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.

Enslaved & Enslaver Descendants


On April, 9, 2022, four members of the Torrence Cousins research group participated in the virtual program, Enslaved & Enslaver: Finding Descendant Connections, presented by the North Suburban Genealogical Society and Glenview Public Library in Glenview, Ill.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Ancestral Excursions

Old Dominion Steamship Company. Source: Library of Congress.

I grew up thinking my maternal grandparents, and their parents had never lived anywhere else other than North Carolina. I made this false assumption simply because I never asked and they never talked about living anywhere else. So you can imagine my surprise when, well into my adulthood, my grandmother, Kate Irene Russell, shared a story about briefly living in New Mexico when her husband was stationed there in the U.S. Army. I can't remember how the topic came up, but I was amazed I had never heard of this time in her life.

James Russell and his daughter Kate
James Hampton Russell and his daughter, Kate
My grandmother described the train ride from North Carolina with very young children, and how the black people had to sit in the crowded Jim Crow car at the front of the train, which was sooty and dirty. They had to pack their own food because Jim Crow segregation laws prevented them from eating in the dining car or in many restaurants along the way. As for New Mexico, the only thing she could remember was the heat and the dust storms. How I wish I could see her again to ask her more questions.

I was well into my 40s when I learned that her father, James Hampton "Daddy Hamp" Russell, had lived in Virginia in 1917, and was employed by the Old Dominion Steamship Company based in Newport News. The information is on his World War I draft card. 

My mother and her oldest brother had no idea, however, my uncle did say he recalled hearing that Daddy Hamp had taken etiquette classes at one of the historically black colleges either in Charlotte or in Concord, N.C. That makes sense as the classes would have provided the proper training for a crew member on an elegant steamship offering trips to New York, Richmond, Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. 

Again, I have so many questions. What kind of work did he do? Who were his friends?

The draft card was stamped June 5, 1917. He was a newlywed. Just two weeks earlier Daddy Hamp had married my great-grandmother, Margaret Lytle, on May 23, in North Carolina.
Did she go with him? 

I may never know the answers, but I will keep researching, looking for clues, and imagining what my ancestors may have experienced on their journeys far from their Carolina homes.

World War I draft card for James Hampton Russell (1891-1966). Registration State: Virginia; Registration County: Warwick. Source: National Archives and Records Administration/

Ballins Dampfer Welt. S.S. Madison - Old Dominion Line - New York - Interior. [Video]. YouTube.


29 May 1916, Mon Asheville Citizen-Times (Asheville, North Carolina)

Saturday, February 5, 2022

Featured Funeral Program

Bernice Elizabeth Kiser Allison (1915-1987)

From her funeral service program: Mrs. Bernice Elizabeth Kiser Allison, age 71, daughter of the late Reverend Samuel Kiser and Emma Howie Kiser was born June 13, 1915, in Cabarrus County, North Carolina. She departed this life Wednesday, March 18, 1987, at Cabarrus Memorial Hospital.

Mrs. Allison attended Logan High School and was a graduate of Price High School, Salisbury, North Carolina. Later, she graduated from Apex Beauty College, Baltimore, Maryland. As a cosmetologist, she was the operator of Bernice's Beauty Shop for a period of over 25 years. She was a member of the Kannapolis and Landis Beautician Club and the North Carolina State Beautician Association. She did further study at the Advanced School of Business, Chicago, Illinois, studying Secretarial Sciences. She was a retired employee of Cannon Mills. 

Mrs. Allison was a former member of Price Memorial AME Zion Church, Concord, North Carolina. She served as Assistant Secretary of the Young Women's Missionary Society of the Concord District. In 1937, she joined Bethel AME Zion Church. After joining Bethel, she organized the Young Women's Missionary Society and was an officer for a period of 38 years. For seven years, Mrs. Allison was the Junior Church President and served as Assistant Superintendent of the church school. 

During the pastorship of Reverend W.J.W. Turner, Mrs. Allison organized the Gospel Choir of which her sister, Margaret Kiser Branch, was the organist. She was the first Life Member of the Missionaries to be stoled in Bethel AME Zion Church. Mrs. Allison served as Church Secretary, Class Leader, member of the Deaconness Board, Usher Board, and in many other capacities at Bethel AME Zion Church. She organized Girl Scouting in this church and served as director for 15 years. She was the director of Girl Scouting for the Concord District and was the organizer of the Hornet's Nest Council for Service Unit No. 1 of Cabarrus County. She also served as a volunteer for Kannapolis Christian Ministries. Mrs. Allison will long be remembered for her service to mankind.


Thursday, February 3, 2022

Phillis Coleman

Phillis (Phyllis) Coleman (1823-1908)

This is my paternal fourth-great-grandmother, Phillis (Phyllis) Coleman. She was born into slavery in Virginia in 1823, and she died in freedom in 1908, in Lancaster County, South Carolina. Her enslaver, and the father of some of her children, was Robert Brown Cunningham (1815-1885).

Grandmother Phillis' daughter was Rachel Cunningham (1845-1912), my third-great-grandmother, who married Charles Carr (1844-?), and later, Nicholas Peay (1836-1907).

My Peay line descends from people who were enslaved by the white Peay family, who held more than 1,000 people in bondage on several plantations in South Carolina. I've been documenting these people as best I can, when I can, digging through wills and ship manifests and other records, making lists, saying their names out loud.

When I did my DNA test a few years ago, I noticed that I was matching people from Marengo County, Ala., on my Peay line. Who were these distant Peay cousins?

The answer was in the will of Austin Ford Peay (1787-1841), the patriarch of the family that enslaved mine. In his will, he left his daughter, Mary, 30 slaves. Their names were Patty, Jack, William, Fanny, Washington, Hilliard, Chainey, Isaac, William, Sam, Nancy, Mary, Sophia, Sukey, Patty, Francis, Polly, Venus, Lizasa Gullah, Robbin Jr., Ellen, Delia, Cudjo, Amey, Nancy, Albert, Obed, Jeff, Jim Gullah, and Sylvia.

Mary Lucilla Justina Peay was married to Charles A. Poellnitz, and they ran a plantation in Marengo County, Ala., deep in the Alabama Black Belt. Her inheritance -- which included some of my family members -- was uprooted from South Carolina and moved to Alabama.

I often think about what the death of a "massa" often meant for my ancestors. When I read the wills, I see my ancestors listed as property, and their families being torn apart, bequeathed or sold off, or leased. I see it time and time again, and feel their sadness and anguish over and over again.

How much loss did Grandmother Phillis experience in her long lifetime? How many children did she have, and have taken away, before her life ever crossed paths with Robert Brown Cunningham?