Sunday, March 5, 2017

Road Trip - Tyrrell County, NC

One week ago, today, I traveled to Columbia, NC, to give a talk to the Tyrrell County Genealogical and Historical Society. I was honored to have been invited to speak to this organization, particularly since, through my research, I've uncovered a direct ancestral link to this county, through my mother's father. (My Tyrrell County surnames are HILL, BRYANT, and DAVENPORT.) Although I made an immediate post about my experience on Facebook, I also want to document it, here, on my blog.

The Ride
Tyrrell County North Carolina is located just over two hours away from my home in Newport News, Virginia. Prior to this excursion, I'd only visited the area once, and I was thinking that the drive had been longer than that. So, when I put the address for the Columbia Senior Citizens Center, where the meeting was to be held, into my GPS I was quite surprised to see that the distance was only 120 miles, and the length of the drive was estimated to only be 2 hours and 5 minutes. At that moment, I began to chastise myself for not having gone down, again, for research purposes (because I was thinking it was further). Now that I know, I'll be heading back to Tyrrell County "on the regular". :)

My talk was scheduled for 2:30, but I wanted to go down earlier, so that I could do a bit of exploring. Therefore, I left home at about 9:30 a.m., to head on down. The drive was lovely; it was a bright, sun-shiny day, and I was accompanied by the soothing sounds of gospel radio, followed by a little NPR, as I made my way out of Hampton Roads toward my destination.  My route provided a mostly uninterrupted rural scene all the way down 17S to 32 to 94, and then Highway 64 into Tyrrell County, and the quaint little town of Columbia.
These silos represent one of the few breaks in my beautifully monotonous drive .

Upon arriving in the county, I first went to scope out the meeting location, so I'd know how long it would take me to get there. Next, I went to the Tyrrell County Visitors Center, a very well-appointed rest area,with extremely clean bathrooms (yay!). As an added treat, this rest area is home to the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Center. I didn't go in, but I can just imagine what a treat that would be, especially for people traveling with children. I did, however, follow the outdoor walkway around to the back of the (closed) Visitor Center, to take in the beautiful view of the Scuppernong River, the bridge into Columbia, and I took note of the walking trail and the nice setup of benches and rockers on the back porch of the facility. Next time I go back (in warmer weather), I definitely plan to go back and spend some time in this serene setting.
Wildlife Center

Visitors Center (not open until 1 p.m. on Sundays)
Exploring Tyrrell County
With about two hours to spare, and no real agenda, I decided to first head to the one place I'd already been on my previous visit to Tyrrell County, and that was to Chapel Hill Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery, where many HILL and BRYANT family members are interred. These are two of the Tyrrell County families from which I descend, both being recorded as Free People of Color, as early as the late 1700's, and also both known to be of Native ancestry, before intermarrying and/or procreating with blacks. I headed towards the church, hoping that perhaps, since it was close to 12:00 noon, I might catch service in session, or perhaps wrapping up, and that maybe I could introduce myself to some folk, and encourage them to come to the meeting to hear me speak. However, when I got to the church, the parking lot was empty. It didn't appear that a service had been held there, that day.
I turned into the cemetery, which is directly across the street from the church. (There is another larger part right behind the church.)
Chapel Hill Missionary Bapist Church
I hadn't originally planned to get out, because I had photographed most of the graves on my first visit there; but it looked like maybe there were some that I'd missed, so I couldn't resist the urge, and out I went. (Of course.) I quickly walked through the graves, snapping photos of almost every one in the area I'd chosen, and trying to step carefully on the soft turf, so as not to dirty myself before my presentation. I'd almost made it without incident, until I decided to try to get to one of the furthest back graves. While trying get close enough to brush away some leaves, I took one step too close and down went my foot and part of my leg... into the mud! Well, that was enough of a sign to me that it was time to go. After all, in just a short time, I'd be standing in front of an audience. I needed to keep myself presentable!  Anyway, I took the long way (lol) around to get back to my car, still snapping pictures as I went. Once in the car, I was grateful for my handy-dandy pack of wet wipes, which I used to clean off my leg and shoe, before I headed off to explore some more of Tyrrell County.

After leaving the cemetery, I decided to just explore a little of the area around it, so I headed back down Chapel Hill Rd., and turned right onto Travis Rd. After driving about 4 miles down that road, and seeing nothing (save a house or two and a little bit of industry), I turned around and headed back to the town of Columbia to check out some of the neighborhoods. First, on the same side of town as the Visitors Center, I found a neighborhood which was (very sadly) filled with deteriorated, falling-down homes. Upon stopping to chat with a kind young man, who was parked in front of one house, I learned that this had been (or still was) a black neighborhood, but that many of the original owners had passed and/or moved away, and that the children/grandchildren, etc. had no interest in living there, so the homes were just abandoned. As I shared with this young man, I see this often in my travels in more rural areas, but this was the first time I'd seen an actual neighborhood, in which so many homes were in that condition right next to each other. The example in this picture is located facing Rowson Street. This saddened me so, but I love how this home seems to be fighting against the inevitable; it seems to almost be saying, "But, still I stand."

This photo doesn't fully capture the degree to which
this house is leaning back.
I asked the young man about churches in the area, and he pointed me to the end of the road, saying that the church there should be about to let out. I followed the road to it's end, and sure enough, the congregants of what appeared to be a black church were just getting into their cars. I stopped in the middle of the road to greet two ladies who were chatting, and invited them to come to the meeting at 2:30. I was pleasantly surprised when one responded that she'd "read about that in the paper", and was planning to be there! I introduced myself as the speaker, told her I was a Hill-Bryant descendant, and asked her if she knew where those families might have lived. She pointed me in the direction of "Alligator", and told me how to get there. I thanked her and bid her farewell (until the meeting), and off I went.

With just a little over an hour to go before I needed to be at the Center, I decided to ride off down Highway 64 in the direction of Alligator. I drove for miles and miles and miles, seeing nothing but a pattern of fields, then trees (in swamps). Finally, I arrived in the general area of Alligator. I rode all around this mostly unspoiled area, passing field after field, and seeing only the occasional home and a couple of small churches. The area was beautiful, though, and filled with so much of nature's goodness. I felt a true peacefulness, as I traveled the unknown roads. I honestly can't tell you where I turned or how I got to where I ended up, but I'll just show you a few photos.
When I first passed this log, there were about 6 or 7 turtles sunning on it, but when I stopped my car and backed up to take this picture, the smaller ones just into the water.

This Methodist Church sits along
Dock Landing Rd., in Alligator.

Fields, fields, and more fields... That's what Tyrrell County
 seems made of!                                                
The Meeting
With it being after 1:30, I knew I had to head back to town,  so I did. On my way back in, I snapped a few photos. (Unfortunately, my iPad case got a little in the way.)
Tyrrell County Courthouse
Main Street - Columbia

Cooper House
I wondered if this was the original school house. It is on the high school property.

When I arrived at the Senior Citizens Center, I was greeted by Cathy Roberts, President of the TCGHS, and Lamb Basnight, the gentleman who'd originally contacted me about speaking. Lamb, was dressed in period costume, which kind of threw me off, at first; but I soon learned that he volunteers Several other members, and a few guests arrived, including author of Somerset Homecoming, Dorothy "Dot" Spruill Redford (which really took me by surprise)! After a short wait outside, we all proceeded in and prepared for the  start of the meeting, which had a great turn out, indeed. :)

It was so nice to meet Lamb Basnight. He is so cool! :)
I was honored to meet Dorothy Spruill Redford!
Following the business meeting, came my time to speak. My presentation, "Researching Ancestors of Color - It Takes a Village" is one that I've prepared to not only discuss first steps and resources for researching ancestors of color (whether free or formerly enslaved), but also to share with descendants of white, slave-owning (or not) ancestors how they can help to further the research of those who descend from ancestors of color.
The talk ran about an hour, and was very well received. Audience members were quite complimentary, and seemed genuinely moved and interested in looking back into their families' records and artifacts, to see if they might have any information related to connections of their ancestors with people of color. (This is the goal of the workshop!) One participant has actually already emailed me with information about an ancestor's "body servant" (from the Civil War), whom she has been seeking more information about, the details of which she'd like to share with the larger community!

The meeting was followed by close to an hour of chatting with attendees - answering questions and sharing information. As an added bonus, I met two people who are (apparently) my cousins! One was a Bryant descendant (pictured), and the other (who was camera shy) was a Hill-Bryant descendant, just like me! That was so exciting! I look forward to communicating with these two, to confirm our connections and share information!
This is Otis. His (known) cousin has confirmed our BRYANT connection via DNA.
Since he lives locally, he came out to hear my talk and to meet me! That's my cousin, ya'll! :)

Finally, at about 5:00, it was time to say my last goodbyes, and get on the road to head home. I had such a fulfilling day in Tyrrell County, and I can't wait to go back!

This picture doesn't do it justice, but on the way I passed this beautiful field of windmills, near Elizabeth City, NC.
They went on for at least 7-8 miles. Amazing!

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