Holding a quilt that was made in the late 1800’s by women in Lawson’s family and community, and the inspiration for her book Quilt of Souls, are newfound family and both authors and storytellers, Pamela Bailey (Dallas, TX) and Phyllis Lawson (Florida). Lawson, who was raised in Alabama, never knew she had ancestral family in SC until Bailey found Lawson’s mother, a DNA match to her.
By Janey Tate, email@example.com
MIAMI, FL — America’s dark tragic past with African Americans through slavery, reconstruction and Jim Crow laws led to many families being forcibly torn apart with very little chances of reconciliation. That forced separation by a racist system set on destroying any form of family for Black Americans has caused many people to wonder where their families actually come from.
This question is what caused Pamela J. Bailey, an author and adjunct professor from Dallas, to begin the complicated search to learn where her ancestors are from and where their off springs live today.
“My family was forced to migrate during the Antebellum period of the slave trade. We put a lot of focus, which is important, on the transatlantic slave trade. However, there were so many people who were American born between 1810 and 1860 that were relocated all over this country and those bonds were broken,” Bailey said.
She began researching her family on both sides ten years ago, but in 2017 started to make strong headway. She took a DNA test by Ancestry.com and used GEDmatch and Social Media to connect her family tree. After countless hours of research, Bailey was led to three of her closely related cousins here in South Florida. That led to a family reunion on August 3, 2019 in South Miami.
Her first major connection was to her cousin Phylis Lawson, who lives in Broward County. It began from Bailey randomly liking a Facebook page for a book she thought was interesting. She later found out that the woman whose book she admired from afar was in fact her long lost cousin.
Lawson is the author of a book titled “Quilt of Souls.” Bailey was intrigued that Lawson had built this story around former enslaved people who were quilting. Lawson said as a kid growing up in Alabama she would sit under the porch when it was scorching hot and listen to older people tell stories about slavery and Jim Crow.
“I thought that was fascinating so I liked her book on Facebook and we became friends. It wasn’t until two or more years later that I was in that GEDmatch DNA database, and I was sorta looking through it to see if anything looks familiar. And people would leave their email addresses and one of the email addresses was firstname.lastname@example.org,” Bailey said.
She knew that name matched the book she was a fan of and sparked her curiosity to ask Lawson about their possible family connection, so she messaged her on Facebook.
“I said look, I know this sounds really wild but I think we’re family. I think that your family might be connected to my family from South Carolina. And so her initial response was I don’t’ have any family from South Carolina. My family is from Alabama and have been there for generations,” said Bailey of the Facebook conversation.
She later would get multiple excited messages from Lawson in the middle of the night. Lawson told Bailey that she had done some of her own research after they spoke and discovered they were in fact related through her mother from a relative named Josh Horn. He was a former slave that was interviewed as a part of the Federal Writers Project. Bailey knew Horn was her relative and that this was in fact a true match.
The second person Bailey connected with was her cousin Dr. Carey Green, a heart specialist in Miami.
“When I reached out to Carey, there were several people in his family, including his brother and a nephew who I was connected to biologically,” said Bailey. “Carey had no idea that there were any connections to South Carolina [in his family].”
Bailey explained their connection is through her family in Clarendon County. Her Green family branch comes from here, which is her connection to Dr. Green. They discovered that they both have relatives with the name Sipio from South Carolina. Their ancestors were forcibly split apart by their slave owner Pierce Mease Butler, who held the largest sale of slaves of more than 600 people at a race track in Savannah, Georgia in 1850. That sale was called “the Weeping Time” by reporters of the time who covered the event. Part of their family was sold and sent to the El Destino Plantation in the Florida panhandle, which is where Green said his family is from.
The third connection Bailey made was to Jean Jackson and her daughter Cherria Brown. They discovered they were related through their Dewitt family members, who were owned by German slave owners of the same name who lived in Horry County, which is home to Myrtle Beach.
“The most striking thing was they look so much like parts of family in South Carolina that it just kinda took me aback. I thought they are definitely my family,” said Bailey.
Jackson and Brown had been doing their own research on their family tree, and there was a missing part of the family they couldn’t find. When they connected with Bailey they learned that missing family branch was through her grandmother, Isla Henrietta Dewitt.
All of Bailey’s family members met at Dr. Green’s medical office in South Miami on a Saturday morning this Summer. Bailey said before the meeting she was very anxious.
“I remember walking through the door and I felt myself get emotional. I walked in and it was just a lot. I was excited and on the verge of tears. They were excited too,” Bailey said. “There were lots of hugs.”
“Every single person just felt like family. They were happy to meet me. They were happy to have this history restored. They want to be known to the parts of the family that has been scattered. And so now we’re talking about ways that we can get together so we can bring these various parts of the family together because it would be my ancestors’ wildest dreams. It’s not something they could have ever imagined,” Bailey said.
Although all the families are related to Bailey on her mother or father’s side of the family, they’re not necessarily related to each other. Bailey explained that the DNA testing matches for people who are related at least 5th cousin or closer to you. Even though they are not all directly related, Bailey said they still connected and talked for hours over lunch about their lives and what each branch of the family was up to.
Pamela J. Bailey, originally from Mullins, South Carolina, is married and has two children. She moved to Dallas ten years ago and wrote a book titled “Sanctuary: Creating a Blessed Place to Live and Love.” She has taught at a private college in Dallas for the past 4 years as an adjunct professor and has her own production company called Blue Rose Media Company, where she produces content on Black Ancestry in the United States.
Bailey said her Big Family Search Project will guide her new creative projects and the type of content she shares.
“I realized this is the responsibility that I’ve been given,” said Bailey. “I can’t help but to believe that God has a way and maybe those ancestors who have gone on are doing everything they can do to help me make these connections.”
Bailey found several members of the Miami Green family were DNA matches to her. Dr. Green was unaware of any SC ancestral connection. Bailey’s family, who shares biological connection to the Florida Greens and Lawrences, were enslaved in Clarendon County, South.
Bailey and Jean Jackson (teal shirt) are both the great granddaughters of Daniel DeWitt who was enslaved in Horry County, South Carolina. Jean and her husband have raised a family of multigenerational entrepreneurs in Florida.