Say What! You Can Read and Write?
There has been a lot of talk about slavery lately. Kanye West’s bizarre comments about how slavery was a “choice” and then (for some reason) slavery became a topic around the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The BBC interviewed an American woman who said she was so excited for the wedding because Meghan Markle came from a family of slaves. That made me laugh and also think about slavery in my family.
I am a descendants of African-American slaves on both sides of my family. We have traced my father’s family tree back to the mid-1800s when the tree branched to include the white ancestors that “forcefully” entered our family. I talked about my father’s side of the family in an earlier blog. https://fredayinafrica.com/2015/06/16/confederates-in-the-closet/ For my mother, we traced one of her ancestors back to 1825. His name was Harford Tate and he is my great-great-great grandfather. Harford lived in Monroe County, Alabama and married a woman by the name of Alabama. A usually name but a name that would survive a few generations in our family. Their son Homer married Margaret Knight and had three children. Homer died between 1890 and 1900 leaving Maggie, as she was known, a widow and mother of three small children. Carlia, the oldest daughter married Andrew Williams and had ten children. The fourth child was my grandmother Sarah. This “was” all the information I knew about the Tates until a recent discovery about Harford Tate and his father.
I have always been interested in history. My undergraduate degree is in history. I will never forget sitting on our sundeck one spring day listening as my mother interviewed my grandmother Sarah about the family history. My mother and a few of her siblings and cousins decided to have a family reunion in 1989. It would be our first of many family reunions that would bring aunts, uncles and cousins from all over the United States together. In 1997, I picked up the family history baton and started tracking our family history. For the past twenty years, I have discovered that I am a descendant of a German Lutheran Scholar, a Confederate soldier and one of the largest black landowners in Washington County, Alabama.
A few months ago, I ran across a very interesting family discovery. I am not sure why I was chasing my family history down the internet “rabbit hole” on this particular day but it led me to an interesting discovery about my ancestor and his slave master. Harford Tate, my great-great-great grandfather was born in May of 1826. He was a slave in Monroe County, Alabama. His slave owner was Senator Charles Tait. Tait was a Senator from Georgia before moving to Alabama in 1819 to claim land in the Black belt region of southwest Alabama. During his time in the U.S. Senate, he was responsible for the admission of Alabama as a state.
Charles Tait was born 1 Feb. 1768 in Louisa Co., Va., to James and Rebecca Hudson Tait. The entire family moved to Petersburg, Elbert Co., Ga., in 1783. He attended Wilkes Academy in Washington, Ga. About that time, he was thrown from a horse and received injuries necessitating the amputation of his leg. He attended Cokebury College in Abingdon, Md., beginning in 1788, and soon became an instructor. While at the college, he married a widow, Mrs. Anne Lucas Simpson of Baltimore, Md., on 3 Jan. 1790. He remained there until 1794, studying law while teaching. In 1795, he returned to Ga. and was admitted to the bar. A few weeks later, he became rector of Richmond Academy in Augusta, Ga. Soon thereafter, future Senator William H. Crawford became his assistant. (Tait Family Papers http://www.archives.state.al.us/findaids/v2361.pdf)
In 1820, he was appointed to a federal judge position for the Federal District Court of Alabama and in 1828 was offered the ambassadorship to the United Kingdom. However, he declined the appointment to remain in Alabama. Senator Tait and his son became significant landowners acquiring property and slaves in both Monroe and Wilcox Counties. It turns out that one of those slaves was my ancestor, Harford Tate, Sr. (the father of Harford mentioned above). I recently discovered a letter that Harford wrote to Senator Tait in 1826. The letter was included in a 1929 book entitled Life and Labor in the Old South by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips.
There are two important observations about this letter. One, Harford was able to read and write at a time when the majority of slaves did not know how to read or write. While it wasn’t against the law to teach slaves to read and write in 1826, after the Nat Turner Rebellion, states, including Alabama began passing laws that made it a crime to teach slaves to read and write. In addition, at the end of the letter, Harford mentions that he is now the father of a son who also carries his name – my great, great, great grandfather.
Harford was a trusted slave and confidant for Senator Tait because in his will, he granted Harford his freedom after his death. Another slave named Howard was granted freedom after his wife’s death. I found the page of the will that outlines Sen. Tait instructions (see below).
Interesting enough, Howard is another name that was passed down through the generations in our family. Homer and Maggie had a son named Howard who died in 1900 and my great grandmother Carlia named one of her son’s Howard. I don’t know if Harford ever gained his freedom after Senator Tait’s death in 1835. Those stories didn’t make it down through the generations. However, it is fascinating (and at the same time sad) to discover this new information about our family.