Tuesday, March 27, 2012

That DNA Is Something Else!

     On September 28, 2011, I got an automated e-mail notification generated by Karen Meadows-Rogers of Spartanburg, South Carolina from a DNA company called 23andMe.  Karen and I had been communicating with each other online periodically for over 7 years because we both had ancestors from Union County, South Carolina.  However, my direct ancestors were taken to northern Mississippi during the 1850’s.  Karen was also a lover of genealogy research. Since we didn’t share any common family surnames, we assumed for years that we were probably not related.  Many times, as you will see, the assumptions we make can be totally inaccurate.   

     Nevertheless, the notification stated, “Karen Meadows-Rogers is using 23andMe to learn about her DNA and would like you to take a look.  Go here to view results for Karen Meadows-Rogers.”  I was provided a link to look at Karen’s DNA analysis.  Viewing her results piqued my interest in 23andMe’s efforts to collect DNA samples from 10,000 African Americans for health research. I took advantage of their then free test, mostly because of their ancestral analysis, and submitted my saliva sample which was received by 23andMe on November 10, 2011. On December 6, 2011, my results were ready to be viewed on their website.  They determined that I am 89% African, 10% European, and 1% Native American. However, I was mostly intrigued by their Relative Finder (RF) database.  23andMe asserts that their “relative finder finds relatives by comparing your DNA with that of other 23andMe users. When two people share identical segments of DNA, this indicates that they share a recent common ancestor. Relative finder uses the length and number of these identical segments to predict the relationship between people.” (Source: 23andMe.com)

     As I browsed through the 208 people in my RF database, I discovered that Karen was in my database!  23andMe predicted us as being “distant cousins”.  The connection was rather distant because she ranked last among my 208 “DNA cousins”.  As of today, March 27, 2012, I now have 232 “DNA cousins” in my RF database, and Karen ranks no. 229. Not all of my “DNA cousins” are African Americans.  Other predicted relationships with the people in my RF database are a 2nd cousin (Len Morgan), 3rd cousins, 4th cousins, and many 5th cousins. However, Karen is noted only as my “distant cousin”, and we only share 0.09% DNA (7 cM) across 1 segment.  For that reason, I figured that the connection is likely 6th cousins or beyond.  

 Karen Meadows-Rogers and her grandfather, Johnnie Meadows
(Photo by Karen; Used by permission.)

     6th cousins are defined as people who have a 5th-great-grandparent(s) in common.  Yes, 5 greats (great-great-great-great-great-grandmother/father).  That’s going back seven generations.  Therefore, in order for us to figure out exactly how we are related, we would have to know a great deal about our family histories.  How many African Americans possess knowledge of their family histories going all the way back to 5th-great-grandparents?  Very very few.  When many adult African Americans today trace back four to five generations, we are in the slavery era when many of our enslaved ancestors were forcibly separated from their family, never to see them again, and the knowledge of many familial connections is unobtainable.  I never admitted this to Karen, but I had very little hope of determining exactly how we are related. 

     During the next three months, Karen e-mailed me various family charts and trees of different branches of her maternal and paternal family.  I only recognized one of her family surnames – Ray – but none of my direct ancestors carried that name.  Karen also had her father’s brother to take 23andMe’s DNA test, and she informed me that I appeared in his RF database!  Therefore, this told us that she and I are related on her father’s side of the family.  Her father was a Ray.  Hmmm…  This alerted me that I truly needed to re-investigate why I was familiar with that surname.  It had slipped my mind -- excusable for someone who is approaching 40.  Right?

     I found it amazing that 23andMe was able to pinpoint Karen and her paternal uncle as my distant cousins.  Why?  Because 23andMe states, “Because there is randomness when DNA is transmitted from parent to child, the more distant a cousin pair, the less likely they are to share any stretch of DNA that was passed down through the generations. Note that even though there is a relatively low chance of detecting more distant cousins, Relative Finder will likely find a good number of them given the large number of distant cousins that exist.”  They estimate that the likelihoods of detecting a known cousin are the following:  100% for 1st cousins, 99% for 2nd cousins, 90% for 3rd cousins, 45% for 4th cousins, 15% for 5th cousins, and 5% for 6th cousins and beyond.  In other words, if 1,000 of my known 5th cousins took 23andMe’s DNA test, the random transmission of DNA segments causes them to only detect approximately 150 of the 1000 as being my 5th cousins.  And the probability is lower for 6th cousins – 50 out of 1000.  Therefore, it was quite monumental that Karen appeared in my database, when a known 5th cousin of mine recently informed me that she also took the test, but she didn’t show up in my database.  The random transmission of DNA segments also explained why Karen’s daughter, Alexis, did not show up in my RF database.

     Nevertheless, I decided to concentrate on Karen’s paternal family, the Rays, especially since I had seen that surname before. I finally realized that it was during my research of my great-great-great-grandmother Clarissa Bobo’s roots.  Karen had informed me that she and her cousins had traced back to her great-great-great-grandparents, Thomas & Melvina Ray.  Yes, MELVINA! (The ancestors have a peculiar way of showing you that you are on the right track. LOL)  She also informed me that she and her family had concluded that Thomas Ray, who was born around 1828, had probably been enslaved by a white Raiford Family, since he lived near them in 1870, but he shortened his surname to Ray.  Interestingly, white Ray slave-owners and white Raiford slave-owners lived in the area, so I silently questioned their conclusion. 

 Thomas & Melvina Ray, Laurens County, South Carolina, taken in the late 1800's 
(Photo by Karen; Used by permission)

     However, a light bulb went off when I looked at the names of Thomas & Melvina Ray’s children in the 1870 and 1880 censuses. Three of them were named Milly, Palina, and Sims.  Palina was also a name that was passed down in Grandma Clarissa Bobo’s family; she had a sister named Palina Boyce, who was also taken to northern Mississippi from Union County, South Carolina during the 1850’s with my direct ancestors.  I immediately thought about the names of the slaves that were listed on the estate inventory of James Law, who died in nearby Newberry County in 1836.  Those three names were common among the Law slaves!  I had found James Law’s estate record when I visited the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in 2007. Each county in South Carolina has a microfilm of estate records and estate inventories.  I was floored to see how his 36 slaves were divided into 6 family lots in 1836. The first family lot contained Jack, Milly, and their 6 children.  This family lot was inherited by James Law’s daughter, Martha Law RAY, the wife of William RAY. That’s where I had seen the Ray surname! Brace yourself, but this was that family lot:

One Negro man, Jack, $1000
One Negro woman, Milly, $500
One Negro girl, Martha, $700
One Negro girl, Polly, $550
One Negro boy, THOMAS, $600
One Negro boy, Martin, $500
One Negro boy, Henry, $325
One Negro girl, Jencey, $175

     By now, you are probably asking, “How are you connected to the slaves of James Law?”  As expounded in Mississippi to Africa, I was able to trace my maternal grandmother’s maternal roots back seven generations because my ancestors were passed down several generations within one slave-holding family, starting with Capt. John Turner of Fairfield County, South Carolina. Turner died in 1807, and his four married daughters inherited most of his 22 slaves.  Those 22 enslaved human beings included my 5th-great-grandparents, Jack & Anika, and their 10 children.  Their son, Richard “Dick” (born c. 1785), was my 4th-great-grandfather (father of Grandma Clarissa Bobo). John Turner’s daughter, Agnes Turner Boyce, who lived in Union County with her husband David Boyce, inherited Grandpa Dick, his sister, Bess, and their younger brother, Jack Jr.  Nearly 50 years later, during the 1850’s, Dr. William & Margaret Boyce Bobo, who was Turner’s granddaughter, took my ancestorsGrandpa Dick's offspring to Panola County (Como), Mississippi.

     Another one of Jack & Anika’s 10 children was a daughter named Easter (born c. 1790).  John Turner’s daughter, Martha Turner Law, the wife of James Law, inherited her, and Easter was subsequently taken to the Law farm in Newberry County as a teenage girl in 1807. On the Law farm, Easter had a number of children; one was a son named Jack, whom she had named after her own father.  This is the same Jack in that family lot above -- the father of Thomas!  23andMe detected that Karen and I are distant cousins because my 4th-great-grandfather, Grandpa Dick, and her 5th-great-grandmother, Easter, were brother and sister – two of Jack & Anika’s 10 children.  Jack and Anika are our common ancestors.  Therefore, Karen is my 6th-cousin-once removed, and I am still in awe that DNA analysis detected this distant relationship!  That DNA is something else!

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Boom! The Brick Wall Came Crumbling Down!

Note: This article was written on April 6, 2011, soon after I knocked down a major brick wall after 17 years.  This article was transferred from my website to this blog. (Edited 11/23/2014)

“Brick Wall” is a metaphor used in genealogical and historical research when one reaches a point in their research where he/she is unable to progress further or “dig deeper.” All researchers and family historians encounter it. For those tracing African-American ancestors, this proverbial brick wall is commonly encountered at the 1870 U.S. Federal Census, a vitally important census particularly for African-American research. Since it was recorded just five years after slavery ended, the 1870 census was very often the first official record that recorded formerly enslaved African Americans by their first and last names. The key to African-American genealogy research is to trace families from the 1940 census all the way back to the 1870 census. That feat alone is considered a big success.

However, once that goal is accomplished, The 1870 Brick Wall is there standing tall and strong, blocking one’s path to more ancestral discoveries. In some cases, knocking down this brick wall can be relatively simple. For example, in the 1870 Panola County, Mississippi census, my widowed great-great-grandmother, Polly Partee, and her children were residing adjacent to a white, widowed lady named Martha Partee. Census records, slave schedules, and estate papers verified that Martha’s late husband, Squire Boone Partee, had been the enslaver of Grandma Polly and over 70 other enslaved African Americans prior to his demise in 1863. Additionally, an elderly relative relayed the following confirmation, “Polly came off the ole Partee Place in Panola County where she had been a cook during and after slavery.” However, for other cases, knocking down that 1870 Brick Wall is not so simple, especially when the ancestors did not retain the surname of their last slave-owner.

As a side bar, let me explain this fact. Many took the last enslaver’s surname, and many did not. The statistics vary on this subject. However, the general consensus, based on a number of sources, indicates that the number of people who did NOT take the last enslaver’ surname is greater than the number of people who did. FamilySearch.org reports that only 15% of former slaves took the last enslaver’s surname (source). Other sources, which I discuss in Ain’t Gonna Take Massa’s Name, give a larger percentage, yet still showing that most did not take the last enslaver’s surname.

Indeed, this was the case for a branch of my father’s family. I quickly ascertain that some of my paternal ancestors from Warren County, Mississippi did not appear to have retained the last enslaver’s surname. The absence of any oral history on that side of the family made it even more arduous to break down that wall. Nevertheless, with relative ease, I was able to find my great-grandmother, Angeline Bass Belton, her parents, John “Jack” Bass and Francis Morris Bass, in the censuses, from 1920 back to 1870, Warren County, Mississippi.

Luckily, on Thursday, June 17, 1880, when the census enumerator visited the Bass household (or their neighbor), Francis’ mother Caroline Morris was living with them; he officially recorded her in their household, which enabled me to identify my great-great-great-grandmother. According to the 1880 census, Grandma Caroline was born around 1820 somewhere in Virginia. I instantly wondered how and under what circumstances during slavery did she end up near Vicksburg, Mississippi. Unfortunately, I was soon thrust against that recognizable 1870 Brick Wall, and I could not find the “explosives” or a "wrecking ball" to knock it down. Researching the 1850 and 1860 Warren County slave schedules and censuses yielded no white Morris families who had owned slaves and no white Bass families who had slaves in Warren County that matched the profile of Grandpa Jack Bass. Therefore, my Bass and Morris ancestors evidently did not appear to take these surnames from their last slave-owners. What do I do? I was stymied.

For years, that ugly 1870 Brick Wall was in my path. I couldn’t go any further, into the slavery era. Eventually, I decided to put this research away and concentrate on other family branches – ones that I was able to knock down that unsightly wall. However, as my prior research articles indicated, the ancestors don’t care for any form of quitting or abandonment. Periodically, they’ll send a nudge with clues. No joke. Really! Fortunately, Grandma Caroline gave me a big nudge recently, 17 years later. And as it turned out, the clues had been there all along. She simply provided the “Visine Eye Drops” so that I could see them more clearly, right there in front of my face!

Immediately after watching the Lionel Richie episode of “Who Do You Think You Are,” which aired on NBC on Friday, March 4, 2011, I thought about my great-great-grandfather, John “Jack” Bass; he was Grandma Caroline’s son-in-law. In that episode, Lionel Richie discovered that his great-grandfather, John Louis Brown, who was born into slavery near Nashville, Tennessee in 1839, was a very literate man who formed an organization called the Knights of Wise Men. Brown was the Supreme Grande Archon of the organization and editor of their publications. Grandpa Jack Bass, who was born into slavery around 1845 in North Carolina, was also a literate man. The 1870 and 1880 Warren County censuses indicated that he could read and write. In 1871, he even signed his own name on his Freedman’s Bank application that I had found in 2001, when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints of Salt Lake City, Utah released the Freedman’s Bank Records CD. Imagine the excitement of that discovery!

The Freedman's Bank Application of John “Jack” Bass
Jan. 16, 1871, Warren County, Mississippi

That night after the show, I retrieved this bank application to marvel at the fact that my great-great-grandfather was also an educated man, wondering how he was able to garner an education when it was illegal during slavery to teach enslaved African Americans. That’s when Grandma Caroline gave me a nudge! Suddenly, I was drawn to the line on the application that stated, “Works for Daniel Canon.” Since the 1870 census reported that Grandpa Jack Bass was a farmer, I’d deduced that he may have been farming or sharecropping the land of Daniel Canon. In 2001, when I found this application, I searched for Daniel Canon in the censuses and slave schedules (microfilms) to see if he was the owner of slaves; I wondered if he was Grandpa Jack Bass’s last slave-owner. To no avail, a “Daniel Canon” was never located. I was perplexed for over a decade. Why was Daniel Canon not found in any of the censuses?

In 2001, census research was primarily done at libraries, archives, or any place that housed them on microfilms. Ancestry.com was not even a thought at that time, as far as I was aware. Ten years later, researchers now have the luxury of researching digitized census records on their computers at Ancestry.com. Their search engine allows for searches to be conducted under a number of parameters – first and/or last names, middle names, birthplaces, possible people in household, etc. This made it more possible for people to be located in the censuses.

That night, I decided to search for Daniel Canon again under two parameters – first name (Daniel) and place of residence (Warren County, MS). Again, no Daniel Canon seemed to exist. However, among the search results was a Daniel CAMERON, who resided in the Bovina District of Warren County. This was where my ancestors resided. Interestingly, Cameron was a merchant in Bovina with a personal estate value of $55,000. He was also from North Carolina. His name caught my attention because I recalled seeing an African-American Cameron living several residences from Grandma Caroline in 1870. Hmmm…

Desiring to find out more about this Daniel Cameron and theorizing that he was actually Grandpa Jack Bass’ employer in 1871, and possibly his last enslaver, I searched for more information on FamilySearch.org. That search revealed that Daniel Cameron married a lady named Sarah HEBRON in 1849 in Warren County. The surname HEBRON leaped out at me because Grandma Caroline Morris lived several residences away from a white Hebron family that was headed by Adaline Hebron in 1870. They were on the same census page. More searching on FamilySearch.org revealed that Adaline Hebron was the widow of John Hebron, and John Hebron was the father of Daniel Cameron’s wife, Sarah Hebron. Could it be that Jack & Francis Bass and her mother Caroline were last enslaved by the Camerons and/or Hebrons? That thought immediately entered my mind. Grandma Caroline was nudging even more. Hmmm…

The 1860 slave schedule revealed that John Hebron owned over 60 slaves, who were living in 12 slave houses – establishing a plantation-like setting. Geographically located between the Mississippi River on the west and the Yazoo and the Big Black Rivers on the east, Warren County is a mixture of fertile Delta lands, hardwood forested hills, and lakes and wetlands. The Bovina area in the eastern part of the county, eight miles east of Vicksburg, is situated along the fertile banks of the Big Black River; that area was adorned with large plantations like the rest of the Mississippi Delta region.

I decided to employ a genealogy methodology called cluster genealogy by investigating Grandma Caroline’s neighbors in the 1870 census. To read more about this important technique, read here. I immediately noticed that a large majority of the older adults in her vicinity had all come from Virginia. I somehow felt that this was more than coincidental. Interestingly, a Freedman’s Bank application was also found for one of her neighbors, Henry Hunt; it noted that he was born in Greensville County, Virginia around 1824 (See below). His brother, Stephen Hunt, lived adjacent to John’s widow, Adaline Hebron. Henry Hunt’s application also noted, Mother, Mary - lives on Lagrange Pln.” I speculated that “Pln” was the abbreviation for plantation. An elderly Mary was Grandma Caroline’s next-door neighbor in 1870. Hmmm…

The Freedman's Bank Application of Henry Hunt
Apr. 26, 1870, Warren County, Mississippi

I decided to google the name “John Hebron” to see if I could find more information about him. Lo and behold, the following paragraph was in a book entitled The Lost Mansions of Mississippi by Mary C. Miller. Sections of the book had been digitized and uploaded to Google books. It contained the following about John Hebron:

Rural Warren County was home to dozens of prosperous antebellum plantations. Most were planted in endless rows of cotton, but one operation near Bovina was unique for Mississippi. John Hebron, using his wife’s inheritance to establish himself in Mississippi in 1834, acquired land east of Vicksburg and cultivated it with the usual cotton. The rich overflow topsoil near the Big Black River was ideal for that crop, but Hebron was more innovative than his fellow Deep South planters. He placed peach, pears and apple trees between the cotton rows, and, as they successfully took root and began to produce, the orchards gradually took precedence over the fiber crops . . . Hebron built a home, LaGrange, close to the orchards . . .The results of John Hebron’s hard work (my side note: whose hard work??) stood directly in the path of hostilities in 1863; Twenty-five hundred Union troops camped in his orchards as they laid siege to the river city. Hebron died in 1862, and did not live to see General Grant use his house as a temporary headquarters . . . (page 38).

This snippet in that book provided a wealth of interesting information! Census records indicated that John Hebron was from Virginia. A marriage record on familysearch.org shows that he married his first wife Julia Sills in 1825 in Greensville County, Virginia (Source). Perhaps, that’s why a number of Grandma Caroline’s older neighbors in 1870 were born in Virginia? She too was born in Virginia around 1820. As previously mentioned, her neighbor Henry Hunt reported that same place as his birthplace! Could it be that Grandma Caroline and her family were on LaGrange Plantation during slavery? Hmmm…. The clues were there, but I desired to prove it without a shadow of doubt.

Since John Hebron had died in 1862, maybe his probate/estate record contains the names of his slaves since enslaved African Americans were “property.” Maybe a slave inventory can be found? I was hopeful. This past weekend, I decided to make a detour through Jackson, Mississippi to visit the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) before going to Canton. Somehow, I felt that if Grandma Caroline had nudged me to uncover this much information after 17 years of looking at that 1870 Brick Wall, I would find something significant at the MDAH.

Fortunately, I discovered in the Warren County Probate Index, published in 1993, that there’s a probate court case file for John Hebron. I immediately wrote down his probate number (no. 2089) and retrieved the Warren County Probate Court Cases microfilm no. 17142 for the time period 1861-1862. With anticipation, I loaded the film on the microfilm reader. Minutes later, I came upon John Hebron’s will; he wrote the following on March 1, 1862:

“ . . . It is my wish and desire that my boy William and his wife Elva may choose their own master, they have been faithful servants to me, and I want them well taken care of; the same of my boy Britton and his wife Harriet; they also have been faithful servants to me. I want my negroes divided according to valuation…I give to my son Doc. John Hebron my negro boy yellow Henry…The negroes that my daughter Sarah J. Cameron and Doc. John L. Hebron has in possession is to be appraised with the other negroes as above written, but my first wife’s children is to have the liberty of choosing such negroes of those that came by their Mother, Those negroes in possession of my daughter Sarah J. Cameron and Doc. John L. Hebron, they are to have in part of the division at the same valuation as the other negroes . . .”

After reading his will, I scrolled further and soon came upon a slave inventory that contained 91 slaves recorded by names, ages, value, and by family groups! (See below.) Among the names were “Caroline 40 and child, 5 months.” After 17 years, cluster genealogy and other clues led me to find the name of Grandma Caroline Morris’ enslaver and the name of the plantation! Listed after her were seven more children, including “Fanny, 10.” This child was undoubtedly my great-great-grandmother, Francis Morris Bass, wife of Jack Bass. Fanny was a very common nickname for Francis. Also, a number of Grandma Caroline’s neighbors in 1870 and in 1880 were on the inventory! I sat there in amazement looking at the inventory. Boom! The Brick Wall Came Crumbling Down! 

LaGrange Plantation of Warren County, Mississippi, July 15, 1862
The slave inventory from the estate of John Hebron, Sr.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Genealogy Workshop Tackles Family Murder

On Saturday morning, March 17, 2012, I welcomed another opportunity to facilitate a Developing Research Strategies workshop at the National Archives (Southeast Branch) in Morrow, Georgia.  This hands-on workshop was sponsored by the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society – Metro Atlanta chapter (AAHGS).  The room was packed with over 50 members and non-members, including six eager-to-learn college students who are Andrew W. Mellon interns in the Recruiting Tomorrow’s Library Leaders program at the Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library.  This program is designed to promote careers as librarians, library professionals, and archivists.  Archivists and librarians assist many genealogy patrons on a daily basis at countless archives and libraries throughout the nation. However, these six students were also keenly interested in learning how to trace their own family roots.  They certainly chose a great workshop that entailed a genealogical puzzle with an interesting twist.  You will see what I mean; the title of this blog post gives an indication.

Mellon Program Coordinator Neely Terrell (far left) with six of her interns: Anthony McCool (Morehouse College), Camille Vincent (Spelman College), Jahnesta Horney (Clark Atlanta Univ.), Anthony Kinsey (Morehouse College), Kendall Barksdale (Clark Atlanta Univ.), and Denzel Caldwell (Morehouse College).

All of the workshop participants were given a handout that contained the oral history of AAHGS member Bruce Ingram’s paternal family from Conyers, Georgia.  Mr. Ingram was able to provide the names of his paternal grandparents, great-grandparents, and even the names of two of his great-great-grandparents, Ned & Julia Sims.  He was particularly able to recall these great-great-grandparents' names because of a family story that was passed down by his father.  That story told the tragic tale of two brothers – sons of Ned & Julia Sims – who were in a gun shoot-out that led to one brother killing another brother over land disputes.  This family duel allegedly occurred sometime in the 1920's in Rockdale County, Georgia. 

Equipped with their laptops, notebooks, pencils, and a handout, the workshop participants were divided into eight groups.  Each group contained people of various levels of research experience.  Experienced researchers served as group leaders who were also responsible for explaining the basic steps of genealogy to the beginners in their groups.  Using Ancestry.com and other online sources, each group was assigned the following same questions:

1.     What did you find in the census records?  How far back were you able to go?
2.     Are there any clues about tracing his enslaved ancestors?
3.     What did you find from other online sources?  What were those sources?
A.    Who was the brother who got killed? 
B.    Where is the family buried in Rockdale County?
4.     What is your research plan? Write out your plan on the tablets on the easels. This plan should include what other records and strategies that can be employed to trace Bruce’s family.

The groups were given an hour and a half to answer the questions.  Each group assigned a reporter to relay their findings and their research plan to the audience. Collectively, many research strategies were learned from all of the eight groups, enabling the participants to gain valuable knowledge about research methodologies to utilize when researching their families.  Also, the participants were able to learn about a plethora of records that can be sought in conducting a reasonably exhaustive genealogical search for finding one’s ancestors, solving family mysteries, knocking down brick walls, and proving (or disproving) oral history.  The short video below contains pictures of some of the research plans. 

Nonetheless, the most riveting aspect of this genealogical puzzle was finding something to document the oral history about the Sims brothers’ shoot-out.  What on earth could they possibly find online that documents the story?  Of course, I had already located an online document to prove it, with high hopes that the workshop participants would find that same document. Brilliantly, some of the participants searched through online databases of digitized newspapers, including but not limited to: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/, http://newspaperarchive.com/, www.ancestry.com.  Indeed, searching through microfilmed or digitized newspapers about the incident is a great idea and should be part of the research plan.  However, the findable online document that corroborated the story was the following record that four of the eight groups found: 

The death certificate of Edd Sims, Rockdale County, Georgia
Cause of death: "Gunshot wound -- died in few minutes"
Date of death: May 4, 1921

This death certificate was found in the “Virtual Vault” on the Georgia Archives’ website.  Containing many historic Georgia manuscripts, photographs, maps, and government records that are housed in the state archives, the Virtual Vault also contains digitized death certificates from 1919 through 1927. The digital collection also includes a number of death certificates from 1914 – 1918. Edd Sims’ death certificate documented the name of the Sims brother who was killed (Edd Sims), the date of the shooting (May 4, 1921), the approximate time of the shooting (Edd had died within minutes of being shot around 2:00 PM), the county of the incident (Rockdale County), Edd’s place of burial (Sims Cemetery), as well as other genealogical information, such as Julia Sims’ maiden name --- which ironically was Gunn.

Short video of the workshop

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Who Do You Think You Are – the Lou Gossett Blog-Episode

 Photo of Lou Gossett by Luke Ford. Used by permission.

The NBC show, Who Do You Think You Are, has heightened the curiosity of many concerning their own ancestral history by highlighting the ancestral hunt of seven celebrities.  Because of the show, I decided to rehash my celebrity connection – a historical connection that I revealed in Mississippi to Africa.  Hence, this second blog post was entitled Who Do You Think You Are – the Lou Gossett Blog-Episode.  In this short blog story, which is actually a piggyback from my first blog post “The Blog Picture”, you will follow the journey of how a historical link to award-winning actor Lou Gossett was discovered simply because I was curious about something.  I don’t know if Lou Gossett is even aware of this history. (Update: I received a surprise phone call from Lou Gossett on March 18. He was thrilled to learn this history!)

As mentioned in my first post, I discovered that my great-great-grandfather, Edward “Ed” Danner, was born into slavery around 1832 on Thomas Danner Junior’s farm in Union County, South Carolina.  Shortly before 1860, Grandpa Ed was sold to Dr. William J. Bobo, who transported him to Como, Mississippi.  I have researched the Danners at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History (SCDAH) in Columbia. I have also been able to acquire much information from Stephenville, Texas librarian Glenda Stone and from David Getzendanner.  Both are direct descendants of Thomas Jr.  Compiling data on the slave-holding family is absolutely imperative for pre-1865 research, as you will see.

Glenda revealed to me that Thomas Jr. was the son of Thomas Danner Sr. (aka Thomas Getzendanner) and Milly Stokes Danner, who established a plantation on the banks of the Enoree River in Union County, where he died in 1844.  A name change to Danner took place after Thomas Sr. migrated to South Carolina from Frederick, Maryland in 1788.  Learning Thomas Senior’s death date was vitally important because it enabled me to obtain his estate record from the SCDAH.  On New Year’s Day in 1845, 22 slaves were recorded in the estate inventory by their first names and their values, since enslaved African Americans were considered property – very valuable property.  Interestingly, one of the two appraisers was Dr. William Bobo.  Those 22 enslaved people were the following:

 The slave inventory from the estate of Thomas G. Danner Sr., taken Jan. 1, 1845, Union County, South Carolina

Interestingly, Thomas’ sons, Levi, John, and Thomas Jr., did not inherit any of the 22 slaves, according to his estate record. They were dispersed among his widow Milly, daughter Catherine Bates, and two sons-in-law. One of the two sons-in-law was James GOSSETT, who married his daughter, Rachel Danner, in 1841.  Gossett received 4 of the 22 slaves from the estate.  Seeing that name, I immediately thought of actor Lou Gossett Jr.  By chance, could there somehow be a historical connection to him?  I was curious, indeed.  However, I needed to know more about his family history.  Was his family from South Carolina?  

Luckily, I had one common resource to possibly find more information – the Internet.  According to the History Makers website, he was born Louis Cameron Gossett Jr. on May 27, 1936, in Brooklyn, New York.  They interviewed Gossett in 2005.  This site also stated that his father, Louis Gossett Sr., was from Bennettsville, South Carolina.  He had been a hardworking porter who eventually became the head of a local gas company in New York.  Although Bennettsville is in Marlboro County, which is over 100 miles east of Union County, I still decided to do some census research on Ancestry.com to see what I could find out about his father’s family.  This is what I found in 1930:

In 1930, in Brooklyn, New York, an 18-year-old Louis Gossett, whose birthplace was South Carolina, was living with a white Kurtz family on Neptune Avenue.  He was the only Louis Gossett in New York.  Was this the actor's father, Louis Sr.?  Hmmm…..  What else did I see for 1930?

Also in 1930, as shown above, other African-American Gossetts from South Carolina resided in Brooklyn.  Lacy Gossett, age 41, and his wife and son, Timothy Gossett, age 14, resided on Dean Street.  Woodrow and Helen Gossett, ages 11 and 16, respectively, lived with an African-American McDonald family on Warehouse Avenue.  Were they Louis Senior’s parents and siblings?  Hmmm…. My next step was to check the 1920 census to see what I find. 

I could not locate any Gossetts in Marlboro County.  However, to my surprise, I found the same Lacy Gossett who was in Brooklyn, New York in 1930.  In 1920, as shown above, he was living in the Jonesville district of UNION COUNTY!  His household contained his wife Ada and children, Louis (8), Helen (6), Timothy (4), granddaughter Ethelene (5), Woodroe (1), and his mother, Louise Gossett (50).  Eight-year-old Louis Gossett was undoubtedly the actor's father, Louis Gossett Sr.  Actor Lou Gossett was the grandson of Lacy Gossett from Union County.  I became excited!   Following the genealogy rule of thumb of going backwards – working from the known to the unknown – I was now curious how far I could go back in the census records.  Thus, the family was located in the 1910 and the 1900 censuses.  This is what was found in the 1900 Union County, South Carolina census:

The 1900 Union County census revealed that the actor’s grandfather was Lacy Gossett Junior, who was a 12-year-old teenager in the household of his parents, Lacy Sr. and Louise Gossett.  According to that census, Lacy Sr., the actor’s great-grandfather, was born in September 1866 in South Carolina.  Who was his father?  My curiosity level was rising.  So I checked the 1880 Union County census and found the following possible match:

In 1880, no one named Lacy Gossett was found in that census.  However, I noticed that a 60-year-old man named Green Gossett had a 13-year-old son named “Latha” in his household.  Now, scroll back up to the Danner slave inventory, and you will see that a “Negro man Green, $500” was inherited by James Gossett in 1845.  Was he Green Gossett?  The answer is a resounding YES!  How did I know?  Well, I looked on the next census page – investigating Green’s neighborhood – and who did I find?  James and Rachel Gossett were just several residences away from Green.  This was a major find!  But, was Green’s son “Latha” and Lacy Gossett Sr. one and the same person?   Hmmm…..

Luckily, I soon found more concrete clues.  Curiosity had gotten the best of me one night, so I decided to “google” the name “Lacy Gossett” on the Internet just to see what comes up.  Low and behold, the search results led me to an archived New York Times article, published May 23, 1921, that contained the names Lacy and Green Gossett.  Newspapers are indeed great genealogical sources.  Putting it nicely, the actor’s grandfather and great-grandfather were rather “lively” in New York during the Harlem Renaissance era, but not in the artistic sense.  Well, let’s see exactly what I mean by that statement.     

Turns out, the actor’s grandfather, Lacy Gossett Jr., was arrested in New York in 1921 for assaulting a man named George Talbot with a crowbar.  After Lacy was arrested, the whereabouts of his father were revealed. His father, a preacher, had been wanted by federal officials for sending obscene letters through the mail. Yes, you read the article correctly.  However, despite the humor of his offense, I immediately noticed that this father was noted as “Green Gossett”, not Lacy Gossett Sr.  The father had recently moved to New York from Detroit, running from the law.  So, will I find him in the 1920 Michigan census and will this clear up the name confusion?  Here’s what I found in the 1920 Wayne County, Michigan (Detroit Ward 3) census:

A 50-year-old Green Gossett was found living on Montcalm Street in Detroit, Michigan in 1920.  His birthplace was South Carolina and his reported occupation was janitor.  This Green was obviously not the 60-year-old Green Gossett in Union County, South Carolina in 1880.  However, quite plausibly, Lacy Sr. decided to go by his father’s name and thus became Green Gossett when he left South Carolina.  Also, one can plausibly surmise that while he may have been called “Lacy”, his official name may have always been Green.  Despite the name confusion, actor Lou Gossett’s great-grandfather, Lacy Sr. (aka Green Jr.), was undoubtedly the son of Green Gossett or “Negro man Green, $500” in 1845 and was likely “Latha” in Green’s household in 1880 in Union County. 

David Getzendanner informed me that Thomas Danner Jr. resided on his father’s plantation.  No land records were ever located indicating that Thomas Jr. had purchased his own land.  Of course, the 1000-acre plantation that Thomas Sr. owned was sufficient enough to accommodate the farming business of his second youngest son, a business that included slave labor, the work and sweat of my ancestors.  Therefore, my historical connection to Lou Gossett was found to be this – his great-great-grandfather, Green Gossett (born around 1820), and my great-great-grandfather, Edward Danner (born around 1832), hailed from the same father-and-son plantation in Union County, South Carolina.  Whether or not there was a familial connection between the two has yet to be answered. Stay tuned.

I snapped this picture of the Union County, South Carolina Courthouse in the town of Union during my visit there in 2007.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Blog Picture

While creating this new blog, I pondered about what my very first post could be. I desired to post something that's captivatingly interesting and that relates to the theme of this blog. I also wanted readers to get an idea of the type of fascinating genealogical discoveries, lessons, and happenings that will be posted to this blog. Then, I said to myself, "Why not tell the story of how you got this great blog photograph?" As usual, I agreed with myself. LOL  Indeed, the story involves an amazing discovery. 

If you read my first book, Mississippi to Africa: A Journey of Discovery, then you are already aware of how my great-great-grandmother's widow pension file from the National Archives amazingly revealed a lot about her and my great-great-grandfather's history. A whole lot!  My great-great-grandfather, Edward "Ed" Danner, fought with Company I of the 59th Regiment of the United States Colored Troops (USCT).  He was one of the 209,145 brave African-American soldiers who bravely fought in the Civil War for the freedom of enslaved African Americans.  At the age of 44, Grandpa Ed died on September 15, 1876 near Como, Mississippi; twenty-two years later in 1898, my great-great-grandmother, Louisa "Lue" Bobo Danner, began the long and stressful process of applying for a widow's pension from the federal government.  As part of the application process, she had to give a sworn testimony, as well as obtain sworn depositions from family members and friends proving that she was Grandpa Ed Danner's widow.

 Louisa "Lue" Bobo Danner
1842 - 1921

The eleven depositions in her pension file were essentially a history book steeped with oral history on just my family - a genealogical and historical goldmine! In her deposition, Grandma Lue revealed the following about Grandpa Ed, solving a longtime mystery of why he had chosen the Danner surname rather than the surname of their last enslaver, Dr. William J. Bobo: "...the first year after the War, my husband took the name of Danner, as he formerly belonged to the Danners in South Carolina and was bought by Dr. Bobo from the Danner estate..." Grandpa Ed's military service record also revealed that he was born in Union County, South Carolina.  Dr. William Bobo had purchased him and transported him back to Panola County, Mississippi shortly before 1860.

With that wealth of information, Grandpa Ed's previous enslaver was identified. His name was Thomas G. Danner, Jr., who had died in Union County, South Carolina in 1855. His wife, Alice Bates Danner, and their children remained in South Carolina for four more years, and they then moved to Saline County, Arkansas in 1859.  As revealed by the 1860 Saline County Slave Schedule, Alice and her children only transported eight slaves with them to Arkansas, and the 1870 and 1880 Grant County, Arkansas censuses revealed that those eight enslaved human beings had been a lady named Harriet Danner (born c. 1825) and her seven children.  The rest of the slaves from Thomas Danner's estate - including Grandpa Ed himself, his parents, and his siblings - were sold. Apparently, Alice and her sons probably needed money to buy land in Arkansas.

Not long after making this discovery, I received an e-mail from Alyce Petty of Jackson, Tennessee. (Yes, her name was Alice, too, but spelled differently!) She disclosed that she was a descendant of Harriet Danner!  She saw the Danner name that I had posted in the surname database on AfriGeneas.com.  Since the Danner name was not that common, she wondered if somehow we were connected. Indeed, we were! I eagerly shared with Alyce how I had determined that her great-great-grandmother Harriet and her seven children were the only slaves that the Danners of Union County, South Carolina had taken with them to Arkansas. I answered questions Alyce had for a long time -- how and when did her Danners get to Arkansas and where in South Carolina did they come from?  Alyce was thrilled, as we instantly felt that Harriet and Edward may have been siblings, since the Danners had owned few slaves - eighteen slaves in 1850 to be exact, according to the 1850 Union County, South Carolina Slave Schedule.  

Claiming each other as kin, Alyce and I bonded immediately, and she has visited me twice. The first visit was in 1998 in Memphis, Tennessee, where I resided at the time.  The second visit was in 2010, when she and her husband came to Atlanta for a conference. On this visit, she pulled out this amazing photograph. I was instantly intrigued by it. Who wouldn't be? I had never seen a photograph like that before! Alyce informed me that the picture was given to her by one of her relatives who wasn't able to positively identify the people in it, but they strongly believe that they are members of the Danner and Owens Family of Prattsville, Arkansas - direct descendants of Harriet Danner.  I promised Alyce that I would help her find out exactly who the people are, so I truly hope that someone will find this blog, recognize the picture, and contact me immediately.  That's the story of how I received this amazing photograph!