Tag Archives: Gordon Family

Research of Enslaved Families Brings Ph.D. Candidate to Menokin

BY GUEST BLOGGER: Mariaelena DiBenigno

My name is Mariaelena DiBenigno, and I am an American Studies Ph.D. candidate at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

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Mariaelena DiBenigno

My research focuses primarily on how enslavement manifests at public history sites in Virginia’s Tidewater and Northern Neck regions. I study how these histories emerge on the museum landscape in both material and narrative form. Often, these histories involve communities still overlooked by public and academic history.

In February 2016, I learned of an opportunity to research enslaved families at Menokin. I had long appreciated Menokin’s interdisciplinary focus and its insistence on telling diverse, multilayered narratives. It is a site committed to collaboration and community.

During my initial Menokin visit, I learned about the Gordon family and their ties to the local landscape. Daniel Gordon, whose biography I was asked to trace, was the grandfather of Evelyn Taylor Parker and Juanita Taylor Wells; these two sisters had shared their story during an oral history outreach program hosted by Menokin.  According to Evelyn and Juanita, their great-grandparents, Alexander and Nellie Gordon, may have been enslaved at Menokin along with their son, Daniel. Their family had compiled a family

cookbook that contained an extensive genealogy and family history. I also had access to several primary and secondary documents that, coupled with Evelyn and Juanita’s interview and family cookbook, provided substantial assistance for my research into the Gordon family’s connection with Menokin’s nineteenth-century past. Throughout this spring and summer, I worked with genealogists, historians and family members, and I learned far more than I ever expected about local history projects and genealogical research techniques. I also thought long and hard about the implications of interpretation at historic sites and who has a role in the decision-making process.

Currently, I am exploring Daniel’s parents, Alexander and Nellie, in order to concretely tie Daniel to the Menokin property. So far, I have discovered much about Daniel and his wife Maria. They owned extensive property in Richmond County, and they were involved in local religious and social life. However, I have yet to definitively link Evelyn and Juanita’s Daniel Gordon to the Daniel Gordon found in Menokin’s inventories. There is an age discrepancy between the Daniels, but this does not mean the families are not linked to Menokin’s landscape. My work will now track the earlier generations to find a common ancestor who might link the two family lines. I have more censuses to transcribe, birth and death certificates to analyze, circuit court records to explore, and church archives to examine.

There is also the fascinating angle of DNA testing among Gordon family descendants. Overall, this is a project that requires diligence, close reading, and perseverance. It is a necessary endeavor. The Gordon family’s relationship to Menokin deserves focused attention and it is an honor to conduct such research.


Maria also serves on Menokin’s African American Advisory Work Group (AAAWG).

Menokin African American Advisory Workgroup

In 2016, the Menokin Foundation  spearheaded the formation of the African American Advisory Work Group (AAAWG). The primary goals of the AAAWG are to assist the Menokin Foundation in:

  • telling the story of African Americans at Menokin to inspire a fuller understanding of and appreciation for their central role in Menokin’s story.
  • engaging and involving the African American community in ongoing efforts to preserve and interpret Menokin, and developing the historic site into a cultural learning center.
  • acting as a leading pilot or prototype for engagement of any community type.
  • telling the big picture story. (What are the lessons to be extracted from our local history?  How do we relate this history to the state in general and, in bigger terms, the world?)

The group now consists of the following advisory members:

MENOKIN

  • Alice French – Menokin Staff; Education and Outreach Coordinator
  • Dudley Olsson – Menokin Board; Education Committee chair
  • Tom Duckenfield – Menokin Board; Education Committee member

MUSEUM AND HUMANITIES PROFESSIONALS

  • Bessida Cauthorne White – Genealogist; Member of Middle Peninsula African American Genealogical Society
  • Lauranett Lee – Virginia Foundation for the Humanities Trustee; former curator of VHS African American exhibits
  • Mariaelena DeBenignio – College of William & Mary history doctorate and researcher

GORDON FAMILY DESCENDANTS & LOCAL COMMUNITY MEMBERS

  • Evelyn Parker
  • Juanita Wells
  • Mark Cox
  • Brenda Leigh Wells
  • Beatrice Robinson Ball
  • Vera Robinson Rich
  • Skip Taylor
EDUCATION AND PROGRAMMING INITIATIVES AT MENOKIN ARE MADE POSSIBLE – IN PART – BY THE 56 SIGNERS SOCIETY OF MENOKIN.

 

Uncovering History – Tracing the Gordon Family Roots

by Alice French, Menokin Education Coordinator

It’s funny when you work at an historical site how people always assume that because it’s old, all of its past is known and there is nothing new to discover.  Of course, we are famous at Menokin for disproving that year after year and this past year we again learned something new about the people who lived here.

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A few years back, I visited a local senior living facility in Richmond County to give a presentation on Menokin and spoke about how we tell stories. I was interested in developing an oral history program related to our county’s past, and I was looking for a place to begin.  After chatting with the group for a bit, one of the women told us she thought her grandfather, Daniel Gordon, was born a slave at Menokin and then freed under the Emancipation Act.  She is his granddaughter, Evelyn Gordon Parker, still a Richmond County resident, who also writes for the Northern Neck News.  Wow, I thought.  How amazing is that?   She told me she had visited Menokin once before, and a few weeks later, returned with some photographs of her family, including one of her grandfather and grandmother.

Back row: Gordon girls: Elsie, ?, Cornelia, and cousin Margaret Saunders; Front row: Daniel Gordon and wife Maria Wright Gordon

This past winter, I visited with Evelyn and her sister, Juanita Gordon Wells to record and document some of their memories.  Her grandfather has an amazing story, which I shall wait to share in a later post.  But for now, I think the other really cool thing is how we learn about our past.  This man raised his family with very strong values of faith, family and education.  Over the years, the pride and strength of these values were instilled in one generation after another.  And sometimes there are parts of history that are known better within families through oral traditions than are found in courthouse records.  In 2011, The Gordons published a cookbook, recounting their early roots as well as family recipes.

Interviewing Gordon family sisters.
Interviewing Gordon family sisters.

Evelyn’s brother, Thomas Daniel Gordon, was interested in recording the family history and established the first family reunion in 1979.  These reunions continue to grow.  They have traced their relatives all over North America with family members all the way up to Halifax, Nova Scotia!  Each time the family meets, they travel to a different location and this summer of 2016, the Gordon Family will be coming back to Virginia!  We have invited them to visit Menokin for a special family tour.

Evelyn Parker and Juanita Wells telling their story.
Evelyn Parker and Juanita Wells telling their story.

As a result of our chance meeting, Menokin has since begun to further document the history of the Gordons.  I hope to tell their story in ways that can help others discover and understand their past through video and classroom experiences, and continue to explore the lives of other Northern Neck residents. We are also seeking research assistance from a graduate student to help complete the missing links in their phenomenal story and see this as a great opportunity to develop an ongoing digital history for the future.

Thank you, Evelyn and Juanita, for helping us begin this exciting work.