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
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.
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 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 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
Around 1882, after the births of Bell in 1878 and Matilda in about 1880, Harriet entered into a common-law marriage with Ike Ward. 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:
- Abraham Deen – age 45 – b. in Alabama
- China Deen – age 35 – b. in Alabama
- 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.