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?