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Coming to the Table


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Meeting Mary Jones

The following story was submitted by Ken Collier, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister. In the course of his 28 year career, he served churches in North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and California. Part of the reason he retired was that he felt increasingly called to understand the truth about his family's history of slaveholding. 

On my mother's side, the Powells settled in Isle of Wight County, VA in the 17th century. They later moved to North Carolina and then Georgia, where Chapman Powell owned a plantation in DeKalb County in the 19th century. 

On my father's side, Isaac Collier settled in York County, VA, also in the 17th century, where he had a plantation.  His great grandson, Charles Collier established a plantation in what was then Elizabeth City County, VA, which is now the city of Hampton.  I am descended from this Charles Collier. 

My paternal grandmother was a Hardwicke. I have been able to trace the Hardwickes back to the 18th century in and around Henrico County, VA.  I have not been able to place any of the plantations more exactly than these counties, nor do I know their names. Of the people enslaved by my family, I have only five names, all but one having lived in the 17th or 18th centuries. That one is Mary Jones. 

I met Mary Jones in 1950 when I was 5 years old. She would have been held by the Hardwickes.  She died in 1961, believed to have been about 100 years old.Though I am not certain, I believe her to have been the last living person enslaved by my family. Here is the story of our meeting:

I was about 5 years old. My family was living in Wilmington, Delaware. There had been a death in the family back in Richmond so we went south for the funeral. Mrs. Jones was very old and living in the home of my grandmother's sister.  She had been the cook in my father's home when he was a child and when she heard that he and his sons were in Richmond, she asked to meet us.

I remember being ushered into a back room where I met a very old African American woman wearing a bright white cap.  I do not remember her voice or anything that was said, but that cap made a big impression on me. Regrettably, that is all I remember.

That meeting has stuck with me all these 59 years. At one level or another, it has haunted me.

There was a very close relationship between her and the Hardwickes. Apparently, she and her mother stayed with them after Emancipation, working as domestics. They even moved with them to Lynchburg for a time and then back to Richmond, again with the Hardwickes. When Mrs. Jones grew too old to work, my great grandmother promised her a place to live for the rest of her life. It was a promise that was kept even after my great grandmother died. I have wondered about that close relationship all my life.

When I realized that she was surely born into slavery, I asked my mother (my father having died) what she knew about Mrs. Jones.  She told me that it was her understanding that Mrs. Jones was given into my grandmother's family as a wedding present.  When I began doing genealogical research, I realized that this is unlikely since there were no marriage-aged people in the family anywhere near the time of her birth. I suspect that it is far more likely that it was her mother who was the wedding present. And indeed, in the 1860 census, John Hardwicke, my grandmother's grandfather, owned a 25 year-old female. I do not know whether this woman was Mrs. Jones' mother, but it is certainly possible and is consistent with the family story.

From time to time, people in my family used to talk about "Mary," never using her last name.  It was not until a few years ago that I learned it. "Jones" was her marriage name. I have no idea what her Freedom Name was. "Hardwicke"? Could John Hardwicke have been her father? I have no way of knowing. Perhaps her descendants could answer that question, but at this point I do not know how to find them.

A large part of my motivation for Coming to the Table is my indelible memory of Mrs. Jones and my need to know what her actual place was in my family.

  • Richmond, VA
  • 1950

Contributor: Morgangue
Created: February 21, 2009 · Modified: March 1, 2009

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