Sunday, July 8, 2018

A Family Bible

Guest blogger, Judith Hughes, did not grow up in the South, but her roots run deep in Colonial Virginia, and the Carolinas. In this essay from 2013, she writes about a visit to North Carolina, and what she discovered in an old family Bible. Judith and I are DNA cousins. We believe our connection is through the Withers and Torrence families of Mecklenburg County, N.C. According to oral history in my family, William Banks Withers (1819-1889), was the father of my second great-grandfather, John Frank Lytle (1854-1939). Judith and I have been collaborating with other DNA cousins to document how we are all related. - MNJ

I spent enough time in the South during my childhood to witness and abhor the injustice of the Jim Crow laws. One incident is as clear to me today as the day it happened.

As a small child, I was waiting with my grandmother for a Trailways bus to arrive. I do not remember who we were meeting. I do remember not understanding why my grandmother was so upset when I went to get a sip of water at a fountain. She then pointed to a sign that I was too young to read and explained that the fountain I wanted to use was the “colored drinking fountain.” I do remember the way it made me feel, and it is something I have never forgotten. I did not comprehend the need for it when I was a child. It is something I will never understand.

Coming to grips with the fact that your ancestors were slaveholders is an unpleasant fact for many whose ancestors lived in the Old South. I always knew my father’s maternal roots extended into the Colonial South. As the first generation “raised off” as they say where my father grew up, I am in reality a 10th generation Tar Heel. As such, I knew that at some time I would uncover my family’s participation in what the South called "our peculiar institution." However, I did not expect to encounter it in the manner and place where it first happened.




During a visit to Davidson, N.C., my cousin Anne and I stopped at the local hardware store bearing the name of our great-great grandfather. After introducing ourselves to the owners, we learned that they were also descended from the family. The owner’s father was the brother of our great grandmother. After conversing with them a short time, we asked if they had any family stories or memorabilia that they could share with us.

Imagine our surprise when they told us to go on up to the cemetery and they would meet us there with some things we might find interesting.

We did as he instructed and were busy taking photographs of family tombstones when they appeared and told us to take our time exploring what they brought, and we could drop the box off at the store as we left town. We sat on the grass beside the grave of our great-great grandmother and opened the box.

Thus, began a genealogical adventure that continues for me today. For inside that box among other things was a family Bible.



The Bible had a publication date of 1858. On the blank page facing the inside cover were pasted three yellowed newspaper obituaries, a handwritten notice and a large square where at some time another a notice had been pasted. It was not located anywhere within the Bible or the box.

The first notice was for James Johnston, Esq., who died at the age of 59 years in February 1860. Like the others, this notice did not contain a year in the text of the printed notice. However, the year was noted in pencil beside it and another of the notices. James Johnston was my third great-grandfather.

The next notice was for the infant sons of Margaret Malvina Johnston and her husband Samuel Meacham Withers. The boys died within days of each other. There was no date beside this notice, but from other sources, we knew they died in May of 1860, a mere three months after their grandfather’s death.

The third notice was for my great-great-grandfather. It read, “In Salisbury, on the 27th of July, Samuel M. Withers of Mecklenburg County. He died in the service of his country.”

The year 1864 was written in pencil beside the notice. At the time of his death, S.M. Withers served in Col. Peter Mallett’s Company and was in Salisbury, N.C., enrolling men to serve in the Confederacy.

The last of the death notices was for Margaret Johnston Withers’ brother James Johnston. His handwritten information was dated 1870.

On the inside back cover was a newspaper clipping from Mecklenburg Lodge 176 on the death of Patrick H. Johnston in 1858. Patrick was the son of James Johnston and was another brother to my great-great-grandmother.

Inside the Bible were a bride’s cake recipe and a typed memorial tribute to Rosa Withers, another of Margaret and Samuel’s children. She died at the age of 20 in 1875.

Then, we turned to the center Family Record pages and instead of family records, we found a list of slaves. Many of the names corresponded with the names of slaves left to Margaret by her father James in his 1860 will filed in Mecklenburg County, N.C. The carefully written list contained ages and birthdates where known.

What makes this list so special is what was added later in the margin.


There, written in pencil beside the name of each child born after 1855 was the name of the child’s mother. The entries were made at different times and by different hands. I knew how extraordinary the Bible list was that sunny North Carolina day, but I didn’t know how to share it with those who would want this knowledge.

With the advent of the internet, I now have the ability to gather additional information to compare with Slave Schedules, copies of the wills I have gathered and other pertinent information. Through wills I discovered how pervasive my family’s link to slavery was.

There are generations of family who passed ownership of their slave(s) to their children. I have discovered slaves who were set free according to the will and some who in fact were not.

In some cases, generations of slave families passed from one generation of slaveholders to the next. In most wills the slaves were listed by name, which I have come to learn was often not the case.

With this story and the eventual publication of corresponding ongoing research, I hope that someday those whose ancestors’ journey joined with my ancestors in a most horrific way will find the key they need to unlock their history.

Judith J. Hughes, 2013
  

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