New Freedom Meets Old Freedom

Throughout the South, after the Civil War, new communities of formerly enslaved persons formed. Many of these communities grew side by side with established free communities of color. These communities were known as “old issue” settlements. Newly emancipated communities came to be known as “new issue” settlements. In the reconstruction-era south, these “old issue” and “new issue” communities often interacted, creating opportunities for intermarriage.

This was the case for my family. Here are three examples.

Pedigree chart of my maternal ancestry

From Sharecropping to City Living

The union of my great-great grandparents James Richards and Martha White in 1894 brought together two black families from very different circumstances.

James Richards was born to formerly enslaved parents in Garysburg, Northampton County, North Carolina. In 1870 he’s counted with his mother Frances (Carter) Richards in the household of John J Long, a white farmer and former Confederate Colonel along with 22 other blacks. They were likely sharecroppers on the Long farm. By 1894 James had migrated from rural Northampton county to Suffolk, Virginia. That year he married a woman named Martha Anna White, a day after Christmas.

Martha’s parents — Exum and Adaline White — were free blacks. DNA testing and records research have helped me to trace Exum’s ancestry back to his grandmother Patsey White who was born in the late 1700s and lived free in Suffolk, likely freed by the Quakers close to 100 years prior to the Civil War. Exum was literate, educated, and owned land in Suffolk and the Great Dismal Swamp. His wife Adeline descended from the Reids, who were one of a core group of families who’d been multi-racial and free for many generations dating back to Colonial Virginia.

The differences in Martha and James’ upbringings showed up in small ways. For example, census records indicated that Martha had attended school and could read and write. James had grown up farming, had never attended school and was not literate. But they built a family together. James steadily worked a succession of manual labor jobs — as a day laborer when he first arrived in Suffolk, progressed to a brick layer, a barrel factory worker, and then to lumber yard worker. They went from renting their home in 1900 to owning it by 1920. They raised 9 children, including my great grandfather James Lee Richards.

My great-great grandparents James Richards and Martha White Richards circa 1940s. Source: Richards family photo
My great-great grandparents Martha White Richards (back row middle) and James Richards (back row far right) with their grandsons. My grandfather James Richards is in the front row center in glasses, dark suit and striped tie. Photo was taken in Suffolk, VA. Source: Richards family photo
1870 US Census for Oconeechee, Northampton County, my great-great grandfather James Richards and his mother my 3rd great grandmother Frances (Carter) Richards were counted in the household of John J Long, a white farmer and former Confederate Colonial along with 22 other blacks listed in the household as domestics and laborers.

Mixed Race, Mixed Marriage

My great-great grandparents Edward Biggs and Florence Cumbo were both listed as colored on their 1890 marriage license. So why am I classifying their union as a mixed marriage?

It is because Edward Biggs was born to an enslaved family and Florence Cumbo was born to a free family of color. Both were born mixed race people but due to different circumstances. Based on a family photo, Edward Biggs appears white. Based on research he was likely a quarter black, a product of a white man and a mixed race woman named Sarah Peele who’d been enslaved on the Biggs Plantation in Bertie County, North Carolina.

Florence Cumbo was born to a free family of color from neighboring Northampton County, North Carolina. Her paternal Cumbo ancestors represented one of the core families who’d like the Reid’s had been multi-racial and free for many generations and traced its ancestry back to the first Africans to arrive in 17th century Colonial Virginia. Her maternal Pope ancestry traced back to Elias Pope born free in 1793 to white Jonas Pope and a mother of African descent in Northampton, North Carolina.

After marrying, Edward and Florence Biggs moved to Suffolk, Virginia, the largest city in the area by 1900, so Edward could search for work. My grand uncle Otis told me Edward worked as a night watchman for a peanut factory. They had 5 children. Their youngest was a daughter named Annie Biggs who was my great grandmother.

Photo of my great-great grandfather Edward Biggs with his second wife Adelaide Joyner. His first wife Florence Cumbo was my great-great grandmother. Source: Biggs family photo

Sharps to the left, Halls to the right

Stretch of road in Hertford County, North Carolina where the communities of my Sharp and Hall ancestors intersect. Source: Andre Kearns
Photo of my great-great grandmother Martha Hall Sharp. Source: Richards family photo

In 1887 my great-great grandparents Jenkins Sharp and Martha Hall married in Hertford County, North Carolina and moved to Suffolk, VA to raise their family.

They were both born in Hertford but grew up in different townships. While only a few miles of a dirt road separated their communities, the history that separated their communities was vast.

Jenkins Sharp was born enslaved in 1861 in Harrellsville where many of Hertford’s slave plantations were located. He worked as a farm laborer as a child but must have also attended some school because he was literate. In Suffolk, he found work at the smelting mill. He eventually worked his way up to “fireman” for the smelting mill, which was, relatively speaking, a good factory job in those days.

Martha Hall was born to free colored parents from Winton/Ahoskie in the late 1860s. Ahoskie was the epicenter of the free colored community. Martha’s neighbors growing up included other Hertford County free colored families like the Manleys, Nickens, Reyonolds and Cumbos. In Suffolk, my great-great grandmother Martha became a midwife, helping to deliver the babies of her segregated community. Jenkins and Martha raised 5 children, including my great grandmother Georgia who would go on to run her own country store in Suffolk as well as a beautician business as a licensed Madam CJ Walker sales agent. DNA testing has helped me to re-connect with my Sharp -Hall relatives in Hertford County, North Carolina over 130 years after my great grandparents left for Suffolk.

What are stories of “old issue” and “new issue” communities coming together in your family?

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