This past week I was inducted into The District of Columbia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR). The organization is a lineage society founded in 1889 open to men who can prove direct lineage to a patriot who fought for or provided material aid to the Revolution. Its mission is to promote American values, patriotism and history to future generations.
My Patriot ancestor. My fifth great grandfather Johannes Schmeirer (John Schmeyer Sr.) rendered material aid to the Revolutionary army. He was a German who emigrated aboard the Ship Neptune to Pennsylvania in 1755, then migrated to Lincoln County, North Carolina by 1771 in search of land. German immigrants participated on both sides of the Revolutionary War, but John was a Patriot. He was a landowner, farmer, mill operator, logger, woodworker and merchant, among other things, who lived to age 106. John was also a slave owner.
Meet Henry. I am a Black man, admitted into SAR under a German immigrant Patriot. John Schmeyer Sr. was the grandfather of my third great grandfather Henry Johnston. Henry was born enslaved in 1848 in Catawba County, North Carolina (formerly Lincoln). Kearns family oral history identified his father only as “Master Smyre”. Through years of research I confirmed that Henry was born to John Smyre Jr. (son of Schmeyer Sr.) and an enslaved woman named Milly.
Emancipation. Henry was not formally acknowledged by the Smyres because they owned him. They never freed him nor his mother Milly; Henry was emancipated post-Civil War. According to family oral history, he left the Smyre plantation after the war ended over a family inheritance dispute. He moved one county over to Mecklenburg County, to Long Creek Township, a rural suburb of Charlotte, where he started a new life for himself and his family as a freedman.
Claiming Henry’s rightful place. By seeking admission into SAR I chose to make a public acknowledgement of Henry’s lineage; an acknowledgement he never received from his father or the Smyre family in his lifetime. I am also doing my part to expand the publicly shared Smyre family history to a more whole history. Now Henry and his Black descendants will be John’s only recorded family in SAR. Psalm chapter 118 verse 22 reads, the stone that the builder rejected has become the cornerstone. This verse reflects well what my SAR membership now realizes.
How I achieved membership. The application process into SAR requires a submitter to trace to a Patriot ancestor by providing documented proof of your lineage at each generation. I had to establish a clear line between Henry and the Smyres. Coerced relations between male enslavers who were Patriots and enslaved women were largely undocumented, making these relationships difficult to trace. For example, marriage and death records for formerly enslaved offspring of white men and enslaved Black women often listed the father as unknown. My ancestor Henry was an exception; his 1867 marriage record lists his parents as “John and Milly Smorrow”. This is John Smyre Jr., enslaver, with his last name slightly misspelled and Milly whom he enslaved. This provided me the rare proof I needed to complete my documented lineage back to Schmeyer.
Slavery creates a brick wall for many African Americans who might chose to pursue admission but don’t have recorded documentation connecting the enslaved offspring to enslaver fathers. The history etched in our DNA can help to bridge the gap in documentation. Even though I would have also been able to confirm Henry’s connection to the Smyre’s through shared DNA matches with Smyre descendants, unfortunately many SAR chapters are not equipped with the expertise required to evaluate applications that include DNA support as proof of lineage. As a member, I am committed to changing that.
Thank you. I would encourage African Americans who have uncovered Patriot ancestors in their tree and are interested in joining SAR to cultivate a network of people who can help you along the way. A generous village of mentors and sponsors helped me along my SAR journey. Ric Murphy, genealogical mentor, Black SAR member (under 18 Black and white Patriot ancestors!) and founder of the Society of First African Families of English America, another lineage society for which I am a charter member, encouraged me to apply. Charles Holman, another mentor and Black SAR member, connected me with DC chapter Black SAR member Bill Ritchie who sponsored my application. Paul Hays, Secretary for the DC SAR Chapter provided tireless guidance and support throughout the process to ensure my application advanced to approval. I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to all of these gentlemen for their support of my journey.
The future of SAR. Bill Ritchie, on the evening I was accepted into membership of the District of Columbia Society of SAR, was elected as its president. He is the chapter’s first African American president in its 132-year history. Historians estimate that between 5,000 and 8,000 African-descended people participated in the Revolution as Patriots. At the member banquet, Bill shared his vision to make the SAR community more inclusive and diverse. He closed his remarks by introducing us to the future, an African American high school senior with aspirations to attend the Air Force Academy, who had just submitted his SAR application.
I am convinced that the future of lineage societies is rooted in driving a change from exclusive to inclusive membership that captures the whole truth of our American history.