Posted on 5 Comments

A Lynching Remembered

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.

Welcome Sign to Live Oak, Suwannee County, Florida

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.

Clark “Randy” Randolph

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.

Ruins at Suwannee Springs

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.

Bridge over Suwannee River

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.

Eastside Memorial Cemetery Sign, Live Oak, Florida

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.

Suwannee River

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:

Julie Buckner Armstrong. “How My Heart Grows Weary: Willie James Howard and the Suwannee River,” Journal of Florida Studies, vol 0109. Retrieved from: http://www.journaloffloridastudies.org/files/vol0109/armstrong-suwannee-river.pdf

The Documentary Institute, “Willie James Howard Lynching,” Freedom Never Dies: The Legacy of Harry T. Moore. Retrieved from: https://www.pbs.org/harrymoore/terror/howard.html

Equal Justice Initiative, “On This Day – Jan 02, 1944: 15-Year-Old Boy Lynched in Florida for Sending Love Note.” Retrieved from: https://calendar.eji.org/racial-injustice/jan/2

Posted on 3 Comments

#52 Ancestors – Preservation (2): The Miles Lassiter Collection at Guilford College and the Lela Virginia Farnell Williams Family Collection at Florida A & M University

The Miles Lassiter Collection

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 Autograph Book Belonging to My Grandmother, Lela Virginia Farnell Williams

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.

Posted on 5 Comments

#52 Ancestors—Preservation: Strieby Congregational Church, School and Cemetery Cultural Heritage Site and the Islay Walden Literary Landmark Designation

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.

Literary Landmark

From Strieby Church Literary Marker Award Letter

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.

Langston Hughes Community Library and Cultural Center Literary Marker

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

Strieby Church, School & Cemetery Cultural Heritage Site Marker, Randolph County, NC

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

Strieby Church Cemetery

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.

Posted on 4 Comments

My Grandmother’s Birth-Place Revisited: The Homestead Application of Henry McGehee

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.

Randel Farnell

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.

Testimony of Randel Farnell and William Forsyth Bynum Jr., 5 May 1877

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.

Sallie Jacobs Farnell

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.

Eastside Memorial Cemetery, Live Oak, Suwannee County, Florida — The old Black City Cemetery section is beyond the rear fence and trees

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!

____________________________

Margo Lee Williams, Contributor, “Homestead National Historic Park–Person: Henry McGehee,” National Park Service, n. d. Retrieved from: https://www.nps.gov/people/henry-mcgehee.htm