Discover roots

Discovering that her great-grandfather was a steamboat captain and connecting her family to historic Tombee Plantation are some of the more exciting things Rosalyn Browne has learned through her genealogical research.

"More and more African-Americans are becoming interested in history and doing it through genealogical research," Browne said. "There are now more online tools. Before people would start research and hit a dead end because they could not physically travel to the South Carolina Archives in Columbia."

The director of history and culture at Penn Center on St. Helena Island has known all her life of her ties to St. Helena and the historic Penn School, one of the first schools for freed slaves, where her parents were students and teachers.

Browne's great-grandfather, Dennis Freeman, was born into slavery in 1850 on Tombee Plantation and after emancipation he joined the Navy in 1866. After retiring, Freeman became a steamboat captain on St. Helena Island. Browne remembers playing inside the historic Tombee Plantation house on Seaside Road as a child and reading the names of her ancestors in Theodore Rosengarten's book, "Tombee: Portrait of a Cotton Planter."

"My mother was raised on Tombee by her grandfather, who was a guide for hunters on Hunting Island," Browne said of Dennis Freeman. "When we saw (Rosengarten's book), in the index you'll find the table of the plantation owner's property and slaves and my ancestors' names -- including Dennis Freeman."

Now Browne and others will discover more of that history at a symposium Friday during Penn Center's annual Heritage Days celebration. The symposium is a collaboration of the efforts of Penn Center, the S.C. Department of Archives and History and the University of South Florida. The groups are working together to place 20,000 records and documents online to help the public identify Lowcountry and Gullah-Geechee genealogy. Browne said panelists from Florida, Charleston and England are coming to the symposium to help people "discover our roots."

Finding historical documentation has been hard for many blacks whose ancestors were enslaved. In many cases, including census records, a plantation owner was asked only the number of slaves owned and their age range, making research difficult for those slaves' descendants. However, some plantation owners kept their own records of slaves' names, birthdates and more.

John Glover, 66, of St. Helena Island has used many resources during his research of six generations. His parents attended Penn School, and he had many family stories that helped him get started. He's also done research at a Mormon church in Dublin, Calif. He has traced some of his family as far back as the 1820s and 1830s.

Glover learned that his great-grandmother, Mary Jane Coaxum Fields, born in 1870, was a midwife who adopted four children. Another ancestor, born in 1822, fought for the Union during the Civil War. Glover found that many of his male ancestors served in the military -- and one went absent without leave.

"I cracked up and printed it out," said Glover of the AWOL find. "One of the skeletons was out of the closet."

Penn Center's York W. Bailey Museum is another local source of information. The museum has a list of the 54 plantations that were once on St. Helena and their owners. The center also can help people find the names of midwives who were trained at Penn School in the early 1900s. The school's records were turned over to the Beaufort County School District in the 1970s. The center also has some audio recordings made in the 1970s of people, including renowned folk artist Sam Doyle.

Glover had two bits of advice for beginner genealogists.

"A lady told me when I first got into genealogy to keep an open mind because there are skeletons in every family," he said. "Also, she said to keep tuned-in to what you are doing. Your ancestors will be hovering over you and they will let you know when you hit the right spot or not."