Research Leads to Walking the Land Where Ancestors Lived, Died and were Buried.
We are wrapping up Black History Month with Florida Trust Board Member Ennis Davis sharing his final post in a journey to uncover his family history
Note: If you haven't read the beginning of this blog series, start here:
Nearly two years after first reading "Remembering Paradise Park" by Lu Vickers and Cynthia Wilson-Graham, it was time for my journey to advance to the next stage. While resources like Ancestry, FamilySearch, digital maps and Google searches are vital in the beginning of a genealogy research effort, there is no substitute for the experience of immersing yourself into the real physical location of your ancestral past.
In July 2019, I traveled to South Carolina to visit the land where my maternal ancestors had been enslaved, as well as established a life for themselves following emancipation.
Arriving in Wampee, the Poplar AME Church Cemetery was my first stop. Death certificates obtained from previous online research had identified this space as the final resting place for at least two of my great-grandfather's siblings. With previous research, I had strong suspicions that it was the likely resting place of my enslaved great-great-grandparents as well. While there were a number of family headstones, I had an indescribable feeling of connection in a small section of unmarked graves within the cemetery.
Another sibling's death certificate mentioned Old Chesterfield Cemetery. After traveling a long dirt road, I found this remote burial ground hidden behind another small cemetery. Mostly filled with unmarked graves, near a former smaller Vereen plantation, I noticed the headstones of Peter Vereen and Albert Chestnut, former enslaved relatives, friends and longtime neighbors of my ancestors in 1870, 1880 and 1900 census records.
When researching the history of a Black community, church cornerstones offer critical leads for unveiling local history. With boots on the ground, I also stopped by Poplar AME and Chesterfield Baptist Church buildings to capture pictures of their cornerstones. An immediate connection revealed that the Baptist church had been first organized in 1875 in Chestnut's home. Further research on the Chesnut name identified that the current site of Poplar AME Church was originally a Rosenwald School, and that the segregation era community school was named after Chestnut's brother, another neighbor of my ancestors.
The next day, I visited the former Vereen plantation in Little River, South Carolina. Now a park called Vereen Memorial Gardens. A place for fishing, birding, kayaking and hiking, it includes a well-preserved cemetery where the final remains of generations of Vereen enslavers lie. Although unmarked, I know there has to be another burial ground on or near this property for the generations of enslaved who died here. Overall, my time here was quite unsatisfactory.
Despite being a beautiful scenic setting along the Intracoastal Waterway, I was horrified that a visitor could learn about a fiddler crab, but not my ancestors who lived and died here without the opportunity to experience freedom. It was like they never existed and like their history and contributions to building the Myrtle Beach region of South Carolina had no importance.
Later that afternoon, I traveled to Coastal Carolina University where I met a descendant of those who once enslaved my ancestors. A knowledgeable source of information, he was able to share copies of plantation maps, enslaved medical records, oral histories and stories about the region's plantation economy. However, this is a personal journey that is still in progress. Attending the International Gullah Geechee and African Diaspora Conference last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel session regarding the Withintrification of Gullah Geechee neighborhoods in Jacksonville. In my presentation, I included an opening slide paying homage to my ancestors that paved the path for me to do what I do today. Following the event, an attendee in the audience inquired for more information on my 19th century connections to the region. Turns out, not only was she familiar with my family name, she was close friends with a family historian and ended up connecting us together on the last day of the conference.
His great-great-grandfather lived to reach the ripe old age of 115 and passed down the oral history of our family dating deep into slavery. He mentioned that Wilmington, North Carolina, was considered the region's major city and the Vereen plantation at Little River was a place where George Washington was known to purchase enslaved. He also informed me that present day highway routes in the vicinity mark the original boundaries of the Vereen plantation.
Then came a complete shocker. The Wilmington insurrection of 1898 was likely the reason for my great-grandfather fleeing to Florida. Jealous of their economic advancement, a group of white supremacists killed an estimated 60 to more than 300 Black professionals, business owners and citizens, successfully overthrowing the city's late-Reconstruction Era government for a more racially oppressive one.
A physician fearing for his life, my great-grandfather left the region with others for Florida, eventually settling in St. Petersburg, Florida. Exchanging contact information, me and my newfound kin agreed to work together to tell our family's story and preserve it for future generations. I truly believe the best in this personal journey is yet to come.
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.