FORT CHISWELL — Descendants of a Wythe County doctor and one of his slaves on Saturday visited the mansion and plantation where their ancestors once toiled.
Judy Quarles Jones of Roanoke said growing up, her family used to travel south on Interstate 81 to visit relatives in Knoxville and drive right past the McGavock mansion, but she had no idea it was connected to her.
She would later come to learn that her ancestors were slaves who farmed the land in Wythe County, but it wasn’t until her cousin Jimmy Cook asked her last year to gather up her pictures and meet a new cousin before the story began to unfold in detail.
Together, they combed through records and graveyards, sifted through pictures and pulled together a Kincannon family array that was on display Friday evening at the Hotel Roanoke.
The display was open to the public, and the room was packed.
“It shows there is a demand to see people of color in this historic period,” said Betty Jean Wolfe, who teamed up with Cook and Jones to organize the display and the family reunion. “So my hope is that historical societies in this region would be interested in borrowing our collection and showing it in their space.”
The family has pieced together records to document their story. They know that Hannah was 18 years old and valued at $500 when in 1849 she was listed in Andrew Kincannon Jr.’s will. Two years later, she would have the first of three children with Dr. James Newell Kincannon. Harriet was born about 1851, Barbara followed three years later, and Charles was born about 1857.
“We don’t know if it was consensual or nonconsensual,” Wolfe said. But they have discovered that Kincannon, at his wife’s insistence, sold off Hannah who was forced to leave behind her children . They do not know whether she was reunited with them following the Civil War, but it does appear she found her sister.
Wolfe said about seven to nine families controlled most of Wythe County.
“They would take their enslaved people and lease them to one plantation or another,” Wolfe said.
So they are confident their ancestors worked on the McGavock plantation that sprawled on 5,000 acres, and they have census records from 1870s to show they were on that land then.
“We have no census records from before because slaves were not enumerated,” she said.
Harriet, who was Wolfe’s three-times great grandmother and Barbara, who was Jones and Cook’s ancestor, stayed in Virginia.
Charles got on a train when he was 13 and traveled 600 miles to St. John, Illinois, his descendant Raymond Thompson of California said.
He married, had 21 children and two houses — one for the boys, one for the girls — and was a councilman for eight consecutive terms. He talked often of his sisters, which prompted his sixth child — Thompson’s grandmother — to reach out to the sheriff in Roanoke sometime in the 1930s or ’40s to help them find relatives.
The sheriff knocked on Cook’s grandmother’s door, linking the cousins for the first time. Cook’s late father, who was an oral historian, and Jones’ parents hosted a family reunion for the Kincannons 34 years ago, and though some had stayed in touch, nothing else was planned until Cook met Wolfe.
Cook is president of the Hurt Park Neighborhood Alliance and knew Wolfe’s mother, Virginia Wolfe, who among other community endeavors founded the Gainsboro Neighborhood Alliance.
Betty Jean Wolfe came to Roanoke to care for her mother before she died in December 2017.
The idea for the reunion came up as she and Cook pored over pictures.
“I went to Betty Jean’s for lunch and didn’t leave until 12 the next day,” he said.
Cook knew Jones had lots of pictures and memories so last year he brought her in on the plan.
They have since made many trips to Wythe, exploring landmarks, churches, cemeteries and records.
“A lot of things surprised me,” Jones said. “I didn’t know they stacked bodies on top of each other in cemeteries. And that they could do that, and it was OK. When you start looking for your ancestors and you know they are in a certain cemetery, but you can’t find anything, that was pretty shocking to me.”
She said reading plantation owners’ sales records was upsetting.
“Slaves were just listed like livestock, no regard for being a human being, just listed with the pigs and cows being sold,” Jones said. “The three of us cried a lot. We’d look at each other and cry, and then we’d keep researching, and then we’d find a tidbit of a relative and we’d rejoice. Oh, we found somebody. It was both laughter and sad.”
They developed a list of places to take their relatives during the reunion including the Wytheville Training School Cultural Center, established by the Freedmen’s Bureau after the war to educate children of color.
Thompson said children came from several counties, some traveling 71 miles to get an education.
Life for Charles’ mid-Western family differed greatly from that of his sisters’ line who stayed in Virginia. Jones was among the first children to integrate Roanoke schools.
“I never had the prejudice that they had here,” said Harriet Champion, 90, of California.
Her sister Rosalie Kaiser Dodd, 81, of Minnesota, said their neighborhood and schools in Iowa had never been segregated, and their teachers wanted all the children to succeed.
The sisters were struck by the beauty of Wythe and felt blessed to know so much about their family’s heritage, and now to meet so many relatives.
Thompson regrets that they haven’t been able to learn anything beyond Hannah.
He said he has traced the white side of the Kincannon family to the 1500s, including seeing the family crest, but as far as Hannah’s line, the information stops with her.
“It’s like a part of you is lost. I wish I could speak with members of the white family. I want to be clear nobody owes us anything,” he said. “My thoughts are we just want to know if they have any information about Hannah.”
Cook said they tried to invite the white kinfolk to the reunion 34 years ago by reaching out to one member who said he didn’t think his family wanted to hear about them. He said one or two have connected through Facebook.
Wolfe is hoping that in sharing their family’s stories and pictures they can show the contributions people of color made post-Reconstruction.
“We’re just hoping it will spur other families to do this. They haven’t done the research so they just don’t know,” she said. “Every single cousin on the planning committee had never been here and didn’t know there was a working restaurant. And I credit the owners with bringing it back and saving a valuable part of Wythe County history, so others can enjoy it even if they don’t know the history.”