Friday, December 21, 2012

“Y’all Are As Free As I Am”

Honoring the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

The old plantation home of Lemuel Reid near Abbeville, South Carolina as it stood in 2009.

On September 22, 1862, five days after the Union won the Battle of Antietam near Sharpsburg, Maryland, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that as of January 1, 1863, "all persons held as slaves within any States, or designated part of the State, the people whereof shall be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free."  The finalized proclamation also authorized the recruitment of African Americans as Union soldiers in the Civil War.  We are approaching 150 years from the day that proclamation went into effect. 

However, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free most enslaved African Americans in the South immediately.  Freedom came for most two years later after the Union won the Civil War.  Since I started researching my family history, I often wondered about the day my enslaved ancestors were told that they were free.  Undoubtedly, this was a dream come true for many!  Luckily, an elderly cousin, the late Cousin Isaac “Ike” Deberry, Sr. (1914-2009), recalled a special story that his maternal grandfather – my great-grandfather William “Bill” Reed (1846-1937) – had shared with him about that day.  Cousin Ike had a very close relationship with Grandpa Bill Reed and remembered many things my great-grandfather had shared with him. Although he was a reserved man I’m told, Grandpa Bill was not tight-lipped about his experiences during slavery in South Carolina.  Cousin Ike remembered so much, and he relayed so many mouth-dropping stories to me that Grandpa Bill had told him, that this vast amount of valuable oral history served as the solid foundation of 150 Years Later: Broken Ties Mended.

With excitement, I listened as Cousin Ike remembered Grandpa Bill Reed’s story about “Freedom Day”.  He shared, “Grandpa told me that on the day they got freed, Lem Reid came out on his porch and called all the slaves up to the house and said to them, ‘Y’all are as free as I am.’  He asked them to stay on the place to help him bring in the crop and he promised to pay them.  Grandpa said that they stayed for a lil while and then they decided to follow this man to Mississippi to make a better living for themselves.”  In an earlier recollection, Cousin Ike had shared that an unknown man from Mississippi came to Abbeville, South Carolina and told them that “Mississippi was the land of milk and honey with fat pigs running around with apples in their mouths.”  Cousin Ike further shared, “Hearing that there were fat pigs running around with apples in their mouths got them all excited.” Grandpa Bill, a younger sister Mary, and others moved to near Senatobia, Mississippi around January 1866.

Envisioning the happiness Grandpa Bill Reed and all of my enslaved ancestors probably displayed when they heard “Y’all are now free”, I deem the Emancipation Proclamation as a great turning point, not only in Black History but American history. I echo the following sentiments of President Barack Obama: “The Emancipation Proclamation stands among the documents of human freedom. As we commemorate this 150th anniversary, let us rededicate ourselves to the timeless principles it championed and celebrate the millions of Americans who have fought for liberty and equality in the generations since.”

My cousins, Armintha Reed Puryear and the late Isaac “Ike” Deberry of Senatobia, Mississippi, both listened to their grandfather Bill Reed talk about that life-changing day in 1865 when Lemuel Reid stood on this very porch they are standing and announced to all who were enslaved on the Reid Place that they were free. The Reed Family visited the Reid Place for the first time on July 8, 2004. The amazing accounts of that phenomenal day are told in Chapter 11 of 150 Years Later: Broken Ties Mended

Some of Grandpa Bill Reed’s descendants, along with several descendants of Lemuel Reid, standing in the foreground observing the plantation home of Lemuel Reid where Grandpa Bill was last enslaved.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Proverbial Clue?

 In this newspaper ad, a New Orleans merchant proudly boasted that he was selling fruit from John Hebron's orchards at Vicksburg, Mississippi. New Orleans Daily Creole, July 31, 1856

Who was the last slave-owner of my great-great-great-grandmother, Caroline Morris, and her children?  Last year, I finally solved that big, long-time mystery.  She was born around 1815 in Virginia and brought to Warren County, Mississippi during slavery.  To read how that mystery was solved by paying attention to clues, see this blog post, “Boom! The Brick Wall Came Crumbling Down!”  This new blog post “A Proverbial Clue?” is a follow-up.

In a nutshell, I had masterfully determined and proven that Grandma Caroline Morris was last enslaved on LaGrange Plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi. The owner was named John Hebron, who had died in 1862.  I then learned that John Hebron and his wife, Julia Sills, had relocated to Warren County, Mississippi from Greensville County, Virginia in 1834.  It was very important to know the maiden name of the last slave-owner’s wife. 

Additionally, the following statement about John Hebron, which served as another clue, was found in the book entitled The Lost Mansions of Mississippi by Mary C. Miller: Rural Warren County was home to dozens of prosperous antebellum plantations…..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.

Well, who was Julia Sills Hebron’s father? What did she and John Hebron inherit from her father? When did they inherit this? Did the inheritance contain slaves?  If so, was Grandma Caroline Morris among that inheritance?  I immediately pondered these questions.  Luckily, I was able to determine from online Sills family trees that Julia was the daughter of John Sills, who had died on August 8, 1827 in Greensville County, Virginia. Grandma Caroline would have been around 12 years old.  The 1820 census verified that John Sills owned 10 slaves that year.  Were some of them my ancestors?

To answer these questions, I knew that I had to dig into Virginia records.  A trip to Richmond, Virginia or Emporia, Virginia, the county seat of Greensville County, may be in order.  However, after browsing the Library of Virginia’s website, I opted to order a copy of John Sills’ estate record instead. The service fee was $30.00. Yes, genealogy research can be expensive!  The Library of Virginia sent me a copy in a week.  Luckily, the following slave inventory was in the estate record:

 The slave inventory from the estate of John Sills,
November 17, 1827, Greensville County, Virginia

As you can see, Grandma Caroline was not on the inventory.  However, the name of one of the Sills slaves leaped out at me. ANGELINE. This name was given to my great-grandmother, Angeline Bass Belton, who was Grandma Caroline’s granddaughter.  In fact, Grandma Caroline was living with her son-in-law and daughter, Jack & Frances Bass (Angeline’s parents), in 1880, the year Angeline was born.  Why did they name her “Angeline”? 

The other missing part in this research is the name of Frances’ father – the man who fathered some or all of Grandma Caroline’s children. Unfortunately, I have not been able to determine my great-great-great-grandfather’s name.  One thing that I know is that he was likely born in Virginia, since Virginia is noted as the birthplace of Frances’ father in the 1880 census.  Another thing that I ascertained is that he may have chosen “Morris” as his surname during slavery.  In the 1880 census, Grandma Caroline was noted as being widowed, and she was the head of her household in 1870.  Could it be that one of the slaves on the Sills inventory above was my great-great-great-grandfather?  Perhaps, great-grandma Angeline Bass was named after “Angeline” on the Sill’s inventory?  Perhaps, “Angeline” was her paternal relative – aunt or grandmother?  Could this be a proverbial clue? Hmmmm…..

As you can see, I have more research to do in Virginia.  Stay tuned…