Discovering African American Heroes in My Family Tree

by Michelle Marsden

I was a sophomore in college when a friend of mine made a discovery about my family history that was so powerful it led me to a lifelong passion for my family history. Turns out, I had African American Heroes in my family tree!

My Great-Grandfather Was Born Into Slavery

This photo of my great-grandfather Peter Vaughters hung in my grandmother’s home.

Portrait of Reverend Peter Vaughters.
Rev. Peter Vaughters, my great-grandfather.

To her he was a loving father. To the community he was a beloved minister. But to me, he was a bit of a mystery that I only later began to learn more about thanks to historical records.

The document that really got me intrigued, that I credit with bringing my family history to life for me, is this 1920 census record.

Peter Vaughters in a 1920 census record.
This 1920 census record brought my family history to life.

I remember we gathered together as a family to pour over the details in it. My sisters and I sprawled out  on the floor of the living room while my mother and grandmother sat close by.

We tried to look at everything. Who could read and write? Who owned land and what did everyone do for a living?

According to this document my grandmother’s father Peter Vaughters would have been born in 1852.

A census record showing Peter Vaughters was 68 in 1920.
According to the 1920 Census, Peter Vaughters was 68 and thus would have been born in 1852.

This realization made me completely stop the conversation to ask my grandmother if these dates were correct. Remembering the Civil War wasn’t over until 1865, I pressed forward.

“Mommom, was your dad born a slave?”

I asked.

The author and her grandmother Estella.
Me and my Grandmother Estella, or “Mommom,” as we called her.

Sheepishly, she sunk into her seat a little bit, and softly said yes. She seemed embarrassed. Over time, I came to realize that she felt this way because her generation didn’t talk about the past.

The pain of looking back often brought sadness and reminders of the struggles that African Americans faced. Instead, they held onto their memories, did not ask questions, and chose to silently focus on building a better future for their children.

With her confirmation that her dad was born into slavery, I had a whirlwind of new questions. Who owned him? How did he survive? What was his life like?

This was the moment that sparked my lifelong quest to find answers about our family history.

Who Was Peter Vaughters?

I was so intrigued by our family’s connection to slavery that in 2002, my sister and I took a trip to Georgia to see what details we could learn about that part of Great-Grandpa’s past.

But being born a slave turned out to be just one of many of the surprises in Peter’s life. A few of the most extraordinary things I discovered about him were:

He started a school. And my grandmother attended it. Discovering that was a mind-blowing moment.

He ended up owning 90 acres of land in Georgia.

He was a widower who married 3 times–and had 21 children. The 1920 census record was the tip that started our journey towards finding all of my grandmother’s siblings on paper.

Mommom knew all of these things, but she just never thought to mention them. Finding the records allowed us to have a prompt to then have those meaningful conversations.

Civil War Ties on the Other Side of the Family

I like to think of my family story in terms of what was happening at the time in America.

In January of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. By this time Peter Vaughters would have been eleven years old.

The first page of the Emancipation Proclamation.
When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued my great-grandfather Peter was 11.

Technically this document would have given him his freedom since he was enslaved in Georgia, but the proclamation was not enforceable until after the Civil War ended.

I have another perspective of the war from my father’s side of my family tree. It started with a shaky leaf hint from Ancestry® on my family tree that indicated I might have a Civil War vet in the family.

I checked with my family and verified that this may have been true but very little oral history had been passed down about him.

After learning about how to use records from a pension file, my dad and I decided to take a road trip to the National Archives (NARA) in Washington, DC.

The author and her dad at the National Archives in D.C.
My dad and I took a road trip to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

From this venture and subsequent research we have learned all sorts of amazing details including:

My 3rd great grandfather Isaac Rothwell was a Civil War veteran. He served in the same regiment as his two brothers, Alfred and Samuel Rothwell.

Isaac Rothwell's 1863 military service record.
Isaac Rothwell’s military service record shows he enlisted at 19 in 1863 (line 46).

•  Two of my Civil War ancestors, Isaac Rothwell and George Potts were tent mates during the war. Their children married each other and became my second great-grandparents.

My fourth great uncle (Alfred Rothwell) died at Fort Wagner, the location memorialized in the movie Glory.

An illustration of a battle at Fort Wagner in 1890.
Alfred Rothwell, my fourth great uncle, served with the 3rd USCT and died at Fort Wagner.

Living in the Shadow of History

It turns out I was living in the shadow of my ancestors for several years: all four vets trained at Camp William Penn in North Philadelphia. This was the largest training facility in the area for African Americans who wanted to serve in the Civil War.

A tombstone memorial at Camp William Penn.
I had no idea four of my ancestors trained at Camp William Penn, right next to my school.

The perimeter of this camp sits immediately behind the art college that I attended for four years. Traveling back and forth we literally walked the same streets—separated by one hundred and twenty-eight years.

I have since been back to Camp William Penn to attend Civil War reenactments of the 3rd U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) of which all four of my ancestors were a part.

The author and a Civil War reenactor of the 3rd USCT.
Me with Joe, one of the leading reenactors of the 3rd USCT.

It’s so empowering for me to know their history and essentially my history. I draw strength from their survival and cherish what it must have taken for them to raise families during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow racially segregated era.

Their character, strength and faith have been passed down to our current generations and we are grateful for it.

An Ongoing Quest

I’ve made a lot of progress on piecing together my family’s past. I’ve traced my dad’s mother’s line back to my 5x great-grandfather in 1793.

It is really important to me that my children learn about our family tree.

The author's children with a map and a book of their family history.
I regularly reveal new pieces of our family story to our kids.

The topic of family legacy I have found is relevant outside of my home as well. Last year my son’s history class was studying slavery and the Civil War timeline.

I realized that by sharing our family’s journey of survival I could literally put faces to content that seemed so far away to today’s youth.

The author presenting her family story to her son's class.
I spoke to my son’s social studies class about my family’s ties to the historical events they were learning about.

I wanted to help them make a connection to the material, to learn a new perspective, and to use our family’s story to inspire them.

I’m now working on bringing together more of Reverend Peter Vaughters’ descendants and discovering as much as I can about the Rothwell brothers and their children.


What Will You Discover?

Every family has stories of triumph and stories of survival that are waiting to be discovered.

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