I’ve been avoiding writing for this blog, because I thought I have not been able to find any linked descendants. But thinking about it a few weeks ago, I realized that is not true, though I was far too young to realize the importance of the meeting.
The story begins in Richmond, VA, in 1860. My father’s maternal great grandfather was John Venable Hardwicke. He lived in Richmond with his wife, Margaret, his son, Charles Wood Hardwicke, and three anonymous enslaved people. One was a young woman about 25 years old. The others were boys 7 and 8 years old, perhaps her sons. I now believe the woman was likely pregnant, though I have no direct evidence to that effect.
The story now moves forward to 1920, still in Richmond. Charles Wood Hardwick had grown up and lives there with his wife, Alice, and his daughter, Louise, her husband, Charles Henry Collier, and their children, Charles, Louise, and Sarah. Charles Hardwick also employed several African American servants, one of whom was a cook, named Mary Jones, who was about 60 years old, though no one knew her actual birthdate. Mrs. Jones had worked for the Hardwick family for years, since she was a young woman, and she and the Hardwickes had a very close relationship.
Finally, the story jumps forward to 1950, to Wilmington, DE. Little Charles Collier had married Katheryn Powell. They had two sons, Charles and Ken, me. There was a family gathering in Richmond of some kind, and we traveled down for it. My parents decided that I was too young to attend this event, so they arranged for me to be cared for at the home of my father’s aunt.
Mrs. Jones was then about 90 years old, too old to work. But my father’s grandmother, Alice, had assured her that she could live with the Hardwickes as long as she liked or needed. When Alice died, her daughter, my grandmother’s older sister, honored that promise, and Mrs. Jones lived in her home. This is the home to which I was delivered for babysitting.
It didn’t take long before Mrs. Jones heard that I was there. My father’s childhood nickname was “General”, and she insisted on meeting “General’s son”. I remember being taken to a back room in the upper story of the house and being introduced to her. I have no memory of anything that was said, but I do remember her and the bright white linen cap that she wore. I had never seen anything like it and was fascinated.
Over the years when we would travel again to Richmond for one reason or another, there was always talk of “Mary” and how she was doing. (It would be more than 55 years before I learned her last name.) She died in 1961 “about 100 years old.”
After both my father and his parents had died, it suddenly dawned on me that Mrs. Jones was in all likelihood born into slavery. I asked my mother about that. She told me it was her understanding that Mrs. Jones had been given into the family as a wedding present, a brutal but common practice in the Antebellum South. Subsequently I learned that Mrs. Jones could not have been given as a wedding present, but the young enslaved woman living in the Hardwicke home could have been.
Whatever the truth of the wedding present story, could it not have been the case that this young woman enslaved in 1860 by the Hardwickes was Mrs. Jones mother? And if so then, then meeting her, had I not met the woman who was, in all likelihood, the last living person enslaved by my family? I believe so.
I still have unanswered questions. First, I do not have firm evidence that Mrs. Jones’ mother was enslaved by John Hardwicke. Second, even if she was Mrs. Jones’ mother, I do not know who her father was. It could have been John Hardwicke, but it could also have been someone else, someone completely unrelated to me. Third, I know nothing of her family. Since her name was a very common one, I have been unable to trace her through census records with any degree of certainty. But I believe that she had children, and likely also grandchildren. If I could find them, I might be able to answer some of these questions.
In any event, the memory of that meeting 63 years ago between a very old woman and a very young boy has haunted me over the years. It was a gift. It lay, almost but not quite dormant, in my heart for years, growing more and more insistent until it became a restlessness urging me to find out the truth of my family as slaveholders. At least at this level, Mrs. Jones and I are linked by slavery.