Our Brooks family heritage reveals free African-American ancestors in a struggle for survival at the end of the eighteenth century in the midst of white families, both slaveowners and non-slaveowners, in Rutherford County, North Carolina. Surprisingly, those ancestors flourished, albeit with difficulty, while nurturing and maintaining lasting, but highly unusual, relationships with peer white families. Their social bonds transcended the prevailing barriers of race, privilege and class in the antebellum South. That the Brooks saga flourished despite a disintegrating social fabric precipitating the Civil War is remarkable. That the Brooks, and at least some of their neighbors, challenged traditional southern stereotypes during those increasingly volatile times by sustaining relationships among slaves and black freemen as well as slaveowners and black freemen that were consensual, collaborative and mutually beneficial that were unthinkable in traditional American folklore is no less than amazing.


   The Brooks saga began in Baltimore, Maryland around 1787, when Irish indentured servant, Elizabeth Brooks, bore a mulatto child named Sarah out of wedlock. As a consequence, Elizabeth was jailed for the crime of bastardy. Subsequently her African-American paramour paid her fine, thereby securing Elizabeth’s release from prison. Circa 1791, when little Sarah was about four years old, Elizabeth gave her to friends, David and Jane Porter, who were relocating to Rutherford County, North Carolina. Though she promised the Porters that she would come to North Carolina to reclaim her child, Elizabeth never did, in effect condemning her mulatto child to a youth of isolation among unfamiliar, even exploitive, white caretakers in the strange, remote territory of western North Carolina. Thus orphaned, Sarah was raised as a bond-servant in the care of white families - Porters, Martins and Harrells - believing all the while she was a slave, only to learn at twenty years of age in an 1808 court hearing that she had never legally been a slave. Richard Martin, one of her former bondmasters whose home she had run away from, saw her working in the home of Housand Harrell. Martin falsely claimed that Sarah was his slave and demanded her return. Sarah had already run away from the discomforts of Martin's home on an earlier occasion; facing the prospect of being forced to return to those same unsavory conditions, she fled once more. Heroically, the Housand Harrells and David Porters successfully challenged Martin’s law suit in an 1808 court hearing by proving that Sarah was never a slave, thereby securing her free, adult status and salvaging her future. Sarah made the most of that future by entering into a monogamous relationship between 1810 and 1840 with an undocmented slave in the Rutherford area cited only in Brooks folklore (some Brooks descendents believe his name was Robert). Likewise, folklore tells that Sarah and her five children by that slave lived on a plantation near that of her slave partner. Their relationship lasted until her death around 1840  after her children reached adulthood.  It seems they were in continuous contact since birth with their slave father living nearby. Sarah’s only daughter, Winnie Brooks, like her mother, maintained a monogamous, long-term relationship with a nearby slave owned by Mary Donoho Elliott. John Donoho was born in Virginia in 1800 and apparently brought to Rutherford County by Mary Donoho after her marriage to John Elliott. Winnie and John maintained a relationship lasting almost forty years, producing five surviving children before he was freed sometime around widow Elliott's death in 1864. Uncovering the identities of Sarah’s slave husband, his slavemaster and her landlord/employer is the holy grail of my research.


   Another holy grail is solving the mysteries surrounding Sarah's oldest son Jerry, my great-great grandfather. Who was the father of his European bride, Eliza Clark, only fifteen or sixteen when they married around 1836? Where did Jerry meet Eliza? The Clark family is reputed to have emigrated from Europe to South Carolina when Eliza was five years old. What was the source of the thousand acre farm that Jerry and Eliza owned in 1850? Where are the records documenting Jerry’s purchase of his slave father’s freedom around 1842? Family lore tells that Jerry walked forty miles from Crowder’s Mountain to Rutherford County with moneys earned from making and selling charcoal to free his father. A short time after being freed, the old slave died. It is said that his immediate words on learning from son Jerry that he was free were "Now, I can die a free man!" It was as if he willed himself to live just long enough to taste freedom before dying - a final act of converting a lifetime of lemons into lemonade, then being satisfied with a single sip.

   There was blacksmith Nathaniel Brooks, younger brother of Jerry and Winnie, who also had a remarkable impact on his community and Caucasian neighbors. It is clear that he had a lifelong personal and professional relationship with Big John Lattimore, the wealthiest landowner and largest slaveowner in the area. Lattimore descendents today believe that Nathaniel fashioned the metalworks for John’s home built around 1832; it still stands today with many original materials including door hasps and hinges. Big John even sold three hundred acres of land to Nathaniel in 1854 that, I believe, contained the cabins and fields of the Brooks children’s youth. That said, it surely implies that Big John Lattimore was and/or his father Daneil Lattimore were Sarah’s landlord and possible employer that I mentioned above. One curious aspect of the 1854 deed of sale to Nathaniel was the signatures of Joseph and Daniel Dobbins Lattimore.  Were they Big John’s brothers or his sons named after them? Even they would have still ben teenagers in 1854, I am certain they were Big John’s son. The record clearly shows that John inherited all of his father’s land and that his brothers had no stake. It was his teenage sons that had interest in his land, and whose blessings he surely would have sought. The only significance of these remarks is to point out the closeness of the bonds between the slaveowning Lattimores and the free Brooks. The teenagers presumed to have signed the subject deed to Nathaniel are the same ones who joined the confederate army years later along with Nathaniel’s nephews, Milford and Daniel. For all the reasons above, I am convinced that this Lattimore family may have owned the Brooks children’s slave father in addition to being the landlord and employer of his mother, Sarah. While there is only circumstancial evidence, it makes perfect sense. Put another way, while it is possible that the slave father lived elsewhere, it is reasonable to assume that the Brooks children, as adults,  would have remained close the family, slaveowning or otherwise, that they surely bonded with in their youth. There was a reason the Lattimores and Brooks had so much respect for each other, despite the former being white slaveowners and the latter being black freemen. That simply had to be the kindness and consideration shown for the slave father, the support for mother Sarah and her five children or both.

  And there was Daniel Brooks, Winnie’s son, who despite being free, was forbidden by law from learning to read and write like his white friends living in the Duncans Creek area of Cleveland County. On learning of those cruel restrictions around 1846, one or more of his Ledford playmates bravely and successfully conspired to teach Daniel to read and write by meeting with him secretly and regularly. Either William or Isaac Ledford, each a few years older than Daniel, probably never realized the significance of that mentoring of young Daniel. He eventually made the most of that gift by learning the Gospel and becoming a renowned North Carolina Methodist minister, founding a High Point church and becoming a Bennett College trustee before his death at ninety-six in 1933. But before his call to the clergy, when the Civil War broke out in 1861, Daniel and his older brother, Milford, anticipated local pressures to support the southern cause. Rather than waiting to be conscripted, in late May of 1861, these two African-American brothers enlisted in the confederate army in Shelby along with their lifelong white friends and neighbors Joseph Lattimore, Daniel Lattimore and William Ledford. This strange “band of brothers” , with the exception of Milford, were mustered into the 15th North Carolina Regiment, Company D, under Captain William Corbett. That regiment, also known as “the Cleveland Mountain Boys” was transferred on January 9, 1863 to the 49th NC Regiment, becoming the 2nd Company B. Daniel was mustered out in January 1865 after becoming ill at New Bern after the fall of Fort Fisher near Wilmington. His unit, with the Lattimore and Ledford boys still in the ranks, continued on to Petersburg and surrendered at Appomattox on 9 Apr 1865. Daniel never saw his brother Milford after their enlistment and Milford never returned home from the war. Since they never bore arms, serving as cooks and wagon drivers, the South did not think enough of their contribution to reward them with either records, pensions or grave markers. It appears that confederate military record-keepers, just like their civil counterparts, felt that even patriotic free blacks were legitimate targets for their disdain and indifference. It makes one wonder if they were even paid like their white counterparts. How did officers track their whereabouts and know if they went AWOL? ( I have never seen an African-American, slave or free, on the roster of any confederate southern regiment.). The biggest irony, of course, is the question of the Brooks bothers loyalty. Were they really Black Confederates, i.e. Uncle Toms committed to indulging their white “overlords?” . The answer is clearly “No” , when observing the clues they left us. In Daniel’s words, they anticipated being conscripted, i.e. local authoritiies pressuring them to join by putting their freedoms and assets at risk. Also, in Daniel’s words after the war, he and his brother prayed for the Union forces to win even as they served the Southern cause. It would seem that they were, in fact, smart to follow the course they did, for it is a fact that western North Carolina local governments would confiscate assets and chase free African-Americans away on any whim.


  Today, Brooks Chapel Methodist Church, founded in 1869 on a five-acre tract donated by Nathaniel Brooks is both a silent witness and sentinel to the Sarah Brooks legacy in the Hollis/Duncan Creek community. Behind the church is the Brooks Chapel Cemetery where three of Sarah's children, Winnie (1809-1883), Nathaniel (1818-1886) and Daniel (1822-1893) were laid to rest. The cemetery is on five acres of land deeded to the church by Nathaniel Brooks in 1869, part of the land Nathaniel had purchased from Big John Lattimore in 1854.  Nathaniel’s remaining acreage surely contained the cabin built by Nathaniel sometime between 1840 and 1850 as well as the cabin occupied by Winnie between 1830 and 1850, as suggested by census records.  The latter is perhaps the very same cabin on grounds occupied by Sarah as early as 1810 and the place of all her childrens’ births. If that is so, then the Brooks land and that of the nearby chapel and cemetery is indeed hallowed by the sweat, if not the blood, of Lattimores and Brooks.

   Not far away from Brooks Chapel Cemetery is the Lattimore Cemetery on Five Points Road containing the remains of the Lattimore neighbors and friends of the Brooks. The tombstones reveal that, brothers Big John, Joseph and Daniel remain in perpetual slumber. One must wonder whether it also contains the unmarked grave of Sarah Brooks, that little orphaned mulatto bond-servant, who grew up to become the matriarch of the entire clan of free African-American Brooks in western North Carolina. If so, then surely, this Lattimore cemetery is consecrated by those Brooks remains.

    A few miles away,  southwest of the Lattimore Cemetery, is the Elliott Cemetery containing the final resting places of slaveowners John and Mary Donoho Elliott. Widow Elliott not only tolerated the relationship between the slave, John Donoho,  she owned for almost sixty years and Winnie Brooks, but may even have encouraged it. Could she have played the exact same role for Sarah’s mother and slave father, sponsoring not one, but two such slave-freewoman “marriages” in two different generations? If so, then perhaps Sarah’s unknown slave “husband” is buried there near the Elliott family or among other Elliott slaves. Perhaps we will never know, but the possibility lingers that this hallowed Elliott ground is consecrated with Brooks remains as well, thereby leaving the three cemeteries – Brooks, Lattimore and Elliott – as linked in death’s permanence as the families were in life.

   There is much more to be told of this Brooks heritage such as producing black tennis idol, Arthur Ashe who, like myself, is a direct descendent of Sarah Brooks. However, I limit this summary to sharing the ancestral bonds and mutual respect between the Brooks and their white neighbors in hopes that their researchers will contribute to my quest for "holy grails" identified above. If it is not already apparent, there are two additional oddities of my Brooks ancestry. The first is that three successive generations of Brooks mothers, Elizabeth, Sarah and Winnie passed their surnames on to their children. Though the latter two were “technically” and “legally” married with slaveowner permission, their legitimate husbands had no legal surname to give their offspring. The second, perhaps even more surprising, observation is that despite generations of mulatto blood and very light skin coloring, there is neither history nor claim of Brooks women bearing children by white fathers, either slaveowner or otherwise. In short, the Brooks were always free, collaborative and entreprenual despite having slave blood in their veins and slaveowners as neighbors and friends. That spirit of independence and accountability remains in the bloodline to this day.