Originally created 10/03/99

Families discover roots



AIKEN -- He raped some and flogged others -- and even shared a slave mistress with his son, his letters reveal -- but James Henry Hammond did a kindness for the hundreds of humans he owned: He listed their names and market prices along with horses, mules and other plantation property, enabling them to be remembered by their descendants.

Most still live in Aiken County near the lands that four generations of their ancestors cleared and tilled. And they still worship at Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Jackson, founded 129 years ago by freed slaves, including Roundtrees, the name one family took when they no longer had to be known by a master's name.

To Hammond, the list kept track of possessions, including land holdings so vast that it was said he could ride a horse all day and never enter another man's land. But to the Roundtree family, those names are kinfolk whom they have traced back to 1773.

"The human beings were his most valuable holding, and that is fortunate for the descendants who value those people, too," said the Rev. Raford Roundtree of Augusta, who treasures a laminated copy of the 1839 "estimate of stock" from the Silver Bluff plantations that fell to Hammond when he married well. The wealthy planter ultimately became a South Carolina governor and a congressman who resigned when his state seceded and fought under the Confederate banner.

Descendants of the people he owned believe that banner stands for slavery.

Hammond's meticulous records have helped the Roundtrees trace their family to six great-great-great-great grandparents, born between 1773 and 1781 in Colonial South Carolina.

Thanks to plantation records, descendants know that Ben Shubrick, a great-great-great grandfather, was denied permission to attend a Negro church.

They know that one of the many Adams among their forebears ran away and got as far as Columbia. When he returned, he was flogged, probably given 100 lashes, the punishment outlined in Hammond's detailed instructions for treatment of slaves.

He required his slaves to rise an hour before daylight and work from dawn to dark.

In 1839, when Hammond made the list that the Rev. Roundtree prizes, cotton prices were down, and healthy men on the Hammond plantations were valued at $500 -- the lowest in years -- women at $400, and some, considered unsalable, nothing at all.

"When I look at these names with amounts of money written beside them," he said, "I feel a lot of mixed emotions. I am sad, knowing what my people lived through.

"But I don't see slaves on this list. I see people who were determined to stay together and help each other survive. I see marriages and strong family ties in the hardest conditions. And I feel mostly joy, seeing how far the Lord has brought us."

Today, the Rev. Roundtree is the pastor at Mount Pleasant, the family church, where one of the oldest tombstones is his grandfather's. In different records, the name is spelled different ways, but what matters to his family is that Parish Samuel Roundtree was born free, one of the first in a century not belonging to somebody else at birth.

They do not know where Hammond buried slaves.

Brothers Parish and Richmond Roundtree both kept family Bibles, writing all they could remember about marriages, births and deaths. The Bibles were so beloved that decades ago, someone lovingly replaced one's broken spine with cloth, struggling to push a needle and thread through the hard covers to attach it.

The effort to find family members began with awkward silences when older relatives answered questions with, "That was in slavery times."

One family member who chafed at not knowing was Elmore Roundtree, who now lives in Minnesota. His wife, Alane, began an odyssey to find his roots, and it was she, several states away from South Carolina, who found the Hammond papers and read them on microfilm at the University of Minnesota Wilson Library.

After 2 1/2 hours of staring at the copies, she came to 1855, the year her husband's great-grandfather Andrew was born, and recognized his name.

"I sat straight up in my chair and gasped," she said. "I couldn't breathe. It was the first moment I knew that it was possible to find Elmore's family. It was painful, and it was joyful.

"Somehow, we have to be able to teach our children to be proud of the heritage that helped to build this country, proud of the strength that allowed their family to survive and flourish," she said. "But how do we ever explain to our children that someone ever thought it was all right to buy and sell other people?"

To assist her research, Mrs. Roundtree joined the Old Edgefield District Genealogical Society and shared her findings, hoping that other families descended from slaves on the Hammond plantations could use them.

Less than 4 percent of the society's membership is black, seeking a past from local plantations. And Mrs. Roundtree found herself in correspondence with members eager to preserve the "correct" view of history.

In one letter, published in part in the society's newsletter, she asked whose view is correct:

"In the summer of 1835, Hammond ordered a slave named York whipped for running away. Hammond noted in his journal that the beating left the 50-year-old man `barely able to walk.' Yet Hammond feigned surprise when York died, commenting again in his journal that the flogging was only `slight,' and in his opinion not severe enough to cause death. He then callously noted on his slave death list ... the $300 loss he incurred because York died.

"Whose correct view of history should we believe here? Hammond's? The overseer who whipped York? How about York himself, or the unknown number of men, women and children who witnessed the beating? My feeling is they probably all had a view about what happened that day and why. Whose view is correct?"

Mrs. Roundtree is continuing to research the family history from her home in Minnesota. The Rev. Roundtree and his sister Eunice are trying to fill in gaps in South Carolina.

What they already know is sobering. "I grew up here, and I don't think I will ever look at any of these places in quite the same way again," Eunice Roundtree said.

They hope to find the name of the ship that brought their first ancestors to America and learn from where in Africa their people came.

The need to find the truth hit home for Robert Ryan of Aiken when he saw as a child his great-grandfather's tombstone in the cemetery at Shaw Creek Baptist Church in Edgefield County. It said that Isaac Ryan was a slave of B.R. Tillman.

"I'm not sure I knew then what a slave was," he said.

Decades later, he went back, but time and renovations had obliterated the marker. The stone was either gone or worn too smooth to read. Last year, Mr. Ryan walked the entire graveyard and never found it.

He and a sister, Annie L. Brown, have searched -- so far in vain -- for more concrete information about Isaac and other relatives.

Family lore has it that Isaac was a favorite slave of a future governor, "Pitchfork Ben" Ryan Tillman, who even took him to Ireland and other places on his travels. They know Isaac was allowed to marry and chose from Tillman plantation slave quarters a woman much younger than he, Kitty Ryan. She had a Cherokee Indian father.

Another bit of family lore says that Isaac, born between 1825 and 1830, had no other relatives in America and talked wistfully of going back to Africa to find those left behind.

The Ryans think Isaac might have come from the Congo on the Wanderer, an illegal slave ship from which Mary Tillman, Ben Tillman's wife, bought 30 slaves and brought them back to Edgefield, records show.

The Wanderer brought its illicit cargo into Jekyll Island, Ga., in November 1858.

But while looking into the Ryan name, the family has found an 1827 will in which a relative of the Tillmans, whose surname was Ryan, bequeathed another "Isaac and his wife Kitty" to a niece. It happened before their Isaac and Kitty were born. It makes them wonder whether their family's history in slavery goes back even further than they thought.

And who was the child elderly relatives say helped serve soup to Sherman's troops?

The search has been frustrating. Robert Ryan of Aiken remembers the day he found Isaac and Kitty Ryan on an 1880 census with their children, including his grandfather, Press.

"I wanted to yell out. I wanted to tell people to come look," he said.

But the only sound in the room at South Carolina State Archives and History was the whir of microfilm machines. Instead of yelling, he kept looking as he does once a month during his seven-day breaks from work as a radiological inspector at Westinghouse Savannah River Co.

That day, he found no more.

Annie Ryan, his sister, has tried to sort out the family lore and match it to what her brother has been able to document, talking to elderly aunts in Chicago and New York. She nearly dissolved into tears when she learned that a family Bible was illegible after one aunt's basement flooded.

"We know so much. We know so little," she said. "People who talk about heritage can't possibly understand what it means to be unable to find a heritage you know is there."

In the Old Edgefield District, where there were 3,619 slaves in 1790, and even more by the time of the Civil War, there are numerous families who still live where their ancestors were enslaved.

Some churches, including the Old Storm Branch Baptist Church near Beech Island, have members today who are descended from the original members -- freed slaves.

They all are people the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People might have counted on to agree when it called for an economic boycott of South Carolina, aimed at removing the Confederate flag from the capitol dome, because it's a symbol of slavery for blacks.

But their opinions are diverse:

Alane and Elmore Roundtree -- The flag "serves as a daily reminder to residents, visitors and our nation of a war fought by the Confederate states to preserve a way of life that included the enslavement of millions of African-Americans."

The Rev. Raford Roundtree -- "I haven't dwelled on it. But the Bible tells us to get rid of whatever causes strife and division."

Eunice Roundtree -- "Everyone has his own interpretation, and I respect that. Mine is that every symbol has its season, and the season for the Confederate flag is over."

Robert Ryan -- "It's history. It happened. But I do think history belongs in a museum, and people have to move on."

Annie Brown -- "It's not something I feel comfortable talking about. I have friends on both sides, and I care more about my friendships than the flag."

The Rev. Nathaniel Irving, pastor of Storm Branch Baptist Church -- "For me, it's not what the flag stands for. It's how it got where it is. The Legislature put it on top of the State House during the struggle for civil rights, and they raised it for a reason.

"I lost six of my classmates in the Korean War. They died on Pork Chop Hill at a time when they couldn't buy a pork chop at Kress' lunch counter in Augusta. I had friends fighting for this country in Hamburg, Germany, when they couldn't buy a hamburger and eat it at home.

"To me, the Confederate flag on top of the State House honors people who died in a war to keep my friends in that kind of place in life. The only way to honor them and what they died for is to take it down."

Family information

If you have information about the Roundtree family, whose surnames in slavery were Shubrick, Simmons, Robert and Scott, write Alane Roundtree, 640 Brockton Curve, Eagan, Minn. 55123.

If you have information about the Ryan, Ryans or Chinn families, e-mail Robert Ryan at ROBERT930@hotmail.com or write him at 1928 Alan Ave., Aiken, S.C. 29801-9474.

REACHMargaret N. O'Shea at (803) 279-6895 orscbureau@augustachronicle.com.