Don Browne’s great-grandfather, Morton Deane (center), was born during slavery but came to Richmond as a free man.
Don Browne's search for his ancestors began as it did probably for thousands of black Americans: in the wake of Alex Haley's 1976 novel and subsequent television series, Roots. Through the years, the 59-year-old Durham, N.C., computer software designer kept making road trips to Richmond, the Library of Virginia and further up into Middlesex County. In his family tree, he's found slaves, freedmen, a soldier of the American Revolution and a Tredegar Iron Works laborer who served on city council in the late 19th century.
"Some people, when they think about going back [think], ‘That was slavery. We can't trace beyond that,' " Browne says. "That mindset is an impediment. It's an obstacle. Before I went over to Middlesex County, I assumed people before 1865 were slaves."
A distant cousin in Middlesex showed Browne records of the 1856 marriage of his great-great-grandparents, on his father's side. They were free people. On March 7, 1857, the couple had twin girls, but later census records suggest only one survived. The context of this date is important: It's exactly one day after the U.S. Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision declared that people of African origin and their descendants — whether free or slaves — were not protected under the Constitution and had no rights as U.S. citizens. The decision came three days after the inauguration of President James Buchanan, who turned out to be a hapless figure in the nation's slide toward civil war. The ruling further polarized abolitionists and pro-slavery Southerners.
Browne says, "You have to stop and think: This is the world their children were born into. What did they know about what was going on? What did they think about it?"
On another research trip to Middlesex, Browne discovered that his great-great-great-grandmother was one of two people named as heirs to land granted in compensation for the Revolutionary War service of one George Key. Browne delved into it through Library of Virginia's online genealogical archives, finding another researcher who had compiled information about Key. Within minutes, he connected Key as his fifth great-grandfather, probably born around 1750.
Playing a hunch, he went looking in the Virginia Soldiers of 1776, and at the top of page 751 found the entry, "George Key (Colored) Private." He was an African-American Revolutionary War soldier, perhaps caught up in Virginia's 1775 conscription act that took in all free men — including hired servants and apprentices — between the ages of 16 and 50 years. Free blacks weren't supposed to be issued weapons, but the Continental Army was always in need of men to shoulder a musket.
Browne's next step is to confirm his ancestor's military history. That he served, and received land as compensation — though he died without a will— is a matter of record. Whether Key actually fought the British and where, exactly, are lingering questions.
"The journey one takes in finding this information can almost be as interesting as the information one finds," Browne says.
Another bough of his family tree leads directly to Richmond and an interpretive plaque at Tredegar Iron Works. Pictured next to a doughty rolling-mill crew is Morton Deane. He is Browne's great-grandfather.
Born in 1853, Deane grew up in Buckingham County and came to Richmond around 1867. Browne ran across interviews with him in the Richmond Planet, a weekly Jackson Ward-based newspaper published for Richmond's black community. Here, Deane met his wife, Nannie Mosely Jackson, originally from Nelson County, and they married Dec. 13, 1877, perhaps at Second Baptist Church. During the next 20 years, they had 11 children. All but two survived into adulthood. The last two were twins, and one of them was Browne's aunt, Ruth Deane Poindexter, who was a career Richmond Public Schools teacher.
Deane was a laborer but also occupied a unique niche in Richmond's civic life. Prior to the restrictions of Jim Crow, he served on the Richmond Common Council from 1894 to 1896, where he would've known John Mitchell Jr., the Richmond Planet's publisher and editor. Deane died April 26, 1924, and both he and Nannie are buried at Woodland Cemetery.
Family history has it that Deane may have been born into slavery but was free before the end of the Civil War. Browne, a thorough-going genealogist, hasn't yet found documentation. However, his Aunt Ruth, who lived on East Clay Street across from today's Black History Museum, told him this was so. "And I'll take Aunt Ruth's word to the bank," he chuckles.