by Cleo Graham
August 2019 marks the 400th anniversary of slaves entering America and landing in Jamestown, Virginia. In commemoration, Rev. Cleo Graham is sharing stories about her own ancestors who were slaves in America.
Here is a story about one of my ancestors who played a remarkable role in the South Carolina plantation where my ancestors were slaves, and later in the community where she lived.
According to records we found, my third great grandmother, Judy Simmons, was born in South Carolina or Alabama. She was initially called Judy Pickens, which was the surname of her slave owner Andrew Pickens, Jr. (He served as the 46th Governor of South Carolina from 1816 until 1818.)
As a condition of Andrew Pickens' 1834 will, Pickens deeded Judy and her family to his son, Francis Pickens, who owned the Edgewood plantation in Edgefield, South Carolina. (Francis Pickens was the Governor of South Carolina when it seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860.) Fortunately, Francis Pickens preferred to keep slave families together rather than separate them, as so often happened after the death of a slave owner.
After Emancipation, Judy's last name became "Simmons." Throughout her life, Judy stood on the shoulders of her strong African heritage. She tapped into a familial knowledge of healing and medicinal plants, which she commonly used when delivering hundreds of babies for plantation slave and freed women for more than fifty years (from the 1830s to the 1880s).
While she had no formal training and credentials, other slaves and slave owners referred to Judy as "doctor" out of respect for her knowledge.
She was a remarkable midwife and traveled between Edgefield, South Carolina and Augusta, Georgia purchasing traditional folk medicines that she used for deliveries.
After the end of the Civil War, Judy crossed the bridge from slavery to freedom. Dr. Judy crossed the bridge from dependence to independence, and in so doing, she left her footprints as a path of grace that was followed by her descendants.
Judy's son, Lymas Simmons (aka Limus Simons), my second great grandfather, went on to become a State Representative in South Carolina in 1872. After having been legally a freed man less than five years, Lymas used one acre of his land to build the Simmons Ridge Baptist Church (SRBC) in Edgefield.
During the church's early years, eighteen Baptist churches were born and launched from the SRBC. Today, these vibrant churches remain active in ministry.
A contemporary South Carolina genealogist remarked that pride and resilience are two palpable traits that distinguish the Simmons family and their descendants from other families in Edgefield.
Dr. Judy Simmons' legacy as a healer lives on through many of her descendants, including me. Today, Judy's descendants follow the path of our ancestors as leaders in ministry, healthcare, education, and art as builders, planters, producers, and more.
We are prayerful trailblazers who are proud descendants of our African American heritage from slaves to free men, women, and children. Our faith in God is the common cord that binds us from one generation to the next. We believe "there is strength in knowing that the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." 2 Cor. 3:17
"So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:36)
Throughout the month of August, Beneficent's weekly e-newsletter will feature a series of articles where I will commemorate the 400-year anniversary of African slaves' first coming to America by sharing stories about my own ancestors who were slaves in America.
I look forward to sharing this journey with you.
Rev. Cleo Graham is the Associate Minister of Beneficent Congregational Church in Providence, Rhode Island. She and her husband Melvin, a genealogist, continue their years-long journey exploring the history of their families.
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