DNA technology is absolutely amazing in so many ways! One of the ways is it can serve as very strong evidence, confirming years of research. More amazingly, it can verify ties that were broken during slavery.
In 150 Years Later: Broken Ties Mended, I wrote about how I discovered that a man named Pleasant (Pleas) Barr (1814-1889) of Tippah County (Ripley), Mississippi was the long lost father of my mother’s paternal grandfather, William “Bill” Reed (1846-1937) of Tate County (Senatobia), Mississippi. Grandpa Bill’s death certificate provided his name. He, his sister Mary, and others came to northern Mississippi in 1866, from Abbeville, South Carolina, shortly after gaining their freedom.
Grandpa Bill Reed told many stories to his children and grandchildren about his experiences as a slave in South Carolina. Many of those stories are in the book. Here’s one account:
After discovering Pleasant Barr, I called Cousin Ike and expressed ecstatically, “I found out Grandpa Bill’s father’s name! It was Pleas Barr!”
The name jarred his memory. He immediately shared, “Yeah, that’s right! Boy, you are sure digging up some history! Grandpa Bill told us that his father was named Pleas, and that’s where Uncle Pleas’ name came from.”
“So he talked about his father,” I questioned.
“Oh yeah, all the time! He told us that his father was sold away, and they never saw him again. He used to talk about the day it happened. He said that they loaded his father on a wagon, and as the wagon was leaving the place, Grandpa just stood there and watched until the wagon was out of sight. It crossed some creek near the place where they were at, and it went down into a valley, and went off into the sunset. His father was gone but not forgotten. He talked about that so often because he always wondered where they took him. He was a young boy at the time.”
I was floored by this vivid account but saddened by what it gave an account of.
“What about his mother? Did he talk about her, too,” I asked with grave curiosity.
Bewildered, he stated, “You know, he didn’t talk about his mother much. He talked about an older sister that took care of him, but I don’t recall much of anything ever being said about his mother. I don’t know what may have happened to her.”
Apparently, Uncle Jimmy Reed also did not know much about Grandpa Bill’s mother since the words “not known” were written on his death certificate.
Cousin Ike’s account sent chills through me like water flowing down the mighty Mississippi River. He continued, “Grandpa sure did love his father though. I remember him telling us how he was such a fun-loving man who would always joke around with the other slaves there on the place. You know that was really hard on him to be separated from his father like that, never to see him again and never knowing where his father was at. He would always say that he watched his father being taken away, off into the sunset.” (Chapter 3, “Gone But Not Forgotten,” pp. 44-45)
In 150 Years Later, I chronicled how years of connecting the dots through oral history, genealogy research, and slave ancestral genealogy research enabled me to reconstruct Grandpa Bill Reed’s family story and family tree – one that got broken in 1859 near Abbeville, South Carolina. That year, his father was sold away and taken to Ripley, Mississippi. William Barr, Jr. then took his mother, Isabella Barr, his paternal grandmother, Fanny Barr, and his father’s sister, Sue Barr Beckley (born c. 1812), her husband Jacob, Sr., and their twelve children to Pontotoc County, Mississippi.
Before transporting them to northeast Mississippi, Barr had sold Grandpa Bill and his sister, Mary, to his first cousin, Lemuel Reid, who lived there in Abbeville County. He never laid eyes on them again. However, he told his family about them, particularly his father Pleas and his first cousin, Cannon Beckley, with whom he had a brother-like relationship. He told his family that he was a “Barr” before he was sold to a Reed/Reid. I told the story of this discovery and presented a great amount of documentation.
Although the preponderance of evidence was quite abundant, I would sometimes ask myself, “What if?” Sometimes, the truth is not always what the paper records indicate. What if I misinterpreted my research findings? What if I had missed something? What if I saw something that really wasn’t there? What if I drew the wrong conclusions? These were usually just quick thoughts because the amount of genealogical records and oral history I presented in the book left me with very little shadow of doubt.
Now, we have autosomal DNA testing (AncestryDNA, 23andMe, MyHeritage, or Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder test) to not only learn about what is in our DNA, and who our biological relatives are, but we can also prove some of our longtime research through DNA matches. We can also connect with branches of our family tree that we never knew existed. We can add more narrative to our ancestors’ stories. This is what makes autosomal DNA and genetic genealogy very exciting for me. As descendants of enslaved people of African descent in America, African Americans will undoubtedly have numerous DNA matches to people whose ancestors were forcibly separated from their loved ones during slavery.
DNA now has my shadow of doubt at ZERO with Grandpa Bill Reed’s family roots. When his father was sold and taken to Ripley, Mississippi, Grandpa Pleas Barr continued on with his life as best as he knew how. He remarried to a widowed lady named Amanda Young, and they had one child together, Elijah Barr, who was born about 1867. I can’t help but wonder if Grandpa Pleas told Elijah about his children back in Abbeville, South Carolina. Sadly, before he died around 1889, Grandpa Pleas never learned that Grandpa Bill Reed and Aunt Mary Pratt had left South Carolina shortly after slavery and were just sixty miles away from him near Senatobia, Mississippi. They were so close but still so far.
Uncle Elijah Barr eventually moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he married Lula Winston on 16 March 1908. Before he died in 1918, he and Lula had two children: Frances Barr Evans Outlaw (1909-1991) and Rev. James Matthew Barr (1913-1981). His descendants, via his daughter Frances, were finally found in 2016, after I clicked on a “Shaky Leaf” family tree hint in Ancestry.com. That “Shaky Leaf” led me to a family tree uploaded by Ivy Evans of California, indicating that the same Elijah Barr was her great great grandfather!
Soon afterwards, another descendant, a great great grandson named Keith Evans of Chicago, shared pictures with me! Three of them included these beautiful pictures of Uncle Elijah’s widow, Lula, and their two children.
I also learned that another descendant, another great great granddaughter of Elijah, had taken the 23andMe DNA test. Lo and behold, Jessica was among our DNA matches, matching me, my mother, my aunt, and their paternal first cousin, Armintha, on overlapping segments on chromosomes 3 and 4. The overlapping segments is DNA evidence that Jessica and my family share a common ancestor – Pleasant Barr!
Shortly afterwards, I tested my mother’s brother with AncestryDNA. Among his high DNA matches is a great grandson of Elijah Barr! He’s Cousins Ivy and Jessica’s uncle. He shares 70 cM over 4 segments of identical DNA with my uncle.
As mentioned earlier, William Barr, Jr. took Sue Barr Beckley and her husband Jacob and their twelve children to Pontotoc County, Mississippi. The preponderance of evidence led me to conclude that she was Grandpa Pleas Barr’s sister, and both of them were children of Lewis Barr (born c. 1780), who died in 1846 on the Barr farm, and Fanny Barr (born c. 1785). To date, over 20 descendants of Aunt Sue have taken an autosomal DNA test. Most of them are DNA matches to my family! Here are six of them:
(1) In AncestryDNA, Cousin Rivers shares the most identical DNA with my uncle, at 91 cM over 5 segments. Sue is her great great grandmother via her daughter and namesake, Susie Beckley Sheegog (1856-1923) of Lafayette County (Oxford), Mississippi. She and my uncle are third cousins once removed, who share an average of 27 cM.
(2) In AncestryDNA, Cousin P.A. shares the most identical DNA with my uncle, at 60 cM over 4 segments. Sue is her great great great grandmother via her son, Cannon Beckley (1840-1903) of Pontotoc County, Mississippi. She and my uncle are third cousins twice removed, who share an average of 13 cM.
(3) In AncestryDNA, Cousin Walter shares the most identical DNA with my mother, at 42 cM over 2 segments. Sue is his 4th-great grandmother via her son, Cannon Beckley (1840-1903) of Pontotoc County, Mississippi. He and my mother are third cousins three times removed, who share an average of 7 cM.
(4) In 23andMe, Cousin Kimberly shares identical DNA on chromosome 10 with my mother and her brother, at 41 cM and 45 cM, respectively. Sue is her great great great grandmother via her son, Cannon Beckley. Kimberly also shares DNA with another descendant, Cousin Arlene, a 4th-great granddaughter of Sue via her son, Henry Clay Beckley (1846-1903).
(5) In 23andMe, Cousin Arlene also shares 21 cM with my uncle and aunt on overlapping segments on chromosome 1. She’s a 4th-great granddaughter of Sue via her son, Henry Clay Beckley (1846-1903). They are third cousins three times removed. Arlene also shares DNA with Jessica at 25 cM. They are fifth cousins.
(6) In AncestryDNA, Cousin Ira Blount shares identical DNA with my mother, aunt, uncle, their first cousin Armintha, me, and my sister! He shares 33 cM over 3 segments with my mother. He turned 100 years old this past August. He is the last surviving grandson of Sue’s son, Cannon Beckley (1840-1903). He was happy to take a DNA test! He and my mother are third cousins.
Our identical DNA originated from our common ancestors, Lewis Barr or Fanny Barr. Born c. 1785, somewhere in Virginia, and sold down to South Carolina, Grandma Fanny survived slavery and lived the rest of her life in Pontotoc County, Mississippi, after William Barr, Jr. had taken her and other family members there in 1859. She had endured a lot. She was found in the 1880 U.S. Federal Census in the household of her grandson, Rev. Jacob Beckley, Jr., another son of Aunt Sue Barr Beckley. The census-taker recorded her as being 100 years old. The family was broken during slavery, but the DNA wasn’t.