A (modest) Success Story -- at last!

by B.J. Smothers, 22 Oct 1998 


Note: Originally posted to the AfriGeneas Mail List. Can also be read in the AfriGeneas Archives.

Whenever someone on the list reports an advance in their research, no matter how minor, I'm so happy for them and encouraged. My own research has been stalled for years but reading about the success of others after similarly long periods of drought keeps me plugging away. I also admit to feeling just a little twinge of envy (along with joy for them) while reading their reports and having to fight the overwhelming urge to abandon what sometimes seems a futile pursuit. That little voice in my head keeps telling me to get a life! (I'm sure y'all know exactly what I mean).

Last week, though, I had a few days to waste <g> so went to Selma, AL to do a some digging in the Dallas and Wilcox County libraries and dragged my dad along hoping that just being in Selma and the Wilcox County countryside would jog his memory and he could fill in some blanks. Dad is 81 but was the baby of his family and have to say that he couldn't remember very much that I didn't already know (I think it was probably more frustrating for him than for me). Was also disappointed that his 88 year old cousin who lives in Selma and who had been our guide in the past was suffering health problems that prevented his accompanying us "down to the country" this time. Needless to say I wasn't expecting much.

But, I'm thrilled to report, I found my g-grandmother's grave site (which I've been seeking for a while) and those of two of her daughters, AND, after all this time, I actually discovered something new that's set me off in a different (and potentially productive) direction in the search for my paternal ancestors' slaveholders.

We already knew that ggrandma Caroline's grave wasn't in the cemetery of her church, Bethel AME Church in Boiling Spring (Catherine), but was back in the woods someplace. She died in the '30s and the few relatives who could remember her funeral couldn't recall exactly how to get to the grave site. What I can't understand is that NOBODY told us that a wonderful gentleman named Elijah Shaw who'd been superintendent at Bethel for the past 58 years lived on the grounds and knew where EVERYTHING concerning black folk in that part of the county was!

Mr. Shaw took us onto a farm some miles down the road from the church, then a mile or two along a dirt path on the property, through a barbed wire gate (which looked like a solid fence if you didn't know where the opening was), another half mile or so through tall grass, across a stream, then left then right and a half mile through woods and then up a hill. The little cemetery was at the top!

You should have heard me a-whoopin' and a-hollerin' when after looking around for a while we found a well preserved narrow cement marker partly buried and hidden by weeds that read:

        In Memory 
        Of Sister 
        Carolion (sic) 
        Thomas

        Born April 
        The 8, 1842

        Died Aug. 
        The 19, 1933

My dad dug it out and laid it alongside the larger headstone of one of her daughters (I have mixed feelings about his having moved it but it probably wasn't originally where we found it anyway).

Afterward, Mr. Shaw took us to another cemetery just over the Marengo County line (who'd a thunk!) and showed us where another of Caroline's daughters and her whole family were buried (Sidney Chapel AME Zion Church in Consul). Then we visited Boiling Spring Baptist Church down the road from Bethel which was Caroline's mother and my gggrandmother Mary Jones' church. She wasn't buried in the cemetery on the grounds but Mr. Shaw said the church had been moved from its original location when the road we were on was blacktopped and the old dirt road through town fell out of use. He told us that we could find the old site by taking the dirt road through the village of Gastonburg and past the Fluker Pond. Didn't have time to before nightfall but will on next trip.

While were riding from place to place Mr. Shaw kept up a steady stream of chatter. (And, no, I DID NOT have a tape recorder! Take heed folks: be prepared for anything! My poor daughter was busily scribbling as fast as she could trying to get some of his recollections on paper.) In passing he pointed to a knoll in the distance and mentioned that one of Caroline's sons had lived in the old "Kelly House" over there. My dad perked up then and said that he remembered that the house was "enormous". Mr. Shaw added that it was because it was the "big house". At that point my jaw dropped to my lap and I almost lost control of the car turning to look! But the more I queried him about it, the less he was able to tell me so I just shut up and listened.

My grandmother's people were named THOMAS, EDWARDS, HODGES and JONES and these were the slaveholders' names I'd been researching. KELLY! Never would have gone there! Sure enough, back at home, I found white Kellys living cheek by jowl with my ancestors in the 1870 census. Don't know why I never thought to pursue it before but I will now!

Well, that's my success story this past week. Even if I come across nothing else for a while these finds are enough to sustain me for a bit. And even though I didn't bring a tape recorder I did have my camera and took lots of pictures. Had the camcorder too but neither my father or daughter could
operate it while I drove!

Have a couple of suggestions for other things to keep in your car "just in case": a GOOD map of the area -- DOT county maps are the best; lots of film and more film; old shoes or sneakers and heavy socks or, better yet, boots; a small shovel, pruning shears and a pair of work gloves; band aids and insect repellant; newsprint and charcoal to make rubbings.

Thanks for indulging me and wishing everyone a Mr. Shaw and some modest successes.


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Copyright 2004 by B.J. Smothers. All rights reserved.
The Norris Family of Wilcox County and Selma, AL