On Thursday night Brian and I presented some of our work to All Together, a community group in Williamsburg, Virginia, that aims to bring people together across racial lines in a place where black-white relations sag under the weight of a centuries-long history of oppression, dispossession, and silence. At the end of the front row sat an African American woman we had not yet met but who in a few short days has opened up a world of information and possibilities. Her name is Quo Vadis Wright, and she was born in Williamsburg in 1935 to James Williams Sr. and Virgie Webb. When we first met, she rattled off a handful of Palmer family connections, which only seemed more amazing when we got back to Richmond that night and I opened up our Ancestry.com family tree, which I've been working on for years. Sure enough, Mrs. Wright's late husband, John Pettis Wright, was the grandson of Lizzie Palmer Bowman, one of Mat and Julia Palmer's 12 children. (Mat and Julia were Brian's great-grandparents, both born into slavery in Virginia.) We still do not know very much about Lizzie, who died in 1940, and we don't know whether any photos of her exist. But there in Mrs. Wright's abundant photo albums—we visited her the morning after our presentation, right before she turned over her collection to William and Mary's Swem Library—was a beautiful photograph of another Palmer sister, Louise Maria Palmer Pierce (known as Maria, with a long "i"), who was born in York County in 1882 and died in 1967. There was also a photo of Maria's husband, Fleming Pierce. in 1935, Mrs. Wright's uncle, Clarence Webb, had married Louise V. Pierce, one of Maria and Fleming's daughters.
Now, we've been looking for Palmer family photographs—especially those of what historian Robert Engs called "Freedom's First Generation," the children of Mat and Julia Palmer—for going on four years. A very few photos of Lewis Palmer, Brian's grandfather, exist, and we have one good one of another sister, Essie (pictured with her niece and Mrs. Wright's mother-in-law, Elsie Wright). We have a few snapshots of two of the other siblings, John Frank and Sallie, later in life, since they both lived into the 1980s. That we have a photograph of Mat Palmer himself still seems nothing short of miraculous.
But his wife, Julia, and the rest of their children remain sealed off to us in a largely unrecorded past. The few people we know who knew some of the children have only the haziest memories—they can't share the kinds of stories that would give us an inkling of who they were. Amazingly, however, Mrs. Wright remembers Maria, whom she used to visit "in the country" with Louise, her uncle's wife. Maria was always in a wheelchair—rumor was, she'd been bitten by a spider that had crept into her shoe in the outhouse. Maria was, Mrs. Wright says, a big woman. "All these women were big black women." Her husband, Fleming, had these "delicate feet" and "acted like he adored Maria," who apparently had pretty teeth.
These may seem like insignificant details, but they are precisely the kind that give texture to individual lives. And the photo itself, of course, makes real the way nothing else can the fact of Maria's existence. Even if we learn nothing else about her, she stands here, strong, dignified, faintly smiling, with the country—Palmer land—spreading out behind her. —EHP