Sunday, April 15, 2007

Carnival Carousel: Art, Science, and Serendipity

This comes from the GeneaBlogie archives. It's an edited version of three posts that ran over the Fourth of July Weekend, 2005. It's a bit lengthy, but I've put it on the Carousel because I wanted to share one of my favorite stories.

[My parents are recovering from jet lag on their Independence Weekend trip to visit me in Tysons Corner, Virginia. ] We've been to breakfast, watched the Nationals whip the Chicago Cubs, had lunch, and cleaned my kitchen. Dad says casually, "Did I ever tell you about Mr. Richardson who lived next door in Rockport [Texas]?" He's watching the television as I surf the 'Net idly. Mom is reading the last chapter of The Pelican Brief. "You mean your Aunt Pearl's husband, Eddie Richardson," I reply from my rapid recall of my paternal pedigree. I don't even look up from my keyboard.

"No," Dad says, "I mean Mr. Richardson, the Civil War veteran who lived next door to me in the late '30's or '40's. I never knew his first name. But he wasn't related to Aunt Pearl's husband." Dad's affect, as the professionals say, never changed as he spoke. But he now surely had my full attention.

Whoa! The Civil War veteran . . . who lived next door . . . ! Who had the same surname as a relative by marriage [and hence as our cousins] in a town of less than 3,000 people . . . ! Yes, Dad, you've got my complete attention now!

"Did you ever speak to this Mr. Richardson?" I ask my father. "Gosh, no," he says, "He was old and a mean curmudgeon. I was just a kid. I saw him, though."

As I listen to my father, I've pulled up my paternal genealogy on Personal Ancestry File and have quickly searched for my father's Aunt Pearl. Pearl Bryant was born in June, 1897, in Rockport, Aransas County, Texas. Among her ten siblings were Hattie Bryant (1888-1944), my dad's grandmother, and Sam Bryant (1889-1951). In 1916, Pearl married Eddie G. Richardson, who had been born on May 20, 1892, also in Rockport.

I say to my father, "Aunt Pearl's husband, Eddie, was the son of a Thomas Richardson, born about 1867." I then use PAF's Internet search feature to swiftly locate Thomas Richardson on the 1880 census. There are a lot of Thomas Richardsons, but only one in Refugio County, Texas, the parent and adjacent county to Aransas.

"And his father was one Grant Richardson, born about 1840 in Alabama," I continue. "That would make him old enough for the Civil War."

Now I've got my father's attention. He's at the computer, gazing over my shoulder. "He lived next door. He was old. I'd see him out slopping his hogs. He had a wife, but she may have been a second wife, because people referred to 'his' children, not 'their' children."

We search on-line census records. At the time of the 1880 census, Grant Richardson lived in Refugio County, Texas, with his wife, Ellen, and sons Thomas, William, Walter, Adam, and Galvan. Mr. Richardson's age is given as 30, which, if correct, would make him almost too young for the Civil War. But who knows?

In the 1900 census, we find Grant Richardson in neighboring Aransas County along with Ellen, Walter, and a son born after the 1880 census, Silas. Grant's date of birth is given as April, 1840. In the 1910 census, Grant Richardson is found living alone in Rockport as a widower. The entry in the age column is not legible.

The last available census on which Grant Richardson appears is the 1920 census. But what we found there was completely unexpected.

The Fourteenth Census of the United States came to Precinct 1, Aransas County, Texas, on 26-28 January 1920. On January 27th, enumerator Milton Phillips was working the area now roughly bounded by East Market Street and Highways 35 and 70 in Rockport. At a house he recorded as No. 58, Phillips found Grant Richardson, a widower, who Phillips noted as being seventy years of age and a native of Alabama. As the head of household, Phillips put down Phinney Davis, a 55 year old widow woman.

But eighty-five years later, it's two other names that fuel my father's interest as we examine Milton Phillips' work.

"Who are these . . . ," Dad stops mid-sentence. He's looking at the names "Samuel" and "Hattie" at No. 58. Phillips recorded "Hattie" as Mrs. Davis' 30 year old daughter and "Samuel" as her 28 year old son. Dad recognizes the names because Hattie Bryant, born 1888, was his grandmother and Sam Bryant, born 1889, was her brother. They were both born in Aransas County. Their parents were Guy Bryant [1858-1920?] and Maria (muh-RYE-ah) Martin [1861-1901?].

This discovery, though surprising, "fits" in a way. My father's recollection is that in the 1930's, he and his mother lived in his grandmother Hattie's house next door to Mr. Richardson's place. And in a town of fewer than 3,000 people, how many brother/sister pairs born at about the same time would be named "Samuel" and "Hattie"? A lot of circumstances start to add up here.

But in genealogy, as in other fields where facts matter, researchers have to be suspicious of the seemingly convenient "fit." By 1920, Hattie Bryant had had at least five children, one of which was my dad's mother, who would have been yet a child. Likewise, Sam Bryant had had at least one child not yet an adult by 1920. So if Hattie and Sam were living with Mrs. Davis and Mr. Richardson in 1920, where were the others in their families? Well, another mystery for the time being; this story's about Grant Richardson.

Having examined all of the available census records and done other research, my dad and I have come to our separate conclusions. I'm convinced that a man named Grant Richardson, possibly old enough to have been a Civil War veteran, lived next door to my father in Rockport, Texas, in the 1930's. Dad is now convinced that the old man next door to his childhood abode, who he believes was a Civil War veteran, in fact was his aunt's husband's grandfather.

"How about that!" Dad exclaims. He's satisfied and probably has had his portion of research for now.

But was Grant Richardson a Civil War veteran? Or was that a tall tale my father heard or even imagined six or seven decades ago as a little boy?

"He had an old canteen with 'US' stamped on it. I saw it," Dad says.

The next day, I take my parents on a field trip to resolve the issue.

As my parents and I get out of the car on U Street NW, just past Vermont Avenue, the rich redolence of barbeque drifts from a corner stand. Across the street, clubs and restaurants occupy the rowhouse buildings. It's easy to imagine this a thriving uptown in the 1920's and 1930's. I almost expect Langston Hughes to come out of one of the coffeehouses and I can see young Edward Kennedy Ellington running playfully around the neighborhood long before succeeding to his duchy.

We're in the heart of Washington, D.C.'s storied Shaw district, about as far as possible from Rockport, Texas, in culture and distance. From the corner of Vermont Avenue and U Street, right in front of the barbeque stand, my father says, "Look at that!"

"Oh, yeah!" Mom exclaims. "I don't know if I have my camera." They did not know where we were headed on this field trip or why. But now they've both spotted the intelligent sculpture that sits in the middle of the African-American Civil War Memorial.

As we cross the street to the Memorial, Mom finds an old disposable camera in her purse. We walk around the perimeter of the Memorial, on which there are metal plates containing the names of more than 200,000 black soldiers who served in America's most tragic conflict. They are arranged by unit. I lead Dad around to the plaque for the 67th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry.

"How about that!" Dad exclaims, as he examines the name GRANT RICHARDSON.

Serendipity Forever: On July 12, 1865, the 67th U.S. Colored Infantry was consolidated with the 65th Regiment. Later that year, the soldiers of the consolidated 65th USCI contributed $1400 to a project commenced by their brethen in the 62nd USCI--the establishment of an educational institution for the benefit of freed blacks. On September 16, 1866, Lincoln Institute opened in Jefferson City, Missouri. In September, 1951, my father arrived at Lincoln University from Texas as a new freshman. My mother, from Kansas City, was a junior that year. They married after her graduation in 1953. I was born the following year. In October, 2005, my dad attended his 50th reunion--with a tiny new bit of history to tell.

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