A cousin sent me this undated letter a few days ago, asking if I knew anything about it. She is descended from my great-great-great-grandfather Adam Artis‘ brother Richard Artis. Her Richard is not one of the Richards listed to in the document. (There were several contemporaneous Richard Artises just in the Wayne-Greene-Wilson County corner, none of whom I can link to one another.) The family history recounted in the letter smacks of the apocryphal, but it is interesting, and I will try to follow up on it.
“The Old South, like any other long-vanished society, is distant from us, and strange. The more we learn about it, the more we realize we do not know. If the story of free Afro-Virginians in Prince Edward County teaches us anything, it is the danger of making assumptions about that past and its people based on what we see around us today, or on what we think we know about the history of other periods, or on the hubristic notion that our own society is superior to theirs in every conceivable way.”
At 619 pages, this is not light reading. But may I strongly recommend to anyone with the least interest in 19th century, southern, or African-American history Melvin Patrick Ely’s Israel on the Appomattox: A Southern Experiment in Black Freedom from the 1790s through the Civil War. It’s a richly detailed, scrupulously documented, compellingly limned history of Israel Hill, a community of freed slaves in southern Virginia.
My uncle: That’s where I was born and where John was born.
Me: At 748?
My uncle: That’s it.
My cousin: This crib right here?
My uncle: That’s where I was born.
Me: [Laughing.] Wow.
Tax records show that this tiny house — less than 800 square feet — was built around 1910. It now has two bedrooms and one bath, but the bath was undoubtedly a late addition. John C. Allen may have been the first to move a family into the dwelling; the Allens are shown there in the 1910 census of Newport News. John, who worked as a shipyard painter, reported that he owned the house subject to mortgage.
By 1920, the Allens had moved just around the corner to 2107 Marshall Avenue, the house I knew in childhood as my great-aunt Julia‘s. John Allen kept 748 and rented it out until his middle son married. John C. Allen Jr. and his wife Margaret Colvert Allen lived there until their fourth child, my mother, was two weeks old.
My grandmother: I lived I don’t know how many years in Mr. Allen’s house without any electricity. And just as soon as I moved out –
Me: He had it wired?
My grandmother: He had it wired. And one of the neighbors said she went out there in the street and laid him out. Said, that child over there with those children, washing and ironing and working herself to death, and you wait until she leaves out of your house, your son’s house? She said she laid him out.
Photograph by Lisa Y. Henderson, 2002; interviews of C. Allen and Margaret C. Allen by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved.
If he were living, he would be 107. I never knew him. My mother barely did; he died when she was 10; he is a mythological figure. His children speak of him reverentially, wistfully, with smiles. His widow sometimes spoke of him with a tinge of anger, a sense of abandonment that simmered low. He is a wraith made more so by her timeless solidity at our family’s core. Her light had only just begun to dim when she left us in 2010; she was 101. He was 41– younger than the youngest of his grandchilden. Frozen in 1948 — a slight, brown-skinned man with swayback legs and a small smile. My little ears are his. The tiny flaps at the inner corners of my eyes. The flare-ups of inner darkness. Who was he? Why?
Amelia. Anthony. Caroline. Charles. Daniel. Eliza. Frank & his wife Charlotte & their children Townsend, Jere, Little Frank, Lewis & Ellen. George. Harry. Jane. Mary. Little Mary. Patty. Rachel. Robert & his wife Milly & their children Easter, Jack, Reuben, Edmund & Rachel. Sarah. Siller. Winny.
These are the men and women and children with whom my great-great-great-grandfather Walker Colvert lived in 1823, the year their master Samuel Colvert died and his Culpeper County, Virginia, estate was divided. Walker and Amelia were sent 300 miles south to Samuel’s son John Alpheus Colvert in North Carolina. Was Amelia Walker’s mother? His sister? No kin at all? Was he an orphan, or did he leave his parents behind? Who among these 30-odd slaves claimed Walker as their own?
Until I learned recently that I share DNA with descendants of Leonard Calvert, the first governor of colonial Maryland, it had never occurred to me that Walker might be blood-kin to his master, also a Calvert descendant. The news set me wondering. Not so much about which Colvert was Walker’s father, or maybe grandfather, but about Walker’s family in general. I’ve long known that four years after his arrival in North Carolina, John Colvert died, and Walker was hired out until John’s son William was old enough to control him. I know that Walker was married at least twice, and had at least four children, but age and circumstances suggest that he fathered even more. Who were they? Where did they go?
Genealogical DNA testing may yield answers to some of these questions. I have learned already that I am distantly related to those Calvert descendants through my father’s family, not my mother’s, and thus Walker was probably not related to his owners at all. I’m still looking for Walker’s children.
I rode through Aberdeen Gardens two or three times while I was in Newport News. “By Negroes, for Negroes” reads the historical marker near the school. Boxy, red-brick houses counterposed in neat lines along streets named for community heroes. My grandfather John C. Allen Jr. was a drywall supervisor during their construction in the late 1930s. Though he disdained the building standards, he briefly moved his family into one of the duplexes when my mother was three weeks old. Semi-furnished. A chicken coop out back. A vegetable garden. By 1940, the family was gone, into the two-story house on 35th Street that my grandmother called home until she died. There’s a rose alongside the porch that still blooms where my grandfather planted it, and he passed in 1948. This house is the most constant edifice of the whole of my life. My Gibraltar. Upstairs, my grandmother slept in the double bed that they brought with them from Aberdeen, along with a squat chest and a nightstand. Solid oak in a simple Shaker style. “Not a drawer sags to this day,” she told me, marveling. She pulled one precariously far out. “Look at that.” I gently tested its solidity. I laughed.
Above, John C. Allen (third from right) and his drywall crew at Aberdeen Gardens, circa 1937, and floor plan of Aberdeen Gardens home.