Genealogics

a tree-rific journey into family history

Strange Fruit: the killing of Jackson Rice

(The title of this post comes from the 1939 Billie Holiday song)

I have spent the last several months serving on a reunion planning committee for a branch of my wife’s family. To aid with my work on the family history, a cousin loaned me a tape of a deceased relative in 1998 discussing our heritage. The interview was full of great oral history and details about my wife’s lineage. Toward the end, the lady on the tape mentions hearing that my wife’s great-great grandfather, Jackson Rice, was hung in my wife’s hometown for talking to or whistling at a white woman. I had been studying this family for several years and had never heard this. In fact, I was not even certain this ancestor had made it to Arkansas from South Carolina. My wife was not familiar with the account either. I did find some older relatives who confirmed hearing the same story (one even claiming to know the spot where he was hung from a bale of cotton), but they were understandably unsure of the details (when? why? who? how?). The story sounded almost too cliché to be real, but I knew such a lynching in that time was a very real possibility. (For more information on the racial tension, political conspiracy, and general disregard for human life in Conway County during the second half of the 19th century, read Who Killed John Clayton: Political Violence and the Emergence of the New South, 1861-1893 by Kenneth Barnes)

The definition of lynching varies a bit, but it usually includes killing someone illegally as a punishment. A group or mob without any legal authority executes someone for a transgression. America has a long history of lynching, and this form of “justice” was popular in the Old West and in the South. Most records of lynching from the Civil War until the 20th century involve African-Americans in the South. Thousands of blacks were killed to enforce the disenfranchisement and intimidation brought on by Jim Crow laws. These events may seem like sudden, angry mob outbursts, but this terrorism was often pre-planned, advertised, well-attended, and photographed. In fact, lynching postcards and photographs were popularly circulated items in the early twentieth century. As a genealogist or family historian, one is at a disadvantage when researching older lynchings.  These crimes rarely involved anyone being brought to justice. Death certificates were not widely utilized in Arkansas until 1914. In much of the South, black deaths and their names did not regularly appear in white newspapers. Corroborating this story was going to be a bit of work.

Jackson Rice, the grandfather of my wife’s grandfather, was born (presumably into slavery) in South Carolina around 1835. Like many African-Americans in the South, few (if any) records exist of him before the Civil War. After emancipation, he can be found in Laurens County in the 1870 and 1880 censuses with his wife Rose Etta Fuller and their ten children. Unfortunately, the 1890 census was destroyed, and neither Jackson Rice nor his wife appears in the Arkansas or South Carolina in the 1900 census. Three of their daughters appear in Conway County, Arkansas  records in the early 1890s, but I was not yet certain if the parents had made the trip. Because his teenage daughters all married between 1890-1893, I decided my best bet would be to search local newspapers from that period. Lynchings were a popular activity, and there was a chance one would be recorded. The Arkansas History Commission in Little Rock holds the Morrilton Pilot on microfilm from that time, but with no index available, I had to search manually through years of pages. When I was just about to quit and go home, I came across the headline: A Negro Hung. After describing in detail the condition of the body, the writer adds almost as an afterthought “The negroe’s name was Rrice.” Sure enough, it was our ancestor.

Rice daughters

Jackson and Rose Etta Rice’s youngest daughters were teens when their father was killed and hung from a tree in rural Conway County, Arkansas. (l-r) Mamie Rice Hawkins Hammons (1876-1947), Gussie Minnie Rice Garlington (1873-1953), and Savannah Rice Gaines Luie Alexander (1874-1976)


Much of the attraction to genealogy and family history is seeing your own family woven into the greater historical narrative. Jackson Rice lived through 30 years of slavery, and around age 50, he moved west seeking a better life in Arkansas with his family. Instead, he was met with the same prejudice and violence. This sort of treatment is one factor that led many African-Americans out of the South in the early 20th century (see: The Great Migration) Two of his daughters pictured above moved away from the area their father was killed in; one landed in Milwaukee and the other in Kansas City. At least one child remained, and thus my wife grew up in the same small community her ancestor was murdered in (perhaps living amongst descendants of his killers). Researchers enjoy connecting our families to important times and events in history, and no family story is without its own tragedy and suffering. What makes lynching give us pause is the reminder that just a few generations ago in our country, African-Americans were second-class citizens who could be killed without any real cause or consequence. While the exact circumstances and details of his death cannot be known, there seems little doubt that his race was a key factor in the crime and its lack of justice. While injustice in the legal system and ugly prejudices still exist, I hope that we have found that better life people like Jackson Rice sought after. Let us not forget the struggles and sacrifices our ancestors endured to create the world in which we now live.

Rice Newspaper1

The Pilot (Morrilton, AR) November 18, 1891

Matthew Hawkins: homesteading in Springfield, Arkansas

I recently dropped a little money and ordered an ancestor’s land patent file from the National Archives and Record Administration in Washington, DC. The Homestead Acts provided acreage to heads-of-house who were willing to settle and improve  federally held land. A few of my wife’s ancestors, including her great-grandfather Matthew Hawkins, received such land grants in the 1890s to settle Conway County, Arkansas. The National Archives told me to expect my order in 60-90 days, but I was surprised to find his 32-page file in my mailbox in less than two weeks.

The Homestead file provides a unique glimpse into the lives of the settlers. I know now that Matthew Hawkins moved to Springfield, Arkansas on January 12, 1883 to work his 160 acres. I have descriptions (see below) of the crops he raised each year before receiving the grant in 1890.  The documents describe in detail the structures Matthew Hawkins built on the property, including even the furniture (see below). The file also includes signed testimonies from two neighbors describing his land and their relationship to him. One of these neighbors was Randal Tyus (see below), a brother-in-law and fellow transplant from Haywood County, Tennessee. The account records how Matthew Hawkins cleared 30 acres for farming and that the remaining land was timber. Perhaps only a photograph could give me a better impression of stepping onto an ancestor’s 1890 farmland. Unfortunately (but not uncommonly), Matthew Hawkins would mortgage much of the land some 30 years later and ultimately lose it.

An example of the questions Matthew Hawkins answered on his land grant paperwork.

An example of the questions Matthew Hawkins answered on his land grant paperwork.

Details regarding the crops he planted while qualifying for his land.

Details regarding the crops Matthew Hawkins planted while qualifying for his land.

Randal Tyus (1848-1910) served as a witness on his brother-in-law's final application, and the paperwork reveals that he was also one of three men who helped Matthew Hawkins (1858-1922) build a home on the property.

Randal Tyus (1848-1910) served as a witness on his brother-in-law’s final application, and the paperwork reveals that he was also one of three men who helped Matthew Hawkins (1858-1922) build a home on the property.

Wiley Thomas Childers: a confusing Confederate

Wiley Thomas Childers

One of my two pictures of Wiley Thomas Childers. This photo was uploaded to ancestry.com by user ChadWalker67, who also has some awesome family Bible photos of the Childers family.

Like many Americans, I had ancestors fighting on both sides of the Civil War (and Revolutionary War, but that’s another story). One of my Confederates was Wiley Thomas Childers (1847-1901). My great-great-great grandfather appears in Alabama on US census records in Talladega, Marshall, Clay, and Morgan counties between 1850 and 1900. He and his second wife, Nancy Susan Windsor (1857-1939), left Morgan County and moved to Texas in December 1900. Ancestry.com lists a WT Children who served in Hardie’s Reserve Calvary, a unit which saw action in Georgia and Alabama (including Talladega) from 1864-1865. So I assumed this was my ancestor’s war record… until I saw the Widow’s Application for Confederate Pension that Nancy filled out!

Pension records are great sources of information!

Pension records are great sources of information!

“He enlisted as a Private in Company H, 53rd, Regiment Georgia Infantry May 5, 1862 at Zebulon, Ga. Was taken prison Dec 3, 1863 Near Knoxville Tenn, imprisoned at Rock Island Baracks, Rock Island Ill. Released June 17, 1865.”

53rd Regiment of Georgia Infantry?? Prisoner at Rock Island from 1863-1865?? My ancestors are awesome, but they cannot be in two places at once. There must be some bad information somewhere. This new guy sounds more exciting, and I would hope his  own widow would know the correct information when she applied. The most logical explanation would be two guys with the same name serving in the war. I found a new Wiley T. Childers who lived in Pike County, Georgia (where the 53rd was formed). It appears that either my ancestor just happened to enroll 120 miles from home where another Wiley T. Childers lived, or my ancestor’s wife unintentionally(?) used the Confederate service record for the wrong Wiley Thomas Childers when she applied in 1932. Either way, I have some more research to do!

Boston Morris: asleep in Jessus

It reads: "Boston Moris Born  Feb 1 1832 Died  Jan 1 1895 Asleep In Jessus  From Which Man Never Wakes To Weep" This photograph cuts off the finger pointing upward. The grave is beneath a pine tree as suggested by the pine needles on the ground.

It reads:
“Boston Moris
Born
Feb 1 1832
Died
Jan 1 1895
Asleep In Jessus
From Which Man
Never Wakes To
Weep”
This photograph cuts off the image of a finger pointing upward. The grave is beneath a pine tree as suggested by the pine needles on the ground.

Boston Morris (1832-1895), my wife’s great-great-great grandfather, lies beneath the oldest remaining grave marker at the Mt. Zion Cemetery. Mt. Zion Methodist Church sits on the foot of Morris Mountain in Center Ridge, Arkansas. The mountain was primarily settled by the interconnected descendants of Boston Morris and Henry Morris (1843-1918). The Friendship Baptist Church atop the mountain was founded by Henry’s family while Boston was an early member down the hill at Mt. Zion. These African-American families came to Conway County, Arkansas from Franklin County, Georgia in the 1880s.

Boston Morris is the son of Hannah Dumas. On the 1880 census for Carnesville, Georgia, she is listed as 100 years old and her occupation is “spins on wheel.” So much for retirement! Boston Morris married Huldey Annie Sloan (1838-1915?) while in Georgia, and they raised nine known children: Ella Morris Dooley, James Morris, Mary Morris, Rosa Ann Morris Freeman Clinkscale, Francis E. “Fannie” Morris Morris, Peter Morris, John B. “Big Bud” Morris, Arenda P. Morris Dooley, and Robert Wheeler “Little Bud” Morris. No known pictures exist of Boston or Huldey Annie Sloan Morris, but I have included two of their children.

Some early ladies of Friendship Church. Francis E. Morris Morris, Boston's daughter, is pictured in the middle of the back row. Fannie (born 1864) married Robert Fulton Morris, a son of the Henry Morris (1863-1910) mentioned in the post.

Some early ladies of Friendship Church. Francis E. Morris Morris, Boston’s daughter, is pictured in the middle of the back row. Fannie (born 1864) married Robert Fulton Morris, a son of the Henry Morris (1863-1910) mentioned in the post.

John "Big Bud" Morris (1870-1929?) married Cora Lee Tyus (pictured here, born 1876) in 1892 and had six known children. After her death, he married Bertha Pearl McCoy (born 1891) in 1909, and the couple had eight children together before his death.

John “Big Bud” Morris (1870-1929?) married Cora Lee Tyus (pictured here, born 1876) in 1892 and had six known children. After her death, he married Bertha Pearl McCoy (born 1891) in 1909, and the couple had eight children together before his death.

Related posts:

A Short History of the African-American Settlers at Center Ridge, Arkansas

Rosie Morris: starting over in Conway County, Arkansas

Isaac Van “Dock” Brown and Caledonia Jones: Happy 142nd Anniversary!

Happy 142nd anniversary to my great-great-great grandparents, Isaac Van Brown and Caledonia Jones!

dockandcaldonia

Isaac Van Brown was born September 18, 1847 in Alabama to James Brown and Morelda Zurilla Wilson.

Dock

Caledonia Jones was born in Morgan County Alabama in 1853 to Solomon P. Jones and Paralee Jennings. Isaac (known as Dock) and Caledonia married on June 1, 1871 in Morgan County, Alabama.

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Together, they had ten children. After Caledonia’s death in 1891, Dock purchased 158 acres of land at Brown’s Point. He was a farmer and dealer in herbal medicine.  Each of their ten children remained in the area, and a large remnant can be found there today. Isaac and Caledonia are interred at Old New Canaan Cemetery.

IsaacCal3kids

The Importance of Oral Histories in Genealogy and Family History: give grandma a call

One of the most enjoyable and important aspects of family history is collecting stories from family members. For many, these stories are what initially interested us in family history.  Genealogies tend to focus on names and dates, but oral traditions add flesh to the skeleton. Parts of the stories can be verified or disproved with thorough research. Even the unconfirmed aspects can still make awesome writing.

I have heard a few genealogists use the quotation: “Every time an old person dies, a library burns to the ground.” In other words, there is a vast amount of unique and important information in each old person (and even young ones). For example, my wife’s grandmother will be 94 years old this year and has been in the same community her entire life. She can recall people and events that possibly no other living person can. We should get everything we can from these sources.

Of course, the actual interviewing is not always easy. I suggest doing your homework first, and if possible, give the person some time to prepare for your conversation. Still, some of the best recollections come in casual, impromptu chatting. Sometimes a natural, unforced conversation is more productive. Try to guide the discussion without leading it too much. Or just shut up and listen. The key is not being afraid to ask questions. Write letters. Ask for pictures. Call distant relatives. E-mail other researchers. You’ll never find this stuff is you do not seek it.

When my grandmother was young, her grandmother (my great-great grandmother pictured below) told her a story about her own grandfather (my 4x great pictured below). Since my grandmother shared this story with me last year, the story has now spanned seven generations in only two conversations. James Goodloe Woods (1823-1895) was a Primitive Baptist minister who practiced and preached abstinence from alcohol consumption. When Elder Woods became very ill, he was forced to consume alcohol to medicate his pain (the story does not mention it, but they actually lived near the Jack Daniels Distillery). Rather than live in hypocrisy or alter his beliefs, Elder Woods resigned from the ministry until he recovered from the illness (at which time I assume he traded the bottle back in for a Bible). I doubt any historical record exists that could have provided these details. This interesting, amusing, and revealing story survives today because people listened to their grandmothers.

He practiced what he preached, and when he did not practice it, he did not preach.

He practiced what he preached, and when he did not practice it, he did not preach.

Other stories about my great-great grandmother, Pearle F. Woods Holman (1879-1975) include her bragging about never washing a single dish and also one where her steering wheel disconnected. She just pretended to keep driving rather than admit the error. I don't think cars went very fast then anyway...

Other stories about my great-great grandmother, Pearle F. Woods Holman (1879-1975), include her bragging about never washing a single dish in her entire life and also one where her steering wheel disconnected. She just pretended to keep driving rather than admit the error. I don’t think cars went very fast back then anyway…

The Agony and Mystique of Unknown Photographs: awesome old pictures included!

Pictures are one of the most exciting and sentimental parts of family history.  An old photograph or sketch of an ancestor can bring to life their time period and their humanity. Unfortunately, many of these treasured documents fail to tell us who we are looking at. Although I appreciate the mysteriousness of an unknown or unidentified picture, I would much rather know how I am connected to the subject. The most obvious hint comes from the photo’s source. You can gather some clues about the potential identity if you know who the photo once belonged to. In older photos, the names of the photographers and their city may be printed on the back. You may even think you recognize features that relate to known images. Unfortunately, none of these are absolute or anything more than educated guesses. In genealogy, we try to base our conclusions on more than just good guesses.

Below are samples from two batches of unknown photos. The first batch came from my great-great grandmother, Pearle Feeney Woods Holman (1879-1975). When she passed at 95 years of age, she left behind about 60 wonderful old family photos. The newest pictures appear to be the 1930s. The older items went back to the old daguerreotype prints of the 1800s. The only labels were for her father and for the family dog. Within a few years of her death, her only child and her remaining sisters passed away. By the time I began doing family tree research, there was no one left to identify these relatives. A couple of photos involving young girls were printed in Seattle which suggests they are of her sister’s family. The rest are a mystery. I assume the unknown pictures belong to either her family or her husband’s. Based on their parents’ names, these pictures are likely from the Feeney, Holman, Landess, and Woods families of Lincoln County, Tennessee. I sent copies to a genealogy society in the area, but no one was able to identify my people.

The second group of photographs recently came to me from my wife’s third cousin via his daughter in law on ancestry.com. Simply put, this man’s great grandmother and my wife’s great grandfather were siblings. Unfortunately, their branch left rural Conway County, Arkansas for the bright lights of Kansas City some 70 or so years ago. The twenty or so unidentified pictures came down through his mother, Cora Lee Govan Hayes (1926-1986). He seems certain the pictures are from his mother’s Arkansas roots. Her grandparents belonged to the Brockman, Clinkscale, Govan, and Tyus families of Center Ridge, Arkansas. Although there are some older people left in the community who remember Cora Govan’s parents and grandparents, their eyes and minds are not what they used to be. What a great reminder of the importance of labeling old photographs…

Maybe someday we will know the identities of these family members!

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Hayespics_0003 Hayespics_0094

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Local Genealogy Societies Are Still Useful in Internet Age: my experiences at the Conway County Genealogical Society

Long before the World Wide Web, family historians developed genealogy societies to network and collaborate with other local researchers and hobbyists. Like the actual resources, these groups often formed based on county and state boundaries. The organizations collected data, published books, operated research libraries, distributed newsletters, and sharpened the skills of their members. The local genealogy clubs were experts on family histories in their area.

As technology advanced, family history records became widely available online. Social networking sites and genealogy sites made connecting, learning, and strategizing more accessible than ever before. Local genealogy organizations may seem antiquated, but they are as important as ever in the Internet Age. As more and more people seek out their roots, these local experts are vital in gathering and distributing information.

When I first began my family tree research, I discovered both sides of my wife’s family had lived in Conway County, Arkansas for 130 years. Although we do not live there, I soon found myself spending time at the local courthouse and their genealogy library. The Conway County Genealogy Library is operated by volunteers from the Conway County Genealogical Society (CCGS) and is part of a local museum in the downtown train depot. The Depot Museum is operated by the Conway County Historical Preservation Association (CCHPA). After one meeting, I became a member of the Conway County Genealogical Society, and later served as secretary and now president for 2013.

The Conway County Genealogical Society has our library and meetings in the Depot Museum. This picture is from our website (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~arccga/index.htm), but if you visit the website, please remember we are all volunteers.

The Conway County Genealogical Society has our library and meetings in the Depot Museum. This picture is from our website (http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~arccga/index.htm), but if you visit the website, please remember we are all volunteers.

The CCGS holds monthly meetings, and each meeting features a program. Program topics often include guest speakers, research methods, local history, and the popular show-and-tell. There is also an annual potluck. Our organization publishes books on local cemeteries, Civil War veterans, and various research topics.  We also produce a monthly newsletter with the CCHPA. In August, the CCGS hosts an annual Ancestor Fair where local researchers help people get started on their family trees. The Ancestor Fair also includes book sales, door prizes, and various exhibits.

Sometimes local researchers have access to information that you just won't find online.

Sometimes local researchers have access to information that you just won’t find online.

In addition to opportunities to work on local projects, the organization provides a chance for like-minded genealogists to come together and amuse one another with endless family history banter. That’s probably the best part.

The Woods Family Bible: a rare glimpse into the longings of the long-gone

As my dry skin and chilly toes remind me, we are well into the winter months now. I enjoy the uniqueness of each season, but my mind is already anticipating a romanticized version of springtime. According to a drawing in an old Bible, I’m not the first person in my family tree to daydream of a little cabin by a river in the woods.

Woods Bible

The Woods Family Bible

An old family Bible can be a family historian’s dream come true. I know other researchers have hit the genealogy jackpot with loads of family history recorded on the old brown pages of such an heirloom. I suspect the Woods family Bible comes from the late 1870s so you can imagine my excitement when I first opened its pages.

WilliamEWoods

Notice the Bible is engraved for Mr. and Mrs. W.E. Woods. This is the mister.

Unfortunately my 3x great grandparents, William Ed Woods (1851-1889) and Belle Feeney Woods (1854-1943), of Lincoln County, Tennessee did not take the time to record their history therein. Someone included several old pictures in the back without any labels. William Ed Woods’s father, James Goodloe Woods, was a minister in the Primitive Baptist Church.  Their daughter, Pearle Feeney Woods Holman (1875-1975), held the Bible for years but also failed to label the pictures or record any data about our heritage. Although I was impressed by the photographs and name engraving on the cover, I found the best artifact folded up inside the crumbling pages.

I wonder if it still exists. Or if it ever did...

Drawings were a bit different before computers…

The writing below the sketch reads “Spring House, River + Bridge from Up Riverside.” I can’t make out the initials and have no idea if this spring home even existed, but a chilly night like tonight has me longing to cross that little wooden bridge to my springtime cabin in the woods…

Watch Night: reflections on 150 years of freedom

Tomorrow night, December 31, 2012, marks 150 years since Freedom’s Eve was celebrated throughout the American South. Although the last night of 1862 was not the first time someone held a church service until midnight, that particular New Year’s Eve marked a special moment for some 3 million slaves. President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would go into effect January 1, 1863 and free the enslaved black families of the rebelling Confederate states. Many African-American churches hold Watch Night Services on the last night of the year to worship God and commemorate the New Year’s Eve night their ancestors waited up to see if freedom would come. Although it would be a couple of years until all American slaves were free and more than a century until the black American realized true equality (particularly in the South), January 1, 1863 still stands as perhaps the single most notable day in the African descendants’ struggle for liberty.

As a genealogy hobbyist, I study the records our ancestors left in order to learn their story. For the American slave, few documents exist prior to emancipation. My wife’s relatives – the ancestors of my future children and grandchildren – were held as slaves in Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Some may have attended Watch Night services similar to those still held in our community today. As I reflect on 150 years of freedom for African-Americans, I try to envision those families on Freedom’s Eve. On a long night of great uncertainty and anticipation, these men and women turned to their faith for strength and hope. As with all of our ancestors, I am grateful for the obstacles they endured to provide us with the opportunities of today. I find comfort in hoping that the life we will live in 2013 is the answer to those prayers 150 years ago.

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