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Widening the Circle of Family History

African American history, Geneaology

Posted by George McDaniel, Executive Director

Drayton Hall is very much about family heritage. That was demonstrated at the September 20th celebration of the 100th anniversary of Richmond Bowens’ birth. Richmond was born and raised at Drayton Hall and returned in later years to become one of the first gatekeepers and an authority on African-American life at the site. Descendants of Drayton Hall attended the event and many came away determined to help future generations learn more about their common heritage.

Thanks to that program, I learned about Richmond’s younger sister, Emmie Lee Bowens Jenkins, born at Drayton Hall in 1917 and now living in St. Albans, Queens, New York, with her daughter, Mildred Thompson. I contacted Mrs. Thompson and accepted her invitation to visit. Joining us was another daughter, Ellen Alleyne, and their cousin, Mary Anne Brown, who is Emmie Lee’s niece.

(L-R) Mary Ann Brown, Ellen Alleyne, Ella Thompson in the arms of her great-grandmother Emmie Lee Bowens Jenkins, Mildred Thompson, and George McDaniel.

(L-R) Mary Ann Brown, Ellen Alleyne, Ella Thompson in the arms of her great-grandmother Emmie Lee Bowens Jenkins, Mildred Thompson, and George McDaniel.

I was immediately made to feel at home by the aromas of Southern cooking, complete with fried whiting, grits, biscuits, and sausage. Another special pleasure was that Mrs. Thompson’s infant granddaughter, Ella Thompson, was there. Emmie Lee’s grandmother was named Ella Bowens, so it was remarkable to see Ella Bowens’ great, great, great granddaughter carrying on her name.

My main reason for wanting to interview Mrs. Jenkins was to ask for her help in identifying individuals in historical photographs from the state archives and Drayton Hall’s collection. At age 91, her physical faculties have diminished, but her mind is still fairly lucid. There’s no doubt that had someone recorded her recollections four or five years ago, they would have obtained a clearer and more vivid account. That loss demonstrates the importance of documenting oral histories while our elders are still in full form. Still, Mrs. Jenkins was able to identify a number of people and confirm the identity of others. Now, when we put together a family tree or present stories about former residents, we can add the photographs of Charles Bowens, Mary Fenneck, and others – thereby enabling future generations to connect to this site in more personal ways. The family also told us of others in South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland who might help to widen the circles of Drayton Hall’s and their family history.

This meeting took place on Jan. 21st, the day after President Obama’s inauguration, which has sparked a renewed interest in history. It is our hope that you will be inspired to reach out to your own family and community to help share and preserve our history. I think our ancestors would be pleased.

A historic image on loan to Drayton Hall with previosuly unidentified subjects. Emmie Lee Jenkins was able to identify the two people as Charles Bowens and his older sister Mary Bowens Fenneck, the two oldest children of Caesar and Ella Camel Bowens.

A historic image on loan to Drayton Hall with previously unidentified subjects. Emmie Lee Jenkins was able to identify the two people as Charles Bowens and his older sister Mary Bowens Fenneck, the two oldest children of Caesar and Ella Camel Bowens. It is believed the image was taken at Drayton Hall around 1920.