Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Freedom Story: “They Stayed Put”

Lucy Milam Davis (1846 – 1927)
My great-great-grandmother

Today, exactly 150 years ago, the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, purporting to free enslaved African Americans in the Rebel states.  This important document made it legal for slavery to end when the Union won the Civil War two years later in 1865.  In commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, my last blog post on December 21, 2012 was a “freedom story” entitled “Y’all Are As Free As I Am,” that was based on a story passed down by my maternal great-grandfather, William “Bill” Reed of Senatobia, Mississippi.  However, I desired to write another one on this very day, 150 years later, to further commemorate and honor my once-enslaved ancestors who lived to see freedom. 

But one thing is different.  This second freedom story is not based on oral history.  Rather, this freedom story analysis is based on what I ascertained from my ever-growing knowledge of slavery and emancipation and is also based on research. I am highlighting my great-great-great-grandmother, Margaret “Peggy” Milam, for this commemorative story. Grandma Peggy was born into slavery in the hills of Williamson County, Tennessee in Franklin around 1829.  There, her first enslaver, Edward Warren, owned and operated a cotton gin.  However, Warren decided to move his family and slaves south to Marshall County, Mississippi during the 1830s.  He ran into financial trouble and was forced to sell Grandma Peggy, her Virginia-born parents Adam and Sarah, and three siblings to his cousin, James Warren Briscoe, on August 14, 1839 to pay off mounting debts.  Briscoe later sold Grandma Peggy around 1845 to Joseph R. Milam, who owned a farm in the adjacent county, present-day Tate County, Mississippi, near the Tyro community.  (See my April 2012 blog post ”Name Discrepancies Can Often Lead to More”, to read how I unearthed this history.)

Grandma Peggy Milam would go on to live the rest of her life in slavery on the Milam farm in Tate County. Shortly after April 9, 1865, the day General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, she received the great news that the Confederates were defeated in the Civil War and slavery was over. She became a free woman at the age of around 36.  Like all slaves, Grandma Peggy had to make a decision. Her “masser” Joseph Milam had recently died in 1862.  Will she and her children “stay put” or will they migrate to another area for a better life?  The answer was in the 1870 DeSoto County, Mississippi census (the area that is now Tate County).

Page 377B of the 1870 DeSoto County, Mississippi Census
Household 52Peggy Milam, five of her children, and two other people in her household
Household 53 – Household headed by Jack Roland
Household 54 – Household headed by Eunice Milam (white). She was the widow of Joseph Milam.
Household 55 – Household that contained Hector Davis, his wife, Lucy, their first-born daughter, Anna, and Lucy’s sister, Alice Milam. Alice and Lucy were Grandma Peggy’s daughters; Hector & Lucy Davis were my great-great-grandparents.
Household 56 – Household headed by Spencer Milam (black), who married Hector’s sister, Huldah.

Per the 1870 census above, Grandma Peggy Milam decided to “stay put.” She chose not to leave the Milam farm.  Since her former “slave mistress” Eunice Powers Milam was just two households away in 1870, she and her children most probably remained living in the same slave cabin when they became free.  As a relatively young mother with 10 children when she heard the words “You are now a free woman” in 1865, her options were few – very few. Years of servitude and enforced illiteracy ill-fitted many enslaved African Americans for the responsibilities of liberty.  Few owned anything besides the clothes on their backs.  How could she just pack up and leave with 10 children in tow?  What would she do in the big free world to support her and her big family?  Where would she go?

I ascertained that Grandma Peggy didn’t have a husband. My great-great-great-grandfather Wade Milam, the father of most her children, lived several miles away in Tate County with his Cherokee Indian wife Fannie and their young children. Because some of Wade and Fannie’s children were born around the same years as some of the children he had with Grandma Peggy, perhaps Wade and Peggy were forced to cohabitate in the same cabin on the Milam farm during slavery and produce children to increase Joseph Milam’s wealth, while Wade’s real wife Fannie and their children were on a nearby farm?  What else could serve as an explanation for Wade’s two families?  Nevertheless, Grandma Peggy decided that her best option was to “stay put” and continue living and laboring on the Milam farm. Perhaps, Eunice Milam paid her for her services?  Undoubtedly, she did what she thought was best for her family.  She died sometime between 1900 and 1910 in Tate County. She was able to enjoy over 35 years of freedom.

Page 300B of the 1870 DeSoto County, Mississippi Census
Wade Milam with his wife Fannie and their children in 1870; her birthplace is reported as “Cherokee Nation”.

Joseph Redding Milam
1811 – 1862
Source: The Tate County, Mississippi Heritage