Lucy Boyd Dodson, Freedwoman

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))


Inventory of Benjamin F. Dodson, 1864

Estate of Benjamin F Dodson, Mecklenburg County, Virginia Will Book 22:123, 1864.

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, 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.





It’s Complicated

I shouldn’t have been astonished.

The Mecklenburg County, Virginia U.S. Federal Census of 1860 enumerated two Dodson households–my white 2nd great-grandparents, James and Sarah, and his brother and sister-in-law, Benjamin and Delia.

In the U.S. Federal Census of 1870 James and Sarah were enumerated with 9 children; Delia, widowed by a Union sniper bullet in 1864, was listed with 6 children.  An unrelated white Dodson family, William, Lucy and 4 children, is also listed.

Sixteen additional households carried the Dodson name, and 6 individual Dodsons  lived with other families.  All of these Dodsons were black and mulatto.  The freed.  The emancipated.  The formerly enslaved men, women, and children of my ancestors.

Peter, George

Abram, John, Mary, Frankey, Philip

Lucinda, Alexander, Alexander

Reuben, Nansey, Alice, Clarisa, Nancy, Edward

Armstead, Lucy, Archer, Henrietta, Keziah, Nathan, Mary

Mary, Jordan, Emma, Mary

Orville, Leanna


Alexander, Joanna, Lorice, Petius, Joseph W

James, Martha, Amos, Henry, James, Nathan, Charles, Fannie


Harriet, Richard, Mary F, Margaret

Alexander, Maria, Charles, Selina,

Richard, Harriet, with Celia Hepburn and her children, Mary F. Margaret A., Robert H.

Benjamin, Lucy

Edward living with Stokes, Harriet, and Elvira Walker

Ellen Dodson living with Clarissa, Samuel, Oton, Margaret, Matilda, Samuel, and Henry Hepburn

Susan living with a white family

Alice living with a white family

Nancy living with the Dailey family

Richard, Harriet, Mary F., Margaret

Narcissa with the Gillespie family

I am humbled to realize that I spent almost a decade documenting “my line” before asking the whereabouts of the unnamed of 1860, enumerated by a number, sex, skin color, and age.  In the 1870 census their names and occupations, who they live with, who they live by, begin to unravel a knotty, complicated story.

I am in the process of mapping their social network, curious to know if I can connect these names to previously collected Dodson records, picking up strands of my ancestral story with all the Dodsons of Mecklenburg County.

Version 2


Mystery Among the Roots

The Northeastern Pennsylvania Genealogical Society in Hanover, Pennsylvania may seem an odd place to find this Virginia root hunter.  But one of the perks of belonging to my local library is accessing their subscription to Family Search files which includes ALL the digital files within the vast Salt Lake City-based repository.

Every Thursday you can find me in front of a computer, exercising my eyes on handwriting of folks long gone from Mecklenburg County’s red soil.  For some weeks I have been tracing the land purchases and sales of William Wills Green, a colonial ancestor in my Dodson branch. Screen Shot 2017-11-06 at 2.28.46 PM

Today while summarizing a few 18th century deeds,  I found a connection within two records that I zipped past during my first read-through.

In the spring of 1778 William W. Green purchased land along a creek off of Church Road, in Mecklenburg County, from Peter and Mary Oliver.  The 500 acre parcel included buildings, woods, waters, ways [paths], and cost £500 current Virginia money.

In the fall of 1781 William Green sold that same parcel of land, identified as  lying on Butcher’s Creek, to William Wills of Amelia County–for £100 current Virginia money.

Add these two facts from other records:

  1. Abraham Green, Sr. , William’s father, purchased land in Amelia County (VA) in 1741, and it seems likely that William Wills Green grew up there.
  2. Butcher’s Creek is west of Allen’s Creek.  The land in between the two creeks is showing up in deeds of William W. Green and Edward Dodson, Sr., including land that Abraham Green sells to his son, William.

Carrying this information into today’s review, I find myself asking:

Is the 1781 buyer, William Wills, the man for whom my 4th great-grandfather is named?

Is the relationship a reason that Green took a £400 loss on the land?

Were the Greens and Wills consolidating community and power during the Revolution?  Or did Wills purchase the land to give William W some extra funds during that turbulent time?

Back to the past for me.  Will I find William Wills in Amelia County deeds?  Next door to the Green family?  Roots push deeper into the past, ever deeper.





Leaf Litter from the Family Tree

The leaves from our deciduous forests are turning yellow, or brown, and dropping with alacrity to the ground.  They carpet every surface–grass, water, rocks, moss, driveways.

Falling LeavesFor years I have used the family tree metaphor to structure my genealogical research.  Only today did it strike me that leaf litter can also be an inspirational metaphor, as in those leaves, those ancestors, that get dropped, and disappear to nurture the soil of the family’s winding tale.


And as a review of this deed transcription suggests it is often women who carpet the family forest floor.

Screen Shot 2017-10-18 at 3.02.36 PM

On 15 June 1770, Samuel Whitworth sold 120 acres of land to William Wills Green, my fifth great-grandfather.  The parcel included houses, outbuildings, orchards, woods, water, and parts of Allens Creek, Mecklenburg County, Virginia…land that lay not far from where my father grew up.

William W Green took possession of the real estate on the same day.  His neighbors included Edward Beavils, Francis Moore Neal, Abram Green, and Thomas Whitworth.

No women were present for the sale.  No dower rights were acknowledged.


English common law crossed the ocean with the European settlers from which I descend.  Among the provisions of this legal framework was coverture, the principles enshrined to govern married women, prohibiting their agency to hold property, run businesses, conduct trade,  and act as citizens.

Therefore, though I know from William Wills Green’s last will and testament that he had 10 children, there is no record of their mother in this deed, or among the long list of deeds I have uncovered.  There is no acknowledgement of the women with whom she quilted and cooked; no indication that a midwife helped birth all those babies; no public record of any domestic work that contributed to the Green estate development.

Which is frustrating.  I have to snuffle in the leaf litter of history to discover the women in my past, more imagining than documenting their stories to fill out my family tree.

If you are a women’s studies buff, please leave any sources and ideas for research questions in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.



Points of View

DSC_1923I look through a viewfinder at least once a day.  Photography makes me practice seeing different points of view; the very act of framing the familiar often reveals a hidden detail that adds unexpected meaning, an “aha!” that leaves me changed.

Genealogy can be a framing exercise too, with questions serving as viewfinder. During research on my dad’s neighbors, the Crute family, I posed the question:  If the Crute’s provided regular part-time labor for the neighboring Strickland tobacco acres, did the Stricklands reciprocate and provide needed labor to the Crutes?  Looking for reciprocity opened up the space to confront the Jim Crow-era world that set the context for my father’s memories, and consequently the lore that was handed down to me.

Charles, Clarence, and Robert, along with their mom, Cora, figure prominently in Norman Strickland’s childhood.  The black family lived on the Boydton-Chase City Road, a bit west of the Dodson/Strickland farm in Mecklenburg County, Virginia from the 1920s through 1940, at least.  The family also included their father, Mathew (1883-1931) and siblings Willie Bee, Daisy, Alice, Angie, and Odie.

During that era of hardship my grandfather pulled out all the stops; he farmed on Oakview, invested in Chase City real estate, and purchased one school bus after another, contracting with the public school system to transport rural kids into Chase City’s schools.  I was told as a child, repeatedly, that George Strickland single-handedly shut down all the one-room schoolhouses in the area.

And he did it with the regular part-time help of Charles, Clarence, and Robert, according to my father.

Hunter's Lane, Mecklenburg County, VA 1932

The Dodson/Strickland farm was located between Route 46, or the Chase City-Boydton Road and the county road 679 also known as Hunter’s Lane, along Butcher’s Creek. It is thought the Crute farm was located along RT 46.

Mecklenburg County, VA 1932 Map Key


In the 1940 census, my uncles–Sidney, 17, Clifford, 15, and Paul, 14–were students in high school.  My dad,11, had just completed sixth grade.  Clarence Crute was 24 years old, farming on his own account, and evidently the primary support for his mother, Cora, and two sisters, Angie, 16, and Odie, 12, who were all listed as occupied in home housework.  Clarence had attained a seventh grade education, Angie a sixth grade education, and Odie a fifth grade education. The discrepancies in educational attainment and normal occupation are striking for the two families.

I once asked my father if George had used his buses to transport all the kids, or just the white kids.  Were all the one room schools shuttered or only the white schools?  Where did the Crute kids go to school?

Norman was stunned, I sensed, as he realized that he didn’t know where the Crutes went to school.  A conclusion is unavoidable:  George bought buses and transported white kids into better schools, into a system that went all the way through 11th grade.  But my grandfather didn’t buy buses to close all the black one room schools.  He didn’t even buy buses and hire the Crute men to drive the black kids who made it through the one room school curriculum into the local black high school, the Thyne Institute, founded on the outskirts of Chase City in 1877.

The explanations about the Crute contribution to the Oakview farm were woven as a story of reciprocity.  George needed help running the farm as his boys attended school and he gave the Crutes jobs and paid them with a fair share of the tobacco crop.  Granddaddy was a good and kind and fair employer, as the story went and the reality of the Crutes’ limited educational choices and work opportunities as a result were simply erased.

My family engaged in opportunity hoarding.

I don’t know where the members of this African American family landed after World War II.  From the records it appears that they, like my father’s family surged off the farms and into cities and towns with other work/life options.  But my father and his brothers had high school educations; Paul and my dad went on to college and into professional careers.  Sidney and Clifford held managerial positions for most of their lives.

What of the Crutes?  Did they migrate into the Bronx and Chicago and other destinations north?  What work did they find?  What dreams did they hold?

And what would their lives have been like, if instead of sitting atop a tractor or behind an team of oxen, they had sat on a bus?