I am a family historian writing about my genealogy research and communities of color primarily in the Southeast, especially North Carolina, as those of you who followed my previous blog on backintyme.biz (Margo Lee Williams’s Blog – currently not available for viewing) or read my books (Miles Lassiter and From Hill Town to Strieby) know. I will be continuing to do the same here. In addition, I will post information about DNA and its place in genealogical research as well as other topics of historical and genealogical interest. So stay tuned!
Emperor Jones’ Land in Suwannee County, Florida, Retrieved from HistoryGeo.com
When searching the Bureau of Land Management records for information on African American Homesteaders in Section 12, in Township 25, in Suwannee County, Florida, where my great grandfather Randel Farnell lived, I discovered that one name, Emperor Jones, had not been granted his claim based on the Homestead Act of 1862. He had been granted a claim based on the Pre-Emption Act of 1841. This act allowed individuals to claim federal land as their personal property. In order to complete acquisition of pre-emption land, the claimant had to reside on the land and work consistently to improve the land for at least five years. The Act was specifically designed to help those already living on the land, otherwise considered “squatters,” to acquire legal ownership of their property. Here is what has been learned about Emperor Jones of Suwannee County, Florida.
Emperor Jones was born in February 1839 according to the 1900 census, though possibly as early as 1836, based on the 1880 census.  He reports that he was born in Florida in all census records where he is found, to wit: the 1880, 1900, and 1920 censuses. In 1880, he was found living in Greenville, Madison County, Florida. He said that his father was South Carolina, but in 1900, he said his father was born in Georgia. In 1880, he was married to Louisa Ferguson, also from Madison County, and had four children. They would eventually have 11 children.
It has been stated by descendants that he was the son of Bright Jones and “Thirsy” (Theresa?) Harris. There was a Bright Jones, reporting his age in 1870 as 45, just barely old enough to be Emperor’s father, if the 1839 birth year is accepted. In 1870, Bright also lived in Madison County, Florida, just “outside” the town of Madison, with his wife, Maria, and their children. He reports that he was from North Carolina. If Bright was the father, Maria was not the mother, since she was too young to have given birth to Emperor. Her age was reported as 30, making her a contemporary of Emperor. No record for the reported mother of Emperor, “Thirsy,” has been identified as of this date.
On 13 March 1883, Emperor Jones paid $0.25/acre on 79.78 acres in the NE ¼ of the NW ¼, and the NW ¼ of the NE ¼, of Section 12 (the same section as my great grandfather, Randel Farnell’s Homestead claim), in Township 2S, of the Range 13E Meridien in Suwannee County, for a total of $99.75. As stated above, this land was not being acquired under the Homestead Act of 1862, but rather the Pre-Emption Act of 1841.
Like the Homestead “proving up” process, Emperor had to testify on his own behalf. In February of 1883, he stated he was 40 years old (which would make his birth year 1843), a Native-born citizen, and that he was married with four children. He said he had first settled the land the year before in January of 1882. He stated that the land was not within the incorporated limits of any town or city, nor slated to be so, but was served by the Live Oak Post Office in Suwannee County. He said that he did not own land in another state, that he had not interrupted his residency on the land at any time in the past year. He declared that it was his intention to cultivate the land to grow corn and cotton. To date, he had cleared five acres. One interesting piece of information about the property was that the log dwelling house, barn, and kitchen where he lived originally belonged to a “JP Greene,” but they were his now. “JP Greene” may have been James P. Greene, who was living in Houston postal area in 1870, working for the Railroad.
Again, as with the Homestead “proving up,” there were several witnesses who testified: W. B. (William Butler) Telford,  A. R. (Abner R.) Creekmore, M. L. (Madison L.) Johnson, and Jerry Fulcher. William Butler Telford was white, born in South Carolina, and a Confederate veteran. He filed his own Pre-Emption claims in 1884 and 1889. Abner Roberson Creekmore was also white, born in Mississippi, and a Confederate veteran. He was not listed as a Homestead patentee or Pre-Emption claimant. Madison Johnson was an African American, born in Georgia. He received his Homestead patent in 1878. Jerry Fulcher was African American, born in Florida. He did not file for either Homestead or Pre-Emption land, but his wife, Martha Washington Fulcher, who was born in Georgia, filed for Homestead land in 1880, four years before she married Jerry Fulcher.
Notice was also posted in the Florida Bulletin, noting that four individuals had testified on 27 February 1893, on behalf of Emperor Jones. The claim was approved on 20 December 1884, patented 25 February 1885, and recorded in volume 10, page 251, at the Gainesville, Alachua County, Land Office. 
Emperor Jones lived another 43 years, dying on 23 December 1928, in Suwannee County, most likely on the land he acquired in his Pre-emption claim. It is not known at this time where he was buried.
A Different Emperor Jones
Some researchers have speculated that this Emperor Jones served in the United States Colored Troops. He did not. The Emperor Jones that enlisted in the USCT reported variously that he was from Craven County or Jones County, North Carolina in his enlistment records. He enlisted in New Bern, Craven County in Company D Company, 35th US Colored Infantry, in the summer of 1863. He mustered out in 1866, on Folly Island, Charleston County, South Carolina. At that time, his age was recorded as 22, which would make his birth year 1844. He was presumably the same Emperor Jones living on neighboring Johns Island, with his wife, Venus, in 1870, and when he signed up with the Freedmen’s Savings Bank in March 1871. In his bank entry, he stated that his parents were Jeff and Phillis Jones, and that he had a brother Abram. He continued to live on Johns Island, Charleston County, until he died sometime between 1873-1880, when Venus reported being a widow with two children.
William Gainer Williams (1869-1953), oldest son of Joshua W. Williams
Currently, there is a lot of discussion around voting rights and potential voter suppression. Many are anxious to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Bill in Congress. Sadly, this is an issue that has been of concern for 153 years since the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870. One case in point revolved around allegations of voter suppression in the 1880 congressional election in various Florida counties.
In Live Oak, Suwannee County, where my family lived, the election came under scrutiny because of allegations of behaviors recognized as voter suppression, and in some cases, intimidation, resulting in many registered voters of color not being able to vote. Their complaints, along with those of others in the state, were significant enough that the Republican candidate, Horatio Bisbee Jr., filed a lawsuit and launched a congressional inquiry. The lawsuit and congressional inquiry were known as Bisbee Jr. v. Finlay. 
I gained many insights into the political activism of the community of color in Suwannee County from reviewing the data and testimony of witnesses. Several of the witnesses were Florida Homesteaders and witnesses for the proving up process for other homesteaders.
Elijah Carruthers was one of the original witnesses for the application for homestead land by my great grandfather, Randel Farnell. He was one of the first witnesses to testify in the Bisbee case.
“My name is Elijah Coruthers. I live about four miles from Live Oak. On November 2, I was living about one mile from Live Oak. I was a registered voter at Live Oak, precinct No. 1. I voted at two Presidential elections, General Hayes’ and General Garfield’s. I did not vote at the regular poll at district No. 1, on November 2, 1880. The way was so crowded when I came at one o’clock in the afternoon, there was about fifty men in the line when I came – that is the crowd I speak of. I did not get no [sic] nearer the ballot box than the corner of the house, and there was twenty-five or thirty behind me when the poll closed who had not voted. A white man by the name of Granger came to the poll with me and got in the line just ahead of me, and he came out and went under the gangway, … and was allowed to vote. He voted the Democratic ticket. … About half hour before sundown W. H. Reding came to the line after he had voted, who is No. 324 on the poll – list, and asked us if we had voted, and we told him no, and he said I have just come and I have voted, and that we may just as well get out for we would not get to vote. … Mr. Reding was a Democrat. I do not know of any Democrat that did not get to vote, but I know of a good many Republicans that did not get to vote.” 
William Evans was another of the witnesses on Randel Farnell’s Homestead application who gave testimony.
“I came to the poll at Live Oak precinct, district No. 1, Suwannee County, Florida, about 1 o’clock, and John Fraser came between 4 and 5 o’clock, and went round us from the line and voted, while I did not get my vote in at the regular poll at all, though I had been there since 1 o’clock; I was entitled to vote, being a regular voter: if I had have voted I would have voted the Republican ticket, for H. Bisbee for Congress ; which ticket I did vote in the hall of the court-house at night on the 2d of November, 1880.”
Henry was a Florida Homesteader and a witness for my great grandfather Randel Farnell’s final proof for his homestead claim. Henry told a similar story to Elijah Carruthers’ testimony.
“I was not allowed to vote at the regular poll at said voting place. If I had have been allowed to vote I would have voted the Republican ticket, and H. Bisbee, Jr., for Congress; which ticket I did vote at night, in the hall of the court-house … . I went to the poll about 9 o’clock in the morning and staid [sic] there all day, and did not get a chance to vote. The reasons I did not vote at the regular poll on said election day are the same as those given by other witnesses on yesterday at this examination and also today.”
Other witnesses included homesteader Ned Wilson, and Randel’s half-brother, Henry Farnell. However, for me, the most interesting of the testimonies was that of Joshua W. Williams, my other great grandfather.
Joshua W. Williams
Joshua W. Williams was a Republican “inspector,” or poll watcher for the 1880 election. He was interviewed about the events at the election. He explained in more detail what happened.
“My name is Joshua W. Williams. I was present from 8 o’clock on the morning of the general election on the 2d day of November, 1880, until about 2 o’clock that night, at the Live Oak precinct, district No. 1, Suwannee Count, Florida. I was a Republican inspector at the Live Oak poll. About 9 o’clock in the morning there was a crowd standing in front of the poll window. I was setting next to the window, and about that time there had been about twenty white votes cast and about two colored votes cast, when the colored voters complained that they could not get to the poll on account of there being so many white voters crowding around the window. I spoke to Mr. Blount and Mr. Mosely, the other two Democratic inspectors, and they stopped receiving votes to listen to me. I said that there must be some arrangements made by which one colored and one white man could come and vote together. They said that the sheriff and marshal would attend to that outside, and they commenced voting again. This stopped the voting [for] about five minutes, and the white crowd continued at the window voting until I called the attention of the other inspectors to it the second time. Then Mr. Blount, the Democratic inspector, spoke to the marshal and said, make those men stand back from the window. Then they commenced voting one white and one colored man alternately. Up to this time there had been only two or three challenges. After that almost every colored voter was challenged, which consumed ten or fifteen minutes each until the closing of the poll. About three hours and a half was wasted in challenges by the Democratic representative men. Colonel White and the clerk of the poll wrote the questions and answers. I saw white men come under the banister as policemen and vote any how outside the regular. I saw the policemen take off their badges and give them to citizens so that they might come up and vote out of their regular turn. About the time the managers were going to close the poll I saw a large number of Republican voters who had not voted, and I protested against closing the polls until they voted, but they over-ruled me and closed the polls; some white Democrats outside, before the table was moved back from the window, shoved down the window. (Signed) J. W. WILLIAMS.” 
Altogether, eighty-nine men were interviewed and provided testimony. As an aside, it should be noted that unlike Henry Farnell, Ned Wilson, Elijah Carruthers, and Henry McGee, Joshua Williams was literate and could sign his own name. This is not surprising since the 1880 census noted that he was a “teacher.” He would also go on to become postmaster. On the other hand, it is noteworthy that despite illiteracy, these men, and others like them, had registered to vote and showed up ready to vote! In fact, there was a large “colored” electorate. While there were 536 registered white voters, there were also 569 “colored” registered voters. Among them were homesteaders and witnesses, Randel Farnell, Alexander Gainer, Caleb Simpkins, and Isreal Whitehurst, in addition to those already named. 
Voter suppression is always about fear, the fear of those who seek to suppress others that they will not be able to compete fairly. Thus, rather than promote a fair agenda and strong candidates which voters could endorse or not, those who fear they will lose control seek to change the rules or break the rules, rather than risk losing control. Despite these efforts to prevent voters from casting their ballots, these “colored” voters, just ten years after being granted the right to vote in the Fifteenth Amendment, were not intimidated and were willing to advocate for themselves by bearing witness to the injustices they experienced.
The unfair treatment of the “colored” voters in precinct one in Live Oak was also witnessed by the sheriff, a white man, W. H. Slate, who stated that he was a Republican. He described how he saw about thirty-five “colored” voters challenged by the Democratic inspectors, grilling them about whether they were sure they were in the right precinct and threatening them with arrest if it was discovered they were not registered in that precinct.
“I am positive that the number [of colored voters challenged] was quite large. This system of challenge on the Democratic side was almost entirely confined to colored voters. I think that I am safe in saying that this challenging and the writing down by the clerk of questions and answers consumed two hours; this is rather under than over the estimate. … I know the most of the colored men that were challenged, and they were regular voters at this precinct, and I think were all entitled to vote. All those colored men were told the law, and that they would be liable to arrest and indictment; this took up a good deal of time. I protested against this frivolous challenging and delays which I have referred to, but it did no good to the inspectors. The Republican inspector, Joshua Williams, would sometimes join me in this protest and some times he would protest against it alone.” 
Fortunately for these voters of color, the chairman of the board of county commissioners, George Rixford, a white man and Democrat, also made note of the irregularities and injustices. 
“About the time the poll was about to be closed by the inspectors I went in to the room and protested against it, and demanded that the polls be kept open so that every man be allowed to vote. The demand was refused, and, as chairman of the board of county commissioners, I protested against their closing the polls. At the time the poll was closed the line of voters was quite full, and I judged that there was about one hundred voters who had not voted when the polls closed; there was not more than half a dozen white men in this line. … The usual vote at this precinct has been about 450 votes, and at this election the number of votes polled at the regular poll for Congressman was 346” (emphasis mine).
He recommended that a special election be set aside so that those who had been denied the opportunity to vote on the regular election day would be able cast their ballots.
“I felt so dissatisfied with these men losing their votes that I advised the opening of another ballot-box, which was done after the election was closed, in the court-house hall, where about eighty men cast their votes.”
The suggestion was taken, as referenced by William Evans above. 
Thank you, Sheriff Slate and Commissioner Rixford, and all the witnesses who came forward, including my great grandfather, Joshua W. Williams, for standing up for democracy!
 House of Representatives, Bisbee Jr. vs Finlay, Index to the Miscellaneous Documents for the House of Representatives for the First Session of the Forty Seventh Congress, 1881-1882 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office), Volume 1(11), 765-798.
 Elijah Coruthers Testimony, in Miscellaneous Documents, pp. 771-772.
 William Evens Testimony, in Miscellaneous Documents, p. 786.
 Henry McGee Testimony, in Miscellaneous Documents, pp. 779-780.
 Joshua W. Williams Testimony, in Miscellaneous Documents, pp. 775-776.
In truth, I don’t know a lot about the men in my great grandfather’s (Randel Farnell) community who filed applications for land in the 1870s and ‘80s, under the Homestead Act of 1862. Until recently, I did not realize how many of his neighbors and potential friends had filed for claims under the Homestead Act. I especially did not realize how many Black neighbors had filed claims. Neither the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) index nor the records themselves have any identifying information concerning race. Therefore, one must research each name (unless one is already familiar with a particular individual) in other records to determine their racial identity. I learned their identities, and the identities of others in other sections of Suwannee County by checking each name against the census. In Section 12, I found two other men of color, besides my great grandfather and one of his witnesses (Henry McGehee/McGhee/McGee) whose daughter would marry my great grandmother’s brother. Across the county I found over 40.
Indeed, Suwannee County was by no means unique in having claimants of color. There were Black claimants throughout Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Stories about some of these settlers by their descendants (including three of mine) are told in the new book, Black Homesteaders of the South (History Press, 2022), to be released in October 2022.
Black Claimants and Witnesses in Section 12
As noted, initial information stemmed from my great grandfather, Randel Farnell, and his claim. From his paperwork, I realized one of his witnesses was Henry McGehee/McGhee/McGee, who was the father of Addie McGhee, who married my great grandmother Sallie Jacobs Farnell’s younger brother Joseph. I noticed from their applications, that their properties were adjacent to each other. Conversely, my great grandfather, Randel, had been a witness on Henry’s application. In fact, Henry’s application predated my great grandfather’s. I have already written about these two applications in previous posts, but what about the other Black Homesteaders in Section 12? Were they also possibly good friends? Certainly, they must have known each other.
Edward “Ned” Wilson reported in 1880 that he was born in Georgia about 1840. He appeared first in Suwannee County records when he registers to vote on 6 August 1867, as recorded in Voter Registration Book 1, p. 196. He reported having been in the state for twelve months previously. There is no record found to date for his marriage to “Ida,” his wife on the 1880 census. She apparently died before 1885, when Edward/Ned was listed as unmarried. At that time, Edward was living with my great grandfather, Randel Farnell (also a homesteader), and his family, and next door to Henry McGehee. On 6 December 1903, there was a marriage record for an Edward Wilson and Mary Blalock. There is no way to ascertain if this is the same Edward Wilson since no other evidence of his residence at that time in Live Oak has been identified. There is no known information about when or where he died.
[1885 census with Randel next to Henry]
On 21 May 1869, Edward Wilson appeared before the Registrar, Charles Mundee, at the Land Office in Tallahassee, Florida. There he made application under the Homestead Act of 1862 for 39.89 acres in the SE ¼ of the SE ¼ of Section 12 of Range 13E, Township 2S. He paid $7.00 for the application.
Seven years later, on 16 May 1879, William Forsyth Bynum and Isreal [sic] Samuel Whitehurst Sr. provided testimony for Edward’s final proof for his Homestead application. This record does not show whether the witness was William Forsyth Sr. or Jr. William Jr. was closer in age to Isreal Whitehurst, but William Sr. was closer in age to Edward. However, William Sr. was Deputy Clerk of the Circuit Court. He was also a witness along with my great grandfather, Randel Farnell, for homesteader and neighbor, Henry McGehee.
William Forsyth Bynum Sr. was born in Virginia, but moved to Dooly County, Georgia, where he married his wife, Elsie Ann Posey. They had three sons, William Jr., John, and Francis. William, and family, moved to Florida. He was listed as a “druggist” and “farmer,” in the 1870 and 1880 censuses respectively. During the Civil War he served in the Confederate 4th Florida Infantry. William died in 1904, in Live Oak, and is buried in Antioch Baptist Church Cemetery. William’s son, John, filed for his own Homestead land in 1892, in the same quadrant as Randel Farnell, Henry McGee, and Edward Wilson.
Isreal Samuel Whitehurst Sr. was born reportedly in Florida. He was married to Chloe Eliza McKinney. They had fourteen children. Isreal, Edward, and my great grandfather, Randel Farnell, were friends. At least two of Isreal’s daughters, Rebecca and Senter, attended the Florida Normal and Industrial College in Tallahassee (now, Florida A & M University) with my grandmother, Randel’s daughter, Lela, as evidenced by their entries in my grandmother’s autograph book.
Isreal died in 1921 and was buried in Eastside Memorial Cemetery, in Live Oak.
William Bynum and Isreal Whitehurst stated in their testimony that Edward was the head of a family that included a wife and child (no child was listed in the 1880 census), and that he settled on his land on 21 May 1869. They said he cleared and fenced “16 or 18” acres. They went on to state that he had planted 300 fruit trees and cultivated the land yearly. They went on to state that Edward began living on the land permanently around “August or September” 1869. For the home portion of the land, they said he had fenced and cultivated 4-18 acres of land on which he had, “built a house with two rooms, corn crib, chicken house, planted and cultivated almost 300 fruit trees, and now in good repair and in cultivation.” They said they were swearing to this at the local circuit courthouse because of the distance to the land office now located in Gainesville. The final receipt of payment of $2.00, for the recording of the patent was noted as received “by RR” by the land office in Gainesville, on 19 May 1876. A final Certificate #1058 was issued on 19 March 1877. The Patent was sent to the Recorder on 22 May 1877. It was recorded on 15 June 1877, in Book 2, page 395, of the federal land records. The Patent was forwarded to the Live Oak Registrar of Deeds on 7 October 1880, however, there is no record of its recordation in the Suwannee County Deed Index, nor of its sale at any future date.
As mentioned above, where or when Edward Wilson died is unknown.
Shadrack Taylor and his wife, Jane, were both reportedly born in Georgia about 1827 and 1828, respectively. Shadrack states in the 1880 census that his father was from the District of Columbia, but his mother was from Spain. Exactly how and when Shadrack and Jane came to Florida is not known. However, he was in Suwannee County by 12 October 1866, when he filed Application 209 with the land office in Tallahassee, for the North half of the Southeast Quarter of Section 12, Township 2S, of Range 13, equaling 39.89. acres of land.
Shadrack and his wife appeared in the 1880 census,  living next door to my great grandfather, Randel Farnell, also a Black Florida Homesteader. However, he does not appear in the federal census again, not even in the 1885 state census was he found. What happened to him? Where was Jane? The Homestead file gave some answers.
According to an affidavit on 22 July 1884, made by Jane Taylor, Shadrack’s wife, he died in October 1883. She stated that they had been living on the land when he filed for the application in 1866. She stated that they had built a house, fenced the land, cleared, and cultivated it, living continuously on the land until Shadrack’s death. She went on to state that she had continued to live on the land after his death until the present. However, she states that due to his “illiteracy” and his “ignorance of the law,” he had failed to “prove up” and make “final proof,” of his “continuous occupation and cultivation of his said homestead within the “statutory period.” Therefore, the claim had been cancelled on 13 March 1876.
Subsequently, Jane went on to attest that on 22 April 1879, “May Rigon” made Application 7148, on the same land as Shadrack Taylor’s. Jane stated that May Rigon had not lived one single day on the property and that she had, in fact, left the state of Florida shortly after filing and resided in Georgia ever since. Jane said, on the other hand, that she has continuously resided on the land that noted in her husband’s Application 209. Therefore, she was requesting that May Rigon’s application be set aside in favor of Shadrack’s, and that she, Jane, as his widow, be allowed to make final proof, thereby completing the application. She was represented by John Bynum, son of William Forsyth Bynum, Deputy Clerk of the Court and a witness for Black Homesteader Henry McGehee. On the same day, that Jane Taylor testified, Elijah Smith (a Black Homesteader in Section 2, not 12) and Edward “Ned” Wilson (another Black Homesteader in Section 12) gave testimony on Jane’s behalf. They testified that everything she had said was true.
Alas, Jane would not live much longer on the property. By October 1884, she too had died. The probate Judge, R. W. Phillips, certified on 8 February 1886, that Adelice Goldwire was one of the heirs of Shadrack Taylor. However, that same day, Adelice testified that she was unable to produce the Receiver’s receipt for Shadrack’s Application 209. Nothing more is known about Adelice.
On 17 February 1886, a receipt for $97.73 was issued to the “Heirs of Shadrack Taylor,” who lived in Valdosta, Lowndes County, Georgia, for Application 11102, for 79.73 acres described as the North ½ of the SE ¼ of Section 12. It is notable that this is the same description for Shadrack’s parcel, but his application said the property was 39 acres, while this application said it was 79 acres. A patent was finally issued on 26 June 1889. However, the patent was not registered with the Suwannee County Registrar of Deeds until 29 June 1909.
It is not known where either Shadrack or Jane Taylor were buried.
The FAN Club
We talk a lot about the “FAN Club” in genealogy. It is a term coined by the renowned genealogist, Elizabeth Shown Mills. It refers to “Friends, Associates, and Neighbors,” in other words, our social circle. We readily look for them in census records, but we don’t often look in other records. We do recognize that witnesses on our family deeds and wills are frequently family members, friends, and neighbors, but we don’t look often enough to see if our ancestors were witnesses for their neighbors. Even so, the most information we usually glean is that our ancestor signed the specific document. Here we have not only signatures but testimonies about the claimants, and some information about how long the claimants and witnesses have known each other. These documents helped paint a picture of at least a part of my great grandfather Randel Farnell’s social circle, his FAN club, to wit:
Randel and William Bynum were witnesses for Henry McGehee, whose daughter married my great grandfather’s brother in-law. Henry McGehee was witness for my great grandfather. Isreal Whitehurst, a friend of my great grandfather’s, whose daughters went to school with my grandmother, was witness for Ned Wilson, who lived with my great grandfather in 1885. Ned Wilson was a witness on behalf of Jane, the widow of Shadrack Taylor, who lived next door to my great grandfather and Henry McGehee in 1880.
In addition, in the case of Shadrack, we also have information about his death, his heirs, and where the heirs lived. These records really are a treasure trove of information. Thus, by studying the documents of our ancestors’ witnesses, we get a glimpse into their world, not just their lives.
 Bennett, B. A., Black Homesteaders of the South (Cheltenham, UK: The History Press); to be released 24 October 2022 (available for pre-order).
 Publication of this essay by the National Park Service on its Black Homesteading website is pending. See also: Edward Wilson, Accession #FL0680__.395, General Land Office Records, Bureau of Land Management. Retrieved from: BLM General Land Office Records.
 1880 US Federal Census, Precinct 1, Suwannee County, Florida; Head: Ned Wilson, NARA Roll: 132; Page: 281A; Enumeration District: 145. Retrieved from Ancestry.com.
 Voter Registration Rolls, 1867-68. Tallahassee, Florida, USA: Florida Memory, State Library & Archives of Florida. Floridamemory.com
 Florida, U.S., County Marriage Records, 1823-1982 [database on-line] Edward Wilson and Mary Blalock, 26 December 1903. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2016. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com.
 Georgia, U.S., Marriage Records from Select Counties, 1828-1978 [database on-line], William F. Bynum and Ann Posey. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2013. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com.
 1870 US Federal Census: Subdivision 9, Suwannee County, Florida; Head: William F. Bynum, NARA Roll: M593_133; Page: 693A. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com.
 1870 US Federal Census: Subdivision 9, Suwannee County, Florida; Head: William F. Bynum, NARA Roll: M593_133; Page: 693A. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com.
 1880 US Federal Census: Precinct 1, Suwannee County, Florida; Head: William F. Bynum, NARA Roll: 132; Page: 293A; Enumeration District: 145. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com.
 U.S., Confederate Soldiers Compiled Service Records, 1861-1865 [database on-line], William F. Bynum. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com.
 Find a Grave, database and images, memorial page for Dr William Forsyth Bynum (29 Feb 1832–9 May 1904), Find a Grave Memorial ID 57928601, citing Antioch Baptist Church Cemetery, Live Oak, Suwannee County, Florida, USA ; Maintained by KChaffeeB (contributor 46506715) . Retrieved from: Findagrave.com
 Bureau of Land Management. Florida, U.S., Homestead and Cash Entry Patents, [database on-line], John H. Bynum, Application 16601, Patent 9442. Retrieved from: BLM General Land Office Records.
 1880 US Federal Census: Precinct 1, Suwannee County, Florida; Isreal Whitehurst, Head. NARA Roll: T9-132; Page: 285A; Enumeration District: 145. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com.
 1900 US Federal Census: Live Oak, Suwannee County, Florida; Isrial Whites [sic], head; Chloey, wife; married 35 years (circa 1885). NARA Roll: T623-177; Page: 18; Enumeration District: 0109; FHL microfilm: 1240177. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com.
 Williams, M. A., “Autograph Book of Lela Virginia Farnell,” Journal of the Afro American Historical and Genealogical Society, Volume 16, Number 2 (1997). Original in the Farnell-Williams Collection at the Meeks-Eaton Black Archives, Florida A & M University.
 U.S., Find a Grave Index, 1600s-Current [database on-line]. Isreal S. Whitehurst, Eastside Memorial Cemetery, Live Oak, Suwannee County, Florida; Memorial #187212592; Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 This essay is pending publication on the National Park Service’s Black Homesteading website. See also: Shadrack Taylor, Accession #FL0630__.293, General Land Office Records, Bureau of Land Management. Retrieved from: BLM General Land Office Records.
 1880 US Federal Census: Precinct 1, Suwannee County, Florida, Shadrick Taylor, head; Jane Taylor, wife. NARA Roll: 132; Page: 282C; Enumeration District: 145. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com.
 Ancestry.com. U.S., General Land Office Records, 1776-2015 [database on-line], Randel Farnell. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2008. Retrieved from Ancestry.com.
 1860 US Federal Census, Township 5, Lafayette County, Florida, Wm F. Bynum, head; John Bynum, age 3; NARA Roll: M653_107; Page: 965; Family History Library Film: 803107. Retrieved from Ancestry.com.
 Bureau of Land Management. Florida Pre-1908 Homestead & Cash Entry Patents, Elijah Smith, Accession Number FLO760_.460. General Land Office Automated Records Project, 1993. Retrieved from: BLM General Land Office Records.
 Grantee Index to Deeds, Suwannee County Florida, Heirs of Shadrack Taylor from United States of America, Homestead Certificate, (29 July 1909, Deed Book GG, p. 380) p. 104, Image 661. Retrieved from: FamilySearch.org.
 Bureau of Land Management. Florida, U.S., Homestead and Cash Entry Patents, Pre-1908 [database on-line], Edward Wilson. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 1997. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com.
There are so many things I could talk about when discussing “branching out.” There’s the obvious branching out with research into collateral relatives and neighbors that has been very successful. I have over 33,000 people now in my on-line family tree, and yes, I’ve done some research on almost all of them. I don’t rely on other people’s research. Then, there’s the “branching out” in communications with others who are DNA matches or researching the same families. That’s always fascinating. I have met so many people that I would never have encountered without this research. However, sometimes, branching out means becoming involved in a project you would never have thought of until someone else began asking questions. Homesteading in Suwannee County is just such a project.
Those of you who have been following this site know that I have published three stories about Homesteading family members in Suwannee County, Florida: Randel Farnell, my great grandfather; Henry McGehee/McGhee, my great uncle’s father in-law, and Alexander Gainer, my 2nd great grandmother’s husband. All these stories have been submitted to the National Park Service for their Black Homesteaders project and were uploaded to their website. However, that wasn’t all.
Involvement with the National Park Service came about because of the volunteer service of genealogist and author, Bernice Bennett. Bernice realized through her own research into her great grandfather’s land that he was a Black Homesteader in the state of Louisiana. Bernice began talking to others and discovered that there were many Black Homesteaders in southern states, including Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, and my state, Florida. She began encouraging us to write up our stories and submit them to the National Park Service. In that process, another discovery was made.
Another Florida Homesteading descendant, Falan Goff, who was also researching her family and submitting family stories, discovered an additional 50+ names of Black Homesteaders in Florida, in Gadsden, Levy, and Columbia counties. I began to wonder about Suwannee County. How many Black Homesteaders could I find in Suwannee County?
Thanks to the Bureau of Land Management’s interactive website, it is possible to see the names of every homesteader in every county.  There is basic information on the site, the name and patent numbers, the location of the property as well. However, to acquire the complete file, one must request the file from the National Archives, or go to the Archives oneself to find and copy the records. One thing that does not appear anywhere in Homesteading records is the race of the applicant. The only way to determine the race of an applicant is to do good old fashioned genealogical research on the person. For this basic piece of information, census searches are the most accessible and easiest to use.
I decided that one way to quickly organize the information would be to create a family tree database in Ancestry that was devoted to these Homesteader families. So, I created a “Suwannee County FL Homestead Family Trees” tree. Then, I went one by one through the Suwannee County names in the General Land Office Records on-line database. In addition to creating trees for each name I identified, I also created a spreadsheet. I was surprised at how many Black Homesteaders I was able to identify just for Suwannee County. I found an additional 43 names. I’ve done some preliminary research on each of the families, but I’m not ready to write their stories until I am able to acquire the Homestead case files for each of them—a project I hadn’t planned on! Now, I’m also planning to write a book about these families and their stories.
Another project I hadn’t planned on, but am delighted to take part in, is an upcoming book on Black Homesteaders of the South (History Press, 2022), edited by Bernice Bennett, for which thirty-five stories have been contributed. My three stories were just a small part, but the book will present the story to the world, a world (even the professional historian world) that has been completely unaware of the extent to which Black Americans in the Reconstruction era and beyond acquired land and potential generational wealth, despite the forces that did their best to wrest that wealth from their hands.
One final way my story has branched out is through the National Society Descendants of American Farmers (NSDOAF). NSDOAF is a lineage society that honors farming ancestors, but also provides scholarship money to students studying agricultural sciences in colleges and universities. I first became a member in honor of my maternal 4th great grandfather, Miles Lassiter. Now, I have honored my paternal great grandfather, Randel Farnell. I submitted not only a copy of the 1880 census which noted that he was a farmer, but also his final Homestead application testimony (4 October 1884) which was submitted in proof that he was living on and cultivating the land for which he had applied. In answer to questions about how much land was cultivated and for how many seasons he had grown crops, etc., he stated that he had built a “log dwelling (good) shided [sic], smoke house, stable & crib, 35 acres fenced,” beginning on “September 12, 1877, and that he had cultivated the “35 acres” for “7 seasons.”
In talking about this story with my daughter, she was curious about how this property had provided generational wealth. “Do we still own the land?” she asked. “No,” I told her. It was sold after my great grandfather’s widow, Priscilla (his second wife, not my great grandmother), died in the 1960s. “Why?” she asked. She went on to say it was folly, that we had sold away our wealth potential. I explained to her that it had done its job. None of the grandchildren lived in Live Oak, in Suwannee County any longer. No one wanted to go back to Live Oak, so the grandchildren, including my father, decided to sell the land and take their share of the profits. That way they could decide what investments, if any, they preferred. What had my father done with his share, she asked. Well, I answered, by that time our house was paid for, but I still had college bills. I said I didn’t know for sure, but felt it was likely that he had used the money towards my tuition. I explained that when I graduated, I had no student debt, adding how sad I was that I had not been able to do the same for her. I explained that the money from the sale of the property acquired through the Homestead Act of 1862, had provided generational wealth and opportunity by contributing to my education and probably similarly for the other family members. This was no small feat considering my father’s mother died when he was 10, and his father was largely absent, so he was raised by his 20-year-old sister who worked full time in service to a wealthy family. Nevertheless, he had a tradition of a landowning, educated family behind him that inspired him to be ambitious. Ultimately, my father worked for over 40 years in the U. S. Customs Service, rising to be the second in command of the Import Division in New York City, before the jurisdiction was reorganized making Newark, New Jersey the main office for the Port of New York, and he was a homeowner. I told her that I, and she by extension, had indeed benefitted from the generational wealth generated by (branched out, if you will) the Homestead property acquired by our ancestor, Randel Farnell, for which we can be justifiably proud.
 Williams, Margo Lee, Miles Lassiter (circa 1777-1850) An Early African American Quaker from Lassiter Mill, Randolph County, North Carolina: My Research Journey to Home (Palm Coast, FL/Crofton, KY: Backintyme Publishing, Inc., 2013). See: https://margoleewilliamsbooks.com/miles-lassiter/
 Bureau of Land Management, Randel Farnell Homestead Application #5637: “Homestead Proof-Testimony of Claimant (4 October 1884),” U. S. General Land Office Records, NARA Accession FL0750__489. Copy in the possession of the author.
Few things are more foundational than the ownership of property which can become the basis of generational wealth. There is another benefit to ancestral land ownership. Even when land does not pass into all members of the next generation, there is the tradition and normalization of land ownership within the family, which still provides a basis for a family culture and tradition of generational wealth.
My earliest knowledge that my ancestors owned property (other than the home where I grew up) came from my Aunt Lutie, my father’s older sister, Lute Williams Mann. She had been born in the mid-1890s and knew many of the paternal ancestors about whom I write. I was about seven when she first wrote down our family history for me, complete with biblical begats. As part of that story, she talked about the property the family owned in Live Oak, Suwannee County, Florida, where she was born, and spent the first six years of her life, before moving with her family to the New York/New Jersey area.
As Aunt Lutie explained it to me, her grandfather, my great grandfather, Joshua W. Williams, owned a significant amount of property in Live Oak. She drew some simple pencil maps of the property in relationship to other local landmarks. Once I grew up and began my genealogical studies, I learned it was not Joshua who owned the property, it was his wife’s family, his in-laws, one of whom was Alex Gainer, his father-in-law.
Alex Gainer was married to my 2nd great grandmother, Frances. However, he was not biologically related to me. He was not my great grandmother Ellin’s father. Still, he held a position of respect and importance in our family. According to Aunt Lutie, he was born in South Carolina. I have not been able to identify his home community, however, I did note that there was a couple of appropriate age to be his parents in Beaufort, Simon and Cecelia Gainer.[i] Aunt Lutie said Alex had served in some capacity in the Civil War (most likely as a servant in the Confederate army) where he lost a leg, and he had gone to Florida at the end of the war. According to his entry in the Voter Registration of 1867 for Live Oak, he had been in Suwannee County for four months previously. Alex worked as a farmer, barber, and store owner. And he owned land. Quite a bit of land.
In September 1868, the Pensacola and Georgia Railroad sold land in Live Oak, to Alex and his stepson in-law, George Manker. It was just a year earlier that the same railway company had gifted (but also received five dollars from the grantees) George and several other freedmen Lot 6, Block 41, in the town of Live Oak, for the purpose of building a school for the freedmen, where George would be a teacher. Though a “gift,” there were strings. If the land ceased to be used for the purposes stated therein (i.e., a school), the land would revert to the railroad company.
In 1870, Alexander and my great-great grandmother, Frances, were listed in the census with their son, Edward. However, Alex and Frances were not formally married until 1874, when they were married by Robert Allen, minister at the Baptist Church, now called the African Baptist Church. Also in the 1870s, Frances would purchase property. In 1871, Frances bought property from her son in-law, George Manker.  In 1874, she bought neighboring property from a Sheriff’s sale.  However, Alex would not purchase property again until he completed his Homestead claim in 1877.
On 11 May 1872, Alex filed his application #5609, for a Homestead claim for 39.89 acres. On the same date, he swore an affidavit stating that he had filed the claim but “by reason of distance” could not personally appear at the land office in Tallahassee. On 14 June 1872, there is a Receiver’s receipt for seven dollars paid to the Receiver’s office in Tallahassee.
On 1 June 1877, Alex’s witnesses, Caleb Simpkins and Robert Allen (the Baptist minister who married him), gave their testimony on behalf of his claim.  They testified that since 14 June 1872, Alex had
… occupied and cultivated and improved the NE ¼ of the SE ¼ of Section 26 Township 2, South of Range 13 East as a homestead from the date above continuously from the date above to the present time, and that this affidavit is made to enable him to complete his title to the said homestead…
It goes on to say that they were unable to go the General Land Office to give testimony “on account of distance and want of means to pay the expenses.” Thus, they gave testimony before the Justice of the Peace, “M. M. Blackburn,” in Suwannee County. They signed by making their mark. An additional sentence was added after their marks saying, “and he has built a house thereon, & cultivated about 10 acres, and made other valuable improvements.”
On 14 June 1877, Alex made his final affidavit in support of his claim. He stated that he had settled and cultivated his claimed land since 14 June 1872, that he hadn’t “alienated” the land, that he was the sole owner, and actual settler. He swore that he bore allegiance to the United States (I haven’t seen that in other family Homestead files) “and that I have not heretofore perfected or abandoned an entry und this act.” After paying an additional and final two dollars to the Receiver in the Gainesville office, he received his Final Certificate #1236. Notations in the file indicate however, that final approval was not until 11 May 1878 and the Patent was not recorded until 24 June 1878, in Land Record Book Volume 3, page 26.
Alex did not record the deed with the Suwannee County registrar right away. In June 1886, the Homestead claim was filed in Book J, page 288. However, in the very next entry, “Alexandre Gainer” sold to Justice of the Peace, M. M. Blackburn, the same property, for $500. Alex appeared for the last time in the deed records in January 1887, when he and Frances sold property to her daughter Carry (“Corra”) Manker, widow of George Manker.
Alex is assumed to have died sometime between 1887 and 1896, when his “widow,” Frances, sold property to James Moore and C. J. Manker, her grandson. Frances is believed to have died between 1896 and 1900. She does not appear in the 1900 census. In 1901 and 1911, daughters, Carry Manker and Ellen Williams (my great grandmother) sold the property bought in 1868 by George Manker and Alex to Jesse Manker, Carry’s grandson, and Mamie Edwards.  With that, the last of the wealth in property acquired by Alex and Frances was passed to a new generation along with the recognition of the importance of land ownership as a family value. Thus, despite the fact that none of this land was passed down to any of Ellin’s children or grandchildren, her descendants would become property owners in the communities to which they moved, creating wealth for new generations.
Alex and Frances were most likely buried in the inaccessible Old City Cemetery section of Eastside Memorial Cemetery in Live Oak, where most family members were buried.
 Pensacola and Georgia Railroad Company to Alexander Gainer and George Manker, Suwannee County, Florida, Deed Book B, page 131. Copy in possession of the author.
 “United States, Freedmen’s Bureau, Records of the Superintendent of Education and of the Division of Education, 1865-1872,” database with images, FamilySearch, George Menker, Mar 1868; citing Residence, Live Oak, Suwannee, Florida, United States, NARA microfilm publications M1869. Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1861 – 1880, RG 105. (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1969-1978); roll 13; FHL microfilm 2,425,920 Retrieved from: https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2QP-FPL6See also: “United States, Freedmen’s Bureau, Records of the Superintendent of Education and of the Division of Education, 1865-1872,” database with images, FamilySearch, George Menker, May 1868; citing Residence, Live Oak, Suwannee, Florida, United States, NARA microfilm publications M1869. Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1861 – 1880, RG 105. (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1969-1978); roll 13; FHL microfilm 2,425,920. https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:Q2QP-FPB5
 Pensacola and George Railroad to Nathaniel Goodman, Samuel Sonesme, Lewis Fields, Alexander Oxham, and George Manker, Suwannee County Deed Book B, pages 134-135. Copy in the possession of the author.
 George Manker to Frances Gainer, Suwannee County, Florida Deed Book C, page 16. Copy in the possession of the author.
 Nathan H. Walker, by Sheriff, to Frances Gainer, Suwannee County, Florida Deed Book D, page 77. Copy in possession of the author.
 Alexander Gainer, Homestead Final Certificate 1236, 14 June 1877, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.
 Alexander Gainer, Homestead Application 5609, 11 May 1872, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.
 Alexander Gainer, Homestead Application Affidavit, 11 May 1872, Homestead Application 5609, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.
 Linc Wilson, Receiver, Receiver’s Receipt 5609, Alexander Gainer, Homestead Application 5609, 14 June 1872. Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.
 Caleb Simpkins and Robert Allen, Witness affidavit, 1 June 1877. Alexander Gainer, Homestead Application 5609, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.
 Alexander Gainer, Homestead Final Affidavit, 14 June 1877, Homestead Applicati on 5609, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.
 John Varnum, Receiver, Final Receiver’s Receipt, 14 June 1877, Homestead Application 5609, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.
 Alexander Gainer, Homestead Final Certificate 1236, Homestead Application 5609, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.
 Land Office Card, Gainesville, Florida, Alexander Gainer, Homestead Application 5609, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records; Washington D.C., USA. Copy in the possession of the author.
, Alexander Gainer to M. M. Blackburn, Suwannee County, Florida, Deed Book J, pages 288-289. Copy in the possession of the author.
 Alex Gainer and Frances Gainer to Corra Manker, Suwannee County, Florida, Deed Book K, page 136. Copy in the possession of the author.
 Frances Gainer to James Moore and CJ Manker, Suwannee County, Florida, Deed Book S, page 436. Copy in the possession of the author.
 Ellen Williams and Carry Manker to Jesse Manker, Suwannee County, Florida, 10 April 1901. Copy in the possession of the author.
 Ellen Williams and Carry Manker to Mamie Edwards, Suwannee County, Florida, 27 March 1911. Copy in the possession of the author.
In 1870, Washington, D. C. Mayor Sayles Jenks Bowen was up for re-election. It was a contentious campaign. Bowen was a controversial figure. He was a staunch abolitionist pre-Civil War. He was also a founder of and activist for the Republican Party.
Bowen was elected Mayor of Washington, D. C. in 1868.This was the first time that African Americans could vote in Washington. Their overwhelming support helped Bowen win, despite his minimal support in the European American community. Bowen’s agenda focused on economic and educational opportunity and integration for the newly freed African Americans. Unfortunately, he was so focused on those things that he neglected the basic activities of governing a city. Bowen was so focused on his own agenda that he diverted funds from city services and programs to support job creation for freedmen and school creation for their children. He was impatient with those in the Republican party who would not fully support integrated schools and full employment for the freedmen. He was even willing to invest large sums of his own personal money to augment these efforts. Understandably, he was very popular in the African American community. However, as noted, he neglected other important issues and was draining the city’s financial assets. As the 1870 election approached, many in the Republican Party began to organize along with Democrats against his campaign for re-election.
On Monday, 7 February 1870, the National Republican reported that the previous Saturday there was a “large meeting at Union League Hall.” The meeting had been advertised in all the local newspapers. The turnout reflected “the large number of citizens favoring reform in the affairs of the Republican party of the city, and who are opposed to the present municipal administration…” According to the article’s sub-titles, there were “Prominent Citizens Present,” and “Old Original Republicans in Council.” Among those whose names were mentioned as being in attendance was Islay Walden. Islay had only arrived in Washington around January 1868, based on Freedmen’s Bureau records. Was he being considered a “Prominent Citizen?” Prominent enough to be named? Apparently so.
One speaker, William H. Brown, Jr., of the Seventh Ward, an area east of the Anacostia River, referred to as being part of “Anacostia,” said that “an effort must be made to induce legislation to protect men in their exercise of the franchise.” He explained that “If a colored man attempts to vote a ticket other than that prepared for him by Corporation Attorney Cook and his satellites, he would be put to flight by a lawless mob.” It was reported that at this point, Islay Walden interrupted the speaker (Brown), asking if there was anyone assaulted other than those “colored men” who were voting for Democrats. Mr. Brown responded that Congress had granted “colored men” the right to vote and therefore their vote was their “with their conscience and their God, and it was not right that they should be disturbed in their rights by a lawless mob.” It would seem from his comment that Islay was loyal to Mayor Bowen and his administration. So, why was he at this meeting? Good question.
The meeting then went on to discuss and approve a constitution for the new reformed association now being called, “Independent Republican Reform Association.” The meeting went on to discuss the problems that had resulted from Mayor Bowen’s administration. At the end of the evening, a Chaplain J. M. Green spoke. He spoke in support of a Collector Boswell in Mayor Bowen’s administration. The reporter for the National Republican noted that Chaplain Green was “interrupted frequently by Isley Walton [sic], a colored man, who was evidently in favor of Mr. Bowen.” Apparently, Chaplain Green was not angered by the interruption but did grow frustrated as he “answered him good naturedly, finally giving way to allow Walton to deliver a harangue in favor of the present municipal administration.” Chaplain Green may not have been distressed by Islay’s interruptions, but it appears that others had heard enough since the meeting adjourned after Islay finished speaking. Nevertheless, the meeting was “characterized with the best order, and the proceedings conducted in a deliberative and impressive manner.”
Mayor Sayles Jenks Bowen was defeated in 1870 by his Democratic opponent, Matthew Gault Emery.
There have been other hints at Islay’s interest in the political landscape of his time. Not long after arriving in Washington, D. C., in 1868, he went to Philadelphia to attend the Republican Convention, where General Grant was nominated the Presidential candidate for that year. He talked about that trip in the introduction to, and in, his poem, “Ode to Mr. Dunlap and Family.”
1870 would have additional significance for Islay. That was year the Fifteenth Amendment was passed. Celebrations were held in Washington and around the country on 2 April 1870. Islay didn’t write a specific poem about his attendance of those celebrations. Rather, he references his presence in poems that address events around those celebrations. One poem he dedicated to a young girl, Clara Saunders, who helped him cross the street. The other referenced Charles Sumner’s speech at that celebration.
After reading about Islay’s assertiveness at the Republican meeting above, one cannot be surprised that Islay managed to have a personal meeting with President Ulysses Grant. In a letter to his niece, Catherine Hill, Islay mentioned that he had met the President, who encouraged him to never give up trying to get the education he sought. Islay added that he gave the President one of his poems. It would be wonderful if the poem was preserved somewhere among Grant’s papers in the Presidential Library on the campus of Mississippi State University.
Islay’s political boldness continued as years went by. By 1883, he had returned to his home community in Randolph County, North Carolina. There, he founded a church and school, then known as Promised Land Church and a school, called Promised Land Academy. Islay had long been an advocate for temperance and apparently was a strong advocate in his community, even doing so before the North Carolina General Assembly. In March 1883, Islay was able to convince the General Assembly to pass “an Act to prohibit the sale of spirituous liquors within one (1) mile of the Promised Land Academy in New Hope Township, …”
It is apparent that Islay Walden, who was a talented missionary and poet, was also a gifted politician. Sadly, he died at age 40, in February 1884, only a year after his victory in the General Assembly. I can’t help but wonder what he would have accomplished had he not died so young.
Although Promised Land Academy is long gone, after serving the community’s children for over forty years, including my maternal ancestors, the church has continued to serve those in the community and descendants of the founding families, for 142 years, this past October (2021). In 2014, the church site, now known as “Strieby Congregational UCC Church,” became a Randolph County Cultural Heritage Site, and in 2021, was named a United for Libraries Literary Landmark.
 Tindall, William, “A Sketch of Mayor Sayles J. Bowen,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., Vol. 18 (1915), pp. 25-43 Retrieved from: JSTOR.org
 “Reform: Large Meeting at Union League Hall,” National Republican, February 7, 1870, p. 4. Retrieved from: Newspapers.com.
 Islay Walden, in Letter to Mr. Beckley, January 20, 1868, Records of the Field Offices for the District of Columbia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1870; NARA M1902, Roll 19. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
The weekend of 25-26 September was observed as Lynching Remembrance Weekend where I live in Maryland. In contrast to Juneteenth, which celebrates emancipation and freedom, a time of jubilee, Lynching Remembrance marks an on-going holocaust. The official dates for Lynching in the United States are between 1882 (the end of the Reconstruction period) and 1968. The official total for lynchings in the United States is 4,743. However, it is believed there were many that went unreported by the perpetrators who were trying to avoid any legal consequences as well as victims’ families who feared retaliation for speaking out. In addition, there are still events reported and unreported that qualify as lynching, especially in the face of the continuing inability to get a federal law against lynching passed in Congress.
I grew up in New York City. To the extent that lynching was ever discussed around me, it was more in the context of “cowboy” movies, where rustlers and bandits were threatened with “hanging’” by unruly, impatient mobs, seeking immediate “justice.” I was well into my teens before I learned about lynching as a form of control by those who, despite their legal support for white dominance, feared any assertion of manhood, agency, or civil rights by a community’s black population. I was older yet, when I learned that unlike the hangings of cowboy movies, lynching could include being tortured, mutilated, burned alive, then hung up for days as a warning to others, and even drowning. These lynchings were not the spontaneous acts of angry townspeople. These lynchings could be planned, with hundreds of individuals coming with their whole families, from miles around, to picnic as they watched the brutal, horrific events. Family pictures might be taken and some of those pictures ended up as postcards to be sent to friends and family elsewhere. Others could be carried out with only a few witnesses, including, sadly, the victim’s family members, who dare not say anything later.
My family does not come from Maryland. However, the Weekend of Remembrance here reminded me that there was a tragic and unresolved lynching of a fifteen-year-old boy in my paternal family’s hometown of Live Oak, Suwannee County, Florida. His name was Willie James Howard.
Live Oak, the county seat of Suwannee County, is in northern Florida, about halfway between Jacksonville and Tallahassee, and about forty miles southeast of Valdosta, just over the Georgia line. It’s an area known as the Wiregrass. In 1943-44, segregation and strict social separation of races in Live Oak were the order of the day. Live Oak was a KKK hot-bed.
Willie James was considered lucky. He had an after-school and weekend job at a Five and Dime store in Live Oak. His co-workers were white. This was not only considered an opportunity; it was a privilege. All was going well, until Christmas. Willie James gave Christmas cards to everyone at the store, including a young white girl who worked at the store, Cynthia Goff. It was bad enough that he gave the Christmas cards, but he followed that with a personal letter to Cynthia on New Year’s Day. In it he admitted he was smitten and wished they lived in the North, where he believed his admiration wouldn’t be considered inappropriate. Indeed, he was aware that the letter was not considered proper, saying, “[P]lease don’t let any body see this[.] … I guess you call me fresh.” Willie James seemed to acknowledge that his openness would be a problem. I’m hard-pressed to believe his parents had not instilled in him the need to mind his place, which meant no flirting with white girls. However, this was 1944, eleven years before Emmett Till. He wouldn’t have had his mother, and father, drumming into his consciousness what had happened to Emmett Till, hammering home that flirting with white girls was a risky, life-threatening activity that young black boys must avoid at all costs. Regardless of what Willie James’ parents may or may not have told him, his youthful emotions took the risk and reached for the unreachable, white Cynthia Goff.
For her part, Cynthia did not heed Willie James’ admonition to not show the letter to anyone. She showed it to her father. Her father resolved to teach Willie James a lesson. In truth, he resolved to teach the entire African American community a lesson. Cynthia’s father and friends went to the James home where they dragged Willie James from the home saying that his father needed to punish him. Then they went to the place of work of Willie James’ father, forcing him at gunpoint to go with them. Then, they went outside town to the banks of the Suwannee River (the same Suwannee River in the Stephen Foster song), where they tied Willie’s hands behind his back and bound his feet. They told him he could either jump in the river or they would shoot him where he stood. He jumped to his death while his father was forced to watch at gunpoint and later forced under threat of death to give a statement to the police that his son had jumped voluntarily. Willie James’ parents were told to leave Live Oak forthwith. Within days they left, never to return.
In 2014, my cousin, Clark “Randy” Randolph, who was born in Live Oak, but who hadn’t lived there in many years, agreed to meet me there to show me around and identify places of significance for our family’s history. He explained that he left Live Oak in 1944, shortly after Willie James was killed. He was twelve years old, and his parents were terrified. Fearing for his safety, they sent him to live with family members in Miami. Even as he told me the story, now a man in his eighties, he was clearly still affected by this terrifying event that occurred just as he entered his teen years.
After a couple days sightseeing, my cousin left Live Oak, but I stayed. I was going to Tallahassee the next day, which I did, but returned to Live Oak the same night. The following day, I did some last-minute additional sightseeing. I hadn’t seen the Suwannee yet. It doesn’t actually run through town, but rather just outside of town. I drove out there, driving past ruins of resorts where people once flocked to take advantage of the healing waters of Suwannee Springs. I found a spot near a then gated path that would go to a bridge that crossed the river. I didn’t go too far past the gate. I was alone and didn’t think it prudent. The path which formed the bank of the river was easily 20 feet above the river. I took some pictures and returned to my car.
In reviewing the particulars of Willie James’ story, I was struck by two things. I learned that there was a marker for Willie James in the Eastside Memorial Cemetery, the black cemetery. I had spent a considerable amount of time at the cemetery because most of my paternal ancestors are buried there. I imagine my cousin didn’t know either or I’m sure that he would have had us look for it. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to stop at Willie James’ memorial to pay my respects.
The second unwitting event made me catch my breath. In reading articles about this tragic event, I realized that my trip to see the river had led me to the area where Willie James had been forced to jump to his death in front of his father. It was a chilling thought, a haunting thought. Suddenly, I was reminded of what my Aunt Lutie had told me her mother, my grandmother, Lela Farnell Williams, told her after moving north: never go back South. My aunt did go back to visit family members annually, but my father, who was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, never did. For my part, I am glad I made the trip to see where my paternal family lived for over thirty years. I would consider making another research trip.
Both sides of my paternal family were fortunate and had successful businesses and a good quality of life in Live Oak, but there was always the threat of violence and death if one was too confrontational or assertive. Family tradition has held that my grandfather was just that, a little too forward. Aunt Lutie said they were forced to leave Live Oak (she was just a little girl) to avoid any violence against the family. My grandfather died when I was five, so I never had a chance to ask him about it. Fortunately, my grandfather worked for the railroad and therefore had excellent employment opportunities in the New York/New Jersey area. Thus, my father would never experience the terrifying cloud of an event such as Willie James’ death, nor would I.
For more information on the Willie James Howard lynching, see:
While I have focused heavily on the preservation of the history of Strieby Church and Islay Walden over the last nine years, the first story I worked to preserve was that of my maternal fourth great grandfather, Miles Lassiter, an early African American Quaker. Miles was accepted into the Uwharrie Preparatory Meeting of the Back Creek Monthly Meeting in Randolph County, in 1845. Sadly, he died merely five years later in June of 1850. At that time, he was the only African American Quaker in the state of North Carolina.
In the course of my research, my cousin, the late Harold Cleon Lassiter, shared with me several documents that had come down to him pertaining to Miles, his children, and the land the family owned. There was a handwritten letter from Miles’ son, Wiley, to his brother Colier, in 1858. There was a letter from then attorney Jonathan Worth (later Governor of North Carolina), naming Miles’ son Colier, Miles’ wife “Helia,” which outlined issues pertaining to the probate of Helia’s property. There was an invoice for medical treatment of my third great grandmother, Miles’ daughter, Nancy, and other documents which listed the names of all of Miles children and their birth dates, as well as land grants, plats, and deeds related to property owned by Miles and Helia (Healy).
After Harold’s death, I asked his daughter Patrice if she could locate the records and if she would give them to me. I said I wanted to find a way for them to be preserved safely. At that time, I had discussed with a curator at the North Carolina Museum of History whether he thought the North Carolina State Archives would be interested. He thought they might be. I contacted them, but shortly thereafter the Covid Pandemic forced the Archives to close, as did most archives. Thus, I did not hear back from the Archives.
Recently, I began to consider again what would be the best avenue for the preservation of these documents. I realized that I had worked with the Quaker Archives at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina when writing my book on my research into Miles’ life. It occurred to me that the Archives might be interested in acquiring the documents. Thus, I contacted Gwen Erickson, the Archivist and Librarian there. She said they would love to have the papers to enhance their ability to tell Miles’ story and to have primary documentation on an African American Quaker from the pre-Civil War time-period. With that, I forwarded the documents which will be known as The Miles Lassiter Collection.
The Lela Virginia Farnell Williams Family Collection
The donation of the Miles Lassiter papers was not the first time I chose to donate to a university archive. In 2014, I travelled to Tallahassee, Florida to donate documents from my paternal family. That time, I donated an autograph book and family photos to the Carrie Meek and James Eaton, Sr. Southeastern Regional Black Archives Research Center and Museum.
I chose this repository specifically because the autograph book belonged to my grandmother, Lela Virginia Farnell Williams, who had been among the first students to attend the State Normal School for Colored Students, now Florida A & M University. The autograph book was signed by classmates and teachers, including Thomas DeSaille Tucker, the founding president. The Meek-Eaton Archives was particularly pleased to acquire the autograph book with President Tucker’s signature because they had had a fire a few years back which destroyed many original documents including those with President Tucker’s signature.
Another signature in the autograph book was that of teacher Ida Gibbs, wife of Vice President Thomas Van Renssalaer Gibbs. There is a fascinating irony to this connection. Vice President Gibbs had studied at Howard University at the same time as Islay Walden. Thus, Vice President Gibbs was an administrator and possible teacher to my paternal grandmother. Her son, my father, Herbert Randell Williams would marry my mother, Margaret Lilly Lee, whose grandmother, Mary Louise Smitherman, would have been a student at Strieby Church School when Islay Walden was the teacher.
It is repositories such as these university archives which can provide a place to consider donating any documents and pictures that may have an association with the university or archive. If no such relationship can be established, be sure to investigate whether other regional or historical societies may have an interest in documents and pictures whose long- term safety and preservation would be at risk. Future researchers will thank you.
Strieby is the name of an area and church in Union Township, in southwestern Randolph County, North Carolina. It is part of the area and church where my mother’s maternal family has lived and worshiped for over two hundred years. Although I did not grow up visiting Strieby, after having learned about its rich history and my family’s roots there, I became concerned that the history was being lost, especially as older family/community members died. Thus, over the years I have made use of various avenues and vehicles for preserving and uplifting the history of Strieby, the church, and the families associated with it.
Just this past August 2021, Strieby Church was awarded the designation as a Literary Landmark, by United for Libraries (a division of the American Library Association), in recognition of the Rev. Islay Walden, its founding minister, a noted nineteenth century poet, dubbed the “Blind Poet of North Carolina” by Arthur Schomburg. Born enslaved in Randolph County, North Carolina, Islay walked to Washington, D. C. in search of an education and help for his near-blindness, most likely congenital cataracts. He received a scholarship to attend Howard University, but he still needed money for his personal needs. In 1872 (with revisions in 1873), he published Miscellaneous Poems Which the Author Desires to Dedicate to the Cause of Education and Humanity. After graduating from Howard, he received another scholarship to attend New Brunswick Theological Seminary, in New Jersey. Again, he published a small volume of poems called, Walden’s Sacred Poems with a Sketch of His Life, in 1877. After graduation and ordination in 1879, he returned to Randolph County where he founded Promised Land Congregational Church and School, renamed Strieby Congregational Church and School, in 1883, after he successfully petitioned the government for a post office for the Strieby community. He died on 2 February 1884 and was buried in Strieby Church Cemetery. According to the United for Libraries website, this is only the second Literary Landmark awarded in North Carolina. The marker will be dedicated on 5 February 2022.
Where did I learn about Literary Landmarks? It is not a widely known national program. I learned about it when a library in the neighborhood where I grew up, dedicated to Langston Hughes and the home of the Black Heritage Reference Center of Queens County, was awarded its Literary Landmark status in 2013. I hoped to do the same, but it was only this year that I was able to work with other family members, descendants of the church’s founding members, and two community partners, Magnolia 23 Restaurant and Strieby Wood, LLC to successfully apply for Literary Landmark status for Strieby Congregational Church, School and Cemetery Cultural Heritage Site in honor of Islay Walden. However, this was not my first effort to preserve the history of this site.
Randolph County Cultural Heritage Site
The first serious effort to preserve Strieby’s history was applying for Cultural Heritage Site status. Randolph County is unusual because it recognizes historical sites for their culturally significance regardless of whether any original, historical structures which had been associated with the site still exist or not. Thus, Strieby, whose original frame church building would have qualified for Historic Landmark designation, was demolished when it became unsafe in the early 1970s and was replaced by a new brick building, was able to qualify for Cultural Heritage Site designation. The site was awarded Cultural Heritage Site status in September 2014.
From Hill Town to Strieby: Education and the American Missionary Association in the Uwharrie “Back Country” of Randolph County, North Carolina (Backintyme Publishing)
The extensive research necessary to ensure a successful application for Cultural Heritage Site status, provided a strong basis for a book on the history of the community of Strieby that grew up around the church and school. The book focused on the educational achievements of the school during its forty years serving the community that grew up around Strieby Church. The book also included four generation summaries of the two principal founding families, the Hills and the Lassiters. In addition, it included the names and relationships of all those buried in the cemetery with grave markers as well as the names of about 35 individuals who were buried there with no grave markers, but whose internments were identified from death certificates. The book was published in 2016.
Born Missionary: The Islay Walden Story (Margo Lee Williams, Personal Prologue)
While researching Strieby’s history, for the book, From Hill Town to Strieby, I realized there was much more to Islay Walden’s background than is normally reported. It seemed a natural progression to go from writing about the history of the church and school, to writing about the story of Islay Walden, founding pastor and teacher. While I recognize his contribution as a nineteenth century, formerly enslaved, African American man to the field of poetry, I realized through my research that Islay Walden’s focus was education and spiritual development. Thus, the phrase used to describe him in an obituary, “Born Missionary,” became my title for the book that came out in April 2021.
North Carolina State Cemetery Survey
North Carolina has a state initiative through the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources aimed at identifying and surveying every cemetery in North Carolina, whether public, private, church owned, municipal, slave, Native American, or whatever. Surveys can be undertaken by local governments, private groups, or individuals. One can add information or pictures, or whatever, to the file that provides any important background information on the cemetery and the people buried there. I was able to complete and submit the survey for Strieby Church Cemetery this past summer, 2021.
North Carolina State Highway Marker
Sadly, not every effort to preserve the history of Strieby and Islay Walden has been successful. I applied to the State Highway Marker program in 2016 for a marker for Islay Walden. It was denied. I was able to gather additional information and reapplied in 2018. Unfortunately, it met the same fate. The committee reportedly denied the application because they felt that Islay Walden, though widely recognized for his poetry, had only regional, local significance. Since only two attempts are permitted, this avenue for preservation of Islay Walden’s story and that of Strieby is no longer viable. It was this dismissal that spurred me to seek more earnestly the Literary Landmark marker for Islay Walden.
My grandmother, Lela Virginia Farnell Williams, was born on 28 September 1876. According to her entries in her school autograph book, the inside page of her book on Queen Victoria, and the family bible she kept, she was born in Live Oak, Suwannee County, Florida. However, the first evidence I had been able to find of her parents, Randel and Sallie (Jacobs) Farnell, in Suwannee County, was a tax entry in 1877. The 1870 census recorded the family living in neighboring Columbia County. I assumed that Lela was born in Columbia County, but that she came with her family to Suwannee County in 1877, when she was barely a year old. With no memory of living in Columbia County, I believed that she simply assumed that she was born in Live Oak, until I saw Henry McGehee’s (McGhee, McGee) application for land under the Homestead Act of 1862.
Henry McGehee (reportedly born in November 1827) was a friend, neighbor, and eventually an in-law of my great grandfather, Randel Farnell. However, I have no reason to believe they knew each other before my great grandfather moved from Columbia County, Florida to neighboring Suwannee County, in the 1870s. Henry, born in Georgia, was already living in Suwannee County.
Henry McGehee first appeared in the Suwannee County records when he married Jane Smiley, 13 May 1866. On 5 August 1867, he registered to vote. On 21 September 1869, he filed Homestead application 4169, in Tallahassee, for a section of land located in the NE1/4 of the SW1/4 of Section 12 in Township 2L of Range 13E, (Live Oak) equaling 39.89 acres.
According to the testimony of his witnesses and neighbors, on the first day of January 1870, Henry built a “good dwelling house,” that he and his wife (Jane) and four children (Adda, William, Ella, and Lissie) lived in. It was also noted that he had fenced and cultivated about 15 to 20 acres. On 6 September 1876, as required by law, two “disinterested” witnesses in support of his application, my great grandfather Randel Farnell and William Forsyth Bynum Jr., Deputy Clerk of the Suwannee County Circuit Court, appeared before the Clerk of the County Court. Randel Farnell and William Bynum testified that Henry had built a good log dwelling house, corn crib, and smoke house. They also noted that he had a good garden and had made other improvements. This was the first evidence I had that my grandmother’s family was already living in Suwannee County when she was born on 28 September.
Unfortunately, things did not go well for Henry after that. According to a petition by friends and neighbors, on Henry’s behalf, he became seriously ill a few days after his witnesses testified. In addition, his wife was also ill. It is possible they were suffering from Yellow Fever, which was a problem across mosquito infested Florida. In 1876, there was a Yellow Fever epidemic in Savannah, Georgia and one would break out in Florida a mere two years later in 1878. As a result of his illness, Henry was unable to travel to the land office in Gainesville, 70 miles away, thus missing his deadline to make his final affidavit in support of his claim, resulting in cancelation of the claim.
Henry was still ill in November 1876, when 29 friends and neighbors, including Randel Farnell, W(illiam). F(orsyth). Bynum Jr., the Deputy Clerk of the Court, and Joseph Jacobs (Randel Farnell’s brother-in-law and Henry’s future son-in-law) petitioned the U. S. Commissioner of Lands to make an exception and allow Henry to provide his final testimony to the Clerk of the Court in Suwannee County, rather than traveling to Gainesville.
On 12 March 1877, the Commissioner authorized the Homestead Receiver’s office, in Tallahassee, to reactivate Henry’s application. Then, on 5 May 1877, Henry appeared before William Forsyth Bynum to make his final affidavit. Randel Farnell and William Bynum’s joint testimony was rewritten and recertified. Henry’s Final Certificate, 1225, was issued thereafter on 15 May 1877. Unfortunately, Henry’s wife, Jane, did not live to enjoy his victory. By the 1880 census, Henry was a single father with four young children, Adda (“Addie”), William, Ella, and Lissie.
On 4 October 1884, Henry and one of the 29 petitioners in his case, William Evans, testified on behalf of the Homestead claim by my great grandfather, Randel Farnell. On 29 April 1899, Henry’s daughter, Addie, married his witness, Joseph Jacobs, youngest brother of Randel Farnell’s wife, my great grandmother, Sallie, and son of another of Henry’s petitioners, W(illiam) Jacobs.
Henry’s exact date of death is not known, but he does not appear in the census again after 1910. He is presumed to be buried in the old “Black City Cemetery’ section of Eastside Memorial Cemetery, in Live Oak, Suwannee County.
A genealogy friend frequently comments that all the research in the world can never match the discoveries that result from sheer luck. This is an example. I was convinced that my grandmother had actually been born in Columbia County. While I had seen that Henry had successfully acquired property due to the Homestead Act, I had not considered retrieving the file since he was not a direct heir and we had in no way inherited any of the property. However, when I began to participate in a Facebook group dedicated to the Descendants of African American Homesteaders, which seeks to submit for publication by the National Park Service (NPS), the stories of African American Homesteaders, I decided that I would look at Henry’s file and submit his story as well.
Having submitted my great grandfather’s story to NPS, I decided to retrieve Henry’s application wondering if my great grandfather had been one of his witnesses as he had been for my great grandfather. To my surprise, the testimony of my great grandfather on 6 September, in Live Oak, twenty-two days before my grandmother’s birth on 28 September, supported my grandmother’s assertion that she was born in Live Oak. Sheer luck. After all, there was no reason to look there!