In 1890, two ads seeking information on the whereabouts of Warren Copeland appeared in a local newspaper. They were placed by his son, Rev. Solomon M. G. Copeland, a pastor of historic Emanuel A. M. E. Church, Portsmouth, Virginia.
INFORMATION WANTED of my Father. His name, Warren Copeland. He left me at Suffolk Va., Nansemond County, about 38 years ago, and went to Florida. My address is 617 Griffin street, Portsmouth, Va., Solomon M. G. Copeland.S. M. G. Copeland, 1890
Rev. Solomon M. G. Copeland, Nansemond County, Virginia
Per documentation, Solomon may have been born a free person of color In Nansemond County, Virginia. In 1850, a Solomon Copeland, aged eleven, lived with the family of James and Lavinia Read, free African Americans.1 In 1860, Solomon was documented in a home headed by Ms. Permelia Holland (born about 1795) in Nansemond’s Lower Parish. The multi-generational home included Martha Copeland, thirty-seven, William T. Copeland, eighteen, John B. Copeland, fifteen, Richard Copeland, eleven, and Catharine Copeland, one, all free-born or emancipated African Americans.2 In 1861 Solomon married Miss Maria (Mariah) Ann Spratley, who was also born into a free African American family in Nansemond.
In 1870, Solomon and Mariah moved to Portsmouth, Virginia, and started a family. Solomon was ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1880, and also worked as a mail carrier, a prestigious job for African American men prior to 1950. Solomon’s rousing sermons at North Street A. M. E. Church (Emanuel A.M.E,), the very church our ancestors attended, were regularly reported in local news media.
The corner stone of St. James Chapel A.M.E. Church, Berkley, Va., was laid April 17, 1882, by Bishop A.W. Cayman, D.D., assisted by Rev. J.W. Diggs and others. The Bishop preached. We are preparing for dedication. We have erected two new churches on Norfolk circuit since April, 1881, and we are laboring to complete and pay for them this conference year. Dimensions, 28 x 40 and 26 x 36; seating capacity of one is about five hundred and the other four hundred. I see light ahead. This is my second year on this circuit.Rev. S.M.G. Copeland, 1882
Solomon’s work with the Virginia Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church required him to move frequently between various churches in lower Tidewater. In 1887, he officially petitioned the Portsmouth City Council for a waiver of fees for the ferry that operated between Norfolk and Portsmouth. By 1890, Rev. Solomon M. G. Copeland had established himself as one of the leading figures of Portsmouth’s Black community.
Letters written in search of lost relatives were commonly found in African American newspapers after the Civil War, a steady and lingering reminder of slavery’s catastrophic effect on the bonds of enslaved families. In the review of Solomon’s ads, I wondered what inspired him to place them. Perhaps becoming a father himself? Reading similar letters in the national news, or hearing tales of lost relatives from his parishioners? By the time Solomon submitted his inquiry to the local news in 1890, he’d been appointed to the Greenville Circuit (Richmond District) of the A. M. E. Church in Virginia. Shortly thereafter, he officially withdrew from the A.M.E. Church, and didn’t appear to have been appointed to any other circuits through 1904. The letter, coupled with Solomon’s withdrawal, engendered a certain curiosity, which made sense. After all, there were plenty of paternal ancestors in our family tree from Nansemond County with the surname “Copeland.” Was Warren Copeland a distant relative?Could I solve the mystery? What happened to him?
Finding Warren Copeland
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In the attempt to find Warren, I used two clues from Solomon’s letter: (1) that Warren left Solomon in Nansemond about 1852, per his recollection, and (2) Warren’s last known location in Florida. Was Warren Copeland born free, manumitted, or enslaved in Nansemond County? Solomon’s letter states that Warren “left me at Suffolk,” and although a great majority of African Americans with the surname “Copeland” in Nansemond County in this period were free born, to assume Warren was such would be in error.
Nansemond (now the City of Suffolk) was one of Virginia’s “burned counties,” that suffered a major loss of historical records due to fires in 1734, 1779, and 1866. Unfortunately, many of these lost records concerned Nansemond’s African American population, including early deeds, estate inventories, and free negro registrations, required by law beginning in 1793. I reviewed copies of all extant “free negro” certificates in our files, collected from various institutions, and found none for Warren Copeland. In addition, a general search of the 1840 and 1850 federal census contained no listings for Warren Copeland. I expanded the scope of the original search parameter for Warren, and also did not locate him in any available records in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, or Florida.
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In a review of the 1870 Census, I found one possible candidate. An African American, fifty-year old farmer from Virginia, named Warren Copeland, lived near Marianna, Jackson County, Florida. Jackson is located in the panhandle of Florida. It is bordered on the north by Alabama, and shares its eastern border with Georgia. Jackson was established in 1822 from Escambia County, making it the third oldest county in the state. As a result of some political wrangling by several of its prominent citizens, Marianna, established in 1821, was recognized as the county seat by 1829. The Warren Copeland identified in the 1870 Census shared a home with his wife, Georgia native Mary Copeland, aged forty-five, Olive Copeland, aged twenty-four, Alexander Copeland, aged twelve, Israel Copeland, aged three, and Rose Copeland, aged two. Warren was in possession of a fifty-dollar personal estate.3 As the 1870 Census does not specify family relationships, it is unknown is any or all of the children documented in the home were Warren’s biological children.
Marianna, Jackson County, Florida, 18324
Jackson County, Florida, 1850
I knew very little about the history of Marianna. In my youth, I’d spotted the name on road signs along Interstate 10, during family road trips to visit relatives in Jacksonville. Then there were the historical aspects learned in recent years, including the Battle of Marianna (1864) and the actions of the 86th U. S. Colored Infantry, and the Dozier School For Boys scandal that broke in 2009. which detailed the systemic abuse suffered by scores of boys over decades, and the subsequent search for their lost graves. Looking for information on a long-lost “Copeland” from Nansemond County gave Marianna a new meaning, so I thought it prudent to review early records for Jackson County. Perhaps I’d missed something.
In the 1850 Census, there was no mention of Warren, but I located one man from Virginia named Ben Watson. Per the census estimate, Ben Watson was born about 1795. Out of less than thirty free African Americans, only one, Mr. Samuel H. Ireland, a trunk maker, had any significant property. Most of the free African American listed are noted from Georgia.
Free African Americans, 1850
|John Clark||35||Mulatto||Carpenter||North Carolina|
|Starling Jones||35||Black||(none)||North Carolina|
|Samuel H. Ireland||39||Mulatto||Trunkmaker|
|Eliza Ireland||35||Mulatto||(none)||North Carolina|
|Betsy Hills||28||Black||(none)||North Carolina|
Jackson County, Florida, 1860
In a review of the 1860 Census for Jackson County, Florida, I did not find any listing or notation for Warren Copeland. In fact, there were less than forty free persons of color documented, most as “mulattos,” a conclusion likely reached by simple observation of the census taker, rather than absolute proof of genetic heritage. These individuals were residents of Marianna, the county seat of Jackson County, with the great majority from Georgia.
Free African Americans, 1860
|John L. Beady||20||Mulatto||(none)||Florida|
|Henry G. Beady||10||Mulatto||(none)||Florida|
|Rocksy A. Beady||8||Mulatto||(none)||Florida|
|Georgia A. Beady||3||Mulatto||(none)||Florida|
|Abb Scott||70||Mulatto||Farmer||North Carolina|
|Gilly Scott||43||Mulatto||(none)||South Carolina|
|John W. Williams||78||Mulatto||Farmer||North Carolina|
|Eliza Ireland||42||Mulatto||(none)||North Carolina|
|William J. Atkinson||22||Mulatto||Farm Laborer||Florida|
|Julia A. Bowens||22||Black||Agent||South Carolina|
|Henry T. Bowens||12||Black||(none)||Florida|
The earliest mention of Warren Copeland in Jackson County was his marriage to Mary Davis, July 26, 1866. It is possible that Warren and Mary either cohabitated, or, lived as man and wife prior to this date. But there were many possible scenarios as to why I had trouble locating Warren Copeland, anywhere, prior to 1866. Warren may have gone by a different name, moved around frequently, lived with a Native American group, or been caught by fugitive slave catchers (with or without a certificate of freedom), and returned to slavery.
Jackson County, Florida,1868-1871
“The colored men had no right the white men were bound to respect”
As a resident of Jackson County during Reconstruction, Warren Copeland lived right in the middle of major conflict between ex-Confederates, Northern politicians, and African American citizens over suffrage, control of labor, and civil rights.
In 1860, Jackson County’s enslaved population was similar to Nansemond County’s, about forty-nine percent. Virtually none of the ex-Confederates and planters of Florida were interested in supporting African American suffrage. Florida was to have a “government of WHITE MEN,” bolstered by leading politicians’ invocation of the Dred Scott decision in their vehement arguments against any degree of Civil Rights for African Americans. Florida’s Black Codes were among the most severe in the nation, second only to those of Mississippi and South Carolina. Punishments for crimes were completely unequal in nature. In 1869, An African American elderly man was sentenced to two years for theft of a cow he rightfully owned, after he produced documentation of said ownership, while in the same year, agents of the Freedmen’s Bureau reported a white man was fined only five cents for his assault upon an African American woman in Marianna. 5
The planters were encouraging lawlessness and inciting the Negroes to make extravagant demands for equality in order to embarrass the carpetbaggers and excite the poor whites. The carpetbaggers and Northern capitalists were seeking to get rid of Reed, and bribing white and black members of the legislature in order to get through special legislation for capital.6
The Negroes were trying to find a program of labor legislation, which would help and uplift the masses. Reed was playing capital, labor, and planters against each other, and in the midst of these contradictory and opposing forces, the state staggered on.W. E. B. DuBois
In many ways, the events in Jackson County, Florida seemed a forerunner to the Wilmington political coup of 1898 by some thirty years, albeit on a smaller scale. . Hundreds of African Americans, along with white Republicans, were terrorized, shot at, beaten, or murdered, including Calvin Rogers, an African American constable from Maine, three members of the Matt Nichols family, and two-year old Stewart Livingston, shot at a community picnic. It was reported that African Americans were driven away from the polls, some stabbed in the process, and their land confiscated, while the perpetrators were allowed to escape justice. Charles M. Hamilton, Union Army veteran and agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau, testified that young white women vandalized the graves of Union soldiers in 1869. They removed the garlands, stamped upon them, and tore other decorations to shreds.
The following are testimonials made by African American residents and office-holders before Congressional committee, on the conditions in and around Marianna, Jackson County, and their personal encounter(s) with the Ku Klux Klan in Florida, between 1868-1871.
I am about thirty-seven years old. I was born in Virginia, and now live in Jacksonville, Florida. I lived in Marianna, Florida, up to two years ago last month…
The night assassins, or the Ku-Klux…raided my so that I could not stay. I was doing very well there on a place I bought…
One night about 1 o’clock, I was sick…there came a crowd of men there, they knocked and told me to open the door…
My son, who is about fifteen years old, hoisted the window, and jumped out. They shot at him one gun as he ran through my garden-gate, and they put fifteen buckshot into the gate in a place the size of my hand…
I had just bought a place, paid out a great deal of money for it, and had it fixed up real nice and comfortable, everything growing nicely, and ready for good living. They deprived me of everything I owned in the world, and I have not had five cents from it.
On the murder of the Matt Nichols Family
I knew a family who used to stay the same hotel I stopped at. They went there and called him out of the house, and carried the man off; they carried the son and father first, and then the wife went after them, and they killed them all…
It was in Marianna, Jackson County, about seventy-five miles from Tallahassee. It was about a mile in the woods where they killed those folks…
The gentleman who used to own them (William Nichols) said the woman’s throat was cut from ear to ear, and her hair all torn up by the roots; that the rest had their throats cut too; they used to belong to him…
They seemed to get on the track of those who did that, but they left and went away. I have seen a crowd go out with a colored man pretending to look for some one, and they came back with the man’s brains on their arms.8
Emanuel Fortune (1833-1897)9
I am going on thirty-nine years old; I was born in Jackson County, in this state, and I now live in Jacksonville. I work at the carpenter’s trade now hen I work; I was formerly a shoemaker, but I do not follow that now on account of my health…
There got to be such a state of lawlessness and outrage that I expected that my life was in danger at all times, and I left on that account; in fact I got, indirectly, information very often that I would be missing some day and no one would know where I was, on account of my being a leading man in politics, and taking a very active part in it…
…several were killed…three men were called out of their doors and host; some were shot through the cracks of the houses, and others as they were going into the houses.
Lewis White (b. ca. 1831)
I reckon I am about forty; I was born in Georgia, and I now live in Jackson County, Florida…about seven miles from (Marianna)….
I have seen people killed, some run off, and some that were shot at; I take it it was done by the Ku-Klux, but nobody would ever own it…
…he better not vote…any more; it is against our interest to do it any more, as long as a man wants his life, and I want to save myself as well as I can. He better have nothing to do with it, because if he does they will kill him certain; he will die sure.
Hannah Tutson (b. ca. 1824)10
As near as I can tell I am about forty-two or forty-three years old. I was born in Gadsden, Florida, and I now live in Clay County, near Waldo, on old Number Eleven Pond…
As I saw him coming, I took up my child—the baby—and held to him…Cabell Winn catched hold of my foot, and then there were so many hold of me I cannot tell you who they were…I started to scream, and George McCrea catched me right by the throat and choked me.
They took and carried me to a pine…and then they tied my hands there. They pulled off all my linen, tore it up so that I did not have a piece of rag on me as big as my hand…
They whipped me…and got liquor of some kind and poured it on my head, and I smelled it for three weeks, so that it made me sick….
…they whipped me from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet. I was just raw. The blood oozed out through my frock all around my waist, clean through…my house was torn down…
On finding her family the following day. Samuel and Hannah’s children were about ten, five, and ten months old. The infant suffered extensive damage to his hip from being ripped away from Hannah and violently thrown aside the night before.
They were there at my house, where the true-klux had whipped me. Their father lay out to the middle of the night, and my children lay out there too. They said that when they got away from me they went out into the field, and my little daughter said that as the baby cried she would reach out and pick some gooseberries and put them in its little mouth. When she could hear none of them any more she went up into the field to a log heap and staid there with her brother and the baby…
Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs (ca. 1828-1874), Secretary of State11
I am about forty-two years of age; I was born in Philadelphia; and I now reside in Tallahassee, Florida
Since reconstruction there have been about seventy-five persons violently killed in this county; and more than nine-tenths were republicans, and nearly nine-tenths colored.Practically the civil rights of the colored man were subordinate to those of the white man.Public sentiment is terribly demoralized in this direction. Within the last few days our sheriff has been shamefully beaten on the public streets, and two colored men fatally assaulted…One of the colored men I mentioned died last night, and I have held an inquest to-day. Verdict, Unknown! Everybody in the county knows the murderer; he has left for Alabama. I learn just now that the other man is dead, and I also hear it disputed.12
Number of known politically and racially motivated murders in Florida counties, 1868-1871, as reported by Secretary of State Jonathan C. Gibbs, 1871
|Florida County||Number of murders, 1868-1871|
Jackson County, Florida, 1880
Despite the systematic campaign of murder and terror committed by the Ku Klux Klan, the Copeland family remained in Jackson County. Warren is not enumerated in the 1880 Census, and seems to disappear from the record after 1870, during the height of the racially and politically motivated violence in Jackson County. Although Warren would have been about sixty years old by 1880. and possibly died of natural causes, it is also extremely possible that he may have been targeted by the Klan, and murdered. Per the federal census, Mary, was documented as a widow. She lived with her son Israel, and several grandchildren, including John Miller, aged thirteen, and Mary and Peggy Gothier, aged seven and five, respectively.13
Tracing the family after 1880 proved a bit difficult, but I was able to follow one line, that of Andrew Alexander Copeland, who may or may not have been the biological child of Warren Copeland. Alexander married Miss Phillis (Phyllis) Merritt, daughter of Clay and Venus Merritt, on October 16, 1873, Jackson County, Florida.14 The couple remained residents of Marianna through 1910. Their children included sons John, Warren, Azariah, and Arnett, and daughters Essie, Hermie, Tencie, and Mittie.
I traced Arnett Copeland’s family as well. Arnett was the husband of Miss Lannie Finley. The couple resided mostly in the Shady Grove and Ocala districts of Marion County, Florida, about two-hundred and fifty miles southeast of Jackson County. A descendant shared a photo of Mr. Arnett Copeland Sr., on Ancestry.
Warren Copeland Family tree of Virginia and Florida
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I was not able to determine whether or not Rev. S. M. G. Copeland ever found any other information on his father, Warren. The ads in search of Warren were placed twice, and then ceased. By 1900, Rev. Copeland and family were documented residents of Portsmouth’s second ward, on Griffin St. In 1910, Solomon worked as a longshoreman, and by 1920, he was an employee of the Seaboard Airline Railway. Solomon and Maria’s son Derrick Darien Copeland (1875-1968), was an accomplished musician and composer. His favorite instrument was the flute, which definitely piqued my interest, as a former flutist. Derrick organized Portsmouth’s Metropolitan Marching Band in 1906, and played with the (defunct) Philharmonic Orchestra of Norfolk. He trained hundreds of students, many of whom became accomplished musicians in their own right, including jazz flutist Wayman Carver, who played with Chick Webb’s orchestra, and Graham W. Jackson, Sr., noted as President Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite musician. Derrick organized the I. C. Norcom High School band in 1948, and served as its director through 1951.
Solomon died in 1928, and was interred in Mt. Calvary Cemetery. He was preceded in death by his wife, Maria Ann Spratley Copeland, who’d passed on three years prior in 1925. Solomon’s concrete-cast, lectern style headstone and Maria’s concrete headstone are located along the southern border of Mt. Calvary Cemetery.
- “1850 U. S. Census,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 7 March 2012); Virginia, Nansemond County, Dist: Not Stated, p. 67, citing, “Year: 1850; Census Place: Nansemond, Virginia; Roll: 962; Page: 161a.”
- “1860 U. S. Census,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 15 February 2018); Virginia, Nansemond County, Suffolk, p. 13, citing, “Year: 1860; Census Place: Suffolk, Nansemond, Virginia; Page: 561; Family History Library Film: 805365.”
- “1870 U. S. Census,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 1 March 2021); Florida, Jackson County, p. 123, citing, “Year: 1870; Census Place: Marianna, Jackson, Florida; Roll: M593_130; Page: 234B; Family History Library Film: 545629.”
- Courtesy of the Special Collections Department, University of South Florida. Digitization provided by the USF Libraries Digitization Center.
- Richardson, Joe M. “Florida Black Codes.” The Florida Historical Quarterly, vol. 47, no. 4, 1969, pp. 365–379. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30140241. Accessed 19 Aug. 2021.
- Harrison Jackson Reed (1813-1899) served as the ninth Governor of Florida,1868-1874.
- Henry Reed was born about 1833, of free African American ancestry in Virginia. He married Harriett Barkley in 1866, Jackson County, Florida.
- Oscar Nichols, brother to Matt Nichols, was murdered in a similar manner soon thereafter.
- Born enslaved in Jackson County, Florida, he married Sarah Jane Myers, June 5, 1866, Jackson County. Emanuel was a delegate to the 1868 Florida constitutional convention, and served in the state’s House of Representatives, 1868-1870. He was the father of civil rights activist, journalist, and editor T. Thomas Fortune. Emanuel Fortune died in Jacksonville, Florida in 1897, and is interred in the Old Jacksonville City Cemetery with his family.
- Hannah was the wife of Samuel Tutson (b. ca. 1810, Virginia). In the 1880 census, the family was enumerated in St. Johns County, Florida.
- Jonathan C. Gibbs was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to free African American parents. He was a graduate of Dartmouth, and trained as a Presbyterian minister. Religious duties took him to New Bern, North Carolina and South Carolina, prior to his arrival in Florida by 1867. He served as a delegate to the 1868 convention, and appointed Secretary of State the same year by Gov. Harrison Reed. He was appointed superintendent of education in 1871. Gibbs died suddenly in 1874. His official cause of death was ruled unknown, while some suspected he might have been poisoned by his political enemies. Jonathan was the brother of Judge Mifflin Wistar Gibbs (1823-1915).
- Excerpt of letter from Col. John Q. Dickinson of Vermont, Clerk of Jackson County, written a few days before his murder near Marianna, Florida. Presented before Congressional Committee, 1871, by J. C. Gibbs.
- “1880 U. S. Census,” database with images, Ancestry (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 2 March 2021); Florida, Jackson County, Precinct 5, Dist. 068, p. 4, citing, “Year: 1880; Census Place: Precinct 5, Jackson, Florida; Roll: 128; Page: 535D; Enumeration District: 068.”
- Per the 1870 Census, Clay (b. ca. 1825), and Venus (b. ca. 1830), were from North Carolina. The family was enumerated in Marianna, Jackson County.