An inheritance that's worth more than property

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December 15, 2006|By JANET ALBERT

With the following words, the poignant history of Remus Lyles' Clarksville family begins:

"I give and bequeath to my servants Charles, Mary Ann and Lydia immediate freedom and twenty dollars each in cash ... "

This excerpt from the last will and testament of Polly Owings Welling of Howard County is dated Aug. 16, 1852 - 13 years before slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865.

Lyles' great-great-grandmother and great-great-grandfather, Wesley and Mathilda Burkett, and their seven children together as well as Mathilda's firstborn son, Charles Roberts, were slaves on Polly Owings Welling's farm.

The three older children - Charles Roberts, Mary Ann, and Lydia - were 26, 22, and 20, respectively, at the time of Welling's death, and were freed immediately with their parents.

"Charles had a white father," said Lyles, 75, explaining why Charles carries the last name of Roberts. "I don't know any more about that," he added. Charles was born before Mathilda married Burkett, who was a slave on an adjacent farm.

The will goes on to state: "I give and bequeath to my former servant Mathilda Burkett ... also the following children, namely Kitty, Laura, Elizabeth, Grace and Richard ... the children to serve her till they arrive at the age of 18 years and then to be free."

Lyles explained why Welling would bequeath children to their own mother as servants. "The children could be captured by another slave owner, and taken to their farm," he said.

In fact, legal documents called "manumissions" were filed two years after the will - physically describing Lyles' ancestors so that they could be identified if captured by other whites with the intent to re-enslave them. The manumission for Charles Roberts reads: "Charles Roberts aged about 26 years 5 feet 6 inches high has no visible scar light complexion is ... manumitted By Polly Welling ... "

"This [manumission document] was their identification," said Lyles. "This would guarantee their description if they were captured by another slave owner."

While Lyles' mother, Ianthia Anderson Lyles, would often recount stories of the family's history, Lyles said he only really started paying attention when he retired as a senior supervisor with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission in 1990, seven years before his mother's death.

"The last couple of years, I heard it [the family's history] breakfast, lunch, and supper," said Lyles, who would visit and help his mother, who lived next door. Lyles started doing some research and found that the stories his mother told were documented in wills and deeds. He said, "The more I learned about my family, the more I wanted to know."

"My Mother was 98 years old," Lyles said, "and everything [she told Lyles] was to the `T' up until two weeks before she died." Lyles said people - black and white - would often visit his mother to hear about their history or roots in Howard County. "She knew everything about everybody," he said.

After Mathilda and Wesley Burkett and their of-age children were freed in 1852 by Welling's will, they settled in what was known as Simpsonville - the area around Freetown Road in Columbia.

"I would have loved to have known what they thought and did the first day after they were freed," said Lyles. "What they talked about and what their plans were - where they would go to live."

After the Civil War, the family's story takes a fortuitous turn. Charles Roberts, who had been drafted into Union Army service, returned from the war and purchased two adjacent farms of 83 acres each on Haviland Mill Road in 1866 for the sum of $4,212.50.

"Charles Roberts could have passed for white," said Lyles. "That's why no one questioned him [purchasing the land with that amount of cash]."

Lyles can only speculate on how Roberts acquired such a fortune.

"White soldiers earned thirteen dollars a month - black soldiers earned eleven," said Lyles. Roberts worked at a Baltimore hotel called The Eutaw House after the war, and Lyles had heard that stockbrokers often stayed there.

"I heard that some of those black guys who worked as elevator operators and cleaning and maintenance [workers] would invest fifty cents or a dollar [based on what they overheard]. Some of them became rich," he said.

"You could buy Coca-Cola [stock] for 10 cents a share," Lyles said.

It is what Roberts did with the money that mattered. Roberts purchased the farms and moved his mother and stepfather into one home with him and rented the other farm to his brother-in-law, Remus Dorsey, who had married Roberts' half-sister, Lydia. The Dorseys had five children, one of whom was Lyles' grandmother, Mary Mathilda Dorsey. Mary Mathilda's daughter, Ianthia Anderson, is Remus Lyles' mother. Ianthia moved back to the family farm with her mother after her father died at the age of 9 and heard the family's history at her grandmother Lydia's knee.

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