There’s a story, familiar to and told by people around Atlanta, of a free African American woman who owned a small plot of land and was married to an enslaved man. Not only was she the first African American to own land in Atlanta, but she traded that property for her husband’s freedom. That woman has now been identified as Laura Kelly Combs, and her husband was named John Combs.
I stumbled upon this amazing story almost ten years ago—completely by accident—when I found a deed that provided the woman’s real name: Laura Combs. In all the earlier versions of the story I encountered, the woman had been identified as “Mary Combs.” No previous researchers had found any evidence to prove the details. After other records revealed her maiden name—Laura Kelly—a world of evidence opened up.
I wanted to share her story, but I needed to document it properly first. With the help of friends and colleagues, I slowly collected hundreds of documents about Laura and her family. They included records like registers of free persons of color, deeds, tax lists, Freedman’s Bank deposit records, marriage certificates, death records, censuses, directories, yearbooks, military pension files, historical books, cemetery burial records, and many more.
Like pieces in a puzzle, all those sources culminated in an article that was recently published in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (December 2013): pages 245-266 (membership required). It was almost 10,000 words long, with 250 citations, and almost 40 different types of sources. Here are some of the documents that helped me piece Laura’s story together.
First is the only tax record I found for Laura in Atlanta from 1855. Laura owed taxes on her land which was valued at $1000. (Located in downtown Atlanta, the property is now worth more than $3 million!) By law, she needed a white “guardian,” who is listed as James F. Alexander. Notice that she is listed by her maiden name Laura Kelly.
Back when I originally found this document it wasn’t online. I spent an entire day looking for Laura in the tax lists. She’s easy to find now that Ancestry.com has scanned and indexed so many Georgia tax digests!
Next, we have Laura in the 1860 United States Federal Census with her children. After trading her land for her husband’s freedom, she went back to her home city of Augusta, Georgia. Her husband John wasn’t listed on the census, because he wasn’t technically free—it was illegal to free a slave at that time. He had to stay hidden from officials.
One of the most amazing discoveries was a Freedman’s Bank deposit record. After the Civil War, Laura and her family moved back to Atlanta, where she deposited money in the bank. The deposit provides her age, birthplace, residence, and occupation, plus it names her spouse, children, parents, and siblings—a rare genealogical treasure. This one record laid out the genealogy of her immediate family.
Finally, the 1870 United States Federal Census shows the Combs family all living together in Atlanta. John Combs was a barber, one of the few entrepreneurial occupations available to black men in the Jim Crow era.
Laura’s children went on to lead interesting lives. Her son Thomas S. Kelly served in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War and was present at the Battle of New Market Heights. Thomas received a pension. His service record is available on Fold3.
Laura’s son Oswell A. Combs worked for the U.S. Pension Office in Washington, D.C. during the early 1890s, with his brothers Thomas and Jacob. The Pension Office was operating out of Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated. In 1893, a significant portion of the building collapsed, killing 22 men. Oswell was one of the employees who escaped with his life. I found him in a newspaper article reporting the tragedy.
Records help us tell amazing stories. As Laura’s story shows us, seemingly common documents can reveal something extraordinary when pieced together. Take the time to explore other events in the lives of your ancestors, beyond just birth, marriage, and death. You may just reveal an amazing story in your own family history.
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