All posts by MsVegatron

Our Golden Aviator: Tuskegee Airman James H. Fischer

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)

 

1st Lt. James H. Fischer

 

Uncle Jimmie Front and Center, 332nd Fighter Group, 301st Squadron

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.
 
 
 
This poem always reminded me of my Uncle Jimmie
 

Prelude to Tuskegee: Hometown Roots in Stoughton, MA

 
Map of Southeastern Massachusetts
 
 
The Mitchells (from left to right: Standing is Frank, Bill, and Charles  and seated my great-grandmother Helen, Anna, and Belle)
 
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 Mitchell was 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.
 
 
Uncle Jimmie as a toddler
 
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.
 
 
 
Marriage Certificate of Helen and Robert Fischer
Helen Mitchell Fischer, Mother of James H. Fischer
 
 
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.
 
 
Article on TB in The Boston Journal on 4/18/1917
Uncle Jimmie was sent to the Rutland State SanatoriumRutland 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 as a child
 
 
A postcard of Rutland State Sanatorium
 
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.
 
 
Uncle Jimmie as a teenager
 
 
1932 Ad for the Brockton Airport
Ad for Brockton Airport

Ad for Brockton Airport

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

02/01/1943 1942 letter to US Army Air Corp Headquarters

 

02/01/1943 Letter to US Army Air Corp Headquarters

 

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.

 

Got My Wings Telegram sent to Uncle Jimmie’s mother

 

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.

 

332nd Fighter Group

 

Uncle Jimmie and friends

 

A member of the 332nd Fighter Group Officers’ Club

 

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:

 

From the book Red Tails Black Wings, p. 264

From the book, Red Tails Black wings, p. 265

From the book Red Tails Black Wings, p. 266

 

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 Sally would 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.

 

Flight Officer James H. Fischer in 1945

 

Pittsburgh Courier article from 04/07/1945

 

James H. Fischer’ Certificate of Valor

 

301st Fighter Squadron Accolades

 

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.

 

The Executive Order 9981

 

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.

 

Pittsburgh Courier, 10/27/1945

 

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 Uncle Sonny, Nana Millie, and Uncle Jimmie

 

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.

 

HBO’s The Tuskegee Airmen movie

 

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.

 

Tuskegee Airmen pilots:Uncle Jimmie and Lt. Col. Harry Stewart

 

Tuskegee Airmen pilots from Boston: James H. Fischer and Leo Gray (Deceased-RIP)

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Tuskegee Airmen pilots: Uncle Jimmie and Robert Lawrence (Deceased-RIP)

 

Uncle Jimmie with Tuskegee Airmen

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.

 

 

Tuskegee Airmen Breakfast Celebration

 

332nd Fighter Group

 

Tuskegee Airmen Breakfast Celebration

 

Lt. Col. Lee Archer (Deceased-RIP)

 

Tuskegee Airmen Breakfast Celebration

 

Captain Luther H. Smith, A Tuskegee Airman pilot and POW (Deceased-RIP)

 

Capt. Luther H. Smith as a teen with a pilot dream

 

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.

 

Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Ceremony

 

Uncle Jimmie on the way to his seat

 

Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Ceremony

 

Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Ceremony

 

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.

 

President George W. Bush saluting The Tuskegee Airmen

 

Uncle Jimmie near Gold Medal replica (front)

 

Uncle Jimmie with Gold Medal replica (back)

 

Uncle Jimmie holding His Bronze Medal of Honor

 

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.

 

Tuskegee Airmen pilots: Lt. Col. George Hardy and Uncle Jimmie

 

Captain Luther H. Smith (Deceased-RIP)

 

Dr. Roscoe Brown (Deceased-RIP) and Cora Tess Spooner, Past President of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc

Library of Congress Reception

At the end of a long day

 

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.

 

The Enterprise

 

The Enterprise

 

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.
 
 
1st Lt. James H. Fischer (1924-2010)
 
My brother Michael Vega placing flowers on Uncle Jimmie’s casket
 
My Golden Aviator flower display that I sent to his funeral
 
Memories of Uncle Jimmie
 
1st Lt. James H. Fischer Grave, Maplewood Cemetery

 

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.. . 

I will always love  and remember you.

Your great-niece Teresa

 

 

 

Hangroot Was Our Hood: Reclaiming Black Greenwich History

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.
 
 
 
Hangroot Was Our Hood, 1897/Collection of Dennis Richmond, Jr. and John Sherman Merritt

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. 
 
 
1887 Driving Road Chart featuring the Colored Cemetery/David S. Husted bough Allen Green’s property in 1884.
 
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 The Byram 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. Further resesrch must be done to determine if the Felmetta surname is indeed a Native American one.
 
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.
 
John Indian in 1820 Greenwich, CT Census
 
Hardy Indian in 1850 Greenwich, CT Census
 
 
**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.
 
 
Death Notice of Ichabod Purdy in Port Chester Journal on 5/23/1878
 
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.
 
CT Town Birth Records/ Pre-1870 Barbour Collection
 
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.  
 
 
Greenwich Land Records, Volume 19 (1814) p. 402
 
The 1858 Clark map below 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.
 
 
Clark Map of Fairfield County in 1858/ Library of Congress
 
 
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.
  
1820 Greenwich, CT Census Record

 

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.

 

1830 Greenwich, CT Census Record


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.

 

1870 Greenwich Census showing Irish immigrants working on then railroad.

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.
 
 
Rye, NY (Byram) 1830 Census
 
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.
 
Walter Avery in the 1810 Greenwich, CT Census
 
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.
 
Deed Title Search/Nils Kerschus/Greenwich Historical Society
 
It was sold for $860. The Port Chester Journal on March 27, 1879 documented the sale as can be seen below.
 
 
Sale of Allen’s House
 
 
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.
 
 
Title Search, 30 Round Hill Rd., Nils Kerschus, Greenwich Historical Society
 
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.
 
 
1868 Town of Greenwich map
 
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.
 
Peters, 1995:290
 
 
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.
 
Larkin, 1998:64
 
 
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.
 
 
Samuel H. Merritt was the only one of our Green-Merritt ancestors left, who owned a home, in 1890/Miller Robbins, Jr. & Co. 1890 Map/ Greenwich Historical Society
 
 
 
Sale of David S. Husted’s Property/ Port Chester Journal/10/15/1903  

 

 

 

 

 

Sale of David S. Husted’s Property/Utica, NY Herald Dispatch/ 10/14/1903
 
A New Rockefeller Mansion Built/ New York Times/ 8/22/1906
 
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.
 
Christine Varner, Cheryl Nelson, Patricia Bryant, and Teresa Vega on 5/02/2017 (Photo taken by Anne W. Semmes)

John Nelson, Cheryl Henson, and Patricia Bryant on 04/05/2017

 

 

 

 

Hangroot Heroes: Members of the 29th Infantry United States Colored Troops

African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC/ Our Hangroot heroes are listed here.

 

 

 

 

 

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.
 
 
Greenwich Civil War Dead/ Note: Charles E. Treadwell is not listed./ Greenwich Town Hall
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.
 
 
NY Herald article on James H. Green, 4/12/1896
NY Herald article on James H. Green, 4/12/1896
 

The Problem With The Perspective Of Outsiders: A Hangroot Descendant’s View

 
1890 Photo of my Hangroot ancestors at Horseneck Falls/Property of the Greenwich Historical Society 

Photo taken by Henry Troth in Goodwin’s Country Life in America article, p. 625

 

 

 

 

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.

 

A Footnote in the Title Deed Search of 30 Round Hill Road/Greenwich Historical Society

 

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.

 

Goodwin, 1905:625

 

Goodwin, 1905:625

 

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 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.
 
 
 
Proposed Underground Railroad route that may have started in Greenwich by the free Black population there
 
 
 
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, and his brother Solomon’s wife, Lucinda Ross Green, may have been born fugitive slaves from the South who made Hangroot their haven when they married the Green brothers. 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 and Lucinda were in fact fugitive slaves 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 MATTERS. 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 historical truth.
 
 
 
 

References

 
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).
 
 

 


 


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Our Ancestors Willed It And So It Came To Be

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.

 

Lyon Cousins United

 

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.

 

Byram Cemetery

 

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. 

 

Teresa Vega

 

 

My cousins and Me

 

Lyon Cousins and Friends

 

Teresa Vega and Jo Conboy

  

Lyon cousins

 

Lyon Cousins

 

Green and Merritt cousins

 

Lyon cousins

 

Lyon cousins

 

Lyons cousins

 

Carolyn Antonik and Teresa Vega

 

Teresa Vega

 

Teresa Vega and Jo Conboy

  

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

UGRR Westchester County, NY Route to Freedom

 

 

Hangroot Was Our Hood: Reclaiming Black Greenwich History will be my next blogpost. Stay Tuned……

 

 

 

DNA Doesn’t Lie: The Denial of the Pepper in Salted Histories

 

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:

 

 

Excerpt from Part II: DNA Trail from Madagascar to Manhattan

 

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.

 

Email from an individual with Banta and Demarest ancestors

 

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.
 
 
 
From Dr. Brian Jones, CT State Archaeologist
 
 
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.
 
 
Runaway slave ad placed by Cornelius Van Horne
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-American, 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.

 

For an example of how DNA cousins of different races can work together to their mutual benefit and joint family history , please see my last blogpost on Coming To the Table in Honor of Jack Husted. It  can be done.

 

 

 

 

 

Coming to the Table In Honor of Jack Husted

 

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.

 

Peg’s 1790 Bill of Sale from Daniel Lyon to Nathan Merritt, Jr./Rye Historical Society

 

Jack’s birth record with name misspelled

 

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.

 

Birth records of Anthony, Jr. And Platt

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.

 

From the Lyon Memorial Book 3

 

 

Port Chester Article, May 17,1894

 

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.

 

Port Chester Journal, March 17, 1892

 

The Sale of Jack at the Age of Three In 1796

 
Jack’s Bill of Sale/Greenwich Historical Society            

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.
 
 
 
My Cousin Julie Pollock’s Family Tree
 
 
 
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.
 
Simeon Lyon’s 1807 Ledger Page on Jack 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Jack’s Actual 1796 Bill of Sale

 

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.

 

Jack Husted as a slave in 1810 

 

 

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.

 

 

Children of James Lyon (son of John, John, Thomas)

 

 

Nancy Marvin Lyon and Drake Husted

 

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.

 

Mary Mills Lyon’s House In 1810

 

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.

 

From History of Rye (1660-1870) book by Charles Baird

 

 

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.

 

 

Portrait of Seth Lyon


 

Captain Gilbert Lyon

 

  

Ad taken out by Seth Lyon/Stamford Advocate

 

The sloop “New York” owned by Gilbert Lyon/Stamford Afvocate

 

Ad placed by Gilbert Lyon/Stamford Advocate

 

Ad placed by Gilbert Lyon’s sons/Stamford Advocate

 

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.

 

The NY Sun Article from November 28, 1836 

Anti-Slavery Almanac 1836

 

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 House was placed on the Connecticut Freedom Trail due to the abolitionist activities of our ancestor Seth Lyon.

 

Map showing Byram Bridge, the Thomas Lyon House and the James Lyon House where Simeon, Mary, and Jack lived.

  

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.
 
 
 
Table used by Peter John Lee and Family

 

Close-up of “Slave Table”

 

 

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.
 
 
My cousin Pat, me, and Jo Conboy

Byram Bridge in 2016       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

.

 

Deacon Jonas Mead/Fold3

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.

 

 

Map showing Thomas Lyon House, Gilbert Lyon, and Deacon Jonas Mead

 

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.

 

Hartford Times, April 15,1837

 

 

Hudson River Chronicle, August 14, 1838

 

Hudson River Chronicle, October 22, 1839 

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.

 

Hartford Daily Courant, September 9, 1840

 

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.

 

 

From Freedom Journeys: Black Civil War Soldiers and The Hills Community, Westchester County, New York by Edythe Ann Quinn, p. 27.

 

 

Hawley Green’s Underground Railroad House in Peekskill, NY Photo by John J. Curran in his book Peekskill’s African-American History: A Hudson Valley Community’s Untold Story

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 searching for a link to a possible brother of my 4th great-grandfather Anthony Green. There is a William Hallet Green that we are now investigating. By the way, Hawley’s son Hallet Green lived in Sherman, Fairfield County, CT and is buried in the East Fairfield Cemetery.

We are also looking into Harriet’s background as her maiden name was Petersen which we also have in 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.

 

Mary Butler’s 1900 Civil War Pension Affidavit

In 1860, George E. Green was living in Yorktown, NY, one town over from Peekskill, NY with a Solomon and 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. We believed that Diana may be a niece of our 4th great-grandmother Peg as she was born in Connecticut and was almost 20 years younger than Solomon. There is no record of Peg ever having given birth to a daughter. Solomon Heady was definitely a descendant of one of the first free African-American families in Westchester County, NY. 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.

 

 

The Headys (Solomon, Lazarus,and Jacob) in the 1840 New Castle, NY census

 

 

Solomon Heady in 1840 New Castle, NY Census

 

 

1860 Yorktown, NY Census with Solomon Heady and George E. Green (son of Allen)

 

1850 Yorktown, NY Census with Lazarus Jeady and John Green (son of Thomas)

 

 

Death records, years unknown, of Solomon and Dinah/Union Cemetery, Greenwich, CT

 

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.

 

Map of Westchester County, NY

.

Map of Westchester County, NY and Greenwich, CT

 

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.

 

Stay Tuned……….

 

 

 

The Byram African-American Cemetery Will Not be Erased by Wishful Thinking

The Town of Greenwich has taken steps to acquire three abandoned cemeteries, including The Byram African-American Cemetery. Our family supports the Town of Greenwich, Conservation Commission, Cemetery Commission, Greenwich Historical Society, and Greenwich Preservation Trust as they move forward in acquiring and preserving these three historic cemeteries. 

As descendants of Lyon slaves and slave owners, our position is that any change to The Byram African-American Cemetery was and is a desecration to the cemetery and to the memory of everyone buried there. The Lyon Family specifically created this cemetery as a finally resting place for their slaves as well as free blacks, who were most likely their former slaves, so it is also disrespectful to the memory and original intentions of the Lyon Family who are buried above the Byram African-American Cemetery. There should be no expectations of neutrality on this issue from the descendants of the Green/Merritt family. None whatsoever

 

How Does One Respond When the Memory of Your Ancestors’ Burial Ground Is Denied by Greed?”

 
 
It’s 6 am on the morning on September 23, 2016 and I am bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and I may be even just a tad bit strident, too. I had the opportunity yesterday to make our public statement about the Byram African-American Cemetery — the place where our family’s ancestors are buried along with some of the other earliest African-American residents of the Town of Greenwich. It was the first time our family has ever stood up for our ancestors and others in public. Imagine our surprise when we heard someone give voice to those who had desecrated our ancestral burial ground by greed DENY the existence of the actual Byram African-American Cemetery. I remind you that this is the same cemetery that these same people offered to put a plaque on a tree for us almost a month ago. Yes, they tried, and epically failed, to sway us with a plaque in memory of a cemetery they now believe never existed. You heard me right. I visited the cemetery with two of my cousins and we all heard the same thing. Our hearing was fine then and is fine now.
 
 
I was grateful that I had my cousins with me yesterday from both sides of the Lyon color line. They were there with me in person and via the statements they wrote in support of the Byram African-American Cemetery though all of them refer to the place as the “African-American portion of the Old Cemetery.” The reason they all refer to this cemetery this way is because that was how their own Lyon family oral history recorded it. Because none of my ancestors were able to tell us about this particular cemetery, I now take comfort in, as well as full ownership,  of my Lyon cousins’ family oral history regarding the Byram African-American Cemetery.  A big thank you to Chris, Charles, Julie and all my other Lyon cousins who shared this history with me. Yesterday, we sat at the hearing knowing that our ancestors were just as proud of us as they were when our other Lyon ancestors stood up for what was right in 1890. We gladly followed in their footsteps. History matters. Truth matters. Our shared family history matters and it is hidden no more. Out of the darkness of slavery born in Greenwich, we are bringing our shared family history to light together.
 
 
Lyon Cousins United
List of 17th Century Founders of Greenwich, CT
 
A beautiful note to me from our new cousin Chris
 
I sit here and now marvel at how convenient it is to claim that the Byram African-American Cemetery never existed in the first place. The more they talk, the more questions we have. Does the denial of the very existence of the Byram African-American Cemetery, and also of the people buried there by extension, have anything to do with them increasing the value of their prime waterfront real estate by their front-lawn hijacking of our ancestors’ burial ground? Why make up unfounded claims that are easily disputed by the documented evidence about the Byram African-American Cemetery? Did not our Lyon ancestors, who originally owned the land, have the right to determine where the Byram African-American Cemetery was located? Why should it’s shape and location even matter? Why would our Lyon ancestors stand up for our  African-American ancestors in 1890, which was recorded in The Port Chester Journal at the time, if the cemetery never existed? Where is the proof that a barn was ever located on the cemetery grounds for decades especially since the owner of the home conceded to protecting “The Colored Cemetery,” which was also noted in The Port Chester Journal, at the time? Why would all those Byram Lyons sign a petition in 1890 to protect the “The Colored Cemetery” if the cemetery wasn’t an actual place? Did they even consider that the Lyons, who lived all around Byram in 1890, may have actually known some of the African-American people buried there in their lifetime which is why they stood up for them in the first place? Why would the statements of two individuals in this century carry more weight than the documented, actual words and deeds of people who knew of “The Colored Cemetery” in the 19th Century? How did their Ground Penatrating Radar Survey — one that only detected metal — become a substitute for a professional archaeological excavation that searches for the presence of human remains? Is it now more politically expedient for them to blame a previous owner rather than admit that they did all the damage to the cemetery in the first place? Why did they admit to my cousins and me less than a month ago that they had in fact “beautified the property” if they are now claiming someone else did it? Does insinuating that the Byram African-American Cemetery never existed make them sleep easier at night after they desecrated it? Does “cooperating” with the Town of Greenwich really necessitate the denial of the actual existence of the cemetery and the people buried there? Did they even consider that we can clearly see this for what it is –an illegal land grab of an abandoned cemetery — for greed? Why did they even offer to put a plaque on a tree for us when they knew what the Town of Greenwich was proposing instead? Did they really think we would want a placque on a tree that could be taken on and off as they pleased after hearing that the Town of Greenwich was considering making the cemetery an actual historic designated African-American one? Did they even consider how INSULTING it was for us to even listen to the nonsense they proposed yesterday? My inquiring mind would like to know. My ancestors buried in the Byram African-American Cemetery, Byram Cemetery and the Lyon Cemetery would  like to know. Certainly, my Lyon ancestors, who are buried above the boulder, have a very vested interest in especially knowing since they intended to create a sacred burial space so that their slaves, ex-slaves, and their slave descendants, like our family, could rest in peace undisturbed.
 
 
 
 
The Byram African-American Cemetery
 

Ancestor Slave Research and The Issue of Historical Erasure

For those of us who are descendants of people who were enslaved, it is a constant battle to find our ancestors without the normal genealogical paper trails that others use with ease. We are left sifting through wills and inventories, digging through slave owner family papers, searching tax records of slave owners, researching newspaper ads and articles, etc. just looking for our ancestors’ names. And even then, if we are lucky, we only have vague traces of our ancestors existence. The lack of “proof of ancestor existence” is always out there reminding us of how our ancestors lives were minimized even in death. Our ancestors were considered property and their lives were not seen as being valid — of being worthy — of remembrance. Tears. The ancestral battles we have to fight are many. So, if you wonder why I repeatedly say this in my blogposts, it’s because people need to be constantly reminded that the historical erasure of African-Americans in this country, on so many levels, is real and ever present. Once you acknowlege how hard it is to find out any concrete information on any African-American ancestor, then you can also truly appreciate the information found because it wasn’t easy finding it in the first place.
 
 
Sometimes, we search for our slave ancestors to no avail. Our family lines, by historic design, become lost to us for eternity. But when we do find our slave ancestors, after looking sometimes for years and years, their presence on our family trees become all that much sweeter and richer. We find a piece of our historical selves that that no one can ever take away from us again. Finding our slave ancestors means that we can claim victory over that aspect of slavery which was designed to prevent this sort of family reunion in the future. When I found our Peg and Anthony a year ago, I won’t lie, I danced, screamed, shouted and I will continue to do so. We got the victory for sure.
 
 

On the Byram African-American Cemetery

 
Our family is an old Greenwich family with white and black Lyon roots stretching back to the 1600s. Our Greens and Merritts were part of Greenwich when Greenwich was just a town filled with “gentleman farmers,” as our cousin Chris says. We represent that old Greenwich that can’t be denied by any newcomer. Nope. Our Green-Merritt line left a lot of information behind over their 250+ year existence in this town. The memory of where our Peg, Anthony, our other ancestors as well as other early African-Americans residents of Greenwich are buried, will not be conveniently erased now by those who have alternate agendas, seek to profit off prime waterfront real estate or by those who believe that historical homes and places don’t matter in the present. The Byram African-American Cemetery, also known by its previous name “The Colored Cemetery,” was a real physical location that existed when our Lyon family created their two other cemeteries. It existed so that their slaves, ex-slaves, and slave descendants would have a sacred burial ground of their own. Shame on those who now suggest that it didn’t exist at all. Shame on you indeed. Their wishful thinking is futile.
 
 
It’s 7 am now and I am, more now than ever, adamant about protecting the memory and cultural legacy of my ancestors, who are buried in the Byram African-American Cemetery, as well as all of the other African-Americans buried there. There is no time to be wary when so much work is yet to be done and battles yet to be fought. I thank all my ancestors and extended family for keeping me strong and steadfast in this regard. We stand united still. Our ancestors are no doubt smiling down on us.
 
 
Here is the complete Board of Selectman Meeting at Greenwich Town Hall. The full discussion of the cemeteries begins at the 51:00 mark. Please click on the link here.
 
More information on the man representing the people on the other side can be found here.
 
 
 
Though the video below deals with the desecration of an Afro-Canadian cemetery, it certainly reflects the same sentiments we feel over the Byram African-American Cemetery and the denial that it never existed. Those people buried there are our ancestors. I will
always be a Speaker For My Dead.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Green-Merritt Statement on the Byram African-American Cemetery

Here is Our Green-Merritt Family Statement on the Byram African-American Cemetery.

 
We will continue to give voice to our ancestors as well as to all the other African-Americans who are buried there. May they continue to rest in peace.

 

Lyon Cousins (Ana Ortiz-Hopkins, Eddie Jones, Chris Varner, Pat Bryant, and Teresa Vega)

 

As descendants of African-Americans buried in the Byram African-American Cemetery and as descendants of the Lyon family, our family applauds the efforts of the Town of Greenwich in wanting to preserve the Byram Cemetery, Lyon Cemetery and Byram African-American Cemetery. These three cemeteries are testaments to the presence of these early settlers and to the presence of African-Americans in Greenwich from the beginning. Certainly, the value of the historic preservation of these cemeteries is without question.

Regarding the Byram African-American Cemetery, our 4th great-grandparents, Anthony and Peg Green, are no doubt buried there along with other ancestors. Our 4th great-grandmother Peg was a slave of Daniel Lyon and of Benjamin Woosley Lyon. Peg’s son Jack was a slave of Simeon Lyon. Our genetic ties to the Lyon family start with Daniel, and go back to James, John, John and finally back to Thomas Lyon. Throughout Peg’s life, she maintained a long lasting relationship with her former slave owners, even after her emancipation in 1800, that was no doubt due to the family ties that they shared —- ties that were born out of slavery personified in Greenwich. The original intent of our Lyon ancestors was to build a sacred burial place for their slaves and ex-slaves— for people like Anthony and Peg.  It was to give these people a final resting place where they could rest in peace for eternity undisturbed. If any one deserved to rest in peace, it was these people who spent part or all of their lives literally slaving away. This was hallowed and consecrated land from the beginning.

Our family is relatively late to this whole cemetery issue. It was only a year ago that we were able to locate our 3rd and 4th great-grandparents and less than a month since we first heard about the infringement to the Byram African-American Cemetery that occurred 2 years ago and our feelings are still raw. Who would have ever thought that our ancestors’ burial ground would now be someone’s front lawn? We certainly didn’t expect that. That being said, we are overjoyed that our Lyon cousins – cousins whose ancestors stood up for our ancestors when the same thing happened in 1890— and other members of the Greenwich Preservation Trust, sounded the alarm about what was happening to our ancestors’ burial place in our absence. I can’t state enough how much that meant to our family. Our shared history matters. That the Town of Greenwich and the Conservation Commission produced a documentary study that details their plans to preserve, redevelop, and further interpret the Byram African-American Cemetery is also commendable. That we are now here discussing the Town’s acquisition of all three cemeteries is laudable indeed.

As someone who is both a family historian and genealogist and who has a degree in anthropology, I am looking forward to sharing any historical information I have with the Conservation Commission, Cemetery Committee, Greenwich Historical Society and with the Greenwich Preservation Trust.  I want people to know that there is a long history of African-Americans in this town. Our family has a long 250+ year history in Greenwich and Greenwich has always been our hometown. Our ancestors were emancipated in 1800 and 1816 and went on to become successful farmers and laborers. They were members of the Second Congregational Church, the Stanwich Congregational Church and the First United Methodist Church in the early 1800s. When the Second Congregational Church opened up Lot 23 in Union Cemetery in 1851, for the burial of the poor and people of color, our Green, Merritt, and Husted ancestors were among the first to buy burial plots. Half of the African-Americans, who are buried in Lot 23 of Union Cemetery, are our ancestors and their in-laws. When this country needed volunteers to fight on the right side of history during the Civil War, 18 African-American men from Greenwich proudly served in the 29th Infantry of the Connecticut Colored Troops. Out of the 18, 2 were my 3rd great-uncles, 3 were my 1st cousins 4XR,  and 4 were their Peterson, Banks, Watson, and Mills in-laws. In 1882, 23 African-American residents of Greenwich came together and formed the Little Bethel AME Church, the first black church in Greenwich, and our Greens and Merritt ancestors were among the founding members. While we represent only one African-American family with deep roots in Greenwich and maybe the only family here to speak on behalf of the people who are buried in the Byram African-American Cemetery, please be aware that there are many more stories that remain to be told about the African-American presence in Greenwich. I, for one, will telling those stories in the near future.

Going forward, our family sees only positive outcomes. Once the Town acquires the Byram African-American Cemetery, we hope that we can all work together to restore the cemetery, discuss its historical significance as the burial place of the town’s earliest African-American residents, to forever link it to the Lyon family whose original intention was to create this part of the Old Cemetery for their slaves and ex-slaves, and to add some sort of monument to the cemetery so that further infringement never occurs again. We also support any future excavation of the cemetery to yield any scientific information about the individuals buried there as well as have a proper re-burial ceremony afterwards. The African-Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan and the Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground in Albany, NY provide excellent examples of positive community involvement  and education regarding found and excavated African-American burial grounds. Again, our family is looking forward to a brighter future for the Byram African-American Cemetery and likewise for the Byram Cemetery and Lyon Cemetery.