A few years ago, I discovered that Frances Pinkard Johnson (c.1874-1924), one of my great-grandfather’s older sisters, was among the first of my ancestors to leave the South for a better opportunity. I did some more digging and began to piece together more details of her story. Her path to Chicago wasn’t a direct one– in fact, she made a stop in Birmingham.
Frances Pinkard, the daughter of Ike and Narcis Pinkard, married her husband, Ben Johnson, at age 15. By age 23, she was a mother. The year was 1900 and Frances, her husband and their six-year-old daughter Corine were living in Chattahoochee County, Georgia. From there, the family moved to Birmingham, Ala., and in 1910, Ben was working as a railroad laborer and Frances was a laundress. The family lived in Birmingham’s Ensley neighborhood– this is important to note because of Ensley’s background. (Interestingly enough, I used to live in Birmingham, and I know exactly where this is).
Now a part of the city of Birmimgham, Ensley was one of the Birmingham-area towns owned by the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, a major steel producer. The company built communities of homes for its employees, and while I don’t know if the Johnsons lived in one of these homes, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. Ben Johnson also likely worked on the Birmingham Southern railroad, which was owned by Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad. (According to the railroad’s Wikipedia page, it underwent an expansion in 1910, the year the Johnsons appear in the Census).
By 1920, the Johnsons, like many other black families from the South, are living in Chicago. They’ve made it to Bronzeville, a section on the city’s South Side often called the Black Metropolis. (This piece does a good job of explaining its vibrancy). Their home on 36th Street is a far cry from Birmingham, and a world away from their rural Georgia beginnings.
The Johnsons were part of the Great Migration, the shift of millions of black Americans out of the Deep South to points north, east and west that happened between 1916 and 1970. A scan of their neighbors in Chicago shows they were surrounded by others who had made similar trips from Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. They’ve found work as laborers in stock yards and foundries, and as porters and cooks, too.
Frances Pinkard Johnson died in 1924. I’m not sure what became of Ben, but Corrine remained in Chicago and after completing a year of high school, she eventually found work as a laundress. She married Samuel Greene, a stock yard laborer from Mississippi, and they had two children, Samuel Jr. and Birdie.
One of the most difficult ancestors for me to research has been my great-great-grandmother Annie Cotton Nance. What I knew about her, I learned from oral history and also from conversations with my cousin Jessie Britt Frazier (1921-2012). Annie Cotton Nance was Jessie’s grandmother, and she lived with Jessie and her mother, Sallie Mary Nance Britt, for a number of years after she and my great-great-grandfather Henry Nance separated.
“Where was she from?” I remember asking “Around here,” Jessie told me, “here” meaning Coffee County.
“When did she die?” I asked. “My ninth grade year,” Jessie said. (I did a little math and that came out to be around 1938 or so).
So for years that was what I knew about my great-great-grandmother, and that she was a teenager when she married a man nearly 30 years her senior and went on to have 14 children. That all changed this weekend, when I met up with a familiar friend– and occasional muse– insomnia.
I found an 1880 U.S. Census showing an Ann Cotton, age 15, living in Dale County, Ala. in the household of Lige* and Ellen Baxter. (Though she’s listed as a sister to the head of household, Lige, I think she might have been the sister-in-law). This matches the information I already had about my great-great-grandmother, who was born in January 1865, and would’ve been 15 in 1880.
Rocky Head, Ala., was a community in Dale County, which is adjacent to Coffee County. When Henry and Annie married, they made their home in the Haw Ridge community, which straddled Coffee and Dale counties. This is another reason I think the Ann Cotton in this Census is my great-great-grandmother.
NOTE: I did some other started to search more to find out about the Baxters and interestingly enough, I realized that one of Elijah and Ellen’s daughters, Claudie, married one of my Tindall relatives and lived on property that later became Fort Rucker.
*Lige is short for Elijah
Some of the most difficulty I’ve had in this genealogical journey is finding out what happened to my great-grandfather J.E. Nance’s sisters, Pearl Nance Hill (b. 1899), Pearlee Nance Stewart (b. 1903) and Dovie Nance Ardis (b. 1902).
I don’t know any of their descendants and growing up, I never heard anyone mention them. All I’ve ever known about them was their names, dates of birth , names of spouses and names of children.
And then ancestry.com came along with its bomb search function. I recently discovered that Pearl Nance Hill didn’t stay married to her husband very long. In 1920 she and her husband, Dee, were living with their infant son in Haw Ridge, Ala., right next door to her parents, Henry and Annie Nance. But 10 years later, Pearl and her son Horace turned up in a 1930 Census living in the Blackmon househould in Enterprise, Ala. Interestingly enough, she’s listed as being a cousin to the head of the household, J. Cleveland Blackmon. (There’s no mention of husband, Dee).
Cousin?! Wait, what?! I quickly did a mental inventory of the vast and extensive of surnames related to mine on my paternal side: Nance, Whitehurst, Brooks, Brown, Tindall, Flowers, Barnes, Cotton, Gilley, Clark… Blackmon? That’s a new one.
On a related note, this seems to validate my long-held theory that I’m related to every black person in Enterprise, Ala., but I digress…
Also, Pearl listed herself as single. Not widowed, but single. That made me wonder what happened to her husband, Dee. It also made me wonder more about the head of this household, J. Cleveland Blackmon.
I have spent the past three months running headlong into brick walls. Figuratively speaking, of course. I’m taking about genealogical brick walls, the moments when you’ve reached the end of the paper trails your ancestors left.
The whole thing is so perplexing, but fascinating.
Take Narcis Pinkard Hamilton, for example. She is one of my great-great grandmothers. Born in Georgia in 1864, she was married at 15 and spent most of her life working as a domestic. She died in Columbus, Ga. in 1934, and her death certificate helped uncover some details about her immediate family. I know she had a younger brother named John, and her father’s name was Henry, but that’s all I know. I don’t know where in Georgia she lived before she married my great-great-grandfather Ike Pinkard, nor do I know her mother’s name.
One of my great-great-grandmothers, Annie Cotton Nance, is another woman whose life is largely mysterious. She doesn’t appear in any U.S. Census until 1900, when she was a 35-year-old married mother of 10 children. I can’t even find a Cotton family in the area that would correspond with the information that’s been passed down. I know that after my great-great-grandfather Henry Nance died, she lived with one of her sons, Oliver, and also with one of her daughters, Sallie Mary. She died sometime around 1938, though I haven’t been able to find a record.
I think this means I have to refocus my research. Instead of focusing on how far back I can go, I should start digging deeper into what I’ve already found.
I was in Alabama last week for the Nance Family Reunion, and as always, I came back having learned something new. This time, I discovered the final resting place of one of my relatives, Obie D. Ardis, one of my paternal grandfather’s first cousins.
Whenever we go to Alabama, we place flowers on the graves of my grandparents, who are buried at Johns Chapel AME Church in Enterprise, and also my aunt and uncle, both buried at Fort Mitchell. We had just finished praying, and I was admiring the orange and green floral arrangement we had placed at my uncle’s headstone, when I looked up and noticed the name on a headstone a couple of rows back: Obie D. Ardis.
I immediately recognized the name as one the sons of Dovie Nance Ardis. She was one of my great-grandfather’s sisters, and someone who had remained somewhat of a mystery during my research. I looked closely and saw that Obie died in November 1999, about a month after my uncle. That meant his headstone had been there this whole time–all we had to do was look up.
In addition to Census records, there are also documents called non-population schedules. They often contain a great deal of information helpful to genealogists. Case in point: my great-great-grandfather Frank Gilley (ne Tindall) had a sizable farm in Coffee County, Ala., and I found an agricultural schedule that detailed what he was tending in 1880.
His 150-acre farm was mostly corn and cotton, but he also had some sugarcane (which yielded 20 gallons of molasses the previous year) and five hogs. I also noticed that my great-great-grandfather owned his farm, an important distinction to make given the social and political climate. The other thing I took note of was Frank Gilley’s neighbors. One name stood out to me in particular: Sam Matthews. I know my great-grandmother– Mamie Gilley Nance — was married to a Shelby Matthews before she married my great-grandfather, J.E. Nance. So maybe Sam is Shelby’s dad and that’s how they met?
I was digging for more information about my great-great-grandfather Frank Gilley (ne Tindall), when I got an unexpected name in the search results: Isabelle Tindell.
Isabelle Tindell? Who is she?
According to her death certificate, she’s my great-great-grandfather’s older sister. She was born in 1839 to Seaborn and Hannah Tindall, and died Aug. 1, 1909 in Coffee County, Ala. But that’s it. She doesn’t appear in any other records that I’ve been able to find. Yet.
But this is interesting. Until this discovery, I thought that my great-great-grandfather Frank, was the oldest of Seaborn and Hannah Tindall’s children, having been born in 1847. I also know that Frank’s parents, Seaborn and Hannah, were both born in South Carolina. This is where their likely owners, James and Cassander Tindall, were from. If I could figure out more about Isabelle, namely where she was born, that would provide a clue as to when Seaborn and Hannah were taken to Alabama.