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One hundred and twenty years ago, the Washington Post and the Virginian-Pilot ran a story on the wonderful reunion of Boston and Eliza Bryant, formerly enslaved African American fraternal twins who’d been sold from one another in 1845, North Carolina.
After living as strangers for fifty-four years, Boston Bryant, sixty-six years old, will be reunited to his twin sister before the year 1899 is closed.
Boston is the venerable colored sexton of the Suffolk Christian Church, of whose pastor, Dr. W. W. Staley, he is the special friend and protégé. Boston and Dr. Staley are both Tarheels by birth.
The life drama enacted by Boston and his twin sister, Eliza Bryant, was made possible by slave-day customs. Way back in the early forties they were a happy pair of pickaninnies on a big North Carolina plantation. Their owner loved his slaves. He was also fond of wine and fast living. He was finally forced to sell one of his human holdings every year to maintain his style of living.
It so came about that the twins were separated by sale about the year 1845, when they were twelve years old. They grew to manhood and womanhood without knowing each other’s whereabouts.
Some days ago, Eliza, whose last name is Gatling now, heard that Boston was in Suffolk. She wrote a letter of inquiry, and now Boston expects to meet his sister at her home in Coxville, N. C., by Friday morning.
Boston is a typical ante-bellum negro, vigorous and active despite his age, and effusively polite to ‘white folks.’ Dr. Staley asked his congregation for a special collection for the faithful old sexton. The response was liberal enough to pay his railroad fare and for several substantial presents, besidesThe Washington Post, December 28, 1899
The Virginian-Pilot article features additional detail, with some discrepancy on Boston and Eliza’s communication.
After 54 years’ separation, Boston Bryant will soon be reunited to his sister. He doesn’t know her any more, but he has learned her address, and he will proceed to look her up. Her name is ‘Liza Gatling, and she lives in Coxville, N. C. It is a twin sister.
Boston is the venerable sexton of the Suffolk Christian Church and a particular friend and protégé of the pastor. Dr. W. W. Staley. The doctor announced from the pulpit Sunday night that Boston was one of his favorites.
The life drama of Boston Bryant and his twin sister is a product of slave times. They were owned by a good old North Carolinean, who treated them kindly. Childhood days were full of joy.
There came a time when pleasure was supplanted by pain. That was about the year 1845, when the twins were 12 years old. Their owner loved his slaves, and he also loved his whiskey. He got in need of money and was in the habit of unloading one of his human holdings every year. In 1845 the twins were parted. They never saw nor heard of each other till recently. Liza was married once or twice, her last husband being a Gatling. Somehow she heard that Boston was living in Suffolk, and a correspondence ensued.Boston will leave to-morrow to search for his long lost sister. There was a special collection taken for him Sunday. That will pay his fare and leave enough for a Christmas present. He will visit Liza several days. They are 66 years old.The Virginian-Pilot, December 28, 1899
Although laced with epithets, patronizing language, and a false narrative of slavery as a mostly benign institution (doting slave owners, enslaved childhoods “filled with joy”), the articles did impart valuable information I hadn’t known about Boston Bryant and his “lost’ twin sister Eliza.
Boston Bryant (ca. 1833-1903) has been a familiar figure for many years. I first found his gravesite in Suffolk’s Oak Lawn Cemetery in 2011, on a visit to the historic site in search of paternal ancestors. At the time, I’d noted that his gravestone was one of the largest in the cemetery, but at some point had been knocked or fallen off of its base.
A family monument, an inscription for Boston’s wife, Fannie Bryant, is located on the opposite face of the gravestone.
Boston was first documented in the 1870 U. S. Census as a thirty-five year old “sundry laborer,” in Suffolk, Virginia. He lived with his wife Fannie (34), and daughters Sarah (9) and Eliza (4).1 In the 1880 Census for Suffolk, Boston was documented as a forty-nine year old general laborer. His wife, Fannie, aged forty-eight, was noted as a domestic. The household included son George (5). and daughters Eliza (14), and Emeline (12), who both attended school.2 On May 14, 1879, Boston and Fannie’s daughter, Sarah, married Lewis T. Jackson, the son of David Jackson and Elmira Pierce. In 1880, they were documented in Suffolk, in a home with Lewis’ parents, David Jackson (54), a laborer, Elmira Pierce Jackson (51), and Lewis’ brother, David Jackson, Jr. (24). 3
According to the inscription on the family monument, Fannie Bryant passed away in 1901. However, I located a record of marriage between Boston Bryant (widower), and Miss Indiana Drewry, daughter of Kitty Tate, on September 26, 1895, Suffolk, Virginia.4 The marriage record indicates that Boston’s parents were George and Ruthie Bryant of North Carolina. In the 1900 Census, Suffolk, Boston, aged sixty five, was documented as a church sexton, and lived in a residence on Pine Street. His household included his wife, Indianna, aged forty-eight.5 Indianna “India” Drewry Bryant, would survive her husband, and died at her residence, 262 PIne Street (currently the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts’ parking lot) on February 28, 1922. She was interred in Oak Lawn Cemetery on March 4th, 1922, by the Baker B. Elliott Funeral Company. 6
Although I’d studied Boston’s story in Suffolk, Virginia, I had no knowledge of his role as the sexton of Suffolk Christian Church, nor his relationship with then pastor Rev. Dr. William Wesley Staley (1849-1932). 8
Boston’s role as the sexton of a prominent white church in lower Tidewater, Virginia, reminded me of my ancestor, William Henry Elliott (ca. 1824-1904), a free person of color from Portsmouth, who was the long-term sexton of Court Street Baptist Church, Portsmouth, Virginia. Similar to the social status of “coachman,” and later, Pullman Porters, African American sextons of white religious institutions usually held a certain level of prominence within the African American community. William Henry Elliott was the sexton of Court Street Baptist for forty-nine years, and upon retirement, received a pension from the church. When William died in 1904, his obituary was carried in various newspapers across the state of Virginia, covering Fredericksburg, Highland County, Norfolk, Richmond, and Shenandoah County. In Washington, D. C., William’s death was reported by the Evening Star.10
Upon is death in 1903, Boston Bryant did not receive the same type of notoriety, but I did locate his obituary in the Norfolk Landmark.
The news accounts of the long-awaited reunion of Boston and twin sister Eliza differed on how they found one another. The Washington Post noted that Eliza wrote a letter seeking information on Boston, and the Virginian-Pilot noted it was Boston who’d initiated contact. Formerly enslaved African Americans would often place ads in newspapers in the attempt to find long-lost relatives, sold away during slavery. Boston and Eliza’s contact may have also been facilitated by Boston’s connections and role within the Suffolk Christian Church, and his custodial duties and affiliation with several law offices in Suffolk, Virginia.
What of Eliza? Prior to the news articles, her very existence and importance to the family of Boston Bryant was unknown to me. I needed to know her, to learn her amazing story, to fully realize her beyond a name . Using the clues provided within the articles, including her married name, approximate age, and city of residence, I was able to locate Eliza within Craven and Pitt County, North Carolina vital records.
In 1870, an Eliza Gatling, age thirty, was documented in Township 1 of Craven County, North Carolina. Also present in the home was Hardy Gatling (three months).12 In the 1880 Census, Eliza, age forty, was documented as a widow, in Swift Creek township, Pitt County, North Carolina. Her household included daughters Georgia (perhaps Georgianna) aged twenty-two, Catherine, aged twenty, Mary, seventeen, and grandchildren Quinney, eleven months, and William D., three months old.13
Little is known of Eliza’s life between 1880 and 1899, when she was finally reunited with her twin brother. Boston Bryant’s return to Suffolk after the reunion was reported by the Virginian-Pilot.
In 1900, Eliza, aged sixty-eight, was documented in Swift Creek township, Pitt County. She lived with her daughter Mary, aged forty, the widow of Daniel Gardner, and mother of eight children. One of Mary’s children, William M. Gardner, aged twenty, was noted as a school teacher.15 In the 1910 Census, Eliza was documented in Swift Creek in the home of her grandson, William, who was noted as a farmer.16
Eliza Bryant Gatling died on December 10, 1917, Ayden, Pitt County, North Carolina. Her cause of death was determined to be paralysis (no doctor in attendance). Interestingly, the informant, grandson William D. Bryant, stated that her educational level was “illiterate.” William gave Eliza’s place of birth as Greene County, North Carolina, the daughter of George and Ruthie Bryant, which matches the given names of Boston Bryant’s parents in his record of marriage to Indianna Drewry in 1895, Suffolk, Virginia. While Boston’s burial site is known, Eliza was buried in an unnamed rural cemetery in southern Pitt County on December 11, 1917. Luckily, I’ve located and reached out to a descendant of Eliza Gatling, and may be able to learn additional details of her life in Pitt County, North Carolina.17
“Their separation as children had seemed so permanent, and time had all but erased their memories of each other, but here they stood…”18
I reflected on Boston and Eliza’s incredible story, and tried to imagine what their reunion was like. I quickly realized that it was absolutely impossible for me to do so. How could I truly understand? The inherent joy, the pain of their decades-long separation resurfaced, all merged into one. What was it like for Boston and Eliza to lose one another, and at such a young age? A little brother and sister, inseparable, that had to face one of the most brutal, inhumane aspects of slavery. Boston and Eliza had likely seen the horse-drawn carts on the plantation, the method by which men, women, and children who’d been sold were permanently taken away. One fateful day, that cart came for them. Little Boston and Eliza were stripped of their humanity, and reduced to a cash nexus, commodities to be traded and sold to cover a debt. George and Ruthie Bryant, like so many other enslaved parents, had lost their children, and on that awful day, knew they’d probably never see them again. It was infuriating.
My anger at the thought of their cruel separation was tempered by the fact that, remarkably, Boston and Eliza had found one another before their respective deaths. I also found it rather ironic that they were reunited in December, a time when, historically, enslaved African Americans were separated, by sale, or “hired out” to environs unknown.
I’ll continue researching Boston and Eliza’s lives in Virginia and North Carolina. Stay tuned for my second installment of the their family story, as I determine where the twins were born and held in bondage in North Carolina, speak to living descendants in Pitt County, North Carolina, and hopefully determine Eliza’s last resting place.
- Ancestry, “1870 U. S. Census,” Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com: accessed 14 January 2020), Suffolk, Nansemond, Virginia, dist. Suffolk; p. 12; citing, “Year: 1870; Census Place: Suffolk, Nansemond, Virginia; Roll: M593_1664; Page: 304B; Family History Library Film: 553163.
- Ancestry, “1880 U. S. Census,” Ancestry (https://ancestry.com :accessed 14 January 2020), Suffolk, Nansemond, Virgiinia, dist. 055, p. 25, citing “Year: 1880; Census Place: Suffolk, Nansemond, Virginia; Roll: 1379; Page: 117B; Enumeration District: 055.”
- FamilySearch, “”Virginia Marriages, 1785-1940,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ : accessed 14 January 2020), Lewis T. Jackson and Sarah M. Bryant, 14 May 1879; citing Suffolk County, Virginia, reference 243; FHL microfilm 2,048,463.”
- “Virginia Marriages, 1785-1940,” database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ :accessed 14 January 2020), Boston Bryant and Indiana Drewry, 26 Sep 1895; citing Suffolk, Virginia, reference 280; FHL microfilm 2,048,463.”
- Ancestry, “1900 U. S. Census,” database online, Ancestry (https://ancestry.com/ : accessed 14 January 2020), Suffolk, Nansemond, Virginia, dist. 0030, p. 15, citing “Year: 1900; Census Place: Suffolk, Nansemond, Virginia; Page: 8; Enumeration District: 0030; FHL microfilm: 1241719.”
- “Virginia, Death Records, 1912-2014” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 14 January 2020), certificate image, Indiana Bryant, 28 February 1922, no. 5005, citing, “Virginia Department of Health; Richmond, Virginia; Virginia Deaths, 1912-2014.”
- The Norfolk Virginian (Norfolk, Virginia), 2 October 1895, p. 8, c. 1; image copy, Newspapers (https://newspapers.com : accessed 14 January 2020).
- Dr. William Wesley Staley was a former president of Elon Universityhttps://www.elon.edu/, Alamance County, North Carolina. His obituary in the Daily Press read: “Dr. William W. Staley, 83, former president of Elon College and pastor emeritus of the Suffolk Christian Church is dead. Death followed a week’s illness at Virginia Beach yesterday. Funeral services will be held here tomorrow.Dr. Staley was the son of John T. and Melissa Day Staley, of Alamance County, N. C. After graduating at the University of Virginia he became professor at New Providence, N. C. He was ordained at Hanks Chapel, N. C., in 1874. He was pastor of the Suffolk church 41 years, before being succeeded by the Rev. H. H. Hardcastle, with whom he worked as pastor emeritus.” Source: The Daily Press (Newport News, Va.), 11 October 1932, p. 2, col. 2; image copy, Newspapers.com ( https://www.newspapers.com/: accessed 28 December 2019).
- Edward Pollock, Sketch book of Suffolk Va., it’s people and its trade. Portsmouth, Virginia: G. W. Purdie & Co., 1886. Image copy. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/ : 2008.
- “Remarkable Negro Funeral,” The Evening Star (Washington, District of Columbia), 19 January 1904, p. 7, c. 4; image copy, Newspapers (https://newspapers.com/ : accessed 14 January 2020).
- The Norfolk Landmark (Norfolk, Virginia), 14 October 1903, p. 9, c. 2; image copy, Newspapers (https://newsppapers.com: accessed 14 January 2020}.
- Ancestry, “1870 U. S. Census,” Ancestry (https://ancestry.com : accessed 13 January 2020), Township 1, Craven County, North Carolina, dist. Township 1, p. 18, citing, “Year: 1870; Census Place: Township 1, Craven, North Carolina; Roll: M593_1132; Page: 468B; Family History Library Film: 552631.”
- Ancestry, “1880 U. S. Census,” Ancestry (https:ancestry.com/ : accessed 13 January 2020), Swift Creek Township, Pitt County, North Carolina, dist. 130, p. 18, citing, “Year: 1880; Census Place: Swift Creek, Pitt, North Carolina; Roll: 978; Page: 452D; Enumeration District: 130.”
- The Virginian Pilot (Norfolk, Virginia), 4 January 1900. p. 8, c. 3; image copy, Newspapers (https://newspapers.com: accessed 14 January 2020).
- Ancestry, “1900 U. S. Census,” Ancestry (https://ancestry.com/ : accessed 14 January 2020), Swift Creek Township, Pitt County, North Carolina, dist. 0097, p. 12, citing, “Year: 1900; Census Place: Swift Creek, Pitt, North Carolina; Page: 6; Enumeration District: 0097; FHL microfilm: 1241212.”
- Ancestry, “1910 U. S. Census,” Ancestry (https://ancestry.com/ :accessed 14 January 2020), Swift Creek Township, Pitt County, North Carolina, dist. 0103, p. 16, citing “Year: 1910; Census Place: Swift Creek, Pitt, North Carolina; Roll: T624_1126; Page: 8B; Enumeration District: 0103; FHL microfilm: 1375139.”
- “North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1976,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 14 January 2020), certificate image, Eliza Gatling, 10 December 1917, no. 46, citing, “North Carolina State Archives; Raleigh, North Carolina; North Carolina Death Certificates, North Carolina State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. North Carolina Death Certificates. Microfilm S.123. Rolls 19-242, 280, 313-682, 1040-1297. North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.”
- Heather Andrea Williams, Help me to find my people (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), pp. 178-179.