PHOTO: Pictured from left; Floor: Truth Rivera, Tiam Rivera. Bench: Helen Ford, Georgia Orage, Braalyn Miller, Helen Green, Earl Drayton. Standing: Gleena Green, Willie Mitchell, Sonya Jenkins, Gloria Murray, Herbert Ford, Audrey Jenkins, Kiona Jenkins, Taj Hamilton, Veronica Miller, Shani Green Cynthia Mitchell, Tyler Hamilton, Martha Drayton, Charles Perry, Jaala Miller, Brandon Miller, Faquita Rivera and Thelma Byas.
It’s not very often that we are able to take a peek back into time and in return get a clear vision of what life was like in the past. When you study history, sometimes there is a wealth of information that can be found about people, places or things, but in most cases, information is lost to the ravages of time; so much has been forgotten, disregarded as unimportant, or even destroyed. This is partly because most of us don’t think our ordinary lives have any value or meaning to anyone but ourselves. However, the saying “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure” is especially true when it comes to history. The lives we live today will be someone else’s history tomorrow. How you spend your day today might seem completely irrelevant, but 100 or 500 years from now, the minute, seemingly inconsequential things that we do today might be vitally important to those who follow us.
We can see examples of this now in the way the lives of slaves have been documented and preserved. Journals, books and movies have given us a look at their experiences. Recently, movies like “Glory,” “12 Years a Slave,” “The Free State of Jones,” “Django Unchained” and “Birth of a Nation” have painted a nontraditional picture of the lives of American slaves; lives that were very different from what commonly is portrayed in history books. From these new stories, we learn that slaves’ lives included so much more than working in the fields or in a manor or plantation house — the way their lives have typically been depicted.
It is only when we get those rare opportunities to pull back the curtain on someone’s past that we have the chance to learn something new; to experience more and to expand our perspectives in ways that enable us to change our thinking about others as well as ourselves. That’s what happened for me when, after years of black history research, a simple document from the Jones family gave me a richer and clearer understanding of the black experience during the Civil War. Then, blacks were forced to fight on so many levels. They had to fight to prove that they were men, not animals; they had to fight to earn their freedom; and even when they fought alongside the Union Army, they had to fight to prove that they deserved to receive the pensions they earned.
After the Civil War, receiving a pension was almost a life-or-death matter for newly freed slaves who were struggling to become part of the economy of the new South. Many soldiers had to obtain witnesses to help them verify that they were in fact veterans of the Civil War. Matthew Jones, one of the early residents of historic Mitchelville, was one of those soldiers.
On Nov. 6, 1901, Jones was required to give an oral disposition in an effort to receive his military pension. This is adapted from an excerpt of what he shared:
“Born as property to slave owner George Stoney, at the time of his writing, he didn’t know the year or day of his birth on Edisto Island. He did however, know his parents: his father was Solomon Jones (owned by William Pope), and his mother was Hannah Jones. As slaves, their given name was Pope; however, he did not know why or when his parents decided to change their surname to Jones. As a slave of about 18 years old, Matthew risked his life to leave his enslavement and join the ranks of the Union Army. Usually when the story has been told of slaves joining the Civil War, it is told as if they were simply welcomed into the ranks. Rarely do we get a firsthand account of the humiliation that they experienced. Matthew tells us of a different experience. Upon his arrival to enlist, he says, “I was stripped, measured and examined by a medical doctor,” and then placed into the 21st Regiment of the Union Colored Troops to serve in the war from 1864 to 1866 under Gen. Littlefield. As a solider, he says that he was ‘never in battle;’ however, he did need treatment for frostbite ‘on his great right toe.’ Originally from Pinckney Island, he moved to Hilton Head and was listed as a resident of the town of historic Mitchelville, the first self-governed town run by freed slaves. While there, Matthew went on to marry Teena Middleton. Through a lot of hard work and dedication, Matthew was able to raise enough money to eventually buy 27 acres of Stoney/Squire Pope land that he farmed to provide for his family.”
Through hard work, a strong survival instinct, and a commitment to his family and community, Jones lived a successful life. He and his wife, Teena, had a strong sense of community that centered on their church, and they shared their values with their six children. Caring about the community as though it was an extended family became especially important to their daughter, Albertha Drayton Simmons, who taught her children that it was important “to love your neighbor as yourself.” Simmons so lived by this mantra that when necessary, she raised her sister’s children as her own.
“We were always surrounded by family. She took care of everybody,” said Simmons’ daughter Gloria Simmons Murray. “It was just how she was. Her house was a melting pot.”
Her sister Veronica agreed: “We were taught to always reach out and to give to each other. You can’t always look for something in return.”
Not only did Simmons take care of her own immediate family, she nurtured others in the community as well. Her dream was to become a nurse, but she was unable to pursue it because of the great strain going away to school would put on her family. Instead, she went to work in her island community. When someone was sick, Simmons would be at his or her home, caring for the ill person as well as his or her family. The Gullah call it “sitting up,” and Simmons was always available to help the family by cooking or cleaning for them and giving them a well-deserved break.
Eight generations later, the descendants of Matthew Jones still live on the land that he purchased, giving the family deep roots that have made lasting impacts on Hilton Head Island and its Gullah culture.
Jones was one of the first deacons of Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, founded 102 years ago. The Joneses’ connection to Mt. Calvary lives on today, as it is still the family church and Murray has been the church administrator for more than 44 years. As church administrator, her office is near the entrance to Mt. Calvary’s preschool, which is open during the week. As the children come and go every day, they stop to give Murray a hug of gratitude and share a piece of their day. Sometimes the most important lesson of the day might not be learned in the classroom; it can be a lesson of love, caring and giving to one another — a vital lesson that might just be taught passing through the front door.