Rev. Avis Williams and I recently published an essay an contested Afro-indigenous and white historical narratives of the watercourse known as “Dried Indian Creek,” which runs through Newton County, Georgia. In local African American memory, this disturbing term was derived from the early lynching of a Native American leader by white settlers in the late 18th or early 19th centuries (See: “Along the Ulcofauhatche: Of Sorrow Songs and ‘Dried Indian Creek.’“ Southern Spaces. February 18, 2022. (Mark Auslander and Avis Wiliams) In recent months, we have become increasingly fascinated by the Afro-Indigenous histories of the South River Forest, a zone of about 3.500 acres in South Atlanta (within unceded Muscogee homelands) that has the potential to become the nation’s largest urban forested conservation area. The forest is being re-visited by Muscogee community members in April 2022, who are committed to helping safeguard and remediate the river system and the lands, plants, and animals it nurtures. (See a fundraising drive for these visits of return and reconnection.)
This imperiled ecosystem has a history that spans thousands of years of indigenous presence, up until the 1821 Creek cession, after which Muscogee (Creek) were forced westwards into Alabama and then into Indian Territory (subsequently known as Oklahoma). Following the 1821 Georgia Land Lottery, these confiscated indigenous lands were divided into lots of 202.5 acres each and acquired by white settlers, in what was then Dooly, Fayette, Henry, Houston, and Monroe counties. (DeKalb County, created out of part of Henry County, was established the next year, in 1822.) Many of these settlers established farms worked by enslaved people, whom Rev. Avis and I are working to identify and whose descendants we hope in time to trace.
We have been curious about the earlier, indigenous term or terms used for the South River, from which the South River Forest takes its name. Originating out of underground springs in the heart of what is now Atlanta, the river’s initial stretch is confined nowadays to piping and culverts. The watercourse emerges above ground at Norman Berry Drive, in East Point, north of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport and flows about sixty miles southeast to its confluence with the Alcovy and Yellow rivers (now inundated under Jackson Lake), forming the Ocmulgee River, the major western tributary of the Altamaha River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
The authoritative Georgia Place Names, by Kenneth K. Krakow (3rd Edition, 1999) asserts that, “In early days [the river] was known as South Branch, Ocmulgee River, before the name was shortened to “South River.” Krakow does not list an indigenous term for the watercourse, yet several sources identify the South River as having born the name, “Welaunee” or “Weelaunee.” According to Martin and Mauldin, A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee, “welawnee” means “green/brown/yellow” water.” RaeLynn Butler, Manager of the Historic and Cultural Preservation Department of the the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, explains (personal communication) that the term “Lane’ (law-nee) is Mvskoke for the color green, brown, or yellow, She also notes that the Mvskoke term, ‘Ue’ meaning water. is rendered n English as ‘we’
The U.S. Indian agent Benjamin Hawkins (1754-1816), who lived and worked extensively among the Muscogee Creek in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, identifies the indigenous settlement of Big Sawokli as being on the “Welaaunee Creek,” in what is now eastern Alabama (see Hawkins, Benjamin, A Sketch of the Creek Country in the Years 1798 and 1799. [The Reprint Company, Spartanburg, S.C 1982; Originally published in 1848 as vol. 3, part 1 of the Collections of the Georgia Historical Society, Savannah.] Several sites in eastern Alabama and northern Florida bear the name. Wylaunee Creek in far eastern Barbour County, Alabama flows into Lake Eufala. A northern Florida slave-based cotton plantation, known as “Welaunee,” was established in 1826 by the Gamble family in Jefferson County, Florida; a modern quail hunting establishment, Welaunee Plantation, is located in Leon County, Florida.
Principal Sources on the Weelaunee in Georgia
According to Vivian Price (1997). The History of DeKalb County, Georgia 1822-1900. Wolfe Publishing Company. (p. 36) the term “Weelaunee” was the indigenous term used for Georgia’s South River.
Price’s assertion is supported by several sources. Henry Schenk Tanner’s 1823 “Map of Georgia and Alabama” (from his New American Atlas project, often considered the pinnacle of antebellum American cartography) depicts the eastern extension of what is now the South River, forming the boundary between Newton County and Henry County, as the “Weelaunee R.” Tanner’s map does not depict the headwaters or western course of the river, within DeKalb County or what was then Gwinnett County (before the establishment of Rockdale County); these sections had presumably not been charted at the time of the map’s publication. The map does depict in detail indigenous communities then under the governance of Muscogee (Creek), Choctaw, Cherokee, and Chickasaw nations, primarily to the west of the Flint and Chatahoochee rivers. (At the time of the map’s publication, DeKalb County, bordered to the west by the Chataahoochee, was the westernmost extension of the white-governed state of Georgia.)
This same map is perhaps referenced in an 1884 entry in the Covington Enterprise [Newton County, GA): “The Georgia Railroad, desiring to name some palace cars after the, Indian names of our three rivers, asked Judge T. M. Meriwether to get them up. After diligent search the Judge found an old map and the following names were given: Yellow river—Coo-lau-poo-chee; South river— We-lau-nee; Alcova river— Ulco-fau hatchee.” (Reprinted in the Savannah morning news. (Savannah, Ga.), March 22, 1884, p. 1, column 3.)
Fifteen years later, in 1899, several Georgia newspapers published an elegiac commentary on the South River by Lynda (or Linda) Lee, entitled “Welaunee; Indian Legend of the South River, on whose banks several notable Georgians were born. ” She writes, “South River, the pale face called it, but the red man, with poetic tongue, gave to it the melody of music, the beauty of legend, when he whispered lovingly, “Welaunee.” (see The Sunny South. (Atlanta, Ga.) 1875-1907, April 22, 1899, p.3, column 1; also see The Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia). 26 Mar 1899, Page 5, column 4.)
“Welaunee” was also adopted around 1920 as the name of a mill in Porterdale, Newton County, Georgia, along the south bank of the Yellow River, replacing the older Phillips Mill.
The only current Georgia location I know of that bears the name is “Weelaunee Road” in Ellenwood, Georgia (south DeKalb County) which extends south from the South River about a half mile, due south of the Snapfinger Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.
We are eager to learn if any Muscogee (Creek) documentary sources from the late 18th or early 19th centuries reference the rivercourse now known as the South River as the Welauneee or Weelaunee. We appreciate that in indigenous usage waterways may not have been known by a singular, fixed term and that the concept of “yellow, green or brown water” may have applied, at various times, to multiple rivers and riparian landscapes. Perhaps future collaborative inquires will cast more light on saliet toponymic practices in the region.
Acknowledgments: We are grateful to Hendry Miller, Georgia State Archives. for guidance on early uses of the term “Welaunee” in Georgia.
The noted curator and art historian Tetyana Dugaeva has been attempting to call global attention to the unthinkable threats posed to the artistic treasures, cultural heritage, and peoples of her beloved city of Czernowitz (Chernivtsi) in southwestern Ukraine, in the face of the unfolding Russian invasion. She recently updated her Facebook home page image to display a striking art work designed by the Art Nouveau artist Joseph Adolph Lang (1873-1936), displayed as a ceramic glazed “majolika panel” on the outer wall of the imperiled Chernivtsi Art Museum.
I find myself speculating why Tetyana has chosen this particular image, of all the wonderful works of art in Czernowitz, to represent the city and the Bukovina region at this moment of supreme danger. (It is difficult to be in touch at the moment with all our Czernowitz friends and colleagues; I would of course welcome corrections and further interpretations from those who are able to reach out at this terrible time.)
The image is drawn from the large ceramic Majolika glazed mural on the outer facade of the former Bukowiner Sparkasse, the head office of the Bukovina Savings Bank, now the city’s beloved art museum. The building, constructed 1900-1901, is considered a masterpiece of Austro-Hungarian architecture, and is closely associated with the Vienna Secession movement. Tetyana’s persistent “detective work” some years ago identified Lang as the artist of this famous composition. The majolica panel itself was produced, she notes, at the Zsolnay Ceramic factory in Hungary. (See: http://versii.cv.ua/kultura/mystetskyj-detektyv-chernivetska-majolika-hto-jiji-tvorets/6846.html). The title of the panel, installed above the third floor windows of the building, is “Allegory of honoring Bukovina on the occasion of the anniversary of the adoption of the constitution and receiving the coat of arms of the region.”
A dozen classical gods, depicted in the Art Nouveau/Secession style, allegorically evoke the twelve provinces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (at times referenced at the Dual Monarchy).
The female figure, fourth from the left, in white and bearing green branches, signifies the province of Bukovina, for which Czernowitz served as capital. (The southern section of Bukovina now fall within Romania.) Appropriately, she wears at her breast Bukovina’s Coat of Arms. She is partially sheltered by the left wing of a great angel in an orange robe, who, Iosif Vaisman explain, allegorically represents the Hapsburg monarchy. The angel grasps a gleaming metal broadsword, referencing the monarchy’s maintenance of order throughout the Empire.
The appropriateness of the front facade of the art museum for symbolizing the art and cultural heritage of the entire city is clear. The Secession movement, especially in hindsight, evokes the genius of fin de siecle Vienna, and by extension the cultural sophistication of Czernowitz, which was closely linked to Vienna in the final decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Joseph Lang, who practiced as an artist in Germany and Austria, exemplifies Czernowitz’s cosmopolitanism in history and memory.
It is noteworthy that the detail selected by Tetyana depicts a nymph-like nude female figure, who has draped over her arm a blue cloth with interlinked yellow heraldic shields, and holds in her hand a golden ball, on which is balanced a blue statuette of a winged Nike, under the sheltering expanse of the angel’s great wing. Although these motifs presumably meant something very different at the dawn of Twentieth Century, at the current moment of crisis it is hard not to think of Ukraine herself, symbolized by the colors of blue and gold, uplifted by the visage of Nike, goddess of victory. At this time of mortal peril for the peoples of Ukraine, as missiles and massed artillery fire rain down mercilessly upon the nation’s civilians, who among us cannot pray for the sheltering protection of an angel’s wing?
As I write this, Joseph Lang’s outdoor lyrical mosaic mural is unbearably vulnerable, easy prey for a single tank round or strafing run from the air. Its twelve beautiful figures, redolent of a lost golden age, are emblematic of this venerable, endangered city, of its stunning art treasures, and of millions of Ukrainians now at risk. As impossible as it now seems, may this striking image, now glimpsed on line around the world, help awaken humanity’s better angels, and urgently call forth the forces of compassion and rescue.
“Carving is the result of dream, a vision, or a spiritual message” -Pauline Hillaire, Lummi historian and story-teller
In July 2021 the “Red Road to DC” project traveled across the country to present the Biden Administration with a twenty-four foot carved story pole created by members of House of Tears carvers of the Lummi Nation. Visiting sacred Native sites and environmentally endangered locales, from Bears Ears National Monument to the point where the Dakota Access Pipeline crosses the Missouri River, the pole was greeted and touched by hundreds of Native and non-Native supporters. Their combined energies, charging and recharging this object, helped, we hope, to remind the administration of its sacred obligations to honor treaty rights with tribal nations, to safeguard biodiversity and environmental sustainability here and abroad, and to uphold human rights.
Of the many extraordinary things about this pole, I am most fascinated by a dream that it carried within it.
For the Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, carving has long been bound up with dreams and revelatory visions. Animals and spiritual beings carved in masks and story poles (sometimes known as “totem poles”) are often inspired by dream-visions given to the carver, a gift from the ancestors or other spiritual beings. Through the carved object, the dream is allowed to flourish and enter into the minds and souls of other persons, near and far, through masked performances, through towering story poles, and through gifts presented in potlatch or other ceremonial events. Perhaps a dream-gift most fully realizes its potential when it is shared and made accessible to many other people, binding them to one another, to nature’s beings, and to the mysterious forces of the invisible world. Dream images thus may inspire and generate further dream visions, which are given form through more acts of creation, imagination, and reciprocal exchange. Carving, in effect, helps set dreams in motion and in so doing helps transform people’s minds and hearts as it builds community between living people, the ancestors, and the spiritual energies coursing through the natural world.
Many visionary dreams were evoked in the Red Road pole, which journeyed from the Lummi lands in northwestern Washington state to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC. At its is base we behold the waters that sustain life for all things, the very waters that are imperiled by extractive fossil fuel industries and associated petrochemical complexes, The figure of Peyote Woman reminds us of the visionary quests enabled by the sacred plant of peyote, which can help heal wounded psyches and communities. Peyote Woman is flanked by seven carved tears that bear testimony to the seven generations during which Native peoples have suffered under the depredations of settler colonialism. We glimpse some of the current nightmares that emerge from this long, painful history, including traces of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and the predicament of detained children, many of Mesoamerican indigenous heritage, held in immigration cells. We also see important animal spirits that are at times glimpsed in dream vision, including a climbing bear and the great head of a diving eagle. At the pole’s apex is a spherical rendition of the full moon, within which is seen a crouching Native American man in front of a sacred fire, perhaps embarking on a vision quest that will yield further dream images.
One dream associated with the pole is particularly rich and moving. In his artist’s statement, master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James’s describes a dream he experienced late in the production process of this remarkable object:
I was with my maternal-side cousin, we were traveling in his truck, and making a short stop. I was sitting in the passenger seat, looking out the window and could see it was windy. As dreams are, I could see the waves of the wind. At that moment, a single Eagle Feather came traveling, upright, in the wind, like it was dancing. My cousin said, take it. It danced right to my window and I was getting ready to take it from the wind, as my cousin said, “Open your window and take it!” I replied, “I am trying to get the window down now.” I woke up. I call this dream, “Wind Dancing Eagle Feather.” At this time, all the totem pole figures were completely added to the Sacred Sites Totem Pole. But, there was one small, mid-section site on the pole (right side), that was sanded but not carved (not even gouged like the same spot on the opposite side) in any fashion. This “feather with the visible wind waves” was carved in that spot. To me, this will always be the “Wind Dancing Eagle Feather” Totem Pole.”
The dream in the truck would seem to be anticipatory, a kind of dress rehearsal for the great cross-continental journey the pole was about to embark upon. The Lummi are people of the sea, deeply attuned to the waves, winds, and currents of the Salish Sea, in which reside the orcas, their “relatives under the waters.” Thus, it seems appropriate that the dreamer apprehends within the wind the pulsating energies of waves. From this wind, as he prepares to set forth with his great gift of the pole, the dreamer himself receives a gift, a single dancing feather. Not coincidentally, this is the feather of an eagle, which bears great significance in Native American spirituality. The Eagle, of course, also appears on the Great Seal of the United States, and is thus an appropriate emissary in a mission that moves from Native America to the U.S. Government.
It seems all the more fitting that a space was left empty for the carved feather mid- way along the pole, on the right side. Like all significant gifts, the pole contains within itself the relationship between giver and receiver, in this instance between Native peoples and the Federal Government. What better mediator, halfway between the pole’s base and apex, than the feather of a bird that is sacred to both donor and recipient, carved into the right side, a side associated for Lummi peoples with life and enduring vitality?
The wind and wave energies that power the light feather, gifted in the dream, perhaps helped launch the large pole on its journey from one coast to another, as the carved object prepared to take wing across the continent, traversing a multitude of sacred places and encountering many Native and non-Native supporters, who would bless the pole by touching it. High-flying eagles, gifted with extraordinary vision, perceive no borders on the land below them; perhaps the single, solitary feather, imbued with the forces of wind and eagle, will help convey to its intended recipient the gift of seeing a borderless world, a vast web of life in all its infinite interconnections.
I can’t help but speculate about the fact that the truck was being driven by the carver’s maternal cousin. Traditionally, men of the Lummi and other indigenous peoples of the northwest coast at times marry women who come from their mother’s side of the family.. Might the feather dancing down from the wind towards the maternal cousin’s truck thus be a kind of “spirit-wife” for the dreamer, the very essence of gifting itself, coming from the invisible world into the visible world? What better thing, as an ephemeral bond between the spirit world and the mortal world, and between Mother Earth to her children? What better gift to enliven the story pole in the very final moments of its creation, as it becomes a shining beacon, destined to blaze the path, the Red Road, from sea to shining sea?
Opening the Window
A final thought. We are often strangely paralyzed in dreams, knowing we ought to do something but incapable of fulfilling that imperative. So I suspect we all recognize the dreamer’s frustrating predicament, being told by his cousin to open the truck window to receive the gift, but not quite being able to roll the window down. Like the truck, the dream too is stopped in place, and he simply can’t grasp the offered feather, which is tantalizingly close.
It isn’t easy to receive a gift, especially one of spiritual and artistic inspiration. Perhaps that is the point: the dreamer can’t at this moment seize the feather, because it isn’t yet his to take. He can only come to grasp it later, after he has awakened and carved it on the pole, completing the sacred object. Until that moment, there is something standing between him and the alluring image of the feather dancing in the wind waves. The window can only be opened, and the feather can only be properly held, once the dreamer awakes, and undertakes the inspired act of artistic creation, finally bringing out a shape whose energies may have been incipient in the western cedar log all along.
There’s another thing about vehicle windows, in our strange era. For nearly two years, air, which ought to be experienced as the unequivocal gift of breath and life, has become a source of persistent anxiety for all of us. How many times since March 2020, have we wondered about whether or not to roll down a car window when people are standing or walking nearby: do we risk breathing in the virus, or panicking them that they might catch something from us? We have all been prisoners in one way or another, condemned for an indefinite sentence to view the world through windows, longing to embrace fully the great world beyond, as we mourn the many thousands gone. (As the Red Road to DC was being planned in spring 2021, we all anticipated a grand opening up of the world; after successive waves and variants, this initial optimism has of course been tempered.)
The Red Road was, to be sure, an emergency mission, a journey to help save Mother Earth at what might be the moment of her greatest peril. It is serious business, and as the seven tears carved in the pole remind us, there is a long history of dispossession and injustice being witnessed here. Yet the Red Road was also an occasion of extraordinary exhilaration, opening up all of us to re-connection with other people, other places, the glories of nature’s beings and landscape, and the rich spiritual traditions of Native America. The pole carried with it, as well, the promise of a new administration and the delight and pride in knowing that Debra Haalland had been confirmed as the first Native American Secretary of the Interior. Like all great gifts, the pole traversing the Red Road blazed a path to a new future. Many dreams may finally be brought to life. After a long period of confinement, of only knowing the world through TV screens, computer screens, smart phone windows, windows, and windshields, the activists sought to travel out and through the world, to grasp and breath in physical substance, to experience once more the authentic and the unexpected. We finally get to roll down the windows, and race down the highway, waves of wind blowing over us, our faces streaked with tears—tears that just might, be in this long-dreamt of moment, our shared tears of joy.
Recently my Decolonizing Museums seminar (Boston University) had a fascinating visit with the interpretive staff at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The team shared their innovative approach to engaging visitors with Pedro García de Benabarre’s magnificent painting Saint Michael Archangel (c. 1470), which hangs over a large fireplace in the second floor Tapestry Room. I must admit that I had never really looked closely at this startling and compelling work.
In their excellent website text and online audio guide, the Gardner’s interpretive team offers a layered approach to the painting, starting with a conventional art historical appreciation, explaining the various elements of the image: Archangel Michael seated on a throne in Heaven weighs souls (two white clothed small beings on scales) and subdues with his lance two-faced Lucifer, who lays prostrate on the tiled floor. (The catalogue notes, “This painting was originally a side panel of a large altarpiece dedicated to John the Baptist, installed in the church of Sant Joan del Mercat in Lleida, Catalonia.:)
The visitor next accesses a thoughtful extended audio commentary by multimedia artist Elisa Hamilton, part of her 2019 recorded artist’s walk through the Palace galleries. Hamilton begins by noting that she has long been drawn to the painting; towards the end she notes that as she came to learn more about the work, she was troubled, especially as a person of color, by the work’s “ugly historical trope,” associating evil with black skin
Following our class discussion of the image, I have been pondering the imagery of Lucifer as multi-faced and black-skinned. Dante’s The Inferno, although written around 1320, was first published in 1472, so it is possible that de Benabarre was influenced by Dante’s vision of the Devil as possessing three mouths of sharp teeth devoted to chewing on sinners. The association of the demonic with blackness or darkness can be traced back to antiquity. In the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 6:14-15 contrasts the lightness of Christ with the darkness of the demon Belial (at times taken as a synonym for Satan). Fra Angelico’s painting The Last Judgement, created in 1431, four decades before the de Benabarre image, depicts the Devil as black skinned, with white horns, munching on his victims in a boiling cauldron.
Having said that, it seems likely that the specific figuration of Satan by de Benabarre is related to the Iberian peninsula’s complex relationship with African-descent populations across the centuries. John Thornton notes that under the Almoravids, West Africans from the polities of Tarkur and Ghana (corresponding, roughly speaking, to the area of modern Senegal) were incorporated into Muslim armies in Iberia. Israel Burshatin (1985) in his exploration of the often subtle and complex depictions of Moors in Medieval Iberian letters, references the overt equation of Moorishness, blackness, and the Devil in the 13th century Castillian epic poem, Poema de Fernan Gonfalez (written c, 1250-1266), which recounts the Count of Castille Fernán González’s campaign against Moorish adversaries, described as: “Uglier than Satan and his conventicle [coven] combined / When he comes out of hell, dirty sooty”” (Footnote 1)
By 1462, Portuguese slave traders were established in Seville, and by the 1470s, when de Benabarre created the work, African slaves were increasingly common throughout Christian Spanish realms. In 1460, Portuguese had landed on the shores of what is now Sierra Leone. By 1471, the Portuguese had a presence between the mouths of the Ankobra and Volta rivers, a region they termed A Mina (“the mine”), today’s Elmina, in the area that would be known as the Gold Coast, now Ghana; the next year, Fernão do Pó landed on the island that would bear his name, now known as Bioko in the vicinity of modern day Cameroon. It seems likely that de Benabarre had heard or read reports of extremely dark skinned African people, even if he had not met any directly. Satan’s upward thrusting fangs, perhaps modeled on the tusks of a wild boar, his webbed feet, tiny tail, and sharp talons presumably signal the imputed animality of Africans in Christian Iberian imagination of the period.
It would appear that de Benabarre has chosen to depict Lucifer in a rather sexually ambiguous manner, with curving, alluring hips, perhaps all the better to seduced wayward souls. In contrast, Michael’s elongated phallic lance plunges from between his legs towards Satan’s midsection, in a way that might signal both domination over and disambiguation of an inter-sexed being. All of this would be consistent with emerging 15th century Christian conceptions of reimposing gendered dichotomies on the ostensibly sexually ambiguous bodies of non Christians, on the eve of the completion of the Reconquista and the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain.
I am equally fascinated by Satan’s second face, a large orange visage that stretches from the demon’s upper torso to his groin area. Speculatively, might the image have been inspired by a masked form of a West African masquerade, potentially encountered by Portuguese explorers in coastal regions? I am reminded a bit of Temne masks, from the region that is now northwestern Sierra Leone, where Portuguese sailors did in fact land during the 1470s. It is also possible that the principal inspiration is from grimacing Catalan and other Iberian festival masks (which may themselves have emerged out a long history of trans-Mediterranean cultural exchanges.)
In any event, I do wonder if the visual organization of the painting, with the triumphant white Archangel high above the prone dark Devil, might have geographic referents, evoking growing (or hoped for) Christian Iberian economic and military power over Muslim states and over African polities. It is possible that the curving shape of Lucifer’s body was inspired by the North African coastline, which was depicted in early maps of period, such Grazioso Benincasa’s 1482 chart (below). Alternately. Satan’s body might signal the West African coastline north of the equator, with which Christian Iberians in the 1470s were increasingly familiar. Perhaps the gold with which Michael’s breastplate is adorned signals the gold wealth of the Akan region, with which Portuguese and Spaniards of the 1470s were deeply fascinated. In that sense, this image of a resplendent white Christian saint directing a lance towards the dark figure below, may be said to anticipate the coming era of vast Iberian extraction of mineral and agricultural wealth as well as human capital, from West and Central Africa.
1, Poema de Fernan Gonfalez, ed. C. Carroll Marden [Baltimore, 1904], p. 56, st. 11. 3-4., quoted in Burshatin 1985: fn26. Burshatin suggests that the the imagery in the Poema, unusual for Iberian writing of the period, echoes the racialist figurations of the French epic poem Chanson de Roland.
Israel Burshatin,1985, The Moor in the Text: Metaphor, Emblem, and Silence Critical Inquiry. Vol. 12, No. 1, “Race,” Writing, and Difference. (Autumn, 1985), pp. 98-118.
Zanele Muholi’s photographic series of digitally altered self-portraits “Somnyama Ngonyama” (translated by the artist as “Hail, the Dark Lioness”) consists of carefully posed images taken in locations around the world, through which the artist-activist gives voice to a vast number of black South Africans, primarily LGBTQ, long relegated by dominant social institutions to the shadows and the depredations of violence.
The works, exhibited in numerous galleries and collected in a striking monograph, have received extensive critical and scholarly attention. I have been especially impressed by Nomusa Makhubu’s essay “Performing Blackface: Reflections on Zanele Muholi’s Somnyama Ngonyama,” (OnCurating v.49 ) which perceptively unpacks elements of parodic inversion and queer critique of colonial racialist minstrelsy imagery in these compelling, disturbing images.
In this post, I’d like to build on Makhuba’s discussion in light of my interest in ritual poetics among Nguni-speaking speaking peoples. I am particularly fascinated by the ways in which Muholi’s creatively plays on the symbolic repertoire of izibongo royal praise poetry in isiZulu and other Nguni languages.
As Makhuba notes, the title of the series, “Somnyama Ngonyama” could be literally translated from isiZulu as “Dark Lion.” Why does the artist insist on the English translation, “Hail, the Dark Lioness,” emphasizing praise and rendering the noun female? David Coplan notes that in contemporary Zulu networks, the term “hail” is at times used to signal gender and queer inclusivity. Beyond this, the term “hail” would appear to index the long tradition of royal praise poetry in Nguni-speaking societies, in which the sovereign is at times characterized as a lion, with the royal-coded term “Ngonyama” favored over the ordinary isiZulu term for lion, “ibhubesi. ” Hence, the izibongo praise poem of King Shaka: “UyiSilo! UyiNgwe! UyiNgonyama!” (You are a wild animal! A leopard! A lion!) (Cope 1968, 108-9, also quoted in Gunner 1984: 289). The term is also used in one of the most widely heard (if not universally understood) lyrics in the world, the first line of “The Circle of Life, “ the opening number of The Lion King, “ Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba”, to which the chorus responds, “Sithi uhm ingonyama”, a call-response sequence which may be translated as “Behold, a lion [king]’ is coming, father/Oh yes, it is a lion [king].”
During my fieldwork in Ngoni communities in eastern Zambia, royal praise singers (iizimbongi) with whom I consulted often emphasized that their work was “heavy” and ritually dangerous. The pangyerics that they perform in rapid, fierce, staccato rhythms metaphorically model the king as a lion or leopard, who pounces upon, tears apart and “stabs” at is victims. Explained one senior poet, “When I sing this way, I become like the king, but I can be a victim at any moment of his rage, and of the anger of all the kings who came before him.” Another explained, “When I speak, I feel every wound that pierced the king and his forefathers, but I am unbowed and so we rise to victory.” To call up the most potent aspects of the sovereign is to unleash violent energies, that condense and make visible the king’s multidimensional status, hated and stalked by his enemies, even as he rises as a predatory war leader who sheds his blood on behalf of his people, striking down external and internal adversaries, seen and unseen.
The Nguni sovereign traverses the ambiguous terrain between this world and the other world of the shades, in ways that are necessary for cosmological reproduction yet tinged with destructive potential. At the climactic moment of the Swazi incwala ceremony of first fruits, the monarch manifest himself as the monstrous creature of the bush, “Silo,” who bites (luma) and tosses a first fruit so as to expel the pollution of the previous year, paving the way for safe consumption of the new year’s produce by the entire polity. At an early moment of the ceremony, a bovine is ritually slaughtered on the sovereign’s behalf, allowing him to enter into a “dark” phase of existence, from which he and the kingdom may be triumphantly reborn anew. Praise singers, it is said, embody these dangerous transitions, moving across thresholds between life and death, between being predators and being themselves predated upon.
Speculatively, Zanele Muholi moves across a comparably ambiguous terrain in this series. The artist embraces deep blackness with defiant pride, with full knowledge of the enormous dangers posed to persons of color in general and queer persons of color in particular. Rather like a royal praise singer, Muholi fully embodies the position of the exalted being they seek to honor, in all of its rich contradictions, as a locus of danger and assertiveness, even while, as a witness to that glory, they assume positions of intense vulnerability.
The artist’s translation of Ngonyama as “Lioness” may also emerge, in part, out of the deep cosmological structure of Nguni kingship. There’s considerable evidence that precolonial Nguni sovereignty was “diarchic,” founded on complex co-rule between the (often secluded) Queen Mother and the more visible male king, with the female sovereign responsible for the periodic rebirth and growth of the land, and the male monarch especially associated with war, conquest, and blood-letting in sacrifice, hunting, and the upholding of legal principles. Among the best known queen mothers in Nguni history was Ntombasi of the Ndandwe kingdom, who appears to have been a predominant co-ruler with her son Zwide, before the kingdom was routed by the forces of Shaka Zulu, whose mother Nandi herself wielded considerable influence prior to her death.
It may be that in the Somnyama Ngonyama series, Zanele Muholi is similarly embodying a diarchic or multi-gendered continuum of sovereignty, which like the moon itself waxes and wanes over the course of the annual cycle. For a year, the photographer shot a self portrait each day, depicting the great range of dangers facing black South Africans and queer persons, across a range of gendered positions. (The series is ongoing.) “Phindile I” (Paris, 2014) shows their body arranged in the odalisque postion classically used to depict inmates of a royal seraglio. “ Somnyama I, (Paris, 2014),” seems to depict the figured associated with high ranking warrior status. In “Zamile (KwaThema, 2016O,” Muholi appears as a male novice undergoing initiation, wrapped in a blanket. In “Thulani II (Parktown, 2015)” they wear headgear reminiscent of a miner’s helmet, honoring the dozens of strikers killed in the 2012 Marikana massacre. In contrast, .“Thuleleni, (Amsterdam, 2018)” presents the artist in a ruff collar reminiscent of the wealthy Dutch merchants who oversaw the colonial project.
The net effect is to interpolate the “visual activist” Muholi into a dizzying range of embodied subject positions, taking themselves and their audience through an odyssey of pain, vulnerability, and loss, from which they emerge fierce, unbowed, and ultimately victorious. Such is the journey of the Nguni imbongi (royal praise singer), who takes on the suffering, the power, and the danger of the one who is praised, in order to channel creative flows of energy that summon up and reconstitute the sovereign social order. As Muholi hails this hybrid, multi-gendered dark lioness, that sovereign order is radically restructured, giving birth to a better world that fully encompasses and affirms those who were, for so long, consigned to the outer limits of the social.
Cope, T. Ed.),1968. Izibongo: Zulu Praise Poems. Oxford, Clarendon Press,
Gunner, Elizabeth Anne Wynne, 1984. Ukubonga Nezibongo : Zulu praising and praises., PhD Thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies University of London
Recently, I gave an invited presentation at the symposium “In the Wake of Slavery and Dispossession: Emory, Racism, and the Journey Towards Restorative Justice” (September 29-October 1, 2021) at Emory University. The gathering sought to draw attention to two critical aspects of Emory’s early history, the enslavement of African Americans, whose coerced labor enabled the first three decades of Emory’s College existence, and the coerced alienation of indigenous lands, upon which Emory College and its environs were constructed from 1836 onwards, and upon which the Atlanta (Clifton Road) Emory campus was constructed from 1915 onwards.
The panels and presentations were fascinating and illuminating, highlighting the unresolved legacies of the removal of Muscogee (Creek) communities from the lands that later became Newton and DeKalb counties, where Emory’s Oxford and Atlanta campuses are now located, as well as the historical implications of enslavement, and the long-term disavowals of slavery, on the Emory campuses. The conference keynote address, “Universities as Instruments of Colonialism,” by Craig Steven Wilder (MIT) brilliantly articulated the fundamental bond between enslavement and indigenous land dispossession in the foundational histories of American universities prior to the Civil War.
My presentation, “Families Divided: The Human Costs of Enslavement at Emory”, developed themes in my 2011 book, The Accidental Slaveowner, and my more recent research on enslavement on the Atlanta Emory university grounds. I concentrated on the enslaved families associated with Emory who were torn apart through slave sales, estate distributions, gifts, and sexual violence. (See the presentation on YouTube at
(The whole symposium is accessible at
As part of my talk, i emphasized that the Oxford African American community, whose ancestors had been enslaved at and around Emory College, has remained deeply interested in the stories of their indigenous ancestors. Many trace their lineages in Oxford back to enslaved Native American individuals held by Emory’s leaders, including Cornelius Robinson, owned by Emory’s president Alexander Means, and Angeline Sims, owned by Richard Sims, a founding member of the Emory Board of Trustees. Elderly community members recall that Afro-indigenous communities, related to these enslaved indigenous persons, continued to reside in Newton County, along the Alcovy River and Turner Lake, into the early 20th century, until they were forced off their lands by the county’s white leadership.
I further noted that black elders in Newton County have long been deeply interested in the fate of the Creek Freedmen, descendants of persons of African descent who were enslaved by Muscogee (Creek) slaveowners, within Georgia and Alabama, and then later transported along the Trail of Tears in the 1830s to Indian Territory, later known as Oklahoma. As chronicled in Gary Zellar’s 2007 monograph, African Creeks, and many other studies, Muscogee Creek communities were deeply divided between Union and Confederate partisans during the Civil War, although the Creek Nation itself was formally allied with the Confederacy, as were the other “Civilized Nations.” Slavery in the Creek Nation only ended in 1866, with the arrival of the U.S. Army in the region. When the Creek Nation signed a treaty with the United States in 1866, those individuals of African descent who had been enslaved by Muscogee, known as the Creek Freedmen, were guaranteed citizenship within the Creek Nation. Then, in 1979, the Creek leadership effectively expelled or dis-enrolled nearly all of those persons of African or enslaved descent. The Creek Freedmen for the past four decades have been struggling for the treaty to be honored, and for their citizenship status within the Creek Nation to be restored.
I was thus perplexed that there was little discussion of the Creek Freedmen issue at the Emory symposium. Muscogee (Creek) representatives were invited to participate in the conference, offering blessings and sharing accounts of educational initiatives at the College of the Muscogee Nation. The African American Oxford descendants and I were deeply moved by the blessings offered by the Creek Mekko (ritual specialist and ordained elder ) Chebon Kernell during the conference. Yet sadly. no Creek Freedmen, however, were invited to participate. In their opening and closing framing remarks, the symposium’s organizers did not address the continued injustice of racial apartheid within the Creek Nation, or the painful legacies of enslavement within Muscogee (Creek) communities. As a prominent Creek Freedman activist later noted, the university leadership vigorously opposed apartheid in South Africa during the 1980s; why is the same university’s leadership not protesting, or even acknowledging, structures of racial injustice within the Creek Nation, as the university seeks to nurture long-term connections with tribal actors and institutions?
This silence is all the more surprising given that in March 2021 Emory’s Carlos Museum hosted a remarkably penetrating forum on Creek Freedmen rights, in the wake of the McGirt Decision: https://carlos.emory.edu/freedmen-claims-relation-mcgirt-vs-oklahoma The panel, organized by Craig Womack (then Emory Professor of English), included the prominent Five Nations Freedmen representative Marilyn Vann; Eli Grayson (an activist for Creek freedmen rights, who is descended from both non-African Creeks and Creek Freedmen) and attorney John Parris, who has diligently pursued Freedmen legal rights in the courts. The Emory community and symposium organizers have been well aware of the Freedmen’s struggles. Why were they, in effect, sidelined during the symposium?
I appreciate that all involved seek to honor native sovereignty and are mindful of the profound historical injustices of force indigenous removal and land alienation, which were key to the foundation of Emory, and virtually all other institutions of higher education in North America. It is vital that universities advocate for the upholding of treaty rights, which have so often been abrogated by the Federal government across the decades. Yet in this instance, the rights of the Freedmen are clearly guaranteed within the foundational 1866 treaty, so defense of the treaty (and, by extension, of McGirt) logically calls for honoring Freedmen’s tribal citizenship claims. The university, it strikes many of us, is well situated to help encourage productive dialogue between Creek leadership and Creek Freedmen, continuing in the spirit of Craig Womack’s visionary work. Craig and others have emphasized that this is a critical moment, in which the university can exercise profound ethical influence in dialogue with progressive voices within the Muscogee Creek Nation.
It is my hope that as Emory University continues to explore forms of restorative justice, in the shadow of historical crimes against enlaved and indigenous peoples, that the predicament of the Creek Freedmen is not sidelined, but is rather kept front and center as all involved seek to right historical wrongs and build, collaboratively, the beloved community.
For further reading
Chaudhuri, Jean and Joyotpaul Chaudhuri. A Sacred Path: The Way of the Muscogee Creeks. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, 2001.
Womack, Craig S. Art as Performance, Story as Criticism: Reflections on Native Literary Aesthetics. Norman: Oklahoma University Press. 2009. (see especially his discussion of the cultural politics of the Creek Freedmen issue, pp. 95-114.)
Zellar, Gary. African Creeks: Estelvste and the Creek Nation. Norman: Oklahoma University Press. 2007.
Having written about reenacted slave auctions from the mid-19th century to the present (Auslander 2010; Auslander 2013; Auslander 2015), I am fascinated by John Roger’s 1859 plaster sculpture “The Slave Auction,” which the artist produced in copied format for sale during the Civil War period. Harold Holzer (2015) offers a reading of the piece in his volume The Civil War in 50 Objects. a review of works in the New York Historical Society collections. I’d like here to extend his thoughtful interpretation.
Five figures are depicted in this mass-reproduced sculptural group. Towering above the others, behind a podium, is the raised figure of the white auctioneer, his hair curled upwards, echoing the upward twist of his mustache, as if, Rogers noted, he possesses the devilish horns of “Old Nick”. To the left of the column is a striking enslaved African American man, his arms crossed defiantly, standing in classical contrapposto pose.
To the right is an enslaved woman, holding a baby to her breast, while another child clutches and hides behind her dress. The woman is depicted with notably white or European features, consistent with white abolitionists’ frequent emphasis on the near- white status of imperiled enslaved heroines. Her features also reference the theme of repeated sexual abuse inflicted on enslaved women by white slaveowners, a prominent motif in abolitionist discourse of the day. The podium bears a poster with the words; “Great Sale/of/Horses, Negroes & Other/Farm Stock/ This Day at/Public Auction.”
Iconographic and Textual Sources
By 1859, Rogers would have had innumerable textual and visual models to draw upon for this work, given that the mise en scene of the slave auction had been widely favored by northern abolitionist writers and artists for decades.
He was surely familiar with abolitionist Hammat Billings illustration, “The Auction Sale” in the second edition (1852, p. 174) of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the accompanying text, the adolescent Albert pleads without success for his purchaser to also buy his mother, from whom he is separated. In the image, the smartly dressed auctioneer towers above the enslaved chattel, who crouch in shadows. A poster is visible to the left, advertising for runaway slaves, driving home the overall theme of danger, rather as a poster is used in the Rogers sculpture to emphasize the horror of bondage.
More broadly, Rogers’ composition was likely informed by the Biblical imagery running through Stowe’s novel. Chapter 30, for example, opens with a meditation on a New Orleans slave warehouse, as diverse enslaved people are readied for the auction block:
“Then you shall be courteously entreated to call and examine, and shall find an abundance of husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and young children, to be “sold separately, or in lots to suit the convenience of the purchaser;” and that soul immortal, once bought with blood and anguish by the Son of God, when the earth shook, and the rocks rent, and the graves were opened, can be sold, leased, mortgaged, exchanged for groceries or dry goods, to suit the phases of trade, or the fancy of the purchaser.”
Rogers’ image similarly evokes the Gospels. Here we see a version of the Holy Family, now divided by the satanic auctioneer or slave dealer. The female figure with newborn evokes both Mary with the infant Jesus as well as the weeping Pieta. There may even be an echo of John: 19’s report that Pontius Pillate, after acquiescing to demands that Jesus be crucified, had a noticed prepared and affixed to the cross, reading, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Rogers’ central column, in turn, boasts the poster announcing the day’s auction, as if it too, were a cross of martyrdom.
As Holzer notes, the proximate inspiration of Rogers’ work may have been the vast slave sale of 436 enslaved people, March 2-3, 1859 conducted at the Ten Broek racecourse in Savannah, on behalf of planter Pierce Mease Butler to settle extensive debts (DeGraft-Hanson 2010). The sale was surreptitiously observed by northern journalist Mortimer Thomson, who published an expose of the auction in the New York Herald Tribune on March 9, under the pseudonym Q. K. Philander Doesticks. Doesticks described the poignant case of the young woman Daphne, who had given birth two weeks earlier. A blanket covered her and her baby, although the prospective buyers protested that they wished to judge her uncovered limbs. Rogers may also have been influenced by Doesticks’ account of the young man Jeffrey, who pleaded in vain for his new buyer to also purchase the young woman Dorcas, whom he was in love with.
In his influential account in the Tribune, the reporter contrast the “dapper” appearance of the slave dealer Joseph Bryan, with the heart-breaking visages of those being torn asunder from friends and kin:
‘The expression on the faces of all who stepped on the block was always the same, and told of more anguish than it is in the power of words to express. Blighted homes, crushed hopes and broken hearts was the sad story to be read in all the anxious faces. Some of them regarded the sale with perfect indifference, never making a motion save to turn from one side to the other at the word of the dapper Mr. Bryan, that all the crowd might have a fair view of their proportions, and then, when the sale was accomplished, stepped down from the block without caring to cast even a look at the buyer, who now held all their happiness in his hands.”
Rogers presumably read this widely reprinted piece, and his sculpture may well have been an effort to translate this text into sculptural form.
Rogers was perhaps also inspired by a widely-reported mock slave auction staged thirteen years earlier, by the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. In 1846 at his church in Manhattan, Rev. Beecher raised funds to secure the freedom of the sisters Mary and Emily Edmundson, who had been recaptured after the failed mass escape attempt of The Pearl in Washington DC in April 1848. Much was made at the time of the young women’s relatively light skin, which rendered them particularly sympathetic to white audiences, and the threat of sexual abuse that hung over them should they be acquired by southern slave owners. Rev. Beecher, playing the part of the southern slave auctioneer, reportedly took great pride in driving up the price offered by the congregation to redeem the two young women, who were emanicipated in November 1848.
The Central Podium
To my mind, the most intriguing aspect of Rogers’ composition is the podium at the center of the assemblage. The column provides height to the elevated auctioneer, and simultaneously dramatizes the imminent division between the man on the left and the woman and her children to the right.
Viewed from behind, the auctioneer’s lower legs emerge out the column, rather as if he were a serpentine demonic presence, slithering out of the wood, perhaps redolent of the tree in the Garden of Eden that presaged the Fall. (The bunching of his rear waistcoat may recall a devil’s tail). In contrast. the black adults’ bare feet, like the feet of hiding child, are firmly planted on the base of the auction block.
The central flat rectangular frontage of the podium, out of which the crouched auctioneer extends, could be read as a kind of phallic presence, redolent of the Law of the Father that is about to tear asunder this small family, as well as the implied likelihood that the enslaved woman, like her enslaved foremothers, will be subjected to white male sexual predation. The auctioneer is seen in the act of bringing his gavel down upon the podium, sealing the sale that will rend the family in two. In that sense, he and the gavel could be read as castrating forms, emasculating the heroic male black figure. The flatness of the podium front could thus be read as site of absence, a terrible void effacing the natural rights of paternity. The overall gendered imagery of the grouping, after all, prioritizes the mid-19th century ideal of the family, with the black husband solitary, tall and erect, and his wife with children, and bent over in grief, much lower than the male head of the family. This “natural” family formation is just about to be violated by demonic auctioneer rising from above the victims.
Appropriately, the shaft-like podium provides a surface for the poster announcing the sale, emphasizing, in effect, white control over the written word, implying that sinful white greed and lust seek to supplant the black man’s god-given prerogatives. It is intriguing in this regard, that the folds in the black man’s breeches, over the seat of his manhood, echo the folds in the adjacent poster. Perhaps the sculptor means to imply that right (in the sense of the male hero’s virtue) will ultimately prevail over the work of the Devil, who dares to sell off in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s words, ‘the soul immortal.”
This reading would lend further support to the sense that the central wooden column, severing the victims from one another, hints at the cross itself, under which Mary cradled her martyred son. It is striking that the enslaved woman, holding the infant to her breast, rests her head, and that of the baby, upon the podium. Perhaps, this vertical space, although at the present moment an instrument of a dreadful martyrdom, hints at a coming transformation and the promise of redemption under the cross, when the faithful will all once more be united.
The Sculpture’s Afterlife
Holzer remarks that the sculptural group did not sell anywhere near as well as Rogers had anticipated. New York City shops on the eve of the Civil War were reluctant to alienate southern customers and often refused to display the work. Rogers thus hit upon the strategy of having an African American worker hawk the mass-reproduced plasters from a push cart.
One of these was purchased by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. The work may have influenced Rev. Beecher in undertaking several months later, on February 6th, 1860 his most famous mock slave auction, from the pulpit of Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn. As I discuss in my 2013 paper, Touching the Past, through this auction a light-skinned nine-year-old enslaved girl known as Sally Maria Diggs, or “Pinky,” was redeemed for a $900 purchase price raised from the congregation. Following the precedent from his other mock auctions, Rev. Beecher intimated that were Pinky not saved from slavery, she faced a life of likely sexual servitude, and that in freeing her, the faithful were offered the opportunity to redeem themselves from sin.
Rev. Beecher famously gave to the girl an opal-studded gold ring offered by a congregation member, the writer Rose Terry, telling Pinky, “Now remember this is your freedom ring.” (In subsequent re-tellings, Rev. Beecher is said to have uttered the more dramatic phrase, “With this ring I wed thee to freedom.) Nearly six decades later, in 1927, the woman who had once been known as Pinky or Rose Terry, now known as Mrs. James Hunt, returned a ring (not, it appears, the same ring) to the Plymouth congregation, perhaps freeing herself, I have argued, from the complex and rather humiliating weight of her 1860 public redemption.
A copy of the work is in the collection of Historic New England, a gift of the founder of the organization’s forerunner, William Sumner Appleton (1874–1947), evidently in 1935. Perhaps Appleton, whose Boston family had abolitionist tendencies, had inherited the piece.
Auslander, Mark, 2011. “Holding on to Those Who Can’t be Held”: Reenacting a Lynching at Moore’s Ford, Georgia (Southern Spaces)
_____________2013 Touching the Past: Materializing Time in Traumatic Living History Reenactments, Signs and Society. 1 (1). pp.161-183
_____________2014. Give me back my Children: Traumatic Reeanactment and Tenuous Democratic Public Spheres. North American Dialogue (Society for the Anthropology of North America) 17:1, pp. 1-12.
_____________ 2015. Contesting the Roadways: The Moore’s Ford Lynching Reenactment and a Confederate Flag Rally. Southern Spaces. August 2015.
______________2019. Competing Roadways, Contesting Bloodlines: Registers of Biopower at a Lynching Reenactment and a Confederate Flag Rally. pp. 189-203. Varieties of Historical Experience. Stephen Palmie and Charles Stewart, eds. Routledge Kegan Paul.
Holzer, Harold (and the New York Historical Society). 2015. The Civil War in 50 Objects. Penguin Random House.
This post continues our discussion of the work of the artist Apay’uq, who is based in the Bristol Bay region of south-eastern Alaska. (See the artist’s work on her website).
Aqay’u’s striking painting, “Anerneq” (Spirit/Breath), 2020, bears the caption, “We are a part of the world, all as beings. We progress and evolve through each generation, but are expected by the spirits among us to carry on in the truest way of the human being. Respect all.”
The painting is centered on an enormous, serene green figure of Mother Earth, who in this rendering is the sacred essence “Anerneq”. Anerneq is sometimes described for Yup’ik and related peoples of southwestern and western Alaska as the soul or breath of a person that may be transmitted from one generation to the next, especially through naming ceremonies.
The green being, an emanation of the living landscape itself, is surrounded by life-giving waters of a flowing river. She holds in her large green hands a dried plant of the wormwood family, used, the artist explains, as medicine or tea being, here being smudged. Blessing smoke from the smudging rises up around her, towards four unclothed children, who sit within the green banks of the river, filled with brilliant flowers redolent of the forces of new life. The artist writes that in her mind the children represent the past, present, and future of the Yup’ik people. Above the youth are distant blue mountain peaks, shaped with faces of ancestors, who gaze up a a bright orange sky that perhaps evokes sunrise and the coming of a new day. Apaqy’uq notes that in her mind the the sky kisses the faces of the ancestors.
The artist further explains that the composition is inspired by the design of a traditional Yup’ik earthen or sod house, which was centered on a smoke hole. Here, the Mother Earth figure of Anerneq seems to be akin to a sheltering dwelling, from which blessing smoke rises up, as a prayer permeating all of creation.
To these observations, I will add some more speculative thoughts. It would appear that the young child at the upper right is holding a mask from the Yup’ik Winter ceremonial dance, which aids in the transition of animals and other living beings from generation to generation, allowing for hunting and fishing to continue in the coming year. Perhaps we could even understand the whole painting as a transformation of the classic Winter Ceremonial mask motif, in which various sacred natural beings and forces—including the North Wind, Salmon, Moose, Eagle, Duck, and Seal (sometimes signaled by feathers or tail carvings)— radiate out from a central face, held in concentric lattice work. The children themselves seem to be positioned rather like the feathers that encircle many Yup’ik masks, calling forth new life in the seasons to come.
If I am reading the image correctly, the children are creating music, hitting traditional drums with drum sticks, as would be appropriate when a mask is activated in ritual activity that supports the regeneration of life. Like the ceremonial masked dance performances, the overall composition appears dedicated to maintaining balance between visible and invisible realms, and between persons and nature’s beings.
Historically, winter ceremonial masks would have been allowed over time to dissolve and disintegrate in the outdoors, gradually returning to the landscape from which their materials had been gathered. Apay’uq’s painting, in contrast, is a long-term permanent gift, helping to instruct all who see it in the core values of respect and spiritual connections across time.
It appears that the eyes of the central green maternal figure are closed, and that we are meant to behold her in a state of sleep, trance, or dream-vision. She may in that sense be akin to a shamanic figure, who historically, guided by spiritual visions, would have carved masks or instructed mask carvers in the shape and imagery of each mask. Perhaps we are being invited by the artist into a productive dreamscape, witnessing how the energies of land, water, and air are passed along in great cycles of renewal, in ways that transcend conventional understanding. Looking into this beautiful, meditative face we are invited to slow down our own breathing and to become attuned to the gradual rhythms of the natural world. The encircling waterway that flows from the ancestral mountains past the children and through the Earth Mother may remind us of the annual run of salmon through Bristol Bay–which brings ocean nutrients deep into the land’s interior and its highlands. The net effect of the work is to honor the unified matrix of persons, animals, foliage, land, and water that will continue to nurture future life, so long as we honor our responsibility to safeguard these precious gifts.
For Further Reading
Ann Fienup-Riordan. 2001. What’s in a Name: Becoming a Real Person in a Yup’ik Community. in Strangers to Relatives. The Adoption and Naming of Anthropologists in Native North America. Edited by Sergei Kan. Lincoln; University of Nebraska Press.
This short essay attempts to sketch out the life of Barbara Cole Williams (1809-1892), who spent at least the first four decades of her life in slavery at Tudor Place in Georgetown. I share what is known of her life and indicate some of the major mysteries and areas of inquiry that remain.
Parentage and Descent
Barbara’s maternal grandmother was Sall Twine (c. 1761, died after 1802), a dower slave derived from the estate of Daniel Parke Custis (1711-1757), the first husband of Martha Dandridge, later Martha Custis Washington, the wife of George Washington. Sall’s mother was presumably a dower slave, and thus Sall was as well, under the custodial control, if not the full ownership, of George Washington throughout George Washington’s life. (A widow or her new husband retained use value of dower slaves, but could not sell or transfer them without court permission. Dower slaves were normally passed onto the heirs of the widow’s late husband’s estate after her death).
Sall resided and labored with other dower slaves at Dogue Run and Muddy Hole farms, two of the five farmes that made up the Mount Vernon estate, She had an estimated six children with the enslaved man George, a gardener owned by George Washington who was based at the Mount Vernon Mansion House farm. Under the terms of George Washington’s will, George was to be freed after Martha Custis Washington’s death, and was in fact freed by her before her 1802 death, probabky in 1800. The dower slaves, however, including Sall, remained enslaved and were distributed among the Custis heirs. Over sixty Custis slaves had been previously transferred to Martha Custis Washington’s son’s daughter Martha Parke Custis (1777-1854) and her husband the Georgetown merchant and mayor Thomas Peter (1769-1834), on the occasion of their wedding in 1795; many of these individuals had sold off by the Peters.
After Martha Washington’s death in 1802, ownership of Sall and her children passed to Martha Parke Custis and her husband Thomas Peter, who at this point resided at K street and Rock Street, to the immediate east of Georgetown, within the site of the new Federal City.
I am not sure of what became of George, the now free husband of Sall Twine, after this point. (Perhaps he eventually relocated to Gum Spring, along with other of the freed former slaves of George Washington.)
[In A Georgetown Life (2020) Grant Quertermous asserts that the mother of Baraba Cole was Sall Twine, but this is contrary to the oral history shared by the Barbara Cole’s descendants, and seems inconsistent with available documentary evidence.]
According to the 1799 inventory of slaves at Mount Vernon, reproduced above, Sall Twine, then based at Dogue Run farm, was the mother of Barbary, born around 1788, Abbay, born around 1789, Hannah, born around 1795, and George, born around 1798.
Hannah, age 7, presumably the daughter of Sall Twine is listed in Thomas Peter’s note of 1 April 1803 as being assigned to work at the Peter’s farm in Maryland, presumably the Oakland property (Kail 2016). The same note references George, age 6, being assigned to labor at the same property; I presume this is the young son of Sall Twine, enumerated in the 1799 Mount Vernon census of the Washington slaves. This George, as I have noted elsewhere (Auslander 2012), appears to have been later transferred to the son of Thomas and Martha Parke Custis Peter, John Parke Custis Peter, and labored through most of his life at Seneca farm and quarry, which had been part of the Oakland estate along the Potomac in Montgomery County, Maryland. (An 1835 court petition notes that prior to the death of Thomas Peter, he transferred forty-six slaves to his two sons, John Parke Custis Peter and George Washington Peter, and a family associate.)
Sall’s daughter Barbary (b. 1788) was evidently transferred to Martha and Thomas Peter, who at the time of Martha Washington’s death were residing at their house on K Street near Rock Creek (now 2018 K Street), before they purchased in 1805 the eight acre property in north Georgetown that became Tudor Place. The Peters during the early decades of the 19th century alternated residence seasonally between their new property at Tudor Place and their 500 acre farm “Oakland” in southern Montgomery County, Maryland, along the Potomac River, in the vicinity of present day Seneca and Lock 24 on the C&O canal. The Peters also owned a smaller farm property known as Effingham, between present-day Sixth and Seventh streets in Washington D.C. (Kail 2016) Presumably. their enslaved people were transferred between these properties based on agrarian and domestic labor needs.
Barbary gave birth to her daughter, Barbara (later known as Barbara Cole Williams), around 1809. It is not clear whom the father might have been. (If the 1860 census entry mentioned below for Barbara Williams pertains to “our” Barbara, then she was born in the District of Columbia, which presumably means born at the Tudor Place property.)
The Cole and Williams Surnames
Barbara (b, 1809) is at times referred to as Barbara Cole and at times as Barbara Williams. Her daughter Hannah used the Cole surname, including in registering her 1847 marriage with the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1867. It is not clear if Barbara was born with the Cole surname, or if she acquired it through marriage to an enslaved or free man of color. Perhaps the surname was used by her mother Barbary, daughter of Sall Twine, or perhaps by her unknown father.
As noted below, I believe that Barbara Cole acquired the surname Williams through marriage to a William Williams in 1856.
I list enslaved and free Cole’s in antebellum District of Columbia in Appendix I. Perhaps future research will uncover connections between some of these families and Barbara Cole.
Life at Tudor Place and Oakland
Barbary’s daughter Barbara Cole (b, 1809) seems from an early age to have been assigned to look after Britannia Wellington Peter (later Kennon), born 1815, the youngest child of Thomas and Martha Peter to reach adulthood. In time, Barbara was Britannia’s principal maid, and later looked after Britannia’s only child, Martha “Markie” Custis Kennon (1843-1886) as a nurse (Quertermous 2020). As noted below, it appears that Barbara continued to work as a nurse or nursemaid until late in life.
According to oral history among the Pope descendants, Barbara (b 1809) was impregnated in 1828, at around age nineteen, by a white member of the Peter family, possibly one of Britannia’s brothers. She bore twin girls on 28 December 1828: Barbary who died in infancy and Hannah Cole, who lived until 1912. The Pope descendants note that their biogenetic relationship to the Dandridge line (as in Martha Dandridge Custis Washington) is confirmed by DNA testing and that they have numerous white DNA cousins descended from Martha Custis Washington.
We do not know if this sexual relationship with a white member of the slaveowning Peter household was transitory or long term. There are family stories that Barbara was resistant to control, and was at times transferred out to one of the family farms, perhaps at Oakland, as punishment.
According to their descendants’ reminiscences, Barbara and Hannah resided together in the attic of Tudor Place.
Barbara and Hannah would have had close interactions with the other enslaved people in the Peter household, including the cook Charity and her daughter Fanny; before they were sold to the Governor of Virginia James A. MacDowell (1795-1851) on 13 January 1845; Sarah the chambermaid; Charles, the groom; and Henry and the waiter and coachman.
After the marriage in 1842 of Britannia Wellington Peter to US Navy Commander Beverley Kennon, Barbara and her daughter Hannah were given to the new couple as part of their dowry from the Peter family. These two enslaved women moved with the young bride Britannia to the Washington Navy Yard, which Beverley Kennon commanded. They would have been at the Navy Yard during the birth of the Kennon’s couple’s only child Martha “Markie”, and at the time of the tragic death of Beverley Kennon, when a naval gun exploded on board the USS Princeton during a demonstration cruise on the Potomac in 1844.
Following the death of their owner Beverley Kennon in 1844, Barbara and her daughter Hannah appear in the Household Appraisal of Beverly Kennon’s Estate, as “Negro Girl Hannah $350.00. Negro Girl Barbara $ 200.00.” (Tudor Place Archives MS 7 Box 1 –26). They would then have become dower slaves, controlled by Britannia Peter Kennon, and evidently returned with her to Tudor Place.
The immediate aftermath of Beverley Kennon’s death must have been a deeply unsettling time for the enslaved people at Tudor Place. in the settlement of the estate, as noted above, the cook Charity and her daughter were sold away in January 1845. Hannah was also sold that year, it would appear, by Britannia to the former Congressman, Georgetown attorney John Carter, who lived several blocks south of Tudor Place. Britannia’s reminsicences assert that the sale was made to allow Hannah to marry her beloved, Alfred Pope, then enslaved and owned by John Carter. This may have been the case, or the sale may have been primarily motivated by the financial pressures to settle the Kennon estate.
In any event, an 1867 Freedmen’s Bureau document records the marriage between Hannah and Alfred as having taken place in 1847. The following year Hannah gave birth to the couple’s first child, the girl Jedidah, named for Alfred’s mother. Also in 1848, Alfred joined the attempted mass escape on the schooner Pearl, and was recaptured. In contrast to nearly all of the Pearl escapees, Alfred was not sold to slave dealers, but was returned to reside with his owner. Two years later, Alfred, his wife Hannah, mother Jedidah, and daughter Jedidah, along with other enslaved people in the Carter household, were freed under the terms of John Carter’s will. The Pope family continued to live in Georgetown, several blocks from Tudor Place.
The 1850 slave schedule lists a “J. Peters” in Georgetown owning four female slaves, born around 1795, 1819, 1825, and 1837. None of these match the age of Barbara Cole, and it is not clear who precisely “J. Peters” was. It is possible that Sall’s daugher Hannah, born around 1795 according to the 1799 inventory at Mount Vernon, the aunt of Barbara Cole, is the eldest slave in this record, listed as born 1795. The 1850 census (of free persons) lists only one person with the Peters surname residing at Tudor Place, “M. Peters,” who must be Martha Custis Peter. The “J” in the slave schedule was presumably a mistake by the census enumerator.
It seem possible that Alfred and Hannah Pope might have labored during this period to raise the funds to secure the freedom of Hannah’s mother Barbara. or Barbara herself may have attempted to purchase her freedom. The fact that Charity and Fanny had been sold away may have increased their sense of urgency to secure Barbara’s freedom. If this was the case, no record of any such payment has survived, to my knowledge, in the District of Columbia manumission records of the period. Since Barbara was most likely a dower slave, there would have been legal challenges to manumitting her, although that consideration does not seem to have prevented Britannia from selling Charity, Fanny, and Hannah.
When Did Barbara Become Free?
There are several piece of indirect evidence that Barbara was free before 1860, and perhaps even before 1850:
The 1850 census lists a Barbara Cole, a free woman of color, born in the District of Columbia around 1815, residing in Washington Ward 1 in the household of “Mathew” (a mistaken rendition of “Nathaniel” ) Towson, a brigadier general in the US Army, who served as the Army’s Paymaster General. General Towson, who lived at 17th and F streets, just north of the Executive Mansion and opposite the Navy Department, employed two other live-in black servants, Luand (?) Witherson, born around 1825, and William Pierre (mistakenly written as “Pier” in the census), born 1824. Could Barbara already have attained freedom by this point? Given the circles that Britannia Wellington Kennon Peter traveled in, as widow to the former Commandant of the Navy Yard (who also headed the Bureau of Construction, Equipment and Repairs), it seems possible that she might have been able to secure Barbara a place in the Towson household.
The District of Columbia marriage records indicate that Barbara A. Cole married William Williams on 17 November 1856 (Film Number: 002079252). This is consistent with the 1890 District of Columbia City Directory entry that lists Barbara as the widow of William Williams (see below). This record would seem to imply that Barbara was free by 1856.
3. The 1860 slave schedule does not list any slave-owners with the surname Kennon or Peter in Georgetown, so it may be that by then there no enslaved people residing at Tudor Place. Britannia’s close Peter relatives retained extensive slave holdings at several sites in nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, including in Seneca (the former Oakland property) and the four women listed in the 1850 slave schedule might have been transferred to one of those properties by 1860. It is known that Britannia regularly rented out some of the enslaved people she owned, and perhaps for this reason none are listed in the 1860 census.
4. The 1860 census lists a Barbary Williams, age 50 (born around 1810 in the District of Columbia ), living as a free black servant in the household of the Georgetown merchant Corrnelius Stribling, at the corner of Gay and Green Streets (present day N and 29th streets), along with two other free black servants Mary Carter and Eliza Carter. This household was two blocks due south from the home at O and 29th streets, of Alfred Pope and Hannah Cole Pope, the daughter of Barbara Cole Williams, and about four blocks from Tudor Place, where Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon still resided.
Speculatively the surname Carter of the two other servants in the Stribling household might suggest they had some connection with the household of Congressman Congressman John Carter, where Alfred and Hannah Pope had been enslaved up until 1850.
Barbara’s employer in 1860, Cornelius K. Stribling II, was the first son of Rear Admiral Cornelius K. Stribling, the third commandant of the US Naval Academy. Cornelius II was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and was married to Emma Josepha Nourse, son Dr. Benjamin Franklin Nourse, descendant of James Nourse, whose family was prominent in Georgetown and environs. Britannia was on familiar terms with the Nourses, and through her late husband USN Commandant Kennon, knew many senior figures in the Navy. Perhaps she helped secure Barbara her position in the Stribling household.
(In 1850, in Norfolk VA, the father of Cornelius Stribling II, Admiral Cornelius Stribling owned six slaves. However, I do not see any evidence that Cornelius II owned any slaves.
Who was William Williams?
Who was William Williams, who evidently married Barbara Cole in 1856?
The 1850 census lists a William M. Williams, a free man of color living in Washington’s Ward 1, born around 1824 in Virginia, evidently a servant in the household of Maria Sperden. The 1853 City Directory lists a William Williams, colored, working as a driver and living downtown on C street between 3rd and 4th.
The 1858 District of Columbia Directory lists a William Williams, colored, employed as a coachmen residing in an alley between M and N streets, north, near Vermont Avenue. This location was about two miles due west of Tudor Place and the residence of Alfred and Hannah Pope (who lived at 78 Montgomery street in Georgetown, now 28th and O streets.) Two years later, the 1860 directory lists a William Williams, colored, as a waiter, living nearby at 235 L street, north. (There is not a black William Williams of credible age in the 1860 census in the District.)
At least fifteen black men named William Williams served in the US Colored Troops and at least eleven black men of the same name enlisted in the Union Navy during the Civil War; I am not sure at this point if Barbara’s husband served in the Union Army or Navy.
In Appendix II, I list enslaved and free people of color in the District of Columbia with the surname Williams, some of whom may be related to Barbara’s husband.
Post Civil War
It is possible that Barbara alternated between the Williams and Cole surnames. The 1865 Georgetown directory lists a “Mrs. Barbara Cole, col’d” (colored), living at 23 Fourth street (present day Volta Place), about three blocks from Tudor Place, just across High Street (the present day Wisconsin Avenue).
The 1870 and 1880 censuses gives no indication of a Barbara Cole, a Barbara Williams or a William Williams of the correct age living in Georgetown or elsewhere in the District of Columbia. I am not sure what point Barbara became widowed.
On August 18, 1871, Hanna Cole Pope opened a Freedman’s Bank account in the District, and listed as her mother “Barbara Williams,” but giving no indication of where Barbara was living at the time.
During the later decades of her life, Barbara Cole Williams must have known her granddaughter and namesake, the remarkable Barbara Ellen Pope (1858-1908), daughter of Hannah Cole and Alfred Pope. Barbara Pope, a teacher, accomplished writer. and Niagra Movement member, was famously arrested in 1906 for refusing to sit in a “Jim Crow” segregated railroad car and subsequently won her legal case with Niagra Movement support, establishing the right of interstate transportation without discrimination based on race. (Harris 2015).
The 1876 City Directory lists a Barbara Williams as a servant at 810 20th Street. After this there is no listing of Barbara for twelve years until the the 1888 City Directory lists a Barbara Williams as a nurse at 1143 Connecticut Avenue.
Two years later, the 1890 District of Columbia Directory lists Barbara Williams, widow of William, nurse, residing at 2900 O Street in Georgetown, the same address as her daughter Hannah Cole Pope and son in law Alfred Pope, where Barbara E. Pope resided as well. [The Pope family descendants recall that Barbara E. Pope lived her entire life in her parents’ house, escpt for time she spent at Tuskegee. According to the 1900 census, Barbara Cole Williams’ granddaughter Barbara E. Pope, occupation schoolteacher, resided at te 2900 O Street address ,where she is also listed in the 1860, 1870 and 1880 censuses.]
Family Search’s database of DC deaths (record 662) notes that Barbara Williams died on 18 August 1892 in Washington D.C, at age 86. She is buried in Mount Zion Cemetery in north Georgetown: The record from an undertaker reads,” Barbara Williams born 1806/died Aug 9 , 1892 – place of death 2900 O Street, NW,” the home of her parents Alfred and Hannah Pope. . Her eldest granddaughter Jedidah A, Pope Thompson, died 10 August 1897, and is buried in the Old Methodist burying ground of Mount Zion Cemetery (Sluby 1975, p 57). In contrast, Barbara Cole Williams’ granddaughter Barbara E. Pope (who never married) is buried in Columbia Harmony Cemetery (subsequently moved from Rhode Island Avenue to Hyattsville, Maryland).
Appendix I. Enslaved and Free Persons of Color with Surnames Cole in the District of Columbia
A. Free persons of color with the surname Cole in antebellum DC in 1860 include:
The family of James and Catherine Cole in Ward 2:
James Cole 42 Catharine Cole 38C Georgiana Cole 18 Wm Cole 16 Wille Ann Cole 10 Hester Tyler 25 Ida Tyler 4 (Georgeanna Cole’s freedom was attested to on 5 May 1859, by John S. Norris in front of a Justice of the Peace.)
On July 2, 1860, George Cole, a free man of color, states that he has been illegally arrested and confined to jail as a runaway slave. He sought a writ of habeas corpus, which was granted.
B. Enslaved Persons with the surname Cole
The 1862 Compensated Emancipation petitions in the District of Columbia indicate that at least fourteen enslaved people with the surname Cole were freed. These includeL
Sibey (or Libey) Cole, born around 1787, and her likely daughter Rachel Cole, born around 1833, owned by Ulysses Ward. (Sibey was acquired from Ulysses’s wife).
Ellen Cole, born around 1810, owned by Matthew McCleod (Inherited by Matthew’s late wife from her mother in law, Mrs. Mary Manning of St. Mary’s County Marylan.)
James Henry Cole, born around 1840, owned by Michael R Combs (received as a deed of gift from Michael’s grandfather Michael Sardo)
Maria Cole, born around 1847, owned by Thomas H. Barron, acquired through Thomas’ marraige. (Maria was in Prince George’s County when the act of emancipation was passed.)
Milly Cole, born around 1819 and her children Jacob Cole, b. 1839 and Rosa Cole , owned by Charles Lyon. Milly Jacob and Rosa, born 1852, were all purchased from Thomas and Cathereine Barron in 1854 An associated note indicates taht Jacob Cole, a “good mechanic, ” was purchased by Charles Lyons from Mr Sheckell of Washington City D. C. a Negro dealer about the year 1854” (Rosa Cole is not emancipated in 1862, so perhaps died at some point.)
Julia Cole, born around 1822, and her children Joseph, William, Robert and Albert, owned Mary A Harvey. (All inherited from Mary’s late father the late Michael Sardo last of Washington County in the District of Columbia. (Note that Michael Sardo also bequeatheed James Henry Cole )
Joanna Cole (alias Alexander) born around 1835 owned by Lieut. Henry L. Abbott, US Army, Acquired, “By virtue of a bill of sale from Mary Helen McLeod of Georgetown D.C. executed on the 19th day of June 1860” )
Appendix II. Enslaved and Free Persons of Color with Surnames Williams in the District of Columbia
A. Enslaved Persons with surname Williams:
Owned by Thomas Donoho (who purchased Selina Wiliams and child John Henry from Joshua Talbot in 1833):
Salina Williams 51 James Henry (son of Selina) 30 Lydia (daughter of Selina). 24 Lewis (son of Selina 15.1 mo Marion (daughter of Selina 20 Gertrude (daughter of Marion 6 Laura (daughter of Marion 3 Edward (son of Lydia 6 Albert (son of Lydia 18 months
These are presumably related to Harriet Williams, owned by Thomas Talbert [Jr.] in the 1857 tax assessment in unincorporated Washington County,
Dick [i.e., Richard] Williams, 18, in the 1855 tax assessment, owned by Margaret C. Barber (current grounds of the Naval Observatory)
Owned by Fielder Magruder:
Duke Willams, born 1822 Adeline Williams Lewis Williams Charles Williams Maria Williams (daughter of Adeline )
(Fielder purchased all except Maria around 1856, from John Throckmorto. Maria “born of Adeline since i purchased her.”)
B. Free Williams:
William Williams a free man of who in the District of Columbia in March 1836 sought an injunction against a Thomas Duvall, to prevent Duvall from transporting his enslaved wife and child out of the District of Columbia Williams asserted Duvall had imprisoned his wife and child in a slave jail with the intention of selling them to a slave dearlr. . (Petition details at: https://library.uncg.edu/slavery/petitions/details.aspx?pid=4283 )
In Georgetown Ward 2 in 1860
Nathaniel Williams 57 M A Williams 30 Rebecca Williams 25 Joseph Williams 29
In Georgetown Ward 2 in 1860
Joseph Williams 53 mulatto Bessie Williams 49
In Georgetown Ward 4 in 1860:
Charles Williams 53 M A Williams 50 Sarah Williams 21 John Williams 20
Washington Ward 1 in 1860: Mary Williams 54 Mary Williams 12
Washington Ward 1 in 1860:
Chas Williams 40 Mathilda Williams 38 Mary Williams 19 Charles Williams 17 Francis Williams 16 Richard Williams 12 Martha Williams 7 Isabella Williams 6 Julia Williams 2
Washington Ward 2 in 1860:
Emily Williams, 28, servant in the household of William Thompson. plumber and gas fitter
Washington Ward 4 in 1860:
Frederic Williams 30 Lucy Williams 30 William Williams 18 Percilla Williams 15 Ann Williams 12 Charles Williams 10 James Williams 8 George Williams 4 Robert Williams 1
NOTE: Of possible significance, there is an intriguging free black family with Williams and Cole surnames, in Washington DC, Ward 1, in the 1860 census:
Geo Williams 47 laborer Delphia Williams 63 Sarah Cole 25 Jos Cole 7 Eugene Cole 4
NOTE: Of possible significance, there is an intriguging free black family with Williams and Cole surnames, in Washington DC, Ward 1, in the 1860 census:
Geo Williams 47 laborer Delphia Williams 63 Sarah Cole 25 Jos Cole 7 Eugene Cole 4
I do not know if this Williams-Cole family is somehow related to Barbara Cole Williams.
I am grateful to Wendy Kail, former archivist, Tudor Place, for her assistance in researcing enslaved persons at Tudor Place and at related Peter properties. Ann Chinn, historian and direct descendant of Barbara Cole Williams, has generously shared her family knowledge of this rich and complex history. Many thanks to Lisa Fager, (Executive Director Mt. Zion – Female Union Band Society Historic Memorial Park, Inc) for sharing information on Mt Zion burials; and to David Taylor for sharing information on Barbara E. Pope’s burial.
April 15, 2023 will mark the 175th anniversary of the escape on The Pearl the largest attempted non-violent escape of enslaved people in American history. On April 15, 1848, approximately seventy-seven enslaved people—according to one account “38 men and boys, 26 women and girls, and 13 small children or infants” — boarded the schooner The Pearl, which sailed surreptitiously from a District of Columbia wharf near seventh street down the Potomac, with the hopes of voyaging up the Chesapeake to reach the free state of New Jersey. In the early hours of April 18, a posse of slaveowners on a steamboat intercepted the ship near Point Lookout, at the edge of the Chesapeake Bay, and captured the escapees. Nearly all of the enslaved people were sold by their owners by slave traders; many were transported to New Orleans, to be sold in slave markets there.
As we approach the 175th anniversary, the challenge of locating the fate of the escapees and their descendants seem especially urgent. Lines of descendants from Alfred Pope and the Edmonson’s are well documented and Kaci Nash  has made some progress in tracing the post-slavery history of the Bell family. Yet the other fugitives and their posterity remain, to my knowledge, untraced.
Having previously studied the enslaved families in the household of Ariana Jones Lyles of Tenallytown, at her 95 acre farm known as The Rest (in the current vicinity of 39th and Windom Streets NW, Washington DC), I am particular intrigued by three of the enslaved people she owned, who are listed as escaping passengers on The Pearl:
Nat Rosier Augustus Rosier Hannibal Rosier
Who precisely were these individuals and what became of them and their kin?
The 1828 Inventory of the Dennis Magruder Lyles Estate
Two of these individuals. Hannibal and Nat, appear in the 1828 probate inventory of the estate of Ariana Lyles’ late husband, Dennis Magruder Lyles, in the Piscataway district of Prince George’s County, at his family seat of Harmony Hall, located about three miles down the Potomac from the current location of National Harbor: “One boy Hanable,” valued at fifty dollars, appears after the name of the woman Sophia, so is presumably her son. “One small boy Nathaniel,” also valued at fifty dollars, appears after the name of the woman Harriet, so is likely to be her son. There is no reference to an Augustus or Gus, so presumably he was born after the 1828 inventory.
The full inventory of enslaved persons, to whom we will return to, is as follows.
Prince George’s County Inventories, Register of Wills. TT vol 7. p. 248. Slaves of Dennis M Lyles, bequeathed to widow Arianna Lyles. (Names followed by valuation in dollars.)
Negro Man John 325 Ellick Oliver 300 William 300 Enoch 250 Elick 350 Randolph 350 Huke? 350 Humphrey 150 John 50
Negro woman Kitty Rachel 225 one small boy Abraham 50 one small girl Sarah 25 woman Sophia 200 one boy Hanable, 50 one boy James 150 woman Harriet 225 one small boy Nathaniel 50 one small girl Priscilla 25 One old woman Winny 25 one boy Bacchus aged about 14 years, 200 One girl Jane 50 One girl Arianna ? 100 one woman Mary 200 one girl Betty 50 One boy Thomas 50
With the exception of Rachel, and perhaps Sarah, all of these enslaved individuals passed to Ariana Lyles, the widow of the late Dennis Margruder Lyles. Under the term of Dennis Lyles’ will, his slave Rachel Loggins was freed. (Prince George’s County Will TI#l:438j Prince George’~County Certifi-cates of Freedom, p. 126, 1 January 1829)
In 1836, seven years after her husband’s death, Arianna Jones Lyles acquired the property known as The Rest, which still stands at 4343 39th street on the northeast corner of 39th and Windom, a bit southeast of the current location of Tenley Circle. The house had been previously owned by Arianna’s aunt Sarah Jones Love. The property was adjacent to the estate known as Clean Drinking, which had been in the possession of her mother’s kin, the Jones family. The Rest farm and orchard extended south to the northern border of the Highlands, the Charles Josephus Nourse estate. Presumably, in the late 1830s the widowed Ariana Lyles relocated to The Rest with her young daughter Sallie and fifteen or so enslaved persons. It is from this property, so far as we can tell, that three of the enslaved individuals owned by Ariana Lyles–Hannibal, Nathan, and Augustus Rosier–escaped in mid-April 1848. These three, along with the other 74 or so other escapees on The Pearl were recaptured on April 18 and were forcibly returned to the District of Columbia.
1848: Who Remained in Georgetown? The Case of Alfred Pope
It is generally asserted by historians that nearly all the recaptured escapees on The Pearl were sold by their owners to slave traders. The only clear exception to this case that I know of was Alfred Isaac Pope of Georgetown, whose owner Colonel John Carter, a North Carolina congressmen, decided not to sell him. Alfred, believed to have been fathered by a white male relative of Colonel Carter, held a relatively high status in the Carter household. Alfred’s descendant, the community historian and activist Ann Chinn, shares the family story that Colonel Carter asked Alfred, with astonishment, why he had chosen to escape, given his comparative life of privilege in Georgetown. Alfred replied that he simply could not tolerate a life in slavery. This seems to have influenced Colonel Carter, who in his will indicated that Alfred and his wife Hannah Cole Pope should be freed, along with the couple’s daguther Jedidah, Alfred’s mother Jedidah and other people enslaved in the household, which they were after Carter’s death in 1850. The Pope’s in time became one of the most prominent African American families in Georgetown.
Hannah Cole, it should be noted, was a direct descendant in the female line of enslaved woman Sall Twine, a dower slave held by Martha Custis Washington at Dogue Run farm at Mount Vernon. Hannah’s mother was Barbara Cole Williams, who was held in slavery in the household of Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon, great granddaughter of Martha Custis Washington, at Tudor Place in north Georgetown. Hannah, her descendants note, was fathered by one of the white brothers of Britannia. As Britannia’s (unacknowledged) niece, it may be that Hannah was afforded some restricted privileges within the Tudor Place compound. Around 1845, Britannia consented to Hannah’s request that she be sold to Colonel John Carter, who lived a few blocks away, so that she could reside with the enslaved man Alfred Pope, whom she intended to marry.
An 1867 Freedmen’s Bureau document records that Alfred Pope and Hannah Cole were married in 1847. The following year, Alfred Pope boarded The Pearl, in the failed escape.
It is not clear why Hannah did not join her new husband on The Pearl. Perhaps, Alfred hoped to establish himself in New Jersey or another free state, and in time arrange to purchase Hannah’s freedom at a distance. Since the Pope’s first born child Jedidah was born around 1848, it is possible that Hannah was pregnant or caring for a newborn in April 1848, and thus deemed an escape inadvisable. It may also have been that Hannah was reluctant to leave behind her mother Barbara, who was still enslaved at nearby Tudor Place as a maid to Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon.
Reviewing the 1848 slave trading records
What happened to all the other escapees on The Pearl?
After they were captured and returned to the District of Columbia, some of the fugitives were initially purchased from their owners by the slave trader Joseph Bruin, who in 1843 had formed in Alexandria, the slave trading firm Bruin and Hill with his partner Henry P. Hill. Bruin purchased the six Edmonson siblings and transported them to New Orleans, bringing back the two Edmonson sisters to Alexandria because of a Yellow Fever outbreak in Louisiana. Their freedom was eventually secured through fundraising by Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and others. Bruin’s slave jail became nationally infamous after it was featured in Rev. Beecher’s sister Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Unfortunately, no records of Bruin and Hill’s operations survive to my knowledge, so it is unclear if Hannibal, Nathaniel and Augustus Rosier were purchased by the firm from Ariana Lyles after their recapture.
In a widely reprinted letter to the editor, Congressman John L Slingerland of Albany NY, describes encountering (evidently on the evening of April 21) about fifty fugitives from The Pearl, “some of whom were nearly as white as myself,” confined to a rail box car at the District of Columbia’s railroad depot, about to be taken to “Georgia.” Slingerland describes a Baltimore-based slave dealer on the train, purchasing the escaped individuals from their owners. (first published Albany Evening Journal; reprinted in the The Semi-Weekly Eagle, Brattleboro, Vermont. May 4, 1848, under the title “Horrors of Washington-Scene at Washington:). Harriet Beecher Stowe reports in The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Part II, Chapter Six) that after the recapture about forty Pearl escapees were transported to Baltimore, and held there about three weeks, until they were transported south to New Orleans.
Some of these names, including the Edmonson siblings, are recorded on the slave manifest of the brig Union, arriving in New Orleans on 18 May 1848. However, the three Rosier men are not listed. Nor have I seen them listed in the other coastwise inward and outward slave manifests held in the National Archives. (It is possible that were listed under other surnames than Rozier or Rosier, or that they were sold locally within Maryland, Alexandria or the District of Columbia, in which case no ship manifests would record their names.)
1855 Tax Assessments, Washington County, District of Columbia
Are we sure that Ariana Lyles sold Hannibal, Nathan and Augustus Rosier after their recapture in 1848?
The January and February 1855 tax assessments for Washington County (which was until 1871 separate from the capital city of Washington for tax collection purposes) lists the following enslaved people owned by “Lyles, Mrs. Arian[n]a J”, with their names, ages, and estimated value:
Given that Hannibal. Nathaniel and Augustus are not included in this tax assessment, they presumably had been sold before 1855. It seems likely that in keeping with nearly all the other owners of the Pearl escapees, Ariana Lyles sold them in 1848. (Incidentally, Kitty, the first woman listed in the 1828 inventory of Dennis Lyles’ estate is missing from the 1855 assessment, but I speculate she may be the same person as the Kitty, age 42 (born around 1813) in the tax assessment list of Thomas Marshall, Arianna’s son in law and immediate neighbor. Perhaps Arianna’s daughter Sallie brought Kitty into her marriage with Thomas Marshall.)
Compensated Emancipation Petitions, 1862
In her 2005 book on The Pearl, Josephine Pacheco incorrectly asserts that Hannibal Rosier, escapee on the Pearl, was the only one of the estimated seventy seven escapees who still resided in the District of Columbia at the time of compensated emancipation in 1862. This is clearly incorrect. As noted above, Alfred Pope, a Pearl passenger, was freed in 1850 following the death of his owner Col, John Carter, and continued to live in Georgetown with his wife Hannah Cole Pope, the daughter of Babara Cole Williams, who had remained enslaved at Tudor Place.
There is a Hannibal Rozier in the 1862 compensated emancipation petition of Ariana Lyles, but he was six years old when manumitted, so was born around 1856 and clearly could not have participated in the April 15, 1848 escape on board The Pearl, six years before his birth.
Having said that, the enslaved Rozier family documented in the 1862 compensated emancipation petition of Ariana Lyles is certainly intriguing. The thirteen enslaved people freed in her household are:
Randall Ford, 57 Maria 26, Caroline 16, Adrian Conter , 32 David Oliver, 24 John Oliver, 26 Henry Rozin, 8 Hannibal Rozin, 6stemboat Sophia Ford, 70 [Chiah?] Bowman, 62 Eliza Rozin, 31 Maria Brown, 26 Caroline Oliver, 16 Sally Rozin, 4 & Anthony (no age given)
Of these, Ariana attests she inherited all from her late husband Dennis Margruder Lyles, with the exception of Chiah, whom she “purchased from the Estate of Hanson Marshall late of Charles County Maryland, deceased.”
Of all the individuals listed in the petition, only Randolph Ford matches with anyone listed in the 1828 inventory of the Lyles estate at Harmony Hall.
All four of the individuals with the Rosier surname —Eliza, Hannibal, Henry and Sallie—are born after 1828, so it is not surprising that they are absent from the inventory of Dennis M. Lyles’ estate. Of the four Rozier’s listed in the 1862 petition, only Eliza is recorded in the 1855 tax assessment rolls. Eliza is presumably the mother of Henry, Hannibal and Sallie. Perhaps Eliza, born around 1833, was a daughter of Harriet or Sophia, the evident mothers of two of the escapees on the Pearl, “Hannable” and “Nat.” (I do not know if Eliza took her surname Rozier from her mother, or from a husband, as both practices are documented in enslaved communities.)
1870 Census: Eliza and her Children
I see no evidence of the Pearl escapees Hannibal, Nathaniel and Augustus Rozier in the 1870 census, the first Federal census in which the names of all persons of color were recorded, or in the 1880 census. Perhaps they died in the period since 1848, or perhaps their names had been changed. (In the 1870 census, there is is only one African American with the surname Rosier born in Maryland in the state of Louisiana, the state to which the recaptured Rosier’s were possibly transported in 1848: this is Charles Rosier, born around 1829, living as a farmer in East Baton Rouge.)
However, Eliza Rosier and her children Hannibal, Henry and Sallie, listed in Ariana’s 1862 peition, do appear eight years later in the 1870 census in downtown Washington DC, in an alley off of 10th street:
Randolph Ford Age 57 (hence born around 1805 )
Eliza Rozur, 42 (born c. 1828)
Hanibal Rozur, 16 (born 1856)
Henry A Rozur, 12 (born 1858)
Sally Rozur, 10, born 1860
Note that the ages of Hannibal and Henry have been exchanged between the 1862 and the 1870 census, and that Sally is listed in 1870 as two years younger than in the 1862 petition, which suggests the 1870 census enumerator may have been hasty and somewhat inattentive.
In any event, since the eldest of Eliza’s listed children was born in 1854, six years after The Pearl incident, they clearly could not have been fathered by any of the escaping Rozier men. Perhaps the escaping Hannibal was the elder brother, uncle, or grandfather of Eliza, and she named her child Hannibal ( most likely born in 1854, six years after the failed attempt) in his memory.
It is just possible that the “A” in Henry Rozier’s middle name may have stood for Augustus, and that he too was named for one of the Pearl escapees.
As noted above, in 1870 Eliza and her children are living with 65 year old Randolph Ford (born around 1805), who had also been listed “Randall,” (same age) in the 1862 petition and had been listed as Randolph in the 1828 inventory of Dennis M. Lyles, as one of nine enslaved men owned by the estate. Perhaps Randolph Ford is the father or father-in0law of Eliza Rozier, and grandfather of the children Hannibal, Henry and Sally.
Hannibal Rozier, presumably the son of Eliza, is listed in the 1873 District of Columbia directory, as a laborer, boarding at 504 10th street, SW. I have not yet located further records of him.
Nathan Rosier: 1870 Freedman’s Bank
A possible kinsman of escapee Nat Rosier may appear twenty-two years after the Pearl Affair in the Freedman Bank’s records, in the District of Columbia. On April 16, 1870 Nathan Rosier, age 63 (born around 1807) opens a bank account with a $7.50 deposit, noting that his parents are no longer living, and indicating that he was born and grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland.
In his 1870 bank record Nathan lists his wife Jane Rosier and children Henrietta Turner and James Rosier. He reports as his half brothers Henry Smallwood and Joseph Rosier, and as his sisters Cenia Ann, Jane, Eliza, and Mary.
This Nathan, born around 1807 cannot be the “small boy Nathaniel” listed in the 1828 inventory of the Dennis Lyles estate. As noted above, there is no Nathan or Nathaniel of his age listed in the 1828 Dennis Lyles inventory. Much more likely is that the escapees Nat, Hannibal and Augustus were all young men in 1848, perhaps in their twenties.
Yet this Nathan Rozier in the 1870 bank record seems likely to be a relative of some sort to the group Rozier’s previously enslaved by the Lyles. One of his sisters is “Eliza,” who could be related to the Eliza listed in Ariana Lyle’s compensated emancipation 1862 petition.
I do not see Nathan and Jane Rozier in the 1870 census, but the 1880 census lists a Nathan Rozier, born around 1839, a farmer in Trappe, Talbot County, on the eastern shore of Maryland, married to Jane.
Background: Enslaved and Free Rozier’s
There are many 19th century records of enslaved and free people of color with the surname of Rozier, Rosier, Rozur, or Roser, primarily in the District of Columbia, and the Maryland counties of Montgomery County, Prince’s George’s County, Queen Anne’s County, Talbot, and Charles County.
It is possible that this extended network of enslaved and free Rosier people had their origins in the estates of H. Rosier, who is recorded in the 1810 census in Pescataway and Hynson Hundreds, Prince George’s, Maryland, as owning 20 slaves (with two free people of color) and Mary Rosier, who in 1810 in the same district owned 52 slaves. These slaveowning Rosier’s were likely descendants of Benjamin Rosier (d.1681) Charles Cty, Port Tobacco, MD.
The estates of H. Rosier and Mary Rosier, near the current location of National Harbor, were within a few miles of the location of Dennis Magruder Lyles’ family seat Harmony Hall, where the slaves enumerated in the 1828 inventory resided. I am not sure if the enslaved individuals in question came into the Magruder and Lyles family through inheritance or sale.
As of this writing, I have found no direct documentary traces of the fates of The Pearl escapees Nathanial, Hannibal and Augustus Rosier after their recapture on April 17, 1848. It seems likely that they were quickly sold by Ariana Lyles, who had evidently inherited them or their parents from her husband Dennis Magruder Lyles in 1828, to local slave traders. Perhaps they were sold within the District of Columbia or surrounding Maryland counties, or perhaps, like so many other Pearl fugitives, they were transported in New Orleans and then were resold into plantations in Louisiana and Mississippi, where many enslaved people faced horrific working conditions and abbreviated life spans.
One of the many remaining questions from the spring of 1848 is how precisely did Hannibal, Augustus, and Nathaniel learn of the pending escape, as word spread through the network of enslaved and free families in Georgetown? At the time, were all three residing at The Rest, over three miles from the heart of Georgetown up the Fredrick Road, now know as Wisconsin Avenue? We do know that some enslaved people from Georgetown, including those from Tudor Place, were regularly rotated out to family farms in Tennalytown, so they may have helped spread the word. Alternately, Ariana Lyles may have rented out one or more of the Rosier men to a white family or business in Georgetown, where they gained knowledge of the plan. We can only speculate why of the fifteen or so people then enslaved at The Rest, only the three Rosier young men decided to take the great risk of escape, while the others remained in captivity. (Ann Chinn suggests that escape organizer Paul Jennings, who had been enslaved by President Madison. worked hard to spread the word among enslaved people in the area’s affluent households.)
One thing we can be sure of, however, is that, whether they were conscious of the fact or not, as the three Rosier men sailed down the Potomac on board The Pearl on April 16, 1848, they passed directly by Harmony Hall and the other lands on the eastern shore of the Potomac where generations of their forbearers had been enslaved. A day later, as the white posse returned them under armed guard back up the Potomac, they would have passed the same sites of familial enslavement, as they approached the District of Columbia and faced a terrifying and uncertain future.
Mary Beth Corrigan, “The Legacy and Significance of a Failed Mass Slave Escape”, H-Net Reviews: Josephine Pacheco, The Pearl: A Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac, April 2006.
Josephine F. Pacheco. The Pearl: A Failed Slave Escape on the Potomac. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005
Quertermous, Grant S. (ed.) A Georgetown Life: The Reminsicences of Britannia Wellington Peter Kennon of Tudor Place. Georgetown University Press. 2020.
Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the Pearl The Heroic Bid For Freedom on the Underground Railroad Harper-Collins: New York 2007
Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon Which the Story Is Founded, Together with Corroborative Statements Verifying the Truth of the Work. . Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1854.