I was looking for a photo of my Great-grandma – Gracie Johnson. It was a black and white photo that showed her wearing a full-length coat with a matching hat. I wanted a second look to get a glimpse of her life – a black woman born about 1892 in North Carolina, whose marriage in Washington D.C. on November 24th, 1910 led to the birth of two children. Wishful thinking. As if one picture could reveal what made her tick?
Great-grandma Gracie had married Great-granddad Eugene Hunnicutt – the one who walked out on his family. I found a 1920 United States Federal Census record that showed Eugene being a “roomer” and “single” at the age of thirty-one years old in Washington D.C. But they were together about 17 years before having children – Grandaunt Lucille Hunnicutt and then Granddad, Charles Hunnicutt. Maybe this picture was part of a collection that would reveal a day in the life in those years. Maybe it could help unravel what disrupted the foundation of the home.
I could not find Great-Grandma Gracie’s picture or any picture in that era from Granddad’s closet full of pictures. Instead, going through her son, my maternal Granddad’s photo albums, I found a Family Registry. It was faded from white to reddish and edges of the paper were missing. The names and places are written in cursive yet tough to decipher. But it must have been inherited by Granddad from his mother since under Family Registry the Parents’ names were her own – my 2x Great-grandparents.
The Family Registry revealed Armstrong Johnson and his wife Mary Galley were both born in Wilmington, North Carolina about 1860 and January 1865. It also showed their marriage on May 15th, 1886 in Wilmington. The Family Registry provided enough information to find their Marriage License, which marriage date matched both sources, on Ancestry.com. However, the Marriage License did not provide me with any occupation for Armstrong Johnson. Nor would an occupation for Mary Galley be available in those times. But what grabbed my attention was a M.H. Thomas on behalf of my 2x Great-grandparents applied for the license.
2x Great-granddad Armstrong was twenty-six years old and identified as colored and the son of Sidney Johnson – who was dead at the time – and Nancey Davis – who was living at Wilmington, North Carolina. Mary Galley was twenty-one years old and identified as colored. Her parents Josh Galley and Mary Pearce lived in Wilmington as well. This was the first time I came across my 3x Great-Grandparents – Sidney, Nancey, Josh and Mary, whose daughter carried her namesake.
Finding six ancestors from the same area was rare. How “thriving” was a place like Wilmington North Carolina for black folks during the last half century in the 1800s?
Although President Abraham Lincoln ended slavery with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 all slaves didn’t know until June 19th, 1865. Not all black folks were enslaved and the effects of slavery still haunted the lives of many. With that said, I imagine Wilmington was a safe – safe used loosely – place to progress. That impression may have disappeared when the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 happened. Riots that usurped the local government, and killed 25 blacks – although 100 more may have been killed and their bodies dumped in the river. This may have been the motivation for the Johnsons – my 2x Great-grandparents to move up north to Washington D.C. The fact that their daughter, Great-grandma Gracie and her son, Granddad Charles kept a Family Registry allowed me a window into our family tree.
7 Generations – is a blog series that digs into my family tree to consider the impact of circumstances and decisions through the generations.
Rashaun J. Allen (@rashaunjallen) is the author of A Walk Through Brooklyn & In The Moment. He has been featured in several publications such as: The Chronicle, The Troy Record, Albany Student Press & UA Magazine. Find his books at www.Royalbluepublishing.com and follow his personal blog at www.rashaunjallen.com.