A link to the past, in the trunk of a Cadillac

CorrespondentFebruary 24, 2013 

Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell almost deleted the email that landed her on television.

A freelance writer, UNC graduate and history student at Duke University, she got a message with a generic subject line about the PBS program “History Detectives.” She thought it was spam.

It was a note from Suzanne Glickstein, a producer with the show. They were looking for help researching a recently discovered “bill of sale” – a handwritten receipt for a 17-year-old slave girl named Willoby, sold in South Carolina in 1829. She had heard that Greenlee-Donnell had some distant family connections in the area and was interested in such research.

Still, as intrigued as Greenlee-Donnell was, her focus of study had been the late 19th century.

“The history of slavery is such a specific and specialized thing,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m really not the person to do this.’”

But scrolling to the bottom, a name caught her eye.

“The thing that kind of made all of the hair stand up on my neck,” she said, “when I get down to the bottom, I see that (Willoby) was sold to a James P. Daniels in Pee Dee township (in S.C.).”

Greenlee-Donnell quickly wrote Glickstein: “I think this could be connected the people who owned my ancestors.”

Willoby … and Moses

Greenlee-Donnell rushed to her mother, Betty Greenlee. She had recently inherited boxes of centuries-old family records and had been keeping them in the trunk of her Cadillac Seville.

Among the papers, Greenlee-Donnell found what she was looking for: documents belonging to Moses Daniels, a former slave once owned by a James Daniels in the same region as Willoby.

When she told Glickstein about him, the producer got excited. “We’ve got lots of stuff here on a Moses,” Greenlee-Donnell said Glickstein wrote back.

As she researched, it became clear Willoby not only lived in this same region, but on the same plantation as Moses, her great-great grandfather.

“Not only that,” she said, “after the end of slavery, they lived basically as neighbors for a long time.”

A literate landowner

With help from local archivists, Greenlee-Donnell was able to do further research on Moses in South Carolina. While there, she found his will, which appeared to be written in his own hand.

“Now we know he was literate. He acquired land,” she said. “I found him in the jury list. In order for him to be on jury, there was property requirement, so he must have owned some land.”

“Owning land itself, it’s not all that unusual in this area, partially because the land tends to be kind of swampy and hard to develop. So people very often didn’t care that much about selling it to ex-slaves,” she said. “But he owned a pretty significant chunk of land. And some of that land is still in my family.”

The land, she says, appears to have been given for the first black church in the area, and the first black funeral home.

“He really seems to have been some kind of pillar in this community,” she said, noting how unusual it would have been for an ex-slave to be on a jury list. And she never would have known.

The episode of “History Detectives” that Greenlee-Donnell appeared in – now available at pbs.org/opb/historydetectives – focuses primarily on the fate of Willoby. But the research allowed her to learn much about Moses in the process.

Eduardo Pagán, a historian and one of the hosts of “History Detectives,” said the aim of the show is to use a small, personal piece of history each week to tell the broader American story.

“You’d be surprised how many people really can’t go back past their grandparents. So many people don’t have the story of their family,” he said. “That’s what’s so gratifying about what we do.”

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