Widening the Circle of Family History

Posted by George McDaniel, Executive Director

Drayton Hall is very much about family heritage. That was demonstrated at the September 20th celebration of the 100th anniversary of Richmond Bowens’ birth. Richmond was born and raised at Drayton Hall and returned in later years to become one of the first gatekeepers and an authority on African-American life at the site. Descendants of Drayton Hall attended the event and many came away determined to help future generations learn more about their common heritage.

Thanks to that program, I learned about Richmond’s younger sister, Emmie Lee Bowens Jenkins, born at Drayton Hall in 1917 and now living in St. Albans, Queens, New York, with her daughter, Mildred Thompson. I contacted Mrs. Thompson and accepted her invitation to visit. Joining us was another daughter, Ellen Alleyne, and their cousin, Mary Anne Brown, who is Emmie Lee’s niece.

(L-R) Mary Ann Brown, Ellen Alleyne, Ella Thompson in the arms of her great-grandmother Emmie Lee Bowens Jenkins, Mildred Thompson, and George McDaniel.

(L-R) Mary Ann Brown, Ellen Alleyne, Ella Thompson in the arms of her great-grandmother Emmie Lee Bowens Jenkins, Mildred Thompson, and George McDaniel.

I was immediately made to feel at home by the aromas of Southern cooking, complete with fried whiting, grits, biscuits, and sausage. Another special pleasure was that Mrs. Thompson’s infant granddaughter, Ella Thompson, was there. Emmie Lee’s grandmother was named Ella Bowens, so it was remarkable to see Ella Bowens’ great, great, great granddaughter carrying on her name.

My main reason for wanting to interview Mrs. Jenkins was to ask for her help in identifying individuals in historical photographs from the state archives and Drayton Hall’s collection. At age 91, her physical faculties have diminished, but her mind is still fairly lucid. There’s no doubt that had someone recorded her recollections four or five years ago, they would have obtained a clearer and more vivid account. That loss demonstrates the importance of documenting oral histories while our elders are still in full form. Still, Mrs. Jenkins was able to identify a number of people and confirm the identity of others. Now, when we put together a family tree or present stories about former residents, we can add the photographs of Charles Bowens, Mary Fenneck, and others – thereby enabling future generations to connect to this site in more personal ways. The family also told us of others in South Carolina, Georgia, and Maryland who might help to widen the circles of Drayton Hall’s and their family history.

This meeting took place on Jan. 21st, the day after President Obama’s inauguration, which has sparked a renewed interest in history. It is our hope that you will be inspired to reach out to your own family and community to help share and preserve our history. I think our ancestors would be pleased.

A historic image on loan to Drayton Hall with previosuly unidentified subjects. Emmie Lee Jenkins was able to identify the two people as Charles Bowens and his older sister Mary Bowens Fenneck, the two oldest children of Caesar and Ella Camel Bowens.

A historic image on loan to Drayton Hall with previously unidentified subjects. Emmie Lee Jenkins was able to identify the two people as Charles Bowens and his older sister Mary Bowens Fenneck, the two oldest children of Caesar and Ella Camel Bowens. It is believed the image was taken at Drayton Hall around 1920.

9 thoughts on “Widening the Circle of Family History

  1. It would be great if there was mention of the Bowen’s ancestral ties to the Caribbean island of Barbados. I have a group coming down in July for a conference and I’m recommending Drayton Hall because of its historic ties to the West Indies and Barbados in particular.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, and thanks also for recommending Drayton Hall. While the Bowens family’s Barbadian connections are not mentioned in this particular posting, it is an important part of their story, and of the story of Drayton Hall in general. The connection was included in an earlier posting that focused on an event held last September, to honor the 100th anniversary of Richmond Bowens’ birth. You can read more about that event by clicking here. Also, the Barbadian connection is highlighted in several places on our main website, including on the main page that describes the Bowens family’s history.
      We would love to hear from those that attend the conference, and what they think about Drayton Hall and its programs.

  2. First I would like to say that this is really wonderful. I would like to find out more information on the Draytons(Of African background). I wanted to do a family tree and truly learn more about my family. I am sure there is someone that might have more knowledge. Please contact me….

    • Thanks so much for your comment. You’re right– there are folks who have done a tremendous amount of research on the African American families that have ties to Drayton Hall and other properties once owned by the Drayton family. The place to start is Lowcountry Africana at http://www.lowcountryafricana.net. The team working on that project has brought to light an amazing number of articles and resources that have connected historic documents with living descendants. From the main page, scroll down to the Featured Article, and follow the hyperlinks to the full story on the research relating to Drayton holdings.
      We wish you the best in this endeavor! If we at Drayton Hall can assist, please let us know.

  3. This is all very interesting! I read the article comparing Drayton Hall to Magnolia in the New York Times today. Last week I wandered around the grounds of a college in Virginia, hoping to come across the former slave quarters, which are apparently mouldering in the woods, but with no luck. It’s great that you present and preserve the full story.
    I know this is a post on the Draytons of African descent, but I wonder if you know whether the original Draytons are related to Michael Drayton, the Elizabethan poet who died in 1631.
    Also, one reads about planters from Barbados “planting” South Carolina — finally I come across a name & details. Were the Draytons among the first? Who were the other main families? Why did they leave Barbados?

  4. I am a parishioner at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Savannah, GA, which owns the Green-Meldrim House. Recently a gentleman – a descendant of one of the 9 original helpers for Charles Green – stopped by for a tour. He did not leave his first name or address; however, he said that his lineageage was of the prestigious Drayton Hall. He promised to send a photo of his ancestor who worked for Charles Green. Being that I write a newsletter for the church and its docents, it would be a privilege for me to meet and talk with this gentleman. I would love to speak with him about his heritage so I might better understand the personal lives of those who worked for Charles Green. Can anyone help me find him? He did not leave his address or phone number. I thank you for any help you might give me. It would be an honor for me to meet with him. Thank you. Blessings, Susan Donahue 912-598-9070 or 912-657-2259

  5. I am interested in finding more information concerning the Bowens ancestry from Barbados. My father’s name was Henry Bowens born in Pawleys Island, SC. in 1921. He died in 2002. My parents and I did find out about Mr. Richmond Bowens before his passing, and were able to meet him and his wife. They tried to find if there was a connection between the families. Mr Richmond definitely had a resemblance to my dad, but we were not able to track the ancestry. I would love to speak with some of his family members to get more information. Thanks!

    • Please contact our Curator of Education- Rikki Davenport at 843-769-2600. She can point you in the right direction!

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