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Posted by The Charlotte Post on Monday, March 7, 2016

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Unchained by the past
Shared slavery history brought students together
Published Wednesday, May 17, 2017 2:23 am
by Herbert L. White

Ebony Hill of Charlotte (left) and Grace Woodward of Washington, D.C., discovered their families’ shared history as slaves and slaveowners while doing research on Beatties Ford Road in a class at Johnson C. Smith University.

On the surface, Ebony Hill and Grace Woodward have little in common.

Hill, 47, is graduating Johnson C. Smith University Sunday with a degree in business management. Woodward, 21, is a junior sociology major at Davidson College. Hill is black; Woodward is white. But they found one important tie: slavery.

Hill’s great-great-great grandfather, Robert Caldwell Sr., was owned by Alexander David Caldwell, a cotton planter and politician. Robert’s brothers were owned by Woodward’s fifth-great grandfather Major John Davidson, a co-signer of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence and owner of Rural Hill plantation in northern Mecklenburg County.

Hill and Woodward’s discovery was part of a class – Sociology of Beatties Ford Road – at JCSU. It opened their minds to the tortured history of American slavery and developed a bond between descendants of slave owners and enslaved.

“The biggest takeaway for me was that Ebony and I have a relationship our ancestors would’ve ever, ever imagined,” said Woodward, a Washington, D.C., native. “All the things that have happened in the generations since slavery, here Ebony and I are and we like each other and we’re in class together and we’re friends and we see each other as human beings in a way I don’t think our ancestors could’ve imagined, and that’s pretty profound to wrap my head around.”

Hill and Woodward addressed their shared history and findings at a JCSU symposium earlier this month, where Davidson professor Joseph Ewoodzie led the sociology class.  

“This unique class gave new meaning to applied research, taking students from different schools, classrooms and walks of life to work on one project,” he said. “It challenged and exposed our own issues, and therefore those of our society.”

Hill and Woodward’s familial background was confirmed in the “Colored Communicates” of 1850 at Hopewell Presbyterian Church on Beatties Ford Road, which kept records of its membership roster. One discovery that stood out to Hill and Woodward was learning Hill’s forebears were members of predominantly white Hopewell Presbyterian, where literacy was a requirement of congregants. Teaching slaves to read and write was a criminal act in southern states during that time and carried harsh punishments.

“It all fell into our laps in a two-hour period after weeks and weeks of researching,” Hill said. “We were actually in the church where her ancestors would have attended Sunday service and my uncle and my grandfather. To be in that space and make that connection and go into the sanctuary and go in the balcony and see the door where the slaves came in and the stairwell they went up to go to the balcony, it’s surreal.”

“That was such a powerful moment, to walk around the sanctuary and go up to the balcony,” Woodward said.

The key to connecting the historic dots was genealogy research to Hill’s ancestry, which a great aunt turned into a five-year project. Her research was instrumental in linking Hill’s kin to the Davidsons and Caldwells, who kept more accessible histories.

“My reaction was excitement, selfishly, because it was an opportunity that I at the time didn’t realize that for many African Americans, this won’t even happen for them,” Hill said. “They won’t get their lineage because of the ways slaves were documented. It was excitement for me even without the attachment to her. The emotions that came with it, I didn’t expect.”

Said Woodward: “If we didn’t have that record, I don’t know where we would’ve started.”

Understanding a shared link was one thing. Reconciling it is another given America’s uneasy relationship with race. Hill and Woodward decided to confront it head-on.

“Once we put it together, I think we just said ‘Wow,’” Woodward said. “And then we went, ‘So what does this mean? What does it mean for us, what does it mean for Charlotte, what does it mean for the greater conversation in the United States?”

Said Hill: “It very well could’ve been conflicting, especially if I had listened to outside opinions because they just came from out of nowhere and I could’ve easily been influenced. ‘You should be mad at Grace; Grace’s family owes you 40 acres and a mule.’ I heard it all. I didn’t look at her sideways. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience with a kinder, open-minded, warm, considerate person.

“It was hard making the connection. It was frustrating at times but we stuck in there. I don’t have any ill feelings toward her at all and I think if I did, it would be ridiculous.”

Both Hill and Woodward contend that if people had open dialogue about history, slavery and race, it would help bridge cracks in race relations.

“It was the society, it was the way of life,” Hill said. “Abolitionists owned slaves, but they fought for our freedom, so it was accepted. If white people could understand that and try [not to mitigate slavery’s impact on African Americans], I think I’d really appreciate that.”

Said Woodward: “It’s uncomfortable and messy, but we really need to talk about it,. It’s more important to talk about it than my slight discomfort to talk about it. It’s bigger than me being uncomfortable.”


Ebony Hill is my 1st cousin my father side and when she told me of all history of our family it was amazing! It's funny how things come together 400 yrs later. Two families coming together is just wonderful to me. Knowing what and who you come from is truly important! I very happy of the work Ebony and Grace did!
Posted on May 22, 2017

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