Daniel Rubin: A bit of detective work leads back to his ancestors

Posted: June 23, 2011

After 21 years of searching, Bill Pickens could feel his family history in his grasp.

He'd come far in his quest to trace his bloodline to the union of a former slave and the son of Philadelphia's first mayor. He'd found birth records, death records, tax records, property records, and the first U.S. Census, which listed three of his ancestors, going back eight generations.

He possessed the 1798 indenture - written on deerskin and bearing a bullet hole - that established his family's burial grounds in Glenside.

But his people were missing.

Sometime in the early 1960s, a road-widening forced the removal of 75 of his ancestors' graves, and no query to state or local officials had answered the mystery of where their remains lay.

Three weeks ago, the historian of the Eden Cemetery in Collingdale reached out to the Sag Harbor, N.Y., native. She'd read he was coming to town to tell his family story at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. She'd found records showing that at least four of his ancestors were buried at Eden in unmarked plots.

And so Pickens was making a field trip he'd long imagined. "This is an emotional moment," he said Monday, riding with his wife, Patricia, and son John.

Pickens, a tall, elegant, retired corporate executive with a nimbus of snow-white hair and bright blue eyes, had spent the entire car ride rattling off a daunting series of names and dates concerning his blended family and their distinctive offspring.

But as the car pulled into the cemetery, the 74-year-old patriarch's manner changed. He couldn't wait to get out of the car. "Remarkable," he said, seeming to skip toward the cemetery office. "I've been looking for these folks since 1991."

Mina Cockroft, Eden's general manager, was waiting for her guests with a map, a plastic marker, and a bouquet of silk red roses. Together they rode together up a hill to the Lebanon section, Lot No. 105.

Cockroft pointed, and the car came to a stop next to the gravestone of William Still, the conductor on the Underground Railroad. Pickens smiled. So his people were buried next to the famous Mr. Still.

A cemetery worker brought out a tape measure and a few moments later the group was standing on a grassy spot.

"This is Hiram and Elizabeth," Cockroft said. Pickens had found his great-great-grandparents.

Two years before, he'd presented their portraits to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where they now hang, rare examples of a prosperous African American husband and wife, painted in 1841.

"I know where to come now," Pickens said.

His son asked whether he wanted to pose next to the grave site, and, roses in hand, Pickens bent down so close he could kiss the earth.

Hiram Montier was a shoemaker with an office on North Seventh Street. His wife, Elizabeth, came from Northern Liberties. They were members of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, which their ancestors had helped found in 1792. The church burial ground had been moved to Eden in 1905.

The next stop was a few plots east, where the remains of Adrian Montier, one of his great-grandfathers, were buried along with a cousin.

"Holy smokes," Pickens said.

The three pilgrims toured other grave sites. When they passed Marian Anderson, Pickens recalled how growing up in Philadelphia, his mother used to play dolls with the great contralto. His mother was a model and teacher, introduced to his father by the poet Langston Hughes, who roomed with his dad at Lincoln University.

To find his people, to know they were cared for, made Pickens ecstatic. He talked about the importance of closure and the joy of discovery, about knowing who you come from.

Patricia Pickens threw her arms around Cockroft and thanked her "for keeping my husband alive."

At the Historical Society that evening, Pickens talked of how much love his family shared, and how different their lives might have been had the mayor's son not been a righteous man.

"It was an unJeffersonian story," he said. "Robert Morrey provided for his family."

Morrey's father, Humphrey Morrey, was appointed mayor by William Penn in 1691. Upon his death, he freed his slaves, including a young girl named Cremona, who stayed on with the Morrey family as a domestic servant.

After Richard Morrey's first wife returned to England, he and Cremona had five children together. He made sure she was cared for upon his death, leaving her 198 acres his family owned in Cheltenham Township. That established a place called Guineatown, named for her West African homeland.

After Pickens' talk, the audience moved downstairs to view some documents that its library director had set out in the reading room.

Between a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and William Still's journal lay a record of Mayor Humphrey Morrey's family tree. There was no mention of Cremona or the five children she had with Richard Morrey.

Pickens was not surprised that the official family tree was missing a few branches.

"Of course," he said with a knowing smile.

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.


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