Six Degrees of Separation and Genealogy

Dr. L. M. McCoy (1882-1960)
Picture Source: Board of Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church , “Mission Photograph Album – Portraits #05 Page 107,” UMC Digital Galleries, accessed July 5, 2020

This picture of Dr. Lee Marcus McCoy reminds me of the theory known as “six degrees of separation.” This theory contends that everyone in the world is separated from everyone else by six or fewer social links or connections. It is also referred to as the “small world” phenomenon. The genealogical discoveries of many researchers often prove this theory to be quite valid.

I wrote briefly about this “six degrees of separation” discovery in 150 Years Later: Broken Ties Mended. However, when I saw this picture of Dr. McCoy, I was inspired to expound more on this blog post. This discovery underscores how small this world truly is, and genealogical and historical discoveries often make the world even smaller.

Dr. L. M. McCoy was born on May 30, 1882 in Tippah County, Mississippi. He was the youngest of nine children born to Abraham & Louisa McCoy. In 1924, he became the second African American president of Rust College and the college’s first alumnus to become President. He had graduated from Rust in 1905. The Freedman’s Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church had established Rust College in 1866, shortly after slavery’s end.

A year before Dr. McCoy retired in 1957, my late grandmother, Minnie Davis Reed, paid him an unexpected visit one Sunday afternoon. My mother and her sister had recently graduated from high school, and they desired to attend Rust College. My grandfather, Simpson Reed, joined the ancestors in August 1955, so my grandmother needed some financial aid to send two daughters to college.

As the story goes, my grandmother packed everyone in the car and drove up to Holly Springs, Mississippi. She had gotten directions on how to get to the President’s house on campus. Grandma was on a mission. After arriving at his house unexpectedly, she knocked on the door and was able to speak to Dr. McCoy. She expressed to him that she, recently widowed, needed help sending her girls to Rust. This was also my grandfather’s wish before his demise. Admiring my grandmother’s tenacity, Dr. McCoy vowed to help her, and he kept his promise.

But the following is what all of them did not know at the time.

My mother’s grandfather, William “Bill” Reed, was born into slavery in 1846 in Abbeville County, South Carolina. He migrated to near Senatobia, Mississippi shortly after Emancipation. In 1859, William Barr Jr. had sold his father, Pleasant, to a local named James Giles, who soon moved to Tippah County, Mississippi. Grandpa Bill Reed never saw his father ever again and did not know of his whereabouts, according to oral history.

After slavery, Pleasant Barr remained in Tippah County. In 1870, he and others built a church and school in the town of Ripley. According to a March 1, 1870 land deed, five men named Henderson Pryor, Thomas Watts, Silas Patterson, Abraham McCoy, and Pleasant Barr, who were noted as being “Trustees of the Ripley Methodist Episcopal Church,” purchased a town lot for $100.00 from W. R. Cole. This lot was to be “used conjointly for school and church purposes.” This new church became St. Paul Methodist Church. Abraham McCoy was Dr. McCoy’s father.

1870 Tippah County, Mississippi Land Deed: Pleasant Barr, Abraham McCoy, and three others purchased a town lot in Ripley for “school and church purposes.” (Tippah County Deed Records, Book Y, pp. 118-119) Note: Although the deed says “Abraham Mackaw,” St. Paul’s history confirms that this is Abraham McCoy.
The old St. Paul Methodist Church: In 1949, the first church structure was turned, enlarged, and bricked. That improved structure still sits beside the current church building. (Taken in 2011; Have since been renovated.)
The current St. Paul Methodist Church: This current church building was constructed adjacent to the old church in 1980.

When Pleasant Barr died in Ripley c. 1889-90, Dr. McCoy was around eight years old. One can plausibly assert that the McCoy Family and Pleasant were well-acquainted. They were members of the same FAN (Friends, Associates, Neighbors) Club. As documented, Abraham McCoy and Pleasant were two of St. Paul’s founders and trustees. They were deeply affiliated with the Methodist Episcopal Church, the same denomination that established Rust College in 1866. Undoubtedly, Pleasant and the McCoys were in each other’s presence often, either in their households, or at church, or within the community, or all three.

Thus, Dr. McCoy most certainly laid eyes on long-lost Grandpa Pleasant. Since he was a young boy when Pleasant died, he may have still remembered him or his less-than-common name. When he met my mother and aunt and ensured that they received financial aid to attend Rust, little did he know that they were the granddaughters of the son that Pleasant was sold away from, and Pleasant had started his hometown church and school with his father and three others. Talk about a “small world”!

To add to this “six degrees of separation,” in 1993, Dr. David L. Beckley, a 1967 Rust alumnus, became Rust College’s eleventh president; he recently retired in 2020. Genealogy and genetic genealogy research, collectively, have confirmed that Dr. Beckley’s great-great-grandmother, Sue Barr Beckley, was Pleasant Barr’s sister. William Barr Jr. took Sue and her family, along with Pleasant and Sue’s elderly mother Fanny Barr, to Pontotoc County, Mississippi in 1859.

If you have a “six degrees of separation” story, feel free to share in the comments.

The Dr. L. M. McCoy Hall, Rust College’s Administrative Building, Holly Springs, Mississippi

8 thoughts on “Six Degrees of Separation and Genealogy

  1. waccannee

    I met a young lady In 2008 @ my local library, as I was attempting to research my family genealogy. This young lady was from Algoma-Pontotoc Mississippi. I never knew or met anyone from NE Mississippi. She was experiencing car trouble in the parking lot. Anyway, I assisted her & gave her my card. She repeatedly had car problems. Anyway, as I got more familiar, I discovered that she descended from the Barr & Payne families in Pontotoc-Algoma. Her mother was Dorothy Barr, daughter of a Mr. Harvin Barr, who owned a small farm in Algoma, Mississippi. Her Dad was a Greg Payne, from Pontotoc/Algoma community, who was murdered in Chicago in the late 1980’s. Small world, I wonder if Mr. Harvin Barr, is related to the Barr’s in question?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your message! There might be a connection. Harvin Barr’s father was named Alfred Barr, and Alfred’s father was reported as being West Barr on his SS application. I believe that West is the same West Barr who had moved to Oxford, Mississippi. West Barr’s father was named Edmond or Ed Barr, who had been enslaved by William Barr Jr’s brother, Samuel M. Barr, in Pontotoc County. I have speculated for awhile if Ed Barr was another son of Grandma Fanny Barr, but I don’t have genealogical or genetic proof. Yet. 🙂


  2. Your grandmother just showed up at this man’s house…? Wow, you have got to admire her determination and her willingness to do everything in her power to fulfill her children’s wishes! I’m originally from a small country, so the degrees of separation are normally probably 2 and not 6…:-). However, I have several instances in my family-tree, where paternal ancestors were acquainted with maternal ancestors a few generations back, which is always interesting to see.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for sharing. I enjoy stories of Mississippi natives as I was born and raised in Leflore County (Greenwood). In working with a team to preserve two historic African American cemeteries, my research reveals the six degrees of separation of the persons buried there. I have learned so much about my hometown through the lives of these amazing people who are gone and many forgotten. Your writing gave me hope to keep telling the stories and pay it forward in our collective connections.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. pattye

    My great great grandmother was Margaret Story Boyd and she was a member of St. Paul Methodist Church in Ripley, Ms. She died in 1974 at the age of 105. I have lots of family from Tippah County, Ms

    Liked by 1 person

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