Each week on the “Historically Black” podcast, we explore one object and its connection to a moment in black history.
“I have something for you,” James McKissic’s mother told him last year.
That “something” was a copy of a bill of sale dated and signed more than 150 years ago of McKissic’s great-great-grandfather Wilson Woods.
McKissic chose to upload this photo to The Washington Post’s Tumblr project, Historically Black, after hearing about the project on Facebook. “I didn’t see anything like it on the Tumblr” McKissic said.
The bill is dated Sept. 26, 1862. At the time, Woods was still a slave in Tennessee. Eventually, he was freed and went on to own land in in the state.
“I often wonder what life was like for Wilson Woods, how it felt to be a slave without agency, or basic human rights. I wonder if he knew that emancipation was just a few years in the future,” said McKissic, director of the Chattanooga Office of Multicultural Affairs in Tennessee.
According to family records, Woods was born around 1815 in Virginia and simply called Wilson. His father was also his owner, a man named William Wilson Wood. His mother was a slave named Mary. They moved to Tennessee in 1838.
After his biological father died in 1861, Woods was eventually sold to his father’s brother Samuel – a transaction documented on paper and signed in 1862. (A year later, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that led the way in eventually freeing all salves.)
After Woods was eventually freed, he bought land in Meigs County, Tenn. At some point, he took the Wood name and the family eventually added an “S” to the end. Now they’re mostly called Woods.
The framed copy of this receipt rests on McKissic’s bookshelf in Tennessee. McKissic felt compelled to share the object not only because of its historical significance but because it symbolizes where he came from, and the decisions his great-great-grandfather made eventually culminated into giving his family the life they had today.
Some of the original land is still owned by McKissic’s family, where Woods’s is buried in the cemetery under the name “Grandpa Woods.”
“I know that because he worked hard and became a landowner, he set his family up to have options and opportunities that we often take for granted today. It is a privilege, and a source of strength,” McKissic said, “I want [people] to know that my great-great-grandfather didn’t allow his circumstances in life [to] dictate his outcome in life.”
It’s one thing to have a copy of such an important family document; it’s another thing to be told that the original bill of sale still exists. That’s what happened after Janie Myers, a Meigs County, Tenn., county clerk, went into the county’s courthouse’s archives to find the original document after hearing about McKissic’s story in interviews with The Post.
Myers dug through lists of settlements and wills, until she eventually came across one entry in a book that listed land and livestock sales. She cross referenced it with the copy of Woods’s bill of sale and noticed the documents matched.
“I’ve been here for 22 years and I didn’t realize what was in the books. And to see that … it was a shock,” Myers said.
The entry, written and signed Sept. 26, 1862, was just like McKissic’s copy.
It was detailed “the sale of a man from William Wood to Samuel O. Wood for one negro man named Wilson dated the 26 day of October 1861. Duly proven before me … clerk of the county court of said county … by Joseph Witt … that he was personally acquainted with the said William Wood and that he saw him sign and heard him acknowledge that he had executed said bill of sale,” and signed by then-Meigs County Clerk Joseph T. Russel.
“I’m really in my office in tears,” McKissic said when he was notified of the bill’s original existence.
Soon after the discovery, McKissic and his mother traveled an hour to the Meigs County courthouse to see the bill of sale in person. Touching the physical bill of sale was as a small gesture of connection with their ancestor.
You can hear host Issa Rae share more tales about Wilson Woods on Historically Black, a podcast co-production between APM Reports and The Washington Post that tells the stories of people’s lived experiences of black history through the objects that evoke those connections.
See more objects that have been submitted to the project, and share your own at historicallyblack.tumblr.com.
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