From Slavery to Sermonising – The Story of Rev. Francis Nelson Countee

Today’s post is inspired in part by the recent horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia, the vile protest by white supremacists who were enraged at the idea of taking down Confederate monuments (in particular General Robert E Lee). To most of us, these monuments are symbols of a Confederacy that fought to maintain slavery and white supremacy in America. On the 18th August 2017 some of those white supremacist protesters who had come from across America, mostly consisting of white nationalists, Neo-Nazis and members of the Ku Klux Klan, marched on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville brandishing torches and shouting known Nazi slogans such as “Blood and Soil” and anti-Semitic statements about not being replaced by Jews. The local people of Charlottesville and some others came to counter-protest, which led to clashes across the city. As one group of counter-protesters moved away, a Nazi sympathiser Alex Fields drove into them, murdering Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old local woman who had gone there to stand against hate and bigotry. A state police helicopter responding to the protests crashed killing two pilots. The violence that day, perpetrated by hate, killed three people and injured dozens more.

Image from tmz.com

The current US President Donald Trump made woefully inadequate condemnations of the events, blaming both sides. Although are we surprised given his heavily racist exclusionist rhetoric and policies? Not to mention his father’s link with the KKK during a protest in New York in 1926 where he was arrested for “refusal to disperse from a parade when ordered to do so” (although he was never charged and some say he was just a bystander, although all seven men arrested on that day were declared to have been wearing KKK attire).

In the wake of the protest, many other public officials strongly condemned white supremacy. The governor of Virginia told them they were not welcome in his state. The mayor of Lexington, Kentucky vowed to speed up plans to remove Confederate statues in his city. The makers of the torches the protesters used – TIKI,  denounced the use of its products for a white supremacist march. Johnny Cash’s family spoke up over a protester seen wearing a Johnny Cash t-shirt – stating it went against everything he stood for. The web hosting services GoDaddy and Google cut off the white supremacist website the Daily Stormer, leaving them to find alternative domain providers. There was fall out too from the president’s American Manufacturing Council with CEOs resigning over Trump’s poor stand on the events, including Kenneth Frazier (Merck) and Tim Cook (Apple) – who has pledged donations. In a statement he said “I disagree with the president and others who believe that there is a moral equivalence between white supremacists and Nazis, and those who oppose them by standing up for human rights. Equating the two runs counter to our ideals as Americans” Cook says that “hate is a cancer and left unchecked it destroys everything in its path.” As a way to step up to “help organisations who work to rid our country of hate,” Apple will be making a $2 million contribution against hate: $1 million to the Southern Poverty Law Center and another million to the Anti-Defamation League. (wording from https://www.cnbc.com/2017/08/17/tim-cook-apple-will-donate-2-million-to-aid-charlottesville.html)

So why has this struck a chord with me? Firstly I am incredibly opposed to hate and bigotry, it makes me ashamed to be white, to see people who hate and fear those who look different to us. It makes me sick and angry. Not in my name. I judge people on their actions, not on their skin colour or race or religion.

Secondly it got me thinking about a connection on my partner’s tree. Having white European ancestry we both have such little crossover or experience in research around more diverse communities and cultures, as far as I know we are not connected to slave owners – although I’m sure there will be extended members of our trees who settled in America and other places and participated in this barbaric inhumane act. Although through one person, there came a connection to provide us with a small insight into a particular period in history and into the experiences of slaves during this awful time.

My partner’s 2nd great aunt was Eliza Carter who was born in 1870 in Loughborough, Leicestershire and baptised in Leicester in 1871. She was the 4th daughter of Joseph Claircoat(s) Carter – who at that time was a Framework Knitter. He had married his wife Elizabeth Bishop in 1864 and over the course of their marriage had 13 children (of which three had died in infancy.)

Eliza married Charles William Countee in 1887 who was “mixed race”. This wasn’t immediately apparent to me while I was looking into their marriage and children, and it wasn’t until I searched for information in newspapers that I discovered Charles was referred to as “coloured”. I will go into Eliza and Charles’s life in a later post, but for now we will concentrate on Charles’ father. From Charles and Eliza’s marriage certificate I knew that his father was named Nelson Countee and at that time was deceased and had been a Minister. His full name was actually Francis Nelson Countee, but seems to have preferred to drop his first name.

Marriage entry from the Leicestershire Parish Registers on Findmypast

I traced backwards and discovered a man who had led an incredibly tough life, but had changed his fortunes and worked hard to help many other people, and to educate and inform others as to the intolerable injustices imposed upon black people.

Rather than document my research tracking backwards, I will tell his tale from the start. The majority of information comes from details given in newspapers and what I have currently been able to find through other records.

Nelson was born into slavery around 1814 in Leesburg, Loudoun County, Virginia, USA, around 35 miles from Washington, Maryland. He was the youngest of 14 children. His grandmother had been taken from Africa, and like most slaves had no education. He joked that she believed that when her husband died he had returned to Africa and she had given him corn and meat to cheer him up on his journey – although one might more believe that where she came from, perhaps it was customary to give your dead gifts for passage into the next world? She had died at the age of 103 – although I am unsure when. His mother was a cook and he had become a waiter or butler. They were owned by a family by the name of Cordell. There were several Cordell families in Leesburg at this time and it is unclear who specifically owned them. He last saw his father when he had been chained to a cart with a gang of other men, taken away to be sold. I cannot begin to imagine how hard that life was, the suffering and cruelty meted out to your fellow human beings, to be bought and sold at your whim, separating families.

At some point Nelson heard a missionary from England called Thomas preaching the gospel. One part – “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” – stuck in his mind and had such an effect on him that he went home crying.

When he was aged about 17, he had been working at cleaning the silverware when his mistress had berated him for a knife being dirty and she went to beat him with the handle of a carving knife. He raised his arm to protect himself and she accused him of assaulting her. He was flogged by the overseer who said he would flog the religion out of him, Nelson said “…but what had been placed there by God couldn’t be knocked out by man.”  He made his mind up to escape, however he would not get an opportunity for two years.

One day he seized his chance and ran, attempting to escape over the Allegheny Mountains. He suffered with hunger for the best part of two weeks, with a couple of days surviving on just apples and water, walking by night and sleeping by day in the woods. However, eventually he was caught by two men who took him back, dragging him by horseback with an 8ft rope. A powerful quote from an article in The Hampshire Telegraph dated 19th July 1876 states “…and that was in Christian America, where the people talked of their liberties more than any other nation upon the face of the globe.” After a few weeks in gaol he was handed to his master, who took out his Bible and read from it “He that knoweth his master’s will and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.” He then said “If I don’t flog you, God will bring me to judgement.” Nelson was then hauled several inches from the ground and soundly beaten with rawhide until he fainted, then salt water was rubbed into his wounds.

Slaves awaiting sale in Richmond, Virginia, 1853 work (Wikipedia)

Several years passed before Nelson got another chance to escape. When he was 24, he and his brother got a pass from his master to attend a camp meeting for a religious denomination his master followed. He benefited from the fact at the time of his request, his master was intoxicated, although he told him in no uncertain terms – “If you are not back here by Monday morning, I’ll flog you within an inch of your life.” Nelson later joked, “I hadn’t been back yet, and didn’t think I should go.” He went to nearby Waterford for a painful parting with his mother. One can only imagine the heartache involved in running away and leaving the rest of your family behind, and for his mother who probably had always been desperate to see her children free of slavery. Nelson and his brother (who was never named in his accounts) were then joined by two other slaves and started off on their journey.

Often suffering from hunger they “borrowed” food along the way, like a goose, and even one time raiding a house for milk, ham, pies and bread. He said “We borrowed the lot, and never paid it back.” During their escape they were attacked by four men, the bounty for capturing an escaped slave was $100 each, so there was much interest in hunting them down. However, Nelson, his brother and the others gave them a beating and were able to escape. As he puts it “…those four men got what they could not be supplied with at the grocery stores. We got those four men down on the ground and let them have it.” They had to survive by travelling through the woodland rather than out in the open.

Eventually they arrived at Toronto, Canada. I have found records of him from the Canadian Militia Muster Rolls and Paylists as being in the 3rd Battalion Incorporated Militia between March and September 1839. Given that most of the religious camp meetings tended to happen in the summer months, I would imagine he escaped around July / August of 1838 and it took several months to cross through perhaps Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York into Canada. He settled in Lockport, Niagara, New York/Canada and at some point in the early 1840s he met and married his wife Sophia.

Nelson states that he didn’t learn the alphabet until he was 25 years old. He said “Slavery said I shouldn’t know it. Notwithstanding that Paul had said “Read the Scriptures for they testify of me.” and “…the reason being that the dealers could no more hold educated slaves than anyone could retain fire in his hand.

There is a mention of Nelson in a book “Harriet Tubman Freedom Seeker Freedom Leader” where it says he was a St. Catherine’s resident who came to Canada in the 1840s and had entered the AME Ministry (African Methodist Episcopal) in 1844 and had signed a petition and helped with fugitive relief.

In 1844 Nelson and Sophia had their first child, William Henry Francis, then later followed by another son Robert Nelson around 1847. They also had a daughter Minerva born around 1850. They appear on the 1850 US Census in Lockport, Nelson’s occupation is Cooper (someone who makes barrels.) He was 34 years old and his wife Sophia was ten years younger than him.

Image from New York Public Library

In 1856 I found the first mention of Nelson in the newspapers, from the Angelica Reporter, New York dated 18th March 1856. It stated that he was a “coloured Clergyman and Fugitive Slave” who would be giving a lecture at the local Methodist Church on slavery, his bondage and escape. It was in aid of raising money to build a church on behalf of 700 fugitives in St. Catherine’s, 12 miles from Niagara.

I then found Nelson with his eldest son on the 1860 US Census in Lockport, he was 45 years old and still a Cooper, William was 16. I wondered about the rest of the family but then found them listed all together on the 1861 Canadian Census in St. Catherine’s, Lincoln, West Canada. Nelson still aged 45 and a Cooper, the rest of the family were just named by their initials. Sophia was now listed as M. S. Countee – aged 33, W. H. F. Countee – aged 17, R. N. Countee – aged 14, J. E. Countee – aged 11 (this is a daughter and is aged about the same as Minerva would be, perhaps they changed her name or this is a different child?), S. L. Countee – a son aged 3 and P. A. Countee – a daughter aged 1.

Life soon changed for the Countee family when sometime between 1861 and 1864 Nelson made his way to England in order to tour giving lectures to raise money for his church in St. Catherine’s. He first appeared in the papers here on 23rd Sept 1864 as having given a lecture earlier that week in the South Bethel Chapel in Liverpool. It stated that he had come with letters of introduction to gentlemen in Liverpool, London etc. and that he hoped to raise $600 for the church and return home soon.

By April 1865 he was in London and it was during this year that he met a young white woman, Maria Pease. Maria would have been 20 that year, it is unknown how or where they met, but perhaps she had been to one of his lectures and they had struck up a friendship? They married on 28th December 1865 in Bethnal Green, I believe Nelson told a few lies to Maria, for from that point on he claimed to be quite a bit younger than he was, and their marriage certificate stated that he was a widower. His occupation was still given as Cooper.

Marriage entry for Nelson and Maria

Nelson and Maria then continued with the lecture tour and spent time in Warwickshire, Glasgow and Oxfordshire during the late 1860s. Their first child, Charles William Countee was born in 1867 in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, followed by his sister Louisa Maria born in 1869 in Neithrop near Banbury, Oxfordshire. Nelson’s occupation at the time of his son’s birth was Lecturer, and at the time of Louisa’s it was Fancy Mat Maker. In 1870 Nelson lectured in Leicestershire and in Rotherham, Yorkshire.

By the 1871 Census they were living at 5 Short Street, Leicester. Nelson gives his age as 45 and occupation as Cooper and Local Methodist Preacher. He continued to tour and was in Worcestershire in 1872 and next appeared in Montgomeryshire in 1874 and into 1875, before being back in Worcestershire in 1876 and then down to Portsmouth before travelling back up the country to be in Shropshire and Warwickshire before the end of the year, and then back in Shropshire, Denbighshire and Montgomeryshire in 1877, down to Cardiff in 1878 and back to Worcestershire then toured around Monmouthshire and Cardiff again in 1879 and 1880. He and Maria had three more children, Mary Ann Amelia born in 1871 in Birmingham, Lucy born in 1875 in Aston, Warwickshire and Florence born 1876 also in Aston. Nelson’s occupation for Mary’s birth was Antimacassar Maker – something to put over furniture to keep it clean. For the births of Lucy and Florence he is a Methodist Preacher/Minister.

One of his visits during that period, in Llangollen, Denbighshire, shows how keen audiences there were to hear what he had to say.

Llangollen Advertiser Denbighshire Merionethshire & North Wales Journal – 24 August 1877

Llangollen – Special Services at Trevor – On Sunday, August 12th, the Primitive Methodists held special services in a tent, on a field (kindly lent by Mr. Edwards and Mr. Davies for the occasion) near Trevor Station, when three excellent sermons were preached, those in the morning and evening by that popular coloured preacher, Mr. N. Countee, Fugitive Slave of South America, and that in the afternoon by the Rev. J. H. Hughes, Cefn. The attendance in the morning and afternoon was good, but the evening assembly far outnumbered the expectations of the most sanguine. So great was the desire to hear the black man, that long before the appointed time for commencing, hundreds were unable to obtain admission, and the cry was “still they come,” consequently the service had to be conducted in the open air, when about 3,000 joined the devotional exercise. The proceeds far exceeded the expectations of the society, and when the service was concluded, Mr. George Edwards, Trevor House, sent a donation of a sovereign. On Monday and Tuesday evenings, Mr. Countee gave his popular lectures to crowded audiences, on “Slavery as it was, and his escape and sufferings,” after which votes of thanks were given to the lecturer and chairman, and for the use of the field.

In many of the newspaper accounts of his lectures there are mentions of there being large audiences, often unable to find standing room. Sometimes they were the largest congregations the chapels had seen, and often brought good donations for their local chapels. It seems that when Nelson had decided to remain in England, the fund raising went more towards churches at home, rather than back in Canada. We also see from the reports that not only did Nelson give these lectures on his account of his slavery and escape, but he also sang songs he had composed himself, the first of which mentioned was called “Down Upon the Mobile Bay” – described as being about “his escape from bondage, in answer to the prayer of his poor old mother.” Then others – “The Fugitive at Home”, “The Son’s Lament” and “The Teetotallers are Coming.” He mostly lectured at Primitive Methodist Chapels or Wesleyan Chapels, and gave talks for Temperance Associations as had become a teetotaller at some point in the 1830s and often talked of alcohol addiction being akin to slavery. In the late 1870s and early 1880s he also sang songs with his daughter Louisa and his son Charles played the piano. Despite the often sombre tone to his lectures, Nelson was said to have been humorous and “…amused his hearers very much with his racy American humour.

In 1881 Maria and the children were all together at 34 Steward Street, Aston where she was occupied with “Housework” while Charles was an Office Boy and the girls were all at school. Nelson was a visitor in the house of a Thomas Sharpe at 9 Clarence Place, Westbury-upon-Trym near Bristol, Gloucestershire. He was an Evangelist (Missionary). Presumably he was on his travels lecturing. In February and June that year he did lectures in Ebbw Vale about 50 miles from there.

In 1883 in lectured in Blaenavon, then in 1885 travelled all the way up to the Scottish Borders to lecture in Eyemouth, before heading back to Leicestershire. Nelson then passed away on 1st May 1886 in Aylestone, Leicestershire. His occupation was given as Evangelist and aged 53 – he would have actually been around 72. He died of Cystitis (bladder infection) although the second part of his cause of death is hard to make out – it looks like Keltonite but that isn’t really a word! (Answers on a postcard!)

Nelson’s death certificate (courtesy of Allan Countee)

Hughenden Drive, Leicester from Google.

In 1891 Maria was living with her daughters in Lutterworth Road, Aylestone. She was noted as being a Bible Woman for her occupation. Perhaps she had taken up preaching after Nelson’s death to continue spreading the word? I haven’t found any mention of her giving lectures though. In 1901 Maria was at 23 Shenton Street, Leicester with her daughters Lucy and Florence and with a granddaughter and a boarder Joseph Perkins. In 1911 she was with her married daughter Florence Bott at 29 Morley Road, Leicester. She lived a long life and eventually died in 1922 at 48 Mornington Street, Leicester of Cholecystitis (inflammation of the gall bladder) aged 77.

Maria Countee nee Pease – photograph courtesy of Allan Countee

One wonders what kind of prejudice Nelson and Maria had to deal with, a black man and a white woman marrying in the 1860s so soon after the US Civil War and emancipation. One article from the Monmouthshire Merlin dated 28 May 1880 ended with an interesting comment. “He has married an English woman and he seemed to be proud of it.” An earlier article from the Abergavenny Chronicle dated 21st May 1880 included this statement, “He had since come to England, where he intended to stop, for he had married a white woman, and if he went back to his native place they would murder him. He couldn’t see why this should be so; but it was.

It was interesting and moving to read the various accounts of his lectures. Some were brief notices about the subject of his lecture, the size of the congregation, while others were more detailed and emotive.  From the same article in the Abergavenny Chronicle there was this piece – “His grandmother was brought over from Africa. He was the youngest of a family of 14 children; and if he couldn’t claim to be a full brother to the gentlemen present, perhaps he might be a second cousin to the ladies. (Laughter). It was no disgrace to be black, but it was very inconvenient (Laughter). He had felt that inconvenience. It was thought by the Anglo-Saxon race, that negroes had no intellectual powers. He must deny that. The hated slavery was the cause of their present state. Slavery was demoralising. It had locked up the minds of the slaves, and let any nation be subjected to the treatment the poor negro had received, and they would fall into a similar state of ignorance.

From the London City Press 3rd March 1866 – “…after which Mr. Walton, the chairman, briefly addressed the meeting. He endeavoured to show that the minds and hearts of white and black men were very much alike, and that morally and intellectually there was neither a distinction nor a difference between the two races.

At times he talked about the history of slavery this from the Liverpool Mercury dated 23rd September 1864  – “He glanced at the history of slavery, stating that it had existed on the American continent 247 years. The first 20 slaves were landed at Jamestown, on the James River, in a German vessel, Jamestown then being under the Spanish flag. He enlarged on the wrongs and privations of slaves, and expressed his conviction that slavery was dying, if not dead. Prejudice was strong against the coloured man, but put any race for 240 years in bondage and they would become of necessity inferior. Slavery was the cause of the coloured man being hated. He wanted fair play for his people, and then they would prove themselves of worth. In the first American war the first man who fell in Boston was a coloured man, and they rolled him up in the United States flag and buried him with all the honours of war. He was thankful that the fugitive slave law ever passed, for it roused a large number of people into hearty sympathy for the oppressed.

One lecture he gave in Warwick in 1867 was reported on in the Warwickshire Advertiser on 12th Oct 1867 – was titled “The condition of the negro race for the last 360 years.” – “The lecturer gave an account of the first introduction of slavery into America by the Spaniards, and said it continued to increase year by year until the late American war. He gave a picture of the horrors of slavery and the deplorable condition to which the Negroes were reduced. Although slavery was now abolished, there were still many of the Negroes in a very wretched state and requiring assistance at the hands of Christian philanthropists.

He also often brought with him examples of yokes worn by slaves, one with four long prongs which prevented the slave from lying down without choking, and therefore would be forced to sleep standing up, and another with bells on, so you knew where they were at all times. He told horrifying accounts of the things he had seen. This from the Oxford Times dated 5th December 1868 – “He spoke at some length upon the progress of freedom and upon the war policy of the Northern United States in confiscating Southern property, thereby emancipating the slaves. The lecturer said he had seen a child torn away from its mother by a man who had bought it. The slave dealers could not agree about the price so he was stripped naked, put into scales and weighed and sold at so much a pound. The purchaser was taking it away with him on horseback when its fond mother caught hold of its leg and between the two the child was at last torn in pieces and the mother was then beaten until she lay dead upon the auction block.

The barbaric type of yoke Nelson would have demonstrated

His lecture titles were: “The condition of the African race”, “Slavery as it was”, “My Escape from Slavery”/ “Slavery as it was; my escape and sufferings”. He talked about the aristocracy within slavery, how if you worked as a house servant you were better than those out in the field in the plantation, although he noted it was a foolish notion. He also talked of the informal marriages between slaves, and about the immorality of the fact that most slave traders professed Christianity, like his owners Mr. & Mrs. Cordell who went to church every Sunday, and yet their treatment of their fellow man was very un-Christian. How much evil is often explained away or condoned under the devise of religion? It never changes.

Here are two maps of all the locations we know Nelson was during his life in America and England. (Click on them for the detail!)

But what of his wife Sophia? Had she died before his marriage to Maria as he had stated he was a widower in 1865? No, she hadn’t. I’ve not been able to find her in the 1870 US Census or 1871 Canadian Census but I did find her in the 1880 US Census with her married son Robert Nelson Countee in Memphis, Tennessee.

I found a record for Robert Nelson Countee under the Freedmen Bank Records for Memphis, when he was 24 in 1871 – he was a school teacher and he gives his father as being dead. It states his siblings were still living in Lockport at the time. I then found a marriage licence for him and his wife Melissa Thompson – granted 30th Dec 1871 and they married on 3rd Jan 1872.

By 1880 he was a Minister of Gospel,  with him were Melissa and a son Henry. Also there was his brother S. L. Countee and a 17 year old sister Dora. He and his siblings and mother were all noted as being “mulatto” – meaning that they had a white ancestor – usually meant to refer to one white parent and one black parent.

I found that S. L. Countee was really called Stephen and that both he and Robert had come to Memphis as teachers. Stephen married on 12 Jul 1882 in Shelby to a Miss Laura Poindexter. They didn’t have any children – Laura had an illegitimate daughter several years before he came to Memphis. He died in 1888 of Consumption (TB), Laura outlived him by many years – dying in 1931.

Dora – I believe her age is incorrect and I think she may be the daughter down in the 1861 Census as P. A. Countee. (Maybe the P is meant to be a D for Dora?) Her actual name was Medora, sadly she died in Shelby, on 28th July 1883 aged 21 years, 9m and 5d. She also died of Consumption,  and had lived in the area for 10 years. Sophia died in Shelby on 7th Nov 1887 aged 66 of Heart Disease, her death record stated that she had lived in the area for 8 years.

Robert  came under attack in August 1885 by locals after having threatened to expose the ways of the local Freemasons, Odd Fellows and Immaculates – secret societies. A group of masked men descended on his home and opened fire, he managed to escape and hid under a bridge, but then a month later an attempt was made again on his life when an unknown assailant opened fire with a shotgun while Robert was walking home from church with his brother Stephen and other members of the congregation. Robert had buckshot in the back of his head and through his chin, but neither were life threatening, however Stephen was shot in the back and through the mouth and was much worse off. However he did appear to have pulled through, only to pass away in 1888. You might expect their attackers to be white, but they were black, angry that one of their “brothers” had tried to expose their society’s secrets.

Centralia Sentinel 22 October 1885

The 1890 US census was destroyed so the next one Robert was on is the 1900 where he was in Kansas City, Jackson, Missouri with his married son Charles Henry b. 1874 – his wife Rebecca and their son Lorenzo aged 3. Charles was an Undertaker. Robert at this point was also an Undertaker and there with his wife Melissa. This census asked about children born to the mothers – how many were born and how many were still alive. Charles Henry and Rebecca just had the one at that point – Lorenzo, Robert and Melissa are listed as having had 6 but only 2 living. They were Charles Henry, Arthur died in 1877 aged 9m of teething, Dranard – died in 1878 aged 3m of Yellow Fever, Walter (died young not found a record for this), William Vivian and Robert E – died 1884 aged 8 days of Marasmus (under-nourishment).

Robert died in 1909 in Pasadena, California – this rather distinguished photograph of him  is from the Findagrave entry for him – http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=110606445&ref=acom

From Findagrave

Nelson’s eldest son William Henry Francis – known just as William Francis lived in Saginaw, Michigan in 1870 with his wife Mary. He was a Whitewasher.  In 1880 they were in East Saginaw and he was a Clothes Washer. They remained in Saginaw for the rest of their lives, in 1900 and 1910 he was then a Janitor in a Bank. They never had any children. He died in Saginaw in 1912.

I do not know what became of Minerva/J. E. Countee – she may have died young or married between censuses.

It makes me wonder what Nelson told his wife Maria about his life back home, did she know about Sophia and his other children? Did he ever write home or send money for a time and then once he and Maria had met and married did that stop? Had he somehow sent back fake news of his death or just simply left Sophia to her own conclusions? I presume the latter. I feel for Sophia, perhaps she too had been an escapee slave, had lived a tumultuous life, settled down somewhere with a good Christian man and started a family. I imagine she was pleased about his plans to tour with his lectures and sending much needed funds back home, for her and the children and their friends and their church. Then to be left waiting, wondering, with children to feed and educate, bills to pay. It seems harsh that someone so religious and fervent in their beliefs to treat people fairly and equally, would dessert their wife and children. We will never know what really went on.

I at least hope that the message he spread touched the hearts and minds of the people he met. Those crowded chapels and at times, fields, full of people eager to hear what he had to say. White people whose lives knew nothing of abduction from your homeland, sold to rich people, forced to toil and be tortured, your children born into slavery, taken away from your breast and sold to the highest bidder. To be flogged till you pass out or worse, by white men carrying Bibles and professing it is the Lord’s work. I hope they saw how privileged they were and that treating others badly who look different to them, is inherently wrong. That even if you were free – you were never really free, the sanctions imposed on ex-slaves were so restrictive, some not allowed to remain in the same state they were born in, not allowed to vote, segregation every where you went to name but a few. To think that slavery was abolished in the 1800s and yet today black people (and those of other ethnic backgrounds) are still treated like they are not human beings by other people. White privilege continues, and those of us who bury our heads in the sand, or offer paltry mutterings of not being racist, do not understand how much goes on because of it, things that may seem almost imperceptible, but there nonetheless, because they have become ingrained in our society. Prejudice such as screening out job applicants because their names sound “black” or “Asian” etc.  I cannot get my head around the fact that people can still be white supremacists, Neo-Nazis or other such vile groups of racists. I’ve seen people call for a genocide, to rid places of people of other backgrounds. It sickens me, chills me to the core. We are all human beings, no different to each other deep down, it doesn’t matter who our god is, what food we eat, what country we live in, who we love.

I hope that Nelson’s words made a difference to some people, his experiences and his passionate voice. I hope that those people made sure their children thought differently and acted differently. No one is born racist, we are taught that – and people can and should be re-educated.

I have written this article using a combination of sources, newspapers from Findmypast, census information on Ancestry, BMD information from Ancestry and other sources such as  http://register.shelby.tn.us/index.php and with information from email conversations with Allan Countee – Nelson’s 2x great grandson, including the wonderful photograph of Maria. We are very interested in finding out more about Nelson. We know there was a Sally Countee living in Leesburg in 1840 – a freed slave, she died in 1847. She was also known by the surname Shafer. She had several children, Amanda Elizabeth (married George Redman), George and Mason. I think that she might have been an older sister of Nelson’s, seeing as he said he was the youngest of 14, but have no proof of this at the moment. Anyone with any information or tips or pointers that might help, please do get in touch!

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