A Brief History of the Kerns-Kearns Family

Here are the remarks I shared at our Kerns-Kearns Family Reunion August 10–12, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The origins of the Kerns-Kearns family begin with the marriage of James Augustus “Grandpa Gus” Kerns and and Anne Augusta “Grandma Gussie” Johnson on a Thursday. The marriage record simply states that,

James Peeples, a Presbyterian, united in matrimony, Gus and Gusy on the 24th day of March, 1887 in Long Creek township in said [Mecklenburg] county, according to law.

Because of their vows to each other on that day, we are all here today.

Grandpa Gus was born enslaved in September 1861 and first appears in the 1870 census for Long Creek township as Gus Graham living in the household of Turner and Susan Graham. According to family oral history, Gus’ father was a white plantation owner with the last named Kerns. In fact, Gus changed his last name to Kerns (from Graham) as a young man based on this belief. DNA clues do not support a family connection to the white Kerns of Long Creek. DNA clues do offer the possibility that Susan Graham, the mulatto woman listed living with Grandpa Gus in the 1870 census, was his mother. Subsequent generations, led by Berch Alexander Kearns Sr.(son of Grandpa Gus), Curtis Andre Kearns Sr. and Charles Gilbert Kearns Sr. (grandsons of Grandpa Gus), altered the spelling of Gus’ adopted last name (Kerns) by adding an “a” (Kearns).

Grandma Gussie was born free around 1868. She first appears in the 1870 census for Long Creek living in the household of her parents James and Margaret Johnson (also spelled Johnston), and next door to Gus. Her father James, also known as Henry, was born enslaved in the 1830s in neighboring Lincoln County, North Carolina. According to 1870 census records, his mother was a formerly enslaved woman named Martha Johnson. According to family oral history, his father was a man known as “Master Smyre”. Extensive DNA clues support that his father was likely John Smyre Jr. (1785–1877) of Lincolnton, Lincoln County, North Carolina, the son of German Palatine immigrant Johannes (John) Schmierer (Smyre) Sr. and wife Utilla (Matilda) Bost of Rowan County, North Carolina.

From Gus and Gussie’s union, ten children were born: Luther Burton on January 30, 1888, Henry Gilbert on March 7, 1890, Andrew Breither on July 25, 1893, Charles Ciserol on March 7, 1896, Clifton Nathaniel on January 1, 1898, Janel on October 4, 1901, James Melvin on December 19, 1902, William Roosevelt on September 25, 1905, Spencer Arthur on January 6, 1909, and Berch Alexander on March 30, 1913. Also born were a set of family values — in education, faith, love for music and a connection to North Carolina — which have sustained us to present times.

Education has been a major focus for our family from the beginning. Gus, though born enslaved, and Gussie born to formerly enslaved parents, both became literate post-emancipation. Their children were educated in a one room country schoolhouse in Miranda, the community in Long Creek Township where they lived, then as adults they moved to the city of Charlotte so their families would have access to better educational opportunities. Within two generations of breaking the bonds of slavery, descendants had earned college degrees. First cousins Charles Gilbert Kearns Sr. (son of Henry Gilbert) and Curtis Kearns Sr. (son of Andrew Breither), the first ones in the family to graduate from college, were classmates in the 1930s at Johnson C. Smith University, a Presbyterian, Historically Black University, founded for the education of freedmen in 1867. Many family members followed them there. Although third generation descendants were limited in their education and career opportunities due to segregation, today’s descendants, benefiting from the civil rights struggle, have attended a range of prestigious historically black and predominantly white institutions including the Ivy League and pursued an impressively diverse field of professions with great success.

Music has been another focus for our family. Gus and Gussie were members of Miranda Presbyterian Church which was known for its shape note choir and foot stomping. Their son Andrew Breither had a natural talent for raising a song, was known for his sonorous baritone, and was believed to have perfect pitch. Many generations of talented family musicians have followed and the church continues to be our primary means of expression for our musical gifts. Today’s descendants include many professional musicians and educators. Elnora Kerns Bryant (daughter of Andrew Breither), who wrote our family song, is a classically trained pianist and vocalist who has carried on our family’s tradition of music excellence. Andrew Robinson (grandson of Andrew Breither) is a talented guitarist, vocalist and regular performer. In 2017, music educator, jazz performer, producer and author Ronald Kearns (grandson of Andrew Breither) published his second book, titled Recording Tips for Music Educators: A Practical Guide for Recording School Groups with Oxford University Press and which is now archived at the Library of Congress. Ronald and daughter Tiffany Kearns represent two generations of music educators in one family branch.

Our family holds a strong faith in God and has been active in the church. Gus and Gussie were founders of Miranda Presbyterian Church. When their children moved to Charlotte, many started attending 7th Street Presbyterian, now First United Presbyterian. Today’s descendants include ordained ministers and laypersons who serve their churches as elders, musicians and in other leadership positions. Revs. Curtis Kearns Sr., son Curtis Kearns Jr. and granddaughter Chandra Kearns represents three generations of Presbyterian minister in one family branch. The Rev. Curtis Kearns Jr. went on to serve as Director of National Ministries for the Presbyterian Church. Olanda Carr (grandson of Andrew Breither) currently serves as Ministry Relations Officer at Presbyterian Foundation.

Our family roots are planted in the soil of Long Creek township, now Huntersville. The second generation of our family moved from the country of Long Creek to the city of Charlotte in pursuit of a better life. Today’s descendants are spread across the country from coast to coast, making a difference in their respective communities. For reunions we regularly return to Charlotte, where our family is rooted, in order to honor our ancestors and our origins.

This weekend, we come together to honor dear family members lost, celebrate family members newly born, and enjoy each other as family. We remember Grandpa Gus and Grandma Gussie, and thank them for what they created from their marriage 131 years ago. As they look down on us today, surely they are thankful for the accomplishment, prosperity and strength of faith exhibited by our family over the generations since their union. May God continue to bless our family.

1877 Marriage Record for my great-great grandparents James Augustus Kerns and Anne Augusta Johnson. They were affectionately know by their descendants as Grandpa Gus and Grandma Gussie.
The Kerns-Kearns were from Long Creek Township in Huntersville which is about 10 miles north of Charlotte, NC. Long Creek is named for Captain John Long who was a Revolutionary War patriot. Captain Long owned the land through which the creek flowed. He farmed the land and he also built a grist mill — which is a mill for grinding grain — on the land sometime before the Revolutionary War. Grist mills back then were essential for successful farming. Captain Long’s mill was water powered, which explains the mill’s location along the creek. Captain Long died in 1799 at age fifty-five and is buried in the Hopewell Presbyterian Church Cemetery. After Long’s death the land including Long’s mill and farm was acquired by Colonel John “Jacky” H. Davidson who replaced Long’s mill with the Long Creek Mill in 1820. Ruins of that 1820 mill still stand today.
1870 Census record for my great great grandfather James Augustus “Gus” Kerns. Gus changed his last name to Kerns (from Graham) as a young man based on the belief that his father was a white plantation owner with the last name Kerns. DNA clues do not support a family connection to the white Kerns of Long Creek. DNA clues do offer the possibility that Susan Graham, the mulatto woman listed living with Grandpa Gus in the 1870 census, was his mother.
1870 census record for my great great grandmother Anne Augusta “Gussie” Johnson. Here she is living in the household of her parents James and Margaret Johnson (also spelled Johnston), and next door to Gus.
My great great grandfather James Augustus “Gus” Kerns. Source: Kearns Family Photo.
I am a direct paternal descendant of James Augustus Kerns. My Y-DNA test results do not support a connection to the white Kerns of Long Creek township. My paternal haplogroup is R-M269 with Scots-Irish origins. Most of my surname matches are either Morrow or Murray, with no Kerns surname matches.
Sons of James Augutus and Anna Augusta Johnson Kerns. Left to right in age order: (top row) Luther Burten, Henry Gilbert, Andrew Breither (my great grandfather), Charles Ciserol, (bottom row) Clifton Nathaniel, William Roosevelt, Spencer Arthur and Berch Alexander. Source: Kearns Family Photos.
Th Miranda one room school house where the children of Gus and Gussie Kerns were educated.
1936 Johnson C. Smith University Yearbook photo for Charles Gilbert Kearns Sr. Source: Ancestry.com
My grandfather Curtis Andre Kearns Sr. upon his graduation from Johnson C Smith University.
2018 Kerns-Kearns Family Reunion photo

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