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Speaking with The Ancestors: The Journey Begins With A Tombstone

Kimberly Morgan
by Kimberly Morgan

In order to better understand the work that I do, and why I do it, I will first explain who I am and how I got to 2004, which is when my journey into researching the lives of Stephen Binyard and his extended family first began. 

To be blunt, as a white woman the idea that I would become a genealogical researcher who focuses on African-American families in the Lowcountry area of SC was not a possibility that ever crossed my mind.  However, sometimes in life we are compelled to do things—even called to do them—and that is how I got involved with the work that I have now been doing for almost fifteen years.

I grew up in Beaufort, SC, which is located on the southeast coastal region of SC, almost directly between Charleston, SC and Savannah, GA. However, my own personal family is not actually rooted in Beaufort. I am a military brat and my father was stationed at the US Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS Beaufort) located here when I was about two years old. After he retired from the military, he accepted a position with the local police department so we stayed in the area and adopted it as our hometown. Our family roots are in Louisiana (German immigrants to New Orleans on my father’s side) and the mountains of Tennessee (British and Cherokee on my mother’s side). 

When I was about twelve years old, I was assigned a family tree project for school and interviewed my maternal grandparents as part of that project. My grandfather told detailed stories about being put in a sanatorium as a teenager due to illness (I believe tuberculosis), and the “cute” nurse there who cheered him up when his mother and grandmother died from the same illness.

 

My Maternal Grandparents

 

My grandmother told stories about her grandfather, who had been a “Hellfire and Brimstone” minister of the Baptist gospel, and of her little brother Carlie Ishmael who died tragically at five years old from Diptheria. I wrote their memories down and I recall sketching out a simple family tree in pencil, then submitting all of the work for the project.

Headstone for Great Uncle Carlie Ishmael

Headstone for Great Uncle Carlie Ishmael

And that was the last time I was able to speak to my elders about our family, as they soon developed dementia and Alzheimer’s– which robbed them of their memories. The school project I submitted was lost long ago, probably thrown away by myself because I did not realize how important it was.

I have always had a keen interest in history, and Beaufort has so much rich history that it is almost overwhelming: Native tribes, Spanish, French and English settlers, Revolutionary War battles, antebellum period cotton plantations, the Civil War, Reconstruction history, the vibrant Gullah Geechie culture, and several military bases. I attended Robert Smalls Middle School, and the school mascot at that time was “The Generals”. I was taught a basic history about Robert Smalls, and I knew there was a large boat involved, and that he freed himself and his family from enslavement by “giving” the boat to the Union Army. Sadly, I did not know much more beyond that. It’s not that I was not interested in black history; it’s that I was not sure how it related to me. What Robert Smalls did was an act of great courage and obviously something that earned him a place in the history books–but how did it relate to my life? What did I honestly have in common with a black man born almost 130 years before me?

My father worked as a police officer in downtown Beaufort, assigned to a neighborhood called the Northwest Quadrant that is predominantly African-American. The origins of the neighborhood date back to the end of the Civil War, when newly freed persons (including Robert Smalls) began purchasing homes and property of their own, opening businesses, and establishing churches and schools for their children. It was a tight-knit and dynamic community.  Many descendants still live in the area, maintaining the same homes their Ancestors first built after the War. My father worked the overnight shift for a long time, and he would come home and tell me stories about the people he met, cemeteries he came across and little bits of history he picked up along the way. He also educated me about street names and their significance, what families owned which houses, and elaborated on historic events that happened in the area. 

I attended college and got a job working at the local newspaper, The Beaufort Gazette.  This was in the early 1990s, before the Internet was readily available as a source of news and information. Members of the community would walk directly into our office to let us know about local news as well as their opinion on local political issues. I was lucky enough to meet a wonderful man named Mr. Gerhard Spieler, who wrote a weekly column for the paper pertaining to local history from 1972 until 2007. Mr. Spieler was a WWII Veteran who was born in Germany in 1920, but had moved to the US with his parents when he was young. He moved to Beaufort for a job in 1967 and fell head-over-heels in love with the area. He began to meticulously research any and all areas of Beaufort’s history, including the often-neglected area of African-American history. Mr. Spieler kept his research in notebooks that were perfectly organized. Every week, I would see this older man standing at the copy machine making copies of his notebooks, and he would smile brilliantly at me when he saw me. He once commented on my maiden name, which is German. That broke the ice between us and soon I began to seek him out when he came in to copy his notebooks, wanting to know what his column was going to be about that week. He always explained his research and topics in amazing detail, his voice beautifully lilting with a German accent. 

Mr. Spieler and my father have been the two biggest influences on me in terms of my love of history and methodology of research. I had no way of knowing back then what was to come, but they both helped lay a foundation of knowledge for me that has proved to be invaluable.

College attendance, several different jobs and a romantic interest later, we come to 2004. I was dating a man who was in the military and lived in the BOQ (barracks or dormitory-type building for single people) on the nearby military base, Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort. When I would go to pick him up for dinner, I had to park my car near a wooded area and walk past it to reach the door to his building. The wooded area was quite overgrown and dense, with a rusty barbed wire fence around the perimeter. 

Woods Before

Every time I walked past those woods, I felt like people were watching me. It was not a malevolent feeling, but rather one of intense sadness. It was a quiet desperation, and it unnerved me to the point that I would put my hand up to my face so that I could not see the woods out of my peripheral vision as I ran by (yes, I ran!).

The feeling got more and more intense, and I finally told my then-boyfriend that I was not going to come pick him up anymore because I did not want to walk by the woods where people were watching me. He thought that was the most absurd thing he had ever heard, and offered to prove to me that there was nobody in the woods. He said he would take a machete and hack back into the area to prove it was just woods with perhaps a few squirrels and raccoons living in it.

So that is what we did the next day—he donned boots and began to clear a little path into the woods. The vines and weeds on the ground were so dense, they wrapped themselves around us and made the whole process very difficult. Clearly, nobody had been back there for a very long time.

About 75 yards into the woods, we both saw a single dirty, white tombstone. “Stephen Binyard, Co. D, 34th USCT”. 

Grave Before

Headstone for Stephen Binyard, Co. D, 34th USCT

It’s hard to find the words to properly articulate how life-changing that moment was for me. That is the moment that started it all—I had no idea who this person was, but I was determined to find out.

I had so many questions: Who was Stephen Binyard? I had attended high school in Beaufort, and I knew a few classmates with the surname of Binyard. It was familiar as an African-American surname in the area. Why was he seemingly buried all alone out in the woods on a military base? USCT meant United States Colored Troops, I knew that from my basic knowledge about local history—Stephen had served in the military during the Civil War. I recognized the white marble tombstone as being the one that is standard issue for military veterans, such as the thousands buried at the local Beaufort National Cemetery. And speaking of, why wasn’t he buried at the Beaufort National Cemetery? How long had he been buried here? Were there other people also buried around him? Why was his grave so neglected? Why did nobody seem to know, or care, that a grave was back here—a military veteran on a military base?

Mr. Spieler had educated me on basic research techniques for topics related to Beaufort’s history, so I knew that the first place I should go to try and get some answers to my questions was the Beaufort County Library located in downtown Beaufort. There, the Beaufort District Collection houses an extensive collection of documents, books, microfilm, etc. pertaining to Beaufort County’s history. Ms. Grace Cordial coordinates the Beaufort District Collection and all of the resources therein.

One of the resources available at the Beaufort District Collection is the Obituary Files, a collection of obituaries of people who have died in Beaufort County dating back to around 1866. There was an obituary available for one Stephen Binyard, who died in late December 1882. His one-line obituary simply stated, “Stephen Binyard, colored, was drowned last week”. 

Stephen Obit

Obituary for Stephen Binyard. Photo Courtesy of Kimberly Morgan.

Well, the obituary just got me even more curious about who this man was! How did he drown? Did he have a family, and if so, what happened to them? Was this the same Stephen Binyard whose grave I had found in the woods?

I had a foundation of knowledge about basic research methods I had learned from Mr. Spieler, and I also remembered the little bits of history my father had told me about during his years working in the Northwest Quadrant. But other than that, so far as knowledge regarding how to properly research a family I had no relation to as well as very little information about (just a name on a tombstone in the woods), I had to learn through an enormous amount of trial and error.

I first began to research Stephen Binyard on federal Census records from 1870, which showed that he was a 27 year old African-American man who was married to a woman named Jane, 22 years old. 

870 Census Binyard

Household of Stephen Binyard, 1870 U.S. Census

Ancestry.com. 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch. Year: 1870; Census Place: Beaufort, Beaufort, South Carolina; Roll: M593_1485; Page: 66A; Image: 320795; Family History Library Film: 552984.

 

They had three children. Stephen and Jane lived on a farm near some other families with the surname of Binyard—were those families related to him? This Stephen Binyard was the only adult male with that name on the 1870 Census records for Beaufort, so I assumed he was the correct person I was searching for, even though his surname was spelled with an “a” instead of an “i”–Baynard (a mistake I later found to be common). He would have been old enough in 1861, when the Civil War began, to have served in the military.

I also sent off an application to NARA (the National Archives and Records Administration) in Washington, DC for a copy of all of his military records. The first time I applied, I was sent records for the wrong person–probably because I completed the application incorrectly, not having much information to go on. It was extremely frustrating, and expensive, but I was determined to find out everything I could about Stephen. So I applied again, and finally received the proper records.

Stephen had served with part of the Union Army called the United States Colored Troops, or the USCT. His particular unit was an infantry regiment, the 2nd Regiment SC Volunteer Infantry (African Descent) / 34th Infantry Regiment, whose origins stem from right here in Beaufort, SC. Almost all of the members were formerly enslaved persons who joined the Army after the Emancipation Declaration was read in Beaufort on January 1, 1863.  The regiment participated in a number of notable engagements, including the Battle of Honey Hill.

Stephen’s military records were the key to unlocking a lot of the mystery of who he was. The records indicated that a woman named Jane Binyard had filed for his military pension around 1890, claiming to be his widow. That made sense, as I had seen a Stephen and Jane Binyard on the 1870 Census in Beaufort as well as the fact that the Stephen Binyard in the newspaper obituary had died in 1882 (thus making Jane a widow by the time she applied for the pension in 1890).

The second piece of vital information in those records was the receipt for his government-issued tombstone, provided because of his service in the Union Army during the Civil War. The receipt showed that the Stephen Binyard the tombstone was for had died in December 1882, which matched the newspaper obituary I had found. It also indicated that the stone had been shipped to Beaufort, SC and Mr. Binyard had been buried at “Edgerly Cemetery.” 

Record of Headstone Provided for USCT Veteran Stephen Binyard.

Ancestry.com. Headstones Provided for Deceased Union Civil War Veterans, 1861-1904 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007. The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Card Records of Headstones Provided for Deceased Union Civil War Veterans, ca. 1879-ca. 1903; NAI Number: 616171; Record Group: Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General; Record Group Number: 92; Series Number: M1845; Roll: 2

That was the first time I had seen the name “Edgerly.” I went back to the Beaufort County Library downtown and began to read local history books, consulted vintage maps of the area and found out that the military base where Stephen’s grave was had once, in fact, been a plantation called Edgerly that was owned by the Givens family. I recalled seeing the name Givens before—on Stephen’s USCT enlistment document, in the “Remarks” section, it said “Philip Givens.” I realized that Givens was the name of his former slaveholder, and that Stephen was probably buried on the former plantation where he grew up. 

Stephen Binyard USCT Service Record

 

Civil War Service Record for Stephen Binyard.

“Civil War Service Records,” database online at Fold3 (www.fold3.com), Union Records > Colored Troops > 1st Infantry >1st US Colored Infantry, Misc Cards, M-Y AND 1st South Carolina, record for Stephen Binyard, image 1 of 2; citing NARA microfilm publication M1819 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 2010), https://www.fold3.com/image/273/260913039, accessed 17 Jun 2017.

The more I dug into this mystery, the more information I found—like a giant, tangled-up ball of yarn that I was unraveling just a little bit at a time, slow and steady. I am an average person; I have a modest amount of disposable income, and I have to work to support myself. I don’t have unlimited free time and resources to spend on researching a random grave I found in the woods. But I felt compelled to find out all that I could about Stephen Binyard. What compelled me?  The sense of sadness and desperation I had felt from the woods I ran by all those times. My father had also taught me to always follow my instincts about a situation, and my gut told me that Stephen Binyard wanted me to find his grave. There was a story that needed to be told, and I needed to help tell it. Why? Who knows why—I am just a random white woman who was born over 130 years after Stephen was. But I could not ignore my gut.

The journey began that day in 2004 when I found Stephen’s dirty tombstone in the woods, and slowly began to untangle over the years. I would do research whenever I had free time—going to the library, looking at old microfilm of newspapers and other records, reading books about local history, looking up old property deeds and probate cases, visiting every church and cemetery I could find, and asking my dad for leads on anyone in town I could speak with about the Binyard family or their possible relations. It was a very slow process because I had to learn as I went. Sometimes I was so frustrated, I just wanted to throw my hands up in the air and walk away. I had no idea how difficult it was to try and trace the history of someone of African-American lineage who also had been enslaved. In the early part of my research, I purchased a membership to the genealogical website Ancestry.com. I traced my own family tree again, and was able to easily find records dating back to the 1600s. I did not know that records before 1870 for formerly enslaved persons of African descent usually do not exist (aka “The 1870 Brick Wall”). I did not know that after 1870, many people were still battling against illiteracy, poverty and racism within a system of government that still did not consider them human beings deserving of equal rights and protections under law.

There was so much that I just simply did not know, that I had no idea about, and things I had never considered in my lifetime.  Over the years as I began to learn about Stephen and his family, I also began to learn a lot about myself. I put myself in the shoes of Stephen and Jane, imagining what it must have been like to have been enslaved and live in bondage, never knowing what tomorrow may hold. And I thought about how incredibly difficult and frustrating it must have been in the years after the Civil War to think your children would have a better future than you–because you were finally free–only to have to experience Jim Crow laws, racism and other obstacles like generational poverty in your quest to provide a better life for them. Yet, they persevered and that gave me hope. I could not give up on Stephen when he never gave up despite all he had been through.

Many years passed, and I continued to research when I could but I could never find any living descendants of Stephen Binyard. In 2005, I met my now-husband (not the then-boyfriend with whom I found the grave, although we are still on friendly terms) who is an active duty US Marine. In 2009, my husband and I left Beaufort and moved to Japan, where he was assigned for four years. I had my first child in Japan, and we returned to Beaufort in 2013. I had tried to research Stephen as much as possible while living in Japan, but it proved to be quite difficult. Almost immediately upon my return to Beaufort, I dove into the research again, determined to make up for lost time. Also, in the years since 2004 websites like Ancestry.com, Fold3.com, LowcountryAfricana.com, FamilySearch.org and GenealogyBank.com had been more thoroughly developed and offered incredible amounts of new (to me) information and documents about Stephen. I was able to do so much work on my laptop, all while at home caring for my child. Thanks to television programs such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and “Finding Your Roots,” there was also a surge in popularity regarding genealogical research. I was an avid fan of both programs and learned a lot helpful tips for my research.

The major turning point in my research journey came in January 2014, when I once again checked the Message Boards on Ancestry.com. The boards are a place any member of Ancestry can post a message asking for help about researching a particular surname or family line, in the hopes that another member may be researching the same family and have information to share. I saw a message dating from 2008 from a member named “Akos” that asked if anyone had any information about the Binyard family of Beaufort, SC.  I got goosebumps, and my gut told me that “my” Stephen Binyard was part of the same Binyard family that this “Akos” person was looking for. I sent her a private message, stating as much and also explaining how and why I began to research Stephen. Almost immediately, I got a message back from an Akosua Moore of Atlanta, GA who stated that yes—she knew about Stephen Binyard of Beaufort, buried at Edgerly Cemetery as she had been researching him as well for over 10 years! Akosua was descended from Stephen’s sister, Dorcas Binyard Finley. 

Ancestry Message Akosua Moore Reply

Akosua Moore’s Reply to Ancestry.com Message

We spoke on the phone for hours, and a few weeks later Akosua, her mother Mafori Moore and Akosua’s three children drove down from Atlanta for the long weekend to stay at my house. From the moment we met, it was as if we had known each other our entire lives. We just clicked, as did our children. I showed Akosua and her family Stephen’s grave, and other sites pertinent to the history of the Binyard family. 

Family First Visit to Grave

The Moore Family’s First Visit to Stephen Binyard’s Grave

We compared the research we had each been gathering. It was funny because Akosua’s methodology was almost exactly the same as mine—we even organized our research in the same manner with binders!

Meeting Akosua gave my research the “jumpstart” I had been seeking for years. Akosua’s family had oral histories passed down for generations about the Binyards. They also had some family documents and research that I did not have. Akosua had many pieces of the puzzle that I was missing in my work, and vice-versa.

Akosua had gotten Jane’s complete 1890 application file for Stephen’s military pension from NARA some years before, and I was able to read it for the first time when I met her in January 2014. In the file, Jane confirms that her husband did in fact drown in December 1882. She included a sworn statement from the Beaufort County Coroner, Benjamin Burr, who saw Stephen’s body and ruled his death an accidental drowning.

Coroner’s Statement Concerning Stephen Binyard’s Death.

National Archives and Records Administration, Case Files of Approved Pension Applications of Widows and Other Veterans of the Army and Navy Who Served Mainly in the Civil War and the War With Spain, compiled 1861 – 1934. NARA Record Group 15, Pension Application, Mary Finley. 

The obituary I had found ten years before reading the pension application file was, in fact, for the correct Stephen Binyard. Jane explained that Stephen had been working at a local lumber mill, and was loading lumber into a boat when he fell overboard and drowned in the Beaufort River. She was left with eight children to provide for, and was left quite destitute.  Reading Jane’s own words about her life brought me to tears, and touched my heart as a woman, a wife and as a mother. My husband was deployed to the Middle East when I read Jane’s depositions that day in January 2014. My biggest nightmare—losing my husband, my daughter losing her father—was one Jane had already lived.

Statement of Jane Binyard

Jane Binyard Faced Many Hardships After Her Husband’s Death

But still, she persevered. Jane died at the home of her daughter Lydia in 1922, and is buried next to Stephen at Edgerly. 

Jane Binyard Obituary

Jane Binyard Obituary

Jane Binyard Death Certificate

Death Certificate for Jane Binyard

From January 2014, when we first met in person up to today, Stephen’s story has grown and taken twists and turns in ways I never imagined were possible! Akosua and I pool our resources to tackle the work as a team, and that makes a huge difference. We motivate each other, and we also offer each other another pair of eyes to look at information in order to ensure we are interpreting it correctly and/or are not missing any clues. Having a partner or a team of people helping in genealogical research is ideal, as I have found out. Akosua gets as excited as I do about discoveries and that also helps keep the motivation level high when we are otherwise frustrated with the process. It’s so much fun to find a new newspaper article about the family and to see Akosua’s reaction to it. The family deeply appreciates the work, and we are creating an incredible legacy that can be passed on to her children, their children and beyond. And he more we research the lives of Stephen, Jane and Dorcas the bigger the family tree becomes!

In addition to the research we’ve done that pieces together the lives of the Binyard family, Akosua and I have also been able to convince the military base (and the federal government) to clean up the area—actually a larger cemetery–around Stephen’s grave!

My work uncovered an archaeological survey done on some parts of MCAS Beaufort by New South Associates in 2011 that proved Stephen was in fact buried in a community cemetery–he is not alone in the woods. Edgerly Cemetery was the community burial ground for enslaved persons on Edgerly Plantation and later freed persons who stayed in the area after the Civil War, often working the land as part of family farms. Stephen and his family were one of those families, and the 1870 Census shows he and Jane with their three children on Edgerly (verified with property records). Because of Stephen’s military service, the government issued Jane a tombstone after his death. The white marble stone is sturdy and solid—it has withstood countless storms and over a hundred years of being exposed to the elements. I think the government-issued tombstone is the main reason why Stephen’s grave is one of the only marked graves in the area. Homemade markers made of wood or other objects were probably placed on graves like Jane’s, but then deteriorated or were destroyed over time. Marble stones or tombstones in general would have been a luxury for someone of modest means, as most families on Edgerly were after the Civil War.

After the Base cleaned up Edgerly Cemetery in early 2015, I asked for something else to ensure Stephen and the others buried there were not forgotten: a sign to properly mark the area. I envisioned a solid historical marker or sign, like the type you see at National Historic Landmarks that explain the history behind the site you are visiting. Mr. Gary Herndon, the Cultural Preservation Officer for MCAS Beaufort and the person responsible for organizing the cemetery clean-up, told me to find a company to make a sign, design it and bring him a quote. I decided that if I was going to do it, then I was going to do it right. Stephen and the others deserved the very best. I found a company that makes historical markers and plaques for many historical sites and landmarks across the US. The Southwell Company is based out of San Antonio, Texas and worked with me via email to design the perfect sign for Edgerly Cemetery. It was to be made of cast-iron aluminum and designed to last at least 100 years. The quote to manufacture the sign was almost $4,000 and I was highly doubtful that the Base/federal government would approve it. Honestly, I did not think they would consider a $4,000 sign to mark an old (but historic) cemetery for formerly enslaved persons a priority or something worth $4,000 of funds. 

Edgerly Cemetery After Cleanup

Edgerly Cemetery After Cleanup. The Cemetery Includes Many Unmarked Graves.

Gary called me a few days after I submitted the quote to him to tell me that the sign had been approved, ordered and would be delivered in about eight weeks. 

Historical Marker for Edgerly Cemetery

Historical Marker for Edgerly Cemetery

In September 2015, MCAS Beaufort, Akosua and I hosted a sign dedication ceremony. We invited as many of the living descendants of Stephen Binyard and the other families of Edgerly that we could find. It was a beautiful day, and a touching ceremony. The Base Chaplain was present and offered a special prayer for everyone buried there. The descendants present pulled the cloth off the sign to unveil it for the first time. That day was one of the proudest of my life; that sign will be there for many years, and it tells the story of Stephen and Edgerly, and of the other families there. It is something that Akosua, and other descendants can take their children and grandchildren to and say, “This is your history. This is for you, and your Ancestors would be proud of you. We have not forgotten them and you need to tell your children about this to ensure they are never forgotten.” 

Edgerly Cemetery Sign Dedication Ceremony

Edgerly Cemetery Sign Dedication Ceremony

Akosua and I give free presentations about our work, and our story at least twice a year—usually in February for Black History Month sponsored by the Beaufort County Library, and in May for the original Gullah Festival as guests of the Pazant family, who founded the festival In December 2015, we were recommended to the producers of “Finding Your Roots” to do research work on a special project for the the host of the show, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., It was the first time either Akosua or I had been paid for our work. And in February 2016, we were awarded the Rosalie F. Pazant Preservation Award at the Brandyfoot Awards, presented by the Brandyfoot Committee, an auxiliary of the original Gullah Festival of the Lowcountry. 

Brandyfoot Preservation Award

Jonathan Green Presents the Brandyfoot Preservation Award to Kimberly Morgan and Akosua Moore. L to R: Kimberly Morgan, Jonathan Green, Akosua Moore

Also in February 2016, I finally located a direct living descendant of Stephen Binyard of Edgerly Plantation of Beaufort, SC: his three-times great-grandson, Steven Binyard! Thanks to the amazing power of social media, I was able to reach out to Steven and in another coincidence, he has been searching for information about his Binyard roots since 2004—the same year I got the feeling of being watched that led me into the woods to find the tombstone.

Numerous newspaper articles have been written about Akosua and I’s research, our friendship and our journey together doing this research. The journey may be long and difficult, but it really is the best part of the entire experience and that is why rather than researching the family of most people that we are fortunate enough to meet, we encourage them to try to do the work themselves. If I can do it, anyone can and I say that with complete sincerity.  

I am still an average person, a housewife whose military husband is often gone for months at a time. My child is about to start kindergarten, and I have a home and pets to care for. But I still work on my research just about every day. Since 2004, it has grown to include not just working on Stephen Binyard and his immediate family, but that of other families of Edgerly as well as a few other African-American families in Beaufort with ties to Stephen and Jane. Beaufort was not a very big town, and once you narrow your focus down to the African-American community you tend to find that at some point, “one hand washed another” as my neighbor often says.

The work can still be frustrating at times, as well as overwhelming. It is still something I do mostly for free, and often my resources are limited. But I genuinely enjoy doing it, and the friendships I have made as a result of this journey have been the most incredible thing to come out of it all.  In Akosua, I found the sister that I never had, and in her children, my child has the siblings she will never have. Our families are bonded forever with a love that is difficult to describe, but at the core is a simple beauty and genuine respect.

 Akosua and I continue to work, and to brainstorm ideas about how to continue to preserve this history, to educate the public about Stephen and Dorcas and their families, and to make genealogical research more accessible for everyone, especially those of African-American descent with enslaved Ancestors.

I visit Stephen about once a month, to put flowers on his grave and to pay my respects to everyone buried around him. I speak with them, and ask for their continued guidance on this never-ending journey to piece together their story. I also thank Stephen and Jane for choosing me to have this experience—to be the one to tell their story, for giving me a wonderful family, many amazing friends and incredible life experiences.

Now I understand what I have in common with a black man who was born into slavery almost 130 years before me: the human experience. We all want the same things in life: to be happy, to find love, to work in our chosen profession and provide well for our family and/or ourselves, and to be free. And we certainly want the same things for our children. Pain, heartbreak, loss, grief, happiness, joy, disappointment, frustration, courage, strength, determination—those are all universal emotions that anyone can relate to. Learning about Stephen and Jane’s lives has left me in awe of the incredible human beings that they were, and given me hope for the future. Their history is my history because their struggle is my struggle.

I also visit the grave of Robert Smalls on special occasions to put flowers out, now fully appreciating the human being that he was—not just the one-dimensional hero of a long-ago story I once could not relate to.

Now I understand.

Sometimes I even go to Edgerly Cemetery at dusk, and walk slowly past the woods so I can enjoy the view because it is located on a beautiful tidal creek. I still feel like I am being watched, but there are no longer any feelings of sadness or desperation.

Instead there is a feeling of quiet joy, of pride and most of all–there is peace.

Peaceful View of Edgerly Cemetery

Peaceful View of Edgerly Cemetery

About Kimberly Morgan

Kimberly Morgan lives in the Beaufort, SC area with her family, which includes four rescue dogs. She is an avid animal lover, and volunteers with the local county animal shelter. Her degree is in criminology, and Mrs. Morgan has previously worked as a 911 Dispatcher as well as in Emergency Management. In her free time, she enjoys reading and kayaking. Most of her current research work is focused on connecting descendants of Stephen Binyard and his family, as well as expanding preservation efforts for Edgerly Cemetery. She and Akosua Moore are working on a book about their journey.

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