Thursday, May 7, 2009

Families share chair, histories...

Thursday, April 30, 2009
By GINNY WRAY - Martinsville Bulletin Staff Writer

A simple brown ladderback chair has reconnected two families’ histories. The chair was passed Tuesday from the descendants of a plantation owner to the descendants of a slave who worked for him. For now, it remains on display at the Bassett Historical Center for the community to appreciate.

“It’s a connection to the past. You hear a lot of stories, but when you get a material object, it brings it closer,” said Sam Hairston of Eden, N.C., the great-grandson of Uncle John Burgess and the recipient of the chair.

This story actually began in 1790, according to an account by John Burgess of Vienna. He explained that John Henry Burgess, his great-grandfather, was born in Ridgeway near the Smith River on land his great-grandfather settled. Uncle John Burgess was one of John Henry Burgess’ slaves. John Henry Burgess was a captain in the Confederate Army in the Civil War. He took Uncle John Burgess and other slaves off to war with him, and after the conflict ended, he gave each of them an acre. John Henry Burgess also knew that a North Carolina woman, Jane, had caught the eye of Uncle John Burgess, so he brought her to Henry County to work for him. She and Uncle John Burgess married and raised a family. “Uncle John was employed on the farm as long as John Henry Burgess lived,” Burgess said, adding that John Henry Burgess died in 1914 and Uncle John Burgess died in 1936. “He was integral to the family.”
No one is quite sure who made the ladderback chair with a cane seat, when it was made although it dates back to the 1800s, or what kind of wood it is made of. But they do know it was passed from generation to generation, ending with Burgess’ father, John Bradshaw Burgess, and his wife. She refinished it and had the seat recaned, and it was a prized possession in the Burgess home, he added. It also helped generations of children learn to walk, Burgess said. He turned the chair upside down and showed how the toddlers pushed it on the floor as they got their bearings, leaving the posts on the back and legs worn to an angle.
Burgess said after both his parents died, the four siblings took all their possessions and searched for appropriate homes for them. “Because of the history of the chair and the great work Jennifer (Doss of the Dan River Basin Association) had done, there is no more appropriate place for the chair than with Uncle John’s family,” Burgess said. In the meantime, Hairston started researching his mother’s side of the family — the Burgesses — and was steered to a Web site started by John Burgess. They realized their families were connected and they exchanged information and photographs, but that fell off after a while. Then Doss, project director for the Dan River Basin Association (DRBA), began researching the Burgess family after finding an old cemetery on the Gravely land where the association has created a nature preserve. John Henry Burgess is buried there. Uncle John Burgess is buried in a cemetery on Old Mill Road in Ridgeway that has been cleaned, documented and listed with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to be preserved. During her research, Doss reconnected John Burgess and Hairston, added some information from Pat Ross of the Bassett Historical Center and “put all the pieces together,” Doss said. Almost all the pieces, that is. Hairston said they still do not know who Uncle John Burgess’ parents were, and they do not know much about the chair. But that does not lessen its impact. Doss said she got chills when she read the e-mails about the chair that connected the two families. Never a fan of history classes, this has made history come to life, she said. Her research and restoring the cemeteries fit DRBA’s mission of historic preservation, Doss said, adding that DRBA will compile the history into a book for the families.
After the chair is displayed at the historical center for a while, Sam Hairston will place it in his home, maybe with a picture hanging over it. John Burgess added that passing the chair on to the Hairston family also helps him reconcile some of that history. “It bothered me that my ancestors enslaved his ancestors,” he said, nodding at Hairston. “You can never do enough to make up for that. This is a little something. Martin Luther King’s dream tells all of us that we have a responsibility to make equality real.”

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