Anna Davis was curious about her history. What she learned is a tale for the ages.
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Standing atop Cole’s Hill in the farming village of Stevensburg, Va., Revolutionary War veteran Peter Hansbrough gazed across the verdant rolling countryside toward the hazy backdrop of Mount Pony. That such a scenic setting would witness brutal compromise and the worst kind of oppression in the decades to come seems a betrayal of nature.
Human nature, however, is incommensurable and often more a creature of cultural forces than instinct. A workforce of slaves harvested Peter’s 1,000-acre estate, while the landlord wore knee britches and a powdered wig, and traveled by coach. Two years after he bought Cole’s Hill, his wife Frances presented him with their ninth and final child, Blucher. Seven years later, a mulatto slave named Lucy gave birth to a son she named Charles. The father was Peter Hansbrough.
In time, Blucher acquired the plantation and many of its slaves, including his half-brother Charles. The new master retained his father’s sartorial flair and appetite for women, and developed a taste for gambling. Meanwhile, with Blucher’s permission, Charles married a mulatto slave named Kitty, who belonged to a nearby plantation. Blucher conferred his wife’s maiden name, Nalle, on the new couple, and allowed periodic visits, which Charles supplemented on occasion by sneaking out without a “pass.”
Losses from a sizable barn fire compounded Blucher’s free-spending ways and, in the 1850s, he began to sell some of his slaves. Charles Nalle’s number was up in 1858. By then, Kitty had been emancipated and given birth to several children, the most recent being their son, John.
Fearing complete separation from his family, Charles escaped before his date with the auction block. The stealthy Underground Railroad network led him north to key stops in Georgetown, Philadelphia, Sand Lake, N.Y., and the nearby city of Troy, a textile center dependent on cotton and, consequently, not unsympathetic to the South.
Blucher Hansbrough wanted his half-brother back and had the law on his side. He dispatched a slave catcher, who eventually brought Charles before federal authorities in Troy on April 27, 1860. Tubman, herself a runaway slave, happened to be in the area that day and promptly organized a mission to wrest Charles from his captors. A boat ferried him across the Hudson River to the city of West Troy, where federal marshals apprehended him again and placed him before another judge.
Word had spread, however, among those intent on thwarting the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. A new crowd⎯of mixed age, class, and race⎯stormed the building and liberated Charles a second time.
“Residents of Troy and West Troy eventually pooled their money to purchase his freedom⎯for $650,” says Christianson.
Charles Nalle died a free man in 1875 in Washington, D.C., where he’d worked for the U.S. Postal Service. His son John became a distinguished educator⎯an elementary school bears his name.
Many others in Davis’ extended family have led lives of distinction; there are a lot of “firsts” on the African-American side. Adelaide McGuinn Cromwell, whose grandmother was the sister of Davis’ maternal great-grandfather, Warner McGuinn, was the first black professor at Smith College. The Brookline, Mass., resident, who turns 90 this year, claims former Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke as a cousin. Cromwell’s aunt Otelia preceded her at Smith and was the school’s first black alumna. Cromwell’s father was a Dartmouth graduate who became the first African-American CPA.
Warner McGuinn, a farmer from Brandy Station, Va., was of Scots-Irish descent with a mulatto mother. He wed Rose Hansbrough, the first born of Lucinda Wormley and Blucher Hansbrough. The first child of Rose and Warner, Lucy McGuinn, married Lewis Blackwell, a black man with some Native American blood.