JACKSONVILLE, Texas — Some far-flung cousins with Texas roots were astounded by a genealogy search and are finding out they may be entitled to land apparently left to an enslaved ancestor.
It's land they say their ancestor never actually got.
“I took the Ancestry DNA and I discovered what happened and it was just unbelievable,” said Candice Hammons.
Hammons claims to be the great-great-great granddaughter of an enslaved woman named Gracie, or Gracy, with whom Albartus Arnwine, her white slaveholder, had children.
Old records and a grandson’s oral history suggest Arnwine left hundreds of acres near present-day Jacksonville, Texas to Gracie when he died in the 1850s.
"His family and his neighbors did not approve of his relationship with Gracie because she did live in the house with him as, basically, his mistress,” said Hammons's cousin, Mary Tucker.
The cousins and others are now pushing an online petition Hammons started to try and potentially fulfill a will that was never honored.
"These were court systems and legal systems that were highly prejudiced against African Americans, either enslaved or recently emancipated,” said Sam Houston State University History professor and slavery expert Nicholas Crawford, Ph.D.
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Crawford said neither intimate relationships between slaveholders and the enslaved were unheard of nor was the bequeathment of land.
He added that some relationships in the Antebellum South may have been more nuanced than we tend to think.
"As this case shows, the kind of family lore and oral transmission of the condition of slavery and agreements between slaveholders and enslaved people can pass down through family trees and still shape legacies of society today,” said Crawford.
Neither Hammons nor Tucker, who live in Phoenix and Los Angeles respectively, have been to Jacksonville or Cherokee County.
And, according to old maps, the land in question lies along the Neches River and now is underwater thanks to Lake Jacksonville’s construction in the 1950s.
So far, family members do not have legal representation to help wade through complicated records and right a potential wrong, but it’s something they’re exploring.
"We basically want to share this and get our support from everyone, the world and government officials,” said Hammons. "We want to turn an injustice into a justice.”
Hammons has started a Change.org petition in her search for justice.