Nathan Merritt, Jr.’s first cousin was John Green, Anthony’s slave owner. Peg and Anthony went on to have 3 additional sons together after she was emancipated in 1800 by Benjamin Woolsey Lyon. Their 5th son Allen, who was born in 1804, is my 3rd great-grandfather and he named one of his sons Benjamin Woolsey Green after him.
Regarding Anthony, Jr., we know that he was mentioned in Benjamin Woolsey Lyon’s 1810 will. He was to stay in the care of Phebe Lyon, Benjamin Woolsey’s wife, until she died. If she died before his term was completed, then Anthony was to be set free. We know that Phebe lived until 1855 so Anthony was freed automatically under the 1784 Gradual Emancipation Act in 1820. We don’t know what happened to Platt as he is not listed in his will. We can only assume that he may have been sold and completed his gradual emancipation term with someone else.
In an 1894 Port Chester Journal article, John Brooks, the grandson of Daniel Lyon and son of Lavinia Lyon Brooks, who married Henry S. Brooks one of the founders of Brooks Brothers, mentioned Peg. He stated that Peg had grown a “little fresh” and so his grandfather gave her her freedom. This is factually incorrect as we know that Daniel’s brother Benjamin Woolsey Lyon is the one who emancipated her.
That being said, John Brooks may have given a reason though as to why she was sold. Was it to teach her a lesson? Had she forgotten her “place” in the family? Did the fact that she had given birth twice, probably as a result of a sexual assault by a Merritt male, make her Lyon family reclaim her? Did they regret selling her? Did they assume that she would have been well-taken care of in the Merritt household as they had taken good care of her? Who knows, but anything is plausible. Both Charles and Jack would have remained with Nathan Merritt, Jr., when she returned to her Lyon family, as they were considered his property until they were 25 years old. Under the 1784 Gradual Emancipation Act, they would be automatically freed after their terms were completed.
What I find interesting is that, in a Port Chester Journal article two years earlier, John remembered that his mother left him with Peg at his grandfather’s house when he was 3 years old. John was born in 1813 so that would mean that Peg was back with Daniel Lyon, in 1816, and was again working as his servant. We do know that in 1812, when the War of 1812 was going on, Peg and Anthony’s son Henry became a ward of the Town of Greenwich as his parents couldn’t take care of him. I often wonder what was going on that had such an impact on Peg and Anthony’s ability to take care of Henry. Did the War of 1812 have anything to do with it? Was it a bad year for farming? So many questions. In both articles, we see that Peg’s relationship with her Lyon relatives was long lasting and endured after she was emancipated. John mentions that when Peg visited NYC, she always stopped to visit his mother Lavinia and his family. The impact that Peg and Anthony clearly had on John is evident, as decades after their deaths, he still had fond memories of them and their family. I am also honored to be able to read about my Green-Merritt ancestors through the eyes of someone who actually knew them.
The Sale of Jack at the Age of Three In 1796
I first saw Jack’s 1796 bill of sale last December at the Greenwich Historical Society. I had no words upon seeing his bill of sale. A slave at the age of three? My first thought was how much work could a toddler do? Tears. Who would be taking care of him in the absence of his mother? That he was born on Valentine’s Day only added another layer to my distress. It also made me wonder about Charles. Two brothers now separated from each other and their mother. No words. Right then and there, I was a silent witness to the bitter legacy of slavery that was all too real. My 4th great-uncle was sold for 15 pounds of New York money at the age of three.
After Anthony died in 1836, I came across an 1837 land sale record that listed all of his sons with the exception of Henry. Jack Husted and Charles Merritt were listed as his sons. It confirmed that Anthony had adopted Peg’s two oldest sons as his own. Jack married his wife Helen and was the father of 4 daughters — Jane Anne, Sarah, Nancy, and Lucinda. His wife Helen and daughter Jane Anne passed away in 1851 and are buried in Lot 23 in Union Cemetery in Greenwich. I was able to trace Jack up until the 1860 census when he is listed as being 67 years old and was still working as a gardener. He passed away sometime before 1870.
When Cousins Come to the Table From Both Sides of the Color Line, Historical Truth Reveals Itself
I met my distant cousin Julie Pollack a month ago upon first learning about the desecration of the Byram African-American Cemetery. Thanks to Jo Conboy of the Greenwich Preservation Trust, I was put in contact with several distant Lyon cousins who had been sent my blogpost about my Green-Merritt ancestors. Julie’s grandmother, Julia Lyon Saunders, was the last private owner of The Thomas Lyon House before the house was donated to the town as a museum in 1925. Julie was also one of my cousins who, along with other members of the Greenwich Preservation Trust, stood up for The Byram African-American Cemetery in 2014. This was a year before I even discovered our ancestors’ names. In our family’s 2-year absence regarding the whole cemetery issue, we are grateful to Julie and all our Lyon cousins for taking up the cause on behalf of our family’s ancestors — some who were also their cousins.
Julie, like me, is a family historian and genealogist. We are indeed kindred spirits and true kinfolk. I should add here that my Lyon line (Daniel, James, John, John, Thomas) included slave owners. Julie’s Lyon line were not slave owners, but did include abolitionists whom I will mention later. After Julie read my blogpost mentioning Peg, Anthony, and their seven sons, she made the connection to Jack whose bill of sale she had inherited. Simeon Lyon was the older brother of her 3rd great-grandfather Abraham Lyon. Julie told me that Simeon and his wife Mary Mills Lyon were childless and may have purchased Jack as a “proxy child” to take care of them as they age. Simeon passed away in 1807 and Julie had lost track of what happened to Jack. After she read my blogpost, she was happy to see that Jack went on to be reunited with his family and that he had a lived a productive life.
Julie was able to provide additional tidbits about Jack that gave me some sort of indication of the time he spent as a youth. In addition to giving me a copy of his 1796 bill of sale, she sent me a ledger page from Simeon’s book that showed what was spent on Jack in 1807. Jack was 14 years old and had been hired out, probably as a farmhand, which was quite common. I know from looking at my other Green-Merritt ancestors that boys, between the ages of 12-18, were often hired out as farmhands. Girls, at the same ages, worked as domestic servants. From the ledger page, we know that he was well-clothed, received some cash payments, and tobacco.
Jack’s Gap Years (1807-1820) and the Surname Husted
Julie and I both wondered what happened to Jack after Simeon’s death in 1807. We couldn’t locate Simeon or Mary’s will. Unlike me, she didn’t know until recently that he had taken the surname Husted as his last name. I recently went back to census records and looked for a Husted who owned a slave in 1810. Jack had to serve his 25 year gradual emancipation term until 1818 so he would have still been a slave in 1810. I was so happy to see that there was only ONE Husted who owned a slave and had one free black living with him. That man was Drake Husted. Looking at the 1820 census, Drake had two free blacks living with him and we can assume that the slave in 1810 was now free. That slave was no doubt our Jack Husted.
Upon further analysis, I found that Drake was married to a Nancy Marvin Lyon who turns out to be the daughter of Daniel and Benjamin Woolsey Lyon’s brother James. After Simeon passed away, Jack was given to Nancy and Drake to complete his term. Did they buy him? I haven’t found a bill of sale yet, but he did end up with them for sure. This meant that Jack ended growing up in the household of a cousin of his. Peg and Anthony would have certainly been able to see him often as well.
Julie and I have also been wondering where Simeon lived. In Benjamin Woolsey Lyon’s 1810 will, his homestead, which was the James Lyon House near the Lyon Cemetery, was listed. In addition, there were 8 other properties mentioned. Mary Mills, Simeon’s widow, is listed as living in one of his properties. Where Simeon’s house was probably the house that Benjamin Woosley Lyon’s son James occupied in 1830 near the Byram Bridge which was close to the Thomas Lyon House. It also appears that the wooden house may have burnt down between 1880-1900.
Benjamin Woolsey Lyon’s children were all underage when he died. In his will, he mentioned that they could not inherit the land until they became of age which would have been around the early 1820s. This meant that someone would have acted on their behalf until then. In his will, his wife Phebe was listed as his executrix, however, she declined and James Lyon, Benjamin Woolsey’s brother, and W.H. Husted were appointed as executers. Joshua Lyon, Benjamin’s cousin, was listed as being the person who appraised his estate inventory in his will. As stated before, James’s daughter Nancy took in my 4th great-uncle Jack when he was 14 years old.
Seth Lyon, Simeon’s nephew, bought Simeon’s home from Joshua Lyon, Jr., his first cousin, in 1823. This Joshua would be the son of Joshua Lyon, Sr. who appraised Benjamin Woolsey’s estate in 1810. Seth had a long, close relationship with both Simeon and Mary that lasted until her death. According to Anne Young, a Greenwich historian, Mary isn’t listed on the 1830 census at that location, but James Lyon, Benjamin Woolsey Lyon’s son is. This definitely points to a close relationship between all the Lyon cousins who lived in the Byram area. It must be also noted that there were multiple generations who lived at the Thomas Lyon House at one time.
Abolitionists in the Lyon Family: Seth and Gilbert Lyon
When Lyon cousins come to the table, so to speak, a wealth of collective family information is transferred. In the early 1800s, Seth and his brothers Fitch and Elias ran a family farm to market business. By the 1820s, they branched out to include owning the sloop William, named after Seth’s oldest son, that enabled them to sell their products (e.g., produce and apple cider) by taking advantage of new markets along the Hudson River as well as NYC. Later in the 1830s, they would transport Byram Blue Point granite stone from the quarries of Port Chester and Greenwich down to NYC. This stone ended up being used in the construction of the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Julie refers to these three Lyon brothers as being “farmer-mariners.” Gilbert Lyon was Seth, Fitch and Elias’s first cousin and the son of was Joshua Lyon, Sr. Like his cousins, Gilbert was also a “farmer-mariner” who owned three sloops — the Caroline, Jackson and New York. He also owned a lime kiln and vinegar business. Gilbert lived in “Lyon’s Point” which was a little over a mile down river from the Thomas Lyon House and the Byram Bridge. All four Lyon cousins would have required extra sets of hands to help them out with their farms and businesses.
One of those hands was Peter John Lee also know as Henry. From 1830-1836, Seth Lyon employed Peter John to help him at home and with his family business. There is also some indication that he may have also been employed by Gilbert Lyon. Peter John Lee was a fugitive slave from Virginia who managed to escape to Connecticut as a young man between the ages of 16-24. In the six years he spent Lyon family, he married and had two sons. On November 26, 1836, he left the Thomas Lyon House, at the behest of a black acquaintance who was enticed by a $1.50 payment, and crossed over the Byram Bridge where he was apprehended by a group of slave catchers. His arrest was covered widely in the press at the time. Seth Lyon, who was also a Justice of the Peace, appealed to the Mayor of New York to no avail. But, it was Gilbert Lyon who first sounded the alarm about what happened to Peter John Lee just 2 days after his kidnapping when he walked into the office of The New York Sun, a conservative New York newspaper, and gave an account of what happened.
Peter John was then taken back to Virginia where he was re-enslaved. Seven years later, he escaped again and made his way back to NYC before he eventually ended up in Canada with the help of the New York Committee of Vigilance under the leadership of David Ruggles, a noted black Abolitionist and Underground Railroad Station master. We don’t know what became of Peter John Lee after he arrived in Canada or if his family were able to reunite with him. Given the fact that he was previously caught, he may have even changed his name when he arrived in there. In 2014, the Thomas Lyon Jr. Housewas placed on the Connecticut Freedom Trail due to the abolitionist activities of our ancestor Seth Lyon.
Julie was so kind to send me a photo of a table, called “The Slave Table,” that Peter John, his wife and two sons no doubt used during their time with Seth’s family. There is also the possibility that Jack used this table as well since he would have grown up with Seth. Julie and I both wonder if Jack had any influence on Seth’s future abolitionist ideals since they grew up together. Seth would have known Peg and Anthony who were well-regarded in the community as well.
I also wonder about how my free black Byram ancestors lived in such a precarious state. What did their closeness to the Byram Bridge mean to them? Was the Byram Bridge a place to be feared as a result of the Lee kidnapping? Did they themselves fear being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South? I am sure they knew Peter John Lee and his family. They were also literate so they would have been able to read the newspaper accounts of his capture. The fear of being kidnapped was REAL for both free and enslaved people and the Peter John Lee case only magnified that fear.
The Lyon Circumstantial Case For A More Active Involvement in Anti-Slavery Activities Than Previously Thought
I visited the Thomas Lyon House a week ago for the first time and had a tour. I was lucky enough to be accompanied by my cousin Pat, Jo Conboy and Eric Brower, both of the Greenwich Preservation Trust. It was great being in a space that I knew my ancestors occupied. Both Jo and Eric were kind enough to explain the details of the house to us. The former location of the old James Lyon House, where Simeon, Mary and Jack lived, was pointed out to me. It was directly across the street from where the Byram Bridge still stands today.
As I stood outside the Thomas Lyon House, my mind kept going back to Seth and Gilbert Lyon. There had to be a lot more to their story other than harboring a fugitive slave. I have many black abolitionists in my family from Newark, NJ. One of them was an Underground Railroad station master named Jacob D. King, who built his UGRR houses in Newark in 1830, so my gut reaction was that there had to be more info out there about the Lyon cousins. Were they just “farmer-mariners” who were benevolent to employ someone like Peter John Lee or were they more involved in the anti-slavery movement than previously known? Did the Lyon family’s Quaker origins have an influence on them? My inquiring mind wanted to know. I asked both Jo and Julie if they knew anything else about Seth and Gilbert and they said they didn’t know anything else about them. I also began wondering if they were involved in the transportation of fugitive slaves. They did have sloops, didn’t they?
What else could I dig up on the Lyon cousins? In order to understand the Lyon cousins, we need to look at the larger socioeconomic and historic context in which they lived. What follows below is just the beginning of my research on my distant Lyon cousins. I immediately asked my cousins Julie and Chris about where their Lyon ancestors went to church. Julie said she had no idea, but Chris immediately told me that her Lyon and Husted ancestors went to Second Congregational Church. So, that is where I decided to start looking.
In Chains Unbound: Slave Emancipations in the Town of Greenwich, Jeffrey B. Mead mentioned that there were no anti-slavery societies in Greenwich and that the abolitionism was to be found in The Second Congregational Church, the Stanwich Congregational Church, and the North Greenwich Congregational Church. Abolitionists were actively involved in anti-slavery and Underground Railroad activities in and around Greenwich, CT in the early 1800s. One of these abolitionists was Deacon Silas H. Mead who was a deacon at the North Greenwich Congregational Church and who routinely spoke out against slavery. Another abolitionist was Shubral Brush of the Stanwich Congregational Church who likewise took up the abolitionist call. Then there was Deacon Jonas Mead of the Second Congregational Church. Deacon Mead was a well-known Greenwich abolitionist and Underground Railroad station master who routinely hosted prominent abolitionists in his home. He was also the Vice-President of the Fairfield Anti-Slavery Society and lived in Byram. [ I should add here that, in 1829, Rev. Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, an ardent abolitionist in his own right, preached at Second Congregational Church.] Clearly, this church believed in the anti-slavery cause. Regarding Second Congregational Church, this is the church of my Green-Merritt ancestors as well as many members of the Lyon family, including Drake and Nancy Lyon Husted.
Knowing that the Lyons and the Husteds went to this particular church made me wonder if sitting in the very pews of this church had a larger impact on the Lyon family. Did being exposed to abolitionist/anti-slavery sermons and lectures in church make them more likely to take up the cause of a fugitive slave? Did Gilbert march into the NY Sun office two days after the Lee kidnapping because he himself believed in the anti-slavery cause or was he just advocating on behalf of his cousin Seth to get his employee back? And what about our Jack and other black Byram ancestors who also sat in the very same church? Did they take up the abolitionist cause? Did they aid their Lyon cousins in their anti-slavery activities? Maybe. What we do know is that Second Congregational Church was indeed a beacon of light for those who stood against the evils of slavery. It was within the walls of this church that people found support for their anti-slavery positions.
One of the things that I was amazed to discover was just how close Gilbert Lyon lived to the abolitionist Deacon Jonas Mead. Gilbert lived directly across the Byram River from Deacon Mead. There is no doubt in my mind now that Gilbert would have been intimately acquainted with Deacon Mead and his beliefs both in and outside of church. Deacon Mead also hosted noted abolitionists like Dr. Erasmus Hudson, who was a member of the Connecticut Anti-Slavery Society and an agent of the American Anti-Slavery Society, at his home. For Jonas Mead to host him in his home meant that he had a ready anti-slavery audience waiting to receive updates on anti-slavery activities at both the state and national level. Gilbert and Seth may have known about and attended Deacon Mead’s anti-slavery meetings.
Another discovery I made was that Seth, Gilbert, Gilbert’s son Alvah, and Thomas Lyon were members of the Whig Party. This is important because Northeastern Whig Party members were known to be businessmen who opposed slavery unlike their Southern counterparts. That the Lyon cousins were actively involved in Whig politics definitely posits them on the right side of history. Without a doubt, I believe that this is additional evidence that they did hold anti-slavery views and that they sounded the alarm about what happened to Peter John Lee because they were fundamentally opposed to the institution of slavery.
I should note that the Whig Party also included men like Deacon Silas H. Mead of the Stanwich Congregational Church— a man who was also a Greenwich Board of Selectman serving with Julie’s great-grandfather, Underhill Lyon. We can assume that Deacon Silas H. Mead also knew the Lyon family well because of their ties to the Whig Party. In addition, Greenwich was still a small community and most people knew each other. That both Seth and Gilbert Lyon were prominent members in their community makes this especially likely.
The Whig Party fell apart in 1852 over the issue of the expansion of slavery in the newly acquired West Coast territories as well as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 — a law that did not have the support of Northeast Whigs. After the collapse of the Whig Party, Northeastern Whig Party members became Republicans —the Party of Lincoln.
Now What About Our Greens?
Another research trail I am pursuing, which may or may not link to our distant Lyon cousins, is of a second Underground Railroad House in our extended family. This house was owned by Hawley Green, a cousin of my 2nd great-grandfather George E. Green. Hawley and his wife Harriet owned an Underground Railroad House at 1112 Main Street in Peekskill, NY. He bought this house from John Brown, the abolitionist who conducted the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859.
Mary Butler presented an affadavit in support of my 2nd great-grandmother in her Civil War Widow’s Pension Application. Mary offered sworn testimony that she had known my 2nd great-grandparents for 39 years and that they met at a church function in Sing Sing (now Ossining, NY). My 2nd great-grandmother, Laura Thompson Green, was accompanied by her family members at the time and that is how she met my 2nd great-grandfather. Mary and George Butler also ended up living in Newark, NJ in the late 1800s near Laura. The Peekskill Green connection is interesting. Hawley Green (1810-1880) was the same age as Anthony’s children. There is some disagreement as to where he was born which was either in New York or Virginia. A direct descendant of Hawley told me that his father’s name was William. We are now researching if this William couod be a possible brother of my 4th great-grandfather Anthony Green.
We are also looking into Harriet’s background. She wa smartied prior to Hawley so Petersen is not her maiden name. Her first husband though may be related to our extended Green family. Thomas Green, son of Allen, married Emeline Peterson whose father was William Peterson. William could have been a sibling of Harriet Peterson Green. We believe their father may have been a Jacob Peterson.
In 1860, George E. Green was living in Yorktown, NY, one town over from Peekskill, NY with a Solomon and Dinah/Diana Heady We have every reason to believe that there is a family relationship to the Headys because they were later buried in Union Cemetety as well. John Green and Charles Merritt also lived with Lazarus Heady, Jr., Solomon’s brother, in the 1850s and 1860s. There is no record of Peg ever having given birth to a daughter. The Headys were the mixed-race descendants of Thomas Hadden (1691-1761), a white slave owner from Scarsdale, NY who had a mulatto family whom he recognized in his will.
To reiterate, slave ancestor research is very difficult as documentation is hard to come by before 1800. In the 1790, 1800 and 1810 census records for Greenwich, CT, African-Americans all had the surname “Negro.” Most African-Americans were first listed as people starting with the 1870 US census. My free black ancestors were listed as people way before that and I am grateful for that. And yet, the lack of surnames is a still a brutal reminder of the property status my ancestors had and I am left with a constant craving to find those who came before my oldest ancestors. That longing will never go away.
Below are two maps of Westchester County, NY and one includes Greenwich. The circles around the towns indicate where our Green-Merritt ancestors resided in the 1800s. African-Americans in Greenwich routinely traveled across the NY state border and took up residence in these towns. During slavery, they moved with their slave owners and, when freedom came, they moved on their own and set up residence across Westchester County. In her book, Freedom Journey: Black Civil War Soldiers and The Hills Community, Westchester County, New York, Edythe Ann Quinn discusses The Hills, an area where Harrison, North Castle and White Plains meet. In doing so, she had to also discuss Greenwich, CT as African-Americans in Greenwich shared ties with the USCT soldiers from the Hills. John C. Curran’s book Peekskill’s African-American History: A Hudson Valley Community’s Untold Story likewise discusses the African-American presence, not only in Peekskill, but also in Ossining, Yorktown, Cortlandt, and other Westchester towns.
Returning to Hawley Green, we see that he interacted with both black and white abolitionists at the time, including Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and a radical abolitionist in his own right, and Harriet Tubman. Fugitive slaves, who found their way to his house, were sent on to Canada in the 1830s. Hawley and Harriet Green sold their home to William Sands, another abolitionist and Quaker, in 1839 who no doubt continued their Underground Railroad activities.
I find my Greenwich Green link to their Peekskill Green cousins fascinating because there may just be more to this story that links back to Greenwich. I also ponder what other anti-slavery activities my distant Lyon cousins were doing at the time to help other fugitive slaves. What other abolitionists did my Lyon cousins know? After the Lee kidnapping, did Greenwich become a place to avoid on The Underground Railroad? Or, did Greenwich’s anti-slavery advocates and Underground Railroad station masters adapt other means of shepherding fugitive slaves northward? Is it at all possible that Lyon sloops were used to transport fugitive slaves up the Hudson River? Were there African-Americans in Greenwich who helped on The Underground Railroad? Were their free blacks in Greenwich who took part in anti-slavery societies? Were their black abolitionists in Greenwich who worked in tandem with their white abolitionist counterparts? These questions and others are definitely valid research questions to pursue. I have a strong feeling that there is so much more documentation out there just waiting to be found.