Cotton fields are an incredibly stunning visual, breathtaking in fact. Having grown up in Newark, New Jersey, as a descendant of slaves, it never occurred to me that cotton fields could be beautiful – lush green for miles giving way to snowy white bolls.
I had to pull over and get out of the car the very first time I saw a cotton field, seven or eight years ago. I was overwhelmed emotionally and broke down at the thought of my ancestors toiling these fields. Picking cotton is backbreaking, brutal, manual labor. My ancestors toiled fields without the benefit of pay, no entitlement to education or property ownership, no right to vote, no ownership of their own bodies or that of their children. They labored from sunup to sundown in sweltering temperatures with babies strapped on their backs, with little ones joining them, toiling up and down mile long rows long before their developing bodies and minds were capable of properly enduring this drudgery.
I was enraged at the thought of other people, corporations and institutions accumulating wealth that has lasted for centuries from the labor of a tortured, dehumanized and uncompensated people. I was simultaneously relieved to have escaped this lot in life. I was humbled and gazed at my smooth hands, free of the war scars caused by bristles that cut into fingers and wrists. No one chooses to pick cotton; yet, they survived against all odds. That is what brought me to this moment on the side of the road, Sunday, October 30.
It seemed appropriate to stop and take it all in for a few minutes while I embarked on a genealogical expedition 80 miles from my home in Monroe, North Carolina, to Clio, South Carolina. I was chasing descendants of my 3rd great-grandparents, Washington Leak and his wife, Julia Steele, who were slaves on land a mere 40 miles away from where I stood. How appropriate that fields of cotton lead the way.
I was looking for their daughter Eugenia “Jennie” Leak, or, rather, trying to discern what happened to her daughter, Julia Wall, and her daughter’s children.
Julia died at the age of 97 in small, rural Clio. She grew up in this community, which today consists of less than 300 households. I learned of her death long ago through the Social Security Death Index. But, what about her son, Weston Wall? Or her daughter, Ruth Wall? I was looking for my family.
Eugenia Leak and Henry Clay Wall were married January 30, 1896, in Rockingham, North Carolina. Both of Jennie’s parents were living at the time of her marriage, as was Henry Clay’s father, West Wall. His mother, Elizabeth, was deceased.
From the 1900 census of Rockingham Township, southeast of Hitchcock Creek, Richmond County: Washington Leak, 71, wife Julia, 57; and children Hattie, 21, George, 17, and Charlie Anna, 14. Also, his daughter, Jennie, 30; son-in-law Henry Clay, 30; and their children Mary E., 2, and James W., 8-months-old. Henry Clay was a farm laborer, while Jennie, presumably, cared for their young children.
From the 1910 census of Rockingham Township, Fayetteville Road, Richmond County: a divorced Henry Clay Wall, 35; and children, Mary, 12, and Julia, 8. Living next door are Moody Covington, 30, wife, Charlie Anna, 25; and children Colvester, 8, Stansell, 3, and Helen G., 1. Just four homes down are Washington Leak, 61, wife Julia, 60; and widowed daughter, Hattie Parson, 26. There is no sign of Jennie nearby or her son, James, who had been enumerated 10 years earlier.
I believe it is likely that James died as a very young child prior to 1910. Tragically, September 8, 1911, during the height of the pellagra epidemic that plagued the South, Mary lost her life to this devastating disease caused by vitamin deficiency.
Henry Clay remarried and moved his family just south of Rockingham, a little beyond the Richmond County border. From the 1920 census of Red Bluff, Marlboro County: Henry Clay, 51, wife Clara, 45; and daughter, Julia, 17.
From the 1930 census of Clio, Ivey Place Road, Marlboro County: Henry Clay, 61, wife Clara, 50; daughter, Julia, 27; and Julia’s children, Ruth,6, and Weston, 2.
From the 1940 census Henry Clay, 72, is still married yet his wife, Clara, is not enumerated. However, still at home are his daughter, Julia, 36; and her children, Ruth, 16, and Weston, 12.
I had long ago followed this family up to the 1940 census. That was my self-imposed finish line. I have done a lot of research over the years and now I want to know who people are beyond their names. I have spent years trying to get a feel for Washington and Julia; so, what better way than to connect with others who share them as ancestors? Would they know more about these two, whose names I never heard spoken aloud? Would they have photographs, allowing me to search their faces for clues as to why their nine children left Richmond County and their families did not stay in touch? Would I be able to see something recognizable in the physical features of my cousins? Would they embrace me as family?
I made an effort to learn everything I could from the comfort of home. I discovered that a Negro “Weston Walls” born in 1920 in South Carolina enlisted in the Army in New York City, April 16, 1943. His World War II Enlistment Record described him as a 64″ farm hand, single, without dependents. It is difficult to say definitively that this is Julia’s son because of the eight year age discrepancy but I think that it is very likely him.
Beyond this, however, despite searching extensively, I did not locate any evidence of Weston or Ruth that would give me clues about what happened to them or the families that would carry on their legacy. I was not even able to confirm whether they were still living. Also, while I knew that Julia was deceased, I was not able to access her death certificate, which would confirm her burial location, an informant and last known address. Not being able to move forward, I decided to go backwards.
Henry Clay was buried at Old Clio Church in 1948. I wagered a bet that Julia might also be buried there and perhaps was a member of the congregation. Although she died nearly 17 years ago, I held out hope that in a small community like Clio, and what was likely a very small congregation, someone would remember her.
Unable to locate a phone number for the church, I began calling neighboring churches. After a handful of phone calls, a friendly Methodist minister at a nearby church gave me Pastor Earl Barr’s cell phone number. Upon calling, he shared that he had been with his flock for just two years. I asked him to ask around to see if anyone remembered Julia, and also asked him to check church records to see if she, too, was also buried at Old Clio. He called back a day later to tell me that I wanted to speak to someone at Mt. Tabor Baptist Church.
I searched online and could not locate a phone number for Mt. Tabor. However, while the church does not have an official Facebook page, I came across multiple Facebook “check ins”. I read through the names of possible parishioners and reached out to three. After a few short days, one wrote back. He explained that he was not a member of Mt. Tabor, but that he remembered “Miss Julia”, as he called her. He said that she walked a lot and his mother would sometimes give her rides. He could not recall either of her children, but he was kind enough to provide me with a home phone number for the church secretary. I was grateful and delighted.
While awaiting return calls, I awoke that Sunday and, on impulse decided that it was time to make the trek to Clio. My only concrete plan was to visit Mt. Tabor and walk the cemetery with the hope of locating a headstone for Julia and maybe even her children. My husband and I packed two 3-year-olds into the car and he started driving. I was energized by the thought of finding people who shared my blood.
We arrived at Mt. Tabor but the cemetery was nowhere in sight. There were houses all around so I knocked on a neighbor’s door and she directed me to Old Clio Church, less than a mile away. She explained that there are two cemeteries on the same grounds. Old Clio can be seen from the street and Mt. Tabor is in the back, alongside an apartment complex.
I walked both cemeteries slowly, looking for any recognizable name. I read the names and wondered aloud about the lives they each lead. The grounds were well maintained, but there were broken headstones and markers that had been worn down by time, bearing no trace of who had been laid to rest beneath them. My husband and I found no evidence of Jennie’s family. I believe they are out there, though, still waiting to be found.
Although it was very late in the afternoon, Old Clio Church was in session. I was not prepared to walk in and interrupt whatever special service was going on. The marquee noted that the week prior had been Homecoming. I marveled at having missed what was a great opportunity to connect to others who had possibly fellowshipped with Jennie’s family. I learned later that they were having a Memorial Service to honor loved ones departed in the last year.
While my husband continued to wander the cemetery and the littles were more patient than I could have predicted, I walked over to the house that shared a property line with the church, where an older woman sat on the porch and another lounged nearby.
I called out an introduction as I approached, then took a chance and asked one of the women if she had known Julia Wall. Her face brightened and she immediately replied, “Yes”. She motioned me closer and I looked over to the side at the woman she said was her daughter and I smiled to put her at ease. I sat down beside her and we both waved away gnats. She pointed over her head and said, “She lived back that way but down the road a bit”. I looked behind her just as she said, “There’s nothing back there now. The house fell in eventually”.
Echoing the gentleman who answered my Facebook message she said, “Julia walked everywhere”. Then she added, “Wherever you saw Julia, you saw Ruth”. I smiled at not having to tell her about Ruth. There was no doubt that she was talking about my family. She went on to say that “Wes,” as she referred to him, also lived with them and that surprised me. I had envisioned him going off to war and not returning to small town life in Clio. Until that moment, I had little hope of anyone being able to tell me anything about him.
“What did she look like?” It was the second time I had asked that question. I secretly hoped that she would jump up and return with a photo in hand. She did not offer a photograph but a description of a small boned, light brown woman who wore her long hair in neat plaits. Again, she echoed the words of the gentleman from Facebook.
She lamented that both of Julia’s children died before she. “How long before Julia?”, I asked. Ruth died “maybe four years before” and Weston died “a long, long time ago”, although she cautioned that she could not recall with any certainty. Her recollection would do, for now. It cemented in my mind that they lived and died, and I could stop searching.
The big revelation was that neither Ruth nor Wes married nor had children. With that confirmation, my heart sank a bit. I was not sure why, but I had a sudden profound sense of loss that forced me down a little in my chair. She asked if I was “OK” and, before I answered, she commented that I had come a long way to find out they were all gone. She leaned forward and drew me into a hug.
We sat quietly for a bit. The woman and her daughter. My husband and I. Meanwhile, our son and granddaughter ran circles around one another on this unseasonably warm day. The older woman wondered if the mosquitoes were as bad at home for us as they were there. She said that “the storm” (Hurricane Matthews) had brought them in.
We talked about her nine children and 26 great-grandchildren. I stayed a bit longer to be polite, not wanting to have been greedy by taking the information she shared so generously and immediately run. But I was also comforted sitting beside the woman that had known Julia, Wes and Ruth. I had wondered about them for years and now I had my answers.
I got up suddenly and announced that darkness was approaching and we needed to start the drive home. The woman and her daughter watched us help the little ones get into the car. As we were backing out onto the road she called out, “You don’t need to worry. You come from good people”. Those words echoed inside of me on the drive home.
And now I know that Jennie Leak’s line ended with the death of Julia in 1999. But they are remembered now.