My Relentless Search to Find My Family’s African American ‘Eve’
SAY MY NAME! To honor the memory, sacrifice, and very being of our ancestors, we say their name. If we don’t know their name, they may call to us to seek it out.
Popcorn ready, I was on the couch, feet up and glued to the TV. Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s senior adviser, was being featured on Finding Your Roots, the PBS TV show that helps celebrities explore their family history. I was watching this particular episode because our own family drums had beaten, via the frequently used family group text, to give everyone the heads-up to tune in because Valerie’s great-great-grandfather Henry Taylor is also ours. So we were anticipating hearing details about our own family history. Midway through the show, the host, Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, “revealed” Henry Taylor’s name to Valerie, along with the fact that Angus Taylor, a White North Carolina landholder and enslaver, was both Henry Taylor’s owner and father.
This was not a revelation for us, however. My grandmother and her sisters had passed knowledge of their grandfather Henry Taylor down to my generation. We even had a family reunion called “The Descendants of Henry Taylor” in 1999 and again in 2017. But what Skip Gates failed to reveal, and what no living soul knew, was the name of Henry Taylor’s mother. Although Gates provided extensive details about Henry Taylor’s White father and his ancestors, he explained that his mother was most likely enslaved by his father, and her identity was unknown.
And there this anonymous enslaved woman’s story ended — along with any link to the African origins of this branch of our family tree. Possibly our first African female ancestor on U.S. soil, our “African American Eve” who brought us into existence, was relegated to obscurity. We knew nothing about her, her life, her sacrifice, her story. But that night in 2014, she called out to me: “Say my name and honor me.” But to do that, I would first have to find her name.
Slavery. The original identity theft. This depraved system not only ripped individuals from the grounding of our ethnic culture and identity in West Africa, but also negated our ability to preserve any thread of identity in several ways. The first was through violent suppression of the use of our West African names and languages. Next, family separation — parents from children, brothers from sisters — curtailed the use of oral tradition and further cut ties of subsequent generations born in the United States from their original identity. And lastly, many enslaved people were given only first names. These names were not recorded in the U.S. Census, the most durable and easily discoverable way of tracing families in America. So, the identity theft was compounded by documenting each enslaved person only as a number in the census, and then counting each as three-fifths of a person solely to increase congressional representation and power for slave-holding states. Overall, the system of slavery effectively slammed shut the window of discovery for descendants of the enslaved to look back through to find the names and stories of enslaved ancestors.
Slavery. The original identity theft. This depraved system not only ripped individuals from the grounding of their ethnic culture and identity in West Africa, but also negated our ability to preserve any thread of identity.
The identity theft solidified further after emancipation. For those first generations born free, being associated with slavery was a stigma, so many families did not pass down details about those ancestors who were enslaved. So, in my family, we knew about Henry Taylor, who lived free, and his White father, but absolutely nothing about his enslaved mother. Millions of African Americans today, seeking to learn about their family’s enslaved ancestors, run into the brick wall of “slave obscurity” and think they have nowhere to turn. But hopefully, the story of my search for Henry’s mother, “our African American Eve” will help shatter that wall and create a window for others to see into their family’s past.
Where did I start to find her name? I was lucky to have family historians. My aunt, almost 90, and my older sister, both love to research and talk about family history and proved to be a wealth of knowledge. I was related to Henry Taylor (1823–1891) through my mother, Catherine (1932–present); her mother, Addie (1903–1979); and her mother, Sarah (1872–1908). Sarah was one of Henry’s four children. Although Henry was born into slavery, he was able to send all four of his children to college in the late 1800s. The three oldest children, including my great-grandmother Sarah, attended Howard University, where she met my great-grandfather. The youngest, Robert, attended MIT, where he became the school’s first Black graduate. He went on to work with Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute and, as the first Black licensed architect in the United States, designed all of the university’s buildings.
Valerie Jarrett, his descendent, spoke at the U.S. Postal Service ceremony marking the launch of Robert Taylor’s image on a 2014 postage stamp. Drawing upon information from Robert, Booker T. Washington is quoted as describing Henry Taylor in The Story of the Negro as “exemplifying the numerous individuals who though nominally slaves, were practically free.” Washington went on to say, “Mr. Taylor’s father [Henry] was the son of a White man who was at the same time his master. Although he was nominally a slave, he was early given liberty to do about as he pleased.”
Wilmington, North Carolina, a progressive seaport town, was the home to many free Blacks, including the Taylor family, who had the opportunity to earn a living through lumber, shipping, building, and other trades. Black residents prospered so much so that by 1898, White rebels overthrew the progressive government that favored Black equality during the infamous Wilmington riots. Genealogy websites like Ancestry.com and Geni.com allowed me to trace Henry’s lineage all the way back to his White great-grandfather, who immigrated to Wilmington from Scotland in 1770. Like many other White immigrants, he and his sons were given hundreds of acres in North Carolina — primarily in neighboring Bladen County. The 1850 census shows that Henry’s grandsons for the most part stayed in Wilmington (New Hanover County), as well as neighboring Elizabethtown (Bladen County) and Fayetteville (Cumberland County).
Given all the information about the White Taylors, the next move was to see if I could leverage that information to find Henry’s mother. If Henry was owned by his father, perhaps Henry’s mother was, too, as Skip Gates had presumed. I had seen cemeteries where enslaved people were buried on the land of their enslavers, so I did an exhaustive internet search and found the land that was deeded to the Taylor family in Bladen County in 1784. Serendipitously, the Google coordinates of this same land mapped to the Taylor family grave site as listed on Findagrave.com. (Yes, there is a website for everything!)
To continue my quest, I had to make time to get to North Carolina, a good five-hour drive from my home in Maryland. I needed to go during the week so I could access the state archives and the local recorder of deeds, as well as view the Taylor family cemetery. The problem was, though, that I had just started a new job that had me traveling often, making a weekday getaway challenging.
But here is where the ancestors intervened. Abruptly, the company I worked for reassigned me for one week to a contract in North Carolina. I had to fly into Raleigh, exactly where the state archives are, and stay in Lumberton, which was a mere 20-minute drive from Bladen County, the location of both the cemetery and recorder of deeds. My work schedule included a free morning or afternoon here and there, which allowed me to slide in some visits to the very places I needed to go. She had not only called me—she had made a way.
I started at the cemetery. It turned out to be at the end of a secluded one-lane dirt road outside Elizabethtown in an isolated wooded area. A few trailer homes dotted the way. I was glad for the company of a family friend from Fayetteville who graciously agreed to go with me. We pulled up to a chain marking the cemetery entrance, and in recognition of the fact we were in the middle of nowhere, I parked the car pointing back the way we came, just in case we had to make a quick exit.
Once we jumped over the chain, it became clear that this was a cemetery for multiple families. Together, on the still, hot August day, we wandered through a maze of graves. The Taylor section proved to be elusive. Unfortunately, most pre-1900 graves had collapsed headstones or were simply overgrown. I knew if the White people’s graves looked like that, there was no chance any enslaved person’s grave would be marked. We ended up leaving with only mosquito bites and disappointment.
The Bladen County Library was the next stop. It was on Elizabethtown’s main street and housed books of land deeds that confirmed the Taylor history of land ownership in the county. But there were no documents like plantation ledgers or wills that linked the family to the enslaved people they owned. The librarian suggested I cross the street to look for wills at the Bladen County Courthouse. Once there, the ladies behind the records office counter were friendly, but when they heard I was looking wills from the 1800s, they immediately declared, “You’re probably not gonna find that at all, honey. This courthouse has burnt down three times since then, and a bunch of documents with it.” I insisted on looking, though, but as I followed them down the L-shaped staircase into the low-ceilinged basement, I had little hope.
It only took about five minutes of searching. Miraculously, within the enormous volumes of Bladen County wills, the clerk found the 1832 will of John Taylor, Henry’s grandfather! It detailed that he was leaving four enslaved people—Tuia (possibly misspelled), Willoughby, Sid, and William—to his daughter Flora; his son Angus, Henry’s father, was the executor. None of these names of enslaved people were clearly women’s names except for perhaps Tuia. I filed this away as a possibility, but it just didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel like it was her.
Since Bladen County’s yield was questionable, the next day I turned to New Hanover County, right next door and the location of Wilmington. Several of the White Taylors had lived there. Looking online, I learned about the Slave Deeds of North Carolina Project. This turned out to be crucial and is a must-know for everyone with African American ancestry in North Carolina. The project, started in 2012, is the first major effort of its kind. Federal funding paid for the creation of a statewide database of 10,000-plus digitized records of enslaved people across 26 North Carolina counties. They were mostly bills of sale and wills that listed actual names of enslaved people. This resource is critical to family history searchers like me, because pre-1870 census records list no names of enslaved people. The database is searchable by the name of the enslaved person or the enslaver.
Since enslavers were the only names I had, I entered the search terms Archibald, John, and Angus Taylor. To my astonishment, I came up with the description of an 1824 slave deed from New Hanover County for $3,230. It was actually a bill of sale that mentioned the names of 11 enslaved persons — Cupid, James, John, Nicholas, Thomas, Tom Blaney, Tom MacAuslan, Virgil, Maisely, Mary, and Henry—plus slaveholder Angus Taylor and John Taylor (as “other mentioned”). It pointed to page 320 of the New Hanover Book of Deeds to view the full deed.
Barely able to contain my excitement, I realized I was looking at the name of my great-great-grandfather Henry, listed as someone’s property. But even more exciting, in the list of 11 enslaved persons were two women’s names, Maisely and Mary. Could I be seeing the name of Henry’s mother, my third great-grandmother, the ancestor who had been calling out to me? I would have to get to the actual deed to find out.
The answer awaited me at the New Hanover Recorder of Deeds, where I was able to view the actual slave deed. Written in loopy cursive script, right at the top of page 320, it had more information than I could have dreamed of. It said:
Whereas on the 11th day of December, 1824, I, Angus Taylor, of Cumberland County, and the State aforesaid administrator of the estate of the Archibald Taylor of Wilmington, did after due notice, according to the law, offer at Public Auction in the town of Wilmington, the following negroes for sale: Big Virgil (aged about 12 years); Tom (Blaney) (aged about 15 years); Tom (MacAuslan) (aged about 22 years); Maisely (aged about 30 years); and her seven children aged 12 years to 2 years old and named as follows: Big John, Cupid, Mary, Thomas, James, Henry and Nicholas, at which time John Taylor of Wilmington became the last and highest bidder for a sum of Three thousand three hundred and twenty dollars.
There she was — Maisely!!!—clearly listed as Henry’s mother. What’s more, this bill of sale showed that Henry wasn’t an only child — he had six brothers and sisters! Henry was likely the two-year-old, since his birth year is listed elsewhere as 1823. Maisely likely gave birth to him around age 28 and the oldest child listed, the 12-year-old, when she was 18. She would have been born sometime around 1794. Angus, the man we were told was Henry’s father, was listed here as the executor of his brother Archibald’s estate and had sold everyone from that estate to his other brother John. So, it seems that Henry, Maisely, his siblings, and three other enslaved people came into possession of John Taylor of Wilmington, who would have been Henry’s uncle and likely the one to give him the latitude to earn money as a carpenter when he became a young man.
Today I can now say her name — MAISELY — and recognize her as our family’s African American Eve. We can give her the honor that she deserves — for surviving the depravity of enslavement; bearing seven children, at least one by her enslaver; and then nurturing my great-great-grandfather Henry, who, despite being born into slavery, went on to become a respected builder and landowner in Wilmington. With initiatives like the Slave Deeds of North Carolina Project and others like the Slave Manifest Project from the National Archives, we now have the tools to find our African American ancestors who were enslaved. We can utter their names for the first time while honoring each one for the legacy they left us — the country they built and the strength, survival, and resilience it took despite all odds. Whenever possible, SAY THEIR NAME!