Friday, March 31, 2023

Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon

Courtesy of the Katie Geneva Cannon Papers, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia PA

On this last day of Women’s History Month, I honor my cousin and kindred spirit, the Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, shown in a collage featuring a photo of her from the 1970s and one of her works of art from 2000. 

Cousin Katie was the first African American woman to be ordained in the United Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. at Union Theological Seminary, a renowned scholar, and a founder of the Center for Womanist Leadership. Her legacy includes many more honors and thought-provoking lectures, books, and articles. 

I never met Cousin Katie in person, but we corresponded, exchanging articles and sharing our deep admiration for our ancestor, Mary Nance Lytle, a strong-willed courageous woman who reclaimed her children who had been sold away during slavery.

Cousin Katie was born in Kannapolis, N.C., in 1950, and passed away in 2018. I regret I never got the chance to spend time with her and tell her how much I admired her.

The collage above is copyrighted and is used here with permission from the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Southern Tones and Southernaires

Second from left is Cousin James "Tunesy" Fletcher (1935-2012). He was a member of the Southern Tones of Philadelphia. Back in his hometown of Lancaster, S.C., he performed with the local group, Gospel Southernaires, along with his brothers, John Fletcher and Roosevelt Fletcher, who was the lead singer.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

George Lewis Russell, Sr.

George Lewis Russell Sr., first cousin, two times removed, was the first black Assistant Chief Clerk for the U.S. House of Representatives and served in that role for more than 17 years.  

He was the son of Joseph Samuel Russell (1886-1969) and Hattie McCauley (1887-1972). He was born in 1924 in Concord, Cabarrus County, N.C., and graduated from Logan High School in Concord and North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.

Cousin George died of a heart attack in 1991. Several members of Congress paid tribute to him, including Rep. Kweisi Mfume, (D-Md.), and Rep. Andrew Jacobs, Jr., (D-Ind.). This image from the Congressional Record is a tribute by Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally, (D-Calif.), on Oct. 10, 1991, in the U.S. House of Representatives. It reads:

“Mr. Speaker, I rise to pay tribute to a man that many considered to be a Capitol Hill institution. For 17 years George Lewis Russell, Sr., graced these hallowed halls, with a dignity and sense of dedication that made him a friend to all that were fortunate enough to be touched by him.

“In his position as the Assistant Chief Clerk to Reporters, the man we affectionately referred to as George literally had a front-row seat as we conducted the Nation’s business. Yes, Mr. Speaker, when my friends on the other side of the aisle were in the well giving speeches, that moment was shared by George who sat directly behind whoever was speaking.

“Mr. Speaker, aside from his duties here in the House of Representatives, George was a dedicated family man, active in his community, his church, and the affairs of his college, North Carolina A&T State University.

“Mr. Speaker, George Russell always went the extra mile to help individuals seeking employment and was always encouraging to members and staff.

“Unfortunately, there will not be any statues or buildings here on the Hill named after George Russell. However, we can all rest assured that this noble man will never be forgotten on Capitol Hill or in his community.”




Tribute by Rep. Kweisi Mfume, (D-Md.), Congressional Record, Oct. 8, 1991, p25753.


Tribute by Rep. Andrew Jacobs, Jr., (D-Ind.), Congressional Record, Oct. 9, 1991, p26001.


Tribute by Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally, (D-Calif.), Congressional Record, Extensions of Remarks, Oct. 10, 1991, p26199.


Obituaries, The Baltimore Sun, Oct. 8, 1991, p38.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Lytle School Legacies

The new Lytle's Grove Rosenwald School, 1927 
I used to love tagging along with my mother on her field trips through the Carolinas to cemeteries and other sites related to our family history. One day we took a ride out to "the country" and made a few stops. We went to Columbus Chapel AME Zion in Davidson, N.C., to see if we could find the grave of my third-great-grandmother, Mary Nance Lytle. We didn't find it, and I doubt a headstone exists. Nevertheless, we paid our respects because we knew our ancestor 
was there somewhere.

Torrence-Lytle School
Torrence-Lytle High School
Another stop was Torrence-Lytle High School in Huntersville. The school was originally called Huntersville Colored School when it was founded in 1937, but the name was changed to Torrence-Lytle High School in 1953 to honor Mary Nancy Lytle's son, John Frank Lytle, and his long-time associate and friend, Isaac Dale L. "Ike" Torrence. Both men played instrumental roles in creating the school.

In the letter below, dated September 24, 1935, Nathan Carter Newbold, director of North Carolina's Division of Negro Education, is replying to a letter from John Frank Lytle. The letter is addressed to J.L. Lytle, in care of I.D.L. Torrence. The topic is the need for high schools and transportation in northern Mecklenburg County, to accommodate more than 200 black children who are prepared to advance but have nowhere nearby to go to school. 

Lytle's Grove School, according to family history, was founded by John Frank Lytle and Lois "Lula" Alexander Lytle, my second-great-grandmother who was a teacher. It was located at NC-73 and Poplar Tent Road in Mecklenburg County near the Cabarrus County line.

In his February 1914 report on rural schools for negroes, Newbold referenced a visit to Lytle Grove School. He wrote: "This is a single-room school, but two new rooms have just been added, one for an additional teacher, and the other for a kitchen. This is furnished with stove and utensils, and has a convenient pantry, etc. A large number of patrons greeted us here, and the meeting was held in the church nearby. Talks were made by the visitors, and some demonstration work was done by the teachers."

Newbold was describing the original school building (below) which was later replaced by a new school constructed nearby with Rosenwald funds (see top photo).

Old Lytle's Grove School, 1927


Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission. (n.d.). Survey and research report for the Torrence-Lytle School.

Chris Folk Papers. (n.d.). A history note: Torrence-Lytle School. University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Corine Cannon Oral History, 2019. Pearl Digital Collections. Presbyterian Historical Society.

Griffith, Nancy. (2021). Rosenwald Schools: Special Davidson history column for Black History Month. News of Davidson.

New Lytle's Grove School. State Archives of North Carolina. Department of Public Instruction: School Planning Section, School Photographs File, Box 5.

North Carolina Digital Collections. (n.d.). Correspondence: Rosenwald Fund, Box 4, Folder E, 1927-1928.

North Carolina Digital Collections. (n.d.). General correspondence of the director, last name J to L, September 1935-August 1936.

North Carolina Digital Collections. (n.d.). Report of N.C. Newbold, State Supervisor rural schools for Negroes for North Carolina, For the Month of February 1914.

Old Lytle's Grove School. State Archives of North Carolina. Department of Public Instruction: School Planning Section, School Photographs File, Box 5.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Sweet Potato


I've always considered myself a child of summer, but fall has a special place in my heart. Where I live, the days are still relatively warm well into November and even December, but the nights are just chilly enough for a fire in the yard. 

My husband makes the best fires, the kind of fires that make you slowly inch your chair back at first, only to scoot back up as the fire settles down to a steady simmer. A good fire brings out good stories, the true stories as well as the lies, the ones that have been somewhat embellished over time. The flames loosen the tongue and release tucked-away memories of people long gone, and the passed-down tales that they told around yard fires long extinguished. 

One night on Sapelo Island, while sitting around a fire listening to lies, Cousin Tracy reached into the ashes beneath the smoldering wood and dug out a small sweet potato he had been baking. He carefully brushed it off, broke it in half, and handed a piece to me. While I normally smother my sweet potatoes in butter, cinnamon, and sugar or honey, I took a bite from the bare hot orange clump and died right there on the spot and went to heaven.

To this day, I still think about that sweet potato and how it made me feel. In each bite, I could taste the generations and savor the history and tradition, and feel the love of ancestors whose names I will never know. 

Monday, April 18, 2022

Family in black and white

By Elizabeth June Torrence

Note: Guest blogger, Elizabeth June Torrence, is my cousin. It is a long, twisted, tangle of a story that we are working to piece together. We are both members of the Torrence Cousins research group, descendants of enslavers and the enslaved who have committed to digging up the past and setting the record straight. Here, Elizabeth shares her discoveries about her father as well as her discoveries about her family's Carolina roots and how we are related. Family is complicated. -- MNJ

Today I found my father in the 1950 Federal Census.

It shouldn’t be a big deal -- he wasn’t lost, in fact, I knew exactly where he was supposed to be.

Four years ago I probably wouldn’t have cared that on April 1, 2022, the 1950 census would be released. I wouldn’t have known that the indexing process will take months and probably won’t be truly searchable until next year. I wouldn't have appreciated seeing the facts published for posterity.

Four years ago I got my DNA tested by Ancestry and for curiosity's sake, I uploaded the data to GEDmatch. I didn’t know if anything life-changing would come from my results, but I was intrigued by the possibilities.

In the summer of 2018, I was contacted through email by Michele. She had found me through one of the search functions on GEDmatch, “People who Match One or Both Kits.” I matched both her and her friend. She told me she had roots in Charlotte, N.C., and her great-great-grandfather had founded a school that became known as the Torrence-Lytle School.

I had a tree on Ancestry that I shared with Michele. Most, if not all the information about the Torrences I had copied from a tree my brother Richie had built before his death in 2004. She recognized my ancestor Alexander Torrence as the same man who was in Judy Hughes’ tree, whom she had met through Facebook, and she asked if I minded including Judy in our conversation. We grew as a group from there and I now had a purpose for researching my Torrence family of my own.

I knew my father was born in Charlotte, but in my head, he was from Virginia. Looking back now I realize that I didn’t really have a clue where he was from. I have his high school yearbooks from Tennessee and one from his year of college in Kentucky. He met my mother in her hometown of Fort Payne, Alabama, and I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, where I have some vague memories of him talking about streets and places he knew as a kid.

My father died when I was 11 years old and for most of my childhood struggled with alcoholism. Since I was just a kid I was never told much, but I caught pieces of things here and there. One of the very few pictures I have of my dad as a child I was told was taken at the children’s home, and on the back are the names of the other children in what I know now is my Aunt June’s handwriting.

That’s my dad on the far right, and my Aunt June is the tall girl on the left.

See, in 1950, my dad and his older sister were living in the Southern Christian Children’s Home at 1101 Cleburne Avenue in Atlanta. The Jimmy Carter Center is now located on that property. That’s how, even without an index, I could find my father in the census.

When I opened this image I burst into tears. There he is, Richard H. Torrence, Orphan, age 12. Except he’s not an orphan.

It’s one thing to hear the stories -- it’s another to see them in black and white. The boy listed just before my father is also in the picture above. Some of the other children in this photo are listed in the census as well and I wonder what their stories are. Were they truly orphans, or were they placed there under similar circumstances to my dad and aunt? The census doesn’t tell the full story.

That story, like so many of ours, is a work in progress.

Through our little group of cousins, I’ve totally expanded my research skills. I was really a novice when we first started exchanging emails in 2018. When I’m not working on puzzling out our various relationships from the era of slavery in North Carolina, I’m trying to piece together a timeline of my father’s life before he met my mother. Finding the little clues and sharing them with my mother has generated so many memories she has of things my father told her during their 24 years of marriage that she had never and would probably have never shared with me. She is really my only primary resource and so many of her random memories have been borne out through records I’ve found online.

It’s the combination of stories passed on and the records we find that make the whole picture possible and I’m truly grateful for that courageous email from Michele that started me on this quest. I told her then that I was ready for whatever we found -- good, bad, or ugly -- and I’ve found some of each, but I’m better off for all of it.

Elizabeth June Torrence, 2022

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

I See the Moon


Laura Mvula performing Sing to the Moon live with the Metropole Orkest on YouTube

Looking back on my childhood, I remember that I was always missing someone. My father, when he was in the navy and out to sea for six months at a time... He would be on the other side of the world and gone so long I worried I would forget what he looked like. Mama would read his letters to us and show us pictures and tell stories to keep our memories fresh. And my grandparents... They weren't on the other side of the world, but to a young child, North Carolina seemed that far away. 

My Grandma Polly used to sing a song -- I see the moon and the moon sees me. God bless the moon and God bless me.  That song always reminded me that no matter how far away my loved ones were, we could all look up and see the same moon. That comforted me. It still does, although, most of the loved ones I'm missing now have transitioned far beyond the moon.