In building out my Dodson ancestors’ social and economic ecosystem I asked questions about the enslaved. I wondered if I could find evidence of how their journey from emancipation through Reconstruction differed from the post-war opportunities of my family.
In doing this research I uncovered what I believe to be a family tree of Lucy Boyd Dodson, enslaved on my 2nd great-granduncle’s farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. Benjamin Franklin Dodson was married to Delia Boyd Dodson, who became executrix of his estate in 1864 after he was killed by a Union sniper at Petersburg, Virginia.
The inventory that Delia filed that autumn included the names of the enslaved:
Nancy and 2 children (Caroline and Lucius)
Lucie and 3 children (Henrietta, Virginia, and Elie (Elsi))
Lucy is found in the Virginia Slave Birth Records as the enslaved of Benjamin Dodson, bearing four children between 1854 and 1860, including Henrietta named in the Probate Inventory. The 1860 mortality schedule lists the deaths of two of her children, Martha and Robert. Another son, Alexander, is unaccounted for in the inventory or following records.
The 1870 census records Lucy Dodson living in the Boydton District of Mecklenburg County on a farm with Archer, Armstead, Henrietta, and three more children not listed in the inventory, Kesiah, Nathan, and Mary. Virginia and Elie, from the 1864 inventory are not included in the list.
The 1880 census records Lucy as the wife of Armstead Dodson, living in the Boydton District with their two children, John and Harriet. Nathan is working as a house servant at the next-door neighbor’s farm. Kesiah and Mary are working as servants in the household of Delia Dodson’s sister, Harriet Boyd Dodson Cogbill, in Boydton.
Henrietta may have moved to North Carolina in 1871 and married Paul Merryman.
Kesiah, Mary, and John have left no trace that I have found. But Nathan and Harriet moved into the 20th century leaving bread crumbs of data in marriage licenses and death certificates.
Harriet married Frank Swift, moved to Norfolk, Virginia, and had several children: Willie, Ruth, Elmira, Mary, and Ernest.
Nathaniel B. Dodson moved to Brooklyn, NY in 1887, and married a Mecklenburg County gal in 1898. Sarah Goode and Nathaniel had several children: Lillian, Nathaniel Jr, Evelyn, Ralph, Harold, Edith, Kenneth. Their youngest, Owen Dodson, was a poet, playwright, and Howard University professor of theater. James V. Hatch wrote a biography of the “dean of Black Theater” after Owen’s death in 1983. Reading Sorrow Is The Only Faithful One has been a fascinating way to confirm some of my hunches about Lucy, Armstead, and their children.
Lucy and Armstead remained farmers on the land near Taylors Ferry Road, Mecklenburg County for the rest of their lives. Lucy died before 1900, as Armstead is listed in the 1900 census as a widowed farmer living with his brother, Archer (of the inventory list perhaps), and two grandchildren, John H. and Lucy Dodson. Armstead died on March 14, 1913 and was buried at Shiloh Colored Church, Boydton, Virginia.
This sketch of Lucy’s life will be painted in as I compare her life to that of the widow Delia Dodson, a process that I expect to be a rather uncomfortable reckoning with the inequities perpetuated from slavery to reconstruction to Jim Crow through my life. The present is much the past.
I am constructing a public tree for Lucy in Ancestry.com, a platform that is amazingly cumbersome in trying to record how African Americans moved from enslavement into freedom! I welcome any suggestions that would make that tree more helpful to family seekers.