Oh, America. The labor, sweat and blood that went into the infrastructure of this country, into its buildings and roads is a history, that for 400 years was presented as someone else’s. All of this effort, excellence, and memory can’t be crammed into the shortest month of the year– nor can it be recounted on one day.
Regardless, we need to honor those that came before us, and one way I can think of is to find those ancestors embedded in the shadows of a suppressed history. It takes time and work to find the details , but it’s so worth it.
As I write this on Juneteenth, I see it as a very different day this year because so many decided to stand over the last month, right after the lynching of George Floyd. His death was a catalyst, a wake up call for the complacency with an investment in death. On Black ProGen, we have talked about the crushing effects of structural racism on BIPOC families, which in turns shapes the documentation that we can access to research the lives of our ancestors.
I was honored to speak the names of Leoncia Lasalle, Dionicia Rodriguez Lasalle, Juan Tomas Gandulla and Tomas Gandulla yesterday on the Juneteenth Celebration held by Black ProGen Live with host Nicka Smith, True A. Lewis, Shelley Murphy, Andre Ferrell and James Morgan III, all bringing knowledge to a lively discussion on different dimensions of what gets folded into Juneteenth, the effort, the freedom and the struggle. It makes one pause how much sitting on knowledge played into this all, how much hiding of violence, how much denial, how much disregard was surmounted in pressing for equality.
As part of Black ProGen Live’s project, Ep. 83b Stories from the National Institute for Peace and Justice, I’m researching the family history of Claude Neal (1911-1934), who died barbarically at the hands of a white lynch mob in Marianna, Florida in October 1934. Retaliation did not end there, as the event was also an excuse to burn down the homes in the black section of town. The goal here is not to revisit how Mr. Neal left this earth, but to help find his ancestors and extend the path back in time.
There are studies of the events that surrounded his torture and murder, but what I am trying to do here is to place his family against this larger, deeper history of Jackson County to make clear the outlines of the weight of living the transition from enslavement to a relative freedom. It was their labor that made places like the grand estates of Marianna and its wealth possible. My condolences to the family, as they have had to bear so much, without seeing justice, as theFBI closed the case in 2013, thanks to decade long silences among the perpetrators and their descendants.
If you do not know who Claude Neal was, Professor Carol Anderson of Emory University provides an overview of that tragedy, called ‘the last spectacle lynching’ in America.
This blog post is focused on building a context and tracing the lines further back. Part of this work benefitted from the work of descendants with family trees on Ancestry.com, such as Orlando Williams and others, whose efforts to illuminate what happened to his uncle continues. To them I give thanks.
A backdrop for racial terror
Understanding the context of Claude Neal’s family history is to engage the history of post-Civil War Jackson County in the Florida Panhandle, so one can also honor the resilience necessary to pass through these experiences. Florida, as recent research clearly shows, ranks fifth among the states with the highest rate and largest number of terror lynchings. Part of healing from these crimes is to call their names across time and space.
And this too is the history of the state I presently call home. By the time of Claude Neal’s murder, 1934, Jim Crow laws, eugenic ideals, an unacknowledged history of enslavement, intensive cotton cultivation with extractive sharecropping arrangements, shaped the state’s legal contours, honed further still by blind followers of the ‘Lost Cause’. In 1834 Andrew Jackson authorized the displacement of the Five Slaveholding Tribes, with the Seminole concentrated in the region. Despite the evacuation of many Native people, not everyone went to Oklahoma, and some managed to remain in the area. Within the decade, white planters moved thousands into the Florida panhandle and into the peninsula.
T. Thomas Fortune’s autobiographical newspaper series, “After War Times: A Boy’s Life in Reconstruction Days” published in the Philadelphia Tribune in 1927 speaks of his childhood in Marianna. The complexity of the family history he relates defies the binary categories of black and white, and points to deeper tri-racial ancestries that also resulted within Marianna, shoehorned and hidden under the designations of ‘W’ or ‘B’ or ‘M’:
Fortune’s female ancestor, Sarah Jane was sold south from Virginia, and “Emanuel, who begat us, was never a father but always a friend and companion. He was an extraordinary man, and played a conspicuous part in the Reconstruction politics of Florida. He served as a member of the Constitutional Convention and the first four sessions of the legislature. He was born of an Indian mother and an Irish father. His mother was the wife of Osceola, who was stolen from Micanopy and taken to West Florida by Thomas Fortune… after his mysterious death she was taken as a wife by John Pope, who was also of mixed Seminole blood…. The family picture I have drawn is a familiar one produced out of the loose morality of the system of slavery. In my family there was the African, the Indian and the Jewish women and the Irish and half breed Indian men, with the Jewish father guilty of selling his daughter by a black woman into slavery in the same village where he was a judge… 
“The people responsible for the cross of the black, white and red races in this country are in very interesting and questionable business when they draw the color line on the sisters and brothers whom their fathers and brothers mulattoized…” – T. Thomas Fortune, “After War Times”, 1927
Post-Reconstruction violence: a resistance to change
“Satan has his seat; he reigns in Jackson County.”
— Senator Rev. Charles H. Pearce, Founder of the AME church in Florida, testifying on the KKK in Florida 
The events of the Jackson County War (1869-1871) is a history untold until the 1960s, nearly a century after the events of the late 1860s. From early 1869 to the end of 1871, some one hundred to an estimated two hundred persons were killed, making Jackson County, Florida’s most violent county under Reconstruction. What was at stake was power, and the 1867 Florida Constitution aimed to repress African Americans with the Black Codes built into the document, which Congress rejected. They declared Florida had no government until they adopted the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to conform to the Constitution.
Jackson County was the second most populated county in the state, with some ten thousand inhabitants from 1851 to 1868. As the average rate of murder was two yearly, the sudden fifty-fold rise over three years meant much organizing work was needed to stem the violence.  The KKK rode hard in Florida in an attempt to maintain the old social order through racial terror after the Civil War. Even after Reconstruction, those who rallied behind the Myth of the Lost Cause were willing to do anything, including annihilating people in politics and in the field, destroying their homes and businesses in order for the defenders of the ‘Old South’ to maintain power.
In the early twentieth century, historians that retold the history of the Jackson County War diminished the focus on African American struggles by inventing details and dramatizing events that practically absolved the white conservatives who perpetrated the atmosphere of violence that permeated Reconstruction Florida. One study written from this perspective remained the authoritative text on this period for over fifty years.
By 1960s, historians finally delved into resources like the Freedmen’s Bureau Florida records, and by the 1970s a clearer picture of violence and mayhem “arising from organized white resistance determined to drive out black and white Republican leadership” finally came into view.  By the early 2000s, the role of the Klan, violence, intimidation and resistance were on the table. Curiously, a number of the books that focus on this history are not available within the Hillsborough County Library system today, but because of Henry Louis Gates’ recent documentary Reconstruction: America After the Civil War, a number of related titles are available. The Florida Freedmen’s Bureau records however, are in need of a transcription project as some 26 reels of microfilm hold the details for many families across the state before the bureau’s bank failed in 1873.
There’s a tight relationship between this past and its connections to the present- I want to bring attention to the issue of social control via voter suppression and the older history of disenfranchisement post Reconstruction. The Sentencing Project’s 2010 report noted that, “more people were disenfranchised in Florida than in any other state. All of the six states with the most disenfranchised felons are southern states with large black populations. There is a distinct relationship between race and voter disenfranchisement.” On 1 September 2016, The Miami Herald’s headline pointed to this longer history: “Florida has a History of Making it Harder for Black Citizens to Vote.”The poll tax has returned in another guise, and it’s pertinent that historically, Florida was the first state to adopt a $2 poll tax for voting in 1885 (legal until 1937) and by 1940, only 6% of blacks in Florida were registered to vote.. 
A Panhandle County
Jackson County lies near the borders of Alabama and Georgia on the panhandle, and its economy was based on short staple cotton, grown to the exclusion of other crops, worked by gangs of enslaved laborers. Before the Civil War, slaveowners comprised 38% of Jackson County households, and 16% held as many as ten enslaved people.
Non-slaveholding farmers arrived from South Carolina and Georgia and worked small pieces of land barely adequate for sustenance. Prosperous planters owned stately homes that lined the main street of Marianna and nearby Greenwood. Yet, transportation was the main disadvantage, as the county’s location on the Chipola River was unnavigable for the huge volume of cotton to transport, compounded by the lack of a railroad, which terminated a county away. This remoteness added to the difficulty of attempts by those in bondage to emancipate themselves.
Effects of the Recent War, 1863-1865
During the Civil war, many local white men served in the Confederacy, and late in the war, Jackson County was a breadbasket for the south, the Confederacy ruthlessly requisitioning livestock and crops for the war. By 1863 a military hospital opened and the following year, a Confederate military post with training grounds, storehouses and stables was established at Marianna. A blockade by the Union Navy prevented the transport of valuable cotton to European markets; Confederate troops from the area went to armies fighting in Virginia, leaving citizens at the mercy of deserters and guerrillas who preyed on the countryside. By the fall, war arrived as a column of 700 Union soldiers left Pensacola to march across the Panhandle. 
Union troops fought local men (old men and young boys) with fragments of Confederate units at Marianna, overwhelming them and suffering unexpected casualties. Before retreating to Pensacola, Union troops laid waste to the town, looting stores and setting fires, carrying off commissary and quartermaster stores and cattle. Locals blamed acts of violence on the USCT: “[u]nsubstantiated rumors spread of black soldiers from US Colored Troops units committing atrocities on Confederates found in the churchyard.” The raid also liberated some four hundred enslaved African Americans who accompanied the Union troops on their march west. Ninety-six prisoners that included 47 men and boys from Jackson County were sent north, most winding up in an infamous prison camp in Elmira, New York. 
With the announcement of the end of the war in April 1864, the Confederate supporting governor, John Milton, shot himself in the head on his Jackson County estate, and in May, came the formal surrender of all Confederate forces in Florida and the emancipation of the enslaved. Union troops were in the South, such as the fifty soldiers of the 161st NY Volunteers that occupied Marianna in July 1865. The captain of the New Yorkers, John F Little, found favor with residents of Marianna; they also established the first school for African American children in Jackson county. The Jackson County slaves that joined the Union army were in the Eighty-Second and Eighty-Sixth US Colored Troops regimen. Some departed with the withdrawing column. So far, I haven’t found a connection to the extended Neal families, however descendants may want to explore this further.
This commitment to the pursuit of rights continued after the war, with the establishment of the AME Church during the Reconstruction period, beginning in 1866. This consisted of multiple meetings to set up a constellation of parishes across the Florida panhandle. Churches were the engine of development for Black Floridians, making it possible to channel educational, political and spiritual opportunity in a community.  All of these factors- political, social and spiritual- shaped the lives of the Neals, Dickson, White and Pittman families.
Into this landscape, Claude Neal’s grandparents and great grandparents were brought as enslaved labor by planter families from Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. As the war ended and with Reconstruction, we can see through documents how the older men gained suffrage and registered their marriages. The end of the war, and the arrival of troops that enforced Reconstruction brought a moment of possibility for the Neals and their collateral lines in Marianna, Florida.
Ancestors: Towards a History of the Neal Family
Paternal Ancestor: York Neal
Just weeks or months after the passage of the Reconstruction act of 23 March 1867, all male citizens age 21 or older. They had to swear a loyalty oath, “stating that he had never supported or participated in a rebellion against the United States government, that he had never committed a felony offense, that he had never served as an elected or appointed official of the United States and supported or participated in a rebellion against the United States government, and that he would remain loyal to the government of the United States (Ala. Code,  83-84)” Just as with the history of the Varner family in Wilcox, Alabama, after Reconstruction, newly free men went to register to vote to assert their belonging as citizens, a situation also made possible by the presence of Federal troops. .
York Neal, Claude Neal’s paternal grandfather, was born in 1830 in Alabama, as were some of other family members. In 1867 Neal registered to vote in Sumter, Alabama’s Election District 21, and part of his oath included a twelve month residency window; he was about 37 years old, This may be a clue to where he was before emancipation.  His voter registration is the earliest document for him as a free man.
The 1880 census offers more details for the life of York Neal. Precisely when he gets to Florida isn’t clear, but the census is a start. By the time he was 40 years of age, he was living in Jackson County, Florida by 1870; by 1880, now 50, he worked as a laborer in Bascom, Jackson County, and was a widower. Among the alternative spellings of his surname in records are Neal, Neel or Neele.
On 25 October 1880, Penny Bowls Dickson married York Neal in Jackson, Florida.  At 25 she was half his age, and boarded in Neal’s home along with her three young children, Lizzie 8, Ned 6 and Mattie Bowls, age 2. She worked as a servant. Earlier that year, on 15 June 1880, Jeff Neal was the first child born to York Neal and Penny Bowls and they married four months later. [ 14] Jeff Neal was Claude Neal’s father. Households combined and recombined in effort to maintain stability, with relationships extending beyond simple categories of a nuclear family.
Maternal Ancestor: Washington Dickson (bca.1815/17- aft 1885)
York Neal’s wife, Penny Bowls Dickson was the daughter of Willis Dickson (b. 1829, NC) and Caroline Barnes Dickson (b.1833); she was the first of seven children born to the couple between 1850 and 1864.
Willis and Caroline married 19 Aug 1866 in Jackson, Florida.  Willis Dickson was one of three known children of Washington Dickson (bca. 1815 North Carolina) and two unknown wives: Willis b. 1829, Jennie Dickson (b. Dec 1834) in North Carolina. Jennie Dickson married Anthony Barnes in 1856. Barnes (b.Sep 1834) was also from North Carolina, and their three daughters lived in Marianna County, Florida.  Charity Dickson b. 1873, was a late baby for Washington and his second partner. She married Jonas White (b. 1868) on 26 Oct 1892 in Jackson County, and the couple had a daughter, Emma.  I’ll return to Jonas White’s father in 1870, after discussing Washington Dickson’s time in bondage.
Before the Civil War: The Estate of James M. Long, 1858
Washington Dickson’s long life spanned pre Civil War to post-Reconstruction in Marianna; the last document he appears on is the 1885 Florida State Census. He is the individual mentioned in the estate division of planter James Madison Long of 2 January 1858. . No other Washington came up in search results and the additional 55 names included in the estate have other potential family members listed.
The slaveowners were members of the James M. Long family, who moved their business from Alabama to Washington County (also in Florida) and then to the outskirts of Marianna in Jackson County, Florida. Long, born in 1810, died in 1857 and was buried in Riverside Cemetery in Marianna. [ Briefly, Long was married twice (M1 Elizabeth Ann Russ of NC & M2 Harriet Rebecca Long) and had six children with Russ, who are named in the will. In between the lines of the will are judgements about values and subdivision of humans that denies familial ties and focuses instead on fractions of a dollar. For example, Matilda was valued at 950.50; the notation ‘Pays Oliver’ appears for three siblings, who paid their brother Oliver Long $100 on a share of a person, along with other amounts, $62.50, $37.50. Down to the half dollar.
The probate index for the Jackson County Courthouse on FamilySearch lists several entries for various family members involved in the subdivision of the property, human and material. The work of cotton production depended on a brutal enforced labor system, and Jackson County was among “the heaviest concentrations of plantations, slave populations and cotton production centered in Jackson, Gadsden, Leon and Jefferson and Madison counties” in the Panhandle.  This development of Florida’s own Black Belt for cotton cultivation began intensifying almost two decades earlier, in the 1840s. Long and his family was already in the area by 1850, as shown by the US Federal Census.
Apparently, Long did not die insolvent, as everyone they owned apparently were subdivided among the children rather than sold at market. Still, what this future meant for the persons in the document after January 1858 is unclear without additional details— at the moment the age of the Long children, from ages 20-9, and their locations in the census, show that they remained in Marianna, and while an overseer continued to manage the plantation in Jackson County.
Subdividing people in Marianna, January 1858
A summary of the petition appears in the Race and Slavery Petitions Project, transcribed in 1996 from documents in the Jackson County Courthouse, Marianna, Florida, Book D Record of Estates.  The abstract reads:
John P. Lockey, guardian of the children of James M. Long, deceased, asks the court to appoint commissioners to divide the slaves of the estate equally among the heirs. The plaintiff states that the deceased, during his lifetime, deeded his slaves and land to his children, reserving “the right of possession & enjoyment” but desired upon his death to have his estate “equally divided between his children share & share alike.”
I’ve transcribed the estate subdivision in full below:
To the Honorable Robert S Dickson Judge of Probate of Jackson County
The undersigned commissioner appointed to divide certain slaves between the children of James M Long by leave to expert That they appraised said slaves & having ascertained what each child was entitled, they placed them in lots which were Drawn with the following result
Lot one by Edwin Long, the following slaves viz Sara 600.00, William 800.00, Walter 675.00, London 625.00, Letitia 375, Daniel 325.00 [F72] Emily 200.00, Matilda 950.50 & pays Oliver 139.50
Lot two by Oscar Long the following slaves viz Letty 225.00, Louisa 850.00, Ben 700.00, Amanda 325.00 Susan & child Peter 950.00, Annette 325.00, Prince 200.00, Oscar 1000.00, Pays Oliver 100.00 & Laura 62.50
Lot three by Mary Long the following slaves viz Polly 350.00, Lewis 475.00, Mahala 300.00, Walker 225.00, Eliza & child Patsey 1100.00, Solomon 400.00 Josephine 250.00, Sally & child Palmyra 1050.00, Pays Oliver 100.00 & John 37.50
Lot four by John Long the following slaves viz Robin 500.00, Binkey 375.00, Charlotte 950.00, George 700.00, Harriet 375.00, Madison 500.00, Isaac 550.00, Rinah 200.00, Receives of Mary 37.50
Lot five by Laura Long the following slaves viz Argent & child June 1000.00, Vandy 225.00, Warren 500.00, Redding 1000.00, Levi 675.00 & Julia 950.00, and Receives of Oscar 62.50
Lot Six by Oliver Long the following slaves viz Washington 350.00, Mary Ann & child Beckey 850.00, William 900.00, Amy 550.00, Frank 375.00, Charity 300.00, Rose 250.00, Levi 675.00, Receives of Edwin 137.50, of Oscar 100.00 and of Mary 100.00
Respectfully submitted Jan’y 2/58
Jos B Roulhac
Florida Probate Records, 1784-1990 Jackson County Florida, Estates 1857-1860.
The total value of human beings was $26,025. The total comparative value of 26,025 has a relative value today of $819,000.00. In terms of a relative wage or income, an equivalent in unskilled wage is 5.840,000 or in terms of Production Worker Compensation, the number jumps to $11,100,000.00.  This one number for this group of people should give pause when considering the transformation of blood and sweat into the wealth of planters; it is the fulcrum of inequality in this country.
The three men who provided the values in 1858 listed above, later appear as agents of the Confederate Army. Isaac Widgeon served as the commissary Agent for the District of Florida, with Joseph Roulhac and John J White as sub-agents working for Widgeon.  At least one of the Long sons served in the Confederate Army.
Long’s second wife, Harriet R. Long eventually left Marianna and moved to Atlanta; her ancestry was registered with the DAR. Researching the group of people they sold to each other however, is not revealed so easily. From 1858 to the 1870s, we see the Dicksons, Pittmans, Whites and Barnes live in proximity as they go from numeric counts under enslavement in 1860 to named farmers and farm laborers in 1870 and after. Yet their value tied to their labor sits like a rock in my craw. One son, John Long, for instance, holds some $6,000 in Personal Estate, while the head of household has over $16K listed. To what can we ascribe the increase in value from $4150 to $6000? Compare this to Jonas White, who had a mere $50 in Personal Estate in 1870; we can’t find him before that because he himself was property.
A cursory look at the census shows that two years after the estate division in 1860, each of the Long siblings are living in different households, apart from their stepmother. Precisely how the arrangements impacted the families involved is unclear; Washington Dickson for example, who was in the lot assigned to Oliver Long, did not live in close proximity to the family by 1870. More questions remain.
The AME Church: a different space of possibility
The years after the war saw the expansion of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Florida Panhandle, with the establishment of the Marianna Station giving a foothold in the new political environment. This was a move towards self determination, as the church became a guiding force for civil rights and political activity in the state. Unlike the Methodist Church, the AME church offered opportunities unbridled by white control, along with the opportunity for education and literacy.
This excerpt from Jerold Shofner’s Jackson County Florida — A History offers a view of what the African Americans had to contend with to practice religion in nearby Greenwood. The church was itself a staging ground for various punishments. This was no space of refuge for Black people:
“The records of the Union Academy Church, which became Greenwood Baptist in 1855, have frequent references to its black membership, including punishments meted out for misbehavior on the plantation. Blacks were admitted to membership as soon as the church was organized in 1845. Winnie, belonging to Richard Long was the first slave to join the church. During the next nine years, however, at least 22 other blacks became members. Typical of them were Mary, the servant of Elijah Bryan, Charles, the servant of Nicholas Long, Austin, servant of Martha Pittman, and Sarah, the servant of Ethelred Philips, all of whom were “received by experience.” Apparently the blacks simply joined the whites in their Sunday worship until July, 1854. Then, M.T. Embry, “with as many white males as present, was authorized to hold conferences regularly for the benefit of the black members.” The blacks had church on the third Sunday of each month after that. Whether they were still allowed to attend other services is not clear, but the third Sundays were reserved for them with the supervision of Embry and the other “white males.”…. [ 21]
Jonas White, (Charity Dickson’s father in law) appears as James White in the 1870 census, with the occupation of AME Preacher. This meant White was a regarded member of the community, someone who was an important resource in the area. By the time of the next census however, times had become more difficult. In 1873, the Freedmen’s Bank failed, and by 1880, Jonas White Sr.’s occupation is listed as Laborer. Note that White’s value of his Personal Estate is only $50. Still, the occupation represents a link to many people and possibly the rise of black fraternal organizations in the region that would support local efforts.
Perhaps more light can be shed on the networks of connections across community that made survival possible. Despite the constant threat of erasure, family members knew that even though faced with threats and the need to suddenly flee their homes, they too seek justice. Neal’s death was not in vain, as the NAACP deployed his image as a fundamental moral and political question about the right to live in America, versus the postcards of his lynching sold in Greenwood & Marianna as a souvenir for 50 cents apiece.
In 1939, John and Ruby Lomax traveled the South recording songs and folklore. Tt the Women’s Dormitory of Raiford, Florida, Gussie Slater and Clifford Reed sang ‘Trouble is Hard.’ Listen to the unspoken pain that slips between words, a creation that comes from love, pain and survival of so many troubled times, that can lead to a way out of no way .
The struggle for equality continues. Listen to Bryan Stevenson’s observations on identity and the implications of a society with mass incarceration and its connection to the past. As he has said, “the opposite of poverty is justice.” May this country keep walking ahead towards this goal. Speak their names.
 T Thomas Fortune, After War Times: A Boy’s Life in Reconstruction Days. Philadelphia Tribune, 14 Jul 1927, 9. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: Black Newspaper Collection.
 Daniel R. Weinfeld, The Jackson County War: Reconstruction and Resistance in Post-Civil War Florida. University of Alabama Press, 2012.
 Seth Weitz. “Defending the Old South: The Myth of the Lost Cause and Political Immorality in Florida, 1885-1968,” 82-83.
 The recent changes to Amendment 4 is considered a modern version of the poll tax as a result of the Florida Senate’s changes to Amendment 4, in which Floridians voted to restore voting rights to 1.4 million felons, a group disproportionately POC. “Florida has a history of making it harder for black citizens to vote” Miami Herald, 1 Sept 2016. https://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/election/article95105602.html
 Weinfeld, The Jackson County War.
 Weinfeld, The Jackson County War.
 Larry E Rivers and Canter Brown, Jr., Introduction, Laborers in the Vineyards of the Lord: The Beginnings of the AME Church in Florida, 1865-1895. University of Florida Press, 2001
 York Neal. Ancestry.com. Alabama, Voter Registration, 1867 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Alabama 1867 Voter Registration Records Database. Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.
 York Neal. Ancestry.com. 1880 US Federal Census, Jackson, FL.
 Ancestry.com. Florida, County Marriage Records, 1823-1982 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016.
 “Florida Marriages, 1830-1993,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:23H6-3SG : 7 December 2017), Willis Dickson and Caroline Barnes, 19 Aug 1866; citing Marriage, Jackson, Florida, United States, Liberty County Clerk of Courts, Florida; FHL microfilm 931,954.; “Florida Marriages, 1837-1974,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:V5CB-591 : 10 February 2018), Willis Dickson and Caroline Barnes, 19 Aug 1866; citing Jackson,Florida; FHL microfilm 0931954 V. A-C.
 Ancestry.com. Florida, County Marriage Records, 1823-1982 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016. Original data: Marriage Records. Florida Marriages. Various Florida County Courthouses and State Archive, Tallahassee, Florida.
 Year: 1900; Census Place: Precinct 13, Jackson, Florida; Page: 2; Enumeration District: 0060; FHL microfilm: 1240171 Source Information Ancestry.com. 1900 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004. Ancestry.com. Florida, County Marriage Records, 1823-1982 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016. Original data: Marriage Records. Florida Marriages. Various Florida County Courthouses and State Archive, Tallahassee, Florida.
 James M Long, 6 Oct 1810-16 Feb 1857. Ancestry.com. U.S., Find A Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. According to the 1891 Atlanta City Directory, his widow was living on 57 Marietta Street, Atlanta.
 Julia Floyd Smith, Slavery and Plantation Growth in Antebellum Florida. University of Florida Press, 2017, 10-11.
“All that I know of my ancestors was told to me by my people.“
The words of William J. Edwards, educator and founder of the Snow Hill Normal and Industrial Institute in Wilcox Alabama, are from his autobiography, Twenty-Five Years in the Black Belt (1919). The book both explains how he received knowledge of his ancestors, and shows what they, and by extension, the Varner and McDuffie families were up against in the nineteenth to twentieth century.
Born in 1869, Edwards was born on the cusp of Reconstruction, and his perspective is firmly turned towards a brighter future of uplift. Given the centrality of oral history to this experience, it is worth reading the opening pages of Chapter 1. Childhood Days, as the Varners and McDuffies shared a similar history:
All that I know of my ancestors was told to me by my people. I learned from my grandfather on my mother’s side that the family came to Alabama from South Carolina. He told me that his mother was owned by the Wrumphs who lived in South Carolina, but his father belonged to another family. For some cause, the Wrumphs decided to move from South Carolina to Alabama; this caused his mother and father to be separated, as his father remained in South Carolina. The new home was near the village of Snow Hill. This must have been in the Thirties when my grandfather was quite a little child. He had no hope of ever seeing his father again, but his father worked at nights and in that way earned enough money to purchase his freedom from his master. So after four or five years he succeeded in buying his own freedom from his master and started out for Alabama. When he arrived at Snow Hill, he found his family, and Mr. Wrumphs at once hired him as a driver. He remained with his family until his death, which occurred during the war. At his death one of his sons, George, was appointed to take his place as driver
As I now remember, my grandfather told me that his mother’s name was Phoebe and that she lived until the close of the war. My grandfather married a woman by the name of Rachael and she belonged to a family by the name of Sigh. His wife’s mother came directly from Africa and spoke the African language. It is said that when she became angry no one could understand what she said. Her owner allowed her to do much as she pleased.
My grandfather had ten children, my mother being the oldest girl. She married my father during the war and, as nearly as I can remember, he told me that it was in 1864. Three children were born to them and I was the youngest; there was a girl and another boy.
I know little of my father’s people, excepting that he repeatedly told me that they came from South Carolina. So it is, that while I can trace my ancestry back to my great-grandparents on my mother’s side, I can learn nothing beyond my grandparents on my father’s side. My grandfather was a local preacher and could read quite well. Just how he obtained this knowledge, I have never been able to learn. He had the confidence and respect of the best white and colored people in the community and sometimes he would journey eight or ten miles to preach. Many times at these meetings there were nearly as many whites as colored people in the audience. He was indeed a grand old man. His name was James and his father’s name was Michael. So after freedom he took the name of James Carmichael.
One of the saddest things about slavery was the separation of families. Very often I come across men who tell me that they were sold from Virginia, South Carolina or North Carolina, and that they had large families in those states. Since their emancipation, many of these have returned to their former states in search of their families, and while some have succeeded in finding them, there are those who have not been able to find any trace of their families and have come back again to die. 
Edward’s account traces the movement of families, their sale and separation across states, the role of faith that was a path for his grandfather becaming a preacher, those who heard the voice of his African great grandmother who spoke an African language and through these traces, he makes the outlines of his community visible. All of these details were handed down via oral history, and made a document through the pages of his 1919 book.
The photo of Uncle Charles Lee standing before his home, supported by two canes, begins to tell of the conditions that Edwards sought to address after attending Tuskeegee and returning to Snow Hill to establish the first institute for Black education in Wilcox. The powers that be had little interest in seeing those who labored in bondage literate, educated and successful. And when they did gain it, threats intensified.
Violence &The Social Landscape of Wilcox County
A barometer of the low regard that people of African descent were held in is evident in this article “Extension of Slavery” from the 1862 issue of The Southern Cultivator, originally published in the Wilmington Journal. It evinces a line of white supremacist readership stretching from the middle to southern states, and the intent to keep the enslaved as a permanent unfree eternally laboring underclass.
What is telling is the absence of a name for the author, which speaks to fears about the power and potential of those fighting for their freedom from bondage. It is also an example of a proto-eugenic logic of an inherent, biological inferiority circulated via print media by the descendants of enslavers and their cohorts that later blossomed in the early twentieth century as eugenics. This reductionism still circulates in the present, as we struggle with 21st century issues of prison abolition and the returning semblance of debt peonage.
In case you can’t read the image:
A correspondent of the Wilmington Journal makes the following prediction: “I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet, but I now predict that one of the consequences of this war will be, that in three years from the end thereof there will not be a free negro in America; that our institution of slavery will be established on a more firm basis than ever; that the Northern States Rights party will get into power as soon as the elections roll round; the abolitionists will be hunted down like mad dogs, and the whole civilized world will become satisfied the our slaves are in the very condition for which nature designed them. Mark the prediction.”
In 1860, Wilcox County held only 26 ‘free colored’ and 17,797 enslaved people, with 6,795 whites, proportions that cast light on the nature of social and political life before the Civil War. By 1870, the ‘colored’ population increased to 21,610, a 21% increase, yet the white population remained at 6.795. 
Benson Seller’s Slavery in Alabama (1950) while remaining the main study of enslavement in that state, never addresses the humanity or “soul value” of Blacks held in bondage. Instead, the emphasis reflects the concerns with production, so that there are entries such as the following regarding planter James Asbury Tait’s management of overseers and their counsel to them. Violence and terror are the means of control, yet the text is in denial; we know that details of mangled, murdered and lynched bodies are omitted from this volume, instead we hear about ‘efficiency’:
First glimpse: 1866 Alabama State Census of Colored People
Only three generations back, the story of the Varner family that Della McDuffie Varner descends from has its first outlines in the documents issued during Reconstruction. On the Alabama Black Belt, Wilcox County borders Marengo County, and it is there in the 1866 Alabama State Colored Census for Marengo County that three Varners appear: King Varner, Matilde Varner, Haig Varner.
Making it official: Haig Varner & Fannie Varner
Haig Varner (b.ca 1820) and Fannie Varner (b.ca 1825) are Della Varner McDuffie’s great grandparents, the furthest back in the tree we can go at present. What we can’t tell from the data in the 1866 AL state census is how close these Varner families lived, and whether they were family or kin, as this is not spelled out. What is evident is that one to three generations lived across these households, and as this remains stubbornly opaque when compared to later census, now further documentation is needed to flesh out the details as to where exactly they lived in Marengo, who they were enslaved by, and how long they were in Alabama. Information from later census can vary as to origins of parents noted across the Federal census.
The Civil War ended, and the passage of The Civil Rights Bill of 1866 and the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments offered up citizenship and the start of Reconstruction offered hope for change. Alabama Voter Registration records were created as a result of the Reconstruction Act passed on 23 March 1867. 
Just months later, as a free man, Haig Varner registered to vote in Marengo County in 1867, an arrangement made possible by the presence of Federal troops; King Varner also appears in Volume 13. Other Varners appear in another volume of Alabama voter registrations, with Henry Varner in Volume 11, Alfred Varner and Anthony Varner in Volume 7 .
Beyond the census, the total search results yield 16 Varners in Marengo County Alabama for the 1866 AL Register of Voters on Ancestry.com. The results are actually 8, as the page was shot twice on the microfilm:
Haig and Fannie Varner’s son, Richard ‘Dick’ Varner (1847-1920) took the opportunity to officiate his marriage vows, and have them recognized by the state on 25 March 1867. That they could marry and have their union officially recognized was also made possible by the Federal, rather than state government.
The Will of Samuel Varner, Marengo County, 1848
The names of some of these head of households—, Matilda Varner, Benton Varner also appear in the 1848 will of Samuel Varner, which I transcribed below. 22 enslaved people are listed. I found no appraisal documents online to determine age, but perhaps this post can help descendants locate further information. Another earlier will for John Varner contains the names of a smaller number of those he enslaved. Tharin’s Marengo County Directory for 1861 has three white Varner men living on M’Kinley: Benton Varner, mechanic, Ransom Varner, planter and James Varner “(deaf and dumb)” planter.
Note how the young girl Emely is selected to be an enslaved assistant for Varner’s mute children, so disability is yet another permanently assigned duty. Or were there additional services intended, given Varner’s words at the end of his will: “Should there be an increase in property before my death…”?
Will Record A, F291 Will of Samuel Varner 
Will of Samuel Varner, Decd
In the name of God [ ] I Samuel Varner of the county of Cahaba and the State of Mississippi, considering the certainly of life yet being of sound and perfect mind and memory do make and publish this my last will and testament making all others heretofore made no manner and form following (that is today). First I do give and bequeath to my two daughters Sara Bevel formerly Sarah Varner and Martha Lassater formerly Martha Varner the Sum of $2 each — Second I do give and bequeath to my Sons Joseph Varner, James Varner, John Varner also my said daughter Mahala Varner and Minerva Jane Whitley formerly Minerva Jane Varner the following and all Estate to wit one tract of land [Selnato?] lying and being in the County of Marengo in the State of Alabama, Consisting of one hundred and twenty acres, to wit — adjoining the now named Bevel tract of land which Said land the [Datoso?] road sent through the East corner of the same Also twenty two negroes to wit four negro men Nat. Ransom, Dave and Alfred & the following negro women and children, Emily and her six children to wit: Candis, Caroline, Norton, Emeline, Adaline and Mary Frances Courtney. Matilda and her two children, Levi and an infant girl[;] Fanny and her four children: Allen, Fairchild and Mariah and an infant and Mary and her child Spenser together with all my stock of every manner and description whatsoever with all my farming tools waggons carts plows and every manner of implement or thing needful and necessary for the carrying on the same and all my household and kitchen furniture Saving the beds and furniture with all monies, debts due to me owning in any manner or description whatsoever to have and to hold to my Said Children of the Second Bequest mention to them and items forever Subject to the following hereafter restrictions. I desire that when I depart this life that my remains be buried in a decent and Christian like manner and that all my just debts be paid before a division of my estate, and it is my desire that at my death the negro girl Emely shall belong to my daughter Mahala at her appraised value and shall answer So much to her portions of Said Estate in a final division, and it is my desire ^that Mahala have one bed and furniture and also James and Minerva Jane Whitely take the Same as Specific legacies and not come with a general division— and as my Sons Joseph Varner, James Varner, Mahala Varner are unfortunate being deaf and dumb and it being somewhat doubtful that no law whether they can take by the will. I do hereby constitute, nominate and appoint my son John Varner and my son in law Decator Whitely trustees for them and on their behalf to receive their intended portions of my estate for them & their use and benefit and in case one or both of said trustees should die or refuse to act then it wish that a proper count should be applied to competent to protect them and their property. – It is further my will and request that often deducting Specific Legacies and paying off funeral expenses & debts on a division of said Estate. Should any one depart this life without heirs the portions of said child it is my will should lapse in common to the equally divided will contained in the Second – bequest and it is further my will and request Should my life be Spared by providence and should there be an increase of property before my death, My desire is that it lapse in common to the equally divided with those contained in the Second bequest and in case of one’s death his share to his or her children — And I do lastly appoint John Varner and Decator Whitely Executors of my Estate in this my last will and Testament. Witness my hand and seal the 18 day of July 1848
Signed Samuel (his X) Varner, Seal, Signed Sealed and delivered
The Estate of James Varner, 1827
The earlier 1827 subdivision of “The Estate of James Varner” includes mention of a son also named Benton Varner and several minors. There was a writ for Letters of Administration and Lorian Tibbs, Elizabeth Moon with Wright Moor and Matilda Varner appear as heirs; Martha Lindsay was named as James Varner’s wife.
Four persons enslaved by this Varner family were:
.”.that there are slaves name by Nancy, Ben, Isom and Peter cannot legally be divided and on motion of the Administration it is therefore ordered, by the Court that an order of sale do to sell” 
As additional papers were not included in the court records, and as it is a collection which is not complete, additional documents may exist, dispersed across the Special Collections of colleges and universities. There are two collections that feature Varner family papers, one at James Madison University, and the other, Campbell and Varner family papers at Virginia Military Institute . From the overview and information provided here, perhaps an interested descendant can take it back further through a combination of research and DNA testing.
A call to the libraries can confirm if there is relevant material. For the Varners of VA, while it is said there was no ownership of enslaved people at Stony Man Creek, unlike the remaining areas of the district in 1860. Robert H Moore’s post “Page County’s Appleberry/ Applebury men in the USCT.” notes some 30 men who served in the United States Colored Troops were born in Page County. 
Click on the bold link to see the Finding Aids for each collection:
Varner Family Papers -1774-1933 SC 0129 – Page County, VA James Madison University:
“The Varner family of Page County, Virginia was of German descent, and their name appears as early as 1801 on records of the Antioch Christian Church near Stony Man Creek, Virginia… Despite wide-spread anti-liquor sentiment in the Shenandoah Valley in the nineteenth century, the Varners operated a distillery.”
Campbell and Varner Family papers MS-0282 – Lexington, VA Virginia Military Institute 
“Robert Henry Campbell of Lexington, VA; shoemaker; served with Rockbridge Rifles during Civil War (1861 only); discharged due to illness (tuberculosis); Clerk, Quartermaster and Treasurer at the Virginia Military Institute, 1864-1870; d. 1870, age 28, Lexington, VA.
Charles Van Buren Varner, b. Lexington, VA. 1838; served with Rockbridge Rifles during Civil War; cabinetmaker; carpenter at VMI; d. 1907, Lexington.
The families were related through the marriage of R. Henry’s sister, Augusta, to Charles V. Varner.”
Emanuel Montee McDuffie: from AL to NC
Mrs Della McDuffie’s husband, William ‘Snowball’ McDuffie’s uncle– Emanuel Montee McDuffie — was among the people that left Snow Hill, precisely because of the efforts of William J. Edwards. After graduating from Snow Hill Normal and Industrial Institute, like his mentor, he became Principal of the Normal and Industrial Institute in Laurinberg, North Carolina, where he lived the rest of his life, until his death in 1953. This is not to say he escaped experiencing or knowing the potential violence of Jim Crow. His photo is on the upper left of the group, and appears in William J. Edwards’ Twenty-Five Years in the Black Belt. (1919)
A Change is Gonna Come
I can think of no better way to end than to leave you with Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come. These posts were written to honor the resilience and the survival of these ancestors, and to help write them back into history. “The arc of history is long but it bends towards justice.”
“…There been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will”
William J. Edwards. Twenty-Five Years in the Black Belt. Electronic Edition, Documenting the American South.
“History”. Alabama 1867 Voter Registration Records Database. http://archives.alabama.gov/voterreg/index.cfm
These last eight weeks, Black ProGen Live panelists are researching the genealogies of people who died by lynching. Among the cases is that ofMrs Della McDuffie, who died almost 66 years to the day on 23 April 1953. Witnesses state that this resulted after being beaten to death with a length of industrial hose by Sheriff Percy Columbus ‘Lummie’ Jenkins and his staff during a raid of the small cafe she owned with her husband William McDuffie in Wilcox County, Alabama. She died within the hour. The supposed crime was playing music after midnight on the Sabbath.
The Trouble I’ve Seen
The Trouble I’ve Seen is a film produced at Northeastern University that includes interviews on three cold cases, the first, being that of Mrs. Della McDuffie.
In the film, Mrs. McDuffie’s nephew, JC Varner’s gives an account of the event:
“J.C. VARNER, Nephew: So he walked in and hit her told her get up old lady, go to bed. So she told him she couldn’t get up so he hit her across her arm on her knees, then he hit her on the head. And he shot down by her feet a couple of times, at her feet.
“WILLIAM MCDUFFIE: Doctor seen him striking at one person and another with a hose-like weapon. I saw a number hit with the weapon in Sheriff Jenkins hand. BOND: But Dr. Robert E. Dixon’s statement reads… DR. DIXON: I can definitely state that the cause of death was not brought on by any injury to the head, such as a blow. FIDDIMAN: This case essentially was a cover up and it never went to court. BOND: A year into the investigation, her husband William was found dead by his 2 grandchildren. WILLIAMS: I found my grandfather and it had appeared that he had been killed by way of drowning. They killed him because of the intensity of this investigation. They tried to get him to change his mind and change his statements like everyone else did. He refused to do that. And they took care of it. “T
The High Cost of Inequality
Wilcox County is one of the poorest counties in the country, beset by “high unemployment, poor access to education and medical care, substandard housing and high rates of crime.”  Despite a population comprised of African Americans in the majority, voter suppression tactics facilitated a continued disenfranchisement. That is not to say there is no strength and beauty in the resilient lives there. The spaces for these ancestors opens as their stories are written back into history.
It’s a largely rural county, with cotton farming shaping its history within the state’s Black Belt. Rather than state or interstate highways, a network of county roads connect the county to other areas. You may have heard of Wilcox County, as it’s also home to Gee’s Bend, home of the women’s quilting collective.  Its legacy of slavery, sharecropping and tenant farming is a testament to extractive economies that leaves next to nothing for the majority of the population that made its fortunes. That same dynamic bleeds into the present.
Today, Alabama’s Black Belt is home to toxic landfill sites that dot these predominantly African American counties, continuing the disregard for the descendants of those who tilled that land in cotton cultivation before and after the Civil War.
The Why: Restorative Justice
Beyond the civil rights stolen from Mrs. McDuffie, there is a need to see more than this moment, and so we bring our skills to expand their family trees and tell other stories about those who came before them. I’ll bring together some of what I learned about her ancestors, before turning to contemporary issues involving the threat of erasure.
An issue with lynching is the potential for the carnage to occlude recognition of this violence as not only systemic, but ingrained into a community’s institutions. Is there a recognition that there’s a parallel between this past and the people who were accounted for under Congress’ Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013? 
Is there a recognition of the parallels between now and Reconstruction in the sweeping attempts at voter suppression across several states? Can laws that disproportionately affect those living in poverty help rather than set people up for prison in a system that is the 21st century version of a debt peonage system? How do we heal from this— on a familial, interpersonal, social and institutional levels? With 2.4 million prisoners in the US means a high chance this is part of your family history too. These accounts are part of the process of restorative justice.
Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project
One important way to do this work is through newspaper research, seeking coverage that can supply details for the initial steps of genealogical records search. Thankfully, there are the case files by Northeastern University School of Law’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project led by Professor Margaret Durham. The video, The Trouble I’ve Seen, includes the law student, Bayliss Fiddiman, who worked on the McDuffie case and family members speaking to their experiences.
These cases, available on the Northeastern University website, are basically the cold case files that law students research and compile to begin a process of restoration and recognition. Through them, the families are contacted, files requested from Federal and state agencies and a review of the material conducted towards a process of restorative justice. How this outcome manifests depends on the community’s needs and resources marshaled for address and memorialization.
Ultimately this recognition serves to confirm and establish the events of racial terror that happened, a counter to the silence and denial that surrounds acts of lynching. What happened to the McDuffie family happened to almost five thousand people in this country who died at the hands of white lynch mobs.
The denial of events was buttressed by the denial of civil rights and the ability to vote. A decade after Mrs. McDuffie’s death in 1953, not a single African American was registered to vote in Wilcox County Alabama, despite being in the majority of the population there. When Civil Rights groups peacefully marched over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Sheriff Lummie Jenkins was there to turn the marchers back as police attacked with dogs, tear gas and smoke bombs. 
An Active Erasure: 1953-2019
A search on Newspapers .com gives 184 results for Sheriff or PC Lummie Jenkins, yet there are no search results for Mrs. Della McDuffie, the woman he allegedly beat to death in 1953, or her husband, William McDuffie. According to the article’s prominent headline in The New York Age, the FBI was investigating the case.
Yet the divide that splits into acknowledgement and disregard during those years also has its resonance in the failure to index her name into their database. Perhaps this is most starkly illustrated by screenshots of the article shown here.
The results are starkly different when searching for “Della McDuffie”:
In these articles, the Sheriff’s name appears just one line above hers, yet there is not a single search result for Della McDuffie- despite the headline “FBI Probe Murder of Ala. Woman” — which specifically references McDuffie’s murder. As these two images show, a page search brings up one name, yet not the other. A year later, her husband was drowned and left lying across the doorway of their home, having refused to change his story about how his wife died from the beating given during the raid. The indignity is compounded by their death certificates, which read that they died from cerebral hemorrhage.
How exactly are newspapers indexed? Is this an algorithm, and if so, what are the parameters?
If we have ancestors who suffered injustice, how then, is one supposed to find that information on this site?
It seems much like the US itself, Newspapers.com is in need of revisiting such events and address how they are indexed, especially as we are tasked to find and write our ancestors and families back into history.
Sheriff Jenkins has a long history in Wilcox County, serving as Sheriff from 1939-1971, using racial terror as power. One memory of Jenkins suggests what kind of person he was: “When I ask Lola Pettway, 77, if she remembers Lummie Jenkins, she recoils and shudders. She shares a memory of Sheriff Lummie standing at the edge of a field, watching her family pick cotton. Nancy Pettway, 83, tells me about how, just before she was married, her fiancé shot a dog that had attacked him. Mr. Lummie, she said, came to the Bend, arrested her fiancé, and threw him in jail for killing the dog….he was not an anomaly in the Jim Crow South, where sheriffs were considered more powerful than the American president. ” See Alexandra Marvar’s “The Two Faces of Lummie Jenkins”. Topic Magazine, https://www.topic.com/the-two-faces-of-lummie-jenkins
“The Trouble I’ve Seen” Campus Perspectives, New York, NY: NBC Universal, 01/22/2013. Accessed Sat May 30 2015 from NBC Learn: https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=65676
“Gee’s Bend residents also remember Dr. King’s visits in 1965, the rallies in Camden, and the march on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. They remember marching to Camden as children and teenagers, being blockaded by Lummie and Mayor F. R. Albritton at the town’s edge, being pummeled with tear gas and smoke bombs, getting arrested, reaching the courthouse, kneeling in the street, and refusing to leave. They remember the songs they sang. Some remember what happened to David Colston, what happened to Della McDuffie. Some would rather not remember that time at all.” Marvar, “The Two Faces of Lummie Jenkins.” Topic Magazine, https://www.topic.com/the-two-faces-of-lummie-jenkins
I recently discovered the podcast Uncivil (Gimlet Media) in searching for significant events for discussion on the upcoming episode of Black ProGen Live. Right now, Uncivil consists of 10 episodes so far, spanning different episodes in nineteenth century US Civil War history The latest show ( Ep. 10 podcast, released 27 December 2017) dealt with the myth of the Black Confederate soldier.
Uncivil is hosted by Chenjerai Kumanyika, author, journalist, and professor of journalism and communications at Rutgers University, and Jack Hitt, a Peabody Award-winning journalist, author and radio producer. The programs intend to bring “stories that were left out of the official history of the Civil War, ransacks America’s past and takes on the history you grew up with.” Indeed, we need these reexaminations, and it’s great to have this material available to think with.
The trajectory of this particular story followed an arc that began with unpacking of historical knowledge via a young caller to the show, and culminates with the descendants of Silas Chandler (1 Jan 1837-Sept 1919). They discovered their ancestor being discussed in a photograph brought to Antiques Roadshow in 2009. During the program, the moment to explain enslavement was lost, the myth took over, leading to a division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans placing a metal cross on his grave in Mississippi, and stealing Silas Chandler’s image by reproducing it on various surfaces from t-shirts to films, prints and photos all proclaiming this evidence of participation.
The Weight of Images & Problematic Histories
The photograph is a tintype, and close up, its surface reveals a cracked emulsion with an ornate copper colored metal edge. Notable details are the position of the two men, side by side, visually composed to emphasize their inequality. The younger Andrew Chandler’s hips were elevated to lend height well above Silas, whose seat is tilted back at the hips to make him seem shorter than his slave owner’s. To read Silas’ smile is to read a face weary of waiting for a moment, if not the war and slavery itself, to be over.
Sites that proclaim that they have ‘evidence’ of Black Confederate soldiers, and one features a painting of a Civil War battlefield, no location just a battle scene. Just off center, is a kneeling black man holding the head of a white man wearing the gray uniform of the South. The military serviceman is injured and bleeding into a large handkerchief. It’s white surface creates an area that visually marks and makes central for the viewer, the tableau with a enslaved adult man at the center. He has no arms no gun, no rifle, he simply serves and tends to the white master, an ideological composition that seeks to deny historical reality by providing a romanticized tableau. This same idea was extended to the photograph, a plain effort to define Silas Chandler as a soldier. He was not.
As Myra Chandler Sampson (Silas Chandler’s great-granddaughter) and Kevin M Levin note, “Interest in Silas’ military career has been fueled by a desire to affirm that Southern blacks were just as eager as whites to fight back against the invaders— an attempt to validate the belief that the war did not ignite over slavery but over predatory Northern acts.” They go on to ask: So what role did Silas really play in the war, and why did he choose to fight for the South—if he actually did? One thing is clear: Ever since the SCV posthumously ‘honored’ Silas, an enslaved body servant who accompanied his white master into service, accounts of black Confederate troops have surged in popularity, with some now claiming that upwards of 100,000 blacks fought willingly in Southern ranks.
While there were a small number of enslaved black men who served in the Confederacy, but they comprised less than 1% of those who served. A 2015 article in The Root, goes into further details about this controversy. In a nutshell: “How many supported it? No one knows precisely. But by drawing on these scholars and focusing on sources written or published during the war, I estimate that between 3,000 and 6,000 served as Confederate soldiers. Another 100,000 or so blacks, mostly slaves, supported the Confederacy as laborers, servants and teamsters. They built roads, batteries and fortifications; manned munitions factories—essentially did the Confederacy’s dirty work.” Note that African Americans were unable to enlist in the Confederacy until an order was issued in March 1865, the last month of the war. In contrast, almost 187,000 African Americans joined the Union Army over the course of the war, with numbers rising for the last two years.
Details That Matter: The move towards freedom
Why does the story matter? Because this was a myth fed to fourth grade children in social studies texts and museum exhibits organized by descendants of the confederacy. There’s potential for these scenarios to be incorporated and disseminated into some family histories and genealogies, effectively casting the shadow of confederate myth over a lineage while declaring a white nationalist identity.
Silas was born into slavery on 1 January 1837 in Virginia and two years later, his slaveholder, Roy Chandler moved him and 39 other enslaved people along with the Chandler family to Palo Alto in Clay County, Mississippi. As an adult, once freed, Silas kept his owner’s surname.
Roy Chandler claimed a land grant after an 1831 treaty that displaced thousands of American Indian peoples in the area, and gave white settlers some 11 million acres of state land. Silas became the body servant to Roy Chandler’s son, Andrew born in 1844. Silas sits alongside Sergeant Andrew Chandler, the white man in uniform in the photograph. Yet the fear of armed black men ran rife through the Confederacy, and they supplied no guns, nor permitted combat roles for African Americans until the final weeks of the war; add the fact that thousands of African Americans were supportive of the North, to the point of escaping to Federal lines, and the desperation to legitimize the myth of participation becomes evident.
Silas weighed his situation, and “likely gained even more freedom of movement when Andrew was wounded and captured at Shiloh in April 1862 and imprisoned… Deemed human property he was legally bound to Andrew.” Although Silas returned and helped his master return home after injuries at the Battle of Chickamauga. Extant correspondence shows Silas’ return would be to his wife and newborn child. Silas served again in 1864, going with Andrew’s younger brother Benjamin, who served in the 9th Mississippi Calvary.
Why Silas Chandler’s Story Matters
Silas Chandler was a carpenter and helped found the first black church, Mount Hermon Baptist Church in West Point, Mississippi. He married Lucy Garvin about 1860, “daughter of a house slave named Polly and an unnamed plantation owner.” They had 12 children, 5 who survived to adulthood, and one son was the great-grandfather of Myra Chandler Sampson. Silas lived to appear in the 1910 US Federal Census, where a glimpse of the life he built with his wife Lucy can be seen, some nine years before he died. In contrast, Palo Alto, MI, where he first lived in bondage, became a ghost town. It’s worth noting that the Wikipedia article on Palo Alto mentions that “In 1876, Palo Alto was the site of an incident in which a group of heavily armed white men brought a piece of field artillery and broke up a meeting of the Republican Club in order to suppress black voters.” This is just one of myriad examples of retaliation committed against people of African descent that numerous whites committed after Reconstruction and the passage of ‘black codes’ in 1865 and 1866. Despite their efforts, Silas Chandler raised his family and contributed to his community.
What I appreciate about the Uncivil podcast is the content, and the website’s clear layout and availability of transcripts, allowing one to easily search for subjects. As an adjunct to genealogical study, it helps bring to the table some of the issues that POC genealogists and their families face when working on family lines that head straight into terrain already complicated by locating material. Understanding documentary context helps with document analysis, and depending on one’s location, its easy to see how details can be used and misused to serve very different needs. Hearing voices waver, be insistent, vulnerable or firm, reminds one that this history still matters enormously. The events in Charlottesville last summer speaks to the urgency of projects that seek to unpack the historical pain and experience of those populations born or taken into slavery who made this country possible from its inception, and this foundational fact can no longer be ignored. We are still navigating this past.
In this case, the attempt to hijack family history for an ideological purpose was foiled, precisely because these descendants pressed on to tell their stories, writing, broadcasting and, Myra Chandler Sampson continues to speak truth to power. May we all find the strength to bring our ancestors into the light.