Interviews Explore Black Ancestry and Family Relations

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Several months ago, Mrs. Amelia Davis of the Up­town Senior Citizen’s Center and I began to tape-record the life histories of the black senior citizens at the Uptown Center in Harrisburg. The idea was to get the life histories of the senior citizens in their own words. Taken together, these recorded histories could give a fair picture of the richness of black family life. So far as the writer knows, this method of portraying the quality of the family life of a people, of revealing the real workings of customs and habits inside the family, has never been used for any particular group of people.

There have been attempts to record information, but many projects treat people as abstractions. Too much is limited to narrow pieces of experience collected and arranged to illustrate particular points. Stories which cover the more significant aspects of the whole life experience, including memories of ancestry, written from the point of view of the individual are often more important.

This essay is presented only as a suggestion of what can be done with the family and life histories approach. Perhaps later someone will be able to interview other senior citizens at other centers.

The main thing the interview subjects at Uptown shared in common was, of course, their age (they were all over 65), and the fact they had all lived in the South before migrating to Harrisburg. Most had lived in a South few of us would recognize today, a South controlled by well-to-do whites who pitted poor black and white against each other in order to maintain a corrupt share-cropping system. It was a South in which tobacco and especially cotton shaped the everyday lives of people born to labor without respite. It was a South, too, it seems, in which black people were close to their roots, evoking intimate and detailed memories of a meaningful past.

Excerpts from the oral history of Amelia Davis’ family have been chosen for this essay. Amelia’s story is a good representation of southern black life, but is more impor­tantly a spectacular example of what one can reclaim about one’s own family history. Her story holds special interest because much of it can be verified and because it connects her in an unbroken chain to her first ancestors on American soil. To go further in her story would be to travel to Africa as Alex Haley did in his book, Roots.

Amelia’s recall of the history of slavery is especially worthy. So many black families created strong traditions in slavery and demonstrated remarkable independence of thought and action when freedom came in the 1860’s. In this particular case, Amelia’s grandparents on her mother’s side of the family – Henry Johnson and Louise Harrison – walked to Washington, D.C. to have their marriage legal­ized. To do so they had to avoid their master.

In the hard times of the share-cropping system, there were other improvisations in Amelia’s family. Most exper­ienced many moves, and in a number of places lived with different kin in her childhood and adolescence, but the family maintained a warm and close relationship with all its members.

In the hard times of the share-cropping system, there were other improvisations in Amelia’s family. Most exper­ienced many moves, and in a number of places lived with different kin in her childhood and adolescence, but the family maintained a warm and close relationship with all its members.

How authentic is the story presented? Much of the de­tail in Amelia’s story can be confirmed, such as the slave marriage of Henry Johnson and Louise Harrison, the con­tested will of Johnson, and the composition and dates of birth of members of her immediate family. Her recall of detail, in fact, is astounding. Gentle prodding perhaps can produce much recall in many of our senior citizens and produce narratives similar to the one below:


Memories Which Echo in My Mind: An Oral Biography of Amelia Davis’ Family

“My father’s grandfather was a direct descendant from Africa,” Amelia began. “Daniel Stephney was his name. My great grandmother’s name was Daukers. To my knowledge Stephney and Daukers had three children. I don’t know if there were any boys but I guess not. At least I haven’t heard of any more Stephneys. But for girls there was Della, Liza and Rachael. Now Liza was my grandmother on my father’s side.

“Liza married Charles Duffin, who came from Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Later he lived in Annapolis. The whole clan were all from around Anne Arundel County, but I don’t know the name of the community. Now Charles Duffin was a step-grandfather. You see, my father was the white baby she had by the son of the people she worked for before she married Charles Duffin. The son later killed himself.

“My father’s name was Benjamin Stephney. I don’t know where the Stephney came from. But I noticed going down through Maryland last weekend there was a Stephney Lane. There’s a whole village of white people over there named Stephney, and I didn’t even know there was any white Stephneys. Evidently he might have been a slave on that plantation years and years ago. That’s how they got their names. They usually were named for whoever they worked for.

“Della, Liza and Rachael were all slaves for awhile. When Liza had my father she must have been about fourteen because papa always says he was not a slave, that he was born the year of freedom. She was fourteen then; that must have been the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, about 1864. He preferred ’64, and he also said he was born on the 29th of February. He wanted to say that because he only had a birthday every four years and he never recognized those years in between. He got to the place where our oldest sister caught up with him. He was very young and young at heart, too.”

At this point of the narrative I asked Amelia to recall the people on her mother’s side of the family as far back as she could.

“Henry Johnson was my grandfather, and I don’t know why that is. Evidently, his mother was married to Johnson, because although Master Hodges was his real father, my grandfather used the name of Henry Johnson. And I re­member he had a darker half-sister called Aunt Nancy. I re­member her. But nevertheless the [Tom] Hodges sold Henry’s mother. Mrs. Hodges would not stand for Henry’s mother to be in the family after she bore another white baby for the master. To Master Hodges’ credit, he loved my grandmother in his own way and would not allow Benjamin to be sold. Nothing was ever said about Henry’s mother’s black husband. Maybe he was already dead.

“Aunt Nancy’s past was a mystery to me. I never found out too much about her. She lived a long, long time because I can remember her coming to visit my aunt. These stories, you see, I didn’t get from her. Most of what I got, I got from my oldest sister, Louise Mason. I think most of my sisters didn’t seem to know as much as I. I guess they didn’t ask questions. As I said it was something they wanted to forget. For awhile we just sort of wiped out those dark days of slavery. It was nothing to be proud of and we just tried to play it down.

“Henry Johnson and Louise Harrison walked to Wash­ington, D.C., about 1865 to get married. I talked to my cousin about it, and she said yes, she’s been hearing that all along too. I don’t know why they had to walk, unless they had to hide and sneak to get there. They lived in Anne Arundel County and they had to go through Prince Georges to get to Washington. They had a pretty long walk.

“Henry and Louise had fourteen children. The first one was my mother, Mary Jackson. The next one was a boy, named William, who became an invalid at fifteen or sixteen. He died when he was sixteen. The next was John and he married a woman named Sally and they had about ten children. John got to be a very successful farmer. He also had a lumber mill, and was also a local preacher – a preacher who never had a local church. The next was Charles. Now he turned out to be the fellow that got the farm from Henry Johnson (Hodges gave Henry Johnson a farm with lots of horses).

“It’s later years. My mother is dead, Charles’ wife is dead. Grandpa is old now and gets senile. Nevertheless, everything is willed to Charles. When grandpa dies there is something in the will where Charles got on his horse and rode around giving five dollars. to all the others. Now grandpa had given Uncle Harrison a colt and Uncle Tommy a colt named Sweetland, a beautiful little bay. They raised them from colts. But the arrangement was by word of mouth so when the estate was settled neither would have their horses. John contested the will so it went to court, and then everything had to be sold. Now each child got $100. Harrison and Tommy got white fellows to go there and bid on those horses for them.

“The farm wasn’t lost then, however. Charles came off with the greater part of the spoils, and lost it later. He got mixed up with some Jeffersons and they got the place from him. He bought a small place down at Rutland, no Chesterfield, and then later he must have lost that.

“Nevertheless, as years went on – he lived to be eighty-five – his health failed and his money was all gone. One of John’s daughters, Mary, took him in and they cared for him; animosity was wiped out many years later.”

This excerpt is somewhat brief, but it should suggest the richness of historical detail carried by Pennsylvania’s Senior Citizens. Local historians would serve the cause of history well not to let this rich vein remain untouched any longer.


Carl Oblinger is an associate historian of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.