Family Ties

Anna Davis was curious about her history. What she learned is a tale for the ages.

Chesterbrook’s Anna Davis. (Photo by Shane McCauley)Of familial matters, we all have tales to tell—some inspiring, others comical. When Anna Davis sought out her lineage, she found enlightenment, drama and the ferocious irony of history.

With an abundance of energy that has survived the classroom, the retired schoolteacher leads a spirited, if conventional, suburban life. She resides in a comfortable home on a Chesterbrook cul-de-sac. Her son lives in King of Prussia; her daughter owns Sweet Jazmines bakery in Berwyn. She dotes on her two grandchildren. Her husband, Jerry, is retired from his corporate career and usually lets her have the first word.

Domestic life was far less serene in Davis’ family 150 years ago. Her great-great-grandmother, Lucinda Wormley, was a slave on a Virginia plantation and the master’s preferred mistress. That union produced eight children, the eldest becoming Davis’ maternal great-grandmother. The slave master was one Blucher Wellington Hansbrough, a native Virginian of English heritage and a rich man’s son.

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By all accounts, Hansbrough was far from the worst of his lot. His most decisive act was a bid to recover a runaway slave named Charles Nalle, his own half-brother. Nalle’s flight to freedom, recapture and rescue by Harriet Tubman is the stuff of high drama and human endurance. Author Scott Christianson details the story in his book, Freeing Charles, due later this year. He has attended all three of the family reunions and become a good friend of Davis.

“It’s been a fascinating experience,” says Christianson, whose 1997 article about the Nalle case in American Legacy magazine first caught Davis’ eye. “I received many letters and calls in response [to the article],” he says. “One was from Anna Davis. We became close, exchanged visits. They are wonderful people—a great family.”

Sitting atop the family tree is Wormley, the matriarch. She and her brood lived alongside the plantation owner’s legitimate family in the main house. It was a circumstance quite common in the antebellum South—and one virtually ignored by American history texts until recent books and DNA testing substantiated the link between Thomas Jefferson and quadroon slave Sally Hemings.

Subsequent generations of Davis’ family expanded the racial makeup and have boasted their share of accomplished people. Adelaide McGuinn Cromwell, whose grandmother was the sister of Davis’ maternal great-grandfather, was the first black professor at Smith College. Cromwell’s cousin is former Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke; her aunt preceded her at Smith and was the school’s first black alumna; and her father became the first African-American CPA.

“I always wanted to know about my family, but my interest was passive for a long time,” Davis says.

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That changed in 1981, when ARCO, her husband Jerry’s employer at the time, transferred him to Chicago, where Davis dove into records at the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Archives. She identified possible relatives, made cold calls; one contact led to another. She buttonholed one cousin on the eve of his graduation from Northwestern University. “He had no way of escaping,” says Davis.

Her search continued when she and Jerry returned to Philadelphia, and accelerated with the advent of Given the burgeoning roster of family members she’d compiled, a reunion seemed inevitable—and Davis had the personality to make it happen. Last summer’s biannual get-together in Fredericksburg, Va., was 300 strong. It was the third such large-scale reunion Davis had organized.

If ever a writer was a perfect match for an assignment, it’s Christianson. He has studied the life of Tubman and written about slavery. His current home, a 20-room Georgian, served as an Underground Railroad stop near escaped slave Charles Nalle’s hiding place in Sand Lake, N.Y., 15 miles east of Albany.

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By the time Davis read Christianson’s magazine article about Nalle, she was well into her odyssey of self-discovery. She’d grown up in West Philadelphia in the ’40s and ’50s, the daughter of Willis Hare and Cuetter McGuinn-Blackwell. Hare, who’d originally come north from Henderson, N.C., to stay with relatives in Haverford, earned a master’s degree in social work at the University of Pennsylvania. McGuinn-Blackwell was raised in South Philadelphia and Bryn Mawr before graduating from Radnor High School and Howard University.

Among her memories of growing up in postwar Philadelphia, Davis recalls venturing out with preteen friends to a library in a “white” neighborhood a dozen blocks from home. “They chased us all the way back to 59th and Girard,” she says.

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While then attending Cheyney State University, she met Gerald Davis at a sorority dance, and the two married in 1966. Jerry was a three-year officer in the Marines (he’d worn his dress-whites to his ’63 commencement at La Salle), and soon the new couple found themselves at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. “I’d never lived in the South,” she says. “Real racism was something I’d rarely experienced.”

Davis recalls a mailed invitation to a Ku Klux Klan meeting. (Jerry was the only black officer at the base.) And during her social visits with officers’ wives, the word “nigger” routinely surfaced. “I was the invisible black person,” she says.

In an earlier era, visibility wasn’t an issue on a plantation worked by slaves—though masters’ wives often wore blinders regarding their husbands’ parallel families. “There are women who tell you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds—or pretends so to think,” wrote noted Civil War diarist Mary Chesnut.

Whether or not Blucher Hansbrough’s wife, Martinette Nalle, was in denial is unknown—as are the true feelings of the light-skinned Lucinda, a mulatto purchased by Blucher’s father, Peter, from the Wormley plantation in Fredericksburg. Eventually deeded to Blucher at his plantation in the Virginia hamlet of Stevensburg, she bore him eight children from 1847 to 1870. Some have suggested that the length of the relationship indicates a mutual attachment beyond coercion.

“Her concern was for her children, but Lucinda may have loved the man,” says Vernon Tancil, Davis’ cousin from Washington, D.C., and a retired historian with the National Park Service. “[Such liaisons] were rarely talked about, but are coming to the fore now.”

Whatever her emotional state, Lucinda was a survivor and, apparently, a loving mother. When she speaks of her great-great-grandmother, Davis sometimes falters on the verge of tears. She and relatives found Lucinda’s meager marker in a church cemetery in Culpeper, Va., replacing it with a larger inscribed headstone. And as she continues to research her extended family through the centuries (DNA analysis traces her female forebears to what is now Kenya), she is writing theatrical-style poetry in Lucinda’s voice.

Davis has forged new friendships with descendants in Hansbrough’s married line—the “white side” of the family. Lillian Mae Olowiany, of Locust Grove, Va., already had developed an interest in her origins when she met Davis last year. The octogenarian says her third half-cousin is “just as sweet as can be,” and that the two have grown close. Close enough, Davis says, that when they “shared their feelings of all that had happened [through the years], it was very emotional.”

At last summer’s reunion, author Christianson joined a group of family members for a ride to the top of the hill where the Hansbrough plantation’s main house once stood. Seemingly on cue, a thunderstorm dispersed the brush partially covering the tombstone of Peter Hansbrough, who’d purchased the property in 1812.

“Young people were kneeling down at that grave,” says Christianson. “It was a profound experience.”

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Standing atop Cole’s Hill in the farming village of Stevensburg, Va., Revolutionary War veteran Peter Hansbrough gazed across the verdant rolling countryside toward the hazy backdrop of Mount Pony. That such a scenic setting would witness brutal compromise and the worst kind of oppression in the decades to come seems a betrayal of nature.

Human nature, however, is incommensurable and often more a creature of cultural forces than instinct. A workforce of slaves harvested Peter’s 1,000-acre estate, while the landlord wore knee britches and a powdered wig, and traveled by coach. Two years after he bought Cole’s Hill, his wife Frances presented him with their ninth and final child, Blucher. Seven years later, a mulatto slave named Lucy gave birth to a son she named Charles. The father was Peter Hansbrough.

In time, Blucher acquired the plantation and many of its slaves, including his half-brother Charles. The new master retained his father’s sartorial flair and appetite for women, and developed a taste for gambling. Meanwhile, with Blucher’s permission, Charles married a mulatto slave named Kitty, who belonged to a nearby plantation. Blucher conferred his wife’s maiden name, Nalle, on the new couple, and allowed periodic visits, which Charles supplemented on occasion by sneaking out without a “pass.”

Losses from a sizable barn fire compounded Blucher’s free-spending ways and, in the 1850s, he began to sell some of his slaves. Charles Nalle’s number was up in 1858. By then, Kitty had been emancipated and given birth to several children, the most recent being their son, John.

Fearing complete separation from his family, Charles escaped before his date with the auction block. The stealthy Underground Railroad network led him north to key stops in Georgetown, Philadelphia, Sand Lake, N.Y., and the nearby city of Troy, a textile center dependent on cotton and, consequently, not unsympathetic to the South.

Blucher Hansbrough wanted his half-brother back and had the law on his side. He dispatched a slave catcher, who eventually brought Charles before federal authorities in Troy on April 27, 1860. Tubman, herself a runaway slave, happened to be in the area that day and promptly organized a mission to wrest Charles from his captors. A boat ferried him across the Hudson River to the city of West Troy, where federal marshals apprehended him again and placed him before another judge.

Word had spread, however, among those intent on thwarting the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. A new crowd⎯of mixed age, class, and race⎯stormed the building and liberated Charles a second time.

“Residents of Troy and West Troy eventually pooled their money to purchase his freedom⎯for $650,” says Christianson.

Charles Nalle died a free man in 1875 in Washington, D.C., where he’d worked for the U.S. Postal Service. His son John became a distinguished educator⎯an elementary school bears his name.

Many others in Davis’ extended family have led lives of distinction; there are a lot of “firsts” on the African-American side. Adelaide McGuinn Cromwell, whose grandmother was the sister of Davis’ maternal great-grandfather, Warner McGuinn, was the first black professor at Smith College. The Brookline, Mass., resident, who turns 90 this year, claims former Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke as a cousin. Cromwell’s aunt Otelia preceded her at Smith and was the school’s first black alumna. Cromwell’s father was a Dartmouth graduate who became the first African-American CPA.

Warner McGuinn, a farmer from Brandy Station, Va., was of Scots-Irish descent with a mulatto mother. He wed Rose Hansbrough, the first born of Lucinda Wormley and Blucher Hansbrough. The first child of Rose and Warner, Lucy McGuinn, married Lewis Blackwell, a black man with some Native American blood.

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The Blackwell family eventually left Virginia and headed north to South Philadelphia, where Lewis’ sister and brothers lived. Their only child, Cuetter, was just 13 when her mother died, at which time Lewis moved her to Bryn Mawr to be raised by his spinster aunt. That’s where Cuetter would meet Willis Hare, her future husband. Their eldest child is Anna Davis, named after Anna Ragsdale, the woman who helped raise her mother.

And that is the pathway across the generations from a slave plantation near Culpeper, Va., to a suburban home near Valley Forge.

The Davis family had its own road map to follow. The youngest of 10 children, Jerry lost his mother when he was still a toddler, but his determined father and cohesive West Philadelphia community shaped his values. He and Anna raised their two children in Mt. Airy. After rising to captain in the Marines, Jerry built a career in human resources and public affairs with ARCO, Smith Kline and Sunoco, commuting to New York, and moving to Los Angeles, Chicago and back to Philly along the way.

Anna taught at Philadelphia public elementary and middle schools for 29 years, the final stop at Lamberton in Overbrook Park. Most of her work was with the learning disabled and emotionally disturbed.

Now her focus is on more than a century’s worth of masked feelings and words left unspoken. She sits at her kitchen table and reads her heartfelt “Ode to Lucinda.” She speaks frequently on the telephone with Mark Rigsby, of Newberry, S.C., whose fourth great-grandfather was Blucher Hansbrough (though he doesn’t trace his bloodline to Lucinda). Rigsby had been conducting his own ancestral search when Davis first contacted him.

“I knew little about the Hansbroughs then,” says Rigby. “Now I feel like I’ve known them all my life.”

At some point, the Hansbrough line added an “o” to the name. Marcia Carter Darden is a Hansborough descendant. Her husband, Christopher Darden, served on the prosecution team in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Both met Davis at the 2006 reunion in Culpeper.

“Chris [Darden] was really taken aback,” says Davis. “He didn’t know much about his own family history.”

So while Blucher Hansbrough may well have died without a valid will, his descendants inherited a richness that has nothing to do with money.

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