On several occasions people have said to me that no one really pushed them to go to college, then suggested that this had been my experience as well. My response was always the same. As long as I could remember, my father and his sister, Aunt Lutie, would bring out a small autograph book and tell me that this was from their mother’s, my grandmother’s (born Lela Virginia Farnell) time in college, and I would be going to college just like her. When I was old enough to ask what school, I was told it was a “big school in Florida,” but neither my father nor his sister could remember what school. All Aunt Lutie knew was that it was in Tallahassee, and that it used to be called Tallahassee Normal. I lived in New York; I had never been to Florida; my father had never seen Florida; we had no idea what school it might be. Somehow, we didn’t really talk about the world of HBCUs. Certainly, we knew about Howard University, Fisk University, Lincoln University, Hampton University (then, Hampton Institute), and Tuskegee, but there were many others we did not know. I imagine if my parents heard their names they would have recognized them, but I don’t think they thought of them as a collection of schools under the specific umbrella that we do now, the “Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)”. Even though Aunt Lutie did go to visit family in Florida, her thoughts were primarily on family business and activities. She apparently wasn’t focused on college names.
FAMU was founded in 1887, in Tallahassee, Leon County, Florida. “Tallahassee Normal,” as my family called it, was one of two schools (one for whites, one for blacks) established that year by the Florida State Legislature for the education of teachers, and the first state supported college for African Americans in Florida. My grandmother attended between 1889-1892.
My grandmother’s autograph book was signed not only by fellow students, and teacher, “H. A. Miller,” from Charlottesville, Albemarle County, Virginia, but also by: the founding President, Thomas DeSaille Tucker (“T. DeS. Tucker”); his wife Charity Bishop Tucker (“Mrs. C. B. Tucker”); English teacher and second assistant, Mrs. Ida V. Gibbs (“Mrs. Ida A. Gibbs,”), who was the wife of Thomas Van Rensalaer Gibbs, the first assistant. It Thomas Gibbs’ initial efforts in the Florida state legislature that ultimately led to the founding of the school.
Being too young for the Normal Course (a student had to be at least 16 years of age in order to enter the Normal Course) my grandmother was most likely in either the Academic Course or the Preparatory Course which preceded the Normal Course. Since records from that time were only kept on graduates, and my grandmother did not stay long enough to graduate, no record exists to support the family tradition that she “attended college” except her autograph book.
Despite the lack of other corroborating evidence, entries in the autograph book, Norris dated 3 June 1892, and Professor and Mrs. Tucker, each dated 25 June 1892 indicate that my grandmother, Lela, was probably a student participant in the three-day commencement activities of the historic first graduating class, then called officially, “The State Normal and Industrial College,” from 7-9 June 1892, with the graduation itself being held on 9 June, at the Munro Opera House. Whether or not my grandmother returned to classes in Tallahassee in the Fall of 1892 is not known, but on 12 February 1893, she married my grandfather, William Gainer Williams, in Live Oak, Suwannee County, where both the Farnell and Williams families lived. With that, her college career was definitively over.
My college career would begin almost 100 years later, in 1964. I am absolutely certain that my grandmother’s autograph book was part of why I never considered anything other than going to college. In honor of the influence that little book had on me, in the Fall of 2014, I traveled to Tallahassee and donated the original autograph book and other family photographs to the Meek Eaton Black Archives at Florida A & M University.
Excerpted from: Williams, M. L. (1998). The Autograph Book of Lela Virginia Farnell. Journal of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, vol 17(1).
I have chosen Vella Lassiter, whose full name was Novella Anna Lassiter, not because the name itself is my favorite over others, but because of who she was and what her name represents to me. I have written about her before. Unfortunately, through some unforeseen circumstances, that post is not currently accessible. However, this time I am pleased to be able to post this information because it is Black History Month and this year she is being honored in her home town for her courage in standing up against injustice. This post is excerpted primarily from my book on her family’s community, From Hill Town to Strieby.
Born 4 September 1894,Novella Anna Lassiter, “Vella” was the second of thirteen children (twelve of whom survived) of Winston and Ora (Kearns) Lassiter, of the Lassiter Mill community in Randolph County, North Carolina. She was the granddaughter of Colier and Kate (Polk) Lassiter, and great granddaughter of Miles Lassiter, an early African American Quaker, about whom I have also written. Vella was my 2nd cousin three times removed.
Vella attended Strieby Church School, about two miles from her home in Strieby, in neighboring Union Township. Strieby was founded by the Rev. Islay Walden under the auspices of the American Missionary Association. From there she went on to Peabody Academy in Troy, in the next county, Montgomery County, and then to Bennett College, in Greensboro. Vella graduated in 1913 from the Normal program and eventually earned her Masters’ degree from Miner Teachers College, in Washington, DC. (Miner became part of DC Teachers College which became the foundation for the Department of Education at the University of the District of Columbia.) Vella went on to become a teacher, first back at Strieby, then the combined school at Red House School in the nearby Mechanic area, then at Central School, a Rosenwald school in the county seat of Asheboro, and finally at a school in Reidsville, in Rockingham County, North Carolina, where she taught for 40 years. However, being close to her family, she often came home on weekends to visit, so it was in 1937.
Vella was returning to Reidsville on Easter Monday afternoon. She was on the first of her two bus trips. The first bus would take her from Asheboro to Greensboro, about 35 miles away in Guilford County. From there she would take a bus to Reidsville. She had bought her ticket and was seated on the bus – next to a white person. The bus was crowded and there were no more seats. The bus driver apparently objected to Vella sitting next to a white person. Vella was asked to give up her seat, get off the bus, and wait for the next one. Anyone who knew Vella knew she was a force of nature. Vella said “No.” The bus driver attempted to force her off the bus. Vella resisted. Eventually two policemen were needed to drag her to the door and throw her onto the sidewalk. She would later tell people there was no way she would make it easy for them to throw her off that bus. After all, she had bought a ticket and she was just as good as any white person.
Vella called one of her brothers to come and take her to Reidsville, but she also called a lawyer, her cousin, prominent High Point, North Carolina, African American attorney, T. F Sanders (grandson of Wiley Phillips Lassiter and great grandson of Miles Lassiter). With his assistance (and that of prominent civil rights attorney, F.W. Williams, of Winston Salem) Vella sued the Greensboro-Fayetteville Bus Line, on the grounds that they had sold her the ticket for that specific bus trip and consequently were required to transport her. To everyone’s surprise she won the case in a jury trial in November of that year. She was awarded $300 in damages. The bus company appealed to the North Carolina State Supreme Court.
Two years later in 1939, the decision was upheld by Judge Allen H. Gwyn. Vella had won. In reporting the victory on 12 August 1939, The Carolina Times newspaper, published in Raleigh, wrote that: Possibly the most significant victory regarding the rights of Negroes was won in Randolph County last month when attorney P.[sic] W. Williams, prominent Winston-Salem lawyer emerged victorious in a suit against the Greensboro-Fayetteville Bus Line.
Her success was particularly significant because there was only one other lawsuit before hers that had gone to the North Carolina State Supreme Court and won, that was a 1914 housing segregation lawsuit in Winston-Salem.
After more than 40 years of teaching, Vella retired to the family home in Lassiter Mill, where she lived until her death in January 1994, at 99 years of age. She is buried in the Strieby Church Cemetery. 
One of my early surprise successes in genealogy was finding Miles Lassiter, my maternal 4th great grandfather. I had learned from my 2nd great grandmother’s (Ellen) death certificate that my 3rd great grandmother’s maiden name was Nancy Lassiter, so I had gone looking for her in the census. I had worked my way backwards using her married name, Dunson, also learned from the same death certificate.
I found her first as a widow in the 1880 census. Ellen, or Grandma Ellen as my mother (Margaret) called her, was married and living elsewhere, but her sister Adelaide, whom my mother knew, was still in the household. I moved back to the 1870 census. Both Nancy and her husband Calvin Dunson were living together with some of their children, again, not including Grandma Ellen who was married and whom I had identified with her family living nearby in Randolph County.
My mother knew almost nothing beyond Grandma Ellen. Grandma Ellen had died when my mother was about six years old, too young to really ask anything about her family history. For whatever reason nothing was passed down beyond that, so I had no real information about whether Nancy was free before 1865 or not. I figured I should see what I found, so I looked for her. There she was in 1860, with her husband Calvin, and this time with Grandma Ellen. The census said Ellen (EAllen) was about nine years old. “Well,” I reasoned, “why don’t I keep looking? I wonder if she’s (Nancy) in the 1850 census?” So, I looked. Yes, there she was! She was living in the household with an older man, old enough to be her father, Miles Lassiter. He was head of household. Also, in the household were some other young people who could very likely be her siblings: Abigail, Collier, Jane, and John. Another young person, Parthena, may have been a cousin, since she was listed in a different place in the order, but at this point I did not actually know the details. Also, in the household was another older man, Samuel, who could be Miles’ brother. One issue, of course, with the 1850 census is that relationships are not recorded. If you don’t already know the relationships, or cannot confirm them in the 1880 census, where they are for the first time recorded, you just can’t be sure.
I was feeling like I was on a roll, so I decided to see just how far back I could go. I looked at the 1840 census, but didn’t see anything. I’m not sure why I didn’t stop there, but I decided to see if there was anything in 1830. To my surprise, there he was, Miles Lassiter, free man of color. I am still amused by noting that whoever did the indexing wrote it as Smiles, because the person recording his name on the census form seems to have written his first name over another name that started with “S,” but in doing so did not obliterate the “S,” leading the indexer to believe the “S” was part of his name. Of course, the 1830 census is even more enigmatic than the 1850 census, because before 1850, only the head of household’s name is recorded. I could count tic marks, but it really wouldn’t mean anything without other information from other records. For that reason, Miles’ absence from the 1840 census, which also did not record names beyond head of household, didn’t necessarily mean anything. After all, he could have been living in someone else’s household, someone whose name I did not know and therefore, I had no way of confirming where he was. The only thing I could surmise at this point was that, he was a free man of color and, although he was not listed in the 1840 census, he was still alive in 1850, but not recorded in 1860, or beyond. Looking farther back was not possible because the 1820 census for Randolph County no longer exists and Miles was either too young or not financially independent enough to be head of his own household any farther back than that, or not even free any farther back. 1830 was as far back as I was able to go in the census.
I could assume that Miles had died sometime after 1850 and before 1860 by noting what because of those who were in the house with him in 1850. In 1860, as noted above, my 3rd great grandmother Nancy was living with her husband, Calvin, and their children. Collier, here called “Cal,” whom I believed to be her brother, was living nearby, apparently married and with two children; in his household, also, were two people who had been in Miles’ 1850 household, Samuel, who might be Miles’ brother and Abigail, who might be Collier and Nancy’s older sister. Most of this information would be confirmed in later censuses, although Samuel would not live long enough to have his relationship recorded in the 1880 census. Abigail, about whom I wrote in a previous post, would live until sometime after 1910, and have her relationship as a sister confirmed in the census and other documents as well.
What the census could not tell me at that time was how long Miles had been free. Was he born free? If not, when was he freed? Who was his wife? Were these all his children? Who were his parents, and, of course, when did he actually die? Those questions would have to be answered another time, after a lot more research. Right then what was exciting was that I could tell my mother that she had free ancestors. Her response was priceless. “Yes,” she had heard that from her grandmother, Louise (who raised her and her sister), when she was a child. Of course, she had thought her grandmother was wrong and, well, crazy, because everyone knew that black people had been slaves! No teachers had ever said anything about free people of color. She really hadn’t learned anything more.
In fairness, my mother was raised primarily in Elizabeth, New Jersey, away from most of her relatives. In fact, until I started this research around 1976, she’d never even heard of, or met, most of the people we would come to meet and with whom we would spend time in the coming years. Her grandmother, Louise, died in 1936, only a year after my mother married and when my mother was still very young (22). It hadn’t occurred to her to interview (“grill”) her grandmother about their family history. My mother thought whoever was back in North Carolina from her grandmother’s time was undoubtedly dead. Little did she know.
I followed the family forward in the census, particularly the family of Collier/Colier/Calier. At the time, only the 1900 census was available. I was able to determine that there were descendants still living in the same community that Nancy and Grandma Ellen had lived. By this time, Abigail was living in the home of Colier’s son, Ulysses Winston (called Winston). He was married and had several children, Mable, Vella, Will, and Calier. It was possible that in the early 1980s when I was doing this part of the research, one of them might still be alive, or their children, I thought. All I had to do was find a way to meet them, but that’s a story for another day.