Family Ties

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

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By the time Davis read Christianson’s magazine article about Nalle, she was well into her odyssey of self-discovery. She’d grown up in West Philadelphia in the ’40s and ’50s, the daughter of Willis Hare and Cuetter McGuinn-Blackwell. Hare, who’d originally come north from Henderson, N.C., to stay with relatives in Haverford, earned a master’s degree in social work at the University of Pennsylvania. McGuinn-Blackwell was raised in South Philadelphia and Bryn Mawr before graduating from Radnor High School and Howard University.

Among her memories of growing up in postwar Philadelphia, Davis recalls venturing out with preteen friends to a library in a “white” neighborhood a dozen blocks from home. “They chased us all the way back to 59th and Girard,” she says.

While then attending Cheyney State University, she met Gerald Davis at a sorority dance, and the two married in 1966. Jerry was a three-year officer in the Marines (he’d worn his dress-whites to his ’63 commencement at La Salle), and soon the new couple found themselves at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. “I’d never lived in the South,” she says. “Real racism was something I’d rarely experienced.”

Davis recalls a mailed invitation to a Ku Klux Klan meeting. (Jerry was the only black officer at the base.) And during her social visits with officers’ wives, the word “nigger” routinely surfaced. “I was the invisible black person,” she says.

In an earlier era, visibility wasn’t an issue on a plantation worked by slaves—though masters’ wives often wore blinders regarding their husbands’ parallel families. “There are women who tell you who is the father of all the mulatto children in everybody’s household, but those in her own she seems to think drop from the clouds—or pretends so to think,” wrote noted Civil War diarist Mary Chesnut.

Whether or not Blucher Hansbrough’s wife, Martinette Nalle, was in denial is unknown—as are the true feelings of the light-skinned Lucinda, a mulatto purchased by Blucher’s father, Peter, from the Wormley plantation in Fredericksburg. Eventually deeded to Blucher at his plantation in the Virginia hamlet of Stevensburg, she bore him eight children from 1847 to 1870. Some have suggested that the length of the relationship indicates a mutual attachment beyond coercion.

“Her concern was for her children, but Lucinda may have loved the man,” says Vernon Tancil, Davis’ cousin from Washington, D.C., and a retired historian with the National Park Service. “[Such liaisons] were rarely talked about, but are coming to the fore now.”

Whatever her emotional state, Lucinda was a survivor and, apparently, a loving mother. When she speaks of her great-great-grandmother, Davis sometimes falters on the verge of tears. She and relatives found Lucinda’s meager marker in a church cemetery in Culpeper, Va., replacing it with a larger inscribed headstone. And as she continues to research her extended family through the centuries (DNA analysis traces her female forebears to what is now Kenya), she is writing theatrical-style poetry in Lucinda’s voice.

Davis has forged new friendships with descendants in Hansbrough’s married line—the “white side” of the family. Lillian Mae Olowiany, of Locust Grove, Va., already had developed an interest in her origins when she met Davis last year. The octogenarian says her third half-cousin is “just as sweet as can be,” and that the two have grown close. Close enough, Davis says, that when they “shared their feelings of all that had happened [through the years], it was very emotional.”

At last summer’s reunion, author Christianson joined a group of family members for a ride to the top of the hill where the Hansbrough plantation’s main house once stood. Seemingly on cue, a thunderstorm dispersed the brush partially covering the tombstone of Peter Hansbrough, who’d purchased the property in 1812.

“Young people were kneeling down at that grave,” says Christianson. “It was a profound experience.”

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