Right now i’m looking over this entry for a property sale Aguadilla from February 18541. It’s a lock, stock and barrel sale between first cousins, and the order of importance for the details enumerated is very telling.
It begins with the layout of land in Barrio Malezas, Aguadilla, a 180 cuerda (174.6 acres) property, alongside several other plantation owners. D. Rafael del Valle y Ponce is selling this estate to his first cousin, D Jose Genaro del Valle y Arce. I have distant ties to these families, with Rafael del Valle being my 1C5R and Jose Genaro del Valle my 2C4R. They were close and the relationship chart below outlines the cousin relationship between both men. Note that Rafael was also related to Jose Genaro’s mother, however, this set of relationships (via the Ponce line) is not included here.
Rafael’s father, Nicolas del Valle y Perez de Arce served as Alcalde (Mayor) of Aguadilla three different times, in 1814, 1820-21 and in 1836. Rafael was one of his eight children with Eugenia II Ponce y Perez de Arce (b. abt. 1781).
Rafael’s cousin, Jose Genaro del Valle y Arce (bca 1819) was the son of Antonio del Valle y Perez de Arce (b.1783) and Maria Gregoria de Arce Ponce (1792-1842).
Jose Genaro’s father Antonio, served as Alcalde of Aguadilla just once, in 1837. Clearly, this family possessed a degree of political clout in the municipality. In addition, by having this sale occur within the family, they kept their wealth. As a business practice, endogamy helped to insure trust in partnerships at a time before banks existed on Puerto Rico.
In January 1853, both Rafael del Valle and Jose Genaro del Valle went before the notary to record an arrangement that gave Jose Genaro del Valle the power to administer the cattle ranch in Barrio Malezas, including the enslaved persons, the animals there, and a house in town. By 11 February 1854, the situation had changed. Rafael’s contract which paid 400 pesos yearly to Jose Genaro, as he points out in the document, was now rescinded3. Next on that same day, the sale of the property from Rafael del Valle to Jose Genaro del Valle was recorded. Jose Genaro del Valle was the new owner.
The property transfer is just a few paragraphs long. Laid out are the names of the other property owners: Antonio Almeida & d. Manuel Badillo on the south along the Royal road of the mountain, on the east with Da. Rosa de Santiago and the Royal road that goes by the front to d. Patricio González, and on the west side, with Da.María Ponce and Da.Josefa Mirle. Wives could also own, manage businesses and inherit property independently of their husbands. Each person ran their own hacienda or estancia that included enslaved ancestors.
Maria Ponce is most likely Maria Eugenia II Ponce y Perez, wife of Nicolas del Valle; Josefa Mirle is Josefa Mirle Gonzalez, wife of Francisco Almeida of Portugal. The baptism record for their daughter Manuela Almeida Mirle of 1817 mentions that she was born in Maleza Alta4, which helps localize the family in a specific barrio. Both the Ponce and Mirle families, like the del Valle, held larger numbers of enslaved people to work their ranches, farms and plantations.
The Valle plantation held some 100 head of cattle, 6 horses and two mares with foals. After the animals were enumerated in the deed, nineteen people held in bondage were listed. The price for the estate was 14,000 pesos macuquina with 2,700 pesos of the total owed to Eugenio Alers, a hacendado who was building his holdings between Aguadilla and Isabela and lending money mid-century to property owners in the area.
Values for the nineteen enslaved persons, which may include at least two clusters of family, were not specified. Two persons on the list survived the Middle Passage, and another was from Costa Firme, Venezuela, pointing to the global connections of these transactions. The rest were criollos, born in Puerto Rico; there were ten male and nine females of different ages, three of them too young to work. They were termed ‘siervos esclavos‘, enslaved servants, perhaps more concerned with running a household and raising livestock. There is no mention of specific duties in the deed.
Aside from two 40 year old men, these ancestors were young, and perhaps some of them made it into the pages of the Registro Civil. If they did, it seems unlikely they used their former enslaver’s surname after freedom.
Say Their Names
Here are the names, ages and approximate dates of birth for these ancestors in Aguadilla in February 1854.
I plan to look back to records from 1822 and then to the cedulas of 1868-70 of the Registro de Esclavos to see if any of these ancestors remained under the control of del Valle family members. Hopefully there is more to learn about them.
1 Haydee E. Reichard de Cardona, Haciendas agrícolas del triángulo noroeste de Puerto Rico, sus dueños e historias. Jose A Amador Acosta, Ed. Editorial HER Historias y Escritos Riquenos, 2020.
2Carlos Encarnacion Navarro, Fondo de Protocolos Notariales, Caja 1289, Serie Aguadilla, Pueblo Aguadilla, Escribano Lcdo. Manuel Garcia, 1854. AGPR. En Aguadilla 2-11-1854 fol.74 a 76 ante el insfrascripto escribano Real y público y testigos que se expresaran compareció D.Rafael del Valle de este vecindario y dijo que otorga venta Real y absoluta a favor de D.José Genaro del Valle también vecino una estancia en esta juridicción en el barrio de Malezas compuesta de 180 cuerdas colindantes al norte con Antonio Almeida y D.Manuel Badillo, por el sur con el camino Real de la montaña, al este con Da.Rosa de Santiago y el camino Real que pasa por el frente a D.Patricio González, al este con Da.María Ponce y Da.Josefa Mirle incluidas las plantaciones en ellas, 100 cabezas de ganado,6 caballos,2 yeguas con crías y los siervos esclavos Luis natural de áfrica de 30 años,Juana María de 25 años y su hija de un año,Tomasa de 40 años, Luisa de 25 años, Carmen de 25 años con una hija de un año,Demetrio de 12 años, Hermenegildo de 16 años,Paulina de 61 30 años, José de 20 años, José María de 40 años,Tomás de 40 años,Tomasa de 30 años,Antonio de 12 años, Juan José de 16 años,Isabel de 2 años,Manuel natural de costa firme de 4 años,Andrés de 25 años natural de áfrica, una casa de madera y tejemani en la calle principal de este partido con solar de 16 varas de frente colindante al norte con Da.Paula Giménez, por el sur con el comprador, al oeste la calle y al este con otro solar del mismo comprador cuyos bienes le pertenecen por compra hecha a D.José Genaro del Valle según escritura otorgada en Enero 12 de 1853 por la cantidad de 14,000 pesos maququinos y 2,700 pesos quedan en poder del comprador hasta satisfacer la cantidad que el mismo adeuda a D.Eugenio Alers a cuya responsabilidad está gravada la estancia.Fueron testigos D.Ricardo Diez, D.José Trinidad Veray D.Ramón Esteban Martínez.
3 Carlos Encarnacion Navarro, Fondo de Protocolos Notariales, Caja 1289, Serie Aguadilla, Pueblo Aguadilla, Escribano Lcdo. Manuel Garcia, AGPR fol.78 a 78-v, 11 Feb 1854. En Aguadilla 2-11-1854 fol.78 a 78-v ante el insfrascripto escribano Real y público y testigos que se expresaran comparecieron D.Rafael del Valle y D.José Genaro del Valle de este vecindad y dijeron que en Enero 12 de 1853 concedio el primero al segundo poder para administrar la estancia que tenía en el barrio de Malezas de esta juridicción, los esclavos y animales que tenía y una casa en este pueblo señalándole el salario de 400 pesos anuales y rescinden dicho contrato. Fueron testigos D.Ricardo Diez,D.Rafael Esteban Martínez y D.Francisco de Paula Vergara.
4 Acta de Bautismo, Manuela Almeida Mirle, APSCB Libro 5 #944,17 June 1817.
In my recent blog post Yturrino: Looking at a collateral line, I had questions about what kind of business Felipe Iturrino Arzua (1811 -1894) of Anasco was in. While I was able to follow some notary documents that described a string of land purchases in different municipalities, it really wasn’t clear what he had invested in.
These land purchases now make more sense after finding him listed in the 1872 Registro de Esclavos. Yvonne Santana Rios’ transcription of Anasco and Cabo Rojo portions of the 1872 volume led me back to searching the FamilySearch database ‘Slave Registers, Puerto Rico, 1863 – 1879 ‘. I still have no name for the hacienda that these individuals worked, and know more or less where it was located, in barrio Cerro Gordo, Anasco. Yturrino and his family lived in barrio Corcobada to the east of Cerro Gordo, and later in a house in barrio Pueblo.
In barrio Cerro Gordo, Anasco, Yturrino enslaved over 20 people, whose cedulas are receipts for the transfer of ownership from the individual slave holders to the colonial government, and they received 120 pesetas per document. The status change to libertos (freedmen or freedwomen) meant rights were established over time.
According to the terms of the Moret Law, these men, women and children entered a contract to work for their former enslavers or for a different plantation owner. They received no pay, but their freedom at the end of three years. For the youngest, this process of manumission lasted until 1886.
Labor: de Esclava/o a Liberta/o
There were a range of tasks, however few were dependent on women becoming domestics in elite households, or took in laundry, or were dress makers. The majority of enslaved women worked as Labradoras, field laborers alongside men. This ran contrary to the ideal of an enslaved person that circulated in prints and paintings, often depicted as male. Men worked as cooks, carpenters and mostly as field laborers in the sugar centrales that grew after the Spanish American war, and women’s labor shifted to the domestic.
While the categories for labor in the documents for the Registro de Esclavos are few, these do not give a precise idea of the range of tasks that a person had, nor how expert they had become. Cerro Gordo was elevated land, better suited for coffee cultivation, and this is likely the crop that Yturrino’s enslaved workers were raising. Given the patterns of inheritance, there is a high probability that the Hacienda de Iturrino in the 1893 Military Map for Anasco to San Sebastian is the same location as in 1870, situated near the streams in the hills that ran between Anasco and Moca.
Say Their Names: Enslaved families, children, locations
Below is a list of 20 persons listed on cedulas from 1868 on which D. Felipe Yturrino y Arzua appears as dueno (owner). The oldest was Agustin an 80 year old man born in Africa; the youngest was 2 year old Josefa, born in Cerro Gordo, one of the children of Evangelista and Vicenta. Nearly half of those enslaved were children.
The few families I could trace to the Registro Civil opted to take a different surname; not one kept Iturrino as a surname. Some moved to Mayaguez in the years that followed. With the collapse of coffee prices after the 1870s, sugar plantations soon dominated the landscape.
Should these names be familiar to you, please feel free to reach out.
In trying to assemble a history of an organization from fragments, I’m grappling with slippage, the way that things unsaid haunt every space, how the unsaid is supposed to be gracious, but hides a different cruelty. It’s working with systems that require violence for its completion, a continuation of the machine of settler logics that seek to justify supremacy, enslavement, murder, and rape. Such details are often folded away until a familial connection is revealed.
Often the locations where such decisions are made are often comfortable offices or elaborate desert base locations for remote murder and assaults. It is an awareness that hovers over the question of what a Nation is. And societies aim to define and redefine the boundaries. Such colonizing systems also precede the formation of the National Genealogical Society (NGS) at the cusp of the twentieth century, with its familial connections to the Trail of Tears, multiple plantations and governance.
Knowing my Taino ancestry and the creole blends of various ancestors offers a grounding space when faced with the history of organizations. I’m of Native American descent, honor that and study the various diasporas that structure my family tree. I also descend from the enslaved (Juan Josef Carrillo b. Guinea, 1736-1811) and the enslaver (Capt. Martin Lorenzo de Acevedo y Hernandez 1749-1828) within a larger context of colonization, as my family is from Boriken (Puerto Rico). Gaining this knowledge took time, research and service.
The awareness of one’s history contrasts with the history of organizations, particularly those involved with issues such as eugenics, segregation and pushing the Lost Cause (an interpretation of the Civil War from the Confederate perspective). This is part of the National Genealogical Society’s early history. On the other side is the history of Federal employment, and the impact of segregationist policies in Washington DC and how James Dent Walker navigated this at NARA (National Archives and Records Association). Ultimately his knowledge and skills helped to broaden the institutional spaces for BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) to do their own genealogical research.
I have talked to several Black genealogists about the other part of genealogical research– the emotional labor of dealing with findings, of telling the stories of ancestors who passed through to emancipation. Of their encounters with people who made life difficult by blocking access to resources, often in a multiplicity of forms that reinforced segregation and at its essence denied a full humanity. This is the larger context of doing this work. This too is part of the genealogical journey. Change can feel glacial in its progress.
The Vote of 1960: Looking Back to Move Forward
Here I grapple with the silences and statements made by three white women who took it upon themselves in 1960 to mail over 700 members of the National Genealogical Society and encourage them to protest the changes to the language used to define membership. This happened sixty-two years ago, and it is worth a look back.
During the 1960s the clamor for change, like now, was loudly expressed in civic gatherings across the nation. In some locations, anger ripped across cities in the form of buildings lit aflame, people marched. The Civil Rights Movement began in 1954 to work against racial segregation and discrimination across the south and grew into multiple forms. In the south of 1960, many people in power were believers in the Lost Cause and used force to keep people down. And when the Freedom Riders groups arrived in different locations across the South, the use of violence against them by locals and police exploded.
But back to this vote.
This NGS committee, Virginia D. Crim, Bessie P Pryor and Katie-Prince Esker, made the old membership policy explicit:
“the Referendum referred to was held on November  1960. The membership voted on the following:
SHOULD THE NATIONAL GENEALOGICAL SOCIETY SET ASIDE ITS GENERALLY RECOGNIZED PRACTICE, WHICH HAS BEEN IN FORCE SINCE ITS ORGANIZATION IN 1903, AND ADMIT MEMBERS OF THE NEGRO RACE.” 
Initially, the National Genealogical Society voted not to open their doors to Black genealogists, a policy held for over 50 years. The then new president, William H. Dumont realized this couldn’t last, and the language that defined who could be a member was changed after James Dent Walker, a NARA civil servant and genealogist applied for membership in 1960. He wasn’t specifically named in newspaper coverage, although the Washington Post’s description leaves no doubt it was Walker.  Walker himself never discussed the challenge he set by applying for membership to NGS. He continued to forge an incredible path forward.
Ultimately, Walker became part of NGS’ board, and a nationally recognized genealogist, researcher, lecturer and archivist in his own right, known for his work in African American genealogy. A little over a decade later, he founded the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (Today the African American Historical and Genealogical Society), AAHGS.org that has chapters across the country.  This institution proved a necessary space for Black genealogical practice over the decades.
The Press & The Committee
The Washington Post’s article, “Genealogical Group Gets Racial Issue” of 4 November 1960 asked “Is a Negro to join the searchers for the Nation’s family trees? The National Genealogical Society is in a tizzy…about 50 members who felt “controversy threatened to engulf the NGS” proposed a racial restriction clause in their constitution.” Those opposed to admission said “Negroes…have nothing in common with us, genealogically speaking.” Those who favored change in policy “point out the Society is national, educational and scientific; that it is not to be confused with patriotic organizations; that in the pursuit of science there is no room for discrimination…” 
Looking beyond the fight over NGS membership, this was a time when nationally, thousands took part in multiple Civil Rights actions in former slave and free states pushing for change. The stakes were high, and some died while others were seriously injured in these actions that insisted on equality. Don’t forget that Black women finally got the right to vote five years later, in 1965.
While these NGS committee members didn’t go out and physically attack BIPOC [Black, Indigenous People Of Color], what actions did they take to maintain white supremacy beyond this administrative act, beyond the organization? Almost always, the families of those who owned forced labor camps from the founding to the third quarter of the nineteenth century are automatically absolved by the focus on the inhabitants of the big house, their genealogy. This telling of local histories goes together with gatekeeping and acts of genealogical segregation of the last century. How far did this committee take their views?
Virginia Crim was also a member of the DAR, where she served as a vice regent for the Columbia Chapter in 1956. She was also a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, established in 1894, and served as a chapter delegate at their convention, held 9 November 1960.
The UDC, a Neoconfederate organization, pursued fundraising for monuments, lobbied legislatures and Congress for the reburial of Confederate dead, denied the violence of slavery, and shaped the content of history textbooks. They insisted on a Lost Cause framework that buttressed Jim Crow laws. They were supportive of the KKK.  This contributed to the structural racism that constricted the opportunities and lives of many BIPOC. This too is a legacy of harm linked to NGS’ history in the twentieth century.
Why this history matters
How much does this history matter? In Richmond, Virginia, at 1:30AM on May 30, 2020, in response to the murder of George Floyd and police violence, the anger of some protesters focused on the headquarters of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, set the UDC facade on fire, and covered confederate monuments in graffiti. The process of removing these monuments across the South accelerated after the protests that erupted in so many locations in the wake of Floyd’s murder.
It shows that representation matters, that there was so much more than what those statues and laws attempted to assert. The implications of this event was global. The times had indeed changed, the demand for systemic change is beginning to be heard. It’s also here, with us, with the DEI Committee, to bring such connections forward, to heal. I have stepped down in order to finish my projects. In the meantime, i’ve joined AAHGS.
And this sea of data generated by institutional conditions washes upon us as we write our microhistories, family histories, genealogies and record the voices of those with ties to these events. Masinato (Peace)
 Virginia Crim, Bessie P. Pryor, Katie-Prince Esker, Committee Circular, November 30, 1961 [30 November 1960], NGS Archives. Thanks to Janet Bailey, NGS Board Member for locating this document and additional resources for research.
 Rasa Gustaitis, “Genealogical Group Gets Racial Issue” Washington Post, November 4, 1960.
 Gustaitis, “Genealogical Group Gets Racial Issue.”
 Ned Oliver & Sarah Vogelsong, “Confederate memorial hall burned as second night of outrage erupts in Richmond, Virginia.” Virginia Mercury, 31 May 2020.
 Balthazar J Beckett, Salima K Hankins, “Until We Are First Recognized As Human: The Killing of George Floyd and the Case for Black Life at the United Nations.” International Journal of Human Rights Education, Vol 5:1. https://repository.usfca.edu/ijhre/vol5/iss1/4/
Juan Jose Carrillo & Antonia Maria Figueredo Santana: 6th GGPs
I’m still reeling. This was a momentous week in more ways than one. Recently I was compiling a list of African ancestors from the 1870 cedulas, and my cousin Miguel Valentin forwarded some links on FamilySearch for Carrillos in case they might connect.
Then I saw Liza Ceballos’s post on Facebook on Carrillo and in her search on my Carrillo cluster, she collected a couple of posts that happened to be on my line. I couldn’t believe it, my ancestor Simon Carrillo had siblings and now, the names of his parents were in those baptisms. Although I suspected that this line would be the most likely to have a connection to Africa, my DNA percentages were low, and I wondered if i’d ever have a location.
With the name Juan Josef/ Juan Joseph/ Juan Jose Carrillo, I began my search and there was his death certificate– and I was floored. Above is William Snellgrave’s 1734 map of the region of Guinea that my 6th Great Grandfather was taken from made near the time he was born. To have a location identified is so rare, and unexpected since in his children’s records he and his wife are described as ‘morenos libres‘ literally ‘free browns’.
A Free man, a soldier in the Militia, a landowner and farmer in Rio Piedras with a wife and thirteen children. So many questions, so much joy at finding this cluster of family.
En este pueblo de Nuestra Señora del Pilar y en Gloria de San Juan Nepomuceno de Río Piedras a tres de marzo de mil ochocientos y diez años Yo el Beneficiado Don Manuel Marcelino Martínez Cepeda, Presbítero Cura Rector de él por Real Patronato de cepultura eclesiástico en el cementerio de esta Yglesia e hize los oficios de entierro doble con el lia y misa cantadas al cadaver de Juan José Carrillo mis feligreses, natural de Guinea de edad de sesenta y cuatro años poco más o menos, negro libre y soldado cumplido de la Primera Compañía de Milicias Disciplinadas de Infantería que en común de Nuestra Santa Señora madre yglesia murió en su propia estancia Citio de los Ranchos de mi jurisdicción. Donde administran los santos sacraméntales de penetencia en [ ] y extrema unción: otorgó su testamento a estilo militar el diez de febrero del presente año, por ante Dn Francisco Roman subteniente del Regimiento de Milicias Urbanas de esta Ysla en la Compañía de Guaynabo de mancomún con la esposa el cual dispone su entierro de modo dicho con cuatro acompañados, mandado se celebran ocho misas resadas por su alma y las de purgatorio a nuestra señora del Rosario y del Carmen con tres más que fuera del su testamento en cargo de su hijo Joseph Vicente. Declaró había casado y velado en infacie eccles, con María Antonia de Figueredo, morena libre de este matrimonio deja trece hijos nombrados Simón, Juana Hilaria, Ysabel María, María Magdalena, José Vicente, Miguel, Cacimira, Ambrosía, Félix, Theodora, Roberto, Víctorio y Juan a quienes instituyó por ser legítimos herederos y por sus Albaceas su hijo y Victorio Marín su yerno de que doy fe.
Manuel Martínez Cepeda
In this town of Our Lady of Pilar and Glory of Juan Nepomuceno de Rio Piedras on the 3rd of March one thousand eight hundred and ten years I the Incumbent Don Manuel Marcelino Martínez Cepeda, Priest Rector for him by Royal Patronage for ecclesiastic burial in the cemetery of this Church and made double burial services with the [ ] and sung masses for the cadaver of Juan Jose Carrillo of my parish, natural of Guinea of the age of sixty four years more or less, free Black and soldier of the First Company of Disciplined Militias of Infantry. that in common with Our Sacred Mother Church died on his proper farm Place of the Ranches under my jurisdiccion. Where was administered the Holy Sacraments of Penitence and Extreme Unction: He gave his will in military style the tenth of February of this year, before Don Francisco Roman sublieutenant of the Regiment of Urban Milicias of this Island in the Company of Guaynabo jointly with his wife who arranged his burial so said with four accompanying. mandated that eight prayed masses for his soul and for purgatory to Our Lady of the Rosary and of Carmen with three more besides that of his will in charge of his son Joseph Vicente. Declares having married and veiled in presence of the congregation with Maria Antonia de Figuredo, free brown woman: of this marriage leaves thirteen children named Simón, Juana Hilaria, Ysabel María, María Magdalena, José Vicente, Miguel, Cacimira, Ambrosía, Félix, Theodora, Roberto, Víctorio y Juan to whom he instituted as his legitimate heirs and for his Executors, his son and Victorio Marin his son in law that I bear witness.
Manuel Martinez Cepeda
7th GGPs: Francisco Figueredo & Ana Santana
Antonia Maria Figueredo Santana dies at the age of 100 years in San Juan in 1830. Born about 1730, her parents are Francisco Figueredo and Ana Santana. I’m still researching and it seems she had at least one half sibling. Francisco gained his freedom sometime between 1711 and 1713. Records are fragmentary and i’m searching for more information.
For all the damaged and lost records I have seen for Puerto Rico, it is a miracle to learn their names. I want to thank all those who make the search easier, and possible via transcriptions & indexes- Yvonne Santana Rios, Yvette Izquierdo, distributed by Anna Bayala on her site Genealogia Nuestra, FS, the sharing of information in Facebook groups and list-serves, the DNA matches that come to be friends and family. There will be more to come…
“The question is, who owns the rights to the violence of the past? Is it the victim or the perpetrator? ” — Tamara Lanier, Free Renty
This week, I attended a Together Films virtual screening of Free Renty: Lanier v. Harvard, organized by genealogist Nicka Smith. Directed by David Gruber, the documentary covers the years that Tamara K. Lanier contacted and was rebuffed by Harvard University in acknowledging her claim on the image of Renty, her great-great-great grandfather. She launched her lawsuit against Harvard with Attorney Benjamin Crump and Josh Koskoff. Also appearing are author Ta-Nehisi Coates and scholars Ariella Azoulay and Tina Campt, who provide insights into the situation as the legal process unfolds.
The film provides a larger context for the case that traces a larger social shift, one that recognizes the need for reparations and social justice as litigation moved forward. There are interviews with Agassiz descendants and various scholars who believe it’s time for the university to recognize the descendants of the enslaved.
From the perspective of the university, it’s a different frame, where collections and museums are immune to real life claims from people with familial or cultural connections to what’s on display. Yet today, there are many calls for decolonization and requests for the return of objects, which point to multiple instances of theft and appropriation as the mechanism that created many museum collections. Legal structures are created to deal with the situation, such as NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection Act).
“If colonialism and ethnographic exploitation depend on appropriation, one must acknowledge that what is taken can always be taken back.” Brian Wallis (1996)
Back in 1996, curator Brian Wallis outlined the problem of knowledge that the daguerrotypes offer within the larger context of slave ownership in the 1850s. He traced the events of their making in Columbia, South Carolina, the culmination of Agassiz’ visit to several plantations in Columbia arranged by Dr. Robert W Gibbes, local doctor and collector. In 1850 the white population of Columbia was 6,000 and its enslaved population was 100,000. These were sites that relied on the use of violence as a means of control. That violence also left its mark across the subjects of Louis Agassiz’ collection of daguerrotypes.
Agassiz wanted images of ‘pure’ Africans to demonstrate his racist theory of polygenesis (multiple origins for humankind), at the bottom of his racial hierarchy. That fundamentally pro-slavery view erased the essential humanity of the enslaved, obscuring what Dana Ramey Berry called their ‘soul value’. The resulting lack of empathy supported the plantation business that underpinned the US economy of the nineteenth century.
In other words, these images are Agassiz’ trophies, his collection of ‘objects’ that reinforce a patriarchal white supremacy tied to a fundamentally coercive practice of image making. Any connection to family and descent of those subjugated becomes fragile if not invisible, a regard not intended to survive beyond the collection.
Here there are no conventions that link Joseph T Zealy’s 15 images to portraits, beyond the fancy leather case and the daguerrotype’s velvet setting. The images were forgotten and rediscovered in the preparation of an inventory at the Peabody Museum in 1975. Tamara Lanier learned of the images in 2011, and realized her connection. They are the oldest images of enslaved people extant, taken without permission, stolen images from subjects made possible by coercive force.
This April, Harvard released the report Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery. In some 60 pages, it outlines how the university profited and erased that history. However, the document is silent on Lanier’s claim to the images of her ancestors.
The report’s first recommendation is to “Engage and Support Descendant Communities by Leveraging Harvard’s Excellence in Education.”  The project of reparations by surrendering the images makes an object lesson in decolonizing the museum, and create common ground with the Descendant Community of which Lanier is part of.
In 2020, I attended a webinar on the Zealy daguerrotypes, an introduction to a new volume of essays, To Make Their Own Way in the World on the 15 daguerrotypes of enslaved people taken by Joseph T Zealy, in South Carolina. I asked the panel: “Can you share thoughts about the Lanier connection to Renty? Mentioned was suspected he survived the Civil War, and what of this personal side of the image?” The question was never considered, and nothing said about Tamara Lanier. The images are instead, objects that are to be endlessly studied, endlessly caught in the frame of enslavement, subjugation and colonization.
Free Renty: Lanier v. Harvard is important to think with in terms of what we do as BIPOC genealogists, as similar dynamics haunt the practice of genealogy. Whose story is being told and where? What do we do with the intersection of state organized violence and the fabric of our family histories? Where is the accountability of the institutions involved in the enslavement of our ancestors? How are communities of enslaved descendants supported or ignored? Who gets to tell the story of Papa Renty and his family?
ANUNCIÓS. El alcalde de la Moca ha participado al Excmo. Sr. Gobernador y Capitán General en oficio de 6 del corriente, que en la hacienda de Luis Masconabe, vecino de aquel partido; se ha aparecido un negro natural de Africa, de estatura baja, los dientes de la mandíbula superior apartados y altos podridos, en la inferior uno menos, varias rayas floreadas en el pecho, algunas cicatrices en el cuerpo y la espaldas, dice llamarse Basilio, que es lo único que sabe expresar en castellano, la nariz muy chata, boca y pies chicos, tiene al pie del labio inferior una cicatriz, casi imperceptible y de 20 a 25 años de edad. 
In November 1839 Basilio, a young African man, attempted to gain his freedom. Instead, he was imprisoned at a nearby hacienda in Moca until he was recovered by his enslaver. This announcement for Basilio ran over three days — November 26, 28 and 30 — in the pages of the official government newspaper, La Gazeta de Puerto Rico. The ad describes aspects of his physical appearance, intended to make it impossible for him to escape notice.
According to the notice, a combination of forces were informed about Basilio . The search was authorized by highest ranks of local government, the Mayor, the Governor and Captain General. Why such a representative show of state power? Because he was one of many who decided to escape bondage in Puerto Rico during the 1830s.
Leaving the plantations
On 26 Jun 1838, Ramon Mendez de Arcaya wrote to the Third General Command (Comandancia General de 3er, Departamento Militar de la Isla) to inform them of the recent escapes of groups of five, six and seven enslaved men. They escaped by sea, from the beach Playa de Espinal on the coast of Aguada. Some lived in town without authorization, their enslavers unaware of their location. Mendez was sure they hadn’t punished them for this. 
Moving late at night, they took some of the small boats and canoes to make their way for Santo Domingo, stopping at the small island of Desecheo off the coast of Mayaguez. One group’s canoe failed, and they were picked up by a passing ship. This group he explained, went a distance to escape, as one was from much further away in Moca, and the others from Aguadilla. He suggested he would beef up his night patrols.
By 23 August a several page long notice, listing 12 heads of various military posts in the NW, outlined curfews, necessary permissions for those fishing by boat off the coast, and specified that no enslaved person would be permitted access to a ship or a town after 8PM. The penalty was a fine that doubled with each infraction. [ 3]
Trafficking & stealing freedom
On 26 November 1839, Luis Maisonave Duprey’s Anuncio sat at the top of the notices. The second time it ran, it was preceded by notice of an African man, Silvestre, who escaped from the hacienda of D. Joaquin de Neyra in Loiza. Neyra promised that whoever captured Silvestre would be appropriately compensated. 
An announcement followed for an unnamed Black African man, 40 years old, apprehended in the mountains of Barrio Almirante, Vega Baja. He was sent to the prison in the presidio in San Juan until his enslaver could retrieve him.
Next, is a notice for don Julian Garcia’s desire to purchase an enslaved Black or mulatto child, alive and without defects. After the lost horse and the offer of all kinds of black silk by hat maker Nicolas Martin, comes a notice about an enslaved man imprisoned since the end of July. Juan Jose Alvarez, 34, an enslaved mulatto man from Fajardo, was also sent to the prison in the presidio in San Juan. As with Basilio and Silvestre, the power of the Governor, Captain General and the Mayor were disposed to this arrangement, and note that “the announcement in the Gazette about their capture was so the news reached the owner and he could formally obtain them.”
Above Maisonave’s Anuncio for 28 November, was a reissued public notice from the War Court on the upcoming sale of the enslaved man Francisco on the morning of 2 December, at the doors of the Auditor General’s office in San Juan. Beneath the remainder of the Anuncio, there’s a request for teachers for an elementary school in Guayama for both boys and girls.
After the appeal for teachers, interested parties should ask the female enslaver about the sale of a Black boy 8-9 years old and a Black girl 14-15 years old, via the Gazeta’s office. An estancia for sale in Bayamon and finally, offered for sale is a young Black woman with her newborn. The ad notes her milk is good and abundant, and with her knowledge of cooking, washing and ironing her price is 400 pesos. No names are given, just an address, Calle de los Cuarteles 32, the barracks just beyond the Presidio, an older building that precedes the massive structure built in 1854 that still stands today. These are such brief glimpses of lives processed by a range of institutions that happen to ignore an essential humanity when money is at stake. 
Who was Basilio?
Born in Africa between 1814-1819 as he was 20-25 years of age, Basilio was short man. He is described as having a small mouth, small feet and a very flat nose. Given his age he may have worked some of the most labor intensive aspects of the plantation he escaped from. Conditions were enough for him to decide to chance his freedom.
While the skin of his trunk and shoulders were covered with scars, his chest bore ‘varias rayas floreadas’ a pattern of stripes. This was the result of a coming of age ceremony somewhere in West or Sub-Saharan Africa before his capture. His ‘rayas floreadas’ literally ‘flowering stripes’ were an elaborate pattern that may have combined lines with raised scars to create an effect of rows ready to blossom across his chest, rather than a geometric pattern. These country marks were a feature that would enable a group to read and recognize their relationship. The use of ritual scarification increased as a result of raiding peoples for the slave trade. 
The description of his scars may outline a hierarchy of control, with the scars on his trunk and shoulders likely scarred by inflicted violence. These scars come after mention of those marks that visually identified Basilio as part of a community, perhaps recognizable to other African-born people enslaved on the hacienda. Some probably helped him make his way towards Playa del Espinal in Aguada, to find a way out of his situation before he was caught in Moca.
The announcement mentioned that his lower lip bore a smaller scar, almost faint, and difficult to see unless he was examined closely. The notice is an invitation to go beyond the clothes and orifices to compare the details. Was this scar the trace of an injury? Is this something his enslaver would recall? His teeth were broken, some were missing and others went bad, all testament to his treatment as he came to adulthood. Was he smuggled into Puerto Rico? And for language, the only word of Castillian that Basilio knew was his name, Basilio.
Where was he from? What was his fate that December 1839?
 “III.1 Ramon Mendez, Comandancia General del 3er, Departamento Militar de la Isla, 26 Jul 1848.” Benjamin Nistal Moret, Esclavos Profugos y Cimarrones, Puerto Rico, 1770-1870. Editorial UPR, 1984, 233-234.
”Excelentismo Senor Don Miguel Lopez de Banos, Gobernador y Captian General de esta Isla, 23 Aug 1838.” Benjamin Nistal Moret, Esclavos Profugos y Cimarrones, Puerto Rico, 1770-1870. Editorial UPR, 1984, AGPR, RSGPR, E.23, B.64 (editado), 234-238.
I’ve finally submitted the materials, tables and text to accompany Part 3 of the Missing Registro Central de Esclavo volume for Northwest Puerto Rico to Hereditas. This set of transcriptions of cedulas are from Caja 2 (item 2) of 1870. The essay focuses on facets of the lives of 55 enslaved people held by Cristobal Benejam Suria or Serra in 1870, a Menorcan who arrived in Puerto Rico about 1817. Other family members were also enslavers. Several Benejam family clusters are traced from the cedula through the Registro Civil and census records, to reconstruct some of their history.
As it turns out, when I mentioned my project to my cousin, Julio Enrique Rivera, he mentioned that his dad, Julio Ester Rivera (looking very dapper in the photo above) was a Benejan. His great grandfather was Ricardo Benejam Vargas (1848-1924) born into slavery, the child of Maria Antonia Vargas and Pedro Benejam. This is Ricardo’s cedula of 1870.
I am struck by how fragmented some of the resources available are.
Some of the documents i’m looking at:
Municipal Document series – Censo y riqueza de Moca 1850
Cedulas, Registro Central de Esclavos
What I wish there were more of for NWPR: census, contracts, notary documents; basically a database that can help descendants pull these fragments together.
As for books & articles, am rereading Benjamin Nistal-Moret’s “The Social Structure of Slavery in Puerto Rico” (1985). I’d like to use the tables as a model for what I am working on, which is information missing from the numbers he is using. This was “the first time in Puerto Rican historiography, an analysis of this magnitude has been completed with a computer.” He tells an interesting story about locating a missing 1872 Registro Central de Esclavos volume at the Library of Congress, microfilming it and returning it during the summer of 1975. As he did his work in the 1980s, his statistical work was entered onto punch cards of a computer program used in sociology. Which volume it was, Nistal-Moret doesn’t say.
I wonder how much archival material was lost, for instance, after the US returned the series of documents of the Gobernadores Espanoles – T1121 Record Group 186- Records of the Spanish Governors of Puerto Rico (impounded on the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1898) were transferred to the National Archives in 1943 and returned to Puerto Rico by joint resolution in 1957. The microfilm of the Registro de Esclavos and the Registro Central de Esclavos are part of that huge series, and NARA has a free version at the link above.
What I try to do in this series of articles are mini-histories of persons that appear on the 6 x8″ cedulas. Connecting someone in 1870 to their appearance in the Registro Civil that begins in 1885. The process takes time, as there is no mention of enslavement, save in the surname ‘Liberto.’ Some take different surnames, while many kept their enslaver’s name, or took that of a different owner when sold before 1870.
Some of the descendants of Luisa Benejan born about 1819 appear among the cedulas of Caja 4 of the Registro de Esclavos, while three appear in the Registro Civil. She doesn’t turn up on the Registro Civil. Still, the documents together reconstruct her family.
Also reconstructed are early family trees for Pedro Benejam of Moca, born about 1817 in Moca, and who partnered with Maria Antonia Vargas, who lived until 1902 and lived in Bo. Pueblo, Moca. Among their descendants is where my cousin Julio Enrique Rivera’s line connects. The families created after emancipation were often female headed households, with daughters that worked in the local service economy, and sons in agricultural labor.
We must continue to say their names.
Ricardo, 22, 3531. Caja 4, Registro de Esclavos, 1867-1876. “Puerto Rico Slave Registers, 1863-1879”, database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3Q9M-CSK3-Z3WY-S?cc=3755445 : 21 October 2021), > image 1 of 1.
Benjamin Nistal Moret, “Problems in the Social Structure of Slavery in Puerto Rico During the Process of Abolition, 1872”. Manuel Moreno Fraginals, Frank Moya Pons & Stanley L. Engerman, eds.Between Slavery and Free Labor: The Spanish Speaking Caribbean in the Nineteenth Century, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1985, 141- 57.
On the trail of compassion and wonder: a meditation
Lately, I’ve been pondering how a broader historical framework for the genealogies and family histories can make displacement visible, particularly for identities shaped by the experiences of diaspora and migration.
Shouldn’t we ask questions about how beginnings are constructed? What’s the significance of an origin story? Who gets to tell about the dawning of a deeper historical consciousness among people? For whom does this story matter? Stories are containers for memory, with purpose.
I want to speak to the depth of this experience not because this perspective grants a sense of ‘survival beyond the odds’, but because when one listens to the bits of histories encoded in our stories and in the genes of our ancestors, these experiences can instill both compassion and wonder.
In turn, compassion and wonder feeds the hope of survival, can enable sympathy, free suppressed identities, and through this recognition, foster social change. Our family histories contain worlds within them and perhaps answers that can help us heal in the present.
2. So, how best to convey and define this complexity? There are so many questions to consider when pondering how to proceed. How can we locate and embrace the foundations created by Indigenous ancestors who kept a particular world view embedded in how they lived? Who can guide us on this journey? How do we come to terms when we discover our enslaved ancestors? Of those who were enslavers? Our task is to quilt together the narratives of survival and remember those that came before us.
These ancestries, family histories and narratives are more visible today thanks to technologies of social media and the regeneration of concepts out of these deeper pasts. But more needs to be done to unfold the hidden margins of these narratives and reveal nodes of connections- location, place, time so that you becomes we. We are a constellation of microhistories.
3. For many Puerto Ricans / Borincanos / Tainos who identify as the descendants of pre-European Boriken, already a blend of Native and African peoples, there is a growing recognition of self and community that stands in relief to a backdrop of colonization. Indigenous identity is long denied because many grew up hearing the stories of extinction, then some deemed it an impossibility because it was not 100%. What happened however is Taino people were not gone, not frozen in time and continue to incorporate change in the present. There’s a culture and the question of language, which doesn’t negate a continued presence. This identity undergoes acknowledgement and recognition both on and off the island with the situation exacerbated by the pandemic. There’s a level of acknowledgment rather than a challenge, and communities that confirm continuity, a slow shift over the decades. Growth and regeneration continues.
4. There’s extraction as a process constantly mobilized by different interests across time. Key to destroying the landscape is forgetting our fundamental interconnectedness from the seemingly inert to overtly active lifeforms. One prays for a respite from the machine of capital, from the desire for gold that threatens El Yunque, a tropical rainforest and sacred space for the Taino people. The land everywhere needs to heal and needs its stewards. Historically, assimilation was the order of the day in policy imposed on Puerto Rico, an echo of how the U.S. dealt with the nations contained within its own borders. Assimilation is an old multifaceted story whose journeys can cost us the past, its details trapped in bits of oral history. What are we remembering? What do our ancestors tell us today?
5. The backdrop of change is a constant. It goes from enslavement to industrialization to a globalization that traps and impoverishes many. Today one can begin to lay claim to this heritage while gaining visibility with less certainty of disenfranchisement. And because of technology, we can make connections with others that increases our chances of survival through the progressively larger gatherings that take place across the country. This connection can be an antidote for the historical amnesia that fades with accountability and the remembrance of survival. Can knowledge stop trafficking? Can memory heal? To receive and share their stories, heal and connect is a blessing. What lessons come from the worlds our ancestors inhabited? How are you we?
Wednesday April 28, 2021 from 7-8PM– Register via the link below
Independent scholar and genealogist Ellen Fernandez-Sacco will discuss Spain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. She will talk about its connection to her research and how it shapes her family history in Puerto Rico.
Mary Turner’s life ended 19 May 1918 in Lowndes County, Georgia at the hands of a lynch mob, as a result of vowing to hold those responsible for killing her husband, Hazel Turner. She was arrested once she spoke for justice, and the town leaders retaliated. Mary Turner declared that Hazel Turner’s killing “..was unjust and if she knew the names of the persons who were in the mob who lynched her husband, she would have warrants sworn out against them and have them punished in the courts. This news determined the mob to “teach her a lesson”…” [Walter F White,“The Work of a Mob.” The Crisis, NAACP, Sept 1918, 221-223’]
What followed was her lynching and that of her unborn child on the Folsom Bridge that connects Brooks and Lowndes Counties. Its important to know that the area wasn’t immune from violence. Some twenty-four years earlier, in Christmas 1894, five African American men were lynched by local whites in what was called the ‘Brooks County Race War’.
Also lost in May 1918 were the lives of 16 other persons, including her husband, Hayes Turner, who died the day before. That she and her unborn child were executed was held up as some kind of boundary violation, obscures the fact that three times the number of enslaved Black women were executed in antebellum slavery as in colonial slavery. While far fewer women were executed during Reconstruction, mostly in the South, terrorizing communities was a means of control used in many locations across the US after the Civil War. [ Meyers 2006, p5] Ten women were lynched in Georgia between 1880-1930 [Meyers 2006 224]
What is notable is the participation of the white business community and law enforcement in these series of murders. According to a witness, those who participated in the mob were led by Samuel E McGowan, an undertaker and William Whipple, a cotton broker and merchandise dealer, both of Quitman. Ordley Yates, post office clerk, Frank Purvis, employee of Griffin Furniture Company, Fulton DeVane, agent for Standard Oil Company, Brown Sherill, worked for Whipple, George B Vann, barber from Quitman, the farmers Chalmers, Lee Sherrill, Richard DeVane, Ross DeVane, Jim Dickson, Dixon Smith (father of Hampton Smith) Will Smith (brother of Hampton Smith) and two other brothers of the victims all participated. [Meyers 2006 221; Walter F White, 1918]
Their names are known because of the investigation undertaken by Walter F White, on behalf of the NAACP, and the testimony of George U. Spratling, an African American man who was an assistant to the undertaker McGowan. Spratling was forced by McGowan to go to the lynching, where none wore masks to evade identification.
Eighteen people total died between that Friday and Saturday. Hayes Turner was caught on Saturday, captured and taken to the Brooks County Jail in Quitman, then transported to Moultrie, where Sheriff Wade and Roland Knight, clerk of the county court were waylaid. Turner was taken by the mob and murdered.
Governor Dorsey ordered militia troops to the area, but it was too little, too late. He questioned his authority to arrest those involved. However, aware that the African American migration out of the state had begun with some 500 people departing Lowndes County shortly after the mass lynching occurred, the state was set to lose workers as the Great Migration intensified. Among those able to leave the state were members of the Turner family.
Dorsey’s reply to the NAACP letter notifying him of the events in Lowdnes is reprehensible. He basically blames Black people for the lynching rampage: “I believe that if the negroes would assert their ultimate influence with the original element of their race and stop rapes that it would go a long way towards stopping lynchings.”
The NAACP made the Turner case a central concern and pursued investigating the event soon after. They made an offer to assist George Spratling with relocating to the North, help with gaining employment there and support him until the hearing was completed and he was able to go to work. But he couldn’t just leave- he had 5 young children to care for along with a wife and an elderly lady, and ‘a great many relatives (aunts uncles and first and second cousins)’ in and around Quitman. [Letter from Walter White to NAACP Secretary concerning lynching witness George Spratling, November 12, 1918 (from NAACP Papers Collection)
White notes that “since May eight people were either lynched or went missing; they committed no crime but were relatives of some of the victims of May.” Clearly, racial terrorism was a tool that the NAACP focused on dismantling or at the least, ameliorating its spread by revealing its inner workings and demystifying the feeble excuses offered by local and federal government to a broader public through its publications and newspaper articles.
The organization wrote to President Woodrow Wilson to urge him to act and spelled out why this should be a concern:
“8. The loyal response of the Negroes of the nation to every opportunity to serve as contrasted with the failure of local authorities to act when Negroes are lynched by mob.
9. The opinion of the Attorney General that the federal courts have no jurisdiction to deal with ordinary cases of lynching, and he opinion generally accepted by competent legal authorities that federal anti-lynching legislation under the Fourteenth Amendment is or is likely to be regarded by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
10. The ardent desire of great masses of Americans white and colored, that the stigma of lynching be removed from America.
11. The heightened prestige at home and abroad which American institutions would receive if energetic efforts were made really to stop the lynching of Negroes. “
What is interesting is the insistence that this event and other incidents of terrorism is not America- ‘this is not who we are’. Essentiality it is a failure to live up to the expectations by citizens and the world, right after participating in the first World War.
White sent the investigation on to President Wilson, who basically did nothing to stop the perpetrators.
The Turners labored incessantly and suffered beatings as part of being in a debt peonage system. Hampton Smith (whose death marked the start of what was called a ‘holocaust of lynchings), was the owner of the large plantation in Brooks County that they and others worked on, had a terrible reputation for violence and terrorizing his workers. As a result, he had difficulty securing workers, and went to the courts and whenever a Black man “was convicted and unable to pay his fine or was sentenced to serve a period on the chain gang, Smith would secure his release” and put them to work on his plantation, until the amount in question was paid off. [White, “The Work of a Mob.,” 1918, 1] Apparently workers never made enough to satisfy the debt and according to accounts suffered beatings at his hands, and one young man resisted and decided to kill him.
The issue of debt peonage was never addressed, and was a huge problem across sites in Georgia, Florida and Alabama.
The disruptive effects of this mass lynching impacted the future of the families. If they could, they moved to other counties or across the state line to start over.
Aside from this, each family had female headed households that helped their children survive the transition from enslavement to emancipation. By design, there were insufficient resources to keep people laboring rather than able to pursue their own path, and sadly, some family members were unable to escape the trap of debt peonage and the prison convict system.
Mary Turner- Mary Hattie Graham (1884-1918)
Mary Turner’s full maiden name was Mary Hattie Graham, daughter of Perry W. Graham and Betty Johnson (1872).
Her story inspired artist Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller to create Mary Turner: A Silent Protest Against Mob Violence. This is an early anti-lynching memorial, which also incorporates genteel standards of womanhood of the time. Still, this is a figure beset by trouble, her face almost hidden and body that tries to keep to itself. Hands appear on the lower third, with a face sunk into the crowd, which suggests more horror as one spends time with the work.
Mary Hattie Graham was born in Quitman, Brooks County in Dec 1884 to Perry Graham and Betty Johnson Graham. Her father’s mother was born in Virginia, according to the 1910 census. By that time Perry Graham and Betty Johnson Graham were married for 29 years; they married in Lowndes County on 18 Nov 1880.
By 1910, her brother, Perry J Graham had set up his own household alongside their parents in Briggs, Brooks County, GA. With Dora Stoker, he had 16 children. By 1930, both generations lived together in Briggs. As their family was large, mobility was limited, and the next generation would migrate out of the state. I haven’t yet found them in the 1920 census, which may mean they avoided the enumerator or changed names to stay safe.
By 1940 at least one son of Perry and Dora, Melvin J Briggs b. 1908 had moved to Miami, Dade County, Florida from Valdosta after 1935. He worked as a bell hop in a hotel, rooming with a group of people who also came from Georgia. While he may not have traveled north, he was part of a larger migration out of state by African Americans who sought self determination.
Betsey or Betty Johnson
Turner’s mother, Betsey or Betty Johnson b. 18 first appears in the 1880 census, in the home of her mother, Phoebe Briggs, b. 1848. At that time Ms. Johnson is working as a servant, and has a daughter, Viola Washington. She is 21, older than listed in later census, born about 1859. If the dates are correct, Phoebe had her very young- she is 31 while her daughter is 21. The household comprises three generations.
In 1880 Phoebe Briggs works as a farm laborer, and one of her young sons, Richard Stephens works as a laborer at 11 years of age; there is no occupation listed for his brother Washington Stephens age 8. Different states are listed for their fathers, which raises questions about the difficulties of Briggs’ situation with her partners post-Reconstruction 1869-1872 in the Valdosta district of Lowndes, Georgia. Also in the household is her 2 year old granddaughter from Betsey, Viola Washington and her grandson, Samuel Green, just a month old.
What is important to note, are the other Johnson females who live in adjacent homes— Harriet age 17 [Line 4] a lodger in the next house to Phoebe Briggs, and two doors down, Fate Johnson 13 [Line 21], lodger. There’s a Millie Johnson 24 [Line 36], and a Fannie Green 41, b.VA [Line 43], Mother in law to the McKays (in fact much of her family is lodging in the home of her daughter Josephine’s husband). It seems reasonable that the month old son may be tied to this family. They work as farm laborers, and some are close enough in age to be Betsey Johnson’s sisters, if not kin. This raises a few questions as to their relationship to Phoebe Briggs and her daughter, Betsey Johnson, and whether they are kin or blood relatives from the same community in this area of Valdosta. Just a few months later, in November 1880, Betsey Johnson married Perry Graham.
I was unable to locate Phoebe Briggs in the 1870 census. However, the 1860 Federal Population Census and Slave Schedule for Lowndes, GA- right at the start of Valdosta, shows a Henry Briggs with 13 enslaved people, including a 10 year old female, who could potentially be Phoebe Briggs.
The location of his plantation was at the end of Troupville, and Valdosta is the next town that starts just a few lines down. Additional probate and insurance documents can help identify the people he held in bondage, and confirm whether this number, is indeed Phoebe Briggs.
A page on the early history of Troupvillealso reveals a history of a settlement that begins with bloodshed as the new arrivals sought to displace the Creeks from their territory. Native peoples had lived in the region for 11,000 years, and during the early 1800s, many were farmers, and among the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’ depended on enslaved labor before displacement in a series of Indian wars that culminated in the Trail of Tears. A Dr. Henry Briggs was among the early settlers of the town, which benefited from its location on the border with Florida. This was historically part of a Native American trade network that extended north to present day Savannah. Settler colonialismis an important part of the larger context of this history.
It’s over a century since the deaths of Mary Turner, her husband Hazel Turner and 16 others. Extrajudicial murders continue with 20,000 dying at the hands of the police in the last two decades. The EJI notes that the dehumanizing myth of racial bias needs to be confronted, and reveals it as part of a continuum: “This belief in racial hierarchy survived slavery’s abolition, fueled racial terror lynchings, demanded legally codified segregation, and spawned our mass incarceration crisis.” https://eji.org/racial-justice/ This is incredibly toxic stuff.
Lynching shaped the geographic, political, social, and economic conditions that African Americans experience today. Critically, racial terror lynching reinforced the belief that Black people are inherently guilty and dangerous. That belief underlies the racial inequality in our criminal justice system today. Mass incarceration, racially biased capital punishment, excessive and disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were shaped by the terror era.
What stood out most was the continued disruption of lives because of racist terror, and the way the system worked to extract as much value from these people without acknowledging their humanity and a right to access justice, fairness and the ability to live without attack. They were forced to repeatedly start over, and their survival is a testimony to their resilience. To get beyond the narratives of their deaths to their family histories isn’t easy.
Since the 2000s, there has been a sustained effort by the community to shed light on these events, to come to a reckoning so that this terrorism can end. The Mary Turner Project succeeded in placing a historic marker that names the victims, maintains a website that continues to pull together newspaper articles past and present that documents a long process of healing.
Restoring the visibility of these families helps in understanding the dynamics that sought to constrain the lives of millions, all hidden beneath a thin veneer of American exceptionalism.
Update: 11 September 2020. The Mary Turner Project had to remove the historical marker because of the damage it sustained from being repeatedly shot to the point the metal was stressed so much it cracked. Regardless of this vandalism, that still doesn’t change the need to remember this event as part of our national history.