Researcher's Work Restores Forgotten Man's Story

Three generations of Oscar Marion's family  --  Sylvester Wright, 14-month-old Andrew James, Tanya Jones-Wright and Tiney R. Marion Haynie, right  --  examine the painting at the Capitol that shows him with Gen. Francis Marion.
Three generations of Oscar Marion's family -- Sylvester Wright, 14-month-old Andrew James, Tanya Jones-Wright and Tiney R. Marion Haynie, right -- examine the painting at the Capitol that shows him with Gen. Francis Marion. (By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)

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By Darragh Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 15, 2007

First, Tina C. Jones restored her distant cousin's identity: To the black slave shown in the painting that hangs in the U.S. Capitol, Jones returned his story, and his name, Oscar Marion.

In that painting, Marion is the long-anonymous slave who's roasting sweet potatoes over the fire. He is the man who served, unheralded for more than a century, at the side of a famous Revolutionary War general.

In December, because of Jones's genealogical sleuthing, a ceremony unfolded at the Capitol in Marion's honor. President Bush signed a proclamation on behalf of a "grateful nation," thanking Marion for his "devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country in the Armed Forces of the United States."

And now, at the end of this month, Jones will be honored alongside the renowned John Hope Franklin by Howard University's Association for the Study of African American Life and History, at the organization's annual Black History Month luncheon. This year's theme: "From Slavery to Freedom, Africans in the Americas."

The honor is new for the association, which has always lauded prominent academics and historians. But Jones -- president of the American Historical Interpretation Foundation Inc. in Rockville -- so impressed the group's executive council, it decided to inaugurate a "people's award," said council member Debra Newman Ham, a professor of history at Morgan State University.

"A lot of genealogists find things, but she was able to connect with the right people and just get . . . a whole ceremony established at the Capitol building to commemorate her discovery, of the identity of the black man in the picture," Ham said.

The council decided: "Isn't it time that we celebrated those people who have been so helpful in the historical arena, and who have often touched far many more people than the people in the academy have . . . and that's what she has done, and we're very, very excited about her work, and we're very happy to honor her in this way."

Oscar Marion was the personal slave of Gen. Francis Marion, the celebrated "Swamp Fox" from South Carolina who was a Revolutionary War hero and the inspiration for the Mel Gibson movie "The Patriot." In the months since the story of Jones and Oscar Marion was first told in The Washington Post, Jones has found that interest in her and her cousin has only increased -- as has her research load.

She heard from one of Francis Marion's descendants, one of his great-great-(keep repeating "great" and you'll get there)-nephews, with whom she has met and is discussing some projects -- perhaps a book or a film documentary about how both sides of the Marion family, hers and his, coexisted in the 1700s, she said.

And at the end of this week, Jones heads to Fort Worth for the opening of an exhibit at the Amon Carter Museum called "Forging an American Identity: The Art of William Ranney." In at least two of Ranney's paintings, she said, Francis Marion is the "main character, and Oscar appears in his paintings. . . . The curators and the art historians, they did not know Oscar's identity. So I was able to share. They are now updating their information and materials."

Additionally, she has found more paintings of Francis Marion and his faithful companion, Oscar Marion, in museums elsewhere: in Chicago and South Carolina, and at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the National Portrait Gallery. She said she believes there may be another picture of Oscar and Francis in the holdings at Mount Vernon.

"They're checking that out," she said.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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