AUTHOR: Beverly Levi-Parker (edited by Cheri Todd Molter)
I’ve been chasing my Western North Carolina ancestors for over 40 years, and thankfully, I’ve “met” most of them. I know stories of some of their hardships and their victories. I know most of their descendants down to my generation. Each one is as real and dear to me as any living family member. But the ancestors I’ve never been able to chase back before the mid-19th century are my great-grandmother Harriet Nelson’s family. From long-time written and oral history, good circumstantial evidence points to them being of mixed race. My grandmother, my mother, and my aunts said they were elusive and moved from place to place at least once every year.
My grandmother, Mary Fore, was the daughter of Harriet Nelson and John Fore. Mary married my grandfather, Brosky Holbert. Several times, Aunt Lois told me a story about something that happened before her mom, Mary, married Brosky. Grandaddy Holbert’s early family was one of the few families in the area who had been wealthy land and slave owners. When he married my grandmother, his family was adamantly against it. They told him, “If you marry her, you’ll have black babies.” But, when my Aunt Lois was born, Grandaddy introduced her to his family, and they fell in love with her. And, it didn’t take long for them to fall in love with my grandmother.
My Aunt Lois, who would be well over 100 years old now, wrote, “The Nelsons were dark. Granny [Harriet] had beautiful mahogany-colored skin and long, thick, dark hair. I thought she was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. She would take my little hand in hers, and say, ‘Look at that pretty little white hand next to my old dark skin.’” Aunt Lois went on to write, “My daddy’s family was fun and loud and boisterous. There was always something exciting going on. But I loved spending time with Granny because it was soft and quiet there. There was so much gentleness and love in their home.”
During the Civil War, the Confederate conscriptors traveled around looking for men who refused to fight for the Confederacy. The Nelson men hid out and were among those who refused to fight. One of them was shot and killed while hiding in a pile of hay. When the conscriptors came to my great-great-grandmother Ellen Nelson’s home and demanded she that tell them where her husband was, she stubbornly refused. When they kept insisting, she lifted up her skirt and said, “You want to look up me shimmy tail and see if you can find him?” My great-great-grandparents, Ellen and Greenberry Nelson had 8 children: 5 boys and 3 girls. [Harriet Nelson Fore was one of their daughters.] They named the boys after noted Union officers and generals. I’ve often wondered if their loyalty to the Union might have had a little to do with the fact that they were of mixed race.
My aunt told me many great stories about Granny Harriet, but her sweetest memory must have been that it was soft, it was quiet, and there was so much love in her home. That’s exactly how it was in my grandmother’s home.