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?

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