Jon Bachman Educational Events Coordinator for Stratford Hall along with Marian Ashton and Dr. Lauranett Lee presented the second annual Kitchen Table Stories at Stratford Hall on Saturday February 25. Last week we featured Marian Ashton’s discussion outlining the importance of listening to our elders, seeking out grave sites and other documentation to keep the history of our ancestors alive.
The kitchen table story concept is to recognize the greatness of citizens who may not have been famous. Many servants and slaves were the backbone of industry, labor and economics in the early years of this country and their contributions and sacrifices should be brought to light. In the words of Marion Ashton, “This plantation would not be here without us. History will inform you, not define you.”
Dr. Lauranett Lee is the former Curator of African American History at the Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia. Dr. Lee participated in the development and coordination of the Society’s Unknown No Longer database project. This database is the latest step by the Virginia Historical Society to increase access to its varied collections relating to Virginians of African descent. Utilizing various existing sources for genealogical study Dr. Lee seeks to energize interest in the importance of pursuing the genealogy of African Americans.
Lee was in school during desegregation. In fourth grade she went into an all white school. Looking at the Virginia history talking about slaves, she was taught that slaves were happy. This caused her to have a disconnect with history. Years later while listening to a lecturer who spoke about every day people and how they affected the history, economics and politics of the State she said, “I came to really appreciate what each of us brings to history.”
Lee came to meet Jon Bachman last year and learned from her father that she had ancestors from Westmoreland County. She had just left the Historical Society. Jon invited her to come back this year.
In February Lee stayed the evening at the plantation and walked by the cemetery of the enslaved people, walked mill pond road and thought, “This is what our ancestors might have experienced, a quiet walk in nature, although I may have been walking, but they would have been working.”
Lee’s message was “While we have people still living, take time to interview them let them tell their stories about their lives.” Lee encourages young and old engaging in conversation. She also thinks children should be taught listening skills so they can continue to keep history alive.
Lee conducted an interview with Lois Ann Johnson a woman who’s ancestry is rooted deeply in the Stratford Hall Plantation.
Johnson was born in Westmoreland County, Lerty Virginia. Her mother was Ethel Payne Johnson and her father was Charles Augustus Johnson. She has two sisters and two brothers living and one brother deceased.
Lee asked Johnson about her earliest memories of her childhood. Johnson said she remembers mostly the Payne family.
Johnson has been a member of Shiloh Baptist Church for 50 years. Her interest in genealogy began when her church asked her to do some research on someone she knew for black history month. She began researching her grandfather Wess Payne. She found out she knew so little about her family.
She learned many interesting facts. There is a log cabin behind the Great House where Wess Payne, his father and grandfather were all born. The Paynes came to Virginia at the turn of the 18th century with Thomas Lee and have been there from that point on.
She learned that her great great grandfather was Thomas Lee’s head man. He was an honest man. He was truthful and Thomas Lee felt he was a good man. He became Lee’s private servant. Lee trusted him with his valuables, his family and to oversee his home. Lee even bought his wife for him.
The couple gave birth to Bill Payne who was her great grandfather. Johnson said Bill Payne carried on the same honesty. He was trusted and dependable. Bill became the houseman and his brother was the coachman for the lady of the home.
When Northern Troops came to take slaves away from this plantation they took Bill with them, Bill begged to let him come back to take care of the elderly lady running the plantation. He convinced them to let him go. He walked back to Stratford Hall Plantation and resumed his duties.
Then came her grandfather Wess Payne who also carried the tradition of being honest and truthful. Being born on the plantation, Wess lived on the Plantation longer than any other slave. For his dedication the board of directors honored Bill Payne’s request to keep the log cabin that he was born in to remain in his memory.
On the day Wess Payne was buried, the Plantation closed down. Johnson said it was the only time it ever shut down.
Her mother worked as a waitress and retired from the plantation after 42 years. One year when the Board of Directors came to the plantation for an annual meeting, one director from Texas asked her to move to Texas and work for her. The woman promised her mother she would never want for anything. However her mother had a family she didn’t want to leave behind so she refused the invitation with no regrets.
Johnson’s uncle, Joe Payne also worked on the plantation. Johnson said, “Joe had a limited education but when you are honest and trustworthy opportunities will come.” When president Eisenhower visited the plantation, Joe chauffeured the president.
Johnson talked about other relatives, how she researched information and advised people to save obituaries because they tell a lot of history. She also said, you have to be nosey and ask a lot of questions. She tells her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren to listen and learn about their ancestors. “You have to communicate with people, because once that knowledge goes in the ground you can dig, dig and dig. You may find bones, but you can not talk to the person that you’re looking for.”