Family Ties

Anna Davis was curious about her history. What she learned is a tale for the ages.

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Chesterbrook’s Anna Davis. (Photo by Shane McCauley)Of familial matters, we all have tales to tell—some inspiring, others comical. When Anna Davis sought out her lineage, she found enlightenment, drama and the ferocious irony of history.

With an abundance of energy that has survived the classroom, the retired schoolteacher leads a spirited, if conventional, suburban life. She resides in a comfortable home on a Chesterbrook cul-de-sac. Her son lives in King of Prussia; her daughter owns Sweet Jazmines bakery in Berwyn. She dotes on her two grandchildren. Her husband, Jerry, is retired from his corporate career and usually lets her have the first word.

Domestic life was far less serene in Davis’ family 150 years ago. Her great-great-grandmother, Lucinda Wormley, was a slave on a Virginia plantation and the master’s preferred mistress. That union produced eight children, the eldest becoming Davis’ maternal great-grandmother. The slave master was one Blucher Wellington Hansbrough, a native Virginian of English heritage and a rich man’s son.

By all accounts, Hansbrough was far from the worst of his lot. His most decisive act was a bid to recover a runaway slave named Charles Nalle, his own half-brother. Nalle’s flight to freedom, recapture and rescue by Harriet Tubman is the stuff of high drama and human endurance. Author Scott Christianson details the story in his book, Freeing Charles, due later this year. He has attended all three of the family reunions and become a good friend of Davis.

“It’s been a fascinating experience,” says Christianson, whose 1997 article about the Nalle case in American Legacy magazine first caught Davis’ eye. “I received many letters and calls in response [to the article],” he says. “One was from Anna Davis. We became close, exchanged visits. They are wonderful people—a great family.”

Sitting atop the family tree is Wormley, the matriarch. She and her brood lived alongside the plantation owner’s legitimate family in the main house. It was a circumstance quite common in the antebellum South—and one virtually ignored by American history texts until recent books and DNA testing substantiated the link between Thomas Jefferson and quadroon slave Sally Hemings.

Subsequent generations of Davis’ family expanded the racial makeup and have boasted their share of accomplished people. Adelaide McGuinn Cromwell, whose grandmother was the sister of Davis’ maternal great-grandfather, was the first black professor at Smith College. Cromwell’s cousin is former Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke; her aunt preceded her at Smith and was the school’s first black alumna; and her father became the first African-American CPA.

“I always wanted to know about my family, but my interest was passive for a long time,” Davis says.

That changed in 1981, when ARCO, her husband Jerry’s employer at the time, transferred him to Chicago, where Davis dove into records at the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Archives. She identified possible relatives, made cold calls; one contact led to another. She buttonholed one cousin on the eve of his graduation from Northwestern University. “He had no way of escaping,” says Davis.

Her search continued when she and Jerry returned to Philadelphia, and accelerated with the advent of Given the burgeoning roster of family members she’d compiled, a reunion seemed inevitable—and Davis had the personality to make it happen. Last summer’s biannual get-together in Fredericksburg, Va., was 300 strong. It was the third such large-scale reunion Davis had organized.

If ever a writer was a perfect match for an assignment, it’s Christianson. He has studied the life of Tubman and written about slavery. His current home, a 20-room Georgian, served as an Underground Railroad stop near escaped slave Charles Nalle’s hiding place in Sand Lake, N.Y., 15 miles east of Albany.

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