Andrew Dys

Genealogical research turns up famous link to S.C.'s past

Wilbert Holmes retired in 1996 after 38 years as a teacher and principal in York schools. He's getting older, so he wants to know about the people in his family who were slaves, and all the others afterward.

"I want to tell my grandchildren, let them read about who they are," Holmes said. "The older I get, the more I appreciate family."

Over the years, Holmes has talked with many family members. He has a chart on a wall in his home, with some pictures that are almost 150 years old, that go back to generations that were slaves. Each person born a slave has a star next to his or her name.

Holmes has known for years that his great-grandfather, named Cornelius Holmes, was born a slave. But in this technologically advanced age, Holmes' daughter, Danette Holmes Burnette, is a computer whiz who can find almost anything on the Internet.

"I grew up hearing the stories, but now with databases on the computer, there is so much more to find," she said.

Turns out, Cornelius Holmes was born in 1855 in Edgefield County to a slave family owned by a U.S. Congressman named Preston Brooks. The same Preston Brooks who beat a senator unconscious on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1856 after that senator denounced slavery. The incident sparked a national furor, prompting Brooks' resignation and return to office, during the leadup to the Civil War.

Holmes knows all that now because his daughter found out Cornelius Holmes was one of more than 2,000 ex-slaves who were interviewed across the country during the late 1930s as part of a Works Progress Administration project.

She found the actual interview, on the Library of Congress Web site.

"Dat turn the world upside down," is what Cornelius Holmes told the interviewer of what Preston Brooks did.

The interview is in dialect, but nobody knows for sure if that's the way Cornelius talked or if the interviewer wanted it that way.

Wilbert Holmes thinks the language is close to correct.

His daughter isn't so sure, and said some relatives who knew Cornelius said he didn't speak like that.

But that's why the two of them are so entrenched in trying to find out about their ancestors. For them, and so many black families, there is little record of family, except in the oral tradition passed down. Holmes met Cornelius when he was a tiny child, but never got the chance to know his great-grandfather.

The Cornelius Holmes interview is detailed about Cornelius Holmes' views on race, slavery, the strength of women, and more, so much that Wilbert Holmes said, "It's like he's speaking to me from the grave."

"This turns what we know about someone into a real person," Danette Holmes Burnette said. "This was their world then, at that point in time."

Holmes and his daughter, who lives in Florida, aren't finding family details so they can get angry over slavery.

"We shouldn't forget our past," Holmes said, "but we have to work together to move forward."

Wilbert Holmes has spent his whole adult life making this area better. He taught in segregated and integrated schools. He's served groups like the county heritage commission and the chamber of commerce.

But he also knows he has two grandsons, and his daughter is going to have a daughter soon. It is for them that he is trying to find out all he can about slavery days. Not to learn about slavery, but to learn about family.

"We all need to know where we come from," Holmes said.