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Her ancestors forgotten, a mantel from a slaveholder's home bears witness to their lives

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Posted at 3:20 PM, Feb 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-24 18:12:32-05

GEAUGA COUNTY, Ohio — A mantel from a former slave owner’s North Carolina home where her slave ancestors once lived is the keepsake Sandra Beane Milton didn’t know she needed.

For years she searched, taking trips out of state and scanning census documents and death certificates, until Milton, a retired English teacher, found a piece of her family puzzle that both answered some questions and created some new ones about her family’s lineage.

From inside her Geauga County home, Milton said a family reunion plus a sense of curiosity about the relatives with which she shared a name sparked her decades-long search for more information about her lost ancestors. But before she could touch the mantel her descendants had also touched more than 150 years ago, Milton had to be her own detective and historian.

We'll have more on this story today at News 5 at 5.

Tracing their trail from slavery
With the help of archivists from her local library and the Western Reserve History Society, she found her mother in the 1920s census at a year of age, which was the first time she ever pictured her mother as a toddler.

“And I welled up with tears, and it was just off to the races from there. And I just fell in love with it [genealogy]. It was like, oh, my God, that's my mom as a little girl. And it was just wonderful,” said Milton. “And emotionally, it was so rewarding. I mean, you couldn't stop me then. I was determined to find all I could about this family.”

Oral stories were part of her childhood. Growing up just blocks away from her grandmother in Pennsylvania, she heard about her birthplace, North Carolina, and Milton knew her search eventually would take her there. She remembered her grandmother telling her stories about her great-great-grandmother who at the time “was a child when the freedom came.”

Other than that snippet of information, Milton didn't know much about her grandmother's generation. As someone who was uninterested in history as a child, she found herself enthralled in finding stories about the resilient men and women who came before her.

She did the majority of her genealogy search of her maternal side in Cleveland, befriending librarians and becoming a frequent guest at her post office, mailing letters she had written to the Davidson County Library in North Carolina.

With her research, she was able to trace her family back to 1870. Her great-great-grandfather Lymus Dusenbury had children but no wife. Even after they were forcibly brought to the shores of America, few records exist of Black Americans, with the first census to include all Black Americans by name in 1870—five years after slavery ended.

Then in the census records of 1880, she found him with a wife, in a second marriage. It was a discovery that was difficult for Milton to wrap her head around.

I never wanted to send for that marriage record because I said, ‘She's not really my great-great-grandmother, so she doesn't count,’” she said. “And I did not send for it for probably about eight years. And I finally broke down and I sent for the marriage record for him and this other woman. And lo and behold, he names his mother and father on his marriage license. It was the piece of information I had needed, and I had caused my own problem for like seven or eight years by not sending for it, by being so narrow-minded."

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Sandra Beane Milton sorts through documents after documents in search for her family's story.

Once she found out Lymus’s mother was named Clarissa and his father was Jeremiah, she could look for their names in the slave record.

Lymus, along with his parents, were held in bondage by Samuel Dusenbury, a North Carolina slaveholder and Revolutionary War veteran who migrated to Rowan County, North Carolina from Hunterdon, New Jersey.

It was common for slaves to take their owner's last name. Milton discovered Jeremiah and Clarissa Dusenbury, her great-great-great-grandparents, were listed in the will of Samuel Dusenbury, who died in 1829. Upon his death, he left Milton’s ancestors to his wife, and at her death, the slaves were divided among Samuel Dusenbury’s four grandchildren.

It was at this point in her research she made the trek down to the University of North Carolina to look up court records.

Making the drive down to North Carolina brought up a flood of memories from her time as a young girl before desegregation, driving in the middle of the night to North Carolina to avoid going to the bathroom because there were no public restrooms for Black people, Milton said. (The kids would sleep while they drove in the South, reducing the need for bathroom breaks.)

One of the first times she experienced racism and segregation was during a shopping trip to buy shoes and being told she wasn’t allowed to try them on because of the color of her skin.

“I was traumatized by it. I couldn’t believe I was buying shoes that I couldn’t try on,” said Milton, who didn’t feel comfortable returning to North Carolina until decades later.

Property, not people
As she cruised down to the seaport town of Beaufort, North Carolina, Milton wrestled with questions about her ancestors' journey and the life-altering court order on Aug. 26, 1852, in Davidson County North Carolina, that executed the will of Samuel Dusenbury.

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The will of Samuel Dusenbury separated an entire family.

The main source of disagreement between the four siblings was Samuel’s 13 slaves. The five younger slaves were the siblings of Milton’s great-great-grandfather, Lymus, who along with their parents, were divided based on gender, age and skills.

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Sandra Milton holds the court order that separates her family by age, gender and skills.

The court divided the family based on their worth as follows:

Lot No. 1—Edmond Norcum and wife Laura:

  • Peter valued at $750
  • Harriet valued at $500
  • Sandy valued at $200
  • Little Jerry at $125
  • Louisa at $350

Lot. No. 2—James Dusenbury

  • Old Jerry valued at $300
  • Clarissa valued at $200
  • Charles (tanner) at $1,000
  • Isabella valued at $425

Lot. No. 3—Lafayette E. Dusenbury

  • Joseph (tanner) valued at $1,100
  • David valued at $750

Lot No. 4— Henry MC Dusenbery

  • Elymus (Lymus) valued at $1,000 (Milton's great-great-grandfather)
  • Jerry’s son valued at $600

Milton recalled the moment finding the document that listed all of her family members by name as emotional.

“Those were the names I have never seen in my life. It was Jeremiah and Clarissa. And you can hear me getting choked up,” she said. “It was Jeremiah and Clarissa and all of their children. And I just wept. I cried because I thought, this is my family, and this is the first time I've ever seen these names. These were not names that came up with me as a kid growing up. These were not names my grandmother talked about or my mother talked about. So I know these names had been lost and there they all were, all of them.”

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Court order from Davidson County Court separates a family of 13 to four different owners.

As the Dusenbury family members moved around the state, so, too, did their slaves, ripping siblings away from one another and their parents—forever.

Milton said that at the time, discovering how her ancestors were all divided was the most painful part of her research.

“And for the first time, the cruelty of slavery was very personal because they were given to five different people. And I realized that this family is my family and that they are being separated and that they are being sent to different parts of this country and that they may never see each other again,” she said.

It should be noted the fifth person Milton mentioned as owning one of her family members was a doctor and college friend of James Dusenbury, who worked and studied at the University of North Carolina. Milton said Isabella Dusenbury disappeared from records in 1870, indicating she was given to James's friend at the university.

Questions circled her mind as she looked down at the court order that listed her family members as property, not people, and it was at that moment that Milton, like many Black Americans who are descendants of slavery, confronted the pain and generational trauma from slavery.

“I wondered, were they allowed to hug each other before they go or did they have a last meal together or did they just divide them right there at the courthouse and say, ‘You go here,’ and ‘You go there?’she said.

Milton made a trip in October 2011 to Beaufort, North Carolina, to the home of Lauren Dusenbury and Edmund H. Norcum, the owners of five of her ancestors, and that is where she found a sort of closure.

Milton paid a visit to the History Place in Morehead City and the Carteret County Historical House in Beaufort. On the last day of her visit, the staff at both places told Milton that the home where some of her ancestors lived still existed and gave her a book that referenced the home. Driving up and down tree-lined Ann Street, she saw nothing that resembled the house in the book. She later learned the house was moved from its original location to the shore.

Having returned to Cleveland disappointed, a colleague in one of the genealogical organizations Milton belongs to did something Milton said she had wished she had done all along—Google “Norcum House Beaufort North Carolina.”

After pressing enter with those words in the search bar she found out the Norcum home was built in 1851, was abandoned by the family during the Civil War and later served as the headquarters for the Union. In the 1980s, it was purchased by Corliss Bradley and her husband, Michael. The two converted it into a bed and breakfast.

A friendly email inquiry followed, and months after her initial visit to Beaufort, she received an invitation from Bradley to stay at the bed and breakfast in April 2011.

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The Norcum home that was later turned into a bed and breakfast.

“It was very, very emotional. I had trouble sleeping the first night that I was there. And it was like I could feel something, I could feel something there. And it was just very, very moving,” Milton said of that first night sleeping in the same home her ancestors were held in against their will.

In 2013, Bradley called Milton to say she and her husband were selling the bed and breakfast. Knowing how much the home meant to Milton, they wanted to gift her with the mantel from the home, a priceless piece that allows her to travel back to her ancestors.

“I imagine Harriet as one of my relatives. I imagined her cooking in the kitchen, whenever I was there. I imagined Peter chopping wood and building the fires," Milton said.

Serendipity all the way
Through the course of her research, it was as if her ancestors were with her, giving clues and whispers along the way. Every so often, she found discoveries that were shocking and puzzling.

She discovered that while looking up her great-grandmother’s death certificate, Elvira Dusenbury was buried at Piedmont funeral home, the former home of slaveholder Dr. James Dusenbury.

“One hundred years later,” Milton said, putting her birth date around 1865.

While digging through new records in North Carolina, Milton found that on the death certificate of her great-great-great uncle Peter Dusenbury, who died at 106 years old in 1920, the informant was not his wife or children, but his former slaveholder.

"That was very fascinating to me, that there was a continued relationship between these people," she said. "It strikes me as odd that there was a relationship between Peter and his former owner."

Property records revealed that her great-great-grandfather Lymus Dusenbury had bought land from his slave owner, James Dusenury in 1867, for $100, just two years after he was freed from slavery.

“I thought, if he's buying land from this man, they have some kind of relationship. So then I start to shift my research from my family to the white Dusenburys," she said.

When it came time to decide how to transport the mantel up to Ohio, serendipity struck again.

Bradley, the home owner who now had a mantel to gift, was in a store and overheard a customer named Angela Wade talking about how she was moving back to Zanesville, Ohio.

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Sandra Beane Milton stands with Angela Wade— who she calls the angel who brought her the mantel.

"So she [Bradley] called me and told me, ‘I know somebody who's going to Zanesville, do you know where it is?’ And I lied and said, ‘yes,’” Milton said, smiling back at the moment.

In July 2013, Milton met up with her "angel," who transported the precious mantel in the back of her pick-up truck to Ohio.

Finding new meaning
Now with the heirloom in her possession, Milton can’t decide what to do with it. She doesn’t want to put it in her home, which she knows she won’t be in forever. Wherever it ends up, she wants it to be cherished and appreciated as one of the only physical items she has from the generations before her.

“I wanted to stay in the family, but I don't necessarily know that anyone else understands what it means, you know, and I fear, I literally I fear passing away, having someone come to my house and say, what's this little piece of wood doing here and tossing it in a dumpster,”said Milton, who said most of her family members don’t share her enthusiasm when it comes to genealogy.

A question that came up during the research and continues to come up is what the interaction was like between her ancestors and their former slave owners at the end of the Civil War until 1950.

"What were their interactions like? You know, it wasn't equal, but was there some sort of dependence on each other? It's something that's hard to get a handle on when you don't live in those times," she said, talking about how Lymus, at 40, had bought land from his former owner James Dusenbury, just two years after being freed from slavery.

Most people are not really wanting to hear how many census records you looked at and how many death certificates you've collected, it's not of great interest to a lot of people. I think when I say genealogy, their eyes glaze over, and it's just kind of like, oh, yeah, here she goes again," Milton said.

Milton remembers reading a quote from a book she found during her research that stays with her to this day.

"Beaufort's slaves, like most, left no written history and as a result are anonymous and will likely remain so."

And Milton doesn't want that to happen. She encourages others to seek out their story, no matter how painful and traumatic the truth.

"I don't want them to be unmarked, unnamed and anonymous anymore. My efforts are dedicated to Alexander, Jerry, Harriet, Luisa and Peter," Milton said.

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Sandra Beane Milton stands with her family heirloom.

Every time she looks at the mantel, she can’t help but think of it as a witness to the unchosen lives her ancestors lived. If it had eyes and ears, she said, it would tell the stories of slavery.

“It's historical. It's personal. It's family. It's, it's just so emotional, and I'm just not even quite sure how to handle it all the time. I don't know quite what to do with it. It's so significant to me, personally,” she said.