TRACING HISTORY: AUNT SARAH

Mrs. Sarah Williams, born about 1838, was featured in a April 25, 1942 article in the Norfolk Journal and Guide newspaper. The article was titled, “Ex-Slave Claimed By Death At 104.”

APRIL 25, 1942 edition of Norfolk Journal and Guide, page 11

The article described that Sarah, who lived in Hicksford, Virginia (Emporia) worked as a servant “in the Lundy family” for years and was active up until just weeks before her death.

Sarah, “affectionately” called ‘Aunt Sarah’,” was survived by her 64 year old son, “Bud” Williams.

The valuable information provided by the news article was enough to check and find records on Ancestry.com, tracing Sarah’s history.

In checking Ancestry, I discovered Sarah’s 1942 Virginia death certificate:

Sarah Williams’ April 20, 1942 Virginia Death Certificate

Per this record, we are able to learn that Sarah died on April 6, 1942, and that her maiden name was Grain. The name of Sarah’s parents were Sterling Grain and Rebecca Cain, of Brunswick County, Virginia. Sarah’s husband was Clovin Williams.

Let’s search for information on Sarah’s parents.

The first thing that immediately stands out is that Sarah’s parents, Sterling and Rebecca Grain, are listed in the 1850 U.S. Census:

1850 US Federal Census showing Sterling and Rebecca Grain household

The significance of this is that we have broken through the “wall” of 1870.

Sarah’s parents were free persons of color. In their 1850 household, there are two others listed, one year old Mary Grain, who was probably their daughter. Another probable daughter listed is Polly Grain, noted as being twelve years old. This Polly is just about the same age as Sarah. Is it possible that “Polly” is Sarah? Just maybe. More records will have to surface in order to clarify one way or the other.

As it is, Polly must have been named for her maternal grandmother, as the 1880 census shows eighty year old Polly Cain, described as “wife’s mother.”

Multi-generational Grain household in the 1880 census record

We see Sarah’s grandmother, Polly, as early as 1830, living in Brunswick County, Virginia as a free person of color who seems to hold her own share of people as “property.” Unfortunate as it is, this was not an uncommon practice. Sometimes, just sometimes, this was a savvy business move by persons of color and they held their own children in such a state in order to protect them. More research would need to be done to learn about the reasons that Polly held souls:

Polly Cain, Sarah’s grandmother, shown in the 1830 US Federal Census

In looking at both the 1850 and 1880 census records of the Grain household, there is a question of where was Sarah in 1850? She does appear in the 1880 census as a 25 year old.

With whatever was going on, how was it that Sarah became enslaved while her other family was free? Freedom for people of color was tenuous, at best. Perhaps the best known example is the 1853 harrowing story of Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave.

Northup’s story was the result of his being tricked. Sadly, he was not alone in his change of status. Sometimes, supposedly on-the-level business dealings caused some free persons of color to use their own children as security for debt. When they couldn’t pay, the children entered into a life of slavery. This was trickery by another name.

Deed of trust…

There is a glaring example of these dealings in 1850’s Greensville County, Virginia. The Genealogy Situation Room will post on that situation in the next coming weeks.

However Sarah became entrapped into a life of slavery, she lived through it to marry “Clovin” (actually Claiborne) Williams, a son of Ranson Williams and Harriet Ferguson. Claiborne died in 1917.

For whatever reason, there’s not a census record of Sarah and Claiborne living in the same household. In fact, according to the 1900 census, Claiborne described himself as “divorced.”

In 1920, per the census record, Sarah, her son and his wife, Willia, were living in Hicksford. Her son, Horace or “Bud” worked as a saw mill laborer:

1920 US Fed Census, Sarah, her son Horace “Bud” and his wife, Willia shown

By 1940, Bud himself was widowed. He and his mother, Sarah, are enumerated for the final time in the census record:

1940 US Fed Census, Sarah and Horace “Bud” Williams shown

So far, evidence has not surfaced of Sarah having direct descendants. It doesn’t seem that her son, who became widowed, and his wife had any children.

Still, in tracing the family line, it is clear that Sarah has a huge number of living great-nieces and nephews via her sibllings’ marriages into the Rawlings and Easter families of Brunswick and Greensville, Virginia.

Through them, “Aunt Sarah” lives on…

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is AUNT SARAH
My name is Aunt Sarah

Excerpt of Nina Simone’s Four Women, recorded in 1965

The Genealogy Situation Room

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