Portrait of a first generation freed African American family

Sanford Huggins (c.1844–1889) and Mary Ellen Pryor (c.1851–1889), his wife, passed the early years of their lives in Woodford County, Kentucky, and later removed to the city of Louisville. Born to parents who were also born in Woodford, both Sanford and Mary were brought up in enslavement. Their surname connects them to James Huggins (c.1797–1863), an Irish immigrant who used slave labour to grow hemp and operate a ropewalk manufactory on his farm near Versailles until the venture failed financially in about 1846.

As part of a new project to develop and cross-reference family and local history research to the theme of Empire, colonial rule, and family history, the 19th century African American families bearing the Huggins surname in Woodford County have been studied for the 125 year period, 1830–1955. The earlier date reflects the year in which James Huggins’ slaves were counted in the 1830 census. The latter year represents the end point for the family of Sanford and Mary Huggins, that is, the year in which the last two members of their family died.

The details of this study are provided in the following links: (links pending)

  1. an overview of African American Huggins households in Woodford County during the period, 1830–1910;
  2. genealogical notes and timelines for Sanford Huggins and Mary Ellen Pryor individually, and for each of their nine known children;
  3. a portrait of this first generation freed family from 1830–1955, featuring biographical sketches for each member of the family, interleaved with contextual and historical background information;
  4. a timeline of African American history in the U.S. generally, and for the state of Kentucky including the city of Louisville, specifically; and,
  5. local history notes and maps for Woodford County and the city of Louisville.

Sanford and Mary’s nine known children were: (links pending)

  1. Louisa Huggins (b.1868);
  2. Emma McWhorter orse Brannin (c.1869–1955); [1]
  3. William H. Huggins (c.1871–1904);
  4. James "Bud" Huggins (c.1874–1905;
  5. Maggie Huggins (c.1876–1890);
  6. Mary Ellen Moore orse Ralston (c.1877–1955);
  7. Samuel Westly Huggins (c.1879–1954);
  8. George Huggins (1884–1954); and,
  9. Mattie Huggins (1889–1889).

    — All apparently d.s.p. [2]

The greatest challenge in compiling this family history lies in the paucity of records surviving for freed people, even decades after Emancipation. Records of deaths and marriages are particularly wanting, as in the case of Sanford and Mary Huggins’ eldest daughter, Louisa, for whom no trace has been discovered after 1900.

Census enumerations failed to record the longest lived children except erratically. Emma appears in the 1900, 1910, and 1940 censuses; Mary Ellen in 1900, 1930, and 1940; and George, from 1920–1940. One cannot help but speculate that the enumerators, who were white people, visited the homes of the families in the ghettos of Louisville but once; and finding those residences empty or inhabited only by young children whose parents were away working, those enumerators did not return as they might have done for a white household. Census record keeping seems to have improved by 1930 and 1940. However, for the purpose of telling the stories of this first generation freed family, the absence of those records compounds the damage done to African Americans, their culture, and our collective history.

In lieu of census records, the Louisville city directories were relied upon heavily. Yet even here, there are gaps. Nevertheless, the city directories confirm a racist bias by designating African American entries with the miniscule “c” for “colored.” In addition, it cannot escape the attention of the reader that the vast majority of colored people lived in either alley ways or at the rear of official street addresses. Similarly, the contemporary newspapers exhibited a disproportionate interest in the downtrodden lives of the colored people, particularly when young men and women fell into the harrowing underworld of vice and violent crime.

As for relating the collective and personal stories of this first generation freed family, it had been my hope to trace their grandchildren into the twentieth century. However, the most surprising outcome from this study of the family of Sanford Huggins and Mary Ellen Pryor is that there appears to have been no issue from their nine known children. It is possible that one or more of the sons and daughters had children outside a marital relationship, or that children were born to Mary Ellen Huggins and Joe Ralston during the twenty-one year gap in the records after their marriage. In any event, the records fail to tell their stories as fully as if those records had been kept for white people, especially those who occupied the respectable professions and trades.

A recent study of childlessness in the United States amongst different racial groups of women reveals that the long-term trend for childlessness in black women was significantly higher—as much as 2.4 times—than for white women between the mid-1880s and the mid-1940s. Reasons cited for this trend which were the same as for those underlying childlessness in white women included “difficult and economic social settings, psychological stress and social norms.” However, the author acknowledges the “incomparably more difficult” living conditions of black Americans, and cites the further reasons of “racial segregation, discrimination, and inequalities … reflected in virtually all aspects of life, such as economic opportunities, remuneration, schooling, housing, and access to health and reproductive services.” [3] In addition to this line of analysis, the academic literature for the history of African American families is rich, and research is ongoing. A more extensive review of that literature would enhance our understanding of the many factors, causal and correlative, which might have affected our extended Huggins family of Louisville, Kentucky.

For Sanford and Mary Huggins, the triumph of Emancipation was experienced most immediately in the emergence of their family unit and of community in church. These were tempered heavily, however, by disease, early mortality, poverty, substandard housing, and for two of their sons, a tragic fall into criminal activity. In this, the Huggins family’s suffering was in keeping with that experienced by the majority of the African American community in Louisville. Thus, these pages trace a biographical arc of lives lived hard, from enslavement in the early 1800s, to the deaths of George, Mary Ellen, and Emma in 1954/55, at the dawning of the civil rights movement. From their births between 1869–84 to their deaths, a scant 3-1/2 generations had elapsed since their parents were freed from enslavement.

In closing, I would encourage—or rather, urge—other family historians whose genealogical research takes them down the dark path of enslavement, to conduct a similar family history study. This work is not only a means of extending the genealogical hand of friendship across racial and historical divides, but also highly instructive, and humbling. One can only begin to imagine the understanding that might be achieved, sociologically as well as genealogically, if similar one family studies were compiled for an entire community.

If a reader has a connection to the Huggins families of Woodford County, Kentucky—and especially if a reader discovers more information about the family of Sanford Huggins and Mary Ellen Pryor—please do consider dropping a note to the editor.

(penned 31st August 2019.)

:—: Please note that this is an archived version of the original post. Eventually, as other parts of Arborealis are republished to this reconstructed site, we hope to restore the links included in the original blog article. — A. Kilpatrick (16th May 2020)

Footnotes and sources:
  1. Orse: an abbreviation for the word, otherwise; indicates a previous marriage or an assumed alias.
  2. d.s.p.: Decessite sine parole [Latin]. "Died without issue."
  3. Frejka, Tomas. “Childlessness in the United States.” Chapter 8 in: Kreyenfeld, Michaela, and Dirk Konietzka, eds. Childlessness in Europe: Contexts, Causes, and Consequences. An e-book published by Springer, Cham (2017), as part of Demographic Research Monographs: A Series of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research. Chapter 8 hosted online by CORE, The Open University, and Jisc, at core.ac.uk/download/pdf/81708030.pdf (accessed by Alison Kilpatrick, 2019-08-30).

Source citation: Kilpatrick, Alison. "Portrait of a first generation freed African American family." Blog article published to Arborealis, 31st August 2019; online at www.arborealis.ca/blog/2019-08-31.html; accessed [insert date of access].

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