I fidgeted with my phone and camera as I approached the entrance to the Rose Apartments. Cars snailed along the narrow lanes of Congress Street. The aging Greek Revival architecture of downtown York, South Carolina, seemed to intensify the quiet. (I’d lived so long in Brooklyn that I’d forgotten the eerie stillness of small towns.) I’d arrived a little early, so I sat on the stoop, then stood and looked out onto the street, and before long I realized how suspiciously awkward the repetition of my movements must have seemed. Finally, a man approached from across Congress and at once I knew it was Spenser. He was as polished as I’d imagined, and before he even spoke I knew his accent would share some variation of those long Texas r’s I had grown homesick for.
“Hi,” he said, and we shifted from a clumsy handshake to something like a hug.
“It’s nice to finally meet you, Spenser,” I said.
On that muggy day in July 2018, it had been two years since Spenser had first emailed me, wanting to connect after reading an essay I’d published, one that revealed our shared family history. My third-great-grandfather, June Moore, had married a woman named Adeline Simril, who, according to Spenser, was once owned by his third-great-grandfather, H. H. Simril. Spenser’s email referred to June and Adeline as heroes of York. In 1871, after a brutal campaign by the local Ku Klux Klan to stop Blacks from voting, June and Adeline emigrated from York to a small Liberian town, helping lead an effort to repatriate their fellow Black South Carolinians in the years that followed. I was born in Liberia, a descendant of those formerly enslaved people who repatriated to the Continent after a dramatic sequence of events had finally caused them to flee the only home they’d ever known. Before Spenser’s note, my attempts at connecting with distant kin from South Carolina included everything from unanswered emails to historians like John Fabian Witt, whose book Patriots and Cosmopolitans makes mention of June Moore and the KKK campaign, to cold calling York County residents who shared my surname. This stranger’s email would bring me closer than I had ever been to resolving my family’s link to America before our immigration in 1991. My interest was piqued.
When Spenser first reached out to me, I was deeply entrenched in researching African American emigration to Liberia for my novel, which reimagines the founding of the tiny West African country. In those days, I welcomed just about any and all inquiries that helped me deepen my understanding of the people who made that three-month journey to the grain coast for freedom. Like our ancestors, my own family was forced to escape our home. Shortly after the Liberian civil war began, in late 1989, my father, sisters, and I fled Monrovia for New York, where my mother was obtaining her master’s degree in education on a Fulbright. The six of us crammed into her tiny dorm room with no more than a small suitcase between us, filled with the only things my father was able to salvage, and we lived there until she finished her studies that summer.
Over the next few years, we moved from state to state, living with family. My two younger brothers were born in New York and Tennessee. In Liberia, my father had been an engineer who managed part of the government-operated water-and-sewer agency, but in the States, he started off on assembly lines, worked newspaper deliveries, and even spent a few months as a bowling-alley technician while he finished various higher-ed programs that would qualify him to put his experience to use. Eventually, he became a manager at a land-surveying company; my mother, in the meantime, had become an assistant principal of a school in Houston’s fifth ward, near the city’s northern suburbs, where we eventually settled.
By the time I went to college, when people asked where I was from, I would just say Texas. But the truth is, in the same way that I never felt fully African, I never felt fully African American. My parents didn’t march in the Civil Rights protests or lecture us as children about police brutality. Once, as a teenager, when I was stopped by the police for speeding, I remember talking back. The thought of it gives me chills today.
My parents had landed on the shores of what we saw as the world’s Emerald City, with a sense that they could achieve anything. And, in a way, they had: When we arrived here, we were homeless; a decade later, we owned a house. They had conveyed that sense of possibility to their children more than any sense of limitation.
But years later, in my twenties, the accumulation of small and large aggressions had given me a more finely tuned understanding of the insidious legacy of racism in America. Suddenly, the recollection of being called that word as a child was exposed as a standard and not an exception. Other pennies from the past dropped: in high school, the sound of footsteps following mine down a drugstore cosmetics aisle; a white classmate surprised by a high grade; white coworkers surprised by my academic pedigree or an excellent performance review; a professor suspicious of a short story (“How much of this is your work and how much should be credited to another source?”), the red ink of his skepticism permanently etched in my memory. The girl who sarcastically apologized after I told her I didn’t have a shorter version of my name. People touching my hair. The objectification—then appropriation—of culture. By the time I was writing my novel, I believed that if I was related to anyone outside of Liberia, they were the Black descendants of the formerly enslaved who remained in America, not the white descendants of slaveowners. My family would be those who shared my experience of that violent legacy in both implicit and blatant doses, those who knew what it felt like to be followed, to be underestimated, to feel unseen.
In his emails, Spenser’s manner was, initially, somewhat off-putting—unguardedly curious. He wanted to know where I lived and about the bookshop I had opened in Monrovia, one of just a few in the country, which I manage from my home in New York. He asked about the possibility of collaborating with my company, a boutique children’s-publishing outfit that I run out of my apartment. Would I be interested in working with him on a grant application that would help fund research into “our” family history? I turned down or deflected most of these requests. I didn’t have time, I explained—I was busy with my graduate studies, with teaching responsibilities, and planning a wedding. But he persisted, the emails kept coming, and I softened, especially after he told me about a trip he’d made to Liberia—to Arthington, the town where my ancestors had settled. And so I empathized with his interest in reconciling his own history and his family’s past. Eventually, after two years of writing back and forth, I accepted his invitation to meet him in York.
“Here it is,” he said, pointing at the apartments behind me. “Formerly the Rose Hotel. Where June Moore’s group testified against the KKK in 1871.” We gazed up at the building. I hadn’t looked at him much.
“We can find a café not too far away,” he said, amicably, “and we can go talk.” I was still hesitant, still a bit skeptical of it all. Here I was, strolling through a dark and finally uncovered history with a man who was not merely a historian, not merely a fellow researcher, but the descendant of the man who had once owned my family.
This is a portrait of America. It has no fixed face, but rather a shape that continues to transform and crystallize with time. For this reason, we all see a little of ourselves in its reflection. And for this reason, on some days we do not recognize it at all. When I met Spenser, I expected to feel angered by the thoughts of what his ancestors had done to mine. But there were no blues, no fervent rage. He looked like the boys I went to high school with in the suburbs of Houston—eager to smile, well-meaning, and somewhat oblivious of his overabundant, white, cisgender privilege. I am an African woman, born in Liberia, raised in the American South. I was sensitive to racism and how it functioned within America’s institutions. So when Spenser first wrote to me, I wasn’t ready to confront that aspect of my knotted history. Before my research helped me learn the shape of my father’s family tree, my understanding of my family’s history was limited to my mother’s indigenous Liberian Vai heritage. I always knew from my father about the fact that his side of the family had come from South Carolina, but somehow I had no interest in exploring it until my novel led me there. Around that same time, Black Lives Matter and other racial-justice movements came to a boil, and the veneer of “Black” as an identity, for me, could no longer hold. Who was I? And why did I and others in my racial category have to convince my new country of my body’s value—and that it also deserved peace?
When my father and uncles passed down stories of the Moore family to my siblings, my cousins and me, we heard of June Moore as an anomalous, dream-like relic. He was a Black man who was free before the Civil War, Daddy would explain at the beginnings of those rare stories that traced his lineage to a time before Liberia. He was literate. He was one of the leaders of the Black community in what was then known as Yorkville. As my research only goes as far back as the Civil War, I have no idea how he earned his freedom before the war. But we assume to know how June and Adeline met. At the time, she was still listed, alongside cupboards and tables, in an 1864 estate reckoning of H. H. Simril. (She was priced at around two thousand dollars.) It seems that June was somehow connected to the slaves at the Simril plantation before the war, though it’s unclear exactly how.
After the war, after June and Adeline were married, they and other Black Carolinians allied themselves with the Republican Party and began to vote with the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment. This dramatically shifted political power to potentially address the ongoing struggles of African Americans. As a result, the Ku Klux Klan commenced a devastating period of terrorism on Blacks in Yorkville. June and his uncle, a reverend named Elias Hill, who was said to have had polio, were repeatedly attacked by Klan members.
In 1871, a congressional committee finally traveled to the South to take the testimonies of victims and other witnesses in what became popularly known as the KKK hearings, later published as “Report of the Joint Select Committee to Inquire Into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States.” In the third volume of the South Carolina hearings, published in 1872, Elias Hill recalled the many nights he and others were terrorized—men beaten, women raped—with the intention of discouraging them from voting with the Republican Party. “They struck me again with their fists on my breast,” Hill testified, “and then they went on, ‘When did you hold a night-meeting of the Union League, and who were the officers? Who was the president?’” (What the Klan did to one of my ancestors, Harriet Simril, was deemed “too obscene” for the congressional committee to publish.) These hearings led President Ulysses S. Grant to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in nine counties in South Carolina, allowing federal troops to arrest hundreds of white men there.
Before attending the hearings, June was forced by the Yorkville KKK to publish a notice in the paper renouncing all republicanism. Thereafter, afraid for his life and the well-being of Adeline and his infant son, he would lead the family after supper into the woods near Allison Creek, where they slept every night—even in the rain—during the winter and spring of 1871 to avoid the Klan’s attacks on his home.
Hill, Moore, and nearly two hundred others responded to this overwhelming violence by fleeing it, seeking a better life in a far-off country that had become known among African Americans looking to escape the United States altogether. Just a quarter century old, Liberia had already successfully repatriated some fifteen thousand African Americans.
By that time, the settling of free Blacks in West Africa had been the subject of considerable debate. The effort itself dates back to 1816 and the formation of the American Colonization Society, whose mission was to help African Americans migrate to Africa as an alternative to living free in the US. Historical testimonies collected by the National Humanities Center reveal a wide range of attitudes toward the effort. Many African Americans were against the colonization of Liberia and repatriation, a position best articulated by a businessman and abolitionist named Thomas L. Jennings, who, in an 1828 address to the New York Society for Mutual Relief, expressed the free Black businessman’s anti-colonization sentiment: “Our claims are on America, it is the land that gave us birth; it is the land of our nativity, we know no other country, it is a land in which our fathers have suffered and toiled.” My ancestors had different sentiments.
It was through the American Colonization Society that Elias Hill and June Moore were able to lead their movement of families to Liberia. One hundred and twenty years later, in February 1991, my family returned to America, part of a larger wave of African immigrants. Between 1980 and 2018, the sub-Saharan African immigrant population in the United States increased from 130,000 to 2 million, roughly doubling each decade. The increase of that population in the US has made the categorization of “Black” more complex than many Americans realize. In the same way that African Americans can trace their ancestry to countries in Africa, as proven by the popularity of DNA tests, some African immigrants can trace their ancestry back to American slavery.
I took an interest in my family’s American history as a way to dissect my cross-cultural identity in the United States. And as I shared pieces of this story over the years, I found, as I did with Spenser, that it was not mine alone. Adeline’s name was among twenty-eight others recorded in the 1864 reckoning of Simril’s estate, some of whose descendants I would meet. Reading through that document, I imagined a young Adeline, newly freed from the Simril plantation after the war, now married to June and terrified as she hurried with her infant son, Wallace, into the woods. I wonder if she thought of what lives would become of hers, what dreams would be born from her leaving America’s eastern coast for a liberated life in Africa.
“We all do what we can. I’ve been trying to reconcile,” Spenser said. The two of us had finally made it to the café and were sitting at a small table, still stunned by each other’s presence, barely drinking at all. After H. H. Simril’s death, his land was divided up among his children, while his former slaves worked as farmers beginning new lives as freed men and women. (The Scotch-Irish Simrils added a second l to their names, in what Spenser speculates may have been a move to distinguish themselves from the African American single-l Simrils.) In 2014, Spenser organized the first Simril-Simrill family reunion between descendants of the slaveowner and the descendants of those he had owned. “We call each other cousin,” Spenser said, explaining a desire from both sides for truth and reconciliation.
“Were there any efforts back then during Reconstruction to give some land to the slaves Simril had owned? Adeline and others?” I asked.
“Why would they?” he answered abruptly. “Honestly, why would they? These were white supremacists.” As part of his path to reconciliation, Spenser had begun an application for a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to tell the stories of those involved in the KKK hearings and the emigration that followed. It was endearing to see someone so earnest try to immortalize the stories of those who had suffered at the hands of the Yorkville KKK. But I reminded him that Liberians had been telling their own stories for a very long time. That African Americans have been telling their own stories for a very long time. Perhaps in some ways, the best route toward reconciliation for those negotiating guilt is to relinquish agency, to let those whom history has made voiceless finally have their time.
“Someone is joining us,” Spenser said, lowering his coffee, placing it carefully near a stack of paperwork he had brought with him, documents that further contextualized his research and grant proposal. “Michael,” he said with a knowing smile.
“Who is Michael—the researcher?” I asked, assuming he meant a local historian he’d put me in touch with before my trip.
“You’ll see,” Spenser answered.
A short while later, the door of the café opened behind me. Spenser looked up, over my shoulder, and his face was overcome with a smile. “Michael!” he yelled, waving. I turned to see an African American man around my height approach us. He had long dreadlocks, wore wire-rimmed glasses and a T-shirt with African-inspired patterns.
“This is Michael Simril,” Spenser said. “He’s a descendant of the others on the estate listing. Likely Adeline’s brother, Sam.”
Before he could finish, I grabbed hold of the stranger in front of me and hugged him, squeezed until I cried. If I had seen Michael in passing, in the street or across a room, I would never have known that our ancestors were in bondage together, that they sat in church balconies side by side praying for their freedom, in the pews they were forced to build, and had to face one another and make that fateful choice in the fall of 1871 of whether to make a home on a distant shore or take their chances here in America. Adeline left. Her brother Sam did not. Five generations later, an ocean apart, after Jim Crow and black codes and civil rights, after the looming threat of colonialism beyond Liberia’s borders, a military coup and her own civil war, a war that would lead my family back to America, Michael and I had found each other, and through us, our ancestors once again stood face to face.
“Hi,” I said, finally letting go. “It’s so nice to meet you.”
Michael laughed warmly. “Nice to meet you too, cousin.” He sat down. His energy welcomed me openly. “Spenser sent me a link and when I saw your picture I knew from the smile that we were related,” he said. Michael worked at a nearby factory that made ink. He was born and raised in and around the Yorkville and Rock Hill areas. Before Spenser had contacted Michael’s family, Michael knew little of the events that surrounded the KKK hearings and led to the Liberian emigration of many of his ancestors. “Spenser wrote a letter and everyone in the family looked over it, and we came out,” he said. “He apologized on behalf of his family, and he seemed alright. So we’re family, you know. We’re leaving that behind us and we’re family now.” I looked to see if his eyes revealed an irony in what he’d said, if his stated feelings were an act of political correctness rather than truth. But I didn’t find the private glance I was looking for, the one I had been introduced to in Texas the first time I experienced being one of two Black people in a predominantly white space, after something was said, or done, that made the both of us feel invisible. It is a look that says I see you…I understand you—one that confirms we.
I spent the rest of the day with Spenser and Michael, mostly studying their rapport, their friendship, wondering what our ancestors would say if they could witness it. We visited Allison Creek Presbyterian Church, where Adeline and Sam attended with H. H. Simril. We walked through the Clay Hill graveyard where Blacks were buried in mostly unmarked graves. Since 2014, when the church and graveyard were awarded South Carolina State’s Historic Marker, the church had helped develop the land around it in a project named “Common Ground,” a space with the intention of promoting reconciliation among those who trace their lineage back to that ominous period in Yorkville. On the way there, we spoke about the time we’d each spent in Charlotte, North Carolina, and to a lesser extent for the other two, in Brooklyn. I imagined passing them on the street or in the subway, unaware of what we shared. As we wandered into the woods where June, Adeline, and others slept, a butterfly landed near my feet.
“It’s them,” I joked. “They’ve come to find us.”
The next morning, I made my way to a service at Flint Hill Baptist Church, to meet Michael’s aunt and other members of the Simril family. These are Adeline’s blood relatives, and therefore my relatives, and I desperately wanted to connect. I was greeted at the door by a deacon, and took a seat among the congregation. Toward the end of the service, I recognized a woman from her social media profile. As the congregation was dismissed, I walked over and tapped her on the shoulder to introduce myself: “Hi, I’m Wayétu. I sent you a message. I’m your Liberian cousin…” Before I could finish, she pulled me in.
“Good to see you, baby, finally!” Her name was Deborah, and she beckoned her sister Ruth over to us. They hugged me as if only a few Sundays had passed since we were all together, touching my face with the gentle familiarity of distant relatives. In the following weeks, as we traded text messages, I came to refer to them as my aunties.
The next day, in my hotel room, I rubbed the face of my phone before texting Spenser. This was a surprising trip, was the first deleted text. I appreciate you being an unlikely bridge, was the second. In the third I mentioned slavery and the offensiveness of his initial approach. Also deleted. Thank you, was the fourth. I sent it.
A few days later, as planned, I was thousands of feet in the air on a flight to Liberia to visit my shop and see my parents. After settling in, I texted Michael and my newest aunties a picture of my parents’ house and a short video to show them the skyline and the ocean.
So beautiful, they texted back. I hope to visit your home someday!
It is your home too. I sent it.