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Camp Spirituals Expose Slave Ancestors' Past

By Donald Ogbewii Scott

Thereís something in a good song that goes to the heart - and sometimes to the souls of our pasts.

In fact, bellowing old "Negro" spirituals at an overnight Bucks County, Pa. summer camp as a kid was an intriguing clue to my ancestry that includes an enslaved female who bore the child of her so-called master five or six years before the Civil War.

You see, I nostalgically recall the mid-1960sí nippy summer evenings in the Pennsylvania countryside and standing around a roaring fire with floating yellow fire-bug bulbs competing with the distant glimmering stars in the darkness above the 93-acre camp, run by Nazarene Baptist Church of Phillyís Nicetown section.

We kids robustly crooned those songs, first sang by our black slave ancestors, in between munching down hotdogs roasted on the ends of skinny tree limbs with hot-sticky marsh-mellows discharging a sweetness that saturated the night air.

One of our favorite spirituals was, "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," composed by ex-slave Wallis or Wallace Willis during the mid-1800s, that tells of enslaved Africans' desire to reach the "Promised Land" or heaven after a lifetime of exploitation and suffering, with these imagery-driven words: "Swing low, sweet chariot, coming forth to carry me home ... I looked over Jordan and what did I see, coming forth to carry me home, a band of angels coming after me, coming forth to carry me home."

Some of my ancestors in Halifax, Va., undoubtedly believed in the essence of those words. However, it would be decades after my summer-camp days when I began to look into my dadís Scott and Rogersí ancestors and learn some migrated from Halifax, Virginia to Philadelphia, likely during the late 1800s or early 1900s, and eventually joined Nazarene. 

Along the way, I learned that before the 1860sí Civil War Halifax was one of the top-producing tobacco areas in the country and where plantation owners made it one of the largest slave-holding locales in Virginia.

My dad, Dr. Henry Scott, had often talked about his Uncle Ned (Rogers) who attended Narazene, founded in 1896, and known for scooting around on a motorcycle with a side carriage. Now deceased, Uncle Ned was a colorful character destined to be essential for my Rogersí genealogy search that really intensified last year. 

After asking my father plenty of questions about his paternal ancestors and realizing my connection to Nazarene Camp, I emailed and phoned the pastor of the church, Reverend Keith Marshall Williams, Sr. I learned that a good number of Halifax, Va. blacks had joined Nazarene, with an older member possibly recalling some of my ancestors. Further, the online church history indicates that a "young Virginian, Reverend George Russell, was instrumental in the organization of Nazarene" during the late 1800s after he migrated from Halifax!

Rev. Russell even returned to Halifax to be ordained by Reverend Charles Coleman at his home church of Piney Grove Baptist Church in 1895, according to the churchís history, before serving as the first pastor of Nazarene. 

I commenced a determined search via and found Uncle Ned and his family listed in the 1880 U.S. census, living in Halifax, Va. I found him as the two-year-old son of Margaret Rogers, age 25, and with two sisters, five-year-old Dinah and three-year-old Sallie. Sister Sallie would become the mother of my fatherís father, Henry Scott, Sr. - or my great grandmother. 

The news was gripping, especially since Margaret was born as slavery persisted in 1855.

Yet, I agonized about the parents of Margaret who was likely born a slave. I decided to travel to the Halifax County, Va. courthouse last year, with my wife Billie, and found an astounding birth-recordsí document indicating that Margaret was born to Giles M. Cardwell and a slave he owned named Susan. That news was absolutely earth-shattering!

My heart sang out to Margaret, my great-great grandmother, and especially to Susan, the great-great-great grand-matriarch (Margaretís mother) who was very likely forced into a sexual relationship by Cardwell, a white man, born in 1782 as the Revolutionary War winded down. Even today, itís very hard to sort out my feelings that include anger, elation and an incredible satisfaction at realizing my familyís past.

I was also euphoric to find the remarkable 1894 marriage certificate of Sallie (my great-grandmother and daughter of Margaret) indicating that she had married my great-grandfather, Robert Scott, whose fatherís name was also Robert and mother named Besty, both likely born slaves. In fact, Sallieís parents were listed on the certificate as Stephen and "Maggie," or Margaret.

Today, the inevitable questions about Susan's African origins arise. Over the past few years and months, via DNA evaluation utilized by such stars as Don Cheadle, Oprah Winfrey and Tom Joyner, my roots of four family lines have been traced to five African tribal groups, including the Hausa and Bini or Edo of Nigeria, the Kpelle of Liberia, the Djola people of Guinea-Bissau and finally, the Akan (or Ashanti) of Ghana. Plus, National has determined my deep ancestry to East Africa more than 50,000 to 70,000 years ago, where all human beings originated from a single woman, according to DNA studies. This news has been exhilarating as I seek via DNA to find out additional African tribal ties to the Rogers lines, etc.

Meanwhile, I cannot help but think of my Virginia ancestor, a slave called Susan of Halifax County, Va., eventually carried home by a great chariot, and the spirituals we sang to her around a distant fire at a Baptist church camp that still warms my soul -- and hopefully her remarkable spirit too. 

Donald Ogbewii Scott, a Melrose Park, Pa. resident, can be reached at concerning this version of an article that appeared in Journal-Register Newspapers of Eastern Montgomery County, Pa., near Philadelphia. He recently contributed five biographies to the landmark African American National Biography book and online project, edited by Harvard professors Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. Scott has also completed a book entitled, "Camp William Penn," about the first and largest Northern-based federal facility to train black soldiers during the Civil War, due to be published in early May by Arcadia Publishing. For more information, please see or Books-A-Million.


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10 Mar 2008 :: 10 Mar 2008
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