Personal Historian Finds Her Deep Roots
For 30 years Thelma Williams has spent more time with Anthony and Isabella and their child, William, than she has with many of her living relatives.
She sneaks out to libraries to be with them. She searches for them in court records. She smiles at their ghosts as she drives past the old forts and plantations that shaped their lives: Ft. Monroe, where they were sold to an English sea captain; Jamestown, where William was baptized; Blue Bird Gap Farm, where their slave descendants may have lived.
“Girl, you are living in the past,” her husband chides his 54-year-old wife as she sets off on yet another genealogical journey.
Her children roll their eyes. “Let it go,” they say ever so gently, because they know she can’t.
The shortage of documents doesn’t deter her. With stubborn faith in the stories that have been handed down through the generations, Thelma weaves the tale of her family’s past.
It’s a 375-year-old epic of love and adventure, hardship and endurance, slavery and freedom and redemption.
It’s the story of Anthony and Isabella and their son, William Tucker, the first black child born in America.
Today, miles away, there lives another William Tucker. Thelma’s cousin is a 52-year-old New York City police officer who works a lot of overtime and talks about returning to Virginia when he retires. He plans to go back to where he came from, back to the town where his famous ancestor was born.
In the 3 1/2 centuries that span the lives of these two William Tuckers lies the history of the black family experience in America, one Thelma has painstakingly traced, through documents and stories, through peace and revolution, through the vine-covered graves in the 300-year-old family cemetery that lies hidden down an old dirt road in Hampton.
Thelma believes that the first William Tucker is buried here, although she doesn’t have “100% proof.”
She doesn’t have 100% proof of many of the twists in the Tucker family tree, and some of what she does have she won’t reveal. She’s saving her best genealogical gems for her book.
What she does have is a head full of history, cases full of manuscripts and a rich trove of family lore. Her passion and conviction have won her a certain fame and following in her home state, where her family has been formally honored as direct descendants of the first William Tucker.
“They sailed across the high seas and landed here,” Thelma says, standing by the shore at the tip of Ft. Monroe and staring across the Chesapeake Bay. “This is where it all began.”
Thelma first heard the story from her grandmother, who passed it on from her grandparents, who learned from their grandparents before them.
It tells of a young African couple, brought to the colony on a Dutch man-of-war and sold to a kindly sea captain turned plantation owner who bestowed his name upon their son. The couple, Anthony and Isabella, worked in his tobacco fields and cypress groves. Their son married a mixed-race woman and had a family of his own.
More than three centuries after their arrival, the black Tucker family have stamped their soul upon this town. Teachers and tailors, pharmacists and musicians. They boast that they are everywhere except in jail.
“It’s important that people know we didn’t just fall out of the sky,” Thelma says, standing in front of the Chestnut Street house where she grew up. “We have roots here that go back more than 350 years.”
But like a million other families, they run into problems trying to trace those early roots. Where exactly did Anthony and Isabella come from? Were they slaves or indentured servants? Were they captured by pirates? Were they among the famous “20 and odd Negroes” that planter John Rolfe describes as arriving in a Dutch ship around 1619?
The first references to Anthony and Isabella appear in a list of the living and the dead after the Indian massacre of colonists in 1622. They are mentioned again in the 1624-25 census--along with 40 barrels of corn, four pistols and three swine--as part of the household of Capt. William Tucker: “Antoney Negro and Isabell Negro and William theire child baptised.”
Why was the baby baptized and given his master’s name, a practice that later became common for slaves? Does it suggest that Anthony and Isabella were, in fact, among the first slaves? Could it mean Capt. Tucker himself fathered the child?
No one knows for sure.
Thelma argues that the birth of a child, any child, in a population ravaged by hunger, disease and attack, was cause for celebration. After all, the colony was only 17 years old, a harsh-living place of rough wattle homes and flimsy wooden palisades, where winters were known as “The Starving Time.” Planters had little to fend off the elements but their wits and gunpowder. Women had just arrived. Family life, black and white, was just beginning.
“Capt. Tucker thought the event was significant enough to have the child baptized and make himself the godparent,” Thelma says. “I admire him for that.”
In fact, there is little evidence that the baptized baby received Tucker’s surname: that seems to have been more or less assumed by historians. If a birth certificate did exist, it was probably destroyed, like so many other records, in one of the Jamestown fires.
Questions about Anthony and Isabella’s voyage are complicated by questions about their status. Slavery didn’t exist as an organized labor system in the early 1600s, and Thelma sides with historians who argue that it developed, along with racism, as the need for cheap labor grew. Laws legitimizing slavery appeared in the 1660s.
“We came as indentured servants, but for Africans, that was really just a notch above slavery,” Thelma says. “We were on the first slave ship to come to America.”
No one can argue because no one really knows.
Part of the difficulty is simply sorting out names. There were plenty of Anthonys and Williams carving slices of the colony for themselves, including Anthony Johnson, a free black planter and slave owner who built a thriving plantation in Northampton. Johnson’s life is well known because, by a quirk of history, many Northampton documents survived.
The problem is that the records don’t always make clear which Anthony they refer to. The same is true of the Tuckers.
“There were so many William Tuckers running around in those days,” says Norma Tucker, author of a book on Capt. Tucker. “The fact is, you can’t be sure of anything.”
What is known is that the captain became one of Virginia’s biggest landowners, amassing thousands of acres in and around Hampton. He left it to his children, including a son named William.
Establishing genealogical connections is further complicated by the fact that so many records were destroyed during the Revolution and the Civil War. For black slave families, for whom record-keeping often meant scribbled notes inside the family Bible, documenting the links is almost impossible.
“Basically, we can get black families back to the period of the Revolutionary War,” says Virginia genealogist John Dorman. “But bridging that 150-odd years between the 1620s and the 1770s, unless they were free and had land, is very doubtful. It’s impossible to establish connections when we don’t have the records.”
But there are other ways to make connections, ways not always readily available, or acceptable, to professional genealogists.
Stories. Memories. Songs. Layers of family tradition passed from one generation to the next; worn-out anecdotes that stitch together the threads of the past.
Oral history. Without it, black families like the Tuckers simply could not bridge some gaps.
For years now, Thelma has filled her notebooks with such history: tales spun to her as a child on her grandmother’s porch, retold at family barbecues, pondered behind the candy counter in her Uncle Emmanuel’s store.
The characters are as familiar as her children’s smiles.
Nat Tucker, the strong young slave hanged in the 1830s because his name sounded like the rebel Nat Turner; unidentified women who were raped by their white masters; quiet old Samuel, the last Tucker slave, whose son Thomas started a moving business with a couple of oxen and a cart.
Thomas celebrated his freedom with a solemn pledge: that in his lifetime no member of his family would work for a white man or woman again.
Did he make such a promise? Did he keep it?
“The oral tradition is always very tricky,” says Thomas Davidson, senior curator at the Jamestown museum and fort. “Different family stories start to sound the same. And who really knows?”
There is one place where Thelma knows for sure.
Come here, she says, treading softly over the graves where William and his children may be buried. Come to where the answers lie.
She pulls out a property deed from 1896 that describes the “old colored burial ground,” a two-acre plot her ancestors bought for $100. A rickety wooden sign marks their purchase: “Tucker Cemetery, 300 years.”
Thelma’s mother is buried here, and her grandparents and their parents too. Their names are engraved on fading headstones: Mary Elizabeth Tucker, James William Tucker, Alexander Samuel Tucker.
But it is the sunken, unmarked graves that have the strongest pull. Who rests beneath the crumbling soil?
Anthony? Isabella? William?
Thelma understands the skeptics. She once was one herself, a long time ago when she was a little girl, before her grandmother anointed her keeper of history.
“This is what you must remember, that we were on the first slave ship to come to America, that we are descended from the first black child born in America.”
“How do you know?” Thelma asked. She hadn’t learned anything like this at school.
“My father told me and his father told him and his father before him told him. Ask the old people. Ask your uncles.”
So Thelma did. They all told her the same story.
“But how do you know for sure?”
“Don’t you know if you take a dog down the street he’ll find his way home? Well, child, we’re human beings and we’re much more intelligent than animals. We need to know where we came from. And if we put our minds to it, we always find our way home.”
Thelma thinks of those words often, every time someone asks. They echoed through her head on that blistering August day in 1994, when her family once again sailed up the James River, on a replica of a 17th-century ship.
It could have been 375 years ago, the creaking wooden vessel pulling in to the lush green shore. It could have been Anthony and Isabella.
Except this time, her family were the guests of honor. This time, they were greeted by the governor and a crowd of cheering revelers.
Thelma fanned her elderly uncle as she watched from the shore. Her grandmother would have been so proud.
The Tuckers had found their way home.
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