Part 3 – Connecting with the Descendants of the Bleak House African American Community
Part 1 narrated what happened when Alice and Jon Cannon bought Bleak House, the remnant of Bleak House Plantation, and then found a book with the names of its enslaved residents. Alice was galvanized into learning about those people and finding their descendants. Part 2 tells what she learned about them as talented, self-determining individuals, some still in Virginia, others farther afield.
As part of her research, Alice visited the Albemarle County Historical Society, and eventually learned about someone named Jim Evans, also inquiring about the Rogers family. Alice reached out to Jim immediately, asking if he was a Rogers descendant and informing him about the documents she’d seen, the slave inventory and appraisal. Once Jim was convinced that Alice had sincere intentions, he told her that he was a descendant of one of Rogers’ slaves, Mariah, and her owner, James B. Rogers. He sent her a copy of the same inventory, but with the individuals clustered into family groups. He included a photo of Sarah Belle Evans, a grandchild of Mariah’s, and information about the home in Earlysville where she had grown up. With Jim’s annotated inventory, Alice was able to understand how to begin to make sense of the inventory’s family groups and trace the individuals through census records and slave lists. She and Jim shared stories, but Jim hesitated to take up Alice’s invitation to visit.
The next connection was with Joseph Evans. Joseph is a pastor of a large church in Washington, DC, scholarly and well travelled. He keeps the tradition of going to family gatherings in West Virginia, and on one of those visits, heard stories about his ancestor, Calvin Evans, from his Aunt Amy. He emailed the Historical Society to ask where Calvin Evans was enslaved, and the inquiry was passed along to Alice, because by then she was known for her Bleak House research.
Alice wrote to Joseph with family information, and the following week, he came to Earlysville with his wife, Patricia. They visited Bleak House, them went to the family graveyard in Earlysville and to Link Evans’ home. Joseph Evans was the first descendant to visit the property where his ancestors had once been enslaved. He and his wife were also welcomed with open arms into Link Evans’ home by the current owner.
There is an extraordinary twist to the story of this visit. When Alice first visited the Evans graveyard, before she’d connected with Joseph Evans, she was interrogated by a white man who lives nearby. This man asked about her reasons for going into the graveyard and told her how he had taken responsibility for cleaning and protecting that land. When Alice took Joseph Evans to see the graveyard, she first cautioned him about the caretaker. Sure enough, as soon as Joseph Evans stepped out of Alice’s car, the caretaker rapidly appeared. Pastor Evans opened his arms, saying “Thank you. Thank you so much for caring for my family’s graveyard.” The caretaker stopped in his tracks. Then he ran into Pastor Evans’ arms, weeping. “I’ve been waiting for you all this time. I’ve been taking care of your family for you all this time. And here you are.”
The first Evans reunion at Bleak House was in 2011, a small gathering, with descendants of Calvin Evans line. The graveyard caretaker was invited and formally thanked by the family. He continues to be cherished by the Evans family.
The second reunion, held in 2014, brought together 70 Bleak House descendants from California, DC, North and South Carolina, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, and West Virginia. Jim Evans and his son, Jim Jr., drove from Ohio and finally visited their ancestral home. They ate, shared family photos and stories, took pictures, and talked. In letters and emails since then, the descendants have told Alice that the experience of being at Bleak House, of being on the land and in the landscape where their ancestors lived and worked, is extraordinarily meaningful and important, no matter the ugly past.
Another line of Evans family descendants has also visited Bleak House and the Link Evans house and graveyard. this family is descended from Link Evans and did not know there were other living descendants from the Mariah Evans line. As the patriarch of the family said, “I thought all my extended family would fit in one car!” They have attended one of the large West Virginia Evans family reunions and are now connected to a much larger family.
The Bleak House Evans family descendants are often in touch with Alice. Her Bleak House family has branched out all over the country, like one of the great oaks in front of the house.
Alice continues to hope that descendants of other families once enslaved by the family of James B. Rogers – the Whipps, Reed, Woodfolk, Bibb and Jefferson families – will discover their Bleak House roots and be welcomed to Bleak House.
The research behind the Bleak House Plantation stories was made possible by the generous help of many, especially Jim Evans and the members of the Central Virginia History Researchers. Thank you to Prinny Anderson who believed in the power of this story and shared it with the BitterSweet community. Alice Cannon.