A Pandemic Project: Discovering Family by Meredith Sommers

Greetings Common Ground friends,

One of our community members, Meredith Sommers, recently researched her family history and how it relates to our country’s history of slavery. We hope you find her explorations interesting and inspiring. Another resource on this topic you may be interested in is the movie Traces of the Trade. Antiracism Study and Dialogue Circle uses it in their training, which many CG leaders have benefited from.


A Pandemic Project: Discovering Family

Stories and observations compiled by Meredith Sommers 2020-2021

In Memory of Beverly Jones Sommers

It is July 7, 2020, the summer of the Pandemic. Jay and I are living at our farm at Grass Lake, which is wonderful, calm and safe as long as we don’t go anywhere. After 60 years of marriage, we have been talking about hundreds of things, including stories and recollections of our own families, present and past. This includes our parents and those from whom we are descended. We recognize that the lives of our ancestors affected where we were born and created the history we carry. Through our ancestors we see how many of the values that we have formed have been influenced by their actions and beliefs. In other words, much of who we are today and who you are, our descendants, comes from our combination of ancestors. So I started this Pandemic Project to learn something about these ancestors. I was clueless about what would be found. 

Curiosity led me first to the father of Beverly Jones Sommers, my mother. I chose this because little is known about him and his family among my siblings and cousins. (Robert) Conrad Jones, our grandfather, was not around when we were young He had left his wife, Louise, originally from Mississippi, and two daughters, Lovey and Bev, in the 1920s, after they had moved to Minnesota. Louise and her girls never moved back to Mississippi to be with her family. Her family probably never knew Conrad had left Louise. As a child, I believed my Grandfather was on a business trip. I didn’t question why he never returned. Things like that weren’t talked about.

We did know that, as an adult, Bev visited the community of Bethania, North Carolina, where her father’s grandparents lived. I began googling Bethania, and found there had been research on the community that was available. From there, names, dates and places showed up with a little searching. 

The following information comes from historical records, diaries, photos, narratives and newspaper articles. Some of the historical data is lengthy and some details have been edited out for readability, and this is noted. Primary source documents included in this paper are in their original form, such as the diaries, but shortened to avoid repetition. Wikipedia and computer searches through google.com are the sources for much of the historical information plus original documents from the University of North Carolina and the Library of Congress. Most sources are noted so you, the reader, can continue this research.

As I have worked with this project, I realize this is a window into events and beliefs of a specific era, the mid-1800s. The Conrad Jones are not only my ancestors, but their way of life mirrors others during this time in the South. During this research I have gained deeper insight into the consequences of the first four hundred years of the United States. 

At the end of the family history is space for your comments, observations and questions. This project is meant to be a living document, meaning your memories and observations add to and enliven the lessons from our ancestors. Send them via email to mjsommers38@gmail.com or post a comment below using the comment feature of this blog. Please add your voice!

Conrad Jones Family Stories

Oak Grove Plantation, Bethania, NC

The house at Oak Grove Plantation was on the Historic Registry, and in that house was a piano, made of rosewood. Our mother, Bev, had gone to Bethania many years after her father, Conrad Jones, had left her and her mother. Bev brought back a copy of an article about the plantation and the piano from the local newspaper, describing its historical significance. Bev also met a few of her relatives but apparently didn’t have a bonding experience with them. The most valuable thing she brought back was a list of names of her father’s family plus dates and places of births and deaths. Thanks to Bev, this current research is possible. It didn’t take long, using Google, to become familiar with a century of Jones’ and Conrads’. These were obviously “important” folks to garner so much information, and to have it available via the internet.

The Ancestry of Robert Conrad Jones 

Oak Grove Plantation, ancestral home of the Conrad Family, completed in 1844, and the Rosewood piano

Article from the Winston Salem Journal Sentinel 1959

Maternal Ancestry of Robert Conrad Jones: The Conrad Family

Jacob was the first of the Conrad family to come to the Winston-Salem NC area around 1750. He was one of the eleven original men sent by the Moravian Church in Pennsylvania to establish a Moravian community. The earlier occupants of the area were mainly the native Catawba people, but by the mid-1700s, most had either died of small pox carried by the British and French, or were forced off the land and moved west. 

Moravians are Protestants, originally from Bohemia, (now Czech Republic) who had settled in Heidelberg PA, then branched out to Georgia, North Carolina and the west. Moravians acquired 100,000 acres of land on which to develop farming communities and “to spread the gospel”. Winston Salem was the largest community, and adjacent to it was Bethania.

Jacob Conrad received 2,127 acres of the Bethania community land and named it Oak Grove Plantation. He began to grow tobacco. The original work was done by 26 enslaved workers, according to the history of Bethania. This land stayed in the hands of the Conrad family five generations, then was divided among family members in the late 1800s. Tobacco was the cash crop and it was sold to RJ Reynold’s Tobacco Company in Winston Salem.

As a result of the Civil War Between the States and the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, owners of Oak Grove, Dr Beverly Jones and his wife Julia Conrad, released their slaves. They were now “freedmen and women”. Most of them remained in the area and were able to reunite with their families from whom they were separated while they were enslaved. The last name of many enslaved people was given to them by the plantation masters who “owned” them or sired them.

The 1863 ledger cited above indicates that Dr. Beverly Jones’s enslaved community included forty-one- year-old “Nel,” or Melvina Lash, and children Cos (12), Jane (10), Laura (7), Amanda (5), George (4) and Bettie. After the war, the Jones retained a woman, Bettie Lash Cofer, who continued to serve the Jones family as a domestic servant, for many years. The surname of Bettie’s father was Lash because he resided on the Lash plantation, despite his marriage to Bettie’s mother. Bettie’s story follows Julia’s Diary.

………………………..

The article that follows is a segment of a report that was commissioned in November 2010, by the City of Winston-Salem-Forsyth County Planning Department. It describes the Bethania Community and provides details about the Dr Beverly Jones family.

History of Bethania, NC: The historical and architectural significance of Bethania-Rural Hall Road known as the Bethania Freedmen’s Community. 

Author Heather Fearnbach of Fearnbach History Services, Inc. See digitalforsyth.org, a collection of stories and photos from Forsyth County, NC which includes Bethania.

Post Civil War

Freedmen once owned by Abraham Conrad ( Julia’s father) and (Julia’s husband) Dr. Beverly Jones included Cole Conrad, who, along with his twelve-year-old son Joseph, labored on the Jones plantation after emancipation. Cole’s wife, Caroline Tomlin, and their children were enumerated immediately after the Dr. Beverly Jones household that year. The (Cole) Conrads did not own real estate or personal property of sufficient value to be assessed. 

The Federal agricultural schedule delineates that Dr. Jones’s 1,500- acre property encompassed 500 improved acres in 1870. Dr. Jones, like his fellow Bethania Township resident John Poindexter, ranked within the top twelve percent of North Carolina farmers in terms of acreage owned that year. The census taker assessed the cash value of Dr. Jones’s land to be $9,600, his farm equipment $200, and his livestock (3 horses, 4 mules, 4 milk cows, 6 other cattle, 7 sheep, and 12 hogs) $800. He did not report paying cash wages during 1869, supporting the assumption that Cole Conrad and others worked for him as sharecroppers, planting and harvesting his wheat, corn, rye, oat, potato, and hay crops.

Wesley Lash, Sandy Lash, Calvin Kiser, Dr. Jones, and other Bethania farmers sold their tobacco in Winston and at other local markets. The community had close ties to R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, as Wesley and Melvina Lash’s daughter Bettie met her husband, James Madison Koger, called “Mat,” after he moved from Patrick County, Virginia to North Carolina with R. J. Reynolds in 1874. It is likely that Mat was one of the twelve African American men who were R. J. Reynolds’ first employees, manufacturing chewing tobacco while he (RJ) handled all other aspects of running the business. Mat married Bettie around 1875 and the couple initially lived with her parents. In 1883, Mat Koger partnered with Calvin Kiser to purchase forty-three-and-a-half acres near Bethania close to what had been the Jones plantation where Bettie had spent the majority of her life.

1910

Although the area’s white and African American children lived next to each other, they were educated separately. The Forsyth County public school system, with assistance from Bethania residents, had erected two one-room frame buildings for the area’s students in the late nineteenth century. White students received instruction in Bethania, while black youth studied at Cedar Grove School/Bethania Community School, which stood northeast of the town’s center at the northeast corner of Walker and Bethana-Rural Hall roads. Oak Grove, a one-room frame school constructed around 1910 in Washington Town, an African American enclave southeast of Bethania, also served the area’s black children. School attendance was sporadic during this period, as, in addition to furthering their education, most rural children worked on their families’ farms and planting and harvest seasons dictated the rhythm of agrarian life. W. B. Speas reported that an average of nineteen of the thirty- eight children enrolled at Cedar Grove and thirty-three of the forty-eight students registered at Oak Grove attended classes daily during the 1912-1913 school year.

The only identified group of Forsyth County slave houses that stood until the twenty-first century was associated with the Dr. Beverly Jones House in Bethania. The property once belonged to Abraham Conrad, who was one of the county’s top slaveholders during the mid-nineteenth century. In 1860, he owned twenty-six slaves, most of whom occupied five dwellings according to the census takers who compiled the slave schedule that year. Conrad’s daughter Julia and her husband, physician Beverly Jones, commissioned prolific Virginia builder Dabney Cosby to erect a three-bay brick plantation house for them on property her father owned in 1846. Abraham Conrad resided with the couple after his wife’s death and retained possession of the acreage until 1864. Dr. Jones’s property included six slaves and one slave house in 1860, so it is difficult to determine who owned the single- and double- peg log slave quarters that stood on the edge of what is now a pasture.

Abraham Conrad, his daughter Julia, and her husband Dr. Beverly Jones once operated sizeable plantations that included most of the property within the proposed historic district on Bethania-Rural Hall Road’s northwest side. In 1937, Hervey Jones Doughton, Beverly and Julia Jones’s granddaughter, subdivided the Bethania-Rural Hall Road acreage that she had inherited from her father, attorney E. B. Jones. The acreage was primarily wooded, as the Jones family’s agricultural tracts were further west. The triangular plat delineated parcels that already belonged to African American community members William Moses Conrad, Blanche Lash, Israel T. Spease, Rufus Lash, and William Benjamin Conrad. Mrs. Doughton sold the remaining tracts for nominal sums to African Americans whose families had, in most cases, long associations with the area.

1870, Cole Conrad, his 12 year old son and other freedmen continued to work on the Jones’ plantation as sharecroppers, planting and harvesting his wheat, corn, rye, oat, potato, and hay crops. Dr Jones did not report paying wages after 1870.

1870 Census (after Emancipation)

Beverly Jones (59), physician, owned real estate valued at $9,600 and personal property valued at $1,190 

Julia (46), keeping house

Abraham (25), physician

Robert (20), laboring on farm

Erastus (17), attending school

Ellen (15), attending school

Virginia (19), attending school

Julia (11), attending school

Catherine (9), attending school

Lucian (6), at home

Nancy Jones (52), black, domestic servant

Paulina Jones (22), black, domestic servant

Joshua Jones (3), black, at home

Edwin Jones (17), black, labor on farm

George Jones (10), black, at home

………………..

Julia Conrad Jones, 1824-1913

The following is a review of an article about Julia Conrad. This led me to a primary source of information, the diary that is now in the Wilson Research Library at University of North Carolina, titled Jones Family Papers #02884.

from A Missing Diary Discovered By Adam H. Domby

On the evening of June 30, 1868, a “very tired” farm mistress sat down to record the day’s accomplishments in her diary. She had spent a busy day baking, cutting patches for her husband’s pants, and walking with her house servant. Each night, no matter how much her day contained, the unnamed woman found the energy to record a short summary of the day’s events. This remarkable diary (of Julia Jones) is just one of the many treasures in Duke University’s Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. Following is an excerpt from the diary:

“But who was this Julia Jones? Born Julia Conrad, she was the daughter of Abraham Conrad, a wealthy planter and early Bethania settler. When she married Dr. Beverly Jones, Julia brought a large farm, a mill, and substantial wealth into the marriage. Dr. Jones was a leading citizen and one of the few doctors in their neighborhood. Their impressive house can still be seen in Forsyth County just north of Bethania. A slave-owner before the war, Dr. Jones avoided military service himself, though at least one son served in the Confederate Army and another guarded Union prisoners in the final days of the war. Although their mill was burned and their slaves were freed, the family weathered the war relatively well compared to some neighbors. The family remained economically stable thanks to both the farm and Dr. Jones’s medical practice. In fact, in 1868, the family was still employing some of their former slaves.”

Julia Conrad’s family

Julia Amelia Conrad was an only child, born to Abraham Conrad (1784-1869) who had inherited Oak Grove Plantation from his father, Johannes Conrad (1747-1802). And Johannes inherited the land from his father, Jacob (1717-1798), one of the original “founders” of Bethania. Their plantation was always cared for by 25-30 enslaved workers. Julia’s mother, Phillipina Lash, came from another one of the wealthiest families that had settled in Bethania in 1753. In addition to owning land that produced tobacco, Phillipina’s family started the bank in Bethania in 1866 which eventually was moved to Winston Salem and became Wachovia Bank. Eventually, Wachovia was the largest bank in the South. It was bought by Wells Fargo in 2008.

Julia’s Diaries

There are about 200 pages from Julia’s diaries, but most are not readable, due to faded ink or ink blots. In some entries, I replaced non-recognizable words with …… What is gleaned here is only part of her story, and I don’t claim to present all of Julia’s activities and thoughts. However, what is legible can be pieced into a glimpse of Julia’s life between 1843 and 1871.

Most of the entries begin with the date, followed by a brief description of the day The script is delicate, the spelling faultless. In most cases, each entry uses one line on the ruled paper. Julia was obviously well educated, but her schooling or that of her children is not mentioned in the diaries. 

I originally wanted to focus on the Civil War years to gain understanding of the interactions between Julia, mistress of Oak Grove Plantation, and an enslaved woman at Oak Grove, Bettie Lash Cofer, whose narrative from the same period of time follows. I started reading Julia’s entries of 1865 and then went forward in time to see if her tone and details of daily life changed after the war. Her life was still perplexing, so I worked my way back to her first diary entry, 1843. The same questions arose in my mind as in the mind of the previous author, But who was this Julia Jones? Here are sample entries in Julia’s words:

1865 

January 1 At home all day, read a little

January 2 Drudging around hunting patches to girl’s swollen dresses

January 3 Ironed ….piece till noon then sewed a little

January 4 Baking

January 5 Fixed knitting for Mary Briggs, cut out two shirts for Alex

January 6 After dinner finished cutting out two shirts

January 7 Baking, sweeping upstairs, Went to preaching 

January 8 At home alone all day, read, slept

January 9 Drudging began to color cloth 

January 31 Began cutting negro shirts and cowhair coats

March 10 Three soldiers to supper – from Wheeler’s Calvary

April 17 Drudging, soldiers calling for something to eat all day

April 20 Baking again, soldiers here all day

The War officially ended on April 9, 1865 when General Robert E Lee surrendered to Ulysses Grant at Appomattox, VA but the fighting in North Carolina continued until April 26. Meanwhile, Julia continued drudging, that is, doing hard, menial, dull work. It must have been an extremely difficult time. 

The next years, until the diary ended in 1873, continued with more drudging while she baked, boiled and dyed wool, picked apples, etc. Julia often did not feel well. From what I could read, she didn’t write that she was pregnant, at least ten times. She did mention nursing, which I assume meant breast feeding, and she had her breast lanced in 1860. 

1867

It didn’t appear that much was changing in Julia’s work this year but there was not as much drudging around. She was often tired and did not do much. However, she had more women visitors who came for the day.

1871

The last entry I was able to read was in April 1871:

As usual I was drudging around

So, I went back in her diary to 1860 and the same expression was used:

January 1

Drudging about weighing meat

And now back to pre-war 1850. What was Julia’s life in the 1850s? Entries include:

At home all day not well 

Drudged about all day, very unwell with carbuncle

Sewed but in much misery. 

Went to Salem, Killed bedbugs

Fixed negro stockings

I baked, unwell, mended tablecloth

Went to preaching

Julia was pregnant during this time with Ella, her sixth child. On October 26, 1854, she wrote,

Not well at home, sewed on cape, cut patches, felt bad, D gone, babe born 20 minutes after. 

There are no more entries until November 1, 1854 when she had visitors.

Now, going back to the first diary of 1847, after four years of marriage, Julia had birthed three children, all sons. She described her days: 

Killed hogs, Baby sick, made diapers, Very unwell but sewed a little in bed, Gave out sausages, Made patches, Went to preaching. 

“Going to preaching” was not just a Sunday event. The preachings were an important part of her life. But Miss Julia seemed bored and discontent. And, in all the entries I read, Julia’s husband, Dr Beverly Jones was never mentioned. 

As I wondered what was going on in Miss Julia’s life, I went back to the beginning of her first diary, which began March 29, 1843. This was six months before her wedding to Dr Beverly Jones. Julia was 19 years old, Beverly was 39. Here is the entry:

1843

I have watched the setting sun retire and when six months have rotted around what then shall be my situation? I live in continual dread or until I have experienced it to the worst. Oh that the future may bring more happiness than I anticipate…the past six months have in reality been to me the severest I have yet experienced. How long was that day, but well it would have been if affairs remained as they were then. If she had not sent for him he never would have come, but I need not blame her…Why did I not endeavor to control my feelings and desist from all efforts to get him to return and too painful for me to dwell on it. May the future be brighter and better but unless there is a change in my heart it will be void of all peace or happiness. I must control my feelings. I know how much my parents are opposed and I cannot …. unless they are willing. Still, I do not feel able to give him up altogether. Hope has at times been extinct and despair has almost paralyzed my feelings. Will my trouble never end?

That I could have the satisfaction to know that my sins were forgiven and I had found mercy. May my ….. guide and sustain me in the trials and temptations that shall avail me during this period.

After reading this 1843 entry, my observations of Julia changed. She was a young woman with a broken heart. She gave up a possible love marriage to wed the man whom her parents had chosen for her, 20 years her senior. It appears that she was filled with regret and guilt. She would inherit the Plantation and care for her parents who also lived there. Her life was pre-determined. 

I had expected to learn about Julia’s role as the “first Lady” of the plantation, managing the household and her staff, and having an active social life. Instead, she wrote about her daily ‘drudgings,’ including the tasks of preparing food and clothing for everyone on the plantation. This included her 10 children, her parents, the enslaved-then-freed workers and their children, and herself. Julia lived until 1913. How did her life continue?More to wonder about. 

…………………

Now, we hear from Bettie. Her story was told to two white women around 1900. I found this incredible document while googling Bettie’s name after it appeared in the Bethania report. The only changes to the narrative are within parentheses.

Bettie Lash Cofer 1856-?

Domestic servant, Black in the Conrad household

Bettie was born at Oak Grove Plantation and where she and her mother, Melvina worked as slaves until they were set free during the Civil War. Bettie continued to work on the Plantation as a Domestic Servant until she was in her 80s. Her story paints a different picture of life on the Plantation and of Julia, as we’ll see in her narrative.

This narrative can be interpreted in many ways. I have been reading the book “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson as I work on this biography of the Conrad family. This following passage, from page 137, has helped me to look beyond the surface of Bettie’s narrative and better understand what Bettie said;

Forced good cheer became a weapon of submission to assuage the guilt of the dominant (white) caste and further humiliate the enslaved. If they were in chains and happy, how could anyone say that they were being mistreated? Merriment, even if extracted from a whip, was seen as essential to confirm that the caste structure was sound, that all was well, that everyone accepted, even embraced their station in the hierarchy.

Narrative of Bettie Lash Cofer, ex-slave of Dr. Beverly Jones, Age 81

The Narrative is housed in US Library of Congress; Interviewer: Esther S. Pinnix

The ranks of negro ex-slaves are rapidly thinning out, but, scattered here and there among the ante-bellum families of the South, may be found a few of these picturesque old characters. Three miles north of Bethania, the second oldest settlement of the “Unitas Fratrum” in Wachovia, lies the 1500 acre Jones plantation. It has been owned for several generations by the one family, descendants of Abraham Conrad. Conrad’s daughter, Julia, married a physician of note, Dr. Beverly Jones, whose family occupied the old homestead at the time of the Civil War.

Here, in 1856, was born a negro girl, Betty, to a slave mother. Here, today, under the friendly protection of this same Jones family, surrounded by her sons and her sons’ sons, lives this same Betty in her own little weather-stained cottage. Encircling her house are lilacs, althea, and flowering trees that soften the bleak outlines of unpainted out-buildings. A varied collection of old-fashioned plants and flowers crowd the neatly swept dooryard. A friendly German-shepherd puppy rouses from his nap on the sunny porch to greet visitors enthusiastically. In answer to our knock a gentle voice calls, “Come in.” The door opens directly into a small, low-ceilinged room almost filled by two double beds. These beds are conspicuously clean and covered by homemade crocheted spreads. Wide bands of hand-made insertion ornament the stiffly starched pillow slips. Against the wall is a plain oak dresser. Although the day is warm, two-foot logs burn on the age-worn andirons of the wide brick fire place. From the shelf above dangles a leather bag of “spills” made from twisted newspapers.

In a low, split-bottom chair, her rheumatic old feet resting on the warm brick hearth, sits Aunt Betty Cofer. Her frail body stoops under the weight of four-score years but her bright eyes and alert mind are those of a woman thirty years younger. A blue-checked mob cap covers her grizzled hair. Her tiny frame, clothed in a motley collection of undergarments, dress, and sweaters, is adorned by a clean white apron. Although a little shy of her strange white visitors, her innate dignity, gentle courtesy, and complete self possession indicate long association with “quality folks.”

Her speech shows a noticeable freedom from the usual heavy negro dialect and idiom of the deep south. “Yes, Ma’am, yes, Sir, come in. Pull a chair to the fire. You’ll have to ‘scuse me. I can’t get around much, ’cause my feet and legs bother me, but I got good eyes an’ good ears an’ all my own teeth. I aint never had a bad tooth in my head. Yes’m, I’m 81, going on 82. Marster (Dr Beverly Jones) done wrote my age down in his book where he kep’ the names of all his colored folks. Muh (Mother) belonged to Dr. Jones but Pappy belonged to Marse Israel Lash over yonder. (Pointing northwest.) Younguns always went with their mammies so I belonged to the Joneses.

“Muh and Pappy could visit back and forth sometimes but they never lived together ’til after freedom. Yes’m, we was happy. We got plenty to eat. Marster and old Miss Julia (Dr. Jones’ wife, matriarch of the whole plantation) was mighty strict but they was good to us. Colored folks on some of the other plantations wasn’t so lucky. Some of’ em had overseers, mean, cruel men. On one plantation the field hands had to hustle to git to the end of the row at eleven o’clock dinner-time ’cause when the cooks brought their dinner they had to stop just where they was and eat, an’ the sun was mighty hot out in those fields. They only had ash cakes (corn pone baked in ashes) without salt, and molasses for their dinner, but we had beans an’ grits an’ salt an’ sometimes meat.

“I was lucky. Miss Ella (sixth child of Beverly and Julia Conrad Jones) was a little girl when I was borned and she claimed me. We played together an’ grew up together. I waited on her an’ most times slept on the floor in her room. Muh was cook an’ when I done got big enough I helped to set the table in the big dinin’ room. Then I’d put on a clean white apron an’ carry in the victuals an’ stand behind Miss Ella’s chair. She’d fix me a piece of somethin’ from her plate an’ hand it back over her shoulder to me (eloquent hands illustrate Miss Ella’s making of a sandwich.) I’d take it an’ run outside to eat it. Then I’d wipe my mouth an’ go back to stand behind Miss Ella again an’ maybe get another snack.

“Yes’m, there was a crowd of hands on the plantation. I mind ’em all an’ I can call most of their names. Mac, Curley, William, Sanford, Lewis, Henry, Ed, Sylvester, Hamp, an’ Juke was the men folks. The women was Nellie, two Lucys, Martha, Nervie, Jane, Laura, Fannie, Lizzie, Cassie, Tensie, Lindy, an’ Mary Jane. The women mostly, worked in the house. There was always two washwomen, a cook, some hands to help her, two sewin’ women, a house girl, an’ some who did all the weavin’ an’ spinnin’. The men worked in the fields an’ yard. One was stable boss an’ looked after all the horses an’ mules. We raised our own flax an’ cotton an’ wool, spun the thread, wove the cloth, made all the clothes. Yes’m, we made the mens’ shirts an’ pants an’ coats. One woman knitted all the stockin’s for the white folks an’ colored folks too. I mind she had one finger all twisted an’ stiff from holdin’ her knittin’ needles. We wove the cotton an’ linen for sheets an’ pillow-slips an’ table covers. We wove the wool blankets too. I use to wait on the girl who did the weavin’ when she took the cloth off the loom she done give me the ‘thrums’ (ends of thread left on the loom.) I tied ’em all together with teensy little knots an’ got me some scraps from the sewin’ room and I made me some quilt tops. Some of ’em was real pretty too! (Pride of workmanship evidenced by a toss of Betty’s head.)

“All our spinnin’ wheels and flax wheels and looms was hand-made by a wheel wright, Marse Noah Westmoreland. He lived over yonder. (A thumb indicates north.) Those old wheels are still in the family’. I got one of the flax wheels. Miss Ella done give it to me for a present. Leather was tanned an’ shoes was made on the place. ‘Course the ‘hands mostly went barefoot in warm weather, white chillen too. We had our own mill to grind the wheat and corn an’ we raised all our meat. We made our own candles from tallow and beeswax. I ‘spect some of the old candle moulds are over to ‘the house’ now. We wove our own candle wicks too. I never saw a match ’til I was a grown woman. We made our fire with flint an’ punk (rotten wood). Yes’m, I was trained to cook an’ clean an’ sew. I learned to make mens’ pants an’ coats. First coat I made, Miss Julia told me to rip the collar off, an’ by the time I picked out all the teensy stitches an’ sewed it together again I could set a collar right! I can do it today, too! (Again there is manifested a good workman’s pardonable pride of achievement)

“Miss Julia cut out all the clothes herself for men and women too. I ‘spect her big shears an’ patterns an’ old cuttin’ table are over at the house now. Miss Julia cut out all the clothes an’ then the colored girls sewed ’em up but she looked ’em all over and they better be sewed right! Miss Julia bossed the whole plantation. She looked after the sick folks and sent the doctor (Dr. Jones) to dose ’em and she carried the keys to the store-rooms and pantries. 

Yes’m, I’m some educated. Muh showed me my ‘a-b-abs’ and my numbers and when I was fifteen I went to school in the log church built by the Moravians. They give it to the colored folks to use for their own school and church. (This log house is still standing near Bethania). Our teacher was a white man, Marse Fulk. He had one eye, done lost the other in the war. We didn’t have no colored teachers then. They wasn’t educated. We ‘tended school four months a year. I went through the fifth reader, the ‘North Carolina Reader’. I can figger a little an’ read some but I can’t write much ’cause my fingers ‘re–all stiffened up. Miss Julia use to read the bible to us an’ tell us right an’ wrong, and Muh showed me all she could an’ so did the other colored folks. Mostly they was kind to each other.

“No’m, I don’t know much about spells an’ charms. Course most of the old folks believed in ’em. One colored man use to make charms, little bags filled with queer things. He called ’em ‘jacks’ an’ sold ’em to the colored folks an’ some white folks too.

“Yes’m, I saw some slaves sold away from the plantation, four men and two women, both of ’em with little babies. The traders got ’em. Sold ’em down to Mobile, Alabama. One was my pappy’s sister. We never heard from her again. I saw a likely young feller sold for $1500. That was my Uncle Ike. Marse Jonathan Spease bought him and kept him the rest of his life.

“Yes’m, we saw Yankee soldiers. (Stoneman’s Cavalry in 1865.) They come marchin’ by and stopped at ‘the house. I wasn’t scared ’cause they was all talkin’ and laughin’ and friendly but they sure was hongry. They dumped the wet clothes out of the big wash-pot in the yard and filled it with water. Then they broke into the smokehouse and got a lot of hams and biled ’em in the pot and ate ’em right there in the yard. The women cooked up a lot of corn pone for ’em and coffee too. Marster had a barrel of ‘likker’ put by an’ the Yankees knocked the head in an’ filled their canteens. There wasn’t nary drop left. When we heard the soldiers comin’ our boys turned the horses loose in the woods. The Yankees said they had to have ’em an’ would burn the house down if we didn’t get ’em. So our boys whistled up the horses an’ the soldiers carried ’em all off. They carried off ol’ Jennie mule too but let little Jack mule go. When the soldiers was gone the stable boss said,’if ol’ Jennie mule once gits loose nobody on earth can catch her unless she wants. She’ll be back!’ Sure enough, in a couple of days she come home by herself an’ we worked the farm jus’ with her an’ little Jack.

“Some of the colored folks followed the Yankees away. Five or six of our boys went. Two of ’em travelled as far as Yadkinville but come back. The rest of ’em kep’ goin’ an’ we never heard tell of’ em again.

“Yes’m, when we was freed Pappy come to get Muh and me. We stayed around here. Where could we go? These was our folks and I couldn’t go far away from Miss Ella. We moved out near Rural Hall (some 5 miles from Bethania) an’ Pappy farmed, but I worked at the home place a lot. When I was about twenty-four Marse R. J. Reynolds come from Virginia an’ set up a tobacco factory. He fotched some hands with ‘im. One was a likely young feller, named Cofer, from Patrick County, Virginia. I liked ‘im an’ we got married an’ moved back here to my folks.(the Jones family) We started to buy our little place an’ raise a family. I done had four chillen but two’s dead. I got grandchillen and great-grandchillen close by. This is home to us. When we talk about the old home place (the Jones residence, now some hundred years old) we just say ‘the house’ ’cause there’s only one house to us. The rest of the family was all fine folks and good to me but I loved Miss Ella better’n any one or anythin’ else in the world. She was the best friend I ever had. If I ever wanted for anythin’ I just asked her an she give it to me or got it for me somehow. Once when Cofer was in his last sickness his sister come from East Liverpool, Ohio, to see ‘im. I went to Miss Ella to borrow a little money. She didn’t have no change but she just took a ten dollar bill from her purse an’ says ‘Here you are, Betty, use what you need and bring me what’s left’.

“I always did what I could for her too an’ stood by her–but one time. That was when we was little girls goin’ together to fetch the mail. It was hot an’ dusty an’ we stopped to cool off an’ wade in the ‘branch’. We heard a horse trottin’ an’ looked up an’ there was Marster switchin’ his ridin’ whip an’ lookin’ at us. ‘Git for home, you two, and I’ll ‘tend to you,’ he says, an’ we got! But this time I let Miss Ella go to ‘the house’ alone an’ I sneaked aroun’ to Granny’s cabin an’ hid. I was afraid I’d git whupped! ‘Nother time, Miss Ella went to town an’ told me to keep up her fire whilst she was away. I fell asleep on the hearth and the fire done burnt out so’s when Miss Ella come home the room was cold. She was mad as hops. Said she never had hit me but she sure felt like doin’ it then.

“Yes’m, I been here a right smart while. I done lived to see three generations of my white folks come an’ go, an’ they’re the finest folks on earth. There use to be a reg’lar buryin’ ground for the plantation hands. The colored chillen use to play there but I always played with the white chillen. (This accounts for Aunt Betty’s gentle manner and speech.) Three of the old log cabins (slave cabins) is there yet. One of ’em was the ‘boys cabin’. (house for boys and unmarried men) They’ve got walls a foot thick an’ are used for store-rooms now. After freedom we buried out around our little churches but some of th’ old grounds are plowed under an’ turned into pasture cause the colored folks didn’t get no deeds to ’em. It won’t be long ‘fore I go too but I’m gwine lie near my old home an’ my folks.

“Yes’m, I remember Marse Israel Lash, my Pappy’s Marster. He was a low, thick-set man, very jolly an’ friendly. He was real smart an’ good too, ’cause his colored folks all loved ‘im. He worked in the bank an’ when the Yankees come, ‘stead of shuttin’ the door ‘gainst ’em like the others did, he bid ’em welcome. (Betty’s nodding head, expansive smile and wide-spread hands eloquently pantomime the banker’s greeting.) So the Yankees done took the bank but give it back to ‘im for his very own an’ he kep’ it but there was lots of bad feelin’ ’cause he never give folks the money they put in the old bank. (Possibly this explains the closing of the branch of the Cape Fear Bank in Salem and opening of Israel Lash’s own institution, the First National Bank of Salem, 1866.)

“I saw General Robert E. Lee, too. After the war he come with some friends to a meeting at Five Forks Baptist Church. All the white folks gathered ’round an’ shook his hand an’ I peeked ‘tween their legs an’ got a good look at’ im. But he didn’t have no whiskers, he was smooth-face! (Pictures of General Lee all show him with beard and mustache)

“Miss Ella died two years ago. I was sick in the hospital but the doctor come to tell me. I couldn’t go to her buryin’. I sure missed her. (Poignant grief moistens Betty’s eyes and thickens her voice). There wasn’t ever no one like her. Miss Kate an’ young Miss Julia still live at ‘the house’ with their brother, Marse Lucian (all children of Dr Beverly Jones and ‘old Miss Julia’,) but it don’t seem right with Miss Ella gone. Life seems dif’rent, some how, ‘though there’ lots of my young white folks an’ my own kin livin’ round an’ they’re real good to me. But Miss Ella’s gone!

“Goodday, Ma’am. Come anytime. You’re welcome to. I’m right glad to have visitors ’cause I can’t get out much.” A bobbing little curtsy accompanies Betty’s cordial farewell.

Although a freed woman for 71 years, property owner for half of them, and now revered head of a clan of self respecting, self-supporting colored citizens, she is still at heart a “Jones negro,” and all the distinguished descendants of her beloved Marse Beverly and Miss Julia will be her “own folks” as long as she lives.

Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 11, North Carolina, Part 1, Adams-Hunter

Comment by great great granddaughter on the publication of Betty Koger’s narrative 

Dr. Beverly N. Jones grandfather was my great-great grandmother’s slave owner. She was very proud to come from the Jones’ plantation according to her slave narrative. Her name was spelled incorrectly as Betty Lash Cofer, her name was Betty Lash Koger of Bethania Rural Hall Road. There is a fire station on her land now. The land was her father’s land Wesley Lash. Wesley Lash was the slave of Israel Lash who founded Wachovia, bank. My great -great grandmother’s slave narrative is in the Library of Congress under Betty Cofer, Wachovia on the Jones Homestead. Betty married a James Madison Koger who came from Patrick County Va. with Mr. RJReynolds to start a tobacco company called RJReynonlds Tobacco Co. according to Betty’s slave narrative. She said the Moravian’s built a church for the Blacks in Bethania, my home church, Bethania A. M. E. Zion in 1850. My great- great, great grandfather helped to build the Oak Grove School for the Blacks and my mother attended the one room school for the Blacks, Her name is Patty Lash Martin. She is 86 years old as of this date, 11/17/16.

Janet Martin-Cason  November 17, 2016 

………………………

Comments, Observations and Questions of Readers

Please send yours to mjsommers38@gmail.com or post a comment below

From Meredith:

I have developed deep compassion for Bettie and for my great great grandmother, Julia. I have realized they both were trapped in the institution of slavery that was established in the US early in the 1600s. I also recognize compassion and generosity through the stories. For example, when Oak Grove was divided into parcels, a niece of Julia and Beverly Jones sold some of her land to former workers, for “nominal” sums. Bettie’s narrative shows her to be welcoming and kind. She invites the interviewers from the Library of Congress to come back any time. And, Bettie’s narrative itself is a gift, generously given.

Bettie and Ella Jones were approximately the same age, however Bettie was her servant and very devoted to her, according to Bettie’s narrative. Bettie was freed when she was a teenager, and later married a freedman of her choice who was employed by RJ Reynolds Co. Together, they were able to buy property and raise a family. From the comment in the email of Bettie’s great great granddaughter, Bettie and her husband James Madison Koger prospered as land owners. I wonder about those who were sharecroppers, remaining dependent on the landowner for their livelihood.

Julia indicates that she was unhappy and suffering throughout the years of her diary. My observation is the root cause of her suffering came from the consequences of her wealth and position as a landowner/slave owner. Although slavery was outlawed in 1863, the Plantation continued to operate and practices of segregation and discrimination continued under Jim Crow laws. Her diary indicates she continued to suffer. And the suffering as the legacy of slavery continues tho have tragic consequences on everyone to this day.

The story of the Moravian Church was very disturbing. Men were sent from the “mother” church to claim land on which to build a community and to”spread the Gospel”. They needed to support the community, so they turned to raising tobacco for export, using slave labor. With 100,000 acres of land and hundreds of plantations, there must have been thousands of enslaved men and women. Great wealth was generated out of the Winston Salem area, including one of the largest banks in the South. I wonder about the role and purpose of the “church”.

A lingering question, around which I began this project, is why did our grandfather, Conrad Jones, leave his wife, Louise, and children Lovey and Bev? Apparently, he moved to Texas and married again. genealogy.com shows that he died in 1943 in Minneapolis. I have tried to track this but have not been successful through the Minnesota History Center or Hennepin County records. I still am clueless about my grandfather, but maybe his childhood did not prepare him and it gave him a sense of entitlement.

Something else I wonder about is how Louise managed to raise two daughters with no visible financial support. Her own family had wealth, and her husband’s family had wealth but Louise had pride, and probably never asked for help. She lived in a small one bedroom apartment in south Minneapolis, and rented out the bedroom. She had a sewing machine and made dresses for “women of odd shapes” for which she charged very little. Our mother, Bev, always had a job, even during the depression. Eventually, Louise’s two sons-in-law paid her rent. Louise always was dignified and uncomplaining. She never lost her Mississippi accent. She was my image of a Southern woman. 

As you may note, the Pandemic Project has given me a sense of purpose and passion. I have been immersed in Julia’s and Bettie’s lives. I have gained insights and new questions about the institution of racism. I have felt deeply the struggles of “my people” who are also everyone’s people. The trial for the murder of George Floyd begins today as I wrap up this paper. I feel a responsibility to tell this story to all who will listen, and I hope you, too, will pass it on. I believe as more of us learn and speak out and act against racism, there are possibilities for a more just and peaceful future.

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One comment on “A Pandemic Project: Discovering Family by Meredith Sommers
  1. William (Wil) Lash says:

    Hello! I’m the great great great grandson of Bettie Cofer (Koger) by marriage. After James Madison “Mat” Cofer (Koger) died, she married my great great great great grandfather, Eli Lash in 1918 (son of Willis Lash and Lavinia (Melvina/Vinnie/Vinie/Viny/Viney) Speas. I found the marriage certificate. Eli Lash and Victoria Wilson had a son named William Robert Lash born in 1877, that would be my great great great grandfather. William Lash married Emma Hughes (daughter of William and Jennie Hughes). They later moved to Louisville, Kentucky had 3 children (Carrie, William Jr, and Eli). William Robert Lash, Jr is my grandfather (born 1923 – 2003; Indianapolis, Indiana). I would love for someone to contact me. I’ve been researching for some time and I’m so happy that I found this. I’ve been on the heals of my distance cousin Janet Martin-Cason (left comment above) and trying to reach her.

    I can be reached at WilOnixLash@gmail.com. I live in the Washington, DC area. I’m planning a trip to the Winston-Salem area soon to find my ancestor’s homeland and hopefully meet some distant relatives at some point.

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