Wednesday, January 13, 2021

What Our Ancestors' Friends Can Tell us


Do you ever stop to think what unspoken messages you send by the friends you choose? We have quips to remind us that people are sometimes assessed by the company they keep—"birds of a feather" comes to mind here—and that operative can become a device to use to our research advantage.

Those of us who have researched our family tree long enough to get stuck on what we've dubbed "brick wall ancestors" have probably stumbled upon the acronym regarding our ancestors' "F.A.N. Club." The term was coined by master researcher Elizabeth Shown Mills, signifying the usefulness of following a brick wall ancestor's Friends, Associates, and Neighbors.

As I pursue the story of the man I now know was called King Stockton, I've found there was very little recorded about his life. Thankfully—and this was the tale that first piqued my interest when I heard it as a child—King Stockton had an acquaintance who thought it a worthwhile project to publish a booklet about his life.

That booklet, as I discovered only recently, was a simple seven page pamphlet with the generic title, "Biography of King Stockton: Born a Slave, Living 100 Years." That, as it turned out, was the "book" mentioned in the stories passed down through my family—the one which I could never find in my grandmother's belongings, but which, thankfully, I was able to read, thanks to the rare books and manuscripts collection at the Rose Library at Emory University.

Not much can be discerned about one hundred years of a life from the text on a mere seven pages, let alone a life lived spanning such tumultuous times as were seen from the early years of territorial Florida through the end of slavery and the contentious times beyond that era. But we may be able to extract some inferences about King Stockton based on what we can learn about his friends and associates.

It was from his contact with one associate—Florida's pioneer African-American jurist, James Dean—that I gleaned my first clue to clinch the answer to a lifelong search for King Stockton's "book"; that was where I found the book's title in the footnotes in a history journal article about James Dean.

Impressive friend.

But the friend I was now in search of was the very one who was inspired to tell King Stockton's story: a man by the name of A. L. Lewis. Who was he?

Fortunately, unlike James Dean and his many accomplishments buried in history, A. L. Lewis was a man whose trail was a bit easier to trace. It was helpful to discover what was hidden behind those enigmatic initials: A. L. signified Abraham Lincoln Lewis. A brief entry in Wikipedia let me know that he was the state of Florida's first African-American millionaire. His success came from many ventures, most of which were owing to his ability to spot needs within his community during a time of great upheaval, and his talent for forming cooperative ventures with other astute community leaders.

Since A. L. Lewis was a businessman and chairman of the board of a life insurance company, I wondered just what it might have been that he and a minister like King Stockton held in common. What was it about their friendship? What connected them? And can we infer anything from the relationship? By the time A. L. Lewis had been born in Madison, Florida, in 1865, King Stockton was well into his thirties.

Though they both lived in the same region of northern Florida, there had to be something more that connected them. I was curious to see if I could find the nexus between the two men. I noticed that A. L. Lewis had founded what eventually was called the Afro-American Life Insurance Company in 1901, and wondered whether that detail would reveal the source of any connection. However, a fortieth anniversary publication of the company didn't provide any clues, though it did introduce me to the founding members of the board—possibly more names to add to King Stockton's FAN Club.

What I discovered by leafing through the company publication was an operation designed and maintained by a dedicated core of talented men and women, working from an early start in a new century to years after King Stockton's own passing in 1929. The chairman of the board of that company—that very same A. L. Lewis—was somehow the acquaintance of King Stockton to such a degree that he chose to publish a booklet sharing details of the elder man's life. Surely, such an acquaintance says something about the man we are hoping to learn more about.

What I couldn't find tucked between the pages of the fortieth anniversary yearbook, besides any mention of King Stockton, himself, was any way to figure out the connection between the two men. It's fairly obvious that one doesn't engage in writing someone's story without knowing at least something about that person. So how did the two get to know each other?

There was one possible clue in all this, one obliterated by the apparent success of the author's businesses: his very name, Lewis. While Lewis is a common surname, perhaps there was a connection between the author's surname and some details I had stumbled upon while researching King Stockton's family tree. As it turned out, King Stockton was connected to a Lewis family through his own wife. Perhaps the Lewis connection wasn't owing to friends or associates, after all, but to a connection with kin.



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