Bright Star and a Family Tree Secret

When my wife Carrie and I purchased our tickets for the musical Bright Star, which was written and composed by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, we were both excited to hear the music but had no idea what the storyline would be. After we settled into our seats at Houston’s Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, I was very pleasantly surprised to learn that it’s partly set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina during the post-war 1940s with flashbacks to 1923. I grew up in the Old North State within a short drive of those mountains, and we had our honeymoon in Asheville, where the musical also took us after some family drama in the plot that was inspired by a true event. And I had discovered a shadow of that secret in my own family tree.

In the musical, sixteen-year-old Alice Murphy, who sings “If You Knew My Story” as an adult, meets young Jimmy Ray Dobbs in her hometown of Zebulon. The town, by the way, is a real place that’s named for the Confederate Governor of North Carolina, Zebulon B. Vance. Jimmy Ray’s father, Josiah Dobbs, who represents the Old South, is the mayor and a successful businessman. He believes Jimmy Ray needs to marry someone with a higher social status and that college would be a waste of time when he should really be helping with the family business in order to run it one day.

Things get complicated when Alice becomes pregnant. Josiah arranges for that fact to remain a secret, forces Alice to give up her child for adoption, and promises to take his own grandchild to the adoption agency. On the train ride, however, he does something terrible to ensure that all of the problems he envisions for his son will go away forever. But his plan doesn’t work, and the child grows up, loved by others. There’s more to the story in the musical, but this context is sufficient for my story.

As I heard the words “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” being sung, I wondered if my great-great-great-grandmother Cornelia Dunevant would have heard the voice of “Royal George” Williamson running through her mind. Cornelia was a complete mystery to me as I researched my family history. She never got married, but did give birth to at least three daughters, including my great-great-grandmother Telula Dunevant, who was born in 1855. Cornelia would have been about 17 years old at the time. Telula later married William Cook at 19 years of age, and the best clue to the identity of her father appears on her marriage certificate. She listed her mother as Cornelia and her father as Weldon Williamson, who was a wealthy planter’s son.

Until this week, that reference was the only hint that Weldon might be the father. One of the reasons that I had earlier decided to take the AncestryDNA test through Ancestry.com is because I hoped that it might offer a bridge to confirm a few things in my family tree that were probably true but not proven to be true. Over time, as more close family members, together with more people in general, take the same test, one is added to DNA Circles that point to a shared connection with a common ancestor. A couple of days ago, I was added to the DNA Circles for both Weldon and his father. While those connections are still described as “emerging” at this point, waiting to be strengthened as more people are tested, it’s stunning nevertheless.

Weldon’s father had a nickname, “Royal George,” and owned 142 slaves in Caswell County, North Carolina, according to the 1850 United States Federal Census. When Telula was born, Royal George would have been about 67 years old, and his son Weldon would have been about 23 years old. Royal George died about a year later, and I noticed something interesting about his will. Many of my other relatives from this time period open their wills with either a passing reference to God or a stated desire for a decent Christian burial. There’s not one word about any of that in Royal George’s will. It’s all business, including instructions about what to do if his four children by his second wife object to how he wants to divide their inheritance.

From the bottom of the first page of Royal George Williamson’s will: “If this rule of division is objected to on the part of my children by my second wife then I direct that the value of their property obtained as aforesaid shall be ascertained [and they shall receive an equal share of my estate less that value].”

And there was a lot to divide. The account documents for his estate include more than 30 pages, partly because so many people owed him money. At the time of the next United States Federal Census in 1860, Weldon is listed on the slave schedules as owning 27 slaves. Many if not most of those enslaved Africans presumably represent part of the “property” that Weldon inherited from his father. Weldon also inherited Royal George’s family home called Melrose. He had apparently put his relationship with Cornelia behind him and married another woman, Nancy Johnston, about a year after the birth of Telula. “A man’s gotta do what man’s gotta do” to succeed, according to the fictional grandfather in Bright Star. “A man must protect his family and preserve his good name,” he sings, although what he’s preserving is an illusion.

Yet just as the rain falls on both the just and the unjust, so too does personal tragedy. Nancy died less than a year after she and Weldon were married. After her death, Weldon sold Melrose to one of his brothers. 68 days after the death of his first wife, Weldon married his second wife Mary Bethel. By 1880, he was a widower again and had moved with his children to Danville in Southern Virginia. He married his third wife Elizabeth Hammond in 1881, and by the turn of the century he and his family were living in Asheville. Weldon died there in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1901.

Traditionally, Christians have called the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible the Preacher.  At the very end of that book, the Preacher implies that a light will be shined on “every deed . . . including every secret thing.” For the Preacher, that is God’s judgement. Or maybe it’s just the reality that truth dispels our darkest night and sets us free. Perhaps all of that is the same thing, allowing us to loosen a little our tight grip on the memories of the past that burden our hearts.

I don’t know how that worked itself out in the hearts of Cornelia, Weldon, or Royal George. What I do know is that Telula lived her life, loved by her children, who put these words on the headstone of the grave where she is buried beside her husband:

FAREWELL, DEAR MOTHER AND FATHER SWEET
THY REST. GOD TAKES THE LIVES HE GAVE.

For many people, the family that finally embraces them and accepts them is the community of the church that embodies the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross. I hope Telula and her mother and her father experienced that, too, on this earth. And I hope Royal George will experience that in the life to come, reconciled with his children, his grandchildren, including Telula, and the men, women, and children he enslaved, whose lives were just as important in the eyes of God as his own. All of them, and all of us, need to know that love remains in spite of the wrongs we have done to others and after the wrongs others have done to us. This I believe.

Click here for a series of reflections on a different slave-owning ancestor.

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