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  • RENÉE C. BYER / rbyer@sacbee.com

    Karen Burney shows a picture of ancestor Stephen Presley, who started three churches after he was freed from slavery.

  • RENÉE C. BYER / rbyer@sacbee.com

    Karen Burney's great-great-grandparents Issac Jefferson and Jane Jefferson were slaves on a Louisiana plantation.

Genealogy brings descendants of slaveowner, slave together

Published: Monday, Jul. 4, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Jul. 10, 2011 - 3:04 pm

For 21 years Sacramento genealogist Karen Burney – the descendant of slaves, American Indians and a Revolutionary War hero – has been tracing her roots back to Africa.

"They're lost family heroes," Burney says of the slaves who helped build this nation and survived so that she and millions of other African Americans would someday taste freedom.

Burney celebrated America's birthday by finally meeting the great-great-grandson of Louisiana planter Henry Marshall, a founder of the Confederacy who owned Burney's ancestors.

After years of searching, she walked into the lobby of a hotel near San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf on Saturday morning to meet a tall, middle-aged Southern gentleman in khaki pants and a short-sleeve knit shirt. He brought a folder filled with family documents.

He's not ready to publicly confront the ghosts of his family's past, and asked Burney not to share his name. But they spent three hours poring over photos and papers, and exploring how their roots intertwined.

"About 150 years ago his family owned my family," Burney said. "The fact that we can have breakfast, put aside the past and reflect on our proud family histories demonstrates how far we've come as a nation."

He knew a tremendous amount about his great-great-grandfather Henry Marshall, who moved from South Carolina to DeSoto Parish, Louisiana, in the 1830s.

Marshall – who owned more than 200 slaves – built a 10,000-acre cotton plantation, Land's End, that served as a field hospital for Confederate troops who'd stopped the Union advance at the battle of Mansfield in April 1864.

A lawyer and statesman, Marshall was elected to the Louisiana Senate, signed the Confederate Constitution and lost two sons to disease while serving in the Confederate Army.

When Marshall died in 1864, Burney's great-grandparents Issac and Jane Jefferson were valued at $1,700 and $1,500.

"Issac was part white," said Burney, who has yet to explore her Scottish roots. There were many mixed-race slaves the Marshalls referred to as white, Burney said, including her great-great-great-grandmother Emma, who was called "House Emma."

The Jeffersons weren't freed until "Juneteenth" – June 19, 1865 – the day the Union troops sailed into Galveston, Texas, declared the Civil War's end and announced all slaves were free. Burney and thousands of other African Americans celebrate independence on Juneteenth as well as July Fourth.

The Jeffersons "didn't seem to harbor any resentment or hostility toward their former owner or his family," Burney said. "On the contrary, they loved the man, named their first-born son after him and maintained a close-knit relationship long after slavery."

The Jeffersons became homeowners and raised 12 free children, Burney said proudly. Another of her ancestors, Stephen Presley, started three churches after he was freed from slavery.

Over continental breakfast Saturday, the Southern gentleman and the Sacramento lady talked about their families. He said he came from a long line of lawyers, and she revealed one of her ancestors was Billy Braveboy, aka Brayboy, a freed slave who came with Marshall from South Carolina.

Braveboy was freed because his grandfather was Joshua Braveboy, an African and Lumbee Indian who rode with "the Swamp Fox," Francis Marion, during the Revolutionary War.

Marion's guerrillas ambushed the British from the South Carolina swamps, rescuing American troops surrounded at Parker's Ferry, S.C. For his heroism, Joshua Braveboy was granted his freedom, Burney said.

She said Billy Braveboy followed Marshall to Louisiana because Billy's wife was still a slave.

Henry Marshall inherited many slaves from his father, Adam, who in 1805 and 1806 bought 20 "Prime Gold Coast Slaves," according to the newspaper announcing the sale at Geyer's wharf in Charleston, S.C.

They were mostly likely brought from Ghana and Liberia, and Billy Braveboy's wife could have been one of them, Burney said. "I believe they were treated very well. Henry believed in keeping families together, and provided them with good food and shelter," she said.

Burney started The Roots of Exchange and Education Society, or TREES, at trees4us.blogspot.com – and will teach free genealogy classes at Sacramento's Central library Oct. 22.

"There's a lot of people out there that have lost ancestors," Burney said. "African Americans are very excited about the prospect of being able to put a name and a story behind those who came before them."

Before the Internet and the posting of old census records online, African American ancestors "were kind of phantoms," Burney said. "It can be life-changing for young people to know where you've come from. You can be more appreciative of what you have, and have a better idea of where you're going."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Stephen Magagnini



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