This Black History Month Florida Trust Board Member Ennis Davis shares his personal stories, lessons learned and challenges faced when researching the history of Black families
Note: If you haven't read the rest of the series, start here:
It was a dream I vividly remember to this day that renewed my determination to uncover the lost story of my lineage after traditional genealogy research methods began to dwindle, due to my ancestors being enslaved prior to the Civil War.
The dream took place in a crowded library, with me sitting at a circular table. There were at least one or two people to my right at the same table. I soon felt the need to look in the opposite direction. At that point I noticed what I assumed was a deceased person at the table. No one else recognized them as we stared into each other's eyes. It not only felt calm, it felt that this was someone from my ancestral past, trying to tell me something. The message I took during that dream and after walking up was to renew my efforts to uncover and expose my family's history.
As an urban planner and public historian, I've always loved maps. Over the years, I've used historical maps and aerials to uncover a community's history. This time, I'd use this resource for genealogy. I then went back to documents previously found at familysearch.org and ancestry.org and began to approach them differently.
For example, the death certificates of my great-grandfather's siblings revealed my great-great-grandmother's maiden last name, as well as the cemeteries where they were buried. Through the supporting use of findagrave.com, Google Earth and the USGS Historical Topographic Map Explorer I was able to accurately identify the rural cemetery locations.
The USGS map explorer is a great interactive online research tool because it allows users to explore and download high resolution historical maps. I find this resource very valuable because historic maps illustrate a natural landscape, built environment and road network in an area prior to modern development.
In addition, neither of my great-great-grandparents were listed as free people of color in the 1860 or 1850 federal slave census, so I was pretty sure they were enslaved. Using the surnames of Vereen, Vaught and Philip found in the death certificates, I went back to the 1870 and 1880 census records to scan the names of my family's neighbors, as well as the nearest
farm owners since my ancestors were farm laborers.
This effort also included looking into their lineage, as well as the lineage of my great-grandfather's ten siblings.
In short time, there were a number of White families with the same surnames that I could then match with 1850 and 1860 U.S. Federal Census - Slave Schedules. This progressed to looking through the wills and tax documents of identified enslavers who passed prior to the civil war. Through the Library of Congress, I was able to locate nineteenth century maps that identified locations and names of enslaving families.
When compared with ages of the unknown enslaved listed in the slave schedules, actual names and family ties began to pop up as the enslaved were identified as property being divided as inheritance to children, family members and friends of the recently departed.
These families also tended to have extensive family trees online and stories passed down through generations. One included helping me understand the origin of my mother's maiden name in America, Vereen.
Jacque Varin, a French Huguenot, arrived in Charleston in 1860. Varin married Susanne Horry and they eventually settled in what is now known as Horry County, South Carolina. Vereen is the anglicized version of Varin.
I also learned President George Washington spent the night at the plantation of Jeremiah Vereen in 1791 during a visit to the South Carolina coast on his tour of the South. This former Vereen plantation, which cultivated indigo, rice and timber, is now the site of the Vereen Memorial Historical Gardens in Little River. Jack Vereen (same name as my once enslaved great-great-grandfather), a descendant, donated this parcel to the Horry County Historical Commission after moving to Jacksonville where he owned a citrus plantation along the St. Johns River.
I also came across the story "Tyrannicide" by Emily Blanck. According to the review, "Tyrannicide uses a captivating narrative to unpack the experiences of slavery and slave law in South Carolina and Massachusetts during the Revolutionary Era. In 1779, during the midst of the American Revolution, thirty-four South Carolina slaves (including Vereens) escaped aboard a British privateer and survived several naval battles until the Massachusetts brig Tyrannicide led them to Massachusetts. Over the next four years, the enslaved became the center of a legal dispute between the two states. The case affected slave law and highlighted the profound differences between how the “terrible institution” was practiced in the North and the South, in ways that would foreground issues eventually leading to the Civil War."
Fishing for nuggets of history in different places, I reached out to the local historical society to inquire information behind the surnames linked to my ancestors. Similar to the Paradise Park book and the dream, the response received abruptly altered the research effort. Not only did the person have information to share. They were a direct descendant of the family who once enslaved mine and willing to meet. It was now time for a road trip to the Lowcountry.
Stay tuned for the next chapter in Ennis' family story!
Ennis Davis is a certified senior planner specializing in transportation and urban planning who holds a degree in Architecture from Florida A&M University. He is the author of the award winning books “Reclaiming Jacksonville,” “Cohen Brothers: The Big Store” and “Images of Modern America: Jacksonville.” In addition to serving a variety of organizations committed to improving urban communities, Ennis serves on the Board of Trustees for the Florida Trust.