Friday, February 9, 2018

Hidden Cemeteries

A road trip back to visit family usually involves a trek to the cemeteries where long ago generations lie, awaiting attention from their descendants.  Flowers are laid, photos taken, silent prayers uttered.

Marker for great aunt Marion Kitchens (1923-1944), Friendship (McKamie) Community Cemetery, Columbia County, Arkansas 

These best laid plans work great when you know where the cemetery is.  But what if the cemetery listed on the death certificate or in the obituary or in the funeral program seems to have vanished off the face of the earth, or worse, never seemed to have existed at all?

While attending a family reunion in Columbia County, Arkansas, my cousins and I made sure to visit Friendship Community Cemetery near the church where our fathers and grandparents worshipped and played.  We also visited Mount Zion African American Cemetery, where other elders had wanted to be buried with generations of their elders.  At Friendship, I said a prayer over my grandmother Zada Kitchens Robinson's grave, marked simply with a concrete stone from which tin letters had mostly fallen away.

A month after visiting Friendship Cemetery, this weathered concrete stone marking my paternal grandmother's grave was replaced with a true granite marker, engraved with her name, birth year, and death year.

I also wanted to visit the graves of other ancestors interred in cemeteries I've never visited. Topping my list were Smith African American Cemetery (Waldo) where my paternal 2nd great-grandmother Adline Dancer Chambers and several of her children and their families lay, and the Saint James Cemetery, the final resting place for Ardie Chambers Robertson Stringer, Adline's daughter and my paternal great-grandmother.  Ardie's death certificate shows that she died in January 1932 and was buried in Saint James.  Her mother Adline's death certificate shows she passed September 1940 and was buried in Smith.

Smith African American Cemetery was an easy find, located adjacent to the Waldo Cemetery (virtually an exclusive white cemetery) along one of the main roads between Magnolia and Waldo.  It had no sign of its own, but once there, I found it easy to navigate the bucolic setting.  Unfortunately, the previous day's thunderstorms softened and muddied the grounds, limiting access to the full cemetery.  I never found Adline's grave marker which is among the markers catalogued in 

In sharp contrast, Saint James Cemetery seemed to be a figment of my imagination, despite its listing on my grandmother's death certificate.  Repeated Google searches for the cemetery came up empty.  Neither ArkansasGravestones nor Findagrave nor BillionGraves included the cemetery among its listings.  Strike One.

When checking into the local hotel, the front desk clerk was a Robinson, like me. We exchanged ancestors, looking for possible connections but found none.  She described how her Robinsons had lived in an African-American community called Saint James, at the center of which was a church of the same name.  A search of Black churches in Columbia County revealed a Saint James Church nestled alone, along a secluded, wooded country road. The next morning, I drove to the church but found no evidence of a cemetery. Strike Two. 

Chats with family elders who've lived their entire lives in Columbia county, also came up empty.  Strike Three.

But genealogy is not like baseball -- you keep on swinging until all clues are exhausted, and then you swing again. My next up-at-bat had me stepping back and rethinking my strategy.  Instead of searching for a cemetery that didn't want to be found, I started looking for people who were buried in Saint James.  I started a new Google search, and found recent obituaries for several elderly Waldo residents whose final resting place was Saint James (I presume they had wanted to be buried with their elders).  Since the obits did not include an address for Saint James, I called the local newspaper to see if they could point me to the elusive cemetery. No one appeared to know or have heard of the cemetery.  Strike Four.

Surely, Saint James Cemetery was a real place, as it was still actively taking in new burials.  Yet, we were no further along than when we began the search.  I consulted (i.e., whined to) cousins, who pointed me to Cousin Randy, a local funeral director who they said knew all the cemeteries in the county and beyond.  Cousin Randy (it's a small town and he's a cousin by marriage) who didn't hesitate when asked if he knew anything about Saint James Cemetery. He said he knew exactly where Saint James Cemetery is.  Home run!

So, where is Saint James Cemetery?  Turns out that Saint James is the original name of what is now known as Smith African American Cemetery.  Who knew?! Well, Cousin Randy, for one, and likely other local funeral directors.

Lesson learned? Remember to think outside the box when traditional methods don't work out.  Identify all the players, exploring any records created by them.

  • Looking for a shuttered funeral home? Consider that they may have been absorbed by other firms that may have kept the records they inherited. 
  • Looking for a lost cemetery? Consult with funeral homes, and local historical societies that might have compiled a register of area cemeteries.
  • Looking for cemetery interment records? Try to find who may be the caretaker of such records, such as an affiliated church, or an elderly neighbor of the cemetery.

Update:  During my trip, I never found great grandmother Ardie's grave, nor saw markers for her  siblings or her mother Adline.  Rainy weather prevented me from doing anything more than a walk through the front part of the cemetery. I'm looking forward to my next visit 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

We Used to be Porters ...

The summer my second niece was born, I attended a family reunion of my father's maternal cousins. They were Edwards, while my father, his brothers, and I were the outside cousins who represented the link to their Kitchens ancestors.

At the reunion, as is typical of many other multi-generational gatherings, the men and boys went out to the yard while the women and girls crowded in the kitchen and dining room.  While folks were "resting up" after the bountiful family meal, the conversation turned to family stories.  You know the kind -- those stories designed to educate the young about how "our family" survived, prospered, suffered, and loved, as we chased the American Dream.  It was then that Cousin Doris casually mentioned, "We used to be Porters ..."

These cousins were Edwards, the children and grandchildren of George Elizar Edwards and first wife Cora Kitchens and second wife Zenobia Hempstead.  George's sister Lula married Lucius "Bud" Kitchens while brother Hosie married Blanche Kitchens. Three Edwards siblings married three Kitchens siblings, producing a slew of double-first cousins (not the first time for our extended Edwards-Kitchens-Abrams family, but that's a story for another time).

George, Lula, and Hosie were the children of James Archer Edwards Sr. (left) and Margaret Harris (right), both born in Georgia in the early 1840s.  Lula and husband Bud Kitchens were my great grandparents.

When Cousin Doris blurted out that "We used to be Porters, but then something happened and Papa Jim changed our name to Edwards," all conversation stopped.  Doris had our attention as she explained how, as a young child, she had slipped behind her father's big chair and remained hidden as the menfolk discussed family matters, including the part about being Porters.  Doris was the baby of the family and so, could slip unnoticed just about anywhere.  We clamored for more but that was all Cousin Doris could remember.

As the family historian, I pocketed that information, filing it away in the recesses of my brain only to be taken out and dusted several years later when I received Papa Jim's death certificate.  Imagine my surprise when the informant (Papa Jim's son-in-law Willie Abrams) reported that Hugh Porter was James' father.

There it was -- Papa Jim's daddy was a Porter! 
But when did the family become Edwards?  Why did we become Edwards? And why Edwards?

Papa Jim was born about 1842 in Georgia and died 1924 in Arkansas.  Given his light complexion, we presume his putative father Hugh Porter was white.  The lack of a name for Jim's mother seems to imply that she probably was a slave -- regardless, it's clear that she was not someone about whom he had discussed with his children.  Perhaps he did not know his mother.

James was an Edwards sometime before 1870.  The earliest record found for James Archer Edwards Sr. was the 1870 U.S. Census for Georgia Township, Columbia County, Arkansas.  It indicates that 28-year old James Edwards was a mulatto, born in Georgia, who worked as a farm laborer. Along with wife Margaret, were son Henry, age 4, and daughter Silvia, age 2.  Both children were born in Arkansas indicating that that family had arrived in Arkansas sometime before 1866.  Later censuses reveal that James and Margaret were married sometime during the year that began with Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House (April 1865) and ended when President Johnson formally declared the end of the Civil War (April 1866).  Sadly, no marriage or cohabitation records have been found for James Porter/Edwards and Margaret Harris in Arkansas, Georgia, or the states that lie between.

Could there be others who went from Porter to Edwards? Among the neighbors whose offspring would later marry the Edwards kids, grandkids, etc., was John Porter, a "white" farmer from Georgia who, with wife Elvira, appeared to have arrived in Arkansas before 1860, based on the Arkansas birth of their eldest child. Surprisingly, in 1880 and later censuses, John, Elvira, and family were enumerated as mulatto or Negro. Three additional households in 1870 had Porters born in Georgia -- all were negro.  Could this John Porter be a brother to James?  John appears to have died before 1920 although it is likely that he died before 1914 as he does not appear in the index to Arkansas deaths that begin in 1914.  The search for a death record with the hopes of identifying parents for John has so far proven unsuccessful.

Why Edwards?  In 1870, Columbia County, Arkansas was home to six Edwards families headed by at least one adult born in Georgia. All of these families -- except James and Margaret -- were white. None of the Edwards families listed in 1840 and 1850 Hall County, Georgia, were slaveowners.  The search for a connection between the Porters and Edwards has so far proven unsuccessful.

The Search for Hugh Porter
Surprisingly, a search of Georgia census records for 1840 and 1850 revealed only one adult white male named Hugh Porter.  Hugh was born in 1786 in Pickens County, South Carolina, and secured land in Hall County, Georgia through the Cherokee Land Lottery.  He died less than a month before the 1860 census in neighboring Forsythe County, where several of his children had moved. A quick review of the 1830, 1840, and 1850 censuses indicates that Hugh held no slaves.  Yet, there was one Porter slaveowner in 1850 and 1860 Hall County -- Benjamin Franklin "B.F." Porter, a possible nephew or cousin of Hugh -- and he owned young black males of the ages to be Papa Jim and John Porter. At best, a possible lead. At worst, a red herring.

And Then There's DNA
Reluctantly, I decided to add Hugh Porter (son of Philip Porter and Mary Ann Smith), to my Ancestry tree as the alleged father for my James Edwards.  In short order, AncestryDNA found two matches whose trees show they descend from Hugh's sister Elizabeth.  These Shared Ancestor Hints looks at people in your tree from whom you directly descend (such as Hugh Porter, father to James Edwards) and finds DNA matches with others with whom you have an ancestor in common (such as Hugh and Elizabeth's parents). Imagine my happy dance -- finally, DNA proof that this Hugh Porter was indeed related to Papa Jim.

That dance proved premature as it appears that my three Edwards cousins (including Cousin Doris' daughter) who've tested in Ancestry, do NOT match these two ladies, nor do these Porter descendants appear to match each other.  Wait, it gets better.  Despite these two Porter descendants not seeming to match one another, when I looked at the shared matches of the matches I individually share with these Porters, I find my mother! But she does not match the Porters.  Did I forget to mention that the Porters and Edwards are along my father's line? And no, my parents ancestral lines do not overlap -- only one maternal 2nd great grandparent hailed from the south, all the rest were Virginians who went to Oho, then Missouri, then Denver.  My paternal ancestors all hailed from Georgia who migrated to Arkansas just before or just after the Civil War.

Next Steps
Were we once Porters? Likely, but perhaps not to this line of Hugh Porter.  Why did we become Edwards and not Keith or Harris?  What happened to prompt this name change? We may never know but isn't half the fun of doing genealogy is trying to answer such questions? 

Next steps will focus on reconciling family memories with paper records and supported by DNA.  Moving forward, we'll need to:

  • Find out how and when James and Margaret met and married
  • Dive deeper into the records and origins of the negro Porter and white Edwards families living in 1870 Columbia County.  
  • Examine DNA results, including a chromosome comparison, as well as triangulation via Gedmatch.

Hopefully, at a future family reunion, we'll be able to say, "I remember when Cousin Doris told us how she heard that we used to be Porters ... and here's what happened."

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Finding of Clarence Burris Potts

“People disappear all the time.  Ask any policeman.  Better yet, ask a journalist.  Disappearances are bread-and-butter to journalists.  Young girls run away from home.  Young children stray from their parents and are never seen again.  Housewives reach the end of their tether and take the grocery money and a taxi to the station.  International financiers change their names and vanish into the smoke of imported cigars.  Many of the lost will be found, eventually, dead or alive.  Disappearances, after all, have explanations.  Usually.”
― Diana Gabaldon, Outlander, Prologue

For generations, men seemingly appeared in the lives of the women in my mother’s family, unknown and seemingly unencumbered by the baggage of family, of a past.  Yet, they stayed, married, raised a family, and died, but conveyed little about who they were or where they came from.  But in one instance, we lost a man born into the family, who seemed simply to disappear without a trace.

Genealogists will tell you that people (often their ancestors) indeed disappear all the time.  Some disappear in a blink -- here one day but gone the next.  Others move slowly, fading away from family, leaving few tantalizing clues behind.  Sometimes the disappeared don’t want to be found.  They adopt new identities, and for some, they change their race, passing for white.  But regardless of how they leave, it is when they die, when they truly have left this mortal coil, that concrete records bring most of them back to life, at least in the memory of those who lost them. 

Clarence’s Story

In the years before the internet, before arm-chair access to local records, my family searched for my maternal grandmother’s long-lost uncle, Clarence Burris Potts.  Born and raised in the family home just blocks from the city limits of Zanesville, Muskingum County, Ohio, Uncle Clarence assumed the mantle of the underachieving brother who had little direction or purpose.  About 1905, he supposedly accompanied older sister Sarah to New York City, where she attended Pratt Institute in the first decade of the 20th century.  His two surviving nieces (one of whom was my grandmother) recalled that sometime before the First World War, Clarence had joined the U.S. Army, followed by a stint in the U.S. Merchant Marine.  He was known to be in Los Angeles in 1924, the year his mother Margaret died.  The last address his family had for him (before 1944) proved to be a transient hotel in post-war San Francisco, after which he dropped from the family radar.

Clarence Burris Potts was born 26 October 1888[i], in Springfield Township, Muskingum County, Ohio, the third child of George Westover Potts and Margaret Gant.  His father, an 1878 graduate of Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, now Hampton University, managed the farm owned by his father-in-law Nelson Talbert Gant.  The family included 9-year old half-sister Mariah Neal Williamson[ii] (Margaret’s daughter from her failed first marriage to Henry Williamson) and 2-year old sister Sarah Ann Elizabeth.  Older brother George Jr. had died of typhoid on August 10, 1888 less than a week after his first birthday.[iii]  The family had moved up from Hampton, Virginia earlier in the year.  By 1891, when Royce Houston was born[iv], George had moved his growing family (which now included Norman Tolbert born in 1890[v]) closer to town to live just down the street from grandfather Gant.  The last of the Potts children, Margaret “Aunt Shug” Potts was born 18 March 1895.[vi]  It appears this Potts-Gant union also had been blessed with one or two other children who, sadly, did not survive.[vii]

What’s in a Name.  One’s identity often begins at birth, when the new babe in arms is given the name by which he or she largely will be known for the rest of his or her life.  Inspiration can literally come from anywhere -- friends, family, religion, ethnic background, famous people. George and Margaret were no different from many other parents of their day.  In 1888, Clarence was the 17th most popular name for baby boys. 

Some names obviously are carried across generations but others are a mystery that once addressed might be used to help identify family connections.   For this family:
  • George Westover Potts – “Westover” came down from his mother, Ellen Westover Green and maternal grandmother, Mourning Westover.
  • Mariah Neal Williamson – “Neal” was the maiden name of her step grandmother, Lavenia Julius Neal who had married the widowed N.T. Gant the year before Mariah’s birth.
  • Sarah Ann Elizabeth Potts – named “Sarah” for her maternal aunt Sarah “Sadie” Gant [Mc]Norton; “Elizabeth” for her maternal aunt Elizabeth Gant Manley.  However, the double middle name of “Ann Elizabeth” also could be a nod to Charle Ann Elizabeth Jane Russell, who had owned Nelson's wife Maria, their maternal grandmother in Loudoun County, Virginia.
  • George – this firstborn son obviously named for his father.
  • Norman Tolbert Potts – “Tolbert” was the middle name of his maternal grandfather Nelson Tolbert Gant.
  • Margaret Potts – named for her mother. 
Unfortunately, the sources of middle names for Clarence Burris and Royce Houston have yet to be discovered.

George W. Potts 1856-1930
Like Father, Like Son.  An examination of Clarence’s early years shows a young man seemingly without direction.  While his siblings all finished high school and went on to college, Clarence took a different, somewhat meandering path that seemed to reflect the disjointed journey taken by his father.

Although not much is known about the early life of Clarence’s father, “Papa” George Westover Potts, we do know that on January 17, 1876, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy at the Naval Rendezvous Enlistment at Norfolk, Virginia, for what proved to be a single cruise aboard the iron-clad Montauk.  That fall, George enrolled in the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute at Hampton, where he was prepared to be a teacher; he graduated in 1878.  In his “graduate’s correspondence” to the school in 1889-90, George explained that after teaching for two years he had:

“… been doing different things for a living: from ’81 to ’84, I kept a general grocery and provision store in Williamsburg, and did quite well, until drawn into politics; then negligence of business, and activity in politics caused the former to suffer and the latter to prosper.  In ’81, I was elected member of the Common Council of the great city of Williamsburg on the Republican ticket and was re-elected in ’82.  The position being only honorary, I thought I did not fit in.  So, in ’83, I ran for Commissioner of Revenue of the city of Williamsburg, and was elected for four years over two competitors.  The emoluments were so small that I again sought, and obtained an appointment under the U.S. Government, as Deputy Collector and Inspector of Customs at Yorktown, Va., and served from May ’84 till Sept. ’86 when the Democratic hatchet shied my way.  I then moved to Hampton, and served as butcher and hotel waiter.  In ’88, with my family, I moved to Zanesville, Ohio and now live on and manage a 150 acre farm of my father-in-law, Mr. N.T. Gant, raising principally stock, wheat, and grass.  I am getting along nicely and try to “adapt myself to circumstances,” a principle I learned at Hampton and which has been a great advantage to me since graduating.”[viii]

George was a seeming “disappointment” to both his wife and father-in-law who according to oral history, grudgingly supported Margaret’s marriage to George, if only that it meant she was no longer at the mercy of her abusive first husband.  In 1911, George and several investors attempted to start a pottery works that employed “colored people.”  The enterprise failed within 18 months.  In 1916,[ix] George was no longer in the family home, laboring instead at odd jobs and living about a mile away near the historic Y-Bridge.  In 1920, he worked in a glass factory and lived a few blocks from his wife.  After her death in 1924, George moved in first with son Royce and his family in Brooklyn, New York, and then to Chicago with son Norman, where he eventually died.

Clarence appeared to have inherited his father’s wanderlust.  By 1905, the nearly 17-year old Clarence had quit high school after two years[x] and begun working as a bellboy at the Clarendon Hotel[xi], located at the corner of Fourth and Main streets in downtown Zanesville.  The Hotel was popular among businessmen and politicians traveling to the area, and was well known for its fine dining.  Within a year, young Clarence accompanied his older sister Sarah to New York City, where she (followed later by younger brothers Royce and Norman) attended Pratt Institute.  Sometime before 1910, 21-year old Clarence was back in Zanesville, a laborer working odd jobs,[xii] seemingly without any apparent direction, unlike his siblings who became, in succession, a teacher, a physician, and an engineer.  And, so, like his father before him, Clarence turned to the military for his next career opportunity.

He’s in the Army Now.  On 21 April 1913, 25-year old Clarence Burris Potts enlisted in the United States Regular Army[xiii] where he joined the 25th Infantry stationed at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii Territory.  The 25th was one of the racially segregated units of the Army known as Buffalo Soldiers, established by Congress as the first peacetime all-black regiments in the regular U.S. Army.  

Clarence’s regiment had a storied history.  The 25th served from 1866 to 1946, seeing action in the American Indian Wars, Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, and World War II.  The 25th Infantry was transferred from Fort Niobara/Lawton, Oklahoma to Schofield Barracks, in Hawaii Territory in January 1913.  During World War I, the 25th was noticeably absent from combat, remaining assigned to garrison duty in Hawaii.  It is said that the 1906 race incident in Brownsville Texas became the basis for excluding the 25th from action during WW1.

In order to receive credit for continuous service, and the dollar-a-month additional pay that went with reenlistment, a soldier had to sign on within 30 days of his discharge.[xiv]  Many men often took advantage of this month-long waiting period to visit family and friends.  Not so Clarence.  Within hours after his honorable discharge on 20 April 1917, Private First Class Potts was reenlisted[xv].  Beyond the obvious fact that Clarence was on an island in the middle of the Pacific with no family nearby, perhaps he thought he could do better in the Army than in civilian life.

While in Hawaii, Clarence may have joined in a pickup game with the regimental baseball team, the Wreckers, from which spawned future Negro League greats, Walter “Dobie” Moore, Wilbur “Bullet Joe” Rogan, Lemuel Hawkins, and Heavy Johnson.[xvi]  The 25th Infantry baseball team rose to prominence after it was stationed at Schofield Barracks where it established itself as the best team on the island of Oahu, and began to compete against college teams and teams of the high classification Pacific Coast League. 

When Clarence was discharged from his second Army stint in March 1919, Black soldiers were returning from having served their country abroad during the war, only to become the objects of savage encounters.  Race riots erupted in nearly 3 dozen cities and one rural county across the nation that summer and late autumn, dubbed the Red Summer.  Perhaps because of the chaos that seemed to be exploding across the south and Midwest, Clarence chose to stay in Los Angeles after returning to the mainland.

Transitioning.  Now a civilian, Clarence returned to his old ways of hopping from job to job, first as a porter to a private family, followed by a stint as a machinist.[xvii]  He first shows up in the 1920 U.S. Census in mid-January.  In 1921, he is listed in the Los Angeles City Directory living at the same residence.  The next year, he is listed among the voters for Los Angeles County.  California's voter indexes were published every two years and are great records to help track individuals over time and place.  In the case of Clarence, indexes for Los Angeles are missing for 1920 and 1932 (among other years).  Records for San Francisco, where he moved to next, are missing 1933 and 1942.

Sometime between 1923 and 1925, Clarence started living under the name of Lawrence B. Potts, although it appears he briefly used his birth name a decade later in San Francisco.  He moved from Los Angeles to Sierra Madre. At sea, he was Lawrence, while on land during the 1930s he had moved up to San Francisco and registered to vote as Clarence. 

At Sea.  Clarence, now Lawrence, joined the United States Merchant Marine as Lawrence Burr(i)s Potts sometime around 1930.  Negroes in the Merchant Marine, just as with the U.S. Navy, were limited to serving as cooks and stewards.  The first record found for Lawrence as a "messman," departing San Francisco on June 6, 1931 aboard the ship La Perla and returning July 9, 1931 from Cristobal, a city in the Panama Canal Zone.  The record indicates that he had not been among the crew during the preceeding voyage for that ship.

In 1942, Lawrence Burrs Potts, registered for the draft,[xviii] in accordance with the Fourth Draft Registration, often referred to as the "old man's registration," conducted on 27 April 1942 -- for men born on or between 28 April 1877 and 16 February 1897.  Surprisingly, Lawrence lists as point of contact a “Mrs. Mary Potts" of the same address, a woman who remains unknown to the family. Lawrence lists his employer as the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (MCS), a Communist-backed labor union that represented servicemen on the West Coast.  Many of the workers were gay and black. The MCS was the first union in the United States to not discriminate against workers based on sexuality or race.  

1942 WW2 Draft Registration Card for Lawrence Burrs Potts

Lawrence’s merchant service spanned pre-World War II through the Korean War.  During WWII, his deployments appeared to skirt most of the action.  One ship, the Benjamin Ide Wheeler, on which he served in early 1943, later was involved in the late 1944 Leyte landings.  During the Korean War, Lawrence served aboard several ships, only one of which appears to have been in the war zone.  Our Mr. Potts was engaged aboard the Sioux Falls Victory on 29 March 1951, when it arrived back in Seattle on 24 June 1951 from Pusau, Korea.  Although the Sioux Falls Victory appears on the U.S. Navy 1956 list of Merchant ships in the war zone which entitled its mariners to the Korean Service Medal and the United Nations Service Medal for their support of the United Nations forces in Korea, it is not clear whether Lawrence applied for or received his medals. I can only assume that Lawrence did not do so because in 1956 he had already begun living again as Clarence.

Lawrence/Clarence served more than 30 years in the Merchant Marine, rising from Messman to Chief Cook.  As his grew in position, so did his waistline, adding nearly 40 pounds to his 5'6" frame.  His ports of departure also migrated over time, moving from Los Angeles to San Francisco to Portland and Seattle.  During that time, Lawrence served on ships with international crews, but never on what Captain Hugh Mulzac, the first African-American merchant marine naval officer to command an integrated crew during World War II, termed a “Jim Crow vessel.”[xix]

Back on Shore.  The last record found of Lawrence returning to a U.S. port is aboard the Washington Seafair which docked in Seattle on July 22, 1955.  It appears soon thereafter he retired from service, reverted back to his birth name, settled in Portland, and worked as a cook.  Portland also was home to his former employer, the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

On 31 July 1952, Clarence, under the name Lawrence Burrs Potts, registered his Ohio birth in the Portland, Oregon court.[xx]  The new decree for birth registration states that he was born in Zanesville, Ohio and names his parents as “George Westever Potts” and “Margaret Gant."

A name change was not the only aspect guiding Clarence’s (now Lawrence) disappearance.  At birth, Clarence was listed as “colored,” not surprising since his maternal grandfather was often called the richest Negro in Ohio.  While it’s not unusual for light skinned Negroes to be listed as white in an occasional census record, Clarence’s race changed progressively over time, inching closer and closer to passing for white.  The variability of his race going from Negro to mulatto to white in Merchant Marine records varied, whether inadvertent or intentional.  We likely will never know whether these dalliances with white designation was because a lowly officer relied on personal knowledge of the sailor who "looked exotic" or crewman records.  However when Clarence petitioned the State of Oregon to register his Ohio birth, he knowingly declared his race as white.  The transition to was now complete.  The family looking for Clarence Burris Potts, a negro mn, would not have looked twice for a Lawrence Burrs Potts, a white man.

Sometime in late May 1959, Clarence was hospitalized briefly in the Good Samaritan Hospital in Portland, Oregon.  On 1 June 1959, he was transported from the hospital by ambulance to the Multnomah County (Oregon) Poor Farm.[xxi]  For friends and relatives, the admission records list the American Legion Post, an obvious nod to his military family.  On 18 January 1961, Clarence was voluntarily discharged from the farm and transported to the Orient Nursing Home.  Eventually, Clarence moved to Sandy, Oregon, a small town located in the extended suburbs of Portland. Throughout this, Clarence continued to live as a white man.

Clarence Burris Potts died on 11 December 1966 of a short illness in Sandy, Clackamas County, Oregon.  His obituary in the Sandy Post said that he “came to the Portland area after being discharged from WWI.  He worked in Portland as a cook for a long time before retiring in Sandy.  He has no known relatives.”[xxii]  Yet, Clarence must have built a family of sorts because, at his death, someone took the time to publish an obituary and someone ensured that he was interred in the Willamette National Cemetery for veterans.  


“Perhaps it's impossible to wear an identity without becoming what you pretend to be.”
― Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game

So, what makes me confident that Clarence Burris Potts and Lawrence Burr[i]s Potts are one and the same?  The phonetic similarity of the names aside, there are several clues that when cross-referenced, supports this conclusion.

Clarence Burris Potts versus Lawrence Burris Potts
Birth date
Although issued in the name of Lawrence Burris Potts, his 1952 Delayed Birth Registration matches the birth and parental information for Clarence Burris Potts.  This was not a name change as that section of the petition was left blank.
Social Security application
The original Social Security application, issued in 1936 to Lawrence Burris Potts matches the birth date and location and parental information for Clarence B. Potts.
The Willamette National Cemetery veteran’s burial record for Clarence B. Potts matches the official military record of Clarence B. Potts of Zanesville, Ohio.
The 1952 Delayed Birth Registration shows Lawrence living at an address that matches the address shown for Clarence in the 1959 Portland City Directory.
The death date and burial location for Clarence B. Potts matches the death date and location recorded for Lawrence Burrs Potts in the Social Security Death Index.

“Some people seem to fade away but then when they are truly gone, it's like they didn't fade away at all.” ― Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Vol. 1
I found Uncle Clarence in 2003, solving the puzzle of when and where he died and was buried. Although I had not yet fleshed out his story, I was able to close this chapter for the last two family members who had known him, themselves passing in 2004 and 2006.  Despite his brief obituary, Clarence had a family who, although unknown by the friends who surrounded him in death, never forgot him.

Uncle Clarence has been found, yet his story remains unfinished.  Questions remain as to why he changed his name and race:
  • Was he running from something? Had he committed a crime, witnessed a gangland murder in 1920s Los Angeles, been arrested or was jailed?  Remember that at this time, Los Angeles's police department suffered problems of lawlessness, corruption, and graft that took on more institutional forms in the 1920s and 1930s. 
  • Was his disappearance part of a larger plan to pass for white?
  • Was he gay?  Could he have been arrested or avoiding arrest, choosing instead to live in plain sight under a slightly different name? California anti-sodomy laws were particularly strict in the early part of the 20th century, when Clarence was "coming out" of the Army and embarking on a new life.
  • Who was the Mrs. Mary Potts with whom he lived in 1942? Was she his wife or perhaps a relative from his father's unknown family? 
  • Where did the Burris middle name come from? Who was he named after?

Questions also remain as to why Clarence stopped communicating with his siblings, with whom he regularly corresponded -- they and their children knew he had joined the Merchant Marine but knew nothing about his life at sea or afterward. Next steps include (1) locating his Merchant Marine enlistment and service records, (2) ordering a copy of his death certificate -- it will be 50 years in October! when I can finally file the request, (3) locating any extant Los Angeles arrest records for 1923 to 1930 to see whether Clarence is in them, (4) learn more about Mrs. Mary Potts, and (5) locating records of the now disbanded labor union.

It appears that Uncle Clarence never married or had children.  Given his career choices, some may say that he never settled down.  I prefer to believe that he settled into a life that ultimately provided him with a sense of family, sent him around the world on adventures he would not get to experience had he become an educated professional man like his brothers, or provided him with opportunities to live beyond the constraints of being a light skinned, possibly gay, black man in America.


[i]  26 October 1888, Muskingum County, Ohio Record of Births, Probate Court, Volume 3, page 141, line 16
[ii]  Register of Births, Muskingum County, Ohio, , Volume 2, 1876-1887, page 293
[iii]  Death Records, Muskingum County, Ohio, Volume 2, page 207. Birth date based on George’s age at death (1 year and 6 days).
[iv]  21 November 1891, Muskingum County, Ohio Record of Births, Probate Court, Volume 4, page 182, line 47
[v]  28 July 1890, Although his birth record has not been found, Norman’s 1890 birth year is inferred from his being consistently positioned as being 1 year older than brother Royce, for whom a birth record confirms a November 1891 birth. 
[vi]  18 March 1895, Muskingum County, Ohio Record of Births.
[vii]  According to 1900 U.S. Census, Margaret Gant had birthed 10 children, with only 6 living.  Records have been found for seven children (Mariah b 1880, Sarah b 1886, George b 1887, Clarence b 1888, Norman b 1890, Royce b 1891, and Margaret b 1895).  It is likely that at least one additional child was born to the Gant-Williamson union (1878-1884) while at least one additional child was born to the Gant-Potts union (1885-1924) before 1900.
[viii]  Twenty-Two Years Work of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute at Hampton: records of Negro and Indian graduates and ex-students with historical and personal sketches and testimony on important race questions from within and without, to which are added ... some of the songs of the races gathered in the school: illustrated with views and maps (1893), page 113.
[ix]  1916 Zanesville City Directory, George Potts, colored, living at 442 W Main, occupation laborer.
[x]  1940 U.S. Federal Population Census, San Francisco, ED 38-604, sheet 1A, family 1, line 3. Entry states that the highest grade Clarence had completed was “H-2” or two years of high school.
[xi]  1905 Zanesville City Directory, page XXX
[xii]  1910 U.S. Federal Population Census, Falls Township, Muskingum County, Ohio, ED 59-14, sheet 12B, line 98.
[xiii]  United States Registers of Enlistments in the U.S. Army, 1798-1914," index and images, FamilySearch, 130-131, 1909-1913, L-Q > image 648 of 682; citing NARA microfilm publication M233.
[xiv]  U.S. Army Discharge bonus
[xv]  Official Roster of Ohio Soldiers, Sailors and Marines in the World War, 1917-1918. Vol. I-XXIII. Columbus, OH, USA: F. J. Heer Printing Co., 1926.
[xvi]  Green said, “During my connection with the team, it has played against players in different parts of the United States and foreign possessions and who have become famous in both the National and American Leagues, not mentioning the minor leagues at all…” <>
[xvii]  1920 U.S. Federal Population Census, Los Angeles Assembly District 74, Los Angeles, California; Enumeration District: 412; sheet 18B.
[xviii]  “United States World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942,” Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.
[xix]  An all-black crew < >
[xx]  Decree for Registration of Birth, No 11259/35903; In the Circuit Court of the State of Oregon for the County of Multnomah; In the matter of the registration of the birth of Lawrence Burrs Potts, 31 July 1952.
[xxi]  Records of the Clackamas County Poor Farm, admittance number 16919.
[xxii]  Obituary of Clarence B. Potts. Sandy Post, 22 December 1966, page 4.

Friday, November 27, 2009

REGISTERED IN THE CHANCERY OF HEAVEN: The Marriage of Nelson Talbot Gant and Anna Maria Hughes

Whether with “Bible,” “broomstick,” or simply “bargain,” slave marriage was a sacred contract. Yet you don’t have to read many books on slavery, or slave narratives, to see that slave unions were frequently and repeatedly broken, either by slave owner or slave. What follows is how the validity of one slave marriage was upheld in a Virginia court of law.

Historians have long debated the notion of slave marriages. There was no law defining it and none forbidding it. The dominant legal system, of course, did not recognize the legitimacy of slave marriages, while some churches, as well as many in the slave community itself, considered such marriages binding. In addition to being the subject of many academic treatises, the debate has extended to the Internet. On one such online discussion forum, one member challenged others to provide a citation – any citation — that “documents where a court of law in any colony from Maryland and Delaware south . . . at any time, recognized a slave union as a legally binding contract, not only on the man and woman involved, but on their owner or owners.” Alternatively, he wrote, he would “settle for a case where a Christian minister … married a slave couple and was able to force the owner or owners to recognize the legally binding nature of the relationship, or convince a court to so rule.”i

Perhaps the case of Nelson Talbot Gant and his wife Anna Maria Hughes can serve as that example.


Nelson Talbot Gant was a former Virginia slave who upon his death in 1905 was called the most remarkable colored citizen of Muskingum County, Ohio.ii Those who are familiar with the story of N. T. Gant and who have visited his grave can’t help but be impressed by the grand monument that sits atop the grave of a man who had risen from slavery and poverty to a position of freedom, honor, and wealth within his adopted hometown. Some would think the marble obelisk a fitting symbol of the love and respect his family and community had this man who was called “one of the most remarkable men in [Zanesville’s] history [who] stood and will stand in a class by himself.iii

But they would be wrong – about the memorial that is. It stands not as a monument to honor the man but rather, it is this man’s enduring testament of a love for the woman who stood by his side through many trials and tribulations; it is his testament to the woman with whom he credits with “setting him on the Christian path” and with whom he had asked to “travel down life’s pathway with him, hand in hand, to rejoice with him when success greeted his efforts, and to sympathize with him when misfortunes came...iv” This woman, was Anna Maria Hughes, a “dark mulattov” with whom he had tied the marriage knot and it was said, bore him 12 The monument also serves as a reminder of the events that set them both on the road to freedom along the Underground Railroad.

Nelson Talbot Gant was born May 10, 1822 (although some records indicate alternative birth years of 1821 and 1823vii). His descendants have carried down a story of his birth in which Nelson was the half-white son of his owner and who was orphaned when his slave mother died giving birth to him.viii He allegedly was raised by Eve or Edith Gant,ix one of the two slave matriarchs on John Nixon’s farms. Nelson (or Talbot as he was called) grew to manhood on the largest of the farms called Woodburn Estate, located about three miles west of Leesburg, Virginia. Oral history maintains that Talbot had a special relationship with Mr. Nixon, possibly that of father and son.x Whatever the relationship, Talbot served in the capacity of body servant or valet to his master. It was probably with this proximity to John Nixon that Talbot would learn the sound business judgment and principles that would guide his future successes.

Anna Maria Hughes – or Maria as she was known – was born about 1826.xi When only two or three years old, she was among a group of slaves gifted by Sarah Elizabeth “Betsy” McCarty Russellxii to her three daughters Eliza, Sarah Elizabeth, and C.A.E. Jane Russell. Maria was raised in Leesburg among such prominent neighbors as the clerk of the Loudoun County court, several ministers, the state’s Commonwealth attorney, and a host of other attorneys, including John Janney, the Quaker lawyer who would later preside over the Virginia Secession Convention.xiii

The Rev. Bishop Daniel Payne, Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, noted that Talbot had come to the church as an adult but that Maria had come by her faith early.xiv In her teens, perhaps as young as 12, Maria had been allowed to attend the Colored Sunday School of the Leesburg Methodist Church under the leadership of Deacon Samuel Gover, later a minister of the gospel.xv Her classmate, and likely friend, was Winifred Jane Gant of Woodburn and apparent daughter of Eve Gant.xvi It is very likely that it was through Winifred that Talbot met Mariaxvii.

In 1843, despite their condition – slavery – and the limitations imposed on formal slave relationships, Talbot and Maria were married. Although no formal record of the marriage or marriage banns has been found, the couple marked May 11 as their anniversary.xviii Living in the heart of Leesburg, Maria was a house servant who, like other house slaves close to their masters or mistress’, may have been favored with a wedding in the “big house” with “dress up clothing” and a “regular preacher.” However, it is doubtful that the couple celebrated their marriage by “jumping the broom” because the wedding was solemnized by a Methodist ministerxix, possibly the Rev. Samuel Gover, Maria’s Sunday school teacherxx. It was reported that the ceremony was held in the home of Maria’s owner, xxi although no record, oral or written, has been found that describes the wedding or whether a reception followed. However, it is possible that the event may have been celebrated in a manner similar to the 1862 slave marriage of the future Bishop Lucius Henry Holsey and Harriet Turner of Georgia:

"The Bishop's wife and daughters had provided for the occasion a splendid repast of good things to eat. The table, richly spread, with turkey, ham, cake, and many other good things, extended nearly the whole length of the spacious dining hall. 'The house girls' and ''the house boys' and the most prominent persons of color were invited to the wedding of the colored 'swells.' The ladies composing the Bishop's family dressed my bride in the gayest and most artistic style, with red flowers and scarlet sashes predominating in the brilliant trail."xxii

However celebrated, Talbot’s and Maria’s 1843 marriage, solemnized by a minister with the consent of both owners, would later come to play an important part in Talbot’s fight for his life and Maria’s bid for freedom.


In September 1845, Talbot was freed by the will of John Nixon.xxiii Despite Virginia’s 1806 law that declared that any freed slave remaining in the Commonwealth more than 12 months after receiving his freedom shall forfeit that right and may be apprehended and sold,xxiv Talbot vowed to stay in Virginia until he could buy Maria’s freedom and take her with him. In July1846, the Potomac Furnace advertised for “one hundred wood choppers.xxv” Talbot may have answered that call, because according to various published sources, Talbot entered into a contract to cut 500 cords of wood at 40 cents a cord.xxvi But despite his best efforts, Talbot did not acquire any wealth. The 1846 personal property tax records for Loudoun County list Talbot without any personal or real property.xxvii Subsequent tax records for 1848, 1849, and 1850 report the same condition.xxviii

In early September 1846, twelve months after his manumission, Talbot was forced to leave Virginia. For reasons that will remain unknown, Talbot did not take advantage of an 1837 amendment to the 1806 Virginia law whereby any slave emancipated since May 1, 1806 could apply to the local court for permission to remain in Virginia.”xxix Given the climate of the times, perhaps Talbot dared not wait for the orderly process of the Loudoun Court where he would have to provide satisfactory proof that he was “of good character, peaceable, orderly, industrious, and not addicted to drunkenness, gaming or other vice.” Nor could he wait while a notice was posted for two months at the court house door and then wait for 3/4 of the justices to agree to permit him to remain within the Commonwealth.

Not wanting to leave without his wife of three years, Talbot pleaded with Maria’s owner, telling her that he “could not live in the West without the person who was more dear to him than all the world.”xxx The Russell sisters refused to free Maria. Unable to pay, Talbot reluctantly left Virginia, but not without first pledging to Maria that he would soon return for her.xxxi

Upon leaving Virginia, Talbot apparently began making his way to Zanesville – a logical choice because that was where most of the other 21 Nixon slaves had been relocated after their 1845 manumission.xxxii It is believed that Talbot took the National Road through Cumberland, Maryland, across the low ridge known as Negro Mountain because of the many slaves and free Negroes living there, and traveled east of Catoctin Mountain into Washington County, Pennsylvania. He stopped near Chambersburgh, Pennsylvania where he met Dr. Julius LeMoyne and his wife Madeline, conductors on the Underground Railroad.xxxiii, Although it is not known what brought Talbot and the LeMoynes together, Talbot’s 1847 letter to the doctor indicates a friendship of sorts had been struck between them. Although no record has been found of a relationship between the LeMoynes and Talbot’s benefactors in Loudoun, Samuel McPherson Janney, Loudoun teacher and Quaker anti-slavery advocate, provided in his 1881 memoirs evidence of a lesser studied Underground Railroad through Loudoun into Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio. In his memoir, Janney wrote repeatedly of visiting Friends Meetings in southwestern Pennsylvaniaxxxiv in the spring 1845 and meeting “a considerable number of blacks” he knew.xxxv

It is presumed that Talbot then detoured north from Chambersburg to Pittsburgh where he met several people friendly to his plight, and with their assistance returned through Chambersburgh and “from thence directly back to Loudoun my old home”xxxvi – all within 6 weeks because records indicate that by October 10, 1846, Talbot and Maria both were sitting in a Washington, D.C. jail.xxxvii

When Talbot returned to Loudoun in early October 1846, arrangements had been made to spirit Maria out of Leesburg without the knowledge of her mistress. According to the decades-later account featured in the Zanesville [Ohio] Courier, Maria had been at the home of Loudoun County Clerk of the Court, Charles G. Eskridge, who dutifully but belatedly informed Miss Russell that Maria had “eloped from his home three days ago.xxxviii” The couple met in “Washington City,” D.C. where they were directed to the home of a “colored man” who gave them comfort, shelter — and betrayal.xxxix Talbot and Maria were arrested and jailed in Washington where Maria spent 8 days before being taken back to Leesburg; Talbot was in jail 13 daysxl awaiting his first trial. That short trial was canceled when Virginia Governor William Smith demanded Talbot’s return back to Leesburg for trial there.xli Maria then spent 22 days in the Leesburg jail where “every effort known to the master to make the slave confess” was being used to make her say that she had been induced by her lover to run away.xlii Those efforts failed; Maria told anyone who would listen that she had run away and that Talbot had followed her. xliii

Talbot sat more than a month in the Leesburg jail. He faced sale and transportation to the Southern states or prison. A 1798 Virginia criminal code declared that the punishment for stealing any Negro slave is confinement to the penitentiary.xliv Talbot’s second trial, scheduled for Loudoun’s November 1846 monthly court, was postponed when the local Commonwealth Attorney, Burr William Harrison (neighbor to Miss Russell and Mr. Eskridge), was unable to get witnesses to come to Leesburg.xlv The prosecutor’s third attempt to try Talbot on December 9, 1846, would prove to be pivotal. For that trial, he had three lawyers,xlvi among them Maria’s former neighbor John Janney. The defense first made an impassioned plea that Talbot’s actions were rooted in his love for Maria: "This man has been united in holy wedlock to a woman for whom he has evinced the strongest feelings of attachment. . . Their vows have been registered in the Chancery of Heaven; and shall we attempt to set the laws of man above the Divine law, by separating those whom God hath joined? . . . But if it were possible for the prisoner at the bar to step forth in the complexion and lineaments of the Anglo-Saxon race, there is not a man on that bench, nor in this assembly, who would not applaud the deed for which he now stands arraigned as a felon.”xlvii

Unsuccessful on that argument, the defense then opposed the prosecutor’s attempt to compel Maria to speak against Talbot, arguing: “In this case . . . the objections to receiving her testimony [are] unusually strong. She not only stands related to the prisoner at the bar as his wife, but she is a slave, under the power and control of her mistress. Suppose that mistress should say to her, if you do not give evidence to convict your husband, I will sell you to the traders, and you will be carried to the Southern States. I do not say that the mistress would use such a threat, but we know it is in her power, and we know, too, how great is the dread these people have of being sold to the Southern traders. Taking these considerations into view, I trust the court will not allow her evidence to be taken.”xlviii

Prosecutor Harrison objected and insisted that Maria was a “good and competent witness against the prisoner,” adding that it was a matter of every day practice to admit the evidence of Negro women slaves against those men they “termed” their husbands. Mr. Harrison argued that Maria was under control of the law that regards slaves not as persons but as property. It would, Harrison said, be “manifestly absurd” to recognize a relationship of this kind which interferes with the legal rights of the master, and contradicts all the laws which are made for the security of his property.xlix No doubt drawing on precedents from other states,l Harrison took the position that there is no lawful marriage for slaves, nor can they make a contract that their owners cannot

This last point was ably answered by Attorney Janney. He took the position that Maria and Talbot had been lawfully married with the consent of both owners.lii They were, he claimed, united in matrimony by a minister of the gospel in a marriage that, if not registered in the chancery of law, was most assuredly “registered in the chancery of Heaven.” Janney continued: “The opinion expressed by the prosecutor, that slaves cannot be married according to law, would tend to the general corruption of morals and the most enormous abuses. Can it be possible, that the whole colored population of Virginia are living in a state of concubinage? No; it is the intention of the law to promote public morals, and not to degrade them . . . Maria is the lawful wife of the prisoner; and it is a point well established, that in a case like this, the testimony of a wife cannot be taken either for or against her husband. The reason is obvious: it would present so great an inducement to perjury that no court would be justifiable in subjecting a human being to so strong a temptation.”liii

The court agreed and Maria was not compelled to testify. Talbot was acquittedliv after the court rejected the testimony of a second


Within two months of the trial, the sisters Russell agreed to release Maria from bondage. Maria’s manumission, recorded Valentine’s Day 1847, is made in the name of “Ann Maria Gant, wife of Talbut Gant,”lvi an open acknowledgement of Maria and Talbot’s clearly legal relationship. Talbot’s friends helped him raise $500 of the $775 purchase price – almost double the value placed on her by the court two months previouslylvii. Talbot borrowed the remainder from Mr. Thomas Nichols, for whom he and Maria would work until 1850 to repay the monies borrowedlviii. Nichols, along with John Janney, was the co-executor of John Nixon’s will.lix John Janney also was cousin to Samuel McPherson Janney, with whom Talbot and Maria would live until 1850.lx

Talbot’s and Maria’s tribulations did not end there. While working to repay his benefactors, Talbot was indicted by the Grand Jury for remaining in the state more than 12 months after regaining his freedom.lxi He was required to appear before the court to answer the indictment. But it appears that the court was unsuccessful in serving the bill of indictment because for every Quarter term that the court met, the case was continued to the next term of the Grand Jury.lxii During this time, Talbot may have been under the de facto protection of Samuel McPherson Janney, with whom he was “enumerated” during the annual personal property tax assessments for 1848, 1849, and 1850lxiii. In the June 1850 term of the court, the Grand Jury indictment against Talbot was dismissedlxiv and the certificate of freedom for 20-month old freeborn daughter, Mary E. J. Gant, was registered.lxv

Sometime after 9 June 1850, Talbot, Maria, and daughter Mary, left Loudoun and began to make their way to Zanesville, Ohio where old family and friends awaited.lxvi It appears they arrived in the full blush of falllxvii, with 50 cents in their pocket.lxviii Their arrival in Muskingum County, Ohio no doubt was delayed due to promises they made — the young family may have stopped in Washington County, Pennsylvania to visit with the LeMoynes and other friends along the way.lxix Once in Ohio, Talbot and Maria settled in Falls Township, just outside the city of Zanesville, Muskingum County, Ohio, where they prospered and raised and educated a family. Together, they made many new friends, among them the Rev. Bishop Daniel Paynelxx, Mr. Frederick Douglasslxxi, and an old Irish woman who had not forgotten the kindness that Maria had lavished on her in her time of needlxxii.

When Maria died on October 11, 1877 in Yorktown, Virginia, more than 30 years had passed since those early tests to the strength of their love and marriage. Talbot had Maria’s body brought back to Zanesville where she was buried at the top of Gant Circle in Woodlawn Cemetery. Within a few days of his death on July 14, 1905, Talbot was interred next to Maria. There exist today few enduring monuments to love. India’s Taj Mahal is perhaps the most famous, built by the Emperor Shah Jahan as the final resting place for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal. On a much less grander scale sits the white marble obelisk Talbot had erected atop Gant Circle to mark the final resting place of his beloved Maria.


Slave couples planning to marry had more than the usual hazards of matrimony to face. As one former slave stated, “God made marriage, but de white man made de law.”lxxiii In slavery, as in every other aspect of human interaction, laws are commonly illustrated, or even extended, by court decisions. But decisions such as the one in the case of Nelson Talbot Gant and Anna Maria Hughes do not seem to have reflected the prevailing opinion in the slaveholding community or to have served in any important sense as a precedent in future cases. There is no record of the case being cited as precedent in later cases. Rather, it simply appears as an interesting but not very significant aberration of what was common legal practice.lxxiv


i Chesson, Michael; e-mail dated March 12, 1996. “Slave Marriages, “H-South Network, an electronic discussion group dedicated to the scholarly exploration of southern history.

ii “Nelson T. Gant rose from slavery to become wealthy, respected,” Times Recorder, Zanesville, Ohio, Saturday, February 10, 1996, page 6A.

iii Ibid.

ivA Scrap of History,” The Courier, Thursday, August 16, 1888, page 2; Zanesville, Ohio.

v Record of Free Negroes, Loudoun County, Virginia. Certificate number 1406, dated 14 February, 1847. Page 51

vi Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Muskingum County, Ohio, Embracing an Authentic and Comprehensive Account of the Chief Events in the History of the County and a Record of the Lives of Many of the Most Worthy Families and Individuals, Chicago, Illinois. The Goodspeed Publishing Company, 1892. Page 462

vii Record of Free Negroes, Loudoun County, Virginia, Certificate number 1333, dated 9 September 1845, page 25. Talbot’s manumission supports a birth year of 1822, as do a biographical sketch published in the Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Muskingum County for 1892 [see previous note]. Other references, such as newspaper articles and historical biographies, cite a birth year of 1821, while several documents infer a birth year of 1823. An examination of the U.S. federal population censuses for Muskingum County, Ohio reflect this difference. For example, the 1860 return implies a birth year of 1823 while the returns for 1870 through 1900 imply a birth year of 1821, respectively.

viii. “Oral Interview with Margarette Goss Winn,” 26 July 1982, by Victoria J. Robinson, Alexandria, Virginia. Notes in possession of author. Ms. Winn, Talbot and Maria’s great-granddaughter, spoke of how Talbot’s unnamed mother had died alone in childbirth on the path leading from her slave quarters to her Master’s home.

ix At ages 53 and 70, respectively, Eve Gant and Sarah Anderson, are presumed to have presided over two of the three distinct family groupings among the Nixon slaves. In 1847, both women received deeds to land in Muskingum County, Ohio, in accordance with the provisions outlined in slave owner John Nixon’s, recorded in Loudoun County, Virginia, 8 September 1845.

x Oral Interview with Margarette Goss Winn, Ibid.

xi Loudoun County Record of Free Negroes, Certificate number 1406, Ibid. The clerk describes Ann Maria as 19, indicating a birth year of 1826. The 1829 deed of gift from Sarah Russell to her daughters [see Note 12] in which Anna Maria is described not as an infant but rather as “Maria, a girl” also supports a birth year of 1825 or 1826. However, the 1870 U.S. Population Census for Falls Township, Muskingum County, Ohio states that Ann M. Gant was a 41-year old mulatto female, indicating a birth year of 1828 or 1829. The 1860 census, taken 14 July 1860, indicates a similar birth year. Yet her gravestone says she was born in 1823. However, if Maria was born as late as 1829, she only would have been 13 at her 1843 marriage. It is more probable she was at least 16, supporting a birth year of 1826.

xii Deed Book, Loudoun County, Virginia, Volume 3S, page 130. Deed of gift dated 5 June 1829, Sarah M. Russell to her daughters Eliza, Sarah E., and C.A.E. Jane Russell. Sarah M. was the wife of John Russell and the daughter of Thaddeus and Sarah Elizabeth (Richardson) McCarty.

xiii 1850 U.S. Population Census, Leesburg, Loudoun County, Virginia, page 349. Neighbors included Burr Harrison, Commonwealth Attorney; John Janney, Lawyer; Charles Eskridge, County Clerk; and George Adie and William Evans, Ministers.

xiv “Biographical Sketch of Mrs. Anna Maria Gant by Bishop Payne,” The Christian Recorder, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, April 11, 1878; page 2, column 6.

xv Leesburg Methodist Church Minutes, Returns of the Leesburg Station for the Conference Year Ending March 1843. The minutes show that the students in Coloured Class No. __ included Anna Maria Hughes and Winifred Jane Gant. The Deacon was Samuel Gover. The returns for 1844 show that Winifred Gant and Anna M. Hughes were in attendance in Colored Class No. 3. Samuel Gover is listed among the Methodist ministers serving Loudoun County in 1843.

xvi Record of Free Negroes. Loudoun County, Virginia, 9 September 1845, pages 25-32. It is widely believed that the seven Gant slaves (excluding Nelson) freed on that date were the children of Eve Gant. Most of them were enumerated in George and Eve Gant’s household in 1850 census for Monroe Township, Muskingum County, Ohio.

xvii Woodburn Estate, formerly Milbourne, home farm of John Nixon, was located near Hughes’ Store, three miles west of Leesburg, Virginia.

xviii Lewis, Zanesville and Muskingum County, Ibid

xix “An Interesting Case and an Important Decision,” The National Era, (Washington, D.C.,) 7 January 1847. Vol. I, No. 1, page 4. Martin Luther King Library, Washington, D.C. This article discusses the case of “The Commonwealth of Virginia versus Talbott,” as it was reported in the Loudoun (Va.) Chronicle of December 25, 1846. The case had been tried at the December 1846 term of the Loudoun County court. Extant copies of the Chronicle for December 1846 have not been found.

xx National Era, Ibid

xxi National Era, Ibid.

xxii Georgia in Black And White: Explorations in the Race Relations of a Southern State, 1865-1950. John C. Inscoe, ed., The University of Georgia Press, 1994. p. 109

xxiii Will of John Nixon, Virginia Will Book, Loudoun County, volume 2B, recorded 8 September 1845. Also, certificate 1333 in the Record of Free Negroes states that Talbot was “emancipated by the last will and testament of John Nixon, dec’d.”

xxiv Shepherd, Virginia Statutes at Large, III, 252; Chapter 63, passed January 25, 1806; in effect May 1, 1806.

xxv The Washingtonian Newspaper, 11 July 1846, page 6t. Microfilm of original at Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg, Virginia.

xxvi Lewis, Thomas W., Zanesville and Muskingum County, Ohio: A History of the Indians Who Trod this Section Ere the White Man Came; of the Making of City and County by the Heroic Pioneers, and the Growth of Local Civilization During Six Score Fruitful Years, Volume II, Chicago, Illinois. The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1927, page 530.

xxvii Personal Property Tax Records, Loudoun County, Virginia, June 1846.

xxviii Loudoun County Personal Property Tax Lists: 1848B Second District, Ghant, Tolbert (free negro) residing with Janney, Samuel M. & son John and Janney, Francis; 1849A Second District, Ghant, Nelson residing with Janney, Samuel M. & son John; and 1850B Second District, Ghant, T. M. (free negro) residing with Janney, Sam’l M.

xxix Acts of the Virginia Legislature, Chapter 70, passed 1837. Compiled by June Purcell Guild in Black Laws of Virginia, published 1932. 1995 edition. Page 139.

xxx A Scrap of History, Ibid.

xxxi Interview with Margarette Goss Winn, Ibid.

xxxii Loudoun County, Virginia Will Book, Administrations, 1846. The second proviso of John Nixon’s will stipulated that his 22 slaves would be relocated to a free state upon their manumission. In July 1846, Executor Thomas Nichols was reimbursed for travel expenses related to relocating approximately 17 slaves. Talbot was not among those relocated at that time.

xxxiii National Historic Landmark Nomination for the F. Julius LeMoyne House; U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Park Service.

xxxiv Memoirs of Samuel M. Janney: Late of Lincoln, Loudoun County, Va.: A Minister in the Religious Society of Friends (Written by Himself). Philadelphia: Friends' Book Association, 1881., pages 92-93.

xxxv A Chronology of Important Events in African American History, by Mr. Eugene Scheel. February 1999, revised April 2004. Thomas Balch Library, Leesburg, Virginia. See also Memoirs of Samuel M. Janney, page 93.

xxxvi Nelson Talbourt Gant to F. Julius LeMoyne, June 6, 1847. Papers of F. J. LeMoyne, Box A24, Folder 1, Washington County Historical Society. Washington, Pennsylvania. Various biographers of prominent Muskingum County residents offer a variation to this timeline, claiming that Talbot had traveled to Zanesville where he had met with abolitionists living in the Putnam area of Zanesville who had given him the money to purchase his wife’s freedom. Although Talbot could have made the round trip from Loudoun to Zanesville within 6 weeks, no record has been found supporting Zanesville historians’ belief that Talbot had traveled to Zanesville before 1847 or had met with the Putnam abolitionists before returning to Loudoun County for Maria. In his letter, Talbot also wrote about help he had received from “many friends in Pittsburgh” among them, Dr. Martin Delaney, who later would serve as a major in the Union Army and who would be among the first black students to attend Harvard Medical School.

xxxvii Letter from Gant to LeMoyne, Ibid.

xxxviii Scrap of History, Ibid. Mr. Eskridge was the Clerk of the Court for Loudoun County who one year earlier had recorded the manumission of the Nixon slaves.

xxxix Letter from Gant to Dr. LeMoyne, Ibid.

xl Ibid.

xli The National Era, Ibid. Because of jurisdiction changes at this time for Washington D.C., it has proven difficult to locate an order of extradition. The area now encompassing Arlington County and the City of Alexandria was retroceded to Virginia by an act of the United States Congress on July 9, 1846. However, the return was not effective until early 1847. There are gaps in some of the records produced during this time.

xlii Ibid

xliii Letter from Gant to LeMoyne, Ibid.

xliv Guild, Black Laws of Virginia, Ibid. page 161.

xlv The National Era, Ibid.

xlvi Talbot’s two other attorneys were Robert P. Swann of Loudoun County, and J.S. Carper. Robert Swann continued to advocate for Talbot as late as 1848, where, at a court held for Loudoun County on the 14th day of August in the year 1848, Attorney Robt P. Swann, Esq., submitted for Talbot an application to renew the certificate of freedom that had been lost [Loudoun County, Virginia Court Minute Book, Volume II, August Court, 1848; page 126].

xlvii The National Era, Ibid.

xlviii Ibid. Also, in his 1847 letter of the LeMoynes, Talbot wrote about attempts to coerce Maria to bear witness against Talbot.

xlix Ibid.

l For example, the opinion of Judge Matthews, case of Girod v Lewis, May term, 1819; Martin's Louisiana Reports, Volume 6, page 559. “It is clear that slaves have no legal capacity to assent to any contract. With the consent of their master they may marry, and their moral power to agree to such a contract or connection cannot be doubted; but while in a state of slavery it cannot produce any civil effect, because slaves are deprived of all civil rights.”

li National Era, Ibid

lii Letter from Gant to LeMoyne and National Era, Ibid. Talbot’s summary of his attorneys arguments match the reporting of the case in the National Era.

liii The National Era, Ibid.

liv Court Order Book, Loudoun County, Virginia, Volume II, December Monthly Court, 1846; page 209.

lv The National Era, Ibid. The Era quotes the Loudoun Chronicle as reporting: "The next witness called was a jet-black negro, who appeared in some trepidation at the prospect before him. The witness was discharged when the prosecuting attorney could not confirm that it was Talbot he had seen in the early morning hours after Maria’s departure.”

lvi Loudoun County Record of Free Negroes, Certificate number 1406, Ibid

lvii Loudoun County Court Order Book, December 1846; Ibid. Maria is stated to have a value of four hundred dollars.

lviii Gant Letter to LeMoyne, Ibid.

lix Will of John Nixon, Ibid

lx Loudoun County Personal Property Tax Lists. See Note 62.

lxi Loudoun County Court Order Book, August 16, 1848; page 132

lxii Loudoun County Court Order Book, November 16, 1848, page 169; March 14, 1849, page 200; June 13, 1849, page 237; August 15, 1849, page 267; November 14, 1849, page 306; March 12, 1850, page 348.

lxiii Loudoun County Personal Property Tax Lists for 1848-1849, Ibid.

lxiv Loudoun County Court Order Book, June 9, 1850; Volume 12, page 10

lxv Loudoun County Court Order Book, Ibid, page 12.

lxvi According to the 1850 U.S. Federal population census for Muskingum County, Ohio, most of the Nixon slaves manumitted with N.T. Gant were living in Muskingum County, Ohio, after having been relocated according to the provisions of the last will and testament of John Nixon.

lxvii Although it appears that the family left Loudoun County sometime after the June 9, 1850 court, it is likely that they arrived in Zanesville sometime after September but before November because the family has not been found in the 1850 census returns for Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, or Washington, D.C. Although the official enumeration day of the 1850 census was 1 June 1850, the actual census day for the part of Loudoun County in which Thomas Nichols and Samuel Janney resided was early September. A sample of returns for communities along the family’s presumed route to Zanesville show census dates ranging from early July (Washington, D.C.) to late-August (Zanesville) to November (Washington County, Pennsylvania).

lxviii Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Muskingum County, Ohio, Ibid.

lxix Letter from Gant to LeMoyne, Ibid. Talbot wrote that “I hope it will not be too long before we reach a land of Freedom where we . . . intend calling on you.”

lxx Rev. Daniel A. Payne [1811-1893] was a family friend. At the time that Payne wrote Maria’s obituary, Nelson was a Trustee of Wilberforce University, from which he resigned when Payne was dismissed for issue. Talbot had been appointed as a representative of the African Methodist Episcopal contingent to the 1881 Ecumenical Methodist Conference in London, which was headed by Bishop Payne. Nelson’s son NT Gant Jr. wrote and published a eulogy upon Payne’s death in 1893, an event of which he was most proud, as evidenced by his response to an alumni inquiry from Oberlin University.

lxxi Lewis, Zanesville and Muskingum County, Ibid. Also, the Christian Recorder, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, contains various references to Frederick Douglas’ visits to Zanesville and the Gant home.

lxxii Biographical Sketch, The Christian Recorder. Ibid.

lxxiii “Jump the Broomstick,” The Negro in Virginia, page 95. Compiled by the Workers of the Writers” Program of the Works Projects Administration in the State of Virginia. John F. Blair, Publisher, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. 1994.

lxxiv Despite a Georgia court ruling in an 1864 murder case (William vs. State, Cat. III, p. 89) that “the marriage relation or what passes with them for that is recognized,” and the same rules of evidence must obtain in their trials for whites” prevailing rulings like that of Howard vs. Howard (N.C. 1858, Cat. II, p. 221), in which the court ruled that “the relationship between slaves is essentially different from that of man and wife joined in legal wedlock . . . With slaves, it may be dissolved at the pleasure of either party, or by the sale of one or both, depending upon the caprice or necessity of the owners.”