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.
Part 1 – Finding the House, Looking for the People
At the Telling the History of Slavery conference, the woman I sat next to looked to be about my age, and like most of the attendees, not someone I knew. We introduced ourselves before the speakers began, and at the first break, shared more information. Something about the same way we each dealt with the question “where are you from?” alerted me to listen more carefully. As my neighbor listed the countries she had lived in as a child, “Burma” rang all the bells. “Alice! Alice Cannon! Are you Alice Purnell who lived next door to me in Rangoon?” She is. Our families were next door neighbors when Alice’s and my fathers worked for the American Embassy in Rangoon, Burma, in the early ‘50’s. We were very small then, but we could remember our cats who were siblings, our shared disaster with the bees in the hedge, and our study partnership in Miss Gevney’s one-room American school. Alice is an only child, but she remembered my little brother, too.
A blessing of tracing genealogy back to colonial America is that so much of its documentary history has been so richly excerpted in published histories or reproduced in full in a variety of formats that it’s not always necessary to seek out the original sources. And of course, the internet has opened the doors to these documentary resources even wider.
Joyceann Gray, Monique Crippen-Hopkins and Sarah Brown are “linked through slavery”. Joyceann and Monique’s ancestors were enslaved by Sarah’s ancestors, the Washington family. When Sarah published her most recent post, about her connection with Monique’s family, Joyceann spoke out about her feelings about the piece. The three of them decided that the Facebook dialogue that followed was important, and would be valuable as a post of its own.
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?
A couple of weeks ago, Sharon Morgan emailed me to let me know that someone had posted information on her Our Black Ancestry website that linked my slave owning Furman ancestors to the writer’s enslaved ancestors. This was totally out of the blue exceptthat Sharon has been working hard for many years to make these connections happen. In her email to me, my ancestral link, Michelle Hammett-Ross, says, “Wow I am so excited to hear from you! This is like coming full circle to allow healing from the ‘bittersweet’ past.”
But this is not the first time Our Black Ancestry (OBA) has linked me to someone looking for their ancestors. A couple of months ago, Trina Roach, who lives in Germany, found me through posts about my family I had written for BitterSweet: Linked Through Slavery that she found referenced in OBA. She had irrefutable proof that my ancestors had owned hers!
OBA helps people explore and appreciate African American family history and culture. Believing that we “empower our future by honoring our past,” OBA contributes to an African American genealogical legacy that goes beyond the recording of names, dates and places into the realm of elevating genealogy to promote positive community and family values.
This is the final post in my series of three on the connection of my father’s family to slavery —a 110-year legacy— and my search for African American descendants whose ancestors toiled on my family’s plantations in South Carolina. This post takes us to the Civil War and my 5th great grandfather, James C. Furman. Like his father before him, he was a slave owner, Baptist minister and educator. Along the way, I have had the help of genealogist Sharon Morgan and Trina Roach, a recently revealed linked descendant. Sharon helped guide me through the murky records of the censuses and other on-line research. Trina provided me with irrefutable evidence —by way of a 1916 article in a local Sumter County, South Carolina, newspaper—that some of her ancestors were owned by mine. Trina found me online through Sharon’s website, Our Black Ancestry, which links to the BitterSweet: Linked Through Slavery blog. She also provided me with information about her family from the 1870s, as well as other materials, which she has graciously allowed me to use in this post. I thank both Sharon and my linked descendant, Trina, for their help with this journey.
My internet connection had been down all day. I was beginning to get very perturbed—for a lot of reasons. One was that author and genealogist Sharon Morgan was going to help me scour the internet to look for possible linked ancestors on my father’s side of the family, a task I thought might be impossible. (I’ll describe our work toward this effort in another post.) I had “won” Sharon’s services at the Coming to the Table silent action in May of this year, and I was anxious to get started.
In my previous post about the Furman family’s slave legacy, I wrote about my first ancestor in South Carolina, Wood Furman, and his connection to slavery. In this post, I write about Wood Furman’s son, Richard Furman (my sixth great grandfather), and his life as a Baptist minister and a slave owner. I’m also pleased to introduce Trina Roach, my first linked cousin on my father’s side of the family, who found me through Sharon Morgan’s Our Black Ancestry site and the BitterSweet: Linked Through Slavery blog. (See story in previous post.) For this post, Trina has shared some of her research about her ancestors who were owned by mine.
This is the first of three posts about my initial efforts to identify linked descendants connected to my slave-owning ancestors on my father’s side of the family in South Carolina. These ancestors are Wood Furman (1712 – 1783), Richard Furman (1755 – 1825) and James C. Furman (1809 – 1891). On my mother’s side, I have a rich history of on-going relationships with the descendants of enslaved people at a plantation in South Carolina (see Shared History) that my cousins and I still own today—the remnants of what Sherman left behind. Several African American families stayed on the place after the Civil War and maintained relationships with my family that continue to this day.
I must begin this blog by acknowledging the tremendous advantage I have as a white person from a privileged family in undertaking this research—an advantage I recognize is not generally shared by black people or, for that matter, the majority of white people. Because of this family legacy, I have access to historical records and documents from the early 18th century right up to the present concerning my father’s family. For African Americans, the census records do not even record names until 1870, and most whites descended from slave owners do not necessarily have ancestors who were in this country during colonial and Revolutionary War periods.
Using these documents, these three posts will describe my journey to find ancestral links to specific descendants of enslaved people and as well as document my paternal connection to slavery.
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I’m looking for the descendants of Sirrah, Glasgow and Jinny, three people owned by my 7th great grandfather, Wood Furman, whose descendants, sadly, I will probably never find. An additional person, Moll, is listed as collateral with Glasgow, on a mortgage to purchase additional land by Furman in St. Thomas Parish, South Carolina (Mortgage Book AAA p. 413, no date from secondary resource provided). These two enslaved people were surely worth a considerable amount of money to be accepted as collateral for this debt. Just knowing the names of these four people, I can at least begin to acknowledge them and their plight. I can perhaps imagine their lives as enslaved humans and attempt to remember and honor them.