A Genealogy Adventure with Slave and Super-centenarian Moses Williams

by on August 4, 2017 · 10 comments

in From the Soul

Members of the Jubilee Singers, nine men and women sitting or standing before the camera.

Jubilee Singers, Fisk University, Nashville, Tenn. (Source: Library of Congress)

By Ernie McCray

Donya Williams, the four-times great-granddaughter of a man named Moses Williams, asked me if I would help draw attention to some research she and a cousin are doing titled: Stronger Together: The Moses Williams Genetic Genealogy Project.

So I started reading a bio she sent me of their work and can’t help but think they already know what they’re doing.

I was barely into reading other information when the names Strom Thurmond, 50 Cent, Al Sharpton, and L.L. Cool J jumped out at me – names I wouldn’t ever expect to appear in the same sentence.

I mean what could a white Southern senator who loves the KKK and a man who raps, “There’s no business like ho business” and a melodramatic Baptist preacher “Keepin’ it Real” and the creator of “Mama Said Knock You Out” possibly have in common?

Well, they’re all from Edgefield, South Carolina. And they’re all in one way or another related to the cousins. When this project is completed I want to hear that story.

Back to Moses, their great-great-great-great-granddad. Seeing that he was born in 1769 I guessed correctly that he had been a slave. I wouldn’t have guessed, however, that he lived to be 115 years old.

And before I could utter a “wow” regarding his longevity, considering the brutalities and hardships he surely must have suffered as human property, I noticed he had fathered 45 children. At that point my “wow” became very much alive.

Then I started making quick assumptions, thinking that 45 children would mean a lot of leads but I learned that’s not necessarily the case. Slaves and their descendants couldn’t appear in census records until the 1870 census and all the children were born between 1786 and 1836, 40 of whom are female and hard to track due to marriage at an early age and the subsequent changing of names.

So these cousins have some painstaking research to get done, especially since I’ve gotten the sense, reading their plans, that they want to portray their predecessors the way they lived and breathed — human beings who had flaws and strengths and failures and accomplishments.

They’re making it happen, though. They’ve found various enslavers of Moses and information on nine of his 45 children and on a host of grand and great-grandchildren.

From the truths they’re finding they’re trying to create a film documentary that tracks their steps through this learning process.

To succeed in their venture they need to: purchase DNA kits; hire a small team of genetic specialists to triangulate the DNA results and a small team of professional genealogists and/or local historians as part of the research team; digitize the genealogical records that are found; pay for travel and accommodation to enable on-site genealogy records research; publicly share their findings through in-school talks, various conferences and seminars…and the list goes on.

They, and I agree, believe that as a society increases its understanding of its collective history it might be able to get past the constructs of race, ethnicity, culture, religious beliefs, socioeconomic and educational attainment and so on that divide us and begin to realize that through our innumerable life stories and experiences we just might have more in common than we think.

And maybe our histories can guide us with respect to how we approach the future as human beings.

Along these lines Williams wrote in her appeal that often you hear African Americans, in particular, say that they have no history, no culture because it was all taken away.

But “[t]he Moses Williams Genetic Genealogy Project proves this to be false,” she says as she clarifies how America’s race-based system of human bondage has had an effect on all people that still resonates today.

It’s her hope that the project will play a role in ensuring that “all” of American history is learned properly and in full so that we can realize how wonderful and worthy of equality we all are.

As an educator, I can sure get behind such sentiment. I wish Williams and her cousin, Brian, well. Their bios get into how their interest in genealogy was born and highlights the dedication they’ve already given to finding out about themselves and their combined trans-African, African, European, East Asian, Jewish, and Native American ancestry. How many stories can there be in such a mixture and range of ethnicities?

I’d like to see Moses Williams’ history live on as inspiration for generations to come, and it was in this spirit I made a donation to their research. Feel free to join me by visiting their GoFundMe page, which can be found here.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

unwashedWalmartTHONG August 5, 2017 at 10:44 am

Wow, what an endeavor! Were it not for people like Donya histories of people would simply be absent from the history books; actually, a large part of the American Negro history is absent from history books. Two good books I’ve read on the subject:
1) Race: The History of an Idea in America by Thomas F. Gossett
2) The Peculiar Institution by Kenneth Stampp

Thanks, Earnie.
I’m listening to Eric Bibb & his acoustic guitar on Migration Blues as I type (your choice of emoji here).


unwashedWalmartTHONG August 5, 2017 at 10:47 am

Comments section working?

Thanks, Earnie. Were it not for people like Donya huge amounts of American Negro history would be lost forever.


unwashedwallmartThong August 5, 2017 at 10:48 am

Thanks, Earnie.


unwashedwallmartThong August 5, 2017 at 10:51 am

Were it not for people like Donya hug amounts of American Negro history would be lost.
Two very good books on the subject:
1) The Peculiar Institution by Kenneth Stampp
2) Race: The History of an Idea in America by Thomas F. Gossett

(I’m listening to Eric Bibb, Migration Blues, right now.)


Marc Snelling August 8, 2017 at 7:49 am

Some of my ancestor’s group were in Edgefield SC in 1790. A group that many refer to as a ‘tri-racial isolate’. My grandfather just called us ‘Hoosiers’. To me that means more than just someone from Indiana, it means someone with tri-racial ancestry, older than this country. I’ve learned more about my history and the history of America from studying genetic genealogy than I ever learned from history class. It’s one thing to read about ‘tri-racial isolates’, it’s another to meet your living cousins in other communities and see those links reflected in today’s world. To see mixed people who are on opposite sides of the color line with some of the same issues and questions about identity.

All my ancestors left the South soon after this time. The Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 were a direct assault on their values. The Underground Railroad started bringing ‘Free People of Color’ from NC to IN in the 1820s, before it grew into what it later became. These are my ancestors. We are still suffering from these policies today – all of us – descendants of slaves, slave owners, Native American Nations and every mix of those, and many of us are more mixed than we realize. It is a legacy we still need to heal from. IMO this kind of genetic genealogy work is one form that healing takes. Knowledge is power. Knowledge brings peace.


Frank Gormlie August 8, 2017 at 9:59 am

Just found out I have a Snelling somewhat down/ up the genealogical line.


Marc Snelling August 8, 2017 at 11:44 am

If they are in the US they arent shared direct ancestors with me. Im the first generation in my line to be in North America. Mine all come from Sussex England going back to William of Orange when the came from the Netherlands. Snell is fast in Dutch – hence the name of the subway in Amsterdam – Snelltram. Havent seen Gormlie in my cousins genealogy but sometimes Gormley.


Frank Gormlie August 8, 2017 at 3:19 pm

Turns out my grand-father’s father changed it from Gormley to Gormlie (maybe anti-Irish bias?). Patty also is researching one line on the Gormley side that has relatives possibly from the Mayflower.

Thought Snelling was German?

I’m quarter Deutsch, lots of Irish, Dutch, some Swedish, some Scottish ….


Marc Snelling August 8, 2017 at 4:26 pm

Hmmm could be a connection to Gormley. Have you taken a DNA test?

German is the European identity I most closely identify with. But that is through my mother’s Drybread side. They were Bavarians who changed their name from Truckenbrodt/Druckenbrod in colonial PA. Dry=trocken bread=brot.

As the story goes there were two brothers who had a dispute and decided one had to change their name. One kept the Druckenbrod name and stayed in PA, the other changed it to Drybread and went to Indiana. To the best of my knowledge, every Drybread there is descends from George Drybread born in Westmoreland PA 1753. It is not a common name.

I can’t say for certain why the name change, but I believe it may have been because the Drybread’s married into mixed Native-African lines. The Druckenbrod’s remain very German. I think one is/was president of the PA German Society.

Through genetic genealogy I’ve found that both my lines have the highest concentration in Scandinavia. The Bavarian’s say they are descended from the Norse – and the DNA bears that out. My Drybread line is I2A2 haplogroup, my Snelling line is I1.

I think it’s amazing how much knowledge can be found in our DNA. Supporting a project like this for Moses Williams is a no-brainer for me. We are a grain of sand in the universe and our DNA is the universe in a grain of sand.


Marc Snelling August 8, 2017 at 4:51 pm

Some of my DNA cousins are descended from Bridget Gormley (1836-1881) born in Sligo Ireland whose descendants came to NY by the 1920s or earlier.

Those who were in Edgefield SC in 1790 are Joseph Bolling, Richard Copeland, Absalom Griffin, Abasalom Nipper, Thomas Riddle and James Scott.


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