I have struggled with this week’s prompt. Seems simple enough, but there is probably not a single ancestor that I would not like the opportunity to sit and talk with, over food or not over food. So, should I choose one person and have an intimate dinner for two, or should I have a classic dinner party, based on the size of my dining room table? Would I learn more in the relentless grilling possible and opportunity to reveal intimate secrets with only one person, or would the lively conversation and potentially conflicting views of multiple voices elicit surprising revelations? The truth is probably either and/or both. Each has its strengths, and each has its weaknesses.
However, there are other parts to this decision. Do I want to talk with those about whom I already know a fair amount, but would love to know more intimate details about their perspective on their own lives, or do I want to talk to those about whom I have only learned a limited amount of information, and who seem to present a conundrum? Among these would certainly be several maternal ancestors. So often the women if mentioned at all are enigmatic figures. Of course, there are still a couple of male ancestors who are also enigmatic. Okay, so I must make a decision.
My decision combines a little of each of these quandaries. Unless I know that there will be many successive dinners, I must take advantage of the opportunity to speak with a few of these ancestors. So, I’m inviting Healy Phillips Lassiter, my 4th great grandmother and wife of Miles Lassiter, the Quaker. I’m also inviting Ellin Wilson Williams, my paternal great grandmother, as well as her mother, Frances “Fannie” (Smiley?) Gainer. I would also like to have my other paternal great grandmother, Sallie Jacobs Farnell, and her parents, William and Charlotte Jacobs. I would have to add here, Randel Farnell, my paternal great grandfather. Of course, I could not have such a dinner without the person I think I have found the most enigmatic, Joshua W. Williams, my other paternal great grandfather. It seems I am closer to that large dinner party than not. There could be others, but I think this time I shall limit it to these. After all, with nine for dinner, including me, we already need both leaves for the table.
- Healy “Phillips or Lassiter”, as she was known, was a free woman of color, and the wife of my maternal 4th great grandfather, Miles Lassiter. I have no idea who her parents were, or if she had siblings, much less who they were. She was born about 1782 most likely in North Carolina, but she didn’t live long enough to appear on census reports that recorded such information. She died about 1845. I don’t even know if Phillips was her maiden name. According to a letter written after her death and that of Miles, she had children from a previous marriage. It seems from everything else I know, she was most likely married to Nathan Phillips previously, the only other free Phillips of color in that time period, who also happened to live near where she lived. So, her maiden name could have been anything. Was Nathan in fact her first husband? I would love to know what led to the end of her first marriage, since Nathan was still living near her in Randolph County when she was married to Miles. How did she and Miles become involved? In addition, I would like to know if she was born free, or if she was freed at an early age. What about her other children, presumably by Nathan?
- Ellin Wilson Williams was my paternal great grandmother and wife of Joshua W. Williams, one of my other guests, as well as daughter of Frances “Fannie” (Smiley?) Gainer, whom I would also invite. I am fortunate enough to have a picture of Ellin, so it will be easy to recognize her when she arrives. Ellin was born about 1852 either in South Carolina or Georgia according to various census reports and her death certificate. Thus, my first question would be, “Which is it?” I had heard that she was an indentured servant and not a slave. If so, to whom was she indentured? Who was the “Millie” she reportedly had to care for? Did she know who was her father? I’ve seen the name on the death certificate, George Johnson. Is that accurate? If so, where did she get the name Wilson, which she used when she married Joshua? I don’t pick up information on her until she married my great grandfather in Live Oak, Suwannee, Florida. How and when did she get to Florida? How did she meet my great grandfather, Joshua? What is the real story behind the family’s move to New York City? What was life like for her there? Did she ever return to Florida to visit her sister Carrie?
- Frances “Fannie” Gainer was Ellin’s mother. Her information in the census says that she was from South Carolina around 1832. Where in South Carolina? Ellin told her granddaughter, Lute Williams Mann, that you went to Florida in search of your daughter Carrie, who was enslaved or indentured to a family in Columbia County, Florida. I know that Carrie married George Manker, who was also living in Columbia County, and then they moved next door to you in Suwannee County, where George was a teacher in the Freedmen’s school. In 1870, I noticed a Caroline Smiley living in Carrie’s home next door to Fannie. She was old enough to be her mother. Was she? Is Carrie named after her? She said she was born in Georgia, where? Who was her father?
- Sallie Jacobs Farnell was my other paternal great grandmother. She was born in Eufaula, Barbour County, Alabama around 1843. She was born a slave. She was a seamstress. Her beautiful handwork can be seen in the dress she is wearing in the photo I am lucky enough to have. I would like to know what each of us wants to know, what was life like for her in slavery? How did she come to give birth to two children with her master, as the story has come down to me from her granddaughter, Lute Williams Mann? Was it the tragic story we have come to know of a master taking advantage of her because he had the power to do so, or is there more to the story? One never wants to hear the worst, but the truth is important. I note that those two children did not continue to use the Jacobs name, but used the Farnell name of their step-father. How did she come to be in Florida, in Columbia County, where I assume she married my great grandfather, Randel Farnell? How did she meet him?
- William Jacobs was reportedly Sallie’s father, but was he? According to the census, he was born in Virginia around 1811. How did he come to be in Alabama? How is it that after slavery the entire family was able to be together in Florida? How and why did he come there? Who were his parents? Did they come to Alabama, or were they left in Virginia? Were there siblings left behind in Virginia when he came to Alabama? Were there siblings left in Alabama when he came to Florida? Were there any children left behind in Alabama? Were his parents born in Virginia, If not, where were they born?
- Charlotte Jacobs was William’s wife and Sallie’s mother. She also said that she was born Virginia around 1818. So, I have the same questions for her as I do for William.
- Randel Farnell was my great grandfather, husband of Sallie Jacobs Farnell. I know a lot about his slave owner family, but almost nothing about his enslaved mother, Maria. I have seen her name in the Farnell family records, but I don’t actually know anything about her. Who were her parents? Who were her siblings? Who were her other children? Did any of them come to Florida when the Farnells left Georgia and moved to Florida? When did she die? What about Randel’s relationship with descendants of his former owners? I’ve heard he had very cordial relationships with them, is that true?
- Joshua W. Williams was my paternal great grandfather, married to Ellin Wilson/Gainer Williams. In many ways he is my most enigmatic ancestor, even though I probably know more about him than the William and Charlotte Jacobs. It always seems to me I know so much about him, but somehow know so little. He was reportedly born in York, South Carolina. He was reportedly a free man of color. However, I don’t know anything about his family and have never found any evidence of him in South Carolina. Granted, I have not gone to York and poured over county records, but I really haven’t figured out where to begin, and fear I must just sit there day after day for at least a week or two going through everything hoping for a crumb of evidence to his identity. Like Ellin, he seems to drop out of the sky, landing in Suwannee County Florida in 1868 when they marry, then appearing in the 1870 census with their toddler son, William, my grandfather. They
are living in the home of a railroad agent named Henderson. Joshua seems to be fairly well educated and is reportedly a teacher in the 1880 census. According to the same census, and his granddaughter Lute Williams Mann’s information, he worked in a barber shop owned by his father-in-law Alexander Gainer, husband of Ellin’s mother, Frances. Based on a lawsuit that arose from polling irregularities, he was a Republican poll watcher in the election of 1880. He was one of many who testified in the congressional inquiry and lawsuit emanating from that complaint. I would love to know more about that. He was also the postmaster for Live Oak, the county seat, before dying in 1893, most likely from a stroke based on information, again, from Lute Williams Mann. So, who were his parents and siblings? What does the “W” stand for? When did he come to Florida? Where had he lived in South Carolina? Was it York as the family said? Was he in fact free?
That’s the line-up. I am not listing what will be on the menu because I would like to encourage at least the grandmothers to cook their favorite foods, because I didn’t grow up hearing about family specialties. They were all dead before I was born, and nothing seems to have been passed down from their generations. So, I would love to know what they would have served for a big dinner in their homes. I’d contribute to the meal certainly, but what a treat to see what they would bring. Naturally, we will have to take a group picture as well as individual pictures. I’m sure we would eat and talk into the wee hours of the morning about these and many, many topics, if only, as the song says, “heaven wasn’t so far away.”