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#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.

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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:

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First Place, African American Non-Fiction, July 2021

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 at

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#52 Ancestors-Free: Randel Farnell’s Homestead Land

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

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.

Public Notice in Florida Bulletin

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.

Henry McGhee Household in 1900 with Joe Jacobs and Henry’s Daughter, Addie McGhee 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.”

Henry McGhee Testimony

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.

Randel Farnell Testimony

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.

Final Homestead Certificate
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#52 Ancestors – Family Legend: The Longest Lunchbreak

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.

Herbie and Margaret (Lee) Williams at his retirement luncheon, 1972

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.

Certificate of Incorporation for the Colored Men’s Regular Republican Association of Hudson County, New Jersey

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.

Letter from Herbie Williams to Congressman Fred Hartley, Jr.

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.”

Letter to C. Bion Jones from Herbie Williams

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.

Letter from Congressman Fred Hartley, Jr., to Herbie Williams

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.

Letter from Herbie Williams to Robert Lawson

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.

Part of a job history report for Herbie Williams

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.

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January 2021 – Speak Up Talk Radio announced the winners of 2020’s fourth quarter FIREBIRD BOOK AWARDS contest. Seventy-two winners were announced in 87 categories.

Among the winning entries were two from Maryland author Margo Lee Williams, whose books, titled From Hill Town to Strieby and Miles Lassiter, won First and Second Place respectively in the African American Non-Fiction category.

2020 First Place Winner, African American Non-Fiction, Firebird Book Award

Authors and publishers from around the world submitted their work to the Firebird Book Awards. A panel of 12 judges within the writing and publishing space then read every book and independently scored each entry according 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 are awarded the coveted Firebird.

2020 Second Place Winner, African American Non-Fiction, Firebird Book Award

Patricia J. Rullo, founder of the Firebird Book Awards, says, “The quality of the entries were stunning and speak to the talent out there that needs a marketing voice. At Speak Up Talk Radio, our mission is to offer radio interviews and podcasting services to help authors expand their reach. In addition to additional prizes, our winners have the opportunity to be interviewed and aired on radio stations, iHeart Radio, Pandora, as well as 50 additional online venues, giving them new ways to speak up and share their work.”

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 whimsical 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 can 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 at

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#52Ancestors – Beginnings: When Herbie met Peggy

My parents met around January 1934, based on a letter written by my mother, Margaret (Margaret Lilly Lee), called “Peggy,” at the time, to my father, Herbert (Herbert Randell Williams), called “Herbie” by everyone.  My parents met on the New York Subway. Although my father lived in Jersey City, New Jersey, he worked in Manhattan at the U. S. Customs House (not far from “Ground Zero” in 2011). My mother technically lived with her grandmother (Mary Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram), her sister (Elverna Elizabeth Lee), and her uncle (Percy Walter Phillips) in Elizabeth, New Jersey, but she worked for a dressmaker, Charlotte Dietz, in Corona, Queens, New York, with whom she stayed. I’m not sure who was headed where at the time they met. I was always struck by the fact that my mother spoke to a strange man despite always admonishing me strongly to never, ever speak to strangers! I took every opportunity (in jest, of course) to remind her of that.

I don’t think either of them had a private telephone. My father had access to one at his office and I believe my mother had access to the one belonging to Mrs. Dietz when absolutely necessary, but I’m sure my mother was not allowed to “chat” with gentlemen for social reasons. However, my parents did exchange contact information. I asked why she was willing to give a strange man her contact information. She said that they had mutual friends who vouched for him when she checked. I imagine the conversation went something like, “You live in Jersey City? Do you know ‘So and So’?” In this case the answer was “Yes.”

My mother told me she doublechecked with her friend, who told her that my father was 30 (my mother was a couple months shy of 20), worked for U. S. Customs, lived with his sister in Jersey City, and had two young sons from a previous marriage. I’m not sure what facts persuaded my mother to return a letter of overture from my father, but in February of 1934, she wrote a letter to him at his office in the Customs House. As referenced therein, he had contacted her first, but she was slow to respond.

Letter from Margaret Lee, “Peggy,” to Herbert R. Williams, “Herbie.”

“Thursday –

My dear Herbert,

I suppose you’ve given up hopes of my answering your letter. I was at a loss as to whether I should answer your letter.

As for coming to see me, not until I know more about you. I work in a Jewish dress shop and I live with the people I work for so that is why I have to be very careful about visitors. My home is really in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I came out here so as to be near the city as I am seeking a musical career.

I don’t make a habit of speaking to strangers, but I’ll take a chance this once. However, I can see you sometime in the city. I remain –



Taking a chance “this once” apparently worked out. After a strong campaign of letters by my father (you can read more about those in #52Ancestors-Favorite Discovery), they eloped to Greenwich, Connecticut, where they were married by a Baptist minister on 1 April 1935, just 19 days before my mother turned 21. With that, the musical career was ended before it ever began.

Original Marriage Certificate of Herbert R. Williams and Margaret Lee, 1 April 1935, Greenwich, Connecticut

It was, however, a strong beginning. My parents were married 47 years and one day when my father died from complications due to Congestive Heart Failure, on 2 April 1982. It was a profound loss for my mother. As she explained, she had spent more of her life with him than without him.

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#52 Ancestors – Oops: That’s the Wrong Sam

My great grandfather was Samuel Dow Phillips, from Randolph County, North Carolina. He was the son of Lewis and Margaret (Peacock/Callicutt) Phillips. Sam was a barber. Eventually, he moved to Flushing (Queens), New York, where he had his own barber shop, on Prince Street. He was married to my great grandmother, Mary Louise “Louise” Smitherman and had five children: Maude, George, Elinora, (my grandmother) Percy, and Mozelle.

Certified Copy of Sam Phillips and Louisa Smitherman

In the mid-1890s, Sam moved to New York, hoping to find a more lucrative environment in the Big City. Louise and the children continued to live in Asheboro, Randolph County, anticipating they would move to join him when his finances became more stable.

There was just one problem. Louise’s sister, Roxanna, “Roxie,” who lived in Baltimore, somehow learned that Sam was involved with another woman in New York. It was rumored that he was living with this woman. According to my mother, Roxie reported what she knew to Louise. I don’t have the specifics, but Louise confronted Sam. It didn’t go well. Louise filed for divorce, in Asheboro. She accused Sam of abandonment and adultery. She named his New York paramour. She won in 1899. Sam would then marry Nannie Rush (not the named paramour), also from North Carolina. Sam and Nannie lived in Flushing until their deaths, in the 1940s and 1950s respectively. They are buried in Flushing Cemetery.

Copy of Final Divorce Decree between Louisa Phillips and Sam Phillips, 1899

Louise would also remarry, twice: first, to John Floyd in Greensboro, North Carolina; second, to John Ingram, moving then to Elizabeth, New Jersey. My mother (who was reared by Louise after her mother died in the flu pandemic) believed that John Floyd had died. Based on information I have learned I think it is more likely they simply separated. There is no divorce filed and no death record for him in that time period. In that same vein, there is no identifiable marriage record for Louise and John Ingram. No matter though, because after a few years, the city directory for Elizabeth, New Jersey recorded that she was widowed. However, John could be found alive and well, living in Philadelphia, with his son. Louise died in 1936. She is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery, in Roselle, New Jersey.

Mary Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram’s Death Certificate

There’s just one problem with this story. Based on DNA, Sam is not my great grandfather. Well, not Sam Phillips anyway. DNA matches analyzed on multiple testing sites, including Ancestry, 23 and me, and My Heritage, show that my great grandfather was a different Sam: Samuel Montgomery Lewis, also from Asheboro, Randolph County.

When I first noticed this close DNA match in Ancestry, “JL,” I had no idea how he fit in my tree. I knew he was not a paternal relative. He didn’t match any of my paternal family members who had been tested. He did match my daughter, of course. He also matched some other maternal relatives, but I still couldn’t discern how. I was also perplexed by the fact that he was such a close relative. After my daughter and paternal nieces (descendants from my eldest half-brother, Robert), JL was (and continues to be) my closest DNA match in Ancestry (his sister and daughter are in 23 and me). The account was managed by a woman whose last name was Lewis. I’ll call her DL. The unattached tree she posted was associated with her family. Nothing told me what her husband’s first name was. Even more challenging, her family was from Louisiana. The only way I was going to figure out my relationship to him was to develop her family tree, hoping some record would lead me to learn the connection between JL and myself.

I researched DL’s family. Her father was in the military. I followed them through the records to various parts of the country, finally settling in Virginia. I saw his death certificate, but nothing was published that helped me learn the full name of JL.

Then I found the obituary for DL’s mother. It was a very extensive report of her life and activities in various church and military associated organizations. It also provided an extensive recitation of her family members, children, and grandchildren. There it was, DL married to JL. Now I knew their full names. With the correct names I was able to locate their marriage records in Virginia.  I was still a bit perplexed because JL was born in Virginia, not North Carolina. My family never lived in Virginia, so I needed to find a time when the two families were in the same place at the same time. 

Since JL was a Jr., I looked for JL Sr. JL Jr.’s marriage record named his parents. His mother’s death certificate said she was from North Carolina. His father’s death information only had an abstract available. However, I found his World War II draft record. It said he was from Asheboro, North Carolina. It named his mother, Mary Lewis.

Armed with that information, it was easy to identify the family in Randolph County. Now, I was able to develop JL’s tree going back to the late 18th century. I was also able to learn about my relationship to dozens of DNA matches from numerous founding families in Randolph County. So, you ask, what other documentation do I have of any relationship between Sam Lewis and Sam Phillips and Louise?

1880 Census, Randolph County, North Carolina: Sam M Lewis and Saml Phillips, Dwelling & Family 39

I had the information all along it turned out. It had no significance for me before. I had really forgotten about it. On the 1880 census, Sam Phillips was recorded in the household of William Robert Lewis, Sam Lewis’s father. Sam Lewis was also in the household. The two Sams didn’t just know each other from the community, they had lived in the same household. Can I say they were friends? I don’t know, but I can say they were more than acquaintances.

Louisa Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram and Elinora Phillips Lee, circa 1916

So, what about Sam Lewis and Louise? I have no idea how that relationship came about. I do know that my grandmother, Elinora, was born about 1895. This was about the time that Sam Phillips was beginning his quest for improved finances in New York. Sam Lewis was unmarried. He did not marry until 1907. Sam Phillips and Louise were having marital problems in that time-period, though they did not divorce until 1899. Did Louise find some solace with Sam Lewis from her troubles with Sam Phillips? On the other hand, did Sam Lewis try to take advantage of the fact that Sam Phillips was out of town and the marital strain with Louise? I have no idea. There is no evidence. In fact, if anyone in my family knew, they took it to the grave with them. I do not include my mother in that group. I am very confident she had no idea Sam Lewis was her grandfather, rather than Sam Phillips, but she is dead now, too.

Margaret Lilly Lee Williams & sister, Elverna Elizabeth Lee Means, circa 1920

Since discovering this information, I have found, on other sites, my DNA relationship to JL’s sister, daughter, and son, along with numerous cousins. However, I did not reach out to any of them. I really couldn’t find a delicate way to say that my grandmother was their father’s (or grandfather’s ) half-sister, “without benefit of clergy,” as a genie friend of mine says. As it happens, I didn’t have to reach out. JL’s daughter reached out to me. It was a gracious note. I responded. We quickly bonded and she was kind enough to share family pictures, including our mutual great grandfather, Sam Lewis. I shared pictures of my grandmother and her mother, Louise. I was also able to provide documentation about Sam’s life and family, information she did not have. And I had to smile when she said that (based on my picture) I look like her father’s family.

L-R Behind: Sarah Jane Lowe Lewis, Mary Lassiter Lewis, and Samuel Montgomery Lewis. L-R in Front: Thomas Norman Lewis, Margaret Lewis, and Imogene Lewis.
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#52 Ancestors – Winter: The Blizzard of ‘47

The United States Weather Bureau forecast for Friday, Dec. 26, said: “New York City and vicinity, cloudy with occasional snow ending during the afternoon.” It probably was the greatest understatement in Weather Bureau history. The New York Times Archives[1]

Snow began falling early in the morning the day after Christmas in 1947. My mother was in her last month of pregnancy. The phone rang all day with concerned friends suggesting she should call her doctor to see if she could go to the hospital, just in case the baby (me) came early. “No,” she insisted. The baby wasn’t due until the 6th of January (1948). She was fine.

There was no let-up, the skies continued to dump white, cold, heavy precipitation all day and night, continuing into the day on Saturday, the 27th. Roads were impassible, public transportation came to a halt, including New York’s famed Subway and elevated trains, with snow levels mounting and frozen rails. The City restricted all travel to emergency vehicles only. No travel across the various bridges that linked four of the five boroughs to each other (Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, and Manhattan; Staten Island could only be reached by ferry) was permitted. My parents lived in Queens, just two blocks from LaGuardia Airport, overlooking Grand Central Parkway. My mother’s doctor was in Manhattan. The hospital where she was to deliver was in Manhattan. My parents didn’t own a car, but it didn’t matter. The roads were closed. The bridges were closed. They were stranded. About midday, my mother’s water broke. Now what?

Blizzard of ’47 (Associated Press Image)

My parents were frantic. They began calling everyone they could, but it didn’t matter. Even if people had cars (most of their friends did not), the roads were closed. More to the point, the snow was so high, cars couldn’t move. Even emergency vehicles were experiencing difficulties getting around. One of my parent’s friends suggested that they call a nearby bar and grill, known to be frequented by truckers. Perhaps someone there could help. They called. Most people at the bar were stranded themselves. However, one young man and a friend had a pickup truck. They felt that if they weighted the back of truck with snow and ice, they might be able to make the trip. They agreed to try, feeling concerned about the young pregnant woman.

The two young men arrived at the house and helped my father get my mother down the front steps and into the truck. The young man who was not driving rode in the back of pickup. I can’t imagine how cold he must have been. Upon arriving at the toll booth for the Triboro Bridge (now called Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge), which they needed to cross to get to the hospital in Manhattan, the policeman, incredulous that they were able to drive at all on the nearly impassable roads, told them the bridge was closed and they could not cross. I’m not sure if my mother was screaming or not, but the driver explained he had a pregnant woman who was in labor, about to give birth right there in the truck and he needed to get her to her designated hospital, Wadsworth Hospital, on the upper West Side of Manhattan. The policeman peered in the truck window and apparently was sufficiently shocked by my mother’s demeanor that he allowed them to pass. Somehow, they made it to the hospital. In all the excitement and relief that they made it, my parents said a hasty thank you and were whisked away into the hospital, by hospital attendants, neglecting to obtain the names of their kind transporters. They made it in time. My mother was in labor for several more hours. I was not born until 12:47 am, on Sunday morning, the 28th. The snow also ended sometime overnight, having deposited 26.4 inches. It was the most snow since the Blizzard of 1888. Moreover, this blizzard was called a “mesoscale” storm because it snowed on one more centralized spot(rather than a region) with “a concentrated force.”[2]

Post-delivery was not then what it is today. My mother and I were kept in the hospital for eight days after I was born. Meanwhile, my father had to negotiate the aftermath of the blizzard. He worked at the Customs House in lower Manhattan, on the waterfront, near the ferry for Staten Island (and Ground Zero). Getting to work each day, and home again, required herculean effort. Although the Subway stop near the Customs House that he used was underground and was now functional, getting to and from the Subway in Queens was another matter. The bus he normally took was unable to negotiate the snow-packed streets. He had to walk 2.5 miles each way from the Subway at 74th St. and Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights to our home on Ditmars Blvd. in East Elmhurst. In addition, after work, he would take the Subway uptown to visit my mother and me, his new baby girl, in the hospital, before heading home. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to walk from the Subway at 74th St. to our house on a sunny, Spring day, much less trudging through nearly hip-high snow.

My Parents: Herbert and Margaret (Lee) Williams and me (Margo Lee Williams), circa April 1948

About 12 years later, the snow was falling; school closed early. My mother was on the phone talking with our neighbor, Thelma. My mother was explaining the snow was falling much like the day before I was born. She went on to tell the story of the young men who came and helped her and my father get to the hospital in time to be born. She credited them with saving our lives, since it was a somewhat difficult birth and one or both of us might have died without proper medical care. Thelma began to explain that her then fiancé, “Buster,” was supposed to come to her apartment to have dinner. He was late because he said he and his friend helped a young woman in labor and her husband get to the hospital in Manhattan. He lamented that in all the excitement he didn’t get their names. She went on to say that ever since they bought their house next door to us, Buster would comment from time to time that he was sure that young couple lived nearby, but he just couldn’t remember which house. He wondered if the baby and mother had survived and what became of them. It didn’t take too many more comparisons of the details to realize that my mother was that young pregnant woman in labor and that I was the baby. How amazing to realize the man who helped my mother get to the hospital and almost certainly saved our lives, was my much loved “Uncle Buster,” next door!

I can never experience a snowfall, much less a blizzard without thinking about my dramatic entrance or Uncle Buster.


[1] “Disasters, NYC: Blizzard of ’47,” NYCdata, It’s All Here! Retrieved from:,of%20up%20to%2012%20hours.

[2] “Blizzard’ of ’47; New York Showed [sic] Under: December 28, 1947,” The New York Times Archives, Retrieved from:

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#52Ancestors – Disease: Luetic Myocarditis and the Death of Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram

#52Ancestors – Disease: Luetic Myocarditis and the Death of Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram

I was sitting at the kitchen table. Mom was at the stove. I told her that I had received a copy of her grandmother’s death certificate. “Oh,” she said. “She died from cardiac failure,” I continued, “caused by luetic myocarditis.” “She died from a heart attack,” Mom retorted. “I know,” I said, “caused by the luetic myocarditis.” “What?” she asked. “Tertiary Syphilis, also called Lues,” I explained. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, she died from a heart attack. What are you talking about? What are you trying to say?” she asked, eyes flashing, voice rising. “I’m not saying she did anything wrong. She was married more than once,” I continued. “She probably got it from one of her husbands, who knows what they were doing. There was no penicillin, at that time,” I reminded her. “No one’s accusing her of anything,” I said. “I don’t know what they’re talking about,” she responded, lips pressed closed tightly. She was clearly angry. I dropped the subject and never mentioned it again.

Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram’s Death Certificate

In 1978, I was busy collecting vital records on as many ancestors as possible. That included my great grandmother, Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram. When her death certificate arrived, I was quite surprised to read the cause of death: Heart Failure and Luetic Myocarditis, Compensating. She had died from complications of Tertiary Syphilis, also called “Lues.”

Syphilis is an “STD,” a sexually transmitted disease. We used to call them “venereal diseases.” Syphilis was a common communicable disease in years past. Once a laboratory test for detection had been developed and penicillin was discovered, those affected could be successfully treated. In order to stop the spread of syphilis, those diagnosed with Syphilis had to be reported to the local health department. The health departments would then begin contact tracing to find all those who may have been infected by the person being reported. Also, it was a requirement in many states for those seeking a marriage license to be tested first.

 Syphilis is a sneaky disease. It comes in four stages.[1] The first stage, called Primary Syphilis, appears shortly after being infected. It is characterized by a blister or sore in the genital area, called a chancre. It will disappear spontaneously after several days. The second stage, called Secondary Syphilis, can appear after a few weeks and is characterized by a rash. The rash can be quite a serious skin eruption occurring all over the body. Again, it is likely to go away on its own. Then, nothing happens. That’s the third, dormant stage, sometimes called the latent stage. The unsuspecting person infected could believe falsely that they have recovered. Years later, several associated serious health conditions can arise, among them, heart disease. This is known as Tertiary Syphilis. In my great grandmother’s case, it had caused Myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, leading to her “Heart Failure,” in her case called “compensating (as noted on her death certificate),” because her body had made adjustments needed to compensate for the loss of cardiac function — at least until that final heart attack.

Penicillin is not helpful during the fourth stage. It will kill the bacteria in stages one and two, or even the latent stage, thus curing the individual, but it’s more complicated in the fourth stage. Once the fourth stage appears, the penicillin will kill the syphilis infection, but it does nothing for the resulting associated diseases. If there are medications or procedures that can treat and manage the conditions, those can be used, but the damage has been done. The bottom line is that Syphilis is an infectious, communicable disease that before penicillin (and today if untreated) lead to other chronic diseases and death.  

There is an amusing twist to this story. My mother was upset at the suggestion that her beloved grandmother (my great grandmother) had died from what her generation saw as a disease associated with immorality. I saw it as fascinating that someone I could personally identify had died from a disease whose pathological course I had only learned about a few months earlier. In addition, at the end of the academic year I had participated in a show called “Follies,” wherein we created Saturday Night Live-style skits around diseases, class curricula, and professors. A classmate and I had choreographed a ballroom style dance to Maurice Chevalier’s song “Louise,” only we called it “Lues (pronounced LUeez, emphasis on the first syllable, not the second as in the name).”

Rehearsal for “Lues,” choreographed by Ron Lewis and Margo, Williams for “Follies” at George Washington University Medical School, 1978

That’s right, we created a dance about Syphilis. I wore white, he wore a tuxedo. Recognizing the association of Syphilis with “dirty sex,” we attempted to dress in a manner that would convey “purity.” It was a hit and my mother thought it was clever and funny. Unfortunately, she was no longer laughing a few months later when we discussed her grandmother’s death. Like I said, I dropped the conversation and never mentioned it again.

Ron Lewis and Margo Williams, “Follies,” 1978


[1] Mayo Clinic. (1998-2020). Syphilis. Retrieved from:,membrane%20contact%20with%20these%20sores.