by Cleo Graham
August 2019 marks the 400th anniversary of slaves entering America and landing in Jamestown, Virginia. In commemoration, Rev. Cleo Graham is sharing stories about her own ancestors who were slaves in America.
Capturing information about the slave experience is a challenge. However, my husband and I discovered several primary sources of information and resources during our travels to Virginia, South Carolina, and Alabama.
Based on the information gathered, four generations of my Simmons ancestors spent more than six decades as slaves on plantations belonging to the Pickens family in Alabama and South Carolina.
After the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, Limas Simmons - the eldest son of my third great grandmother, Dr. Judy Simmons - remained on South Carolina Governor Frances Pickens’ Edgewood Plantation, as a tenant farmer or sharecropper. A tenant farmer is someone who farms rented property. Limas rented a plot of land from Pickens.
During Limas’ lifetime as a slave and later a freed man, his occupation included ministry, carpentry, farmer, mechanic, civic leader, and more. Limas’ remarkable gifts led him to serve as a Republican South Carolina State Representative (1872-1874). In 2007, his legacy was honored and recognized by the South Carolina General Assembly in Columbia, South Carolina as a past member of that body. While serving as a State Representative, he continued to pastor a church in South Carolina. Practicing and sharing his faith in God was always the center of his life.
During slavery, it was common for Gov. Pickens’ slaves to worship in a place called the Brush Arbor. A brush arbor is a rough, open-sided shelter constructed of vertical poles driven into the ground with additional long poles laid across the top as a support for a roof of the brush, cut branches or hay.
After slavery ended, Pastor Limas Simmons organized a church among those who attended the Brush Arbor; at the same time, he and his family were members of the predominantly white Edgefield Village Baptist Church. Eventually, he and his family were all given letters of demission (dismissal) that revoked their memberships in that church. Subsequently, Pastor Limas founded and organized the Simmons Ridge Baptist Church in 1867.
I believe that Judy inspired Limas’ faith. Her deep devotion to God and the richness of her fortitude were priceless gifts shared with her children and her descendants.
My ancestors arrived in American as enslaved persons and grew to positions of respect and prominence in their respective communities. Carrying on the legacy of Dr. Judy Simmons, we, her descendants and heirs, continue to demonstrate the perseverance and resilience that was so much a hallmark of her experience.
Thank you for sharing this journey with me.
Rev. Cleo Graham is the Associate Minister of Beneficent Congregational Church in Providence, Rhode Island. She and her husband Melvin, a genealogist, continue their years-long journey exploring the history of their families.
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