This week I had a wonderful surprise when I was contacted by a descendant of my 2nd great grandmother Ellen Dunson Smitherman’s sister, Adelaide Dunson Kearns. Adelaide’s descendant, Marva and I have each been researching the family’s history for years, but we did not know about each other. I knew about Marva’s ancestor Adelaide, her great grandmother. My mother, Margaret (who was Ellen’s great granddaughter), had met her at least a couple of times when a child, but there was no sustained contact. What had really struck me as I did my research was that Adelaide was known to other cousins in our home community of Lassiter Mill, in Randolph County, North Carolina, but no one knew about my mother, even though she had lived nearby in Asheboro for a couple of years. Marva didn’t know about her either.
How did this separation occur? There are many storms in life. Some a result of weather events, such as hurricanes. We’ve seen a lot related to these this past year with Harvey and Maria and their aftermath. However, there are also the storms that blow through our lives leaving psychological scars, or economic damage. Those storms can also result in rifts in families leaving family members alienated, and their descendants unaware of each other’s existence. That seems to be what happened between Ellen and Adelaide.
In 1890, Nancy Phillips Lassiter Dunson died. There was no will for Nancy or for her husband, Calvin, who had died about ten years earlier. The land on which Nancy lived and had inherited from her parents, Miles Lassiter and Healy Phillips Lassiter, should have been distributed to her children or, if deceased, to their heirs. Those heirs were: Ellen Dunson Smitherman (later Mayo), Adelaide Dunson Kearns, Harris Dunson, William Dunson, heir of Nancy’s daughter Sarah Rebecca Dunson, and Mamie Hill, heir of Nancy’s daughter Martha Ann Dunson Hill.  However, Ellen had purchased the share of their brother, Harris, giving her two shares in the land to inherit. In 1892, Adelaide and her husband, Solomon Kearns, seem to have taken exception to that and proceeded to sue Ellen, her husband Anderson Smitherman, and the other siblings, asking the court to divide the land equally among all concerned, presumably negating the purchase by Ellen. As part of that partition, a guardian was appointed for William Dunson (said to be about 16 years of age) and Mamie Hill, said to be a child about eight or nine years old. A family friend, J. W. Birkhead, was appointed.
About this time another family death occurred, that of Nancy’s brother, Colier Phillips Lassiter, also without a will. Colier’s descendants lived on adjoining lands also inherited from their parents, Miles and Healy. Two additional siblings of Nancy and Colier, Abigail and Jane, also had interests in these lands. At least, that’s how the courts viewed things. Rather than simply deciding the distribution of the lands per the request of Adelaide and her husband, Solomon, the courts determined that the entire property needed to be distributed to all heirs involved.
In 1893, the court issued a final decree, dividing the properties where all parties lived as one inheritance. The court awarded the lands where Colier’s heirs lived to them as an entity, calling it the Colier Lassiter Tract. Shares were awarded to Abigail and Jane each. Nancy Dunson’s tract was then divided. Unfortunately for Adelaide and Solomon, not as they hoped. The purchase of Harris Dunson’s share by Ellen was upheld. The courts therefore awarded Ellen two shares, but only one share to Adelaide.
A couple of years later, Ellen and Anderson separated. It could have had something to do with this lawsuit; family in-fighting can be stressful. On the other hand, it may have been related to the fact that Anderson had fathered a child by another woman in 1875, years after he and Ellen had married and already had two children, undoubtedly creating another storm. Hard to say for sure, however. Regardless the reason, Ellen would remarry by 1900, to Charlie Mayo. Anderson would remarry as well, to Victoria Bell, in 1901.
Ellen and Charlie as well as Anderson and Victoria would end up living in Asheboro, leaving behind Lassiter Mill and the land they had won in court; leaving Adelaide and Solomon behind as well. Ellen eventually sold the land she was awarded to descendants of Colier Lassiter, not to her sister Adelaide and her husband, Solomon. I can’t help but think this was a deliberate snub. After all, Adelaide and Solomon were still living in the area. Adelaide had very likely sued so that she could have an opportunity to make her own offer to her brother Harris for his share, a plan that didn’t work out. My mother, Ellen’s great granddaughter, said no one ever took her to the Lassiter Mill area when she was living in Asheboro, although she visited her great grandmother Ellen’s house often. In addition, once my mother and her grandmother, (Mary) Louise, moved to New Jersey, after Ellen’s death, she never returned to North Carolina at all until I took her in 1982. It’s hard not to conclude that the fight over the land didn’t create at least some bad blood between Ellen and Adelaide.
Fortunately, the story does not end there. Through our respective genealogy research efforts resulting in our public family trees on Ancestry and the ability to send messages to tree owners, Marva and I have the opportunity to bring about healing and the reunification of our respective personal branches grown from our shared family roots.
 North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database on-line]. William Dunston [sic]. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database on-line]. William Dunston [sic]. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 J. H. and Phoebe A. Dunson to Ellen Smitherman. Randolph County Deed Book 144:216. F(amily) H(istory) L(ibrary) (Microfilm)#0470278.
 North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database on-line]. William Dunston [sic]. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database on-line]. William Dunston [sic]. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
Anderson Smitherman, et al. v. Solomon Kearns, et Ux. Final Decree. Randolph County Superior Court Orders and Decrees, Volume 2:308-309, FHL #0475265. See also: Randolph County Deed Book 248: 156. FHL #0470851.
 North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [Database on-line]. Anderson Smitherman and Ellen Dunson, 23 Sep 1865, Randolph County. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 1870 US Federal Census, Union Township, Randolph County, North Carolina; Anderson Smitherman, head; Mary L., daughter, born about 1867. NARA Roll: M593-1156; Page: 506A; Image: 465; FHL #552655. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
See also: 1880 US Federal Census, New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina; Ande Smither (sic – says Smitherman on the original), head; Mary L., daughter, born about 1867; and Emory W., son, born about 1873. NARA Roll: 978; Page: 185C; Enumeration District: 223. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1975 [Database on-line]. Annie Steele; Father: Anderson Smitherman. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 No record identified to date. See: 1910 US Federal Census; Asheboro, Randolph County, North Carolina; Charles Mayho, head; Ellen, wife. NARA Roll: T624-1128; Page: 22B; Enumeration District: 0076; FHL #1375141. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 North Carolina, Marriage Collection, 1741-2004 [Database on-line]. Victoria Bell and Anderson Smitherman, 16 Apr 1901, Asheboro, Randolph County. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 1910 US Federal Census; Asheboro, Randolph County, North Carolina; Charles Mayho, head; Ellen, wife. NARA Roll: T624-1128; Page: 22B; Enumeration District: 0076; FHL #1375141. Retrieved from:Ancestry.com
 Death Notice Anderson Smitherman, 8 Jul 1909. The Randolph Bulletin, p. 5. Retrieved from: Newspapers.com
 Estate of Miles Lassiter/Charles and Ellen Mayo to Will Lassiter and Colon Lassiter, Randolph County Deed Book 166:91, FHL #0470286.
 1900 US Federal Census; New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina; Solomon Kearns, head; Adilade Kearns, wife. NARA Roll: 1213; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 0090; FHL #1241213. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
Auntie Vern was my mother’s younger sister. She was born 9 March 1918, in Greensboro, Guilford County, North Carolina. My mother said she remembered the day her sister was born. My mother had been sent across the street to stay with neighbors, the Dudley’s who had a taxi business. My mother had been hoping for a baby brother. When they came to get her to take her home and she heard that it was a baby sister, not a brother, she started crying and insisted they send the baby back and get a boy! My mother adjusted to having a sister and eventually became very protective of her baby sister. They remained close throughout their lives.
Vern’s first months of life were not easy. She had pneumonia, according to my mother and exhibited signs of “failure to thrive.” While still a baby, only about nine months of age, their mother. Elinora Phillips Lee, died. She died on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918 from complications of the Spanish Flu. According to my mother, their mother, my grandmother, insisted on hanging the laundry to dry, but it was a cold and blustery day. Her mother, my great grandmother, tried to get her to come in but she was insistent. Within two days she was clearly sicker, now with pneumonia on top of the flu. The next day she supposedly got out of bed, put on a new suit she had recently made, picked up her baby, Auntie Vern, got back in bed and died shortly thereafter.
Their grandmother, my great grandmother, Mary Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd (later Ingram), affectionately known as “Big Mama,” became their guardian, known now simply as “Mama.” Indeed, for Auntie Vern their grandmother was the only “Mama” she would ever know. My grandmother had four other siblings, all living in the New York-New Jersey area. Some of those in Jersey suggested Louise bring the children, my mother and Vern, to New Jersey where they could help her care for my mother and her baby sister, Vern. They weren’t in New Jersey long when they had to return to North Carolina, Asheboro, where the family originated because Louise’s mother, Ellen Dunson Mayo, had had a stroke and Louise was needed to help care for her. A few weeks after getting to Asheboro, Grandma Ellen died. They stayed in North Carolina about three years before Louise decided to return to New Jersey. I believe she was persuaded to do so because the public-school education in New Jersey was superior to that of Asheboro’s and my mother was by this time school age. So, they returned to Elizabeth, New Jersey where Louise, Vern, and my mother lived with their uncle Percy, and aunt Moselle.
By the time Vern was ready for high school Louise was sick, having problems with high blood pressure. Moselle was married and lived with her husband elsewhere in Elizabeth. From things I was told, Moselle was not the maternal sort; she was not helpful when it came to “parenting.” According to Vern, Moselle was something of a party girl. She “loved to have a good time.” My mother was living with a family in Corona, Queens, New York where she worked as a seamstress for the wife, Mrs. Charlotte Dietz who had a dress business. With no other options Vern was sent to live with another aunt, Maude, and her daughter “Maudie” in Flushing, New York.
Although she was in Flushing, she attended Newtown High School in Elmhurst, where she studied business subjects, including typing, shorthand, and bookkeeping, along with traditional academic subjects. She was athletic and ran track. However, she wasn’t getting along with either Aunt Maude or Maudie. By her senior year my mother was married. Aggravated with the way Aunt Maude treated Vern, my mother moved Vern to the Bronx to live with her and her new husband, my father, Herbert R. Williams. Louise was dead by then, so there was no viable option to return to Elizabeth. Besides, Vern liked New York far better than Elizabeth. I’m not sure why she didn’t like Elizabeth, she never seemed to have a reason other than to say she thought life in New York was more interesting.
Vern finished high school and eventually went to work for a local movie theater in the ticket booth. As she explained later, they needed her to be eighteen, she wouldn’t be eighteen for almost another year, but she told them she was eighteen. She doctored some papers and presto change, she had the job. Around this time, she met and married Paul Oden. However, the marriage didn’t last very long. Having separated from Paul she took advantage of the opportunity to move to Washington DC to work in the war (WWII) effort. She found work quickly and lived in a home for single young women. She missed home, however, and was known to show up on any given weekend, having ridden the train from DC, often having to stand much of the way because of crowded train cars. One of those trips was made because I had been born. My mother said that after seeing me she said. “Now we are three.”
Vern’s visits were always met with great anticipation and excitement. My mother was very fashionable, but somehow Vern seemed glamorous. She had short hair, that she spent time on curling and waving and pinning. She wore make-up all the time, and the ultimate cool factor for those days, she smoked. I was certain she had a grand life in Washington. After all, she worked in a big office. That had to be grand. When it was Christmas, or my birthday, or Easter, she always brought or sent beautiful gifts.
The first of many Easter vacation trips to Washington to see Auntie Vern began when I was five. My mother and I took our first plane trip, leaving from LaGuardia Airport which was across the street from where we lived in Queens. When the pilot mentioned how high we were flying, I announced I was certain we were on a jet. We weren’t of course. Auntie made sure to take us sightseeing to the monuments and shopping. I remember riding on the trolley. Auntie was indulgent, even letting me roller skate around her apartment. Like my mother she was a good cook and I loved eating her pound cakes.
It was later that year or the next year that Auntie gave up her single status for the second time. This time she married a young dentist, originally from Louisiana, Craig R. Means. They married at our house in New York. I got to be the flower girl. True to form my mother had everything organized. I felt very grand in my dress with my basket of rose petals. It was an elegant wedding.
Vern and Craig lived in Washington for several years. About the time I was around 10 years of age, Craig had the opportunity to buy a dental practice in Salisbury, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore. Thus, began our trips across the Chesapeake, often at Thanksgiving or Easter to spend the holidays with them. Christmas was always spent “at home” in New York. In those days, Salisbury was a small southern town. It had a downtown area but was in many ways very country. Neighbors had chickens and a rooster that managed to crow every morning about sunrise, true to form. My aunt knew several families with children, so I was able to have fun with kids my own age, instead of spending all my time with the adults.
When I was about 12 or 13, Vern and Craig moved to Camden, New Jersey. They lived in a large townhouse, with front and back stairs. There were three full floors. It was on a main street, Broadway, next to a bar. A Roma gypsy family lived upstairs from the bar. They had a psychic reading business. Visits to Camden were much more solitary. There were no kids my age to play with and neither my parents nor my aunt thought the area safe, so I didn’t play outside. I spent most of my time reading, waiting for her to come home from work so that we could talk.
After a few years, Craig developed problems with rheumatoid arthritis and could no longer practice dentistry. He went to graduate school in Ohio to specialize in periodontics with hopes of teaching at Howard, his alma mater. Vern moved back to Washington and returned to working for the federal government. Craig visited on weekends. Apparently, he visited less and less as time went on. Then one day the divorce papers were delivered. The marriage was over. I was a senior in high school. Auntie was single for the last time. She never married again.
As I got older, Vern and I grew closer, more like sisters. After finishing graduate school in New York, I moved to Washington to pursue additional studies. I moved in with her. We lived near the waterfront. When our building was sold and became a condominium, we chose not to buy. We found a new apartment home in Silver Spring, Maryland. It was a bigger apartment. It would be her last move. She would live there for nearly 20 years. I, on the other hand, would move in and out as my life went through a variety of life changes.
One of those changes was marriage and the birth of my daughter in 1992. Since my mother lived in New York, it was Vern who would take the part of the grandmother, although we continued to call her “Auntie.” We had dinner with her every Friday night, and usually spent Sunday afternoons with her as well. During the week, once I returned to work, she was the primary caregiver. On the few rare occasions that my then husband and I went out, Vern was our babysitter. As it turned out, my daughter’s birthday was only a few days before Vern’s. Naturally, we celebrated both, often-times on the same day, which my daughter loved. They were kindred spirits after all. They were both Pisces. My husband and I often remarked that if our daughter was to choose between us and Vern, it would be Vern, hands down. They were inseparable. However, the love affair that my daughter had with Vern and my relationship with Vern was soon overshadowed by something that had begun before my daughter was born, but it would come to define our last years with Vern. Vern had Crohn’s Disease. She’d developed the symptoms around 1987. Now, about ten years later, she took a turn for the worse.
It was a weekday and I had been calling her all day to confirm that she could watch our daughter while we attended a PTA meeting. I figured she had been out with friends for lunch. Finally, after we had finished our dinner and it was time to leave I said we should stop by her lobby level apartment to see if she was home before heading to the meeting, and if necessary taking our daughter with us. We pulled up in the circular drive. I jumped out with my daughter and ran in turning the corner in the hallway to her door. I knew instantly something was dreadfully wrong. The newspapers were still in front. She had not left the apartment all day. I sent my daughter to the front desk to stay with the staff whom we knew well. I ran out to the van to my husband to tell him to park quickly and come in, I didn’t want to enter alone. We entered the apartment, still shrouded in closed curtains and shades from the night before. As we started down the hall we saw her, lying on the floor, barely conscious. I ran back to the front desk to tell them to call 911. I would learn that she had been on the floor from about 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, through the day until we arrived. Her answering machine it turned out had not only my calls but those of another friend who was calling hoping to have lunch with her. This would start a three-year odyssey of hospital stays, bedside watches in ICU, 14 hours of infusions daily, and the final realization that she would never come home again. We tried every permutation we could devise. I tried to find an assisted living facility, but they wouldn’t take her because of the infusions, they said that she required skilled nursing assistance. I tried to acquire home visiting nurse care, but they said it was beyond their scope as well; she should be in a skilled care facility. I learned to do the infusions so that I could take care of her. However, she began to be angry about everything, making it impossible for me to control the situation. It was understandable. She had been the one in charge. She had been fiercely independent. She had taken care of all of us. She was finally realizing she would probably never be in charge of anything again, and she was stressed. We tried to make her room at the nursing facility comfortable. We took meals there with her when we could. She appreciated it, but she was angry. She blamed me for not getting her out of the nursing home, not taking her home, taking away her independence.
In late June of 2000, things began to unravel. She was admitted to Holy Cross Hospital, in Silver Spring, with what appeared to be an infection. My phone rang one afternoon, it was the doctor. He said there was nothing more he could do. She had an abdominal aneurysm that was most likely going to rupture in the next few days and she would die. I really don’t remember my response. I did manage to thank him for the call. When I visited her that day she was distant, uncommunicative, but not hostile. I wanted to tell her it was okay, but I really couldn’t find the words. I couldn’t even figure out how to start the conversation. I said I loved her and would see her the next day. I called my mother to come from New York, explaining that she needed to come as quickly as possible. I think she was having a hard time absorbing this news. She said she would be there on Sunday. I reiterated that she needed to come as quickly as possible.
My husband, daughter, and I spent all of Saturday with Vern. I think he and I took turns overnight, but I don’t really remember, oddly enough. I do know we all came to hospital early Sunday morning. I had contacted some of her close friends who began stopping in to spend a few minutes with her. Our priest stopped by after Sunday services were over. He said the prayers for the sick and dying. She nodded and thanked him. My mother and step-father finally made it. My mother was clearly in a kind of emotional denial. Here was her baby sister, dying. The nurses came in and out making sure she wasn’t in pain. At one point they tried to adjust her oxygen, but she told them to take it away. I said it would make breathing easier. She snapped that she knew that; she wasn’t an idiot. We let it go.
As the evening wore on, my mother, who was herself in her late 80s was tired and I felt it was time for our daughter to go home and get something to eat. It didn’t really look as though anything would happen that night. They could all come back in the morning. Her friends bid adieu, and my mother said she was going to get something to eat and get some rest after the road trip. She said she would be back. My daughter kissed her “Auntie” and said goodnight. My husband said a few words to her quietly. She seemed to be sleeping. Everyone left the room and I pulled my chair up to her bedside and took her hand. I said, “Well, it’s just you and me now.”
I’m certain the others had not reached the elevator when I realized her breathing suddenly changed. She never spoke again of course. I held her hand and told her I loved her as I realized her breaths were farther and farther apart. Then she didn’t take a breath. I kept telling her I loved her. I had seen people die before, but I was never holding their hand. I was stunned how quickly her skin cooled. I rang the nurse’s bell. When they responded I told them she had just died; I doubt the others had even made it to their cars. The nurses came and fixed her body, removing the IVs. I called the house and told my husband they needed to come back. To my surprise my mother did not come back, only my husband and daughter. The nurses called for the chaplain on duty to come and say prayers with us; she was a very sweet nun. We thanked her. The nurse then suggested that she would give us an envelope and we could clip a piece of her hair and her fingernails. My daughter liked that idea. We gathered what personal items were in the room along with our envelope of clippings. We kissed her one last time and walked out into the July evening air. Our hearts were broken. We didn’t like that she had suffered so much in the past years, but we were devastated to lose her. I doubt my daughter will ever get over losing her. Neither will I.
There have been many lucky moments when it comes to my research into the life of my 4th great grandfather, Miles Lassiter of Randolph County, North Carolina. From my earliest research efforts, I’ve been lucky with this one. My first clues from my 2nd great grandmother’s (Ellen Dunson Smitherman Mayo) death certificate in 1920 led me almost straight to Miles. Having learned that the maiden name of my 3rd great grandmother was Nancy Lassiter, and her married name was Nancy Dunson/Dunston, I quickly found her in the 1880 census and was able to trace her back to the 1850 census where she was living in the household with Miles Lassiter. They were free people of color. The relationship to Miles was confirmed in a deed from my 2nd great grandmother (Ellen) to apparent Lassiter cousins (Will Lassiter and Colon Lassiter) which said the lands originated in the “Division of Lands of Miles Lassiter.” I had struck genealogy gold it seemed, compared to my research on my direct line Williams family wherein I had not struck gold, but rather the proverbial, but very real “brick wall.”
I was amazed to find that I would be able to mine a lot more information on Miles, with relatively little effort. First, I continued looking back in the census. Although I did not find Miles in the 1840 census, I did find him in the 1830 census as a free head of household. Since both the 1830 and 1840 censuses only name heads of household, not the individual household members, I would not be able to confirm other than by extrapolation, that Nancy was in the household. I knew also that in 1840 it was possible that Miles was living in someone else’s household whose name I did not know, but whose name appeared on the census while Miles’ name did not.
In the deeds, I learned that Miles bought 100 acres in 1815. He also sold it in 1826 with a co-signer, Sarah Lassiter, who did not appear on the 1815 deed of purchase and who was white. I assumed there was some relationship, but for the moment exact what relationship was not clear. I thought this was interesting. I thought he must have been fortunate to purchase such a substantial piece of land in 1815 but wondered what prompted its sale in 1826. I would learn later that political winds had shifted taking some of the freedoms and safety of free people of color with them. However, although I did not find another deed for any land purchases, by 1850, according to the census, Miles again owned property valued at $590. It seemed fair to say that fortune had continued to smile on him over the years.
In 1807, in the Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Session minutes, I found Miles mentioned along with two other men named Jack Lassiter and Samuel Lassiter, assigned to road maintenance. I found something else in the court minutes, indications that his life had not been all good fortune. Perhaps more to the point, the information was somewhat confusing.
In February 1840, Letters of Administration were issued for the estate of Sarah Lassiter, including papers regarding the estate of Ezekiel Lassiter. Is this the same Sarah Lassiter from the 1826 deed? Based on everything else I found, it was, but who was Ezekiel? Sarah was known to have a grandson Ezekiel, but he was alive and well, in fact he was one of three who posted bond for the Letters of Administration. He did not die until 1865. These Letters were followed by the account of sale of the property of Sarah and Ezekiel. Sarah’s property was the usual, beds and tables and cows and horses, etc., but Ezekiel’s property sale was very interesting. His property was sold on the same day as Sarah’s. There were only three “Negro” men: Miles, Jack, and Samuel. Miles was bought by “Heley,” a free woman, for $0.05; Jack by “Colier,” a free man, for $12.50, but Samuel was sold to Sawney Cranford, a local Quaker. Seems Samuel had run away. He was captured in the Raleigh area. Expenses associated with his recapture needed to be recouped, thus he was sold for $263. Heley I would learn was his wife, and Colier his son. In fact, Colier was among his apparent children in his household in the 1850 census. This raised some questions. All other records in which Miles’ name had appeared indicated he was a free man, including the 1830 census. Suddenly in 1840, we have records in which he is referred to as a slave. He was free again in 1850, probably as a result of his purchase by “Heley,” whose name did not appear in the 1850 census, (even though it was her name I would find in the 1840 census) indicating she had likely died. Had something happened to make Miles lose his freedom? I had no idea.
I had one other piece of information about his life. In 1845 Hinshaw’s Encyclopedia of Quaker Genealogy indicated that Miles had requested membership in Back Creek Monthly Meeting. However, there was no indication of the results. Miles’ name did not appear in any censuses after 1850, indicating he had died. Various land transactions and lawsuits involving Colier and the other children over the next several years supported that conclusion. Thus, I had a fairly good picture of Miles’ life, I thought. I had searched many different record types. I figured that whatever else there was to learn would have to fall into my lap. Famous last words.
One night in the early 1990s, I was at a party. Google was just becoming a popular search engine. A friend was talking about putting one’s own name into Google and being surprised by what came up. “Try it,” she admonished, “you’ll be shocked at what information about you is on there.” So, one night I was sitting at the computer idly. I thought, “Why not?” So, I put my name in the search line. The information that came up was somewhat predictable. There appeared the titles of several articles I had written over the years. One of those was about Miles. “Why not put Miles’ name in?” I thought. I was stunned. I stared at the screen. Up had come an article in the Journal of Negro History, written in 1936, about African American members of the Society of Friends. Miles was one of those being featured.  It explained that he had been a slave until the 1840 estate sale. It mentioned that he had become a Quaker in 1845. The only other member in North Carolina had been Isaac Linegar, in 1801. It had taken him four years to be admitted. The article went on to say that he was the only African American Quaker in the state of North Carolina when he died in 1850. It also mentioned there was an obituary that had been published in Friends Review.  I quickly obtained a copy. It explained that he had been born a slave, that his owner had died leaving him to the widow as long as she lived, that he was the business manager for his mistress, that he was married to a free woman and together they had acquired a large property adjacent to his mistress, that once his mistress had died he was sold to his wife. It went on to say that he had indeed been accepted into the Society of Friends, and in 1850 when he died, he was the only African American Quaker in the state of North Carolina.
By any measure Miles had been lucky overall. He had been given opportunities and he had taken advantage of them. He had been fortunate enough to not only enjoy many benefits of freedom while still a slave, but ultimately to be a free man at a time when so many others were not. I was lucky because I had been able to uncover so much about his life. I am even luckier because he was my 4th great grandfather, and I know my good fortune rests very much on his shoulders.
 Hinshaw, William Wade, et al., compilers. (Reprint, 1991–1994). Miles Lassiter. Encyclopedia of American Quaker Genealogy: North Carolina (1936–1950, 6 volumes), I, 723. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing Co.
One of my early surprise successes in genealogy was finding Miles Lassiter, my maternal 4th great grandfather. I had learned from my 2nd great grandmother’s (Ellen) death certificate that my 3rd great grandmother’s maiden name was Nancy Lassiter, so I had gone looking for her in the census. I had worked my way backwards using her married name, Dunson, also learned from the same death certificate.
I found her first as a widow in the 1880 census. Ellen, or Grandma Ellen as my mother (Margaret) called her, was married and living elsewhere, but her sister Adelaide, whom my mother knew, was still in the household. I moved back to the 1870 census. Both Nancy and her husband Calvin Dunson were living together with some of their children, again, not including Grandma Ellen who was married and whom I had identified with her family living nearby in Randolph County.
My mother knew almost nothing beyond Grandma Ellen. Grandma Ellen had died when my mother was about six years old, too young to really ask anything about her family history. For whatever reason nothing was passed down beyond that, so I had no real information about whether Nancy was free before 1865 or not. I figured I should see what I found, so I looked for her. There she was in 1860, with her husband Calvin, and this time with Grandma Ellen. The census said Ellen (EAllen) was about nine years old. “Well,” I reasoned, “why don’t I keep looking? I wonder if she’s (Nancy) in the 1850 census?” So, I looked. Yes, there she was! She was living in the household with an older man, old enough to be her father, Miles Lassiter. He was head of household. Also, in the household were some other young people who could very likely be her siblings: Abigail, Collier, Jane, and John. Another young person, Parthena, may have been a cousin, since she was listed in a different place in the order, but at this point I did not actually know the details. Also, in the household was another older man, Samuel, who could be Miles’ brother. One issue, of course, with the 1850 census is that relationships are not recorded. If you don’t already know the relationships, or cannot confirm them in the 1880 census, where they are for the first time recorded, you just can’t be sure.
I was feeling like I was on a roll, so I decided to see just how far back I could go. I looked at the 1840 census, but didn’t see anything. I’m not sure why I didn’t stop there, but I decided to see if there was anything in 1830. To my surprise, there he was, Miles Lassiter, free man of color. I am still amused by noting that whoever did the indexing wrote it as Smiles, because the person recording his name on the census form seems to have written his first name over another name that started with “S,” but in doing so did not obliterate the “S,” leading the indexer to believe the “S” was part of his name. Of course, the 1830 census is even more enigmatic than the 1850 census, because before 1850, only the head of household’s name is recorded. I could count tic marks, but it really wouldn’t mean anything without other information from other records. For that reason, Miles’ absence from the 1840 census, which also did not record names beyond head of household, didn’t necessarily mean anything. After all, he could have been living in someone else’s household, someone whose name I did not know and therefore, I had no way of confirming where he was. The only thing I could surmise at this point was that, he was a free man of color and, although he was not listed in the 1840 census, he was still alive in 1850, but not recorded in 1860, or beyond. Looking farther back was not possible because the 1820 census for Randolph County no longer exists and Miles was either too young or not financially independent enough to be head of his own household any farther back than that, or not even free any farther back. 1830 was as far back as I was able to go in the census.
I could assume that Miles had died sometime after 1850 and before 1860 by noting what because of those who were in the house with him in 1850. In 1860, as noted above, my 3rd great grandmother Nancy was living with her husband, Calvin, and their children. Collier, here called “Cal,” whom I believed to be her brother, was living nearby, apparently married and with two children; in his household, also, were two people who had been in Miles’ 1850 household, Samuel, who might be Miles’ brother and Abigail, who might be Collier and Nancy’s older sister. Most of this information would be confirmed in later censuses, although Samuel would not live long enough to have his relationship recorded in the 1880 census. Abigail, about whom I wrote in a previous post, would live until sometime after 1910, and have her relationship as a sister confirmed in the census and other documents as well.
What the census could not tell me at that time was how long Miles had been free. Was he born free? If not, when was he freed? Who was his wife? Were these all his children? Who were his parents, and, of course, when did he actually die? Those questions would have to be answered another time, after a lot more research. Right then what was exciting was that I could tell my mother that she had free ancestors. Her response was priceless. “Yes,” she had heard that from her grandmother, Louise (who raised her and her sister), when she was a child. Of course, she had thought her grandmother was wrong and, well, crazy, because everyone knew that black people had been slaves! No teachers had ever said anything about free people of color. She really hadn’t learned anything more.
In fairness, my mother was raised primarily in Elizabeth, New Jersey, away from most of her relatives. In fact, until I started this research around 1976, she’d never even heard of, or met, most of the people we would come to meet and with whom we would spend time in the coming years. Her grandmother, Louise, died in 1936, only a year after my mother married and when my mother was still very young (22). It hadn’t occurred to her to interview (“grill”) her grandmother about their family history. My mother thought whoever was back in North Carolina from her grandmother’s time was undoubtedly dead. Little did she know.
I followed the family forward in the census, particularly the family of Collier/Colier/Calier. At the time, only the 1900 census was available. I was able to determine that there were descendants still living in the same community that Nancy and Grandma Ellen had lived. By this time, Abigail was living in the home of Colier’s son, Ulysses Winston (called Winston). He was married and had several children, Mable, Vella, Will, and Calier. It was possible that in the early 1980s when I was doing this part of the research, one of them might still be alive, or their children, I thought. All I had to do was find a way to meet them, but that’s a story for another day.