Hi Hannah, my name is Sharon I believe. (Part 1)

I have spent half of my life learning about other people's history and the other half tracing my own family history. Finding my roots was something that always interest me as a child and grew into a passion as an adult. I was fascinated about the women in my family who raised their children and held down the household. My passion drove me to embark on a family research journey; my determination took me thirteen years. Piece by piece I was able to mend the broken branches of my family tree which was long forgotten. I am enriched with strength, love, humbleness and understanding, that was planted in me by my ancestors. I want to share my journey with you, how I fell in love with my ancestors who I got to meet through old forgotten records buried in Sumter County South Carolina. I am a descendant of faith, hope and charity.

My childhood block in North Philadelphia. (Photo taken by: Sharon Calvin)

I grew up in North Philadelphia with my mother and five siblings. I am the youngest of the six. As a young child, I knew from television and school that it was considered 'normal' to have two parents in the home. It never bothered me that my household wasn't structured that way and to be honest, I never really asked, my mother held it down and my needs were always met. Mom took care of hardheaded kids, who really didn't like being related to one another. She worked and graduated from college as a teacher with determination. It was always important to my mother that we were all in school, got along with each other, dressed neat, did our chores, stayed out of trouble, and most importantly don’t have anybody call her job at anytime about her kids. I feel bad now knowing we worked her last nerves. My mom tried so hard to instill in her children the importance of family, that by sticking together as a team, we could all make it. I grew to understand that sticking together meant a lot of things: having rent parties, dinner parties, helping to bail somebody out of jail and weekend card games. My family had a lot of card games with the goals in every adult's minds to beat each other out of their money. While my family played cards the children always had the run of the house except for the room they were playing cards in. Card games and funerals are where I got to see most of my family.

When I was about ten years old, I started to ask my mother about her side of the family. I spent a lot of time with my cousins at family card games but didn't actually know how we were all related. One weekend, my oldest brother Ronnie came by to pick up my mom and I in his long, shiny, green Buick for a trip down to my cousin Terry's house for a family party. As I sat in the back seat, looking out the window and listening to my mother and brother mumbling about who was going to be at the party, I decided to interrupt their conversation. "Hey mom?" I blurted out. "Who is my cousin Terry to you?" "What?", my mother said. I repeated the question because I thought she didn't hear me. "I heard what you said the first time. He's family", my mother said. "What kind of family?", I asked. My mother and brother looked at each other then my mother turned around in her seat to look back at me and said, "Why do you want to know that?”. "Well, we learned a lot about this lady and her family in school today and I want to know about our family", I said. "You ask a lot of questions to be such a little girl", my mom said with a smile. "Terry is my sister's son, we will talk about it another time", my mom said. She turned back around in her seat. We never did talk about it again that day but it fueled my thoughts on how many sisters did my mother have.

History was my favorite subject when I was in elementary school. The more I learned about the heroic and strong people in my school books, the more I wanted to know more about my own family. My mother was our family’s primary source of strength, which was also true to a lot of other people but it seemed like know one, was ever there for her. I often wondered, where did my mother get all of that strength from? Was it something that she was born with or did someone teach her how to be strong?

One winter morning, I laid in bed unable to sleep. The sound from the wind blowing like a wolf outside the window of our third floor apartment made me feel a little uneasy. It seemed as though every time the wind blew, the room I shared with my sister Niecy, filled up with cold air. It had snowed for two straight days so I was anxious to be the first one up and out into the fresh piles of snow, regardless of how the wind was howling. Outside our room, I could hear my mother getting dressed for work. I remember wishing that my mother didn't have to go out there in all that snow, along with the howling wind. I heard her footsteps descending the stairs then the sound of the front door opening before being closed again. I grabbed my blanket and quietly slipped out of bed. I tip toed down the steps and climbed up on the ledge of the window in the front room. I wanted to be there for my mother in some ways as she stood, alone, on the corner waiting for the bus to come. "Missing work is not an option" is what my mother would alway say to her kids. I wrapped my blanket around me to ward off the chill that was creeping through the window as I kept my eyes on my mother. She was constantly readjusting her hat and scarf in an attempt to warm her face, while repeatedly stepping back and forth to the edge of the curb to see if the bus was coming. She has to possess some sort of super human strength to withstand the bitter cold and not be afraid to stand out there alone in the dark. My mother spotted me in the window and motioned for me to get down. I reluctantly did as I was instructed and climbed down out the window then went back up the stairs to bed.


By the time I reached high school, African-American history was a mandatory class for freshmens, which was fine by me as it inspired further interest in my own family history. At one point in the class, we were assigned a family tree project. As I looked over the assignment that the teacher had given out, I realized that there were a lot of questions that I couldn't answer about my family. I raised my hand to ask my teacher what was probably the dumbest question I had ever asked in school: “Where am I supposed to get this information?". My classmates giggled before the teacher responded. "You have to go home and ask your family, Sharon", my teacher said. I was so embarrassed. Later as I walked home from school, I thought about the questions I had to answered about my family tree. What is your grandparents and great grandparents name? Where was your mother born? What do your father do for a living? Name the family members that served in the war. I was worried I wouldn't be able to complete the project because trying to talk to my mother about her family was like pulling teeth.

I had a few months to work on both the project and my mother. I figured out long ago that the best time to coax my mother into talking about her past was to do it during the holidays. Christmas was right around the corner so I knew I had a window of opportunity. It's something about the holidays that will get people in the mood to talk about the old days. So on Christmas Eve I stayed up late to help my mother prepare for Christmas dinner, we were expecting a lot of family and I knew she needed the extra hands. "Hey Mom, do you need some help?” I asked, as I walked into the kitchen. She acknowledged that she did before telling me to help her chop cheese. I grabbed a bowl from the kitchen cabinet, a knife from the drawer, and a block of cheese from the refrigerator and sat down at the kitchen table with her. We both sat there for a few minutes chopping cheese into small cubes without saying anything to each other and then I blurted out. "Hey Mom? What were you like when you were a teenager?" My mom stopped chopping the cheese in mid chop. She looked down at the cheese then back up at me. She seemed a little irritated but I think the holiday music coming from the hi-fi in the living room seemed to relax her a little. "I used to sneak out of our back window to go to parties. We lived on the first floor, so it was an easy climb", my mother giggled as she confessed. "Did you ever get caught?" I asked. "If I had, I wouldn't be here sharing this story with you. Your grandmother was very very strict and if she found out that I was partying, let alone sneaking out of the house she would had whipped me with a switch naked, then waited for my wounds to heal then whipped me again", my mother said. I started to shiver at the thought of it all. I could feel my mother looking me up and down as I sat their shivering in my chair. "You cold baby girl?", my mother asked me. "I'm okay", I answered. "Mmmm", I heard my mother whisper underneath her breath. "You know I work long hours just like your grandmother use to do and if I ever found out that you or your siblings ever sneaked out of the house, well you know how the rest of the story ends don't you?", my mother asked me. I swallowed deeply. "Yes ma'am", I answered. I silently vowed to myself that I would never sneak out of the house ever again because having this conversation with my mother assured me that I would regret it.

My grandmother Jennie Bronson-Dorsey. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Dorsey-Cotton)

"Tell me some more stories about your family", I asked my mother. "Why do you keep asking about people that aren't here anymore child, what good is going to do for you to know?”, my mother said. I took in a deep breath because I knew I was treading on thin ice with all the questions. So I just went for it and said, "I really feel like an orphan in my own family compared to all the people that I learn about in school. I know more about Dr. Martin Luther King and Fredrick Douglass than I do my own grandfather. Honestly mom, I don't think it's fair. I have a school project to do on our family tree and there's a lot questions that I don't have answers too and I don't want to have to stand in front of my class and tell them I don't know anything about my own family, that's embarrassing." I knew I was being sassy with my mouth but I didn't care, I took the chance to express how much it meant for me to learn about my own family history. My mother looked at me for a good minute with out blinking which made me a little nervous. I believe she knew I was taking the opportunity to use my school project to learn more about her family that she didn't like to talk about.

"Those people that you're learning about in school, miss fresh mouth, fought and died for our civil rights. They're important to learn about", my mother said in a stern voice. "I understand mom, but I want to know about our family, they were important too. Who were the family members that fought and died for our bloodline? What was your mother like?”, I asked. My mother took in a deep breath at those questions, looked me straight in the eyes and said. "I don't know of any family members that fought and died for our bloodline but your grandmother's name was Jennie Bronson. She didn't take know mess from nobody. She was a tall mean woman; she practically towered over my daddy." My mother paused for a second, I thought she was going to tell me that she had enough of all the questions but she didn't. "My mother liked to drink beer and party and that bothered me. I guess that's why she didn't want her kids to go to parties. At some point in her life though, my mother got it together and became a nurse", my mom said. "Oh wow! It's really amazing to know that my grandmother quick her parting ways to become a nurse. I know you had to be proud of your mother", I chimed in. "I was proud of her", my mother said with a smile. "I also think it's really awesome that you and your mothers name were similar", I exclaimed. “Yeah, I guess so, my name is Jeannette and her name was Jennie", my mom said. "Where did your mother get the name Jennie from?”, I asked. "I'm not sure but I think it was from one of her aunts," my mother said. "How many brothers and sisters did your mother have?", I asked. "I'm not sure because my mother didn't talk much about her family, but my mother and father had three girls. We were all born in Philly. My oldest sister Edna which was your cousin Terry’s mother, was born in 1930, my middle sister Margaret was born in 1934 and and I was born in 1935," my mother said.

As I watched my mother talk about her family while chopping cheese at the same time, I could see the sadness building up in her eyes. "We weren't born with know silver spoons in our mouths. The 'Great Depression’ had ended before we were all born but it always felt like the 'Great Depression' was part of our lives. The struggle was real baby girl. My dad was never around and my mother was always working and food was barely on the table", my mother said. "Tell me something about my grandfather then, mom, what was he like, and why wasn't he around?” My mother looked me straight in the eyes, her facial expression reeking of despair as the thought of telling me what she knew but it clearly overshadowed the fact that it was only right for me to know since I was always asking about our family. My mother 's voice softened as she told me that my grandfather's name was Edward Dorsey, that he was a short thin man, who worked odd jobs in the neighborhood. "I am not sure but I think my dad stayed away from us because my mom liked to drink", my mother said with the saddest look on her face that I had ever seen. "Where was your dad from and what ever happened to him?", I asked curiously. My mother paused for a second, as though she was looking for the right words to say. "My father was from Maryland, he was the only child of his adoptive parents, (I gasped quietly at the thought of my grandfather being adopted) he served in the military, I'm not sure what branch. By the time you were one year old, both my mother, father and my eldest sister Edna had died. My oldest sister died during childbirth and left behind six children. The childrens father Richard Sommerville, my sister Margaret and I did our best to help take care of my sisters children until they were grown. Those days were extremely hard", my mother said. I could see that talking about the past was wearing on my mother and I didn't want her to be weary during Christmas so I changed the conversation to who was all coming to Christmas dinner. I had just enough family information to complete my family tree project.

From left to right. My aunt Edna, my aunt Margaret and my mother Jeannette. (Photo courtesy of Margaret Dorsey-Cotton)

In 2002, twenty-one years after my mother and I had a short history lesson on Christmas Eve about our family roots, my family still seemed unknown to me. I felt it was time for me to dig up my roots. I now had two children of my own. My goal was to go as far back as I could in hopes that I would discover the woman who bared the children and held down the household. I spent over a year trying to figure out what direction to go in to find my family roots. It was very frustrating not knowing how. One day I took the train into the city where the main library is located. I needed help on finding books on how to research African American roots. I spent the most part of the day in the African American section trying to figure out what would be the best book to read. After finding a few books I toted the heavy load I borrowed on the train back to my house, I was exhausted. When I got to my front steps, I laid my heavy load of books beside me and sat down on the bottom steps.

My next door neighbor Ms. Raina happened to be walking up from work. She sat down next to me. She shared with me about her day and how tired she was from her long commute home from work. I couldn't help but to share with her my frustration with not knowing what direction I needed to take to find my family roots. "I have been researching my family for over twenty years”, Ms. Raina revealed. At her admission, I turned my head so quickly that I got an instant cramp in my neck. "You did what?" I asked her. “I've spent most of my life researching my mother’s line as well as my father’s side of the family. When you get a chance later, come over to my house and I’ll show you some of the records and pictures I have been collecting throughout the years,” she offered. I excitedly agreed to go over to her home later. We talked for a little while and then we gathered our things before going back to our respective houses.

Ms. Raina Sieble and I sitting on my front steps in 2004. (Photo by Sharon N. Calvin Jr.)

A few hours later, I went and knocked on Ms. Raina’s big wooden door. She welcomed me in and I couldn't help but to immediately notice the various piles of papers stacked neatly near the computer in her dining room. She pulled up a chair next to hers at the computer and we sat down. She pulled out an old photograph and handed it to me. Although I didn't know anything about the people in the photograph, I was immediately drawn to the history behind who the people were. "Who are these people?" I asked Ms. Raina. "Well, the people in this photo are my great aunts and this photo are my grandparents", she said. As Ms. Raina continued to pull out more pictures of her family, I was amazed that she still managed to hold onto all those old pictures.

Feeling a little bit of envy, I told Ms. Raina I only seen a picture of my grandmother on my mother's side once but that was as much as I had seen in terms of old photos. As much as I wished I could see pictures of my ancestors, I knew there was little to know chance that this would be possible, as my family really didn't share pictures, talk about neither the past nor the people who lived in it. Ms. Raina shared with me her ancestor’s death certificates, marriage licenses, wills, census records, ship manifest records and birth records. I was overwhelmed with all that she had sought out and found on her own. "You have to show me how to find records like these for my family?" I asked Ms. Raina. "I won't just show you, I can teach you", she said. “You've got a deal", I told Ms. Raina.

A few weeks later I was back at Ms. Raina’s house, excited about the lessons and unaware of the adventure I was about to embark on. She explained to me that it was best to start from the present and work my way back into the past. I had to decide on what branch I wanted to start with, either my mother's side or my father's side. Since I was more familiar with it, I chose to start with my mother’s side. She handed me a family tree chart similar to the one I had received from that memorable high school family tree school project. "Use this family chart to document every person that you discover. No matter who you are looking for in your family's lineage, you'll need to have their birth or death dates, so that you can try to access their birth and death certificates, these records can help you complete your tree. Most importantly, if you're looking for a woman and she is married you will have to know her married name in order to try to obtain her death certificate. These records can help you follow maiden names or name changes throughout your family line,” she explained to me. “But how can I get records for the people in my family? I’ve already exhausted my mother with stuff about our family history and dates is the last thing I have on them", I told Ms. Raina. All she could suggest was that I seek more information from other members in my family, like my siblings or my aunt Margaret.

With that in mind, one day as my oldest sister Gweny and I was talking on the telephone I asked her if she knew anything about our grandparents and great grandparents. "Why do you want to know about people that aren't here anymore, what good is it going to do for you?" she asked me. "Here we go again" I said, trying not to sound too sassy with my mouth because my oldest sister had the power to pop me if I got out of line, know matter how old I got. My oldest sister was like second in command in our family with my mom being the first. "You don't think it's unfair that we had to learn about others people history growing up in school and we don't know the history of our own family to share with our children? Don't you want to know?” I asked my sister. "Don't make me know difference either way”, my sister said. “I know that you've always asked mommy about our family. Our grandmother Jennie and her parents Hattie and David Bronson are all buried at Rolling Green cemetery, which is in Chester Pennsylvania, maybe that will help you. I don't know where our grandfather Edward is buried but I do know that he fought in the war", my sister said. I was stunned that my sister had so much family information, all this long time.

Nervously, the next day with my pen and pad locked and loaded, I called Rolling Greens Cemetery. I was able to obtain the birth and death dates for my grandmother Jennie Dorsey, and her parents (my great grandparents) Hattie and David Bronson. With this knew information that I'd gathered I went to the Philadelphia Vital Statistics online and printed out three death certificate applications. I filled the applications out and then sent them away. Six weeks later all three of the certificates came back, which held a wealth of family information. By using their death records, I started slowly stitching together my family tree.

My grandmother Jennie Bronson was born on March 17, 1912 in Sumter County, South Carolina. She was a practical nurse. She died three months after her first child Edna on October 5, 1959. My great grandmother Hattie was born on November 1, 1886 and died on August 7, 1941, my mother was only seven years old when her grandmother died. Witherspoon was my great grandmothers maiden name. She was born in Sumter South Carolina. Her mother and father names were Winnie Mack and Robert Witherspoon and they were also born in South Carolina. My great grandfather David was born in Moncks Corner South Carolina in 1882 and died in 1957, his parents names were not listed on his death certificate, unfortunately.

After I gathered family information from my grandmother and great grandparents death certificates, Ms. Raina introduced me to a valuable genealogy-researching tool, ‘ the federal census records.’ The federal census has been taken every ten years in the United States since 1790. The federal census records has many purposes. The government uses the census to gather population count, employment, health, housing, and education. This is how we know the ethnic make-up of an area and congressional apportionment. Every year the make of the census changes but for the most part the census includes names, ages and relationships of everyone living in the household. Amongst other details such as whether people own their home or if they rent, their parents place of birth, education, race and what language people spoke. The 1940 census records was the last census records to be release to the public.

Trying to trace African Americans before the emancipation of slaves can also be a challenge. Being able to go beyond the the year 1870 to find African American families is getting past 'the brick wall'. The 1870 United States federal census was the first federal census following the emancipation of slaves and the first to record many former slaves by their first and last name, along with everyone else living in the household. If you do find your ancestors in the 1870 U.S. federal census it can determine approximately where they were living and what surname they used just after the abolishment of slavery. In the 1870’s many former slaves still lived near their former slaveowners, it was an uphill battle for former slaves and freed African Americans after the Civil war, particularly in the work area. Paying jobs were scarce which forced former slaves to continue to work for their former slaveowners for little or know compensation for their work.

It is easy to see that the federal census is a good tool for doing genealogy research. Ms. Raina also explained to me since I obtain my families death certificates, I could use the information off of their death certificates to verify them in the census records, which would allow me to take a peek into their lives and go back as far back as possible. I was really excited about this part of my journey.

The information that I gathered from the census records I was able to write small family history stories. It felt amazing to be able to see just a glimpse of what my family was doing with their lives, before I was even thought of.

My great grandmother Hattie Catherine Witherspoon married my great grandfather David Bronson around the 1900’s in Sumter County South Carolina. They had six children from their union. My grandmother Jennie was their second child. In 1910, my great grandmother Hattie and her family migrated out of South Carolina when many African Americans were trying to escape racial discrimination and the lack of jobs. My family planted their roots in the West part of Philadelphia, in the 1920’s. My great grandmother Hattie was a homemaker and my great grandfather provided for his large family working at a Philadelphia dairy supply factory. My oldest sister once told me a story about our great grandfather David. On the weekends he would bring my mother and her sister’s milk from his job. My aunt Margaret told me when she was about eight or nine years old, she would take the bus to her grandparents house to brush her grandmother Hattie's long wavy hair because her eyes were failing her. After the ending of the ‘Great Depression’ my grandmother Jennie married Edward Dorsey on August 7, 1930 at City Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. By the time my grandmother was twenty-two years old she had three daughters. During World War II my grandfather Edward was a Army solider in the Asiatic Pacific from 1943 to 1945. He was honorable discharge with severe medical issues. He received a medal of honor for his service. I will forever be proud of my grandfather. I can't imagine how mentally and financially hard it must have been for my grandparents and their three girls during that time in their lives. I started to understand why my mother didn't want to talk about her family's past as it was painful for me to even discover it.

My grandparents Jennie Bronson and Edward Dorsey marriage license. ("Citing Philadelphia Marriage Records, 7 August, 1930, Court, License number 591957, Room 417 City Hall Philadelphia.")
My grandfather Edward Dorsey’s 1945 Honorable Discharge papers. ("Citing Personnel Department, Service Records, Edward Dorsey World War II, United States Military, Honorable Discharge Records, 1943-1945, Department of Defense.")

I started to see my family tree blossoming to life as I rebuilt it with broken pieces and branches that had been long forgotten. Tracing my grandmother's Jennie's roots led me to my great grandmother Hattie and discovering the roads that my great grandmother Hattie and her family followed to Philadelphia led me too Hattie’s parents, my great-great grandparents Winnie Mack and Robert Witherspoon.

My great-great grandparents Winnie and Robert Witherspoon were married in Mayesville, South Carolina in 1880. Winnie and Robert had four children together. My great grandmother Hattie was their first child followed by Jennie Rebecca, Delia, Robert Junior and O’neil. My mother wasn't sure which aunt her mother was named for but I am certain that it was her grandmother's sister Jennie Rebecca. I started to realize that the name Jennie meant something special to the woman in my family.

In the 1920's my great-great grandparents where living in Sumter South Carolina. They owned their own home. My great-great grandmother Winnie was fifty-eight years old working as a private African American nurse through out Sumter County South Carolina during the time when the Ku Klux Klan was revised and at it's highest of members since the chapter was dismantled in the South in 1870. I like to believe that my grandmother Jennie wanted to be a nurse just like her grandmother Winnie who cared for people during extremely harsh living conditions in the Deep South. I found power in uncovering my family history. I had reached back five generation of African American women who had paved the way for me with their strength, with the help of Ms. Raina we had tediously unlocked the different triumphs that occurred in my family lives, which made me feel bold enough to keep going back as far as I could in my maternal lineage. I sent away for my great-great grandmother’s Winnie death certificate next. On the seventh week of waiting on the arrival of the record from South Carolina, it finally came. I screamed out loud before I could put my hand over my mouth to muffle out the shrieking of my voice. I didn't want to scare my own self by not being able to control my emotions but holding this document with the short detail life of my great-great grandmother, filled me with so many emotions that I have never felt before. After so many years of looking for my family roots and finally finding them, I don't think I was ready for the weird emotions.

Moving my eyes slowly over every word on my great-great grandmothers death certificate, my heart beat rapidly. I immediately noticed that her husband Robert Witherspoon had filled out her death certificate. I quickly noticed that he spelled her last name wrong. I am assuming he was very upset from the loss of his wife, to do such a thing. Looking at the way her name was written it looked as though he struggled with writing out her name. My heart felt for him.

My great-great grandmother Winnie Mack-Witherspoon 16, Sept. 1927 death certificate. ("South Carolina Deaths, 1915-1943, Citing; State Board of Health. Department of Archives and History, State Records Center, Columbia South Carolina. File number 14857, Winnie Witherspoon.")

My great-great grandmother Winnie Mack-Witherspoon was born on May 1, 1862. She was born a year after the Civil War began in the Southern United States and by the time she was two years old slavery was coming to its end. She died on September 16, 1927 in Sumter South Carolina. Slowly tracing the words with my eyes, I began to fully grasp my family’s history from this certificate. On the very bottom of the certificate, the name of the cemetery where she had been laid to rest was listed: Beulah Cemetery, located in Sumter County, South Carolina. My great-great grandmother Winnie seemed more real to me now since I had a place to go visit her one-day. I shifted my focus to the other side of the certificate to discover the names of Winnie's parents. Lewis Mack and Hannah Mack were my great-great-great grandparents. I was overwhelmed with emotions of triumph. I had managed to uncover the history of three generations of African American women in my bloodline. I felt amazing at the time but then I had a revelation. My great-great-great grandparents shared the same last name, which seemed very odd to me but it wasn't unusual because most African Americans born in the Deep South shared first and last names. I was still hoping that maybe this just meant my great-great grandfather Robert didn't know his wife mother's maiden name.

I decided to utilize the South Carolina federal census to trace my great-great grandmother Winnie's footsteps in hopes that I would find her as a child living with her parent's, since I now had her birth date and her parent's names to work with.

The next day I found myself sitting at an huge microfilm-processing machine at the Philadelphia archives scrolling through roll after roll of microfiches containing the Sumter County census records, looking for Winnie and her parents. Ten minutes before the archives were due to close, I found myself staring at a 1870 census record for Swimming Pens Township in Sumter County of South Carolina. Located in the middle of this old piece of paper was a family with the last name Mack and a little girl named Winnie Mack. I wasn't sure if it was my family but it just felt right. I knew I had to be one hundred percent sure, so I copied the census record and headed home because I knew I had work to do.

("United States Census, 1870" Louis Mack, South Carolina, United States; citing page 38, family 318, NARA microfilm publication M593 (Washington DC. National Archives and Records Administration, n.d); FHL microfilm 555,008.")

When I got home I enlisted the help of Ms. Raina because I needed her expertise, assistance and her eyes. I wanted to be sure that it was my family that I had indeed located in the 1870 federal census. Ms. Raina and I stayed up all night tracing my great, great, great grandparents Hannah, Lewis and all their children from that 1870 Sumter County South Carolina census records all the way to the 1930 Sumter census records. I was ecstatic that I knew for sure I had actually found my family, this was a huge moment for me.

Hannah was born in 1835 in South Carolina. Lewis was born in 1827 in South Carolina. Hannah was a homemaker and Lewis was a farm laborer. In 1870 my great-great-great grandparents had four children who were all born in Sumter County, South Carolina during slavery: Lewis Junior was born in 1854. Louisa was born in 1856. Austin was born in 1858 and my great -great grandmother Winnie was born in 1862. Winnie was eight years old and the only family member in her household who could read and write, she wasn't even in school. I wondered who taught Winnie how to read and write. My great-great-great aunt Louisa was the only child of Hannah and Lewis that I found to be bi-racial. I knew she wasn't my great-great-great grandfather Lewis child which felt a little disheartening. In the 1910 federal census of Bishopville township of Lee County in South Carolina, Louisa was married to Beauregard Moses. Louisa's nationality was listed as a mulatto meaning: a person with one white and one black parent. Louisa and Beauregard had fifteen children from their union and all her children carried her mixed genes.

The 1910 federal census record of Bishopville township of Lee County S.C. Line 45 Beauregard Moses the head of his house and my great-great-great aunt Louisa and her children's nationality written as Mu: meaning mulatto.

Beauregard Moses, his wife Louisa Mack-Moses and their children in the 1919 federal census record. ("Citing 1910 Census Place: Bishopville, Sumter, South Carolina; roll: 1542;Page: 3A;sheet 3B, ED 12:0104;FHL microfilm: 1241542")

I discovered the death certificate of one of Louisa and Beauregard oldest children, Robert Moses. Robert was born on June 6, 1881 in Bishopville South Carolina. He died on November 18, 1944 in North Carolina.

("North Carolina Deaths, m1931-1934, Citing, database, FamilySearch, Robert Moses, 18 Nov 1944; citing Greensboro, Guilford County, North Carolina, State Department of Archives and History, Raleigh; FHL microfilm 1,943,249.")

I will probably never know who was my great-great-great Louisa's real father. I read once that slave women were sometimes forced to comply with their slave owners sexual advances, while some slave women truly loved their masters and accepted their advances. When slave children were conceived from master-slave relations, their fair skin bared the truth and their lives were judge constantly, as if they had a say so on who their parents would be. Bi-racial slaves found it difficult to be accepted in the white and in the black race. Most slave owners would never admit to the paternity of his slave children because it went against all kinds of man-made laws. If a slaveowner were proven to have conceived a child from a slave woman, he would be forced to forfeit all his property. Some slave owners would sell their children and some would keep their children close to them. It makes me feel sad to think that my great-great-great aunt Louisa may have dealt with a lot of adversities because she was bi-racial and a former slave.

In the 1870, 1880 and 1900 Sumter County South Carolina census records, there were several other neighboring families living near my great-great-great grandparents who all shared the same last name 'Mack'. Ms. Raina and I believed that they must have been relatives of my family. But what stood out the most to me while tracking my family through the census records, was this one particular white family, that was always living near my great-great-great grandparents. Samuel Robert Spann and his family were neighbors of my ancestors in 1870, 1880 and the 1900’s. Samuel and his family were the only white family living next door to my family in a community of all black families in 1880 in Sumter County. Ms. Raina and I just stared at each other when we both noticed that, we were probably thinking the same thing. It was a huge possibility that Samuel may have been my family last slaveowner. Even if Samuel wasn't a slaveholder, him and his family must have been some really extraordinary people, living in an all black community in the Deep South during the time when racism was thick.

1880 U.S. Census Swimming Pens Sumter SC.

Citing: Online publication - Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010. 1880 U.S. Census Index provided by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints © Copyright 1999 Intellectual, Year: 1880; Census Place: Swimming Pens, Sumter, South Carolina; Roll: 1242; Family History Film: 1255242; Page: 385B; Enumeration District: 128; Image: .

Before I could assume that my ancestors were slaves, or took the last name of their slaveholders, I had to think twice because despite history, there was still a strong chance that they may not have been. At least one out of every ten Blacks, more than 200,000 in the North and another 200,000 in the South were free when the Civil War broke out in 1861. I had the hefty task of searching through colored military records, the Freedman's Bureau, the Southern Claims Commission and the U.S. free Population Schedules of the 1860 census records of every state looking for my great-great-great grandmother Hannah and my great-great-great grandfather Lewis Mack and their children. I felt bummed out when I didn't find my family in none of the records that I searched. I knew then that there was a big chance that my family might have been enslaved.

I sent away for my great-great-great uncle Lewis Junior’s death record in hopes that it will reveal more family information, since he was Hannah and Lewis oldest child in 1870. When I received Lewis Junior’s death record, I knew immediately the wealth of my family history was growing. Lewis Junior was born in 1854 and died on August 6, 1929 in Sumter South Carolina. He is also resting at Beulah cemetery with his sister Winnie. I was over joyed to see that the informant on Lewis Junior’s death certificate was his son Issac. Isaac Mack list his father's parents as Lewis Mack and Hannah Spann. I knew in my heart that it was an error made on his little sister’s, my great-great grandmother Winnie’s death certificate. My great-great-great grandparents Hannah Spann and Lewis Mack didn't shared the same last name. I sent away for Hannah Spann and Lewis Mack death records but nothing ever turned up. It was disappointing because I was anxious to know the names of Hannah’s parents. I wanted to know where the last name 'Spann' came from as well as the last name 'Mack'. I assumed that my great-great-great parents both died a little after the 1900’s. Some southerns didn't use birth and death certificates, they usually noted birth and dates in family bibles or church records.

("South Carolina Deaths, 1915-1943," data base with images, FamilySearch Lewis Mack, 06 August 1929, Citing Mayesville, Sumter, South Carolina, fn 14928, Department of Archives and History, State Records Center, Columbia; FHL microfilm 1,913,712.") My great-great-great uncle Lewis Mack Junior 1929 death certificate.

I had to go back to re-examine the 1870 census records of Sumter County of South Carolina that I found my family in. I had to look at it from a different perspective. I started to focus on the people who were living in close proximity to where I knew my ancestors were living during that time. Living directly above my great-great-great grandparents Lewis, Hannah and their children were: Henry Spann, his son Samuel Robert Spann and Samuel’s wife and children. Was this the same Samuel Robert Spann who had been neighbors to my great-great-great grandparents in 1880’s, now living with his father? I wondered if this was the family that my great-great-great grandmother Hannah got her last name from?

Henry Spann was the head of his household and the wealthiest southern planter three census pages before him and after him in the 1870 Swimming Pens township of Sumter County South Carolina census records. The value of his real-estate was ten thousand dollars, which would have been at least the equivalent of two hundred thousand dollars in today's money. I discovered that my ancestors as well as several other black families were living on his enormous property. There was something else that I observed between my ancestors and the Spann family: both families had a fourteen-year-old girl named Louisa in each of their household. I believed then that I had finally located the people whom had owned my family. I had finally stepped out of the known and into the unknown and for the first time during my journey, I was afraid. Did I really want to find out if my family were slaves?


After avoiding doing research for a few months, afraid of what I may discover. I couldn't tame the desire to want to know more about my roots. I struggled with what my end goal was in learning about my family history, I kept asking myself why I wanted to know these things at all. It was something that my mother and sister had always asked me: Why do you want to know about people that aren't here anymore? What good is it going to do for you? After years of searching for my family, I realized that I was searching for the root of my family strength, that I had admired so much in my mother. I wanted to find the linkage of my past which was an unknown part of me. I pushed on with a different mindset of determination and started reading more about African Americans living in the ‘Deep South’.

African Americans like myself looking for their enslaved ancestors in the south, first had to try and identify their former slaveowners. An uncounted number of slaveholders wills, court records, estate records and probate records identify the first names of slaves who were bequeath as their “property”. I began my research with Henry and Samuel R. Spann because I believe that they were the last slaveowner of my family. I traced Henry and Samuel R. Spann through the Sumter County South Carolina federal census records, wills, land records, probate records, court records and newspapers clippings. What I unearthed sent chills through my body.

Henry Spann was born on March 8, 1799 in Halifax, North Carolina and died on June 17, 1878 in Sumter County South Carolina. He was the third child out of eight children of Richard Spann and Rebecca Marby. Richard Spann moved his family from North Carolina to the Sumter District in the early 1800’s, when Henry was just a year old. Richard was a planter who grew tobacco and cotton, he wasn't a large slaveholder. In 1820 he had only five slaves, ten years later he had twenty-two and in 1840 he had eleven.

When I discovered Richard Spann’s will on the Family Search website owned by the 'Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints' one day, I immediately copied the will and sat down at my kitchen table, my hands shook uncontrollably as I read over Richards will. After reading his will the ink from the paper covered my finger tips from holding the paper so tight. Richard Spann signed his last will and testament on January 8, 1842 in Sumter County South Carolina. He died a month later on February 11, 1842 in Sumter County South Carolina on his Linebacker Plantation. He had twenty-two slaves as well as their future increases bequeathed to his wife and children: Mary and her two children Leonora and Eliza were bequeathed to his son Charles. Sill and her two children Tom and Lydia were bequeathed to his son Harry. Nancy and her two children Granola and Mary were bequeathed to his deceased son Fredrick's daughter Rebecca Ann Collins. Mahaly and her three children, Jackson, Elizabeth and Harriet were bequeathed to his daughter Martha. Nine slaves: Daniel, Buck, Staudling, Ned, Jinny, Caroline, Mahaly, Mack and Lewis were bequeath to his beloved wife Rebecca during her natural life. His son Henry Spann and Henry D. Green a close friend were appointed executors of Richard's last will and testament. Richard's son Henry had the privilege of taking in the division of four slaves and their future increases: Lewis, Mack, Mahaly, and Caroline and their future children.

("Citing South Carolina Probate Records, Bound Volumes, 1671-1977,Familysearch.org Sumter South Carolina, Richard Spann, Will book, 1823-1868, Vol. D2 page 58, Bundle 165, page 17.")

Reading the names of the slaves of Richard I knew I had found my family. When I saw the slave woman named 'Jinny', I finally knew I had discovered the root of the name Jinny that has been pass down through five generations of women in my family. I believe that Jinny was my great-great-great- great grandfather Lewis mother or someone he looked up too as a mother. Jinny was the fifth generation of women I found of my maternal bloodline. I believed Lewis talked about Jinny to his children, leaving a lasting impression of Jinny in their lives because the name Jennie continued to be kept alive within my family. My great-great grandmother Winnie named her daughter Jenny. My great grandmother Hattie named her second daughter Jennie. My grandmother Jennie named my mother Jeannette. My grandmother Jennie’s oldest daughter Edna named two of her daughters Jennie and Jeannette. My aunt Edna’s son Terry named his first-born daughter Jeannette. My family managed to forge a strong sense of family ties with in the institution of slavery to sustain a sense of our family's identity, by naming their children after the slave woman named Jinny in the will of Richard Spann.

On March 23, 1842 in Sumter County South Carolina, the estate of Richard Spann was appraised which included ten slaves from his will. The way that the slaves were described gave me an idea on how old they were. A boy named Mack was appraised for five hundred dollars. I believe that he was approaching his adolescent years, Caroline and her two children, Mahaly and Andrew, were appraised for six hundred and fifty dollars. A boy named Lewis, was appraised for four hundred and fifty dollars. He must have been a little younger than Mack. A man named Ned was appraise for four hundred and fifty dollars. A man named Buck, was appraised for three hundred and fifty dollars. A man named Daniel for one hundred and fifty dollars, a man name Starling was appraised for five hundred dollars and a woman named Jinny was appraised for five hundred dollars. I was at awe to unearth that my great-great-great grandfather Lewis openly took the last name Mack in honor of the slave listed with him in the will, estate records and appraisal records of Richard Spann.

("South Carolina Probate Records, citing, Files and Loose Papers, 1732-1964. Familysearch.org. Sumter County Court House,Columbia, South Carolina, Department of Archives and History, Columbia.")

Seven years after the death of Richard Spann his estate was put up for sale. On March 23, 1849 during the sale of Richard’s estate only two slaves: Jinny and Daniel were auction off for sale. Henry Spann bought Jinny from his father's estate for one hundred and fifty dollars. Daniel was sold to John Ingram for only twenty dollars. Jinny and Daniel were sold for a very low price compared to the other slaves valued in Richards estate inventory list, which tells me that they were old.

( 3rd pg. Richard Spann estate sale, March 23, 1849 ,citing Probate Records, Sumter County Court House,South Carolina.")

On the same day as the estate sale of Richard Spann, Henry not only purchased Jinny from his father's estate, he went and took possession of the four slaves he had the privilege of taking, from his father's 1842 will. The appraisal document states that all the slaves were married. The value of the slaves increased because they were all older: Caroline and her two children were valued at five hundred eighty-seven dollars and fifty cents. Mack was valued at six hundred dollars. Lewis was valued at six hundred dollars, Mahaly was deceased during the day of the appraisal and she was still valued at twenty-six dollars and fifty cents. Andrew was valued at three hundred dollars, Mary was valued at two hundred and twenty-five dollars and Nora was valued at one hundred and eighty-seven dollars and fifty cents.

("Citing, Sumter County Probate Record of deceased Richard Spann Estate, 23 March 1849, slave appraisement of Sumter County South Carolina Probate Court")

Henry Spann grew to be a planter just like his father. He acquired several pieces of land and property located in Sumter District, not to far from his father Richard’s Limebacker plantation, where he grew cotton and tobacco.

Henry Spann's plat record of 1853 in Sumter District South Carolina. ("South Carolina Probate Records, Bound Volumes, 1671-1977, images, FamilySearch, Sumter, Equity decrees and reports, 1849-1858>image 370 of 558; citing Department of Archives and History, Columbia.")

Henry married Louisa Chandler in 1826 in the Sumter District of South Carolina and from their union they had one child named Samuel Robert Spann in 1830. (The same Samuel Robert Spann who was a neighbor of my great-great-great grandparents Hannah and Lewis Mack as well as their children in the 1870’s, 1880’s and the 1900’s.) Henry Spann character didn't seem as harsh like some of the cruel slaveholders I've read about. I was smitten to know more about the man who seemed to have tried to keep my slave ancestors with him and all together.

I came across a newspaper article on the Library of Congress website digital record collection about Henry Spann. In the Charleston daily news newspaper on Friday morning, December 17, 1869 five years after the abolishment of slavery, incendiaries burned down his gin house and cotton screw on his plantation, located a few miles from Sumter County South Carolina. The newspaper article described Henry Spann as a good nature man in their community who was always good to colored people he employed. Henry Spann was a well-liked man in his Sumter county community. He was a planter, a slaveowner, appraiser, a elder and the secretary of the Concord Presbyterian Church in Sumter.

("The Charleston Daily News, Friday morning, December 17, 1869. The third block 'incendiaries'. Citing; The Charleston daily news. Charleston S.C., 17, Dec. 1869. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspaper. Lib. Of Congress.")

After I made the connection of linking my family and the Spann family together. I became full and enriched with all that I had discovered; I was mentally exhausted from researching. Although my journey was long, I was so happy that I embarked on it. I now knew how I was rooted and where. I hung up my researching shoes to share all what I had discovered with my mom.

One Saturday morning I gathered my information and went over to my mom’s. I only lived a few blocks from her. I shouted as I open up her front door. “Hey mom, you in here?” “I'm in the kitchen”, my mom yelled from the back of the house. I closed the door behind me and headed towards the kitchen. As I entered the kitchen my mom was sitting at her lightly stained wooden breakfast table eating a blueberry muffin, with a cup of coffee. The aroma from the coffee was so thick in the air that I could actually taste it. “ Why do you have to be so loud in the morning Sharon?”, my mom asked. “I don’t know mom but I came over to share with you what I discovered about our family history”, I said. “Well do it quietly”, my mom said.

Sharing a moment with my mother Jeannette. (Photo taken by Sharon N. Calvin)

“ Mom, I was able to trace our bloodline all the way into slavery, a feat that is hard to do for most African Americans like me tracing their ancestors foot steps, especially the way that African American history is set up. Mom, you are the sixth generation of strong women and men who survived slavery, wars, segregation and the Great Depression in Sumter South Carolina and Philadelphia. Your great grandmother Winnie Mack-Witherspoon was a nurse just like your mother. I discovered the root of the name Jeannette and Jennie. In the will of the man that once owned our family, he owned a woman named 'Jinny'. You were named for a woman who loved her family so strong and deeply that her children and their children and their children and your children wouldn't allow her to be forgotten. I didn't know who they were before but I now know that our family wanted us to never forget them, by passing down Jinny's name through five generations of women. We are part of a legacy built on strength and family love. Isn't that amazing mom?". “It sure is Sharon, did you find what you were looking for? my mom asked me. From my mothers facial expression I knew she was kind of hoping that I would have found something different, something not so struggling related. Most black families don't like to talk about the past, let alone slavery, to be a descendant of a slave to most people was like carrying around a badge of shame. I told my mom, "I am filled to the brim with love and gratitude from the wealth of our family history. I understand now what you meant by, 'We weren't born with no silver spoons in our mouths' and that's okay because we have strength and love running through our veins. I have our family history to share with my children and I hope they will never be ashamed to share it with their children. But I am not sure if I found what I was searching for", I said to my mother.

After that history lesson with my mom, I tried to share every piece of family information with the rest of my siblings, cousins and my only living aunt on my mom’s side, surprisingly not to many were interested in hearing about the people who survived through all types of stormy weathers. It bothered me a little because I couldn't understand how they couldn't be interested. I sucked it up and moved on from trying to persuade them to get to know their ancestors. I felt like I was just a unique individual who loved her family roots. I decided it was time for me to hang up my researching shoes and work with helping other people with finding their family roots.

A year after giving up my family search, I was cleaning up my garage. I kept coming across box after box filled with researching papers that I had gathered through out the years. I moved some clutter around so that I could sit down and go through a box that was filled with so many copies of census records. I couldn't believe that I had collected so much family information. Looking through the box of papers it united a spark of nostalgic in me to want to continue my family research. I had this strong urge to keep going, it felt like I was missing something and each day the urge kept getting stronger. I wanted to know what Hannah, Winnie and Hattie looked like. I wondered if I’d bare any resemblance to them? I wanted to visit my great-great grandmother Winnie and her brother Lewis at their resting place. I wanted to find the ‘Linebacker plantation’. I wanted to know what Richard Spann, Henry Spann and Samuel Robert look like? I wasn't done yet; I knew I couldn’t keep researching from Philadelphia to get the answers to my questions, so I finally decided to visit Sumter South Carolina to continue my research.

During the planning of my trip, my mother passed away, and a short time later my fiancé of six years passed away. My fiancé was going to accompany me to South Carolina, he was the wind beneath my wings. I was so grief stricken. I gave up on researching and didn't desire to visit Sumter South Carolina anymore.

My fiancé Masudi and I. (Photo taken by Sharon N. Calvin)

Getting out of the bed each day was getting harder and harder, the struggle was so real. Some days I didn't even bother to get up. I had know desire to eat, socialize, talk on the phone, walk my dog nor get dress, all I wanted to do was sleep my life away. Only the force of nature made me get up to use the bathroom or a morning call from my eight year old friend Maquanisha from Louisiana. At such a young age, she had a mature heart. Before she went to school she wanted me to know that God loves me and to not give up on believing that things will get better. I was so deeply hurt I couldn’t even absorb the heartfelt love she was giving me. I had lost so much body weight that my kids were starting to really worry about me. Mornings turned into nights quickly and the night time seemed to drag on forever. One morning I manage to sit up on the side of the bed, it felt like someone or something was propping me up, preventing me to lay down. Whatever the force that had me in this position I was still to stubborn to not get out of the bed. I don't know how long I sat on the edge of the bed but I was fixed on looking down at the floor. I was crying uncontrollably, my teardrops were beginning to form a good size puddle, which I knew I didn't have the energy to clean up. I snapped out of it, wiped the remaining tears with the back of my hands to try and focus on what day it was. Without any luck on that thought I leaned back on the bed to feel around for the remote control to the television so I could see if it could give me a clue of what was going on in the world. After five long minutes of searching through my crumbled sheets I found it. I clicked on the television and the menu read eleven o'clock am. Oh my goodness I thought, the dog haven't been walked yet. I dropped the remote onto the bed with the television still on an scurried to put my clothes on. As I was getting dress I could hear that the ’Judge Mathis’ court show was on.

"All I want is my ring back or the money for it", I heard this woman screaming from the television. The segment of the court show was about a woman who wanted to marry this man, so she bought him an engagement ring and placed it in the bible next to his night stand in hopes that he would see it and say yes to her proposal. Judge Mathis jokingly asked, “What made you think he would look in the bible ma'am?” The woman responded, “ I had hope he would want to pick up the bible and read God’s word and notice the engagement ring”. Judge Mathis then asked her what page in the bible did she place the ring in. The woman replied, “1 Corithians 11:20 Chapter thirteen.” When she said that verse it rang in my ears so loud that I actually covered my ears with my hands, to muffled out the sound. After a few seconds of the ringing in my ears, I realized I was standing in the middle of my bedroom with my hands covering my ears. It's official, I think I've done lost it. I reached for my King James Version of the bible on my night stand and read the verse that had my ears ringing. The last line stuck out to me like a bright beacon of light. "And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity." I began to cry uncontrollably, I had never in my life picked up a bible like that to read it because I heard someone mentioned a verse, only in church though when I was instructed to. The ringing in my ears was so weird though. I had know idea what it all meant but my faith told me it was something. I turned off the television after getting dress, got the dog strapped up and out the door we went.

A block from my house I gave up a little on being the pack leader, I let my dog take the lead. I really felt out of it. I knew I was walking with my dog but I couldn't feel my feet touching the ground. I basked in the fog I was in, I felt safe there. All of sudden I felt a warm rush of emotions bursting through my fog, I started to sob uncontrollably. "How could you bring me so far and then take the only people who loved me away? I miss my mother. I miss my fiancé, I want to see his face again. I give everything of me to anyone who needs my help and you let me walk alone?" I continued to allow my dog to guide me down the street, while I had this sobbing conversation with God, questioning him, with each tear I shed. A few moments later my conversation with God was interrupted with the sound of several birds singing and flying over me. I stopped walking to look up at the birds, they were flying over me like they were doing a synchronize dance, right over my head. I was so at awe to see something like that. It made me smile. I watched the birds for several seconds and then they landed on the telephone wires, ending their magical dance above me. I thanked the birds for going out their way to make me smile and continue on my walk.

A few minutes later I was half way up the block, when I heard the birds again. I stopped to look up to see what they were doing this time. When I looked up I saw a question mark in the sky. “Is that a question mark in the sky?” I asked myself. Confused as to what I was seeing, I looked around me to see if there were other people seeing this question mark in the sky. It was nobody around but my dog and I. I looked up again and was blown away that the question mark was still there. “This can not be?”, I questioned myself again. But looking up at this question mark, with the dot and all, I knew it was real because I was looking at it. I stood there for a few seconds just looking at this question mark formed from the clouds in amazement. My kids would never believe me. I reached in my pocket and pulled out my phone. I took four pictures of this amazing cloud and continued on my walk. As my dog and I approach the corner of the block, I stop to wait for the green light. I looked down at my feet because I notice that I could feel them again, I wiggled my toes a couple of times inside my sneakers, just to make sure they were awake. I turned around to see if the question mark was still there, it was slowly fading into the sky. I turned back around and continued to cross the street, with each step I took, it felt as though a warm blanket of love and peace laid lover my heart and soul.

Later that evening as I finished preparing dinner, I felt a little exhausted, I went and sat down in the living room on the sofa, at the same time my daughter was opening up the front door. “Hey mom, it smells like you're cooking dinner in here”, she said. “I sure am, I don’t know what got me in such a good mood but it feels good”, I told my daughter. My daughter put her bags down on the chair and came to sit down next to me on the sofa. “What did you do today mom that got you in such a good mood?”, my daughter asked. At that moment I remember the birds and the question mark I had seen earlier. My mood was so upbeat after that, I almost forgot I took the pictures. I jump up from the sofa so quick that it startled my daughter. “What's going on?”, my daughter asked. “I've got to go get my phone so I can show you something I seen today”, I told my daughter. I retrieved my cell phone from the kitchen and brought it back to the sofa where my daughter was waiting. I sat down next to her and opened up my picture files. I was a little nervous that the pictures might not have come out clearly, I'd never checked. I really didn't want to look like a complete crazy woman to my daughter.

Looking at the pictures on my phone of the question mark in the sky, was more amazing than seeing it for the first time. I also was ecstatic that the pictures came out clear and I didn't look crazy. I told my daughter how I struggled to get out of bed that morning to walk the dog and how I just happened upon this amazing sign in the sky. My daughter just looked at me with the most puzzled look I have ever seen. “So, what do you make of it?” I asked my daughter. “Well, I am guessing this it what probably got you in a good mood”, my daughter said. I agreed with my daughter, because I realized my mood had changed after seeing the question mark. Later that evening as I laid in bed looking over the pictures of the question mark, I sat straight up in my bed when I saw on the third picture I took, was an image of a mans face, etched in the clouds, to the right of the question mark. I turned on my bedroom light to get a better look. “ Oh my goodness”, I whispered to myself. The face was that of my fiancé. “Get out of town”, I said out loud. I put my phone down on my nightstand after looking at the picture for a good while. I needed to try to get some rest because my day was very phenomenal, spiritually up lifting which left me emotionally drained. I drifted off, feeling blessed that something was trying to send me a message, and whatever it was, it was going through great lengths just for me.

Actually photo I took, on my walk. (Photo taken by Sharon Calvin)

One morning my daughter came into my room to tell me she was headed off to school. “Hey mom, I'm about to leave out. Do you need anything? she asked. “I'm ok”, I said. “I hope you at least try and do some researching today, it usually put you in a good mood”, my daughter said. She kissed me on my forehead and left out. My daughters words laid on my heart. She was right, researching did put me in a zone of happiness. I had spent most of my life searching for my roots. I knew I needed something to help me dig myself out of the ocean of grief I was drowning in and there were so many signs around me, telling me to try and push on.


I got up and got dressed and went down stairs. I turned on my computer that sat in the living room corner. I really didn't have know desire to do any researching so I checked my email instead. The third email in my box was from Ancestry.com which peaked my interest. I open up the email to see that a photo was uploaded in a Spann family tree that I had created on Ancestry years ago. I clicked on the picture and staring at me was this old white man, who's big eyes sat deep in its sockets that probably seen more than I could imagine. His facial expression looked tired and sad to me. I could tell by his long framed body, poised so neatly in this beautifully decorated, upholstery chair, that he was a tall man. He was dressed in a late nineteen century suit, that looked tailored, the thin black tie around his neck looked half tied but it didn't take away from how neatly he was dressed. A bright gold chain hung from his vest, giving him a wealthy look. "Who is this man?", I question myself. I moved my eyes down to the edge of the photo. Henry Spann was this man name. I gasped so hard I retreated to get a drink of water. "My goodness, it can't be", I told myself as I leaned over the kitchen sink. I got my composure together and sat back down at my computer. I must have stared at his photo for a good thirty minutes. My thoughts were everywhere.

Henry Spann (1799-1878) Photo courtesy of Paul Richbourg Walter

This man big eyes looked into the eyes of my great-great-great grandmother Hannah and my great-great-great grandfather Lewis Mack. I couldn't help but to feel so much for this man, even though he once controlled every aspect of my family lives, he had the legal right to do what ever he wanted to do with them. This man had the legal right to treat my family or any other enslaved person like property. He could sell husbands from wives, parents from their children and separate brothers from sisters. But records shows that Henry Spann kept slaves family together, particularly my family. When the Civil war ended thousand of freed slaves struggled to find work, walked from state to state looking for their children or parents, struggled to find food and a home for their families. My great-great-great grandparents and their children remained in Sumter. They continue to live on Henry’s land for years, working, eating and surrounded by their family and friends. When Henry died, his only son Samuel Robert Spann continued his father's legacy. There was an unwritten rule amongst plantation owners during slavery: children were not to be sold from their mothers, husbands not to be sold from their wives and parents in their old age are not to be sold from their families. The relationship my family and the Spann family showed by living together from slavery to freedom was a good clue that there was something going on with them. What I learned from Henry Spann is that know matter how rich, educated or talented you think you are, how you treat all people ultimately tells a lot about yourself and what you stand for. If a person stands for something that's good for mankind, it will flow into their children and their children. Integrity is everything.

Samuel Robert Spann (1829-1899) and his wife Rosalie Esther Ann Moses (1833-1932). Photo courtesy of Paul Richbourg Walter

Henry was nothing like the white men I read about in history class or in African American class. When I snapped out of it, I knew I had to immediately try to contact the author of the picture Paul Richbourg Walter by email to thank him for sharing the photo. He would never understand what it meant to me to be able to put a face to my story. Paul seemed happy that sharing his family history was helping others. Paul and I continue to email each other about our family history. Henry Spann was Paul's great-great-great grandfather on his mother's side.

After chatting with Paul that evening, I went to bed and had the most amazing dream. In a big open field were picnic tables lined in two long rows, adorned with food on top of mix match picnic table ware. Nearby were people of different shades of colors laying on blankets on the grass, some people were dancing, singing and laughing. I could actually feel the happiness in the air and the sun on my face in my dream. When I awoke I couldn't wait to share my dream with Paul through email because I knew it was a sign that it wasn't luck that our paths crossed, it's for a reason and I truly believe it's our ancestors making this happen. When I shared my dream with Paul he seem really skeptical about it. I didn't blame him. I sound crazy to my own self but I couldn't help feeling it was something else that was bringing him and I together. Know matter how much I didn't want to believe in the coincidences and signs…they were there. Even though no one has ever told me about the Mack and Spann family relationship, their actions and behavior towards each other in the records I found spoke in volumes of a bond that seemed undetachable.

Paul and I soon became researching partners as well as friends sharing each other's family history as much as we could whenever we had the time. Paul never mentioned it but I believe he never expected the picture of his great-great-great grandfather Henry Spann he shared on Ancestry would bring life to both of our family history that joined the ranks of uniqueness.

I shared with Paul through emails, how I figured out how his ancestors were my family’s former slave owners. “After twenty-eight years when the last will and testament of Richard Spann was carried out in 1842, listing my ancestors as his slaves, his son Henry Spann and his son Samuel Robert and my great-great-great grandparents Hannah and Lewis Mack were still living next to each other in the 1870’s. Ten years after that in the 1880's, your great-great grandfather Samuel Robert and my family were still living together as neighbors, and ten years after that in the 1900’s they still were neighbors. My great-great-great grandmother Hannah Spann shared your family last name. Your great-great-great grandfather Henry purchased my family and kept them together. Our family each has a child that shares the same age and shared the same name ‘Louisa’, with my great-great-great aunt being bi-racial. Our family bond was unique in so many ways. But our meeting each other seemed even more unique.” I wrote to Paul.

I believed that once Paul realized our families actually had a connection and I wasn't some nut, we slowly became friends, which meant a lot to me. It's a reason for everything and it felt comforting to have someone with me on my family research journey, someone who understood the importance of it all. We had a huge thing in common, we're the only genealogy nuts in our family and we both wanted to find the plantation that his great-great-great-great grandfather Richard Spann once owned, the ‘Limebacker Plantation’, which I thought was really great because we both had ties that bind us both there. Paul later expressed to me that he once heard that his great-great-great-great grandfather Richard Spann is still buried somewhere on that land. Reading the will and deed records of Richard Spann, he wanted his ‘Limebacker Plantation’ to remain in his family forever, unfortunately after the wars and the ‘Great Depression’ era Paul’s family lost their lands, plantations, business and homes, along with old documents and pictures. The Spann family had their struggles as well. Paul also shared with me that neither he nor his family really discussed their ancestors being slaveowners. I understood because my family didn't want to talk about nor learn about our family at all.

…Continue to part 2

Created By
Sharon Calvin

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