Wednesday, June 1, 2016

A Special Homecoming Birthed by DNA

 
Peter Edwards’ Descendants Come Back “Home” to Mississippi
Front row (L to R): Verena Thomas-Hooks, Myra Bryant, Donna Edwards
Back row: James Johnson, Harriet Edwards, Brian Edwards (aka Keith), and Pastor Lee Edwards
(Picture by Verena Thomas-Hooks)

DNA was the catalyst to a very special homecoming on this past Memorial Day weekend in northern Mississippi. On June 25, 2015, a new and close DNA match appeared in my GEDmatch accounts. Dr. Kemberly Edwards matches my mother, her sister, her brother, and their father’s niece, Cousin Armintha, sharing the most with my uncle at 87 cM. Kemberly also tested her father and uploaded his raw data file to GEDmatch. He shares 138 cM of DNA with my uncle, 108 cM with my aunt, 73 cM with my mother, and 64 cM with Cousin Armintha. That’s considered a significant amount of DNA in genetic genealogy. The Most Recent Common Ancestor (MRCA) is genealogically discoverable and within four generations. Another Edwards from Canada had already been among their matches in 23andMe, and I had been wondering, “Who in the world went way up north to Canada?” I was clueless. Additional Edwards subsequently tested their autosomal DNA, with all sharing significant amounts of DNA with the Reed Family. Brian Edwards, the president of their National Edwards Family Reunion Board, even shares 181 cM of DNA with my mother. The predicted relationship in 23andMe was “second cousins.”

These DNA matches, along with oral history clues that had been there all along, led me to definitively unearth the father of my mother’s paternal grandmother, Sarah Partee Reed (1852-1923). For 23 years, I had assumed that Grandma Sarah’s father was someone who had also been enslaved on Squire Boone Partee’s plantation in Panola County, Mississippi, with her mother, Polly Partee, who was the head cook during and after slavery. My assumption was wrong as two left shoes! Grandma Sarah’s father was a man named Prince Edwards, born c. 1830. He was also the father of her brother, Square Partee Sr. (1858-1904). Utilizing DNA triangulation, I discovered that the same Edwards DNA matches also closely match three of Uncle Square Partee’s descendants on overlapping chromosome segments. A subsequent 67-marker Y-DNA test from FTDNA also verified the paternity.

Grandpa Prince Edwards had been enslaved nearby on William Edwards’ plantation with his parents and siblings. One of those siblings was a younger brother named Peter Edwards, born c. 1835. The new DNA matches were all descendants of Peter Edwards. My contact with Kemberly revealed a very large family branch in Oklahoma, begotten by Uncle Peter. I had no idea that they even existed, prior to the DNA discovery. Discovering Grandpa Prince and learning about this family branch transpired at the same time, leaving me speechless. Uncle Peter's descendants had heard that Panola County was where their family roots originated. It was a fact documented in their family reunion books.

Uncle Peter Edwards, his wife Catherine, and his 12 children left the Como area and moved to near Sledge, Mississippi sometime before 1900. Taking advantage of land ownership opportunities, his children started their exodus to the West, migrating to Wewoka, Oklahoma around 1908, after the territory gained statehood in 1907. They never returned to Mississippi. A grandson, Jefferson Edwards, even migrated to Alberta, Canada in 1910, where many descendants reside today. As one of the pioneers of Amber Valley, he is noted in Black Canadian History. His son Elmer and Elmer’s daughter are the Canadian DNA matches in our 23andMe accounts, with Elmer sharing 89 cM of DNA with my aunt. Descendants of Uncle Peter Edwards from Oklahoma City, Dallas, and Bakersfield, California decided that it was time to visit "home," after over 108 years.

The homecoming began with a Welcome Ceremony at the Jessie J. Edwards Coldwater Public Library on Saturday morning, in Coldwater, Mississippi. The former Mayor Dr. Jessie J. Edwards formally welcomed them back home – cousins he never knew about, too. Dr. Edwards is also a great great grandson of Grandpa Prince Edwards. Other descendants from Mississippi, Memphis, and Kansas City, Missouri also welcomed our new-found cousins back home. This group picture was taken at the library.


Family group picture at the Jessie Edwards Public Library in Coldwater, Mississippi

After the welcome, we visited Fredonia Church, to view history beyond the genealogical paper. Fredonia was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. We viewed the grave of William Edwards, who died in 1855. After his death, his son Dr. William Edwards Jr. inherited the plantation and 33 enslaved people, including Grandpa Prince and Uncle Peter. We also saw the grave of Squire B. Partee, who died during the Civil War, in 1864. We reflected on what it must have been like for our ancestors to be enslaved in a land that regarded them as property and subhuman. We felt their spirit during the homecoming. We now stand on their shoulders.

Established in 1836, Fredonia is considered to be the oldest church in Panola County. It is located six miles east of Como. A number of slave-owners in the area attended this church. A slave gallery extends along the east wall of the church. We saw it through the windows. The local librarian had volunteered to retrieve the key and give us a tour inside of the locked historic church, but her unexpected, uninformed absence certainly did not dampen the energy, spirit, and purpose of this great homecoming. Our enslaved ancestors likely dug most or all of the graves there, over 150 years ago. This is a picture we took after William Edwards’ grave was located. It had broken over time and was laying flat on the ground.


Family group picture at Fredonia Church near Como, Mississippi



We also stood on the land where William Edwards’ plantation was located. A cooling cloud with a nice cool breeze hovered over us as we read a litany and poured libation on the land to commemorate our ancestors. Luke (aka Ogbar Agumba) and Lucy, the parents of Peter, Prince and more, were likely buried somewhere on that land. Flowers were placed on the property. Based on William’s 1850 will, he left 320 acres of that property to his wife Margaret, which was to be inherited by their son after her death. The exact coordinates (range, township, & section) of the property were recorded in his will. Great great grandson, James Johnson of Oklahoma City, wrote this poignant note on social media, “From the toils and heartaches of our ancestors working this land, we exist and prosper today, from coast to coast and from Canada, through the big state of Texas.” This group picture was taken on that land.


Family group picture on the land where William Edwards’ plantation was located near Como, Mississippi. We suspect that the "big house" was located on top of the hill behind us.

After the libation ceremony, we toured the small towns of Como, Crenshaw, and Sledge, retracing the steps of Peter Edwards. Afterwards, the descendants of Bill & Sarah Reed sponsored a Soul Food dinner for our newfound Edwards cousins in Horn Lake, Mississippi. We ate, laughed, talked about our respective histories, and made plans for the future. Dr. Leroy Frazier, a descendant of Grandpa Prince Edwards, even encouraged the family to consider going full circle, back to Ghana, West Africa in the future. For more info about the DNA discovery of our Ghana roots, read my blog post, Trekking the Edwards DNA Trail Back to Ghana. Then, on Sunday, we worshiped at the Simon Chapel Baptist Church near Como, where many other Edwards family members, who remained in Mississippi, were laid to rest. Uncle Peter’s great grandson, Pastor Lee Edwards of Dallas, Texas, delivered a powerful, encouraging message.

Although we believe Uncle Peter died in Mississippi before 1910, his family grew by leaps and bounds out in Oklahoma and California. He now has over 2,000 descendants in the United States and Canada. The family boasts a number of notables, such as Dr. Lee Patrick Brown, the first African American mayor of Houston, Texas (1998-2004), who is a great grandson. He was also the first African American commissioner of police for Atlanta, Georgia, during the infamous Atlanta Child Murders, and he also became the first African American Police Commissioner of New York City, leading the largest police department in the nation. A grandson, the late Walter James Edwards, became the first Black millionaire in Oklahoma City during the 1940s, owning a number of businesses, including a hospital, a real estate company, and other businesses. He was featured in an Oklahoma City television news special during this past Black History Month. See this link. We never knew that they are our cousins until the DNA discovery!

This will certainly be a homecoming that we will never forget. Verena Thomas-Hooks of Oklahoma City, a great great granddaughter, wrote the following on social media, “The end of a most memorable weekend and the beginning of lasting relationships, meeting new cousins.” Uncle Peter’s great grandson, Brian Edwards, also wrote, “I can't tell you how much it meant to us to be able to retrace the steps of our ancestors in that region. We will share all of our experiences on our next National Family Reunion board conference call.” This homecoming happened because of the wonderful technology of DNA.

Here's a short video clip during our tour of the grounds of Fredonia Church after discovering William Edwards’ grave.

7 comments:

  1. What a wonderful experience! Congratulations!

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  2. DNA testing has been invaluable in the search for your family roots. What a great story and wonderful that you were able to have a family reunion this past weekend.

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  3. Dr. Kimbert; Melvin, I can't utter the words that can completely express my feelings. The accomplishments that you unselfishly share, deserves more than what any accolade could be given. For that, I and I'm sure my siblings are elated to finally know where WE come from and where it all started. I can finally, unequivocally say that I AM PROUD TO BE AN EDWARDS.

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  4. You are continuing to do good works .

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  5. Great story and connections.

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