Researchers uncover their tangled roots

Lemon Project symposium to help connect the past

Debora Timms | 3/23/2023, 6 p.m.
Virginia lawyer and retired public official Viola Baskerville has been intrigued by her family’s roots for more than 35 years.
Mrs. Baskerville

Virginia lawyer and retired public official Viola Baskerville has been intrigued by her family’s roots for more than 35 years.

“I have always had a curiosity about our family’s past simply because I always thought my mother’s maiden name of Braxton was just unusual,” Mrs. Baskerville explained in a recent telephone interview. “Then of course you learn about history and famous Virginians and I always thought, ‘Is there a connection?”

The famous Virginian Mrs. Baskerville referenced is Carter Braxton, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. He is also the fifth-great-grandfather of Allison Thomas, a film and theater producer.

Mrs. Baskerville, Ms. Thomas and Gerry Gilstrop, a descendant of a free Virginia Colonial Era man named Abram Braxton Sr., will share their family histories on March 24 as part of the 13th Annual Lemon Project Spring Symposium at the College of William & Mary. The trio will present a panel titled, “Tangled Roots: Braxton Descendants Research Their Past and Discover Intersecting Black and White Family Threads.”

Dr. Jody Allen, Lemon Project director, said this year’s symposium, “At the Root: Exploring Black Life, History and Culture,” focuses on “people who have been doing the work to uncover their stories.

“One of the realities still is that a lot of African-American history, a lot of U.S. history has been left out,” she continued. “More people are taking it into their own hands in finding their stories and telling them. We want to support that.”

Finding their stories is exactly what this panel has been doing— starting on their own and coming together in 2022.

“In the course of researching Carter Braxton, I found information that had never been talked about in my family,” said Ms. Thomas, speaking from her Los Angeles home. Among those facts is that Mr. Braxton owned slaves, which Encyclopedia Virginia lists as 165, but Ms. Thomas says were hundreds more.

“Somehow, because [Carter Braxton] was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, it didn’t occur to me that he was also an enslaver, which sounds incredibly naive and stupid now,” Ms. Thomas said.

Learning these uncomfortable truths about her family’s past prompted her efforts to help linked descendants find each other and their ancestors. She helped cofound Coming to the Table—Richmond, now Coming Together Virginia, co-manages the national organization’s BitterSweet blog, and has researched and created the Gwynn’s Island Project website.

Ms. Thomas’ digging also uncovered an Ancestry website post stating that Carter Braxton had conceived a son with a slave girl, Estelle, who named the child Abram. While his birth is not documented, Ms. Thomas believes later census records support the oral history, and added it to her online family tree where Mr. Gilstrop saw it.

Mr. Gilstrop, a Las Vegas health care consultant, has researched various branches of his family since the mid-1990s. Since childhood, he’d known the family lore that connected him to Carter Braxton through Abram and Estelle.

It was Estelle who led him to Ms. Thomas’ profile one night. He emailed her and she replied almost immediately.

Two months later, an online search of Carter Braxton led him to an article about Mrs. Baskerville and the Richmond native’s struggle to document her lineage. The two connected and he introduced her to Ms. Thomas via Zoom.

Mrs. Baskerville says she was impressed by Ms. Thomas’ willingness as a white person to openly acknowledge her family’s connections to historical slavery and her efforts to search for the records and names of enslaved people and have them available for researchers.

Ms. Thomas says that working together has presented the threesome with an important opportunity—the chance to further their ancestral research through a combination of documentation, oral histories and DNA analysis.

“Which makes it sound like we really know what we’re doing,” she added with a laugh. “We’re about 10 months into this research and it’s overwhelming. It just keeps getting more complicated, to be honest.”

Although more ancestral records can now be found online, numerous searches must be conducted in person. However, the reality is that many records or documents of Black family histories have been lost, destroyed or were never kept. Records for enslaved people can be particularly challenging and even traumatizing, the researchers said.

“We have to look in deed books,” Mrs. Baskerville said. “We have to look in mortgage books. We have to be familiar with all types of conveyances by paper that could have entailed chattel property. It’s very hurtful to think of your ancestors as chattel property, but it gives you another source to find information.”

Through DNA analysis, Mrs. Baskerville and Ms. Thomas matched as half-cousins.

“The more DNA we collect — maybe that’s helpful. Genetic genealogy is a fairly new field,” Ms. Thomas said. “This is a thing I didn’t know anything about a year ago so we could also use some good experts as we’re piecing this all together.”

Mrs. Baskerville, a graduate of William & Mary, suggested the Lemon Project panel at the encouragement of Dr. Allen. Getting the presentation together has felt like trying to give “the 60,000-foot view in 45 minutes and still leave time for questions.”

Mr. Gilstrop says he’s excited, but confesses to a “little bit of stage fright.”

All three say the focus is on finding and telling the truth of the past, warts and all. They also want other Braxton descendants to be aware of their work in case they want to trace their own roots.

Dr. Allen says this is a main reason for the Lemon Project symposium—to provide a forum for these and other presenters to share from. She says it’s especially important right now.

“In some ways, this history is under attack. You might be able to control what happens in the public schools. You might even be able to eventually control what happens on college campuses, but you can’t control what individual people decide to do and learn about their own history. It’s very important to support these endeavors.”

The 13th Annual Lemon Project Spring Symposium will be held March 24 and 25 at the College of William & Mary. There is no cost to attend either virtually or in person. For those wanting to attend at William & Mary, registration will be available during the symposium. Registration is open online for those wishing to attend virtually. More information can be found at https://www.wm.edu/sites/lemonproject/annual_symposium/index.php