By Luana M. Graves Sellars
Photo Credit: Mike Ritterbeck
It’s not very often that we are able to take a peek back into time and in return get a clear vision of how life was in the past. When you study history, sometimes there is a wealth of information that can be found about people, places or things, but in most cases, so much information suffers from the ravages of time; so much has been is lost, forgotten, disregarded as important, or even destroyed. The saying, someone’s trash, is someone else’s treasure, is especially true when it comes to history. The lives we live today will be someone else’s history tomorrow. How you spend your day today might seem completely benign and irrelevant, however, 100 or 500 years from now, the minute, seemingly inconsequential things that we do today, might be vitally important to those that follow us.
We can see examples of this now in the way the lives of slaves have been documented and preserved. Journals, books and movies have given us a composite of their lived experiences. Recently, movies like Glory, 12 Years A Slave, The Free State of Jones and Django paint a very different non-traditional picture slave lives; lives that were very different from what was commonly portrayed in history books. From them, we learn that slave lives encompassed so much more than the one-dimensional experience of a field slave or house slave that we have come to accept as the only reality.
It is only when we get those rare opportunities to pull back the curtain on someone’s past is that we have the chance to learn something new; to experience more and to expand our perspectives in ways that enable us to change our thinking about others as well as ourselves. That’s what happened for me when, after years of Black History research, that a simple document from the Jones family, gave me a richer and clearer understanding of the Black experience during the Civil War years. Then, Blacks were forced to fight on so many levels. They had to fight to prove that they were men, not animals; they had to fight to earn their freedom, and even when they fought alongside the Union army to unify the nation, they had to fight to prove that they deserved to receive their pensions for serving in the war.
After the war, having an army pension was almost a life and death matter for these newly freed slaves. Many soldiers had to obtain witnesses to help them verify who they were, and that they were in fact veterans of the Civil War. Matthew Jones, one of the early residents of Historic Mitchelville, was one of those soldiers.
On November 6, 1901, Matthew Jones was required to give an oral disposition in an effort to receive his military pension. This is an excerpt of what he shared: Born as property to slave owner, George Stoney, at the time of his writing, he didn’t know the year or day of his birth on Edisto Island. He did however, know his parents: his father was Solomon Jones (owned by William Pope), and his mother was Hannah Jones. As slaves, their given name was Pope, however, he did not know why or when his parents decided to change their surname to Jones. As a slave of about 18 years old, Matthew risked his life to leave his enslavement and join the ranks of the Union Army. Usually when the story has been told of slaves joining the Civil War, it is told as if they were simply welcomed into the ranks. Rarely do we get a first-hand account of the humiliation that they experienced. Matthew tells us of a different experience. Upon his arrival to enlist he says, “I was stripped, measured and examined by a medical doctor” and then placed into the 21st Regiment of the Union Colored Troops to serve in the war from 1864 to 1866 under General Littlefield. As a solider, he says that he was “never in battle” however, he did need treatment for frostbite “on his great right toe.” Originally from Pinckney Island, he moved to Hilton Head and was listed as a resident of the town of Historic Mitchelville, the first self-governed town run by freed slaves where Matthew went on to marry Teena Middleton and through a lot of hard work was able to raise enough money to eventually buy 27 acres of Stoney/Squire Pope land for $225.
A strong sense of community and caring for others through the church was taught at home at an early age to Matthew and Teena’s six children. The value in caring about your community became especially important to their daughter, Albertha Drayton Simmons, who not only taught her children how to love your neighbor as yourself. Albertha’s house was always filled with love as she showed her own children how important it was to care for others by setting the example of raising her sister’s children as well as her nieces and nephews. “We were always surrounded by family. She took care of everybody,” said Albertha’s daughter Gloria Simmons Murray. “It was just how she was. Her house was a melting pot.” Her sister Veronica agreed. “We were taught to always reach out and to give to each other. You can’t always look for something in return.” Not only did Albertha take care of her own family, but she also took care of others when she could. Her dream was to become a nurse, but never had the chance to follow her dream, because of the great strain going away to school would inflict on her family. Instead, she put her nurturing skills to work in her island community. When someone was sick, Albertha was known for spending time at the person’s home to aid the family by being there to take care of the ill person as well as the family. Termed by the Gullah as “sitting up”, she was always available to help the family by cooking or cleaning for them and giving them a well-deserved break.
When the sisters were asked about lessons that they learned as children, it was clear that at home, as well as church and school were always considered teaching opportunities. Gloria said, “we were instilled with the importance of being of good character; which makes for good living and makes for a good society.”
Eight generations later, his descendants still live on the land that Matthew purchased. The family’s deep roots on the island have made lasting impacts to the island and its Gullah culture. Matthew was one of the founding deacons of Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church as well as an integral part in the formulation of the early church over 102 years ago. The Jones family connection to Mount Calvary lives on today. Mount Calvary is still the family church and Gloria has been the church administrator for over 44 years. As church administrator, Gloria’s office is near the entrance to Mount Calvary’s preschool that they operate during the week. As the children come and go every day, they stop to give Gloria a hug of gratitude and share a piece of their day. Sometimes the most important lesson of the day might not be learned in the classroom; it can be a lesson of love, caring and giving to one another; a vital lesson that might just be taught at the front door.
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