“I said, ‘If you want me to go to college, why didn’t you?’ ... They said they had to pick cotton,” recalled Lacey resident Winters-Harris, now 59. “When I tried to go further, they didn’t want to talk about it.”
It took years of unearthing records, reading historical accounts and coaxing stories out of reluctant relatives, but Winters-Harris eventually learned of the troubled times her mother and grandmother faced in their youth in Grenada, Miss.
Though they weren’t direct victims of violence, Winters-Harris said, “there were a lot of lynchings, a lot of civil rights stuff going on in Mississippi. ... Those memories were too vivid. They were trying to protect us.”
So when Winters-Harris launched her genealogical quest in 1990, the only family names she knew were those of her mother and grandmother. Her database now bursts with 2,000 names of ancestors and living relatives.
At the Family History Center in Olympia, operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she found her great-great-grandparents’ 1887 marriage bond. That was a document affirming no moral or legal reason existed to prevent the marriage, and required the man to put up money in case he didn’t marry his betrothed.
When Winters-Harris requested birth certificates for her grandparents, she was puzzled to receive one for a baby named Ada. When she asked her grandmother about it, the elder broke down crying. She said it would have been her older sister had she not been stillborn.
The Chicago native learned her family was part of the African American migration from the South to the North in the 1930s and ’40s. Her grandmother’s sister was the first to find factory work in Chicago, then she paid for other family members, one by one, to join her before she died of tuberculosis in her 30s.
In 1991, Winters-Harris visited Grenada to interview her 85-year-old great uncle. He showed her the places her mother and grandmother once lived and played.
She hopes to return there someday to search for records that may link her Crowder ancestors to plantation owners with the same surname. “A lot of times when slaves were freed, they took the name of the slave owner,” Winters-Harris said.
She’s assembled census reports, birth and death records, family photos, interview transcripts and her writings into an 800-page manuscript on African American life in Grenada.
Yet Winters-Harris, who has taught genealogy classes, says the research into her family’s origins will never end.
Her 28-year-old daughter Melissa Harris teases her about the pastime, and calls to ask “ ‘are you talking to dead people?’ She’s ready to take the mantle of it when I croak.”
Winters-Harris made her mother and grandmother proud by graduating high school and earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Today, she works as a substance abuse prevention coordinator.
“When I’m having a hard day at work, I look at the fact my grandmother couldn’t go to school past the third grade because she was picking cotton. My mother stopped after fifth grade to pick cotton. If they can survive that, who am I to complain?”
“I have to honor them by sharing their story with my daughter and other people so they will not be forgotton.”
Margie Winters-Harris of Lacey is willing to help people interested in African American genealogy. Contact her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
The documents say Doss Greer died in a train accident. His closest relatives say he was lynched.
Lakewood resident Dedra Wilson is looking for the truth.
Wilson is a great-great-granddaughter of Greer, who died in 1919 in rural Ellis County, Texas.
The 48-year-old college counselor didn’t even know Greer’s name until a decade ago at a family reunion, when an elderly great uncle told her that he wanted to pass on their family history to her before he died.
The most intriguing story he disclosed was about Doss Greer, a widower whose death at age 48 orphaned his six children. Though authorities blamed Doss’s death on a collision with a train, the great uncle heard a different story from his mother.
“He was not hit by a train. He was lynched over a dispute with a banker,” Wilson recalls the great-uncle telling her. One of Doss’s sons witnessed the lynching.
Eventually, Wilson spoke to that witness’s son, who confirmed that his father told him he saw the lynching. Neither the great uncle nor Doss’s grandson, however, knew who was responsible for the death nor any other details.
Wilson located Greer’s death certificate that said he died instantly when his car was struck by a train.
“I’d always look at that death certificate and think something is not right. The evidence on the death certificate is consistent with a lynching,” said Wilson. “It says his head was severed from his body. The head could have gotten cut off in a hanging.”
Greer died in August 1919, during a period that historians call the Red Summer because of the many race riots and lynchings in the North and South.
With the help of a Texas genealogist, Wilson also found a short article about Doss’s death in the Waxahachie (Texas) Daily Light. The newspaper said that after a truck stopped at a train crossing, Greer drove a car around the truck and onto the track. A train slammed into the car, killing Greer and seriously injuring his two passengers, who were also black, the story said.
Wilson said the news article made her even more suspicious because the details were so vague.
Adding to the mystery: Doss’s grandfather, Henry Greer, was a slave owner who had grown rich from patenting the “Mississippi Rifle” favored by the Confederacy in the Civil War.
Doss’s father was in line to inherit Henry’s wealth, Wilson said, as were other all-white heirs. She wonders whether Doss’s death might have had something to do with the future inheritance from his father and the fact that Doss was a mulatto, of white and African ancestry.
In a weird twist, Doss’ brother Henry, named after their grandfather, died in 1949 when he was struck by a train, apparently while walking.
Wilson wishes her family had openly discussed the deaths decades ago.
“I think it could be something that’s hindered our family because we’ve never talked about it,” said Wilson, who’s continuing her research. “Everybody knows the story now.”
Carla Osterby isn’t related to Rena Cooness, but she’s keenly interested in learning whatever she can about the historic woman.
Cooness was one of Washington state’s first teachers of African descent. She taught youngsters in the one-room Salzer Valley Schoolhouse in Centralia from 1903 to 1911.
Osterby, secretary of the Salzer Valley Community Club, is researching Cooness as part of the club’s efforts to save the schoolhouse, which it now occupies.
“She taught our parents and grandparents,” said Osterby, whose father attended the school in the late 1920s. “She impacted our lives indirectly.”
After searching through documents at the state archives and reading regional history books, Osterby has gleaned a few more tidbits about the woman.
Her maiden name was Mary Victorine Hickling. She was the valedictorian of her graduating high school class in Portland and a musician. She lived in Portland when she met Stacey Cooness in 1889, and they married the next year.
The union made her the daughter-in-law of African American pioneer George Washington, a former slave who founded Centralia. Stacey was Washington’s stepson.
When she started teaching at the Salzer Valley school, Rena Cooness earned $45 a month, working her way up to $65 a month in the final year of her contract. The Lewis County Historical Museum has photos of the teacher wearing long billowy skirts as she poses with students for school pictures. In one photo, she and a row of boys hold a quilt-sized American flag.
Osterby said it is interesting that Washington state at that time was more accepting of people of African descent than the rest of the country. “Segregation was still big back in the South.”
The school, built in 1894, closed in 1944, and the building became a community clubhouse, Osterby said. The organization is trying to raise money to restore the building. Its post and beam foundation is sagging; the structure needs to be raised so a concrete foundation can be poured underneath.
Members hope that collecting information on Cooness will help demonstrate the building’s historic value. They’re asking people to vote for the restoration project in a Pepsi-sponsored contest that will award money to community projects across the country.
To learn more about the Salzer Valley Schoolhouse or to vote for the project in the Pepsi Refresh contest, go to: http://pep.si/salzer. If you have information about Rena Cooness, contact Carla Osterby at email@example.com