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!
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!
July 2021 – Speak Up Talk Radio announced the winners of 2021’s second quarter FIREBIRD BOOK AWARDS contest. One hundred thirty seven books were announced in 120 categories.
One of the winning entries was from Maryland, from author Margo Lee Williams, whose book, titled BORN MISSIONARY: THE ISLAY WALDEN STORY, won in the African American Non-Fiction category.
Authors and publishers from around the world submitted their work to the Firebird Book Awards. Two judges from a select panel of 15 judges read each book in its entirety and independently scored each entry. All judges committed to a set of standardized criteria that evaluates the quality of the writing as well as production aspects. Only entries with the highest of scores were awarded the coveted Firebird.
Patricia J. Rullo, founder of the Firebird Book Awards, says, “This quarter’s authors and genres included the most diverse entries to date, from around the world. Our judges (from the publishing and writing world) are also a diverse group of humans and represent a cross section of ages, cultural heritage, race, religion, gender, and experience. At Speak Up Talk Radio, our mission is to offer authors a welcome place to promote themselves and their books via book awards, radio interviews, audiobook production, and podcasting services.”
Pat adds, “We’ve included a charitable component to our awards by making all entry fees tax-deductible to the author. In return, we personally make and send handmade fun and colorful pillowcases to women and children in homeless shelters via Enchanted Makeovers, a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization. All entry fees fund this project. In this way, authors get notoriety for their work while doing good for others. It’s been such a rewarding venture for everyone.”
The Firebird Book Awards run quarterly contests so authors can receive recognition on a timely basis. Authors from all genres, mainstream, independent, and self-published are welcome. Additional winning authors and titles as well as entry information is available athttps://www.speakuptalkradio.com
An important freedom associated with emancipation was the ability to acquire private property – land. One opportunity that allowed those with limited resources to own land was provided by t he Homestead Act of 1862. The Homestead Act was passed by Congress in 1862 and granted up to 160 acres of federal land to any U.S. citizen. The land was free if the person lived on the land for at least five years and improved it by building a home, and growing crops. The legislation was intended to provide incentive to settle in western territories, thus expanding of the United States. However, the Act was applicable in any public land state, including several southern states, such as Alabama, Louisiana, and Florida, where my paternal great grandfather, Randel Farnell, lived.
The following essay is taken from the story I submitted on my great grandfather, Randel Farnell, to the National Park Service for their digital exhibit devoted to African American Homesteaders, on the Black Homesteaders Project site.
Randel Farnell was born in Hawkinsville, Pulaski County, Georgia on March 15, 1840. In 1877, after his mother died, Farnell moved from Columbia County, Florida to neighboring Suwannee County where his wife’s family lived. There, he filed Homestead Application #5637 on September 13, 1877 at the county clerk’s office in Live Oak. Farnell applied for 39.78 acres. He then filed his claim at the land office in Gainesville, Alachua County, Florida. Farnell paid seven dollars for the application filing fee.
Seven years later, on 18 August 1884, he appeared at the Land Office in Gainesville, again. He was given notice of his intention to present final proof to establish his claim to the land defined in his application. He stated that he expected to prove his residence and cultivation of the land before the Honorable M. M. Blackburn, back in Live Oak, Suwannee County, on 4 October 1884. He stated that two of four people named, Elijah Carruthers, Henry McGee, Edward Perry, and Puck Ferguson, would provide witness testimony. In addition, it was recorded that public notice of the Homestead application would appear in the Florida Bulletin, published at Live Oak. That notice appeared for thirty days, beginning 23 August until 27 September 1884. There was also a posting attested to by L. A. Barnes, Land Office register. He certified that a printed copy of the notice was posted in his office for thirty days, beginning on 18 August 1884.
In his final affidavit, for which he appeared one month before the 4 October date, on 4 September before Judge Blackburn, Randel stated that he settled the land on 12 September 1877. However, final testimony of witnesses and Randel Farnell, himself, was given on 4 October 1884. Witness testimony was given by two men. One had been named in the initial application, Henry McGee, while the other, William Evans, was not. Henry McGee’s family and Randel’s family would have long- lasting personal ties, as Henry’s daughter, Addie, eventually married Randel’s brother-in-law, Joseph Jacobs.
William Evans testified that Randel Farnell was a citizen of the United States, over 21 years of age, the head of a family and had never made a claim for Homestead property before. He went on to say that Randel had settled the homestead in 1877. He stated there was a “nice log house (dwelling) crib smoke house and stable, about 35 acres in cultivation value $200.” He went on to state that Randel and his family had resided on the homestead continuously since their first settlement. He said that they had not been absent from the property except to “labor” at other places daily, but the family had “self-cultivated” the property. He further attested that there was no oil or other minerals, the land was more valuable as agricultural land than for its mineral potential. He also affirmed that the property had not been mortgaged. Finally, he agreed he had no interest in the property. Henry McGee’s responses were similar. However, he called the log dwelling, “splendid.”
Randel also had to testify. He stated all the things that Evans and McGee stated. In addition, he was asked about his family. He responded that in addition to himself, there was his wife Sallie (Jacobs) Farnell, a dressmaker, and six children. The word “four” had been crossed out. This was because he had four biological children (Maryland, William, Jackson, and Lela) with his wife, and she had two additional children of her own (Anna and Richard). Randel also noted that about 35 acres had been cultivated, on which he had raised crops for seven seasons.
The final certificate #4776 was issued on 29 October 1884, for 39.79 acres (one acre more than identified in the original application). The family continued to live on the property until about 1900, when they moved into the city of Live Oak, where Randel had a hauling business (“drayman”). He was also a founding member of Ebenezer A. M. E. Church. The Homestead property remained in the family until his second wife, Priscilla (Vickers) Farnell, died in 1967. Randel died in 1928.
My father, known as Herbie Williams (Herbert R. Williams), would say, when I asked how he went from working as a Postal “Letter Carrier” to work for the U. S. Customs Service, at the U. S. Custom House (now called the “Alexander Hamilton U. S. Custom House”), in Lower Manhattan (New York), that one of the men on the “stamping desk” went to lunch and he (my father) was asked to fill in. Then he would add, “That was the longest lunchbreak he ever had!” Then he would say it was “___ years long” (fill in the appropriate number of years depending on when he was asked).
My father retired from “Customs” after 42 years of service. In that time, he went from the stamping desk as a clerk, to being a “Deputy Collector” and “Import Specialist.” Upon retirement, he was awarded the Gallatin Award from the U. S. Treasury Department. His job vacancy notice indicated that the successful applicant needed to have a law degree. Not bad for a man who had only completed the ninth grade. I would love to continue writing about my father, how really smart he was, how he was a walking calculator and what an amazing career he had, or the wonderful person he was, but that’s not the story I want to share in this blog. It’s that “longest lunchbreak” I want to write about.
Frankly, it never occurred to me to question my father’s account of his rise from Letter Carrier to Deputy Collector and Import Specialist. Since he died in 1982, I no longer have the opportunity to ask questions. However, recently, I have had occasion to go through some old documents of my father’s. Some of these documents go back to his young adult years, back to the time when he was working for the Post Office, before going to Customs. In reading those documents, I discovered that his “Lunchbreak” story didn’t occur exactly the way he had told it.
As part of the background to this story, I must explain that he was originally from Jersey City, New Jersey. In May 1929, while still in his twenties, he was a co-founder and Vice President of the Colored Men’s Regular Republican Association of Hudson County, New Jersey. I knew he had been active politically as a young man, but I did not realize just how active. Moreover, I did not know how well he understood how to leverage that position to his advantage.
In August 1929, a letter was written by the Republican Association president, C. Bion Jones, on behalf of my father and Raymond Alleyne, another young man working at the same postal station (located in the U.S. Custom House), to Senator Walter Edge, from New Jersey. In it, Mr. Jones indicates that my father and Mr. Alleyne were two of a group of young men, all members of the Hudson County Republican Association, who were experiencing “unfairness” by the Post Office Superintendent, F. A. Kaemffe. Mr. Jones was asking Senator Edge to intervene in the matter. I assume it was this “unfairness” that prompted my father’s interest in moving to the Customs Service.
In October (illegible) 1929, there was a draft letter to Colonel Arthur Fran, Comptroller of Customs, drawn up by my father, on his own behalf, but the intended signatory was not indicated. In it, he noted that he desired to transfer to Customs. He stated that the clerical pool in the Customs Service was “shorthanded.” He explained that he had taken the general clerical test in April and had made a formal application. He said that those chosen were generally chosen from those who had completed such steps. He also wanted the Colonel to know that he was “an active Republican and was V. President of one of our militant Rep. organizations.” (Did he say “militant?” I never heard that before!) As noted, he did not indicate whose signature was intended for this, possibly Mr. Bion Jones, the association president.
In November 1929, he wrote a letter to Bion Jones. In it, he noted that he had not heard anything regarding his application for transfer. I mentioned that he had taken the clerical test in April” and that, providing that I pass this and have the right person in back of me will entitle me to a clerk’s position in the Customs Service quicker than a transfer as there must be a vacancy at the time of my recommendation by the Coll of Cust and since to fulfill the necessary papers for transferring me would take 3 months and the help being so short handed they cannot hold a position open that long, so until I receive my report I guess the matter will have to stand. However, he did not let it rest.
In May 1930, my father wrote to Congressman Fred Hartley. Hartley was apparently someone with whom he had some relationship, since he opened his letter saying, It has been some time since you have heard from me for which I wish to apologize but knowing how busy you have been with the tariff bill, I did not think you would have time to bother with such small matters as reading letters from me. But as you have about finished with the tariff bill, I wish you would look into the enclosed matter as it has been hanging free (?) for some time and the only results are a big promise so knowing you are one for the party, I know you will do your best to get me more than a promise.
About ten days later, my father wrote Bion Jones, saying that, “Some time ago, I filed an application for transfer from the Post office Department to the Customs Service as a clerk. It has been some time since I have received any word as to whether such a feat could be accomplished and I feel as though something should have been done by this time.”
On 6 June, Congressman Hartley responded to my father saying that he had heard from the Collector of Customs. The letter was attached. In it the Collector indicated there were still no vacancies but would contact the Congressman as soon as an opening became available. Congressman Hartley assured my father that he would “continue to follow this case, and do everything possible to obtain a transfer” for him.
There is another letter, that seems to be from the same time period, but was not dated. It was written from my father to the “Hon. Robt. S. O. Lawson, Pres Puretan Repu A,” In the letter, my father indicated that he had written to the Hon. Ham. F. Kean, the Hon. Philip Eltinger, Collector of Customs, Col. Arthur Fran, comptroller of Customs and Judge Thos H. Brown and all I can get is as soon as an opportunity of an opening comes, I will get 1st chance. This is all I received for an answer for two years although since then I have even passed their 1st grade examination which entitles me to 1st preference but, I am waiting. So, hoping you can get me some sort of answer as to whether it can be accomplished.
That was the last of the letters preserved regarding this matter. However, another document compiled around 1939, which listed his work and education history, noted that he got a long-awaited birthday gift. On 10 August 1930, his birthday, he reported to the Post Office for the last time. On 11 August 1930, he reported for work with the Customs Service as a clerk on the Stamping desk, thus beginning his forty-two-year career in Customs.
So, that cute story about how he filled in for someone but never left, was really a hard-fought political strategy to advocate for himself and his future. It was quite amazing and rewarding to read about how he used his political acumen and leveraged his many contacts to finally land the job of his dreams. He loved his work with Customs. I don’t think there was ever a day that he didn’t look forward to going to work. On retirement, he was immensely proud of all that he had accomplished – so were my mother and I.