By EMILY WILLIAMS, The Post and Courier
CHARLESTON, SC (AP) – While waiting on the sidewalk of Broad Street, Margaret Seidler was holding a copy of the book that had led her to the woman she was about to meet.
After months of emails and long phone calls, they had decided to meet in front of the historic bronze monument that had been placed there earlier this year.
He explains how many buildings on this street had been auction houses used for the domestic slave trade. William Payne, who operated his business there, negotiated the sale of over 10,000 enslaved people.
Seidler began working on the marker after discovering something that had been unknown to him all his life: that his ancestors profited greatly from the domestic slave trade. Payne was Seidler’s great-great-great-great-grandfather.
Placing the marker was one of his goals, in an effort to further highlight the true history of Charleston. But she knew she wanted to use her research for another purpose as well: finding and making contact with the descendants of people enslaved by the Payne family.
As she entered, she knew it wouldn’t be easy to find them; most of the records she had of Payne’s sales only mentioned first names.
And even if she found someone, there was no guarantee that he would want to talk to her.
But, she thought, it was worth a try.
Placing the marker was a puzzle in itself. The streets of downtown Charleston have been renumbered several times over the past three centuries. In fact, figuring out where Payne was operating his business required detailed research.
The task of finding descendants was also difficult.
It was when she started looking for references to Josiah Payne, William’s son who ran the business, that she found something. A book on the holding of slaves in South Carolina mentioned a specific sale he made.
This passage cited names, and those names led to a family funeral home in Bennettsville.
Seidler wrote a message and sent it to the email address listed on the funeral home’s website, with the subject line: “Historic Connections to the Morris Family.”
“My hope is to reach out to the Morris family and explore the lineage of Caroline and Rosana Morris, brothers and sisters of Joseph Morris all born in Charleston,” she began.
Briefly, she explained how she found their names and the connection to her family, who she learned were not who she thought they were – poor German immigrants from the East Side of Charleston – and were in fact slave traders who had benefited greatly from the institution of slavery.
“I would love to chat with those who are interested,” she wrote.
When Mia McLeod, who handles communications for her family’s funeral home in Bennettsville, received an email from a woman she had never met telling her she had discovered a connection between their families , she didn’t really know what to think.
But McLeod dialed the number Seidler left at the bottom of the email, mainly because she knew it was what her late father, who was the family historian, would have wanted.
When Margaret answered the phone, she was delighted to hear that the call was in response to her email, then surprised to find that she recognized the woman’s name on the other end of the phone. McLeod is a state senator who previously served in the SC House of Representatives; she recently announced her candidacy for governor.
On that first call, McLeod and Seidler spoke at length. Seidler shared what she found and how she found it.
The new information filled a story that tied McLeod’s family to Charleston in a way they had never known. So far, the deepest dive his family had taken in their history was what his father had found. McLeod knew his great-great-grandfather, Joseph W. Morris.
She knew that Joseph was born in Charleston and began his studies there. She knew he had continued his education at Howard University, then graduated from Columbia Law School and became president of Allen University in the late 1800s. She knew that Joseph had been recruited to sit on the chair. in the House of Representatives of SC, but had declined the nomination to continue his studies.
Already McLeod was collecting more and more information about Joseph.
But what Seidler told her would change one detail of her story as McLeod had known it: her family had always believed that Joseph was born free.
The truth was more complicated.
Larry Koger was looking for examples to include in his book “Black Slaveowners” when he came across the Morris family.
Records show that in 1849 John Morris, a free black man, bought his two daughters, Rosana and Carolina, for $ 300 from Josiah Payne. Then, in 1851, he bought his son Joseph and his wife Grace from William Bee for $ 500.
After being purchased by their father, Joseph, mother, and siblings were technically still enslaved, but they likely mingled with the free black community.
“Even though they carried the stigma of slavery with them, they weren’t treated like slaves,” Koger said. “They were treated like family, just like you or I treated family.”
John Morris “declared his relatives to be free blacks” for the census, Koger wrote in his book, but he still paid the taxes on the town’s slaves.
At that time, a enslaved person could only be freed by an act of the legislature, so it was virtually impossible for John to free his family in a legal sense.
“If the laws had been changed he would have freed his family,” Koger said.
In May, Koger presented his book’s research to the Charleston Chapter of the SC Genealogy Society via Zoom, and McLeod and some members of his family joined the call. Koger also recently lectured on his book at the Charleston Tour Association.
It’s interesting, although “a little weird,” he said, to see some kind of renewed interest in his book, which he started working on as an undergraduate student.
Koger, who is now retired from a career primarily in law enforcement, continued to work on research as a graduate student at Howard University and published the book in 1985.
Just days before Seidler was supposed to meet McLeod, she accidentally found Koger’s book in the Cotton Museum gift shop in Bishopville.
She bought it so McLeod could have his own copy and wrote an inscription inside, “For Mia McLeod, my sister in SC history.”
Late in the afternoon of September 14, McLeod and Seidler stood together in silence as McLeod read the marker for the first time.
It is not known if John Morris came to this place to buy his daughters from Payne, but it is possible, Seidler said. There is no record of where the sale took place.
They hugged and Seidler gave the book to McLeod, pointing to a note she had written inside.
“I got so much more than I expected when I made that phone call,” McLeod said.
She knew her roots in South Carolina “ran deep,” she said, but couldn’t expect her understanding of her family’s history to change after that first phone call.
“It’s a gift,” McLeod said. “I think every time we learn more about our ancestors, we learn more about ourselves and about who we are and why we occupy the spaces we make.”
“Can’t wait to read this,” McLeod said, pointing to the book.
There is still so much more to learn.
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