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The following guest post by Sondra Yvonne Bivins presents her latest research on various Knight family lines of Piney Woods Mississippi. Thanks to Yvonne’s gathering of family stories and research into primary documents, we have a much deeper knowledge of the often hidden histories of  the multiracial South, and particularly the experiences of enslaved women. If you haven’t already, be sure and read her histories of Vernon Dahmer, Rachel Knight (in three parts),and the Ainsworth-Smith-Knight lines of Mississippi.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

The Family Origins of Harriet Carter Ward

By Sondra Y. Bivins

Introduction

For Black families, oral tradition has been a vital component of family history research.  In the tradition of the African Griot, stories about “the old days” were passed on to younger generations as forms of entertainment mostly in the evenings after supper.  These sessions could be quite entertaining, because normally children were not allowed to hang around when “grown folks talked.”

Alex Haley, author of the successful novel, Roots: Saga of an American Family, relied heavily on the family history of his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, as the basis for his research.  Like Alex Haley, the Knights of Soso, Mississippi, have passed on the story of their matriarch, Harriet Carter Ward and her children.  A few years ago, I discovered a pamphlet compiled for one of their family reunions that included the following about Harriet:

As a young girl, she was taken from her parents and sold to John “Jackie” Knight.  She had [taken] the name Carter from her previous owner. At a very early age, she gave birth to five children fathered by Daniel Knight.  Harriet and her five children remained on the plantation until after the War Between the States.

Photos From brochure of Ward and Knight Family Reunion, 1999

This pamphlet also listed the names of her children, so I used this as the basis for beginning my research.  Looking through this pamphlet, I remembered many of the names and places from stories that I heard when I was a child.

I have found that over the years, facts may be altered or embellished with each retelling of a family story. Given its retelling over the years, the family story about Harriet, as with most family stories, is not 100 percent accurate; however, it is rich in details.

To Be a Slave

I don’t need to pay anybody to tell me about where we came from. Our family tree ends in a bill of sale. Lester is the name of the family that owned us.

Julius Lester, To Be a Slave, 1968

Harriet’s story begins on the plantation of John “Jackie” Knight in Covington County, Mississippi, in the fall of 1846.  John “Jackie” Knight was a small time slave trader and planter whose land was located on both sides of the Leaf River in Covington and Jones County. At the time of his death in 1861, four months before the firing of guns at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, triggered the American Civil War, Jackie owned between 22 and 40 slaves.

Although Jackie Knight was considered to be a so-called “good master” who treated his slaves humanely, life for his slaves was nevertheless difficult.  He did not beat them without cause or work them half to death.  His former slave Martha Wheeler remembered him as kind and good.  Of course, she was just seven years old when he died, but she remembered her father’s and mother’s stories about him. * He was a typical white man who treated his slaves like children and honestly believed that they were better off enslaved because it was for “their own good.”

Between 1850 and 1860, Jackie Knight became one of the richest farmers in the Jones County area.  The 1860 federal manuscript slave schedule shows that he owned 22 slaves who lived in six slave houses (family traditions cite many more). Individuals were not named but were simply numbered and distinguished only by age, sex, and color.  Among these slaves were:

  • 1 black female, age 36 (Phyllis, Harriet’s mother)
  • 1 black female, age 17, female (possibly mother of Claiborne Graves)
  • 1 black female, age 14 (Harriet Carter)
  • 1 black male, age 7 (Claiborne Graves)

On September 4, 1860, John “Jackie” Knight made his “Last Will and Testament,” in which he disbursed the following slave property:

To my daughter Altimarah Brumfield I do will and bequeath a certain Negro girl named Harriet on her paying to the estate two hundred dollars . . . .

 Jackie Knight died on January 9, 1861. His estate was auctioned on March 18, 1861, and his heirs successfully kept his slaves in the family. According to Martha Wheeler, the last three slaves were bought by John Knight’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Coleman Knight.

Harriet Carter’s parents were Andy Carter and Phyllis Knight.  Phyllis was a field hand slave of Jackie Knight.  According to former librarian Kenneth Welch, co-author with Jan Sumrall of Knights and Related Families (1985), the Rev. E. L. Carter, a neighbor of John Knight, was the likely owner of Andy.  Andy Carter apparently died before 1870 as he is not listed on the 1870 and 1880 census records for either Covington or Jones County.

Like her mother, Harriet was a strong, powerfully built, heavyset woman with jet black skin and kinky hair. She never learned to read and write because it was against the law for slaves.  As soon as she reached the age of twelve, Harriet joined her parents and the rest of the slaves in the field.  They worked from sunrise to sunset, with an hour off during the hot summer months. During harvest time, they worked an eighteen-hour day. Field slaves were fed once a day with whatever Jackie Knight chose to give them. They supplemented their diet with whatever they could catch or grow, i.e. raccoons, catfish, and vegetables from a small garden near the cabin.

The summer before Harriet reached her thirteenth year, while she was working in Jackie Knight’s field, his 20-year-old grandson, Dan Knight, took an interest in her. Harriet was powerless to refuse his advances and soon became pregnant with a son who she named after her father, Andy. Slave women had no legal rights over their bodies; Dan could do with her what he pleased. For him, taking Harriet “to the woods” was a simple rite of passage. Although racial mixing was prohibited by law, such laws did nothing to deter the sexual abuse of slave women on plantations.

John Knight’s daughter, Altimarah Brumfield, inherited Harriet in March 1861, a month before Harriet gave birth.  George Brumfield, Altamarah’s husband, owned property located in Covington County, next door to Jackie Knight’s place. At her new home, Harriet worked in the field right up until she delivered Andy Knight in April 1861. After giving birth, she continued to work the in the field, during which time she would leave Andy with one of the old people on the farm.

While Dan Knight was away serving in the Confederacy, Harriet developed a relationship with one of the Brumfield’s slaves, which resulted in the birth of her second son, Joseph Samuel Broomfield, born in January 1865.  Meanwhile, according to family history, Dan Knight resumed his sexual exploitation of Harriet after being discharged from military service and returning to Jones County. Although he married his cousin, Lizzie Knight, around May 1864, he fathered several children by Harriet after the war had ended: Sam was born in September 1867, Joanne in August 1869, and Mary Lee in August 1871. Harriet also had a daughter, Cecile, whose name appears in a journal of births, deaths, and marriages kept by the late Sidney Knight (the journal is now in possession of Florence Knight Blaylock).

It should be noted here that Dan’s father, Jesse Davis Knight, was the father of three of Rachel Knight’s children, born while she was a slave on Jackie Knight’s plantation.

By 1870, Harriet and her children were living in the Soso area of Jones County, Mississippi.  The Jones County census of August 8, 1870, shows that Andy was nine, Joe was five, and Sam was three years old.  Samuel was the only one in the household described as a mulatto (bi-racial).  Harriet was listed without occupation, residing in the home of her mother, Phyllis Knight. At the time of this enumeration, Phyllis was 50 years old.  She was described as a black female whose occupation was “keeping house,” meaning that she did not work outside the home. She owned personal property valued at $200 (the equivalent of about $3400 in 2010) and real estate valued at $40 (the equivalent of about $640 in 2010).

Phyllis’s household was large. It included Harriet Carter, a black female, age 24, and several grandchildren ranging from age 11 to age 3. The children were Claiborne [Graves], age 11; Isaac [?], age 10; Andy [Knight], age 9; Lewis [Graves] age 7; Jackson [Graves], age 6; Joseph [Brumfield], age 5; and Samuel [Knight], age 3. According to Pearline Musgrove Knight, Claiborne, Lewis, and Jackson Graves were Harriet’s nephews.  Their father was a slave whose surname was Graves (possibly owned by Robert Graves whose grandson, Ben Graves, later bragged in an interview that his grandfather once paid $10 a pound for a slave.) All members of the household were listed as born in Mississippi.

In June 1880, Phyllis and her family still lived in Jones County, Mississippi, in the area of present-day Soso. Everyone in the household (dwelling #119) was using the surname Knight.  Apparently, Harriet was unsure of her age because she had only aged six years from the time of the last census.  This census shows a Fellis Nite [sic], a black female, age 56, living with her daughter, Harriet Nite, age 37, and using the Nite [sic] surname.  The following grandchildren lived in the household:  Clabe [Graves], age 20; Jackson, age 18; Lewis, age 17; Andy, age 16; Joseph, age 15; Joanne (Musgrove), age 10; Mary (Coleman), age 6; Emaline (?), age 4; and Bell (Ward), age 2.  Living next door were Isaac Jackson (Isaac Jackson is the same Isaac “Ike” Ward discussed below) age 26, born in Alabama, and Sam Knight, age 12.

In the same Jones County neighborhood was Celia Bruce (Andy Knight’s mother-in-law), who was born in South Carolina.  The Bruce’s had previously been enslaved by Simpson Bruce and still lived and worked on his place. The Bruce household included John, Cherry, Rose (Rose Ann), Jane (Jennie), and Bose.

Isaac “Ike” Ward

 After the births of Bell in 1878 and Matilda in about 1880, Harriet entered into a common-law marriage with Ike Ward around 1882. Back then, if a man and woman moved in together and identified themselves as husband and wife, by law the marriage was legal even though there had been no license or ceremony.

Family tradition says that Ike Ward was born a slave in Alabama to “an Irishman and an African.”  He was very handsome with straight black hair. Ike’s mother, Chanie Dean, is described by a family member as very dark-skinned, tiny woman with short kinky hair.

In the summer of 1870, 13-year-old Ike was living in the area that is now Soso, Mississippi, with his stepfather, Abraham “Abe” Dean, and his mother, Chanie.  The family lived next door to William Jackson, a 29-year-old white farmer from Alabama who owned their land and, before the war, had owned Abe Dean. The Dean household included the following:

  1. Abraham Deen – age 45 – b. in Alabama
  2. China Deen – age 35 – b. in Alabama
  3. Isaac Deen – age 13 – b. in Alabama (Ike Ward)

In June 1880, Abe and Chanie lived in the same area of Jones County in Beat 2. Near them was W. R. Jackson and, in fact, they were using the surname of Jackson.  The 1880 census records shows that Phyllis and Harriet Knight lived only two dwellings away.  As noted above, Ike Ward, (listed by the census enumerator as Isaac Jackson), age 26, and Sam Knight, a 12-year-old mulatto boy, lived together in a house located between those of the Deans and Knights.

In 1882, shortly before Ike and Harriet entered into a common law marriage, Ike fathered a child named Rushia by Rose Holifield. Rose was born a slave in January, 1845, in South Carolina. In 1880, she lived near Ike on a farm owned by John “Mat” Musgrove, the brother-in-law of her former slavemaster, Jonathan Holifield. Mat Musgrove was the father of Rose’s children: Sam, age 13; Frank, age 11; Jack, age 8; John, age 5; and Bija, age 3, although they had not yet begun using the surname Musgrove at the time the 1880 census was taken. (In 1887, Mat Musgrove was killed while breaking into a store in Sandersville. The Musgrove family says that he was accidentally shot by the owner, who mistook him for a burglar; others think that the murder was neither an accident nor a mistake.)

On May 20, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. This act granted 160 acres of surveyed public land to poor settlers after payment of a filing fee and five years of continuous residence. After Lincoln’s assassination, President Andrew Johnson opposed freedmen participation in the Homestead program.  A strong believer in white superiority and black inferiority, President Johnson was dedicated to maintaining a white man’s government. His racial attitudes, shared by many whites, made it very difficult for blacks to obtain land. To become a landowner, former slaves generally needed the assistance and approval of white neighbors, former owners, or white relatives because few homesteads were granted to black claimants.

After hard work, Ike was able to take advantage of the Homestead Act.  On December 30, 1884, he purchased with cash 40.13 acres of land in Jones County, MS.  Six years later, he filed a homestead claim for 160.25 acres of land in the same county.  Several of his relatives followed his lead and became landowners, too.  Andy Knight homesteaded 165 acres in 1892; Jackson Graves, 123 acres in 1895; Lewis Graves, 164 acres in l895; William Dean, 159 acres in 1896; Sam Knight, 41 acres in 1897 and Frank Musgrove, 162 acres in 1901.

The 1900 federal manuscript census for Jones County, Mississippi, shows Ike and Harriet Ward having been married for 18 years and still living in Beat 2 of Soso. Ike gave his birthdate as December 1855; Harriet gave hers as October 1846. Harriet stated that she was the mother of 15 children with 13 still living as of June 1900.  Included in their household were Belle age 21; Frank age 12; Hettie age 14;  Jessie,  age 12; Phyllis age 11;and  Nellie Jane age 8.  Also in the household was William Barnes age 20.

In 1910, Ike and Harriet lived on the Laurel-Soso Road in Soso, Mississippi,  (census dwelling #401)  Ike could neither read nor write, and was a self-employed farmer. Still living with them were Jessie, male age 21; Phyllis, female, age 19; and Nellie, female, age 19.  Also living with them were two grandsons: John Knight, age 19 and Tim Knight, age 18.  Tim and John attended school.  Living next door to Ike and Harriet were Floyd and Lucy Ainsworth Knight and Frank and Leavy Smith Ward.

The marriage of Harriet Carter and Ike Ward endured some forty-five years, ended only by their deaths. In January, 1927, Harriet contracted pneumonia and passed away the following month, on February 6.  She was buried in the cemetery at the Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Soso, Mississippi. Six years later, in 1933, Ike died and was buried next to Harriet.

_______________

*Martha Wheeler’s stories about the Knight family are contained in the published ex-slave narratives and the unpublished papers of the 1930s Works Projects Administration (WPA) for Mississippi.

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A conversation with Victoria E. Bynum  

Author of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies  

Published April 15, 2010  

$35.00 hardcover, ISBN 978-0-8078-3381-0  

The Long Shadow of the Civil War

  

Q. There seems no end to books about the American Civil War. What does The Long Shadow of the Civil War offer that is new?
A.
Although Civil War books about the home front are not new, this is a new sort of home front study that focuses on three communities from three different states. Rather than close with the war and Reconstruction, The Long Shadow of the Civil War follows individual Unionists and multiracial families into the New South era and, in some cases, into the twentieth century. This historical sweep allows the reader to understand the ongoing effects of the war at its most personal levels.
   

Q. What led you to combine three Civil War home fronts, all noted as areas of violent disorder, in one study? Why these three?
A.
Most basically, I combined them in order to provide in-depth comparisons of the communities within the same volume. But there’s more to it than that; the communities have important links to one another. The North Carolina Piedmont was the ancestral seedbed of migration into what became Jones County, Mississippi. Later, East Texas attracted many non-slaveholding Mississippi families seeking a less-developed piney woods region.  

All three regions exhibited fierce Unionist activity during the Civil War, with brothers fighting in separate deserter bands across state lines in two of the communities. So, combining them in one study provided a wonderful opportunity to identify common characteristics of Southern Unionism, while also showing how different geographic settings influenced the nature of the inner civil wars.
   

Q. What were the most important similarities among the three communities of dissent? The most important differences?  

A. All three communities were located outside the South’s plantation belt and all had large non-slaveholding majorities. Important differences were religious practices and length of settlement. The North Carolina Quaker Belt had a history of religious dissent that included Moravian, Mennonite and Dunker sects as well as Quakers.   

Beginning around 1848, Wesleyan Methodism, with its anti-slavery ideals, gained popularity in this region. The Quaker Belt was also a long-settled region of expansive, deeply entwined family networks that lent force and stability to anti-Confederate sentiments.

By contrast, neither Jones County, Mississippi, nor Hardin County, Texas, exhibited significant or organized religious dissent against slavery. As in North Carolina, family networks were important to anti-Confederate activity; however, in East Texas, more recent migration from states like Mississippi meant that family networks were less extensive there. Less cohesive and deeply rooted communities, coupled with politicians’ successful linking of Texas’s 1836 revolution to the Southern cause of secession, undermined organized anti-Confederate activity among non-slaveholders in East Texas.  

Q. Why did you return to the Free State of Jones County, Mississippi, and to the North Carolina Quaker Belt, two regions that you wrote about in previous books, for this study?
A.
Ever since I discovered that a splinter band of Unionist deserters, led by several brothers of members of the Jones County band, kept Confederate forces at bay in the Texas Big Thicket, and after discovering ancestral links between the North Carolina Piedmont and Jones County, Mississippi, I have wanted to combine the inner civil wars of these three regions in the same volume. Doing so also gave me the opportunity to analyze research materials that were not included in my earlier works: two examples are documents concerning the lives of freedpeople and poor whites in Orange County, North Carolina, and Newt Knight’s 1887-1900 Mississippi claim files.  

Q. You cite abolitionism as a motive for anti-Confederate sentiments in only one of your three communities: that of the Randolph County area of the North Carolina Quaker Belt. How and why did religion play such an important role in this region, but not in Jones County, Mississippi, or the Big Thicket of East Texas?
A.
The Randolph County area of North Carolina (including Montgomery and Moore Counties) was the “heart” of the state’s Quaker Belt. Quaker opposition to slavery had faded over time because of the state’s changing demographics, but it never entirely disappeared, making this region fertile ground for Wesleyan Methodists who gained a foothold in the 1850s. In Montgomery County, the Rev. Adam Crooks condemned slavery from the pulpit of the Lovejoy Methodist Church. In contrast, Jones County, Mississippi and Hardin County, Texas, were Baptist strongholds during the secession crisis. I have found no evidence that any Baptist church in either county publically opposed slavery or secession; indeed, the Leaf River Baptist Church of Jones County publically supported the Confederacy.
   

Q. Newt Knight, the controversial “captain” of the Knight Company, is a polarizing figure who even today evokes heated arguments among readers. Why is this so, and how did it affect your historical treatment of him?
A.
As long as we continue to debate the causes, meanings, and effects of the Civil War, Newt Knight’s motives and character will also be debated. We know that he defied Confederate authority during the war, supported Republican Reconstruction afterward, and openly crossed the color line to found a mixed-race community. To neo-Confederates, such facts make Newt a scoundrel and a traitor to his country and his race. To neo-abolitionists, he is a backwoods Mississippi hero who defended his nation and struggled to uplift the black race. My response to such powerful and emotional narratives is to examine critically not only the documentary evidence, but also the mountain of published opinions about Newt Knight that have too often functioned as “evidence” for both sides of the debate.  

Q. Newt Knight, his white wife Serena, and former family slave, Rachel, were the founding parents of a multiracial community. What sort of a community was it in terms of racial identity? How did members of the community identify themselves racially, as opposed to how the larger white society defined them?
A. As segregation took hold in New South Mississippi (1880-1900), the descendants of Newt, Serena, and Rachel were increasingly defined by white society as black, i.e. as “Negroes,” despite being of European, African, and Native American ancestry. Before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, however, few of these descendants identified themselves as “black.” Depending on their physical appearance, including skin shade and hair texture, descendants of Newt and Rachel variously defined themselves as white, Indian, or colored. Whereas white society applied a “one drop rule” that grouped together all people of African ancestry, these descendants self-identified in ways that reflected their multiracial heritage.  

There is no direct evidence of how Newt, Serena, or Rachel racially identified their multiracial descendants. Descendant Yvonne Bivins, the most thorough Knight researcher, was told by her elders that Newt Knight actively encouraged his descendants to identify as white. All that is certain—but nonetheless remarkable—is that they economically supported, nurtured, and lived openly among both white and multiracial kinfolk all their lives.  

Q. By crossing the color line, Newt Knight deviated from the norm by acknowledging and supporting his multiracial descendants. What may we deduce from those facts about his political views on race relations in the era of segregation?
A.
Since we don’t know that Newt Knight identified his multiracial descendants as “black,” we can’t deduce from his intimate relationships with them, or by his efforts to enroll them in a local school (one that he helped create) alongside his white descendants, that he supported equality for all people of African ancestry—that is, for people classed as “Negroes.” Only if we adhere to the “one drop rule”—and assume that Newt Knight did, too—can we conclude that Newt’s protection of his own kinfolk extended to all Americans of African ancestry.  

Newt’s efforts on behalf of freedpeople as a Republican appointee during Reconstruction do not necessarily make him an advocate of black equality, as some historians have argued. There were many Reconstruction Republicans who supported the same basic rights of marriage and military service that Newt upheld for freedpeople, while supporting segregation and opposing black voting rights. We simply don’t know Newt’s political position on these issues.  

Q. For thirty years, Newt Knight petitioned the federal government to compensate his ad hoc military band, the Knight Company, for its support of the Union during the Civil War. What do those petitions reveal about the claims process itself, as well as the Knight Band?
A.
The transcripts from Newt Knight’s extensive claims files suggest the federal government’s hostility toward claims of Southern Unionism, especially after 1887, as the nation sank into a deep economic depression. That year, Newt renewed efforts begun in 1870 to win compensation.  

Several depositions of Jones County men made a strong case for Unionism among the Knight Company. The passage of time, however, doomed Newt’s claim to failure. His Washington, DC lawyers were unfamiliar with the Jones County uprising, while witnesses’ memories of the war faded over time. Most damaging, crucial evidence presented in Knight’s 1870 petition was misplaced by the government and never presented after 1887. At the same time, an expanding literature that portrayed the white South as having been unified around secession made Northerners all the more suspicious of Southern claims of Unionism.  

Q. The Long Shadow of the Civil War is as much about the legacies of Civil War dissent as about the war itself. Why did you include both topics in a single volume?
A.
To truly understand the Civil War, we need to understand its long-term impact on the lives of those who endured it. Southerners who took a Unionist stance lived with that decision all their lives, as did their children and grandchildren. Some struggled to put the war behind them and never spoke of it again; others, like Newt Knight and Warren Collins, defended their actions all their lives, and went on to fight new political battles.  

Multiracial communities that grew out of war and emancipation grew larger and more complex in the late nineteenth century. Faced with racial violence and segregation, many of their members exited the South during these years. But among those who remained, we witness the birth of a multiracial Southern middle class.
   

Q. You locate a long tradition of political dissent among certain Jones County families that found expression in third party political movements after the Civil War. How does this New South agrarian radicalism shed light on Civil War Unionism and vice versa?
A.
In all three regions, I found examples of emerging class consciousness among non-slaveholding farmers as a result of the Civil War. Late in life, Newt Knight, for example, offered a class-based critique of Southern society. Two prominent Unionist brothers, Jasper J. Collins of Jones County, Mississippi, and Warren J. Collins of Hardin County, Texas, went even further, carving out political careers as populists and socialists in two separate states.  

A close study of individual lives reveals how the Civil War reshaped their perspectives. Of course, the majority of Southern Unionists did not join third-party political movements in the aftermath of war. It appears, however, that some ideologically committed Unionists, such as the Collinses of Mississippi and Texas, grew ever more militant in their political views as the years passed.  

Q. Your epilogue, “Fathers and Sons,” compares and contrasts three twentieth-century histories of individual guerrilla leaders written by their sons. What do these biographical sketches reveal about the impact of kinship and politics on the Civil War memories of Southern Unionist families?
A.
All three biographies were written after the deaths of their subjects, and reflect the need for sons to defend notorious fathers against charges of treason, lawlessness, or ignorance—especially in the wake of New South glorification of the Confederate cause. Further complicating Tom Knight’s biography of Newt Knight was his effort to present his father as a hero to the segregated, virulently white supremacist society of the 1930s. At the time of Newt’s death, Tom was estranged from him and the family’s interracial community. He knew little about his father’s early years (his narrative is studded with factual errors) and his “memories” of Newt Knight during the Civil War and Reconstruction were profoundly influenced by his need to valorize Newt and thereby restore respect for his family. Though very different in tone and accuracy, Vinson A. Collins’s and Loren Collins’s biographies of their fathers, Warren J. Collins of Texas and Jasper J. Collins of Mississippi, are presented not only with a sense of each son’s relationship with his father, but also in the context of the nation’s politicized memories of the Civil War.  

###
This interview may be reprinted in its entirety with the following credit: A conversation with Victoria E. Bynum, author of The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies (University of North Carolina Press, Spring 2010). The text of this interview is available at http://www.ibiblio.org/uncp/media/bynum/.
                                                                                                                              PUBLISHING DETAILS
ISBN 978-0-8078-3381-0, $35.00 hardcover
Publication date: April 15, 2010
240 pp., 9 illus., 1 map, bibl., notes, bibl., index
For more information: http://uncpress.unc.edu/books/T-7790.html
The University of North Carolina Press, http://www.uncpress.unc.edu
116 South Boundary Street, Chapel Hill, NC 27514-3808
919-966-3561 (office) 1-800-848-6224 (orders) 919-966-3829 (fax)  

CONTACTS
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Sales: Michael Donatelli, 919-962-0475; michael_donatelli@unc.edu
Rights: Vicky Wells, 919-962-0369; vicky_wells@unc.edu

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Note from Renegade South: Vernon F. Dahmer, a well known Mississippi civil rights worker, was murdered in 1966 by white supremacists connected to the Ku Klux Klan. Before the night of January 10, 1966, when the Dahmer grocery store and home were firebombed, Vernon had been leading voter registration drives in his community. To facilitate that effort, he had recently placed a voter registration book in the grocery store he owned.

Vikki Bynum, Moderator

Dahmer Grocery Store

Vernon Dahmer's grocery store, located on Monroe Road, 3.5 miles from the Jones County line. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

Vernon Dahmer, Western Union Telegram

Telegram from President and Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson expressing sympathy for the family of Vernon Dahmer. Courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

It took many years and five court trials to convict KKK Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers in 1998 of having ordered the murder of Vernon Dahmer. Today, Dahmer is revered for his courageous work on behalf of black civil rights. In honor of his memory, both a street and memorial park in Hattiesburg bear his name.

In the essay that follows, Dahmer’s grandniece, Wilmer Watts Backstrom, and Yvonne Bivins, a member of his extended family of Smiths, Ainsworths, and Knights, enrich our understanding by telling the story of his family roots in southern Mississippi. Dahmer’s multiracial heritage included white, black, and Indian ancestors. The narrative begins with the story of his grandmother, Laura Barnes.

 

The Family Origins of Vernon F. Dahmer, Mississippi Civil Rights Activist

By Wilmer Watts Backstrom and Yvonne Bivins

Laura Barnes was born in Jones County, MS in October 1854. According to her daughter, Roxanne Craft, “she was given to a black family to raise because she was born out of wedlock to a white girl.”

The 1870 census for Twp 9 in NE Jones County, Mississippi, shows that fifteen-year-old Laura was living in the household of Ann Barnes, a 55-year-old mulatto woman born in Mississippi whose occupation was housekeeper. A young mulatto boy, Augustus, age 12, also lived in the home.  Living next door to the Barnes family were Andrew and Annice (Brumfield) Dahmer.

Laura Barnes

Laura Barnes, grandmother of Vernon Dahmer, Sr., courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

Andrew Dahmer was born on 17 February 1836 in Hesse Darmstadt, Germany. After a series of crop failures in the 1840’s, emigration was regarded by many middle class German families as the only remedy against impoverishment in Bavaria, one of the most densely populated areas of Germany. Andrew, James, John, Peter and Henry Dahmer took the opportunity to leave the country for opportunities abroad. Andrew arrived in America in 1851. His brother, James, came the following year in 1852.  The brothers first settled in Kirkwood, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, where they worked for a rich merchant named R. N. Bayley (Bailey).  Peter joined them in the United States in 1865.

After the Civil War, Andrew Dahmer and his brothers became traveling salesmen who peddled their wares in Wayne, Jones, and Perry Counties in Mississippi. Andrew soon met and married Annice Brumfield, whose mother, Altamarah Knight Brumfield, was the aunt of Newt Knight.

Andrew and Annice’s neighbor, Laura Barnes, met Andrew’s brother, Peter Dahmer, in the early 1870s. They began a relationship that resulted in the birth of a baby boy in 1872, who Laura named George Washington Dahmer. Peter apparently did not acknowledge his child, and soon moved to Chickasaw County with several brothers, where they farmed and built a mercantile business.

For giving birth out of wedlock, Laura became a “marked woman.” During this period in her life, she operated a boarding house for the railroad and sawmill workers in northeast Covington County and near “Sullivan’s Hollow” in Smith County. The “Hollow” was notorious for its lawlessness and racial bigotry.  Blacks were not welcome there.  Black families that did live there were descendants of Craft and Sullivan slaves.

Laura hired a black man from the hollow named Charlie Craft. Working closely together on her place, they soon fell in love and developed a relationship. This would bring trouble, because although Laura was raised by a mulatto woman and listed as mulatto on census records, whites still considered her off limits to a black man.

Charlie and Laura Barnes Craft

Charlie and Laura Barnes Craft, grandparents of Vernon Dahmer. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

Charlie Craft was born in Smith County, MS, around 1853.  According to family history, he was part Creek Indian and part African, with piercing eyes and coal black straight hair. A former slave of Bryant Craft, Charlie was known as a man who had never run from a fight. Story has it that after a shootout with the infamous Sullivans, he left Smith County, but doubled back to spirit away his siblings. Because newly freed slaves were not welcome in Smith County, they moved to Covington County, where they settled on a ridge south of the Hollow in the Oakohay area. Here, they established a prosperous community called Hopewell.

By 1880, thirty-year-old Charlie and twenty-eight-year old Laura lived in the Oakohay District.  Four children lived with them: George (Laura’s son by Peter Dahmer), age 10; [Roxanne] Viola, age 7; Bettie, age 5; and Elnathan, age 2. All, including Laura and her son George, were listed as “mulattos” on the 1880 federal manuscript census for Covington County.  Living nearby were Charlie Craft’s mother, Melvina, and several siblings.

One night a local white mob filled with home brew surrounded and attacked their home.  Both Laura and Charlie were excellent shots. Laura shot and killed one of attackers as they tried to protect their children from the mob and, in so doing, the couple had to flee “the ridge.” Laura’s son, George Dahmer, helped them escape.  Upon arriving in the Kelly Settlement, they moved off in the swamps on the Leaf River on the old “William Jenkins Place.”

George Washington Dahmer

George Washington Dahmer, father of Vernon Dahmer, son of Laura Barnes Craft and Peter Dahmer, stepson of Charlie Craft. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr

The area commonly known as Kelly Settlement was settled by John Kelly, a white man born in North Carolina about 1750.  John and his wife, Amelia, left Hancock County, GA, and arrived in Mississippi in late 1819, settling in Perry County on land located in what is now North Forrest County, just across the Leaf River to the west. By 1820, the Kelly household included John, Amelia, sons Green, 16, and Osborne, 18, Osborne’s wife Joene, and nine slaves. Among these slaves were the parents of Sarah, whose descendants later formed Kelly Settlement. Although the 1820 federal manuscript census for Perry County listed no free blacks living in the household of John and Amelia Kelly, descendants claim that Sarah’s folks were not slaves, but free people who accompanied the Kelly family to Mississippi.

After the Civil War, Sarah’s children began to homestead land, marry, and raise children.  Working together as they had down on John Kelly’s place, they cleared the land to raise crops, cut timber, and hauled it to the Leaf River by oxen to float it down to the Gulf Coast.

Laura Barnes Craft’s son, George Dahmer, moved to the Kelly community ahead of the rest of the Crafts. In 1895, George married Ellen Louvenia Kelly, the daughter of Warren Kelly and Henrietta McComb.  Like his own mother, Laura, Ellen’s mother, Henrietta, was a white child born out of wedlock and given to a black family, the McCombs, to raise.  The McCombs were living on the William Jenkins place when the Crafts arrived in Perry County.  Ellen Kelly’s father, Warren Kelly, was the mulatto son of Green H. Kelly and the grandson of John Kelly, the original white settler of the area. Warren Kelly’s mother was Sarah, the daughter of John Kelly’s slaves (or perhaps free black servants).

Warren Kelly

Warren Kelly, son of Green Kelly and Sarah Kelly, father of Ellen Kelly Dahmer, grandfather of Vernon Dahmer. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

Ellen Louvenia Kelly

Ellen Louvenia Kelly, wife of George Dahmer, mother of Vernon Dahmer, daughter of Warren and Henrietta McComb Kelly. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

It was to this community that Charlie and Laura Barnes Craft fled with the aid of Laura’s son, George Dahmer. According to Wilmer Watts Backstrom (their great granddaughter), Charlie and Laura’s family lived in isolation for many years after being forced out of Covington County; they were prone to violent disagreements and exhibited heated tempers. This family drank heavily with much cursing.  They lived down in the swamps isolated from the community until the children were all grown.  As the children became adults, they gradually moved out of the swamps, married and had families of their own.

Charlie was employed by Green Kelly as a night watchman on the Leaf River. He died before 1910 in Forrest County, MS.  By that year, several of his and Laura’s children were married and living in Kelly Settlement, Beat 2 of Forrest County, MS. Although Laura’s name does not appear on the 1910 Census, she was still alive that year. In 1920, she lived with her oldest child, daughter Roxanne Craft Watts, on the Dixie Highway, Forrest County, MS.  Laura died on 5 June 1922, and is buried in the cemetery at Shady Grove Church in Eastabutchie, Jones County, MS.

Wilmer Watts Backstrom

Wilmer Watts Backstrom, granddaughter of Roxanne Craft Watts, great-granddaughter of Charlie and Laura Barnes Craft. Photo courtesy of Wilmer Watts Backstrom

Laura’s son and Charlie’s stepson, George Dahmer, identified as a black man even though his mother and biological father were white, demonstrating how strongly one’s racial identity is shaped by social experience.

George and Ellen Kelly Dahmer were the parents of Vernon Dahmer. George was known as an honest, hardworking man of outstanding integrity, rich in character rather than worldly goods. Like his father, Vernon worked hard and became a successful storekeeper and commercial farmer. Before his tragic death, he served as music director and Sunday school teacher at the Shady Grove Baptist Church, as well as president of the Forrest County Chapter of the NAACP. He and his wife, Ellie Jewell Davis, were the parents of seven sons and one daughter.

Vernon F. Dahmer, Sr.

Vernon F. Dahmer, Sr. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

Vernon and Ellie Dahmer Family
Vernon Dahmer’s wife and children: seated left to right, George Weldon, Ellie J., Alvin; standing, left to right, Vernon Jr., Betty Ellen, Harold. Photo courtesy of Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

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Another Knight descendent has weighed in on the identities of the two women portrayed in my earlier post,   “Who are These Women.” Dorothy Knight Marsh identifies the woman on the left in that photo as Anna Knight, born 1874, the daughter of George Ann and, possibly, Newt Knight. Dorothy, then, agrees with Yvonne Bivins, who speculates further that the lighter-skinned woman on the right is Candace Smith Knight, also born 1874, the daughter of Lucy Ainsworth Smith and the wife of Anna’s brother, John Howard Knight. It does make sense that sisters-in-law who were the same age would pose together for a photograph. Let’s look at that photo again:

Is this Anna Knight and Candace Smith Knight, sisters-in-law?

Is this Anna Knight and Candace Smith Knight, sisters-in-law?

Now let’s look at the picture below of Yvonne’s  mother, Mary Ann Dodds. Mary Ann was Candace’s niece. Both women were descended from Lucy Ainsworth Smith, and all three, Yvonne tells me, were tiny women, under 100 lbs, who were known to greatly resemble one another. Readers can judge for themselves Mary Ann’s resemblence to the woman on the right, above:

Mary Ann Dodds, niece of Candace Smith Knight

Mary Ann Dodds, niece of Candace Smith Knight

Below is an actual photo (unfortunately very faded) of Candace with her husband, John Howard Knight, and their family.

John Howard Knight family. Candace Knight is on the right, in back row. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

John Howard Knight family. Candace Knight is on the right, in back row. Collection of Yvonne Bivins.

 

So, what do you think? Look forward to more observations and perhaps even confirmations!

Vikki Bynum

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Is THIS Rachel Knight?

Is THIS Rachel Knight?

At long last we return to the question of whether a photograph of Rachel Knight exists. (see my earlier post,  “Rachel Knight: Does a Picture of Her Exist?”).  I am pleased to now be in touch with Yvonne Bivins, who has been researching the Ainsworth/Smith/Knight family lines for many years.

Yvonne believes that the woman identified as Rachel on the cover of my book, The Free State of Jones, is probably Anna Knight, daughter of Georgeanne Knight and granddaughter of Rachel. Based on her grandfather’s description of Rachel, she believes the woman in the above photo is much more likely to be Rachel. Grandfather Warren Smith, she writes, “described Rachel as a ‘Guinea Negro,’ meaning she was racially mixed but did not look white nor was she light-skinned, but with “nice hair” not kinky and shoulder length.”

Further descriptions by Warren Smith of Rachel’s appearance led Yvonne to conclude that Rachel’s daughter, Martha Ann Knight, most resembled her.  Photographs do exist of Martha Ann, who, Yvonne notes, looked very much like an “Australian Aborigine.”  Because the woman in the above photo sharply resembles Martha Ann, Yvonne hypothesizes that this just may be a photo of Rachel.

Yvonne makes another important point: “My grandfather,” she states, “said that Rachel’s children did not appear as white as most would believe. They had complexions that ranged from dark olive to light brown, most with coarse black hair with a few red-heads in the mixture. The infusion of fair-skin came from the Ainsworths and not the Knights.”

This is all very fascinating, and I’m sure we haven’t yet heard the final word on Rachel Knight and her progeny.  Thank you, Yvonne, for sharing your research and perspective with us.

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