I try to post an interesting family photo each Wednesday for #WordlessWednesday, but these new ones require a few words.
I was recently talking to my cousin, Bob Lee, asking him whether his father had any old family pictures. His dad was Griff Calicutt Lee, Jr, a very well-regarded engineer and a generally good guy. I only met him a couple of times, at my grandparents’ funerals, but was always impressed by him. He recently died, himself, leaving behind his wife Eugenia.
Years ago, when I was first starting in my genealogy, I would correspond with Griff, but never got a chance to visit at his home in New Orleans. It was just too far and out of my budget. But, it always seemed like he had access to a lot of old family papers. His mother was the eldest daughter and the sort of person who had a particular interest and pride in “her people”. So, I always suspected that he might have things I had not seen.
Well, Bob told me he was going to visit his mom and would take a look at what his dad had left behind. When I started getting a stream of pictures on Facebook Messenger the other evening, I was surprised beyond words! A number of the pictures that Bob sent me were things I either have copies of or have seen. But, there were these three.
First, there is a picture of the Will Higgs family. Lida Cason Higgs is seated with four of her five children. This was taken in 1904 before her 5th child, my grandmother was born. The children are (clockwise starting with Lida) Morton Thomas Higgs, Jere Will Higgs, Lida Higgs, and Bettie Higgs. I had never seen a baby picture of Bettie before, or a young picture of Lida, or a young picture of Morton & Jere. What an amazing family group! I wonder why Will isn’t in the picture. Maybe he was working out of town for an extended period. As a newspaper editor, he sometimes did that.
Second, there is a picture of the Reverend Jeremiah H. Cason as younger man. The only other photos I have of him are much older. I can’t tell whether this would be before the Civil War, before he lost his left arm. The left arm in the photo looks like it’s full, but it’s hard to tell. J.H. Cason was Lida’s father. He was a Baptist preacher for over 50 years, a missionary to Africa in the 1850s, and a Captain in the 41st Alabama Infantry.
Lastly, there is a picture I had never even hoped to imagine. Thomas Morton Higgs and Mary Sartain Higgs. Thomas and Mary are Will Higgs parents. Will Higgs is Lida’s husband. Thomas and Mary are probably my longest standing brick wall. I never expected that I would find a picture of them! I can’t even find them in a census; how could I ever find a picture!
I started trying to learn about my family thirty years ago. I was lucky enough to get copies of notes that Lida Higgs (the young Lida, not the mother Lida) had written about her family. She noted that Thomas and Mary married in Athens, Limestone County, Alabama on Christmas Day 1857. True enough. Limestone has a really nice archives and I’ve visited it several times. I’ve gone through every old volume they have, along with every other record of surrounding counties that I can find. The original marriage record for Thomas and Mary is easy to find. But, I can find no other mention of them. Nor can I find any Higgs or Sartain families anywhere around! So, they have always been my mystery. Maybe I can find more hints in Griff’s records.
This is why family photos are so exciting. They are a way we can connect not only to our ancestors, but to each other as we share what we have and what we know. I am so excited about this that now I want to go visit Eugenia and I want to go spend more time with my cousins. Time to get the calendar out and make it happen!
Instead, I want to tell you about the kind of love that both literally and figuratively gives of yourself, giving life and hope to people in hopeless situations.
Let me tell you about my uncle Ralph. Daryl Ralph Dickson was born 9 Feb 1944 in Fort Smith, Arkansas, the second son of Robert and Susan Dickson. My dad, Bob, was his older brother by three years. Ralph and Bob grew up in a house full of love. Like all brothers, they had their moments and squabbles, but as different as they were, it was always apparent that they loved each other dearly. Even as they drove each other crazy, sometimes.
Bob married and became a father. Ralph was single for most of his life, marrying only later, in his forties. But, Ralph was a fun uncle. I remember riding around with him in rural northeast Arkansas in his big station wagon. He had a fancy air horn in it. We would cruise around quiet neighborhoods looking for people and cats by the side of the road. He would let the air horns go and watch to see how high the cat would jump. He would never hurt any animals, but he like to surprise them! We would ride for burgers at the “Ptomaine Castle.” He loved to tell stories about things that happened to him, though you were never completely sure of the veracity of all of the details.
Ralph went to the University of Arkansas, got two degrees in English, and became a high school teacher, following in his mother’s footsteps. He actually taught in the same school where his mother began her career in Lavacca, Arkansas. He moved to Osceola, Arkansas and to Houston, Texas, and finally back to Fort Smith, Arkansas as a teacher. In each school where he taught, Ralph gave his all to his students. He was class sponsor, or led the student newspaper, or engaged with the students beyond the classroom in so many other ways. As a result, he was as loved by his students as he loved them. I think that, like his mother, he had high expectations of his students, but helped them meet those expectations.
Like his parents, Ralph was a helper. He was always pitching in to help people who needed something – a ride, a hand moving something, help building something or repairing something, whatever was needed. He was active in his church, singing in the choir and playing the handbells.
But, Ralph always had some health issues. Kidney problems ran in his family. His grandmother only ever had one that worked and eventually his were giving out. As his illness was progressing, Bob one time told him that if he ever needed a new kidney, Bob knew where he could find one. Eventually things came to that and Ralph needed a new kidney.
After going through all of the preliminary examinations and testing, Bob was found to be a good match and offered to give Ralph one of his kidneys as a transplant. The kidney problems that Ralph and Grandmother Bailey had did not carry into Bob. The love of brothers one again was coming through.
Ralph came to Pittsburgh, where Bob lived and where there were world famous transplant centers and they prepared for the surgery. Ralph and Bob shared a room before and after the surgery. I have heard that even though they were sometimes driving each other crazy (depending on who told it, the blame might have been more on one side or the other!), there was never any doubt that the room was filled with love and commitment to each other. And with that, Bob became a living organ donor to his brother, Ralph.
I wish I could say that Ralph lived for years and years after that, and that his young marriage became a long one. But ultimately, even though the kidney transplant was successful, Ralph’s other heath issues were too much and he died 6 Feb 1992, just a few days shy of his 48th birthday and only having been married for a year and a half. He was buried back in Arkansas, in the Vinita Cemetery in Hackett, Sebastian County, along with generations of his ancestors. His students turned out for the funeral. He was the much beloved class sponsor and the love was very much mutual.
Let me tell you how the love continued. Scott Lang was Bob’s stepson. He and Scott’s mother, Mary Ellen, had married in 1989. Scott was basketball coach at LaRoche College in Pittsburgh, PA. LaRoche is a small Division III school and even though Scott had had offers to move into Division II and Divison I schools, he cherished the atmosphere of the small school. At LaRoche, he could, as he put it, coach his players to not just be basketball players, but could coach them to become genuinely good men. That’s another kind of special love.
Half-way through a fairy-tale season, one where Scott’s team was clearly a special group and was on its way toward great things, tragedy struck. One Friday evening during practice, Scott had a heart attack and died on the basketball court, surrounded by his players. It was a huge shock to the team, the school, and certainly his family. He was only 41 years old.
The outpouring of love for him was overwhelming. The school had tributes for him and his death was covered on local TV and newspapers. His storybook team went on to win the conference championship for the first time and then to make it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in the school’s history. They said they were “Winning for Coach”. His story was featured in Guideposts Magazine. (You really ought to read it.) The team’s story was the subject of a tribute aired on ESPN during the Division I championship that year. There was no doubt about the love Scott had for his players and his school.
Upon Scott’s death, Bob and Mary Ellen knew that Scott wanted to continue to share of himself, something that they were already familiar with. Scott had long been signed up as an organ donor himself and his parents made sure that this was known at the hospital. Scott’s tissues – all sorts of things from skin to tendons and ligaments to corneas – were used for transplants to a number of other people. So, his love continued to other people that he never even knew.
Love. That’s our topic. And you see that it comes in lots of flavors -from the love of brothers to the love of a marriage in one’s middle years to the love of helping young men grow and mature to the love of brothers and parents to give, literally, a part of themselves to save the life of another.
Let’s celebrate that love and look for ways that we can take it forward in our own lives.
There’s lots of kinds of surprise that we find in our families. Sometimes, we find a surprise ancestor as we are looking for someone else. Sometimes, in these days of DNA, we find “surprises” of a completely different sort. What was that song? “Your daddy’s not your daddy, but your daddy doesn’t know”? Luckily, I’ve not any any NPEs (non-paternity events) in my research.
Sometimes, our ancestors do surprising things. We can document some of these, but others are stories of legend. I’ve got one of each of those this week. Elizabeth Cooper, “Bettie”, was born 10 Sept 1834 in Bedford County, Tennessee to Micajah Thomas Cooper and his wife Sarah “Sally” Vincent. The family lived near Bell Buckle, Tennessee, which is a very cute little town today with a couple of nice shops and restaurants, and Wartrace, Tennessee. This is the heart of the Tennessee horse country. The Coopers were fairly well to do, not wealthy, but certainly comfortable and above average for their area. So, Bettie grew up in a safe and comfortable world.
In 1855, she met a young preacher, a student at the local college (Union University), Jeremiah H. Cason. Everyone called him Jere (pronounced Jerry). He must have been a convincing and dashing person in person. I have a number of the letters that he wrote to her while they were courting and they were more like sermons than love letters. My wife said that had I courted her with that sort of letter, we would not have just had our 22nd anniversary! But, in person, I am sure he was something special because in June 1856, they were married.
(You’ve met Bettie and Jere before here and here.)
I guess that’s surprise number one – this daughter of a comfortable family marries a preacher, guaranteeing a life of moving from town to town and of certainly a lower standard of living than the one she grew up with. But, it was a role that must have filled her soul. From her letters, she seemed as in tune with his call as he was.
The big surprise for the family was that not only was Jere a preacher, but he was planning to go to the foreign mission field. And he was planning to take Bettie with him! At the outset, there wasn’t a certainty of where they would go. The Baptist Foreign Missions Board would choose where they needed them the most. So, Bettie, from a little town in Middle Tennessee was going to pick up stakes and go somewhere exotic with this young preacher. Maybe China. Maybe Africa. Maybe somewhere else.
The call came shortly after their wedding for them to go to Africa, to the Yoruba Country, in what is today Nigeria. This prospect was both a surprise and a fear for their parents. I wrote in an early blog about a letter I have from Micajah Cooper to Jere and Bettie as they were on their way that talks about how scary this whole prospect was for both of her parents. You can see the letter and read a transcript here.
In August 1856, the boarded a train for New York and in early September, a ship bound for Africa. They landed in Lagos, in Yoruba, in early January 1857 after working their way up the coast of Africa trading in various ports. I am sure that every single day was filled with a million surprises. The places that they served, the four cities of Lagos, Abeokuta, Ijaye, and Ogbomosho, were all large cities, larger than any others in the South. Some of these had over 100,000 people!
The next surprise was a baby girl, born on the first of May, 1857. Tragically, the next surprise was her death on 12 May 1857. They called her Sally Vincent Cason. And the next surprise was likewise difficult. After the birth and death of Sally, Bettie’s health failed resulting in an abrupt and surprising return to America after just a year in Africa.
Do you see what she’s doing?
After their return to America, Bettie and Jere settled in, serving churches in Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. With the Civil War, Jere went off to serve first as a Chaplain and then as a soldier, losing his arm in East Tennessee. After the war, they moved west, serving churches in Arkansas and then across Texas. You can see a map of some of the churches that they served.
Some of these surprising stories are hard to verify. The things we’ve talked about before all have documents to back them up. We have lots of letters and census and official records to show where the family was and when. We have published accounts of their ministry. But the best stories come down in the family.
Both my grandmother, Mary Higgs Wren, and her sister, Bettie Higgs Finney, told me a story of their grandmother, Bettie Cooper Cason. Neither of them actually knew Bettie. But they both knew Jere. So, the story must have come from him or from their mother, Lida Cason Higgs.
Apparently late in the 1800s, while Jere and Bettie were serving a church in west Texas, the circus came to town. Along with the circus came the side show. And this side show had a group of “Savages from Darkest Africa” that the local townsfolk could go an gawk at.
Well, apparently Bettie caused a tremendous stir in that little west Texas town, in the days of segregation, Jim Crow, a very active Klan, and all sorts of discrimination. She went over to the Savages from Darkest Africa and talked to them! Not only did she talk to them, but she talked to them in THEIR OWN LANGUAGE! I am sure that a lot of the old biddies in the town were wagging their tongues for weeks after that. I mean, the scandal of it all. And how in the world did she know the language of the savages, anyway?
But all those years earlier, her surprise marriage led her to a surprise call on her life that led her to a surprise encounter with people from a place in a her past and a chance to not only surprise, but SHOCK her neighbors.
I think I would have liked to know Bettie and Jere. They must have been powerful characters.
It’s already Saturday and I still haven’t shared a story about “At the Library” for this week. I’ll make the excuse that I was traveling again, but that doesn’t go very far.
Actually, I have had a hard time figuring out what to write about.
So, I think I am going to recap a story I have told before and then point to “the rest of the story.”
Long ago, about 30 years ago, I got started in this game we call genealogy. I was in Fort Smith, Arkansas visiting my grandparents and went to the library there to do my very first day of genealogical research. I was so excited! I found my grandfather’s grandfather in the census. Granddad had not known his name, so he was happy, too.
Then, for about the next 27 years, through many many many trips to the library, and many libraries at that, I found no more solid documentary evidence about my Dickson family. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zero. I had a couple of theories and some circumstantial evidence about a family I thought was a likely connection, but nothing hard.
Finally, then, I was going back through some old photos and found the connection I was looking for. And that has sent me back to the library for more real data on the Dicksons.
Rather than detail the whole story, take a look at my previous posts where I break down this brick wall in detail;