Who are your ancestors? Have you thought about your connection to them lately? Is slavery and freedom a part of your family’s legacy? If so, what impact did it have on your family’s life? My family history originates from the slave experience and piecing together that history has involved gathering remnants of information scattered on note pads collected over the years, just waiting to be deciphered by my husband Melvin, an African American genealogist, and me. Once we began to unravel the information, it was as if a divine path opened and led us to our ancestors in Edgefield, South Carolina, and beyond.
Almost immediately, we learned about the challenges of conducting a genealogical study of an African American family. Many African American ancestors (two or more generations ago) were slaves, and some of them may have been mixed race. Records about their lives as slaves are sometimes incomplete, inaccurate or non-existent. We listened and/or read accounts of the descendant oral histories. Because slaves were considered property, their records were often listed with slave owners' animals, tools and equipment. Thus, we researched slave owners’ assets, property records, wills, deeds, codicils and more. We visited former plantations, genealogical centers, archives, grave sites, churches, schools and other institutions of interest. We read slave narratives and old newspaper articles, and we relied on an exhaustive list of websites. Our research also turned to exploring miscegenation, another difficult component when discovering slave ancestry.
Here is a story about one of my ancestors, who played a remarkable role on the South Carolina plantation where my family was enslaved and later the community where she lived. According records we have found, my third great grandmother, Judy Simmons, was born in South Carolina or Alabama. She was initially called Judy Pickens, a surname of her slave owners Governor Andrew Pickens Jr. According to Andrew Pickens’ 1834 will, Judy and her family were deeded to his son, Governor Frances Pickens, who owned the Edgewood plantation in Edgefield, S.C. Fortunately, Frances Pickens preferred keeping slave families together rather than separating them, as so often happens after the death of a slave owner. After Emancipation, Judy's last name became "Simmons."
Judy figuratively stood on the shoulders of her strong African heritage and tapped into her familial knowledge of medicinal plants that she commonly used for delivering babies of plantation slave and freed women for more than fifty years (1830s to 1880s). Although she was not credentialed, she became known as “doctor” by other slaves and slave owners, out of respect for her knowledge. She was a remarkable midwife, who traveled between Edgefield, S.C., and Augusta, GA, to purchase traditional folk medicines that she used to deliver hundreds of babies. And after the War, she crossed the bridge from slavery to freedom. She crossed the bridge from dependence to independence, and in so doing she left her footprints as a path of grace that is traced to her descendants.
In addition to July, her son, Lymas (Limus) Simmons, my second great grandfather, in 1872 became a South Carolina State Representative. He was legally a freed man less than five years, when he used one acre of his land to build the Simmons Ridge Baptist Church (SRBC) in Edgefield, S.C. During the church’s early years, eighteen Baptist churches were born and launched from the SRB. Today, these vibrant churches remain active in ministry.
A contemporary South Carolina genealogist remarked that pride and resilience are palpable traits that set the Simmons family (ancestors of my maternal grandfather) and their descendants apart from other families in the area. And, Dr. Judy Simmons’ legacy as a healer lives on through many of her descendants, including me. Today, Simmons descendants follow the path of our ancestors as leaders in ministry, healthcare, education, art as builders, planters, producers and more. We are prayerful trailblazers who are proud descendants of our African American heritage from slaves to free men and women. Our faith in God is the common cord that binds us from one generation to the next. We believe, “there is strength in knowing that the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” 2 Cor. 3:17
“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:36
The Rev. Cleo Graham is an Affiliated University Chaplain for the Protestant Community at Roger Williams University. She received her M.Div. from Andover Newton Theological School. Before her ordination, Cleo was (and still is) a Nurse Practitioner.
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