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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.”
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.
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.
#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.
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. 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).”
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.
Uncle Jimmy never got into any serious trouble, nor was he getting into any “necessary trouble,” to quote the late Congressman John Lewis. No, Uncle Jimmy was mischievous, maybe even a little contrary. He made my father (his younger brother) and my mother shake their heads. I think he might best be described as a “character.”
Uncle Jimmy (Charleton Joshua Williams Sr. aka Charles James Williams) was born 13 May 1897 in Live Oak, Suwannee County, Florida. He was my grandparents’ second child, after my aunt, Lute Odette Williams (Aunt Lutie). I am really not sure how he got the nickname “Jimmy.” I remember asking once, but no one seemed to know. It has been lost to the ages.
Around 1900, the family moved to New York, then to Jersey City, New Jersey. Aunt Lutie said they played with the children in the area regularly, sometimes that meant a good fight. One of the favorite neighborhood activities was baseball, really more stickball. One story that she told was about a time Uncle jimmy had been forbidden to go out and play. However, Uncle Jimmy could not be trusted to be obedient. So, his mother, put a dress on him. She reasoned that he would not be willing to go out dressed as a girl. Uncle Jimmy would not be deterred. At some point his mother realized that he was too quiet. Every parent knows trouble is not far when a child becomes too quiet. After checking everywhere in the house, but not finding him, she looked out the window. Much to her chagrin, there he was, “running bases and sliding into home,” in the dress! Of course, his joy at sliding into home was short-lived. His mother was striding towards him. He took off for home, but it was too late. He was sitting on pillows for the next few days, not sliding into bases.
Behind where the family lived in Jersey City was Morris Canal. As was wont to happen from time to time, children and others fell into the canal. Once again, Uncle Jimmy had been told not to leave the house and not to go near the canal. However, looking out and seeing his friends out playing was just too much temptation. His friends were not just playing ball, they were playing by the canal. Those who could swim were even jumping in. Presumably, it was summertime and hot; kids wanted to cool off. There were two problems with regard to Uncle Jimmy: he’d been told to stay away from the canal and he couldn’t swim. Somehow Uncle Jimmy ended up falling into the canal. Aunt Lutie was screaming for their mother to come. Hearing the commotion, she came running out of the building. “Oh my God! Please, please save my boy!” “Please,” she pleaded, “Save my son!” Fortunately, someone did help him out of the canal. “Thank God,” my grandmother exclaimed with relief – as she reached for a board and chased Uncle Jimmy back home, scolding him all the way for his disobedience. More pillow time followed.
I’m not sure Uncle Jimmy ever really ceased being that headstrong boy that he was growing up. My grandfather was known to have to visit the principal to discuss Uncle Jimmy’s behavior from time to time. Although Uncle Jimmy had gone to John Keasbey Brick Agricultural and Normal School, in Enfield, North Carolina, he left before graduating to join his father “on the Road,” working as a waiter on various railroad lines from Florida to New York, eventually working exclusively for the New York and New Haven Railroad. One would think after being on his feet all day on the railroad he would want to do something more sedentary on his days off. Not so.
Uncle Jimmy liked to walk. He would walk long distances. We lived in Queens in New York City, but he thought nothing about walking over the bridge into Manhattan, wandering around “the City” as we called it, sightseeing and people watching. Sometimes he would take his dog with him. One summer day, he decided to walk over to the City with his dog, despite the fact that it was a very hot day. Late in the day Uncle Jimmy came by to see my father. Uncle Jimmy was irritated. While he was out walking, he caught the attention of a policeman. He wasn’t doing anything criminal. He was walking. With his dog. That was the problem. The policeman noticed that the dog, not Uncle Jimmy, was panting hard and clearly exhausted. The policeman asked Uncle Jimmy how far he had been walking. He told him he had walked over the bridge from Queens. The policeman was shocked. He asked “Can’t you see your dog is exhausted?” I’m not sure the policeman had any water, but he called a taxi over and told Uncle Jimmy he was to take the dog home and give him water. He threatened to take him and charge him with animal cruelty if he ever saw the dog suffering again. Truthfully, it’s New York, the chances that they would cross paths again were slim to none. Nevertheless, after my father chastised him, Uncle Jimmy finally agreed he would not walk the dog over the bridge again, no matter the weather.
All that aside, it was Uncle Jimmy’s final years that were most troubling and sometimes troublesome. Uncle Jimmy had been an alcoholic for years. I would say he was primarily a “maintenance” drinker. He drank all the time, but was completely functional (not to worry, he didn’t drive a car). I’m sure he drank more on his days off, but he always held things together. Unfortunately, his body was not in agreement. Uncle Jimmy had a cerebral aneurysm, after which he spent time at the State Hospital at Creedmoor. He recovered and returned home. Now retired, he took shorter walks, but otherwise stayed home most of the time. `Then came the first of several 911 calls.
Uncle Jimmy’s wife and son had died several years before, so I’m not sure who made the call the first time Uncle Jimmy went to hospital under curious circumstances. Since my father was Uncle Jimmy’s designated next of kin, the hospital called him. The doctor explained that when the ambulance arrived at the hospital (Elmhurst Hospital), he pronounced Uncle Jimmy dead and had his body in a cubicle to wait for attendants to prepare to move him to the morgue. However, the Emergency Room was busy. They did not attend to Uncle Jimmy right away. When an attendant went to see after his body, they found the bed empty. The attendant began asking if anyone had seen what happened to him. Another patient said they had seen him go down the hall. They found him — very much alive. After checking him over and finding nothing remarkable, the doctor released him. My father took him home. Over the next few months these bizarre events repeated themselves. Eventually, my father became quite matter-of-fact about the calls saying Uncle Jimmy had passed. Now my father would say, “just give it a few minutes.” The doctors usually thought my father was being unkind, unfeeling. Then, the doctor in question would call back, saying he hadn’t believed my father initially, but yes, Uncle Jimmy had come around and was alive. I didn’t know it then, nor do I think my parents knew that this phenomenon had a name: Lazarus Syndrome, after the biblical story of the raising of Lazarus. I have no idea if the doctors ever identified the phenomenon or reported it. However, rather than thinking something divine was happening, we were amused by the various doctors who were rattled by Uncle Jimmy’s dying and rising again, and again.
At some point, Uncle Jimmy’s overall health began to decline. He was hospitalized at Creedmoor again. Finally, early one morning in April 1977 (correction, 1978) a call came saying that Uncle Jimmy had died. Typically, my father responded that the doctor simply needed to wait a few more minutes. This time the doctor said no, he was dead. My father was shocked. He got out of bed, dressed, and headed to the hospital to identify Uncle Jimmy’s body. Sadly, there would be no resurrection that morning.
Uncle Jimmy was buried in the Williams family plot in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Maspeth, Queens, New York.
 History of Mount Olivet Cemetery. (n.d.). Mount Olivet Cemetery. Again, no one is sure how or why some records, including his death certificate and thus name in the cemetery, were recorded as Charles James Williams. Retrieved from: http://www.mountolivetcemeterynyc.com/
“Mommy,” I called out. “Mommy?” I heard her walking with deliberation toward the Master Bedroom where I was in the “big” bed. Coming to the side of the bed she asked, “Yes? Did you need something?” “Mommy, what did you do with my other half minute?” She answered without skipping a beat, “I used it to make up your bed, why?” she asked in her calm, reassuring, mommy voice. I rolled back over, facing away from her and said to my “friend.” “She used it to make my bed.”
It was 1957. Frankly, I’m not sure what month. I think school was open, but I’m not sure if it was open, or was about to open. I just don’t remember that. I do remember that conversation as if it was yesterday.
It was supposed to be a fantastic day. I was getting a new bedroom suite. I was so excited. I was getting a full-size bed with bookcase headboard. There was also a dresser with three sets of drawers, two sets of moderate sized drawers flanking a set of smaller sized drawers. The dresser had its own full-size matching mirror. It should have been the best day. It wasn’t. Overnight I spiked a fever. It was very inconvenient timing.
I couldn’t stay in my old bed. It had to be dismantled and moved out, along with my other furniture. The new furniture was coming, that day. So, my parents moved me into the Master Bedroom. Now, it’s important to understand that for a house built in Dutch Colonial style in 1920, Master Bedroom meant nothing more than it was the largest bedroom. It was located on the front of the house. My room was the middle bedroom, both in location and size, the “back” bedroom, which overlooked the backyard, was once my nursery, now a guest bedroom when needed, but was primarily my mother’s sewing room. Next to the back bedroom was the bathroom. In other words, the Master Bedroom was all the way at the other end of the hallway from the bathroom. Not a great location for someone who was sick, including being nauseous. There was a solution, of course. My parents brought me a bucket of some sort. I believe it was a metal waste basket that could be easily cleaned.
I was sick. Very sick. I believe my fever must have approached 102. My mother was constantly running in and out of the room checking the thermometer. I was vomiting. She was dutifully emptying and cleaning the pail, then returning it to my bedside for the next unsettling event. She would wash my head, arms, and hands with cool washcloths. She would encourage me to suck on ice chips to keep from getting dehydrated. She would tell me to try to rest while she went off to attend to getting my room ready for its new accoutrements. Periodically, I would call her to ask if the furniture had arrived. “No, not yet,” she would say.
Doctors made house calls in those days. My pediatrician came early in the day. I adored Dr. Rosen. He was the best person, the best doctor, and seemed like another family member. He came, making the half hour drive from his offices. He checked my temperature, he listened to my lungs, he announced that I had the Flu. I don’t remember my mother’s comment, but her face looked concerned. However, she was always cognizant of how her reactions could affect me. Dr. Rosen basically said to continue doing what she was doing: aspirin, cold compresses, liquids, call him if there was any change. With that my mother thanked him for coming and began to usher him out. She told me she’d be back.
As the day went on, I developed a new symptom. I started to become delirious. I didn’t think it was so bad. I had a “friend,” an imaginary friend. We had fun talking and laughing. At some point, she “asked” me what happened to my other half minute. I told her my mother probably had it. That’s when I called her to ask. Apparently, Mommy was not enjoying my question. Alarmed, she called a neighbor, “Aunt” Perlene Dedick. Aunt Perl and my mother were close as sisters. She came over to see how I was doing and calm my mother’s fears. She suggested witch hazel baths. She was certain if my mother did them a couple times an hour that it would bring my fever down. So, they began.
Finally, mid-afternoon, the furniture had arrived. Mommy really was making up my bed and reassembling my things in my room. With the bed now made up and my fever beginning to break, I was finally feeling better. After my father got home and they had eaten dinner, they came to move me into my new bed. Sick or not, I was very happy.
My mother (and my father) continued to be attentive as they cared for me over the next few days. My fever finally returned to normal. I stopped vomiting. I was no longer delirious. Life returned to normal. I still have my furniture.
Years later I was talking with my mother when I had an “ah ha!” moment. I realized that the reason she was so distraught, though composed, was because she was having flashbacks, to 1918. In 1918, her mother had died in the “Spanish Flu” Pandemic. Seeing me delirious sent her right back to her four-year old self, watching her mother sick with the Flu and delirious, insisting that her own mother, my great grandmother, bring her her nine-month old baby, my aunt. Not long after that she was dead. My mother and her baby sister were orphaned. That event would color her entire life and even impact mine.
My mother was gripped by the fear that she would die before I was grown. Flu season brought additional fear and anxiety and flu shots became a part of my life. On the other hand, I was not afraid that I would not live to see my daughter grown, but I did make her aware (when she was old enough to understand) that there was always the possibility that something could happen to me. I worked hard to help her learn how to be self-reliant, but always know and remember that I loved her. She was taught relatively early, especially as the child of older parents, that death was a part of every life. Unfortunately, she saw a lot of it as she grew up.
My grandmother died on 11 November 1918, Armistice Day. For the rest of her life, that date, 11 November, would bring back those memories for my mother, causing her great sadness. Even as I moved away to college and later left New York, where my family lived, moving to the Washington, D. C. area, we always talked on 11 November. She would always relive those last moments.
“I don’t know why she insisted on doing it, but she got out of her sick bed to do some laundry and proceeded to hang it on the line outside. The next day she was clearly worse. She was delirious, but I think she knew she was dying because, suddenly, she got up and dressed in a new, all white suit she had recently made and then got back in bed. I crawled in the bed next to her. She asked for the baby to be given to her. A short while later she was dead.”
I have Walkers in my family, but I wasn’t doing any research on the family at the moment. Recently, I happened to check a Facebook message on a group page I belong to. Someone had posted information about the Race and Slavery Petitions Project, in the Digital Library on American Slavery at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. I hadn’t looked at this database for quite a while. I decided to look at the petitions for Randolph County right then.
Most of the petitions were from groups of white residents imploring the state to restrict free people from other states (probably mostly from Virginia) from entering North Carolina. These petitions were mostly in 1827, with a few more in 1834. However, there was one petition by Robert Walker to free James Walker, age 40, in 1835.
Robert explained to the legislature that James was an honorable man, hard working who was married to a free woman and that they had five children. Robert went on to say that it would greatly improve James’ ability to care for his family if he could be free to join his family full time. However, the legislature did not agree. Robert was admonished that the only qualification for manumission was meritorious service. They also mentioned the “present highly excited state of the times,” probably referring to Nat Turner Rebellion of just a few years before. Petition denied. Fortunately, that was not the end of the story.
In the 1850 census, James and his wife Absily and their three children, Amy, Franklin and Henderson, were listed as free. They were living next to Robert Walker and his family. Was there any evidence that Absily was the wife that Robert was referencing in the petition?
Robert Walker said in his petition that James’ wife was a free woman. Looking back at the 1840 census, I wondered if there were any free people of color living in his household. There was. There was one male, in the age category, 10-23. No slaves. Listed in the next household was a woman of color named “Absila Moze.” There were seven people in her household: one male under 10; one 10-23; one 24-35; one female under 10; two females 10-23; and one 36-54. It’s difficult to say exactly who is whom. However, based on Robert saying James was 40 in 1835, none of these age groups seems appropriate. In the 1850 census, James is listed as age 53 (not 93 as the abstractor wrote). Ten years earlier he would be 43, so not the age of any of the men listed in either Robert’s household or Absila’s. Was he there but listed with the wrong age group? Was he somewhere else? It’s impossible to know. Absila, on the other hand, was listed as 48 in 1850, so she was likely the female 36-54 in the 1840 census.
All that aside, how was James a free man in 1850 when the legislature denied the petition and there does not appear to have been any additional petition? There’s no indication. It seems that Robert simply decided to give James his freedom despite the legislature. Lucky man!
James does not appear in the 1860 census. Neither does Absila. In November 1855, a Thomas Walker filed for letters of administration for the estate of Absila Walker. It was an intestate probate. Since James was not the one seeking the letters, it can be assumed he was already dead. Thomas relationship was not specified, but there was no Thomas of color in the 1850 or 1860 census. None of those purchasing items from the estate were identified by relationship. There were the recognizable names of Amy, Henderson, and Franklin. There were other Walkers purchasing items, but there was no way to know from the estate documents how they were or were not related.
It doesn’t matter. What matters was that James and Absila were able to live out their lives as free persons, despite legal obstacles. Lucky indeed!
 Race & Slavery Petitions Project. ( ). Par Number 11283502; Petitioner: Robert Walker. Digital Library on American Slavery, University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Retrieved from: Petition for Freedom of James Walker
 1850 US Federal Census, Southern Division, Randolph County, North Carolina; James Walker, head. NARA Roll: M432-641; Page: 139B; Image: 285. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 1840 US Federal Census; South Division, Randolph County, North Carolina; Absila Moze of color, head. NARA Roll: 369; Page: 77; Family History Library Film: 0018097. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database on-line]. Absilly Walker, petition for letters of administration by Thomas Walker, November Term 1855. Images 721-733. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
I think all my discoveries have been favorites in one way or another. However, thinking about Valentine’s Day, which occurred this past week and thinking about my parents and their close relationship, I remembered there was a discovery during my childhood that does make me smile. I was about ten years old. This discovery involved my parents’ love story. It was made when I went in my mother’s drawers in her bedroom. No, I wasn’t sneaking. I was looking for something or other that I can’t remember and stumbled on my discovery. No, I was not in any way forbidden to be in her drawers. Nevertheless, somehow, when she learned what I had found, she seemed surprised that it was there.
As I said, the discovery was when I was about ten years old. As the title states, my discovery was in my mother’s end table. As I said, I have no recollection what I was really looking for, possibly some photos, because she kept lots of family pictures in her end table. That day, I noticed a blue box tied together by gold, gift-wrapping ribbon. I probably opened the box thinking it held more pictures. It did not. I took the box to my room to further examine the contents. Yes, now I was sneaking, because the box held love letters, love letters from my father to my mother.
I don’t know how many letters there were, at least thirty, but I no longer have access to the box, so I cannot check. I’ll get to that in a moment. I began reading the letters. The letters were all from my father to my mother. There were no letters from her to him. I was interested to learn that he called her “Peggy.” Her name was Margaret. I knew that some Margarets were called Peggy. She did have one friend (not a childhood friend), Ethel Valentine, who called her “Peg” occasionally. However, I had never in my whole life heard my father call her “Peggy.” Never, ever, ever.
It seemed all the letters were written while my father was at work. Writing them in the evening before leaving for the day or at lunch. It made sense because he worked at the US Customs House in lower Manhattan where there was a post office in the building. My father was declaring his undying love as well as expressing how much he felt she showed him love. Apparently, they had taken a vacation together in Atlantic City. I was surprised. My parents had talked often about their vacations to Atlantic City. They usually spent two weeks. My mother packed a steamer trunk that I had seen in the basement. She used it for out of season clothes storage. She told me how hot the sand was, that it could be painful walking from one’s towel to the water’s edge on a truly hot day. She said unlike the sand on the beaches on Long Island that we frequented in my childhood, the sand in Atlantic City was not white, but dark. She described it as black. Having since visited black sand beaches in Hawaii as well as the beach in Atlantic City, I would say dark. I recognize that my mother did not have that frame of reference. As I said, those trips were made after they married. I was reading about their trip before they married. Yes, I was quite surprised, but that wasn’t my only surprise in the letters.
It seemed my father was in competition for my mother’s affections. It’s not that I thought she had never been interested in another man, I just didn’t realize she was dating someone else at the same time she was dating my father. In his letters, my father was begging and pleading for her to drop her other suitor—Willard. Willard? Who was that? No one had ever told me about a Willard. He was not one of our current family friends. On the other hand, I don’t think I had met many friends of either of my parents from their youth. There was a family we visited frequently who lived in Summit, New Jersey (we lived in New York City), named Marrow. I was also acquainted with a family who lived near us in New York, named Dietz. I did know that my mother lived with them before she married my father. She worked for the wife who had her own dressmaking business. The Dietzes were more than employers, however. My mother and their daughter, Dorothy, were close in age. They were friends, good friends. In fact, they called each other “sister.” I called the parents “Grandma” and “Grandpa” Dietz. They treated me like one of their grandchildren. That was it. Those were the few friends from before my parents’ marriage that I knew. Never, ever, had I heard of Willard. I was quite intrigued by the idea that my mother was dating someone else besides my father, someone he seemed to think was a threat. Here my dad was, begging her to marry him, not the mysterious Willard.
I went to a small private school growing up. There was a total of thirteen students in my class most years, five girls and eight boys. We were a close group. Those four other girls were my best friends. Oh, we had our squabbles, but we were like sisters. So, what did I do? I took the box of letters to school to show my “sisters!” Everyone was fascinated. They all read them. We all wondered about the mysterious Willard. We giggled over the fact that my father called my mother his little “Peggy.”
I don’t remember exactly where I had hidden the box once back home from school. I had not returned it to its resting place in the end table. It might have been in one of the compartments of my bookcase headboard or maybe it was in my schoolbag, because she did realize I had it at school. Needless to say, my mother was not pleased. It’s funny because I don’t remember being punished. I do remember feeling bad that she was so upset. She put the box high on a shelf in a closet and admonished me to never touch it. It was her private business she told me and not to be shared with my friends. That was the end of that.
I was in my teens, maybe even college age before I brought it up one day at the kitchen table with my father present. My mother was not thrilled, but grudgingly joined the conversation. My father loved the idea that he got to tease her about Willard. According to him, he caught her one evening after taking her home, going back out to ostensibly meet with Willard. She swore that was not what happened. It was interesting watching them each try to advance their version of the past rivalry.
Years after that, I asked my mother to retrieve the box. I said it would be nice to read the letters together, assuring her that they represented a beautiful time when she did, in fact, choose my father. She went to the closet to retrieve the box, but there was no box. She swore she didn’t know what happened to the box. She seemed to look in several other places, but the box was nowhere to be found. We never did find the box. I think she threw it away. I used to think she put it where she couldn’t remember, but over the years, I have looked everywhere I could, especially after she died, and I was dismantling the house to sell it. The box never made an appearance again. I’m sad because I think it would have made a nice book to give my daughter about her grandparents, my parents, especially since my father died before she was born.
Although I no longer have the letters, what I do have is the memory of my parents’ marriage. Indeed, my father did win my mother’s heart, vanquishing the mysterious Willard. My parents had a long, loving, and sometimes boisterous, marriage, that lasted from 1935 to 1982, totaling 47 years and one day when my father died, leaving my mother brokenhearted.
#52Ancestors – Fresh Start: How DNA rewrote my genealogy
After many years of research on my mother’s family, I had a solidly documented family tree. In fact, I had published a book on that family. Now, the central ancestor of that story, Miles Lassiter, is still firmly in place on my tree. My direct line to him is firmly established. He was my fourth great grandfather, my mother’s, mother’s, mother’s, mother’s, mother’s, father. It’s the spouses that were the problem. I couldn’t see it at first. After all, I had documented everything.
It all started when I became troubled over my efforts to confirm DNA documentation of my third great grandfather, Calvin Dunson, married to Miles Lassiter’s daughter, by his wife, Healy Phillips Lassiter, Nancy Phillips Lassiter. Miles was technically enslaved by the Widow Sarah Lassiter, but Healy, called Healy/Helia/Heley Phillips in most records, was a free woman of color. Thus, all her children with Miles were originally known in public records by the name “Phillips,” rather than Lassiter, since children followed the condition of their mothers, i. e., if enslaved they were enslaved, if free, then the children were free. After Miles was freed from the Widow Lassiter’s estate when purchased by his wife Healy, Nancy and her siblings began to be known by the Lassiter name, though not consistently.
One of the difficulties in determining when Nancy and Calvin married was that no marriage bond has survived. In fact, there may never have been one because they were not a requirement for marriage. On the other hand, I’m not sure why they wouldn’t have sought one since Nancy’s brother, Colier, had one when he married Katherine Polk, though there was none found for the marriage of her other brother, Wiley Lassiter and wife, Elizabeth Ridge. To estimate the date of marriage for Nancy and Calvin, I used the birth date of their oldest daughter, Ellen, my 2nd great grandmother. According to the 1860 census, Ellen was born about 1851; however, her death certificate said 1854. Based on the census, it appeared that Nancy and Calvin had four other children: Rebecca, J. Richard, Martha Ann, and Mary Adelaide. I did find that J. Richard was the child of a possible rape. Nancy sued the perpetrator. I’ve never found any information on the named assailant. Additionally, it appeared that Richard died sometime after 1870. After that, he no longer appeared in the census or other records with the family and he was not named with the other siblings as an heir to the Lassiter estate. So, I determined that Nancy and Calvin married between 1851 and 1854.
Fast forward to my DNA testing. I kept looking for Dunson/Dunston matches. I found one in AncestryDNA. I had hundreds of matches but only one person had a Dunson in her family. Even at that, it appeared that it was one of her other lines that was my connection to her. So, she probably wasn’t a Dunson match.
While at a genealogy conference, I mentioned my puzzlement to some of my genie friends and colleagues. One mentioned that she was a Dunson descendant. With that we began searching to see if we were a match or if I matched any of her other known Dunson cousins who had DNA tested. She checked especially on GEDmatch, a third-party site when individuals having tested their DNA on various sites can upload their results, thus expanding their chances of learning about more family members. We did not find a single match. Not one. I figured that my branch did not have descendants who had tested yet or uploaded to GEDmatch. This was several years ago when the databases did not have the numbers of individuals who have tested that they have today. Still, it bothered me. I had it documented in multiple places, Calvin Dunson was the spouse of Nancy Lassiter and the father of Ellen. I couldn’t explain the DNA; it was a conundrum.
One day I was talking to someone, G. C., who was commenting on the connections between his Cranford ancestors, especially Samuel “Sawney” Cranford, and Miles Lassiter. He noted that they were both Quakers, members of the same Meeting. I commented that, apparently, we didn’t just have business and social dealings, but we were somehow related. I told him I had several Cranford DNA matches. I speculated that if he tested, we might be a DNA match as well. After we got off the phone, I was reflecting on our conversation, when I suddenly had a revelation. I realized that I needed to follow the DNA to find the answers. I needed to let the DNA tell me what the genealogy was, not just the paper trail.
It occurred to me that Sawney Cranford had played an important role in the lives of Miles and his brothers, Jack and Samuel, especially Samuel. When the Widow Lassiter died, a final stipulation of her husband Ezekiel’s will was enforced. According to the will, Miles, Samuel, and Jack were to be under the control of Ezekiel’s widow until she died. She died in 1840, at which time both estates reached final settlements. As part of Ezekiel’s final accounting, the only property mentioned were the three men, old men at this point. They were offered for sale. Miles’ wife, Healy, purchased him from the estate. Miles’ son, Colier, purchased Jack. Both men were purchased for nominal amounts of money. However, according to the estate information, Samuel had been a runaway, apprehended in Raleigh. There were associated expenses with his capture: newspaper ads, jail time, transport back to Randolph County. The fees, $262 worth, were paid by Sawney Cranford, thus purchasing Samuel. That’s the same Sawney Cranford who was G. C.’s ancestor. I realized that my DNA matches were also descendants of Sawney Cranford. A light bulb went off. I was descended from Sawney Cranford! If that was true, where was the connection? Sawney was a contemporary of Miles and Healy. So, his children were contemporaries of Miles’ children, well some of his children anyway. Sawney had children that spread over a wide time period. Based on the centimorgans (cMs), I shared a third great grandparent. Well, it wasn’t Nancy or Calvin was my first thought. That doesn’t make sense. I had the documentation, but the DNA seemed to be saying otherwise. Then I began to think back to some other documents I had.
After Miles died, it appears that there was a need to raise funds. Miles’ son, Colier, began purchasing interests in the family land from his siblings and then taking out a Deed of trust. As part of that process there seemed to be a hastily filed intestate probate for Miles’ wife, Healy, called “Healy Phillips or Lassiter.” Oddly the document had no date on them. However, they were filed in Will Book 10, which covered the years 1853-1856 with Healy’s papers mixed in with others from 1854 and 1855. In them, all the children, heirs, were named, including Nancy. She, like her siblings, was called “Phillips or Lassiter.” There was no mention of her being married in any of the above-named documents.
One clue to these legal actions seemed to be found in a letter written in 1851, on behalf of Colier, by Jonathan Worth, a local attorney who later became governor of North Carolina. In the letter, Worth stated that Healy had four children from a previous marriage, with whom it would be necessary to share her estate along with the seven children with Miles. The other alternative was to buy out the four other children. I’m speculating that the other documents pointed to efforts to raise the monies to buy out the four half siblings. What I realized also was that not one of these documents referred to my 3rd great grandmother, Nancy, as Nancy Dunson, wife of Calvin Dunson. Not one.
The first time Nancy is referenced as married in any public document located so far by me was in the lawsuit for the assault and subsequent bastardy bond in 1858. By that time, not only was there the son, J. Richard, subject of the lawsuit, but another sister, Sarah Rebecca, born about 1857. Therefore, there is reasonably solid information that Ellen was born between 1851-1854. There was one more piece of information that helped determine her age, her marriage certificate. The record I had seen does not mention her age. That’s okay, because using her date of marriage was sufficient.
Ellen Dunson married Anderson Smitherman on 23 Sep 1865, in Randolph County. I repeat, 1865. If Ellen was born as late as 1854, she would only have been 11 years old. I know that there were no regulations for minimum age in those days, but eleven is extremely young. I really can’t say that I can find another incidence of an eleven-year old marrying in my family. There may be some in other families, but not in mine. It is far more likely that Ellen was born in 1851 or 52. That would make her thirteen or fourteen when she married, still very young, but not unprecedented. With that reality, it was most likely that Ellen was not the biological child of Calvin Dunson, even though she carried the Dunson name, was named as one of his heirs, and his name was listed as her father on her death certificate. I realized Ellen was born five years before her next closest sibling, Sarah Rebecca, was born, or before any legal documents referred to Nancy as Nancy Dunson, wife of Calvin Dunson. Putting it all together, it appeared that my 2nd great grandmother Ellen was most likely the Cranford descendant.
Based on my DNA matches, it appeared that the most likely candidate was a son, Henry. My closest matches are with his direct descendants. Altogether I have identified 32 of my matches as Cranford descendants. At this time, I have no information that sheds any light on what led to Nancy having a child with Henry. They were not cited in the Bastardy Bonds of the time. I can’t really say I’m very concerned with that. What I do know is that I have since developed a very good relationship and communication with G. C. and other Cranford relatives. I also still have an interest in the Dunsons because Calvin and Nancy’s descendants are still my cousins. They do have a Dunson legacy.
DNA has expanded, broadened, my family connections and given me new perspectives on my relationship to my community, Randolph County. DNA has helped me break down brick walls and confirmed oral tradition and given me the surprise of rewriting my family story. Did I say “surprise,” singular? My mistake. Yup, I realized I had another ancestor who was well documented, but whom DNA said was not my ancestor, in the same family line! This time, it was my great grandfather, … but that’s a story for another day.
 1860 US Federal Census, Western Division, Randolph, North Carolina; Calvin Dunson, head; Nancy Dunson, & Eallen [sic] Dunson, age 9; Sarah, age 3; Richard, age 1. NARA Roll: M653-910; Page: 212; Image: 429; Family History Library Film: 803910. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 My DNA testing referenced in this article is specific to my matches at AncestryDNA.
 Obituary of Miles Lassiter. (1850, June 22). Friends Review iii,700.
 Estate of Healy Phillips or Lassiter. (1854-1855). Randolph County, Randolph County, North Carolina Will Book 10:190-192. FHLM #0019645. See also North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998. [Database and Images on-line] Henly Phillips. Digital Images: 1225-1229. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 Nancy Dunson v. John Hinshaw, 2 November 1858, Minutes of the Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions, FHLM #0470212 or #0019653.
 North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [Database and Images on-line]. Anderson Smitherman and Ellen Dunson, 23 Sep 1865. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database and Images on-line]. William Dunston, 1892. Digital Images 1393-1398. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1975 [Database and Images online]. Ellen Mayo, died: 12 Jun 1920. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 1870 US Federal Census: New Hope, Randolph, North Carolina; Calvin Dunson, head; Nancy Dunson; S. A. R. (Sarah Rebecca); J. A. [sic] (J. Richard); M. A. (Mary Adelaide); and M. Ann (Martha Ann). NARA Roll: M593-1156; Page: 400B; Image: 250; Family History Library Film: 552655. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
I don’t usually write blogposts about non-family members or non-members of my family’s communities of origin, however, this story takes place in a community near where I grew up and involves a church and cemetery with which my family has been associated. First, for most of my life, St. Mark’s A(frican) M(ethodist) E(piscopal) Church was located not far from the church I attended growing up, The Episcopal Church of the Resurrection (now Grace and Resurrection), in East Elmhurst, Queens, New York. In addition, my paternal uncle, Charleton “Jimmy” Williams had attended church there. I have his prayer book. Second, many of my Williams family members, including my great grandmother, Ellen Gainer (Wilson/Wilkinson) Williams are buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery (Maspeth, Queens, NY). This is where many of the bodies from the original African burial grounds in Elmhurst were re-interred, including Martha Peterson. So, while not about my family, this story has significance for me.
An Iron Coffin Was Found
In 2011, an excavation to prepare to build a parking garage in Elmhurst, Queens, New York, unearthed a body buried that had been buried in an iron coffin. Elmhurst was originally part of a community called Newtown, which had a large African American community. The excavation site had been a 19th century African American cemetery. The iron coffin had preserved her body nearly perfectly, so much so that the smallpox lesions from the disease that undoubtedly killed her were still visible on her body, leading to examination by the medical examiner and consultation with the CDCs to be sure they were not still viable. They were not viable.
Preliminary research determined that this young woman was most likely Martha Peterson living with William (Mead) and Josephine Raymond (probably as a house servant), next door to Almond D(unbar) and Phoebe Fisk, a “stove manufacturer” on the 1850 census in Newtown. They also determined that she probably died about one year after the census, in 1851, from the smallpox that had attacked her brain. Among some of the remarkable things revealed were the cloths and accessories with which she was buried. She was in a nightgown, stockings, hair braided with a bone hair comb. Although she was living with William Raymond and next door to Almond Fisk, his brother-in-law and business partner (Fisk and Raymond Co., not reflected on the census) in whose coffin she was buried? Her burial attire suggested she was part of a family that could be considered of some means for an African American family of the time. Who was that family? What place did they hold in the Newtown African American community?
What do we know about Martha’s potential family?
Preliminary research determined that Martha was likely the sister of Elisha Peterson of Newtown, who named one of his daughters “Martha.” In 1850, Elisha was still living in the home of his parents, John and Jane Peterson. In 1870, Elisha was married with his own family, including the baby Martha and her twin, Matilda. His father, John was living next door. An entry in the occupation column for John Peterson indicates that he was a sexton. A sexton, as occupation, is someone who provides custodial care for a church. What church?
The History of the African American Church in Newtown
The earliest outreach to the African American community of Newtown appears to have been from the First Presbyterian Church. In New York City at this time the Presbyterians had a large outreach to the African American communities including at least two churches in Manhattan, Spring Street and Laight Street, churches which were integrated. In 1822, the First Colored Presbyterian Church, later called Shiloh Presbyterian Church, as founded. It became an active part of the Underground Railroad and was where the well-known, escaped formerly enslave, James Pennington, an active abolitionist, was a minister in the 1850s.
James W. C. Pennington
James W. C. Pennington was born a slave in Maryland from where he escaped, first living with a Quaker family in Philadelphia, later moving to Brooklyn where he worked, as a coachman for the Leverich family. It is while living in Brooklyn, “with the family of an Elder of the Presbyterian Church,” in 1829, that he met the Rev. Samuel Hanson Cox, pastor of the Laight Street Presbyterian Church. Cox was a staunch abolitionist and firmly believed in the equality of all. Laight Street Church was an integrated community, and though illegal, he was known to secretly marry interracial couples. Pennington reported that the effect of his meeting with Cox was profound and, invited by Cox, was “moved” to attend services at the Cox’s church. It was these experiences as well as his commitment to the abolition of slavery, his help of escaped slaves, and his involvement in the National Colored Convention movement, that led him to believe that he should enter the ministry, but he was also concerned about his limited finances. It was during this time that he was offered a teaching position at a school, reportedly the school in Newtown, called the African Free School, established in 1830. Additional evidence of his presence in Newtown at this time may be the baptism of the young son of John and Jane Peterson in 1837. The name of the child was recorded in the First Presbyterian Church records as John James Pennington Peterson, clearly an honorific for Pennington.
In 1834, convinced he should become a minister, Pennington sought admission to Yale (then Yale College). He was their first black student, although he was not allowed to use the library or officially be enrolled, and he had to sit in the back of the room silently. After completing his courses, he was ordained by the Congregational Church. He reportedly returned to Long Island to pastor a church, most likely the church in Newtown. This would have been about 1837-38. It is interesting to note that Pennington made no mention of this time in Newtown in his autobiography, The Fugitive Blacksmith. In 1840, he moved to Harford, Connecticut to become the pastor of the Talcott Street Church, now Faith Congregational Church. He did not return to New York until about 1851, after formally being freed by John Hooker, when he moved to Manhattan, becoming a pastor at Shiloh Presbyterian Church. Pennington was also one of the founders of what would become the American Missionary Association. He died in 1870 in Jacksonville, Florida a few months after arriving to establish a new church congregation there.
Second Presbyterian Church of Newtown
Second Presbyterian, an outgrowth of First Presbyterian, was where the Newtown African American community had worshipped, though segregated. Evidence of this relationship can be found in the recording of the baptism of one of John and Jane Pennington’s sons in 1834, John James Pennington Peterson, referenced above. The community was able to purchase land in 1828.
“Black worshipers at Newtown’s First Presbyterian church, long accustomed to second-class seating, probably planned the separate congregation as early as 1826. The members of this United African Society founding group (named by an elderly church member in 1919) included five men who “acted as purchasers”-John Potter, Thomas Johnson, John Peterson, John Coes, and George Derlin. The first three are listed as black Newtown household heads in the 1830 census, as are a John ‘Coles’ and a George ‘Dushing.’ The last of these names is probably Carter G. Woodson’s misreading of the handwritten ‘Durling’; also listed in 1830 were Henry Durling, Peter Dorland, and Abraham Dorlon, no doubt alternative spellings, like Derlin or Durland, of the same family name. In 1911, the Newtown Register recorded as ‘some of the first members and founders’ of the church John Peterson, George and Henry Durland, and four women-Mrs. Nancy Jackson, Freelove Johnson, Jane Peterson, and Judith Schenck.”
The congregation that had become synonymous with the United African Society, which had purchased the land that included the church and cemetery, became divided over with which worship community to be affiliated, the Presbyterians (who themselves had become divided over issues of race) or the Methodists. Based on the 1873 map, it appears the Methodists had won, since the parcel is marked, “M. E. Ch. African Cem.” In 1902, after a period of neglect the property was back in the hands of the church then called the Union Ave African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church after the street’s name at the time. In 1906, the church applied to be affiliated officially with the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. In 1929, the congregation sold the Union Avenue property and moved to 95th Street in Corona, a community that was also originally part of Newtown. The congregation took the new name of St. Mark’s AME Church. The church applied to the city of New York for permission to transfer all the bodies from the old cemetery to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Maspeth. The City refused the request, but at least 20 bodies were moved to Mount Olivet. It is there that Martha Peterson was reinterred. St. Mark’s also moved again and is now located on Northern Blvd. in a new building.
A Genealogical Record:
John Peterson was born about 1800. He reports in the 1850, 1860, and 1870 censuses, that he was born in New York, however, most census reports of his children and, where indicated, their death certificates say he was born in Pennsylvania, for example, the death record of his son John James Pennington Peterson, which indicates specifically, Philadelphia. John lived most of his adult life in Newtown, Queens, New York as evidenced by his presence on the 1830, 1840, 1850, 1860 and 1870 censuses. According to his Findagrave memorial, he died in October 1873.
John was married to Charity Jane Peterson, born about 1798 in New York, according to the 1850, 1860 and 1870 censuses and the death record of her son, John James Pennington Peterson. It appears she and John may have separated after 1860, since they are not in the same household in 1870. The William Peterson found living with her in 1870, was probably the same as the William Seymore found living with John and her in 1860. Jane was not found on the census after 1870. It is presumed she died before 1880.
The Children of John and Jane Peterson were likely:
Henry Peterson, 1815-? Henry Peterson never appears in the household of John and Jane Peterson. However, his age on the 1850 census, 35 years old, suggests that he could be the oldest of the Peterson children, possibly born to Jane before marrying John. Henry is living in the William Raymond household in 1850, along with Martha Peterson. There is no additional information on Henry. He is not the Henry Peterson found living in Flushing, Staten Island, or Hempstead, each of whom can be tracked in those places before 1850 and after 1850. He cannot be definitively identified in any census records after 1850. It is possible that he also died from smallpox.
Martha Peterson, 1824-1851.
Mary Peterson, 1828-? Mary Peterson appeared only on the 1850 census.
Josephine Peterson, 1830-? Josephine Peterson appeared only on the 1850 census.
Elisha B. Peterson, 1832-1915. Elisha B. Peterson was born about 1832, in Newtown, Queens, New York. He was the son of John and Jane Peterson. In 1864, he enlisted in the 20th Infantry, United States Colored Troops (USCT). He was mustered out, 24 September 1865, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Sometime before 1870, he married Mary Butler. Mary was from the nearby community of Astoria, Queens, also considered part of greater Newtown. The Elisha and family moved to Manhattan about 1880. It appears that Elisha may have sought better employment opportunities, because he moved to New Jersey about 1883. He seems to have moved in and out of New Jersey over the next few years, returning to New Jersey permanently after Mary died in New York in 1892. Elisha died 25 April 1915, in Passaic, New Jersey. His final Veteran’s claim payment was made to his daughter, Martha Peterson McCormick (Martha J. McCormick). Elisha Peterson and Mary Butler had seven known children: Josephine Peterson, Joseph H. Peterson, John B. Peterson, Edward Vincent Peterson, Martha Jane Peterson (McCormick), Matilda S. “Millie” Peterson, and Elisha E. Peterson.
Harriet Jane Peterson, 1834-1919. Harriet is found first on the 1850 census living with her parents. In 1870, she was living with her father, in the house of her brother, Elisha Peterson. She is most likely the Jane Peterson on the 1892 New York State Census, living in Newtown, near the family of a William Peterson. This was possibly the same William Seymore/Peterson living with her parents in 1860, then with her mother in 1870. In 1910, she is a 60 year old woman, working for a “private family.” Harriet died 25 April 1919, in Queens, New York. She was 85 years old.
John James Pennington Peterson, 1837-1892. John James Pennington Peterson was born in October 1837. He was baptized at First Presbyterian Church on 1 November 1837, and named for James Pennington, who had been a teacher at the African School and was possibly newly returned from Yale as well as newly ordained. John J. P. Peterson died 19 December 1892, in Manhattan, New York City.
 Pennington, J. W.C. (14 May 2017 edition). The Fugitive Blacksmith: Or, Events in the History of James W. C. Pennington, Pastor of a Presbyterian Church, New York, Formerly a Slave in the State of Maryland, United States (hereinafter, The Fugitive Blacksmith.) (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform), p. 66.
 Pennington, J. W. C. (14 May 2017 edition). The Fugitive Blacksmith, 66-67.
 New York Births and Christenings, 1640-1962, [Database on-line], John James Pennington Peterson, Baptized: 01 Nov 1837; citing Presbyterian Church, Newtown, Queens, New York. FHL microfilm 974.7B4 NE V. 8. Retrieved from: https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:V2H5-
 New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949, [Database on-line], John Peterson, Birthplace: Philadelphia,” in entry for John P. Peterson, 19 Dec 1892; citing Death, Manhattan, New York, New York, United States, New York Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microfilm 1,322,850. Retrieved from: https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2W6Z-JNS
 New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” [Database on-line], Jane B. Peterson in entry for John P. Peterson, 19 Dec 1892; citing Death, Manhattan, New York, New York, United States, New York Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microfilm 1,322,850. Retrieved from: https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2W6Z-JN3
 New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” [Database on-line] Elisha B. Peterson in entry for Mary S. Peterson, 22 Mar 1892; citing Death, Manhattan, New York, New York, United States, New York Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microfilm 1,322,836. Retrieved from: www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2W63-4DR
 New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949,” [Database on-line] Elisha B. Peterson in entry for Mary S. Peterson, 22 Mar 1892; citing Death, Manhattan, New York, New York, United States, New York Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microfilm 1,322,836. Retrieved from: www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2W63-4DR
 United States Veterans Administration Pension Payment Cards, 1907-1933, [Database on-line with images], Elisha B Peterson, 25 Apr 1915; citing NARA microfilm publication M850 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.); FHL microfilm 1,635,801. Retrieved from: https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:QJDQ-7SJX
 New York, New York City Municipal Deaths, 1795-1949, [Database on-line] John P. Peterson, Date of Death: 19 December 1892; citing Death, Manhattan, New York, New York, United States, New York Municipal Archives, New York; FHL microfilm 1,322,850. Retrieved from: https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:2W6Z-JN3