My Family Story: The Complicated Life of Alice Jenkins (1873-1898)

Content Note: slavery, white privilege, sexism

One of the few family history things that I knew growing up was that my great-grandmother, Harriet Hackney, was from rural Tennessee. She died before I was born so I didn’t know her personally, just through stories that my mother shared with me about her ‘Nana.’ The general impression was that she grew up poor and ‘married up’ to my great-grandfather. My impression overall was that she was kind to my mother, snobby to my grandmother, and a controlling woman. She was the only known Southern born relative.

That would prove to be a gross simplification for one of the most complicated, difficult, and far-reaching family stories in my tree. This is a really lengthy post.

Harriet’s mother, Alice Jenkins Hackney (1873-1898), is the focus of this edition of the series about my 2x great grandmothers. Her brief life of 25 years tied the modern incarnation of my family to the vast legacy of pre-Civil War America, stretching far back to the earliest days of colonizing. And she tied our family to the brutal legacy of slavery, specifically to direct ancestors who enslaved human beings.

This legacy is inseparable from my family story. However, I realize that I cannot cover all of it in a blog post. Alice’s story is just as much a part of the fabric of immigrant America as the other 2x great grandmas even though most of her ancestors were here long before 1700. Some of those were among the founding fathers, others were sent here by penal ships for crimes like ‘bastardy’ but collectively, they moved to the Southern colonies and states to forge lives on the backs of people already living here (Native Americans) and those brought here as slaves. It is not as simple as saying that Ancestor X was a slaveowner and the others were poor farmers with allegiance to the Union. I can’t pluck Alice out of the context of all of these stories to create a narrative that makes me comfortable.

It is also important to understand some of the geography. These regions of Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee are all part of the Appalachian Mountains. Most of these ancestors were English and Scots or Scots Irish (something I wrote about in more detail last month.)  Because I’m tracking such a large number of people, I see migration patterns of people moving back and forth across the state lines, but within a geographic region over a 200+ year period. That also holds true for Southwestern PA which was part of Virginia at some point. Alice’s life was centered around what’s known as Old Butler City, Tennessee.

The Facts of Alice Jenkin’s Life Story

Alice was born in 1873 to Andrew Jenkins (1844-1920) and Sarah Jennie Austin (1854-1904). Andrew Jenkins was also born and raised in Johnson City, TN then moved to North Carolina and then moved back to TN, then finally settling in Kentucky where he died. Andrew fought for the Union in the Civil War. He fathered 10 children, 9 of whom lived to adulthood. He was a farmer, but did not seem to own his land.

Alice’s mother was Sarah Jennie Austin (1854- 1904) who grew up in North Carolina. She had siblings. At age 20, she married Andrew and they moved to Tennessee. They had ten children. Sarah’s life has been difficult to pinpoint beyond these facts, in part because of another Sarah Austin daughter of another Samuel Austin living nearby. It seems that both Andrew and Sarah grew up in rural working families.

Alice was the 2nd oldest of 9 children. At age 18, we know she married George Washington Hackney, a native of Russellton Virginia. They had five children together. Based on the information I have, it appears that the two eldest girls were born before the marriage, including my 1x great-grandmother. That seems odd for the time period.

For some unknown reason, between 1893 and 1896, George and Alice moved to Santa Clara, California. They returned home in 1898 because of Alice’s failing health, per an article in the local newspaper. She died in December 1898 at the age of 25 of consumption.

Watauga Democrat
December 1898

George stayed in Neva, Tennessee with his children and remarried in 1901. The oldest daughters went to live with their paternal grandmother, Sarah Baird Hackney (1840-1919) whom was also a descendant of decades of slave owners and colonizers of all stripes.

Harriet married my great-grandfather, Marion Wilbor Pryor, in 1906 at age 17. The remained in the area for a few years. Eldest daughter, Thelma, was born in 1907, followed by an unnamed son in 1908 who appears to have in childbirth or soon after. Their family relocated to Warren, South Carolina where they had Doris (1910), William (1912), and James Vincent (1914.) By 1920, they were in Vermont where their final child Howard (1921) was born. They moved to Connecticut in the early 20s and then to Bluefield, West Virginia in the 1930s. In the early 50’s, they moved back to Connecticut, vacationing in Florida here my 2x great-grandfather died.

These moves were driven by MW’s career working for the William C. Ritter Lumber Company. Ritter was his uncle (my 3x great-uncle) and a literal self-made millionaire. Harriet’s family worked in local lumber mills so it is likely how they met when he was assigned to the region at the turn of the century.

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Hattie went from an orphaned farm girl in rural Tennessee to an affluent upper-middle class socialite in the Northeast. This is one of those stories that no one really knew, or perhaps no one shared with me and my brother. I found a myriad of society listings in West Virginia newspapers about her social activities as the wife of the President of a powerful company.

Her younger sister, Anna Beatrice (1890-1928) also married at age 17 to a local farmer. They had four children. There is some conflicting data as to when Anna died from Tuberculosis.

Clara Vernon (1892-1983) also married at age 17 to Thomas Williams. He was altnerately a barber, book agent, and missionary until his death in 1957. They lived in Kingsport, Tenneesee and had four children.

Lonnie Lee Hackney (1893-?) disappears from the record after the 1900 US Census. Her name recently popped up in some DNA reports so I don’t think I’ve seen the end of her story.

Ralph E. Hackney (1896-1915) was the youngest of Alice’s children (her husband had two more children with his second wife.) At age 16, he was living with his father and stepmother and working doing day labor. Five years later, he was buried.

The list goes on and on, except where it doesn’t. If my math is right, Alice has 32 ancestors I should be tracking. And most of them arrived a long time ago.

I learned that in 1935 Hattie and her young family returned to Johnson County for a visit. Also in 1935, her niece Joyce visited the family. But Joyce wasn’t actually her niece – she was her cousin. Joyce’s father Thomas the much younger brother of George Hackney and raised with Hattie on her grandmother’s farm. I suspect Joyce is the person referenced in Hattie’s obituary as her sister, but I can’t confirm that. I do know that my mother’s side of the family has a field day blurring actual family relations where cousins become aunts and aunts become sisters and so forth. What matters to me is that my great-grandmother had someone from her childhood still in her adult life.

Hattie and MW had money, money earned from his work in the lumber industry and on the backs of her family working in the sawmills and selling their land. Money enough to send their children to prestigious schools like Dartmouth and ‘to summer’ in Florida. Money to buy antiques (I have one chair from a set of four that is completely useless.) Not millions like his uncle, but definitely more than most people earn, then or now.

The Legacy of White Privilege and Alice Jenkins

The takeaway for me from the life of Grandma Alice is how white privilege works. These sturdy Southern mountain folks who descended from slaveowners did not have a lot to call their own at this time frame. They had land, they had their health, and they had opportunity as the inheritors of the legacy of white America. In one generation, Alice’s grandsons were at an Ivy League college. In three generations, her 2x great-grandson was a graduate of one Ivy League and teaching at another. While we are not immune to tragedies, her 2x great-grandchildren as a rule are living much better quality of lives than Grandma Alice could have imagined.

It is the quintessential American story combining boot straps, upward mobility, higher education, reinvention, etc.  All of those things are simultaneously true and not true because none of them were possible without slavery. The economy built on the back of enslaved human beings paved the way for Florida vacations, Ivy League educations, and, well, for me to have this life. While not in a direct line, the impact of anti-Blackness and white privilege are clear to me.

DNA results have introduced me to hundreds of possible 4-6x cousins in this lineage, including at least four LGBTQ people who I actually know who live here in Pittsburgh – again, another blog post for another time. But you won’t be surprised that among these cousins I find lots of people who do not acknowledge white privilege and/or proudly support President Trump. Sigh.

So let me explain how it has worked.

Alice’s grandson, James Vincent Pryor, was my grandfather. He lived in Bethel Park and hired a Black woman as the housekeeper and caretaker for his four children. It isn’t lost on me that Alice’s grandfathers and extended family owned slaves and her grandson was part of the era that hired Black domestic workers. That’s not a coincidence. It isn’t lost on me that even though I perceived my mother and I had a loving, reciprocal relationship with Mrs. Della Green Saunders, whom I called Grandma Della, there is simply no way to know that now that she has passed and the truth is interwoved into the larger oppression of domestic workers and Black women, in particular, during that time period.

It is a legacy that I’ve struggled to incorporate into this series. When was the right time? What are the right words? What can I do beyond hold up the truth for examination and scrutiny? This is my story and my legacy and my foundation. I don’t get points for pointing out that the Emperor is wearing new clothes. That’s the challenge, after all,  – to resist the erasure even hundreds of years later, to see the ties that bind my life now as a middle-class white woman living in American with the experiences of my ancestors in 1860 and 1880 and 1900.

Alice Jenkins herself did not do these things. She was poor, she died very young. Her life is almost lost to the ages for the lack of documentation. But there’s plenty of documentation about her ancestors.

I am not delving into the specifics of the human beings owner by my ancestors in this post. I’m working with the advice of experts on how best to make that information accessible to others searching for their own family stories – stories that details like my ancestors’ surnames, location, and financial documentation can help reveal. I will return to that specific topic and those lives in a future post.

The Ancestors of Alice Jenkins

Here’s a little overview of Grandma Alice’s family in the Americas.

The Jenkins family arrived in America around 1648 when John Jenkins landed in Virginia after departing England. He eventually moved to the Carolina province (of England). Jenkins was my 10x great-grandfather.

Nicholas Woodbury (Woodby/Wigby) was born in 1617 in England. He arrived to Massachusetts and lived out his life there, dying in 1686. Woodbury was also my 10x great-grandfather. The family left Massachusetts and headed south to Tennessee where they remained for hundreds of years.

Levin Denwood was born in 1602 in England, arrived in Maryland in 1664. Also a 10x great-grandfather whose lineage I can find back to about 1515 so far. They moved into Tennessee.

James Hutchinson born in 1614 in Northern Ireland, arrived in Virginia in 1637.  10x great grandfather. His descendants also moved in Tennessee.

I can’t list all of the 10x great grandparents because there are techinically 256 of them biologically tied to Alice Jenkins, not including adoptive and step-parents. But I do want to mention them to capture the enormity of this family’s participation in the colonization of this land and the creation of American culture. My relatives through Alice Jenkins and others spread across this land.

The people we describe as ‘poor whites’ and ‘hillbillies’ from Appalachian were not far removed from slavery. They are culpable for this legacy of anti-Blackness, too.  I say that fully aware that my 3x great uncle, W.C. Ritter, who was a Pennsylvania farmer with firm Northern roots came to strip these Southern states of their lumber, coal, clean water, and their health. It is a complicated family history where oppressors and the oppressed join forces, and another example of how white privilege snarled its tendrils through the early 20th century. That’s also another post for another time – my families’ contributions to climate change.

But say what I will about the harsh, brutal realities for working poor white folks during Reconstruction and the early 20th century in these regions, there is no mistaking the trajectory of white privilege. We can deny it, we can enmesh ourselves in the way our individual family members experience oppression, we can bitterly reflect on how we just missed the brass ring into the 1%. But all of those reactions are grounded in ignorance, fear, and bigotry.

Denial, fear, and ignorance are not a great inheritance.

I have no idea if Alice Jenkins Hackney was happy or content in her life.  I have no photos, no mementos, very few news clippings. Bearing two children before marrying their father, traveling across the country from Tennessee to California and back in the 1880s, dying at age 25 from a wasting disease sounds pretty terrible. Her access to white privilege is undeniable though as is demonstrated by the fact that her life, including her name, was deemed worth recording in documents. She wasn’t a full citizen, but she wasn’t property.

Alice deserves a better legacy. Her story is not unique – so many other young women of this period struggled for survival, much less a legacy. She deserved better than being reduced to 4 pieces of paper. She deserves to be known as a real person with a whole life. A person whose whole life was part of this legacy of slavery. We can see her as a unique, individual person who experienced oppression and had very little personal power to change the dynamic. We can explore our own lives within the framework of our own ancestral Alice Jenkins by talking about their whole lived experiences.

Rest in power, Grandma Alice. 25 years is not a very long time to walk in this world. We will do our best to ensure your name is not forgotten.

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