Thursday, November 12, 2015

Where There's A Will...

Yesterday I came across what, for me, is a really exciting document: My great-great-grandmother Scoatney (Scott) Cooper's will!

Now, the Cooper Family - my mom's maternal grandfather's line - has actually done a great job of keeping family names and relationships alive - they hold a reunion every 2 years, they've been maintaining a family tree probably since before I was born, and there are several family members with an interest in genealogy. (My cousin France Davis - the son of my great-grandfather's sister - even wrote a book that recounts some of the family history, though it's mostly his own autobiography.) In fact, for these very reasons, I've pretty much left this line alone as I do my own research.

But you know us genealogists, sometimes we just type something in the computer to see what comes up! Yesterday, it was both Scoatney Scott Cooper's Certificate of Death and her Last Will and Testament. Now, the first document alone would have been wonderful by itself - it let me know that she passed in 1932, at the age of 71...meaning she was born in 1861! As in, during the Civil War! And it gave me her parents names, which confirmed that a possible 1870 Census record I found for her, is in fact her! (Score 1 for my 1870 ancestor goal!)

To have a copy of her Last Will and Testament, however, is icing on the cake. Like, really amazing icing. Here's why:

1. This is a will written by a BLACK WOMAN in 1924 in the Deep South. We're talking about a person who was born during slavery, and who had lived most of her adult life during a time when African Americans were being lynched with alacrity, their political rights were routinely ignored, and their economic well-being was constantly in jeopardy. And we're talking about a woman living in a country where (white) women had only just won the right to vote a few years earlier. Women's rights were moving forward, but let's be clear that those rights were generally only accessible and afforded to *certain* women.

2. Scoatney had her own property to pass on!

Now, the family already knew she owned property; I knew it, too. As cousin France wrote:

Our house, the house in which I was born, sat on a piece of property originally owned by the Coopers – not purchased by my grandfather, July Cooper, but by his wife, Scoatney, my mother’s mother…. My grandmother was a good manager – so frugal, it would seem, that some called her stingy. It was she, however, who was able to purchase 180 acres of agricultural land in Cooper’s Town as well as a house and lot in Gough…
 But how cool is it to see that in writing in an original legal document? (The house and lot in Gough are mentioned later in the will.) And, it wasn't a small bit of land. The 140 acres mentioned in the image above - that's equivalent to about 140 football fields! Plus, she owned this land outright, at a time when most African Americans on farmland in the south were sharecroppers or tenant farmers, working in a constant cycle of debt accumulation. On top of this, black men and women who did own land were routinely (and often with governmental assistance) being cheated out of and off of it! (In fact, if you look up "black farmers" today, you'll see that contemporary black farmers are STILL trying to get their due.)

3. That said, this document is a testament to the importance of family and of creating and passing down wealth to leave a solid foundation for generations to come. It speaks to a mixture of hard work, planning, perseverance - and probably luck - from which Scoatney's family benefitted. And, if this is an accurate indicator...

...she did this without the benefit of literacy.

Some of this land is still in the family's hands today, and I'm excited that our next family reunion will take place down there! I can't wait to walk the ground, see the family cemetery, and, of course, make a visit to the county courthouse to see what other documents there are to find!

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