Part One of this series is titled “Paper”. It explains my family background, and how I was launched on this journey. Many thanks to the members of Bittersweet, for your stories and your support.
PART TWO – “PEOPLE – THE THOMPSONS”
My family sold their plantation, Claymont (or Claymont Court) in Jefferson County, West Virginia in the wake of the Civil War, and headed west around 1905 to start over. An archive of wills, inventories and letters remained with them. I tell the story of these papers and how they initiated my search for linked descendants in Part One of this post. From these papers I made a spreadsheet to help me visualize the slave population on my family’s plantations, and used it to explore the many answers to the one enormous question that arose; who were the individuals my ancestors regarded as property, visible only as shadows on inherited sheets of paper?
Solomon Thompson looks over my right shoulder as I write this. His photo is tacked to a beat-up piano in my music/writing room. I never imagined that I would be able to look into the dignified, guarded eyes of this man. He is a real presence. From my contemporary perspective he seems sad or wary, or possibly just unaccustomed to being photographed. His undirected stare might be the common expression of a “servant” who has learned to be both present and absent, without being able to freely choose either.
(for more insight on the above paragraph, read about the dialogue it produced among my linked ancestors) here: https://linkedthroughslavery.com/2015/03/31/black-rugwhite-rug-a-dialogue-among-three-linked-an estors/)
Until mid-September of 2014 only the barest trace of Solomon Thompson was visible to me; his name on the 1854 inventory of my great-great-grandfather Thomas Blackburn Washington’s “possessions” at death – “Solomon Thompson (32) – $800”. Today I know about his parents and siblings, his original African ancestors, and the accomplishments of his children and grandchildren, thanks to Monique Crippen-Hopkins, Joyceann Gray and some unexpected treasure in a Kansas archive.
I was looking for the descendants of five hundred and thirty-eight individuals, families who truly owned the pieces of history that had remained in my family’s custody. Of those five-hundred and thirty-eight only around thirty men, women and children shared fifteen last names; none of these names are authentic to their African families, of course. I made my way through these last names one-by-one, looking for clues to family histories. After initially weak results, my luck changed when I arrived at Solomon Thompson. I found him on an 1870 census, still living in Jefferson County, WV with his wife Eliza and grown son Jasper, and Jasper’s wife Dolly. Using census information I was able to follow the paths of Jasper’s children. By 1900, the oldest, Solomon H. Thompson, had moved to Kansas City; the census listed his occupation as “physician”. I made a 21st century leap and Googled him. The results astonished me; Solomon H. Thompson received a medical degree from Howard University in 1892, and became the founder of the first hospital for black Americans west of the Mississippi.
I was electrified by the distance traveled by this man, whose grandfather had been forty-three when he was finally emancipated. Only two generations out of bondage, the Thompsons had flourished.
I spent an afternoon looking on line for Thompson descendants, many of whom became educators and community leaders, and discovered that the Kansas City Thompson family had donated their archives to the University of Kansas (they are not available on line, so I planned to send away for them.) Still, I had no success connecting with the mid-west Thompsons. I skipped to another page of Google results and found the link to a blog titled “My Journey- Breaking Down the Walls.” Monique Crippen-Hopkins was exploring her relationship to these same people – her father’s family.
Monique had been looking for information on the murder of her 2x great-grandfather, Jasper Thompson. She knew very little about Jasper’s father, the Solomon who was enslaved at Claymont. She had hit the infamous “Wall of 1870”, a research barrier that presents great difficulty to African-American genealogists; no census earlier than 1870 contains the last names of enslaved people, or even first names. The pre-1870 “Slave Schedule” (slave census) lists only age, gender and “color.” Monique’s blog mentioned that Jefferson County historian Jim Surkamp had provided her with information on Jasper’s fate. I knew about Jim (he has written extensively about the Washington family) and contacted him. Through him I gingerly reached out to Monique, telling her I had an image of an inventory with Solomon’s name, hoping to provide her with a bridge into the Thompson’s past.
Her reply filled my heart. She was excited and open, thrilled to have new a thread of information. She wrote “my family history is coming to life right before my eyes.” The apology I offered for the wrongs inflicted by my family upon hers was graciously accepted. I was overcome when she sent me the picture of Solomon, preserved by her family.
Monique and I have continued our explorations, helping each other along the way (see Monique’s blog post from September 2014.)
Reading her blog I discovered that Jasper had joined the 23rd Colored Infantry, fighting for the Union while his father was still enslaved. It was disturbing to read about Jasper’s 1907 murder, in confusing circumstances, by a man identified as a white separatist. Nonetheless, Jasper’s children attended Storer College, opened in nearby Harper’s Ferry in 1865 to serve the local black population. Six years earlier my great-grandfather attended the trial of John Brown; Monique’s great-grandmother attended his hanging.
Through the Facebook page of Our Black Ancestry, the ultimate online meeting place for African-American genealogists, both Monique and I met Joyceann Gray. They later discovered a number of ties to each other through marriage. Joyceann is descended from the Hatter family, who hold a fascinating and unique place in this saga; they too were enslaved on plantations owned by the Washingtons. The Hatter’s story is too big to contain in this same post; my next post will look at the Hatter/Washington connection.
It was Joyceann who sent away for the archives of the Kansas City Thompsons, which she forwarded to Monique. Monique’s blog relates her excitement in finding “my ENTIRE family history from the Thompson side was written out on just a few pieces of paper. It looked like the pages were from a Family Bible.”
Monique and Joyceann shared their discovery with me. The wealth of information was breathtaking, filling in gaps I assumed might always be empty. I now knew the stories behind many names on my “table”; I saw that Solomon Thompson’s parents Fortune Thompson and Haney Richardson had also been slaves on Washington plantations, and some of their parents too. Fortune’s father had been a free man. There was new information that could answer questions about the Thompsons who actually inherited a Washington family home, Prospect Hill (part of the Claymont property) from Bushrod Herbert, a bachelor cousin. Please visit Monique’s blog for the full story.
On Oct. 2nd, 2014 Monique Crippen-Hopkins and her family came to Charles Town, WV. I had already been there for a few weeks, researching. The night she arrived we pored over her photographs of Jasper, Dolly and their children, and of later generations. Her family came alive to me. The next day we drove a a few miles out of town to the Claymont Society for Continuing Education, formerly the Washington family’s Claymont Plantation. Around 1820, ninety people enslaved by my ancestors built the original thirty-four rooms for my 3x great-grandfather, the first Bushrod Corbin Washington. He was raised in part at Mount Vernon as the ward of his uncle, Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, George Washington’s heir (the name Bushrod was endlessly recycled.) After a massive fire and over a century of remodeling and restoration, Claymont grew to fifty-nine rooms. The family was ravaged by the Civil War, and sold the property in 1871. The Claymont Society now conducts spiritual retreats and seminars there, providing a peace to many. It’s a remarkable place, and the Society makes it a welcoming one.
I’d explored Claymont a few other times, and become entranced by a sense of time-travel. I’d come to know something of the original inhabitants by reading their letters, and saw that they were subject to all the human joys and hardships. But I was still agog at how my family had once lived, and still appalled by their choice to enslave others. In my research I found that some had struggled greatly with this hypocrisy – but facts are facts.
While there was a sense of return as we toured the house, Monique, her brother and her three daughters were saddened by the echoes of the departed souls of their ancestors, and felt the presence of their spirits. In Monique’s company my emotions were compounded exponentially. Even the physical dimensions of the house seemed changed – the stairs were steeper, the cellar deeper and darker. There are twenty-four fireplaces, ever hungry in Solomon’s day; a few people had likely spent their entire lives feeding them. Every domestic feature of Claymont could be measured by the unending labor it represented.
I wanted to give Monique something to commemorate her family’s lives at Claymont. Amy Silver, the Society’s president, offered to dig up a small boxwood shrub, possibly seeded from the original landscaping. I presented it to Monique and she gracefully accepted it in the same way she accepted my earlier apology of behalf of my family. Now I wonder why I thought my gesture was appropriate, or anything less than clumsy. It represents her ancestors’ forced labor as much as it represents their home.
Monique’s Claymont family retained their history against stiff odds, in the face of white America’s conventional indifference. America has always been interested in the Washingtons; that’s why my family’s archive is now available to the public at the Fred W. Smith Library at Mount Vernon.
I can easily tie myself in knots while sorting through the issues I’m dealing with. Simply by tackling what I’ve inherited, I wrestle with the feeling that I’m personally involved in the institution of slavery. Like all white Americans, I’m privileged. I’m handling inventories that have no right to exist, and yet they do. And I’m handling them by virtue of opportunity. I remind myself to keep my eyes on the goal – addressing historical harms by redrawing the community at Claymont.
I’ll cover the story of the Hatters, who found freedom in Canada, in “Part Two: People (The Hatters)”. It contains the fraught history of the colonization of Liberia, and illuminates my 3x great-grandmother’s struggle with the morality of slavery.
Part Three “Music”, talks about the impact of African-American music on my life, and my search for linked descendant musicians.