Previous Posts

Monday, February 25, 2019

An Ode to the Darker Youngers



Spring 1851

She wasn’t given a choice; she had no rights. None of them did. Her mulatto skin only added to the unanswered questions about her own heritage- a heritage mixed due to decisions well beyond what was ever spoken aloud. Her ancestry was forever clouded because of the concreteness of her captivity.

Elizabeth stayed silent as she held her youngest close to her chest, blocking him from the prairie winds as she took one step after the other. She checked often to ensure her little girl was close by her side, suspicious of what was to become of them. 

She had seen plenty of slaves disappear from the farm, sold off to unknown places. Had she upset her master? Was she to go to the auction block?

Her master had told her she would live with him in their new home 100 miles southeast of where she had toiled away with thirty other slaves- where he had developed a special liking for her. . . where her life was changed forever.

Why had he chosen her? At fifteen, she kept her head down and hoped he would look another direction. But it was not to be.

Now, her only desire at 19 years old was to protect her two light-skinned children born into chattel. They had become part of her master’s growing number of enumerated slaves.

She would fight for them.

***********

Because of the repercussions of slavery, the astonishing struggles and incredible triumphs of African American history are hard to untangle. Even the most seasoned genealogists and historians can’t help African Americans today piece together their ancestry - they cannot trace their families back past Reconstruction due to migration patterns, the absence of stories being passed down and the harsh reality of the time period.

It's not as easy as the 1976 book-turned-film, Roots makes it out to be.

Not by a long shot.

Fortunately for a few lucky families, the Federal Writers Project (a product of the WPA) from 1937-1939 sought out former slaves to interview them about their experiences. These 2,300 narratives give us only a glimpse into the true picture of these gruesome and genuine struggles for freedom.

In Missouri, 389 pages of these accounts exist. One memoir of a former slave named Simpson Charles Younger only shows a fragment of his heroic, inspirational story in the four pages devoted to him. His true character as a pioneer and unassuming activist can be discovered while examining his entire life.

A Son of His Master

Charles Lee Younger was born in 1779 in Virginia and came to Missouri around 1821. For a time, he operated a ferry crossing from Clay County to Chouteau’s Landing- later known as Kansas City. He was a land speculator, owning thousands of acres stretching across western Missouri. His second wife, Sarah, had given birth to nine children between 1808 and 1835.

It’s hard to know whether Charles and Sarah were unhappy in their marriage or if he just had a wandering eye. What is clear is Charles had a “common law wife” named Parmelia Wilson (b. 1815) that mothered seven additional children with him from 1835 to 1853.

A light-skinned teenage girl named Elizabeth Simpson (b.1832) grabbed the attention of Charles Younger by the mid 1840s. It didn’t matter that he had a wife and grown children… and a mistress. By 1847, this slave girl of his– only about 15 at the time- was pregnant with her master’s child.

Her master was 68.

A daughter named Catherine Francis was born December 11, 1847 outside Independence, Mo. Three years later on May 17, 1850, Simpson “Sim” Charles joined his sister in a commonplace situation of being born a slave ... and even with their heritage, they were undermined any semblance of freedom under any law.

Simpson’s slave narrative contains pieces of this troublesome story. “My father was my mother’s master. . . the originator of the Younger family in Missouri, and grandfather of Cole, Jim and Bob Younger.”

Digest that for a minute.

Population of Missouri including whites, free blacks, slaves and free blacks
Courtesy of Missouri's Black Heritage (1980)
Charles, Sim’s father- and master- had a wife and eight children, including Henry Washington Younger, father of part of the infamous James-Younger gang.

What a legacy this man left behind.

Charles continued land speculation and bought just shy of 1,600 acres in Clay, Jackson, Pettis, Warren and St. Clair counties. By 1850, he lived with his wife in their “mansion house” in Jackson Co. where he developed that special interest in his slave, Elizabeth Simpson.

In 1852, Charles took pen to paper and outlined what he wanted for the future. In “Manumitted and Forever Set Free” by Becky Carlson, she explains, “In his will, Younger made detailed provisions for his surviving families: first and foremost, for his family of his second wife, Sarah; secondly, for his common-law wife/mistress, Parmelia; and most notably, for his family by his slave/mistress, Elizabeth.”
The original text of Charles Younger's will outlining the freedom of only a fragment of his slaves

He bequeathed $1 each to his wife and children, noting that he had already given land and property to them. He acknowledged paternity of Parmelia’s seven children and gave them permission to use his surname upon his death. Most remarkably, he freed Elizabeth and her two children, Catharine and Simpson as well as a slave named Fanny and her two children, Nathan and Washington.

When he decided to move to St. Clair Co. outside Osceola in the early 1850s, he left his “legitimate” family in Jackson Co. and took his slaves, including his two children, with him.

A Will For the Future

The only photo of Elizabeth Simpson, Sim's mother
On November 11, 1854, Charles Younger laid in bed sick, only hours left of his life on earth. He had more to add to that will he drew up two years earlier, and so he made a codicil to his will (a document to amend his original will) that gave even more directions of his wishes for his second “families.”

Elizabeth would have been present with her two little children when he made these provisions, as Charles makes it clear that they are living together in his home in St. Clair Co. just northwest of Osceola, Mo. Did Elizabeth, only 22 years-old, dare ask for more for her two children?

He wrote, “It is my will and desire that the slaves Catharine and Simpson, mentioned in my will, shall after my death be known by the names Catharine Younger and Simpson Younger, and in addition, to their freedom after my death.”

He arranged for his two children, oftentimes referred to as “quadroons” (indicating 75% white, 25% black), to be sent to the North to get a proper education. He arranged “board, clothing, tuition and incidental expenses and costs to be paid out of my estate.” He also made it clear that when Catharine and Simpson reached the age of 21 years old, they were to be given $1500 each from his estate.

Elizabeth wasn’t left out in the cold. In addition to her freedom, she was given the farm on which she had cohabitated with her master and two children. This forty acre tract of land would remain with her and would eventually be passed onto her children, staying within the family for over 100 years.

The codicil of the will shows his insistence of the freedom of some of his slaves. Note how the words "freedom"
and "happiness" have been underlined
Charles Lee Younger died November 12, 1854 and was buried on the land that Elizabeth was to inherit. His widow, Sarah was less than thrilled with the codicil and with the location of his grave. “Records show a family dispute arose regarding the patriarch’s burial location,” Becky Carlson wrote, “Thirty days after Younger was buried in St. Clair County, his body was exhumed and taken to Jackson County.”

It’s not certain where Charles Younger’s burial was, but it was probably in Orient Cemetery in Cass Co. due to the headstone that now stands at this location. His widow continued to contest the arrangements of his will up until her death in 1859.

Orient Cemetery in Cass Co., Mo.
headstone for Charles Younger.
Courtesy of Findagrave.com
At five years old, Sim and his eight-year-old sister, Kate were sent to Oberlin, Oh., likely chosen due to the city’s connection to the fight to abolish slavery. They were escorted by the guardian of the estate, Waldo P. Johnson who had put all of the arrangements together. Oberlin College was even a stop on the Underground Railroad. There, Sim and his older sister Catherine lived with a white caretaker named Delia Shepard and received an education at public schools. Sim claimed he didn’t see his mother again until he was 21 years-old.

Mrs. Elisha Gray, Delia Shepard’s daughter, wrote a detailed letter to Oberlin College explaining her remembrances of the Younger children that came to live with them. She wrote, “They were stiff in every joint from having slept on the floor as ‘Ole Missus do.’”

Back in St. Clair Co., Mo., there were no official “free papers” for Elizabeth Simpson to carry around with her. It is noted that when she went to the courthouse to obtain them, they gave her a copy of Charles Younger’s will to carry around with her instead.

Elizabeth stayed on her little forty acre farm and married a slave from a farm about a mile and a half from her home named William Bruce (some records list his name as Tom). William was owned by Simeon Bruce, who ironically was one of Charles Younger’s friends and was present when he added the codicil to the will. She had four children with him before family lore states he was shot and killed as he traveled between his wife’s house and his master’s home.

A great-granddaughter of Elizabeth Simpson-Walton at Elizabeth's
gravestone at the family cemetery
She then married Charles Walton just after the Civil War January 24, 1866 in St. Clair Co. where she had another child with him. The land where she lived became known as “The Kingdon.” 

Yes, they spelled and/or pronounced it that way. 

She passed away in 1894 and was buried in the little cemetery on her land. All seven of her children inherited section of her land, but her son, George W. Bruce was the man in charge of "The Kingdom."

In The History of St. Clair County and reprinted in “Manumitted and Forever Set Free,” it mentions that George was referred to as ‘Old George’ and ruled his land like a king. . . nothing went on without Old George’s approval.”

Without Elizabeth’s sensibility, her future could have looked much different. She, like so many slaves of the era, saw so much and overcame so many obstacles. Today, we are lucky to even know a fragment of her life story and how her decisions- as both a slave and a free woman- gave way to a legacy for generations to come.

***********

MY MOTHER
By Simpson C. Younger

There were women far more learned
In the country side around.
There were women far more polished
In the little country town.

But there never was one purer,
Loved more truth and right than she,
Or who ever taught her children
That God made man to be free.

Often when a child I heard her
Tell the wrongs which bore the slave;
Often tell of soldiers fighting
Our beloved land to save.

Tell of great and noble Lincoln,
How he made the slaves all free;
How our soldiers braved the battle
In the cause of liberty.

Taught us that all men are equal
Came as such from God’s right hand,
And that manhood was the standard
In this great and mighty land.

That our daily life and actions
Were the means of saving grace;
That no blind faith in traditions
Would redeem the human race.

That we wrought our own salvation
By the doing of the right;
Kindness to a fellow being
Helping him to see the light.

That we daily build the ladder
That leads upward to the sky;
Round and round wrought our salvation
Till it reached to Heaven high.

That the going, not believing,
Always doing best we knew,
As God’s light to us is given,
Is the only way, the true.

That God judges man in future
By the acts he did on earth
By the lights that’s to him given
Proves his worthiness and worth.

That no priest holds key to Heaven,
None twixt man and maker stands,
But to do the best that’s in us,
Is what God of each demands.


***********
A Juvenile Soldier to College Courses

“Yes ma’am,” Sim recollected, “I was born into slavery and I enlisted in the Union Army, January 1, 1864 at Oberlin, Ohio, and I was one of the youngest soldiers in the rank.”

United States Colored Troops recruitment poster 
Sim was five months shy of his fourteenth birthday when he chose to abandon school and serve in the 27th Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops. He saw action in Virginia and recalled a tragic event that happened during his career in the military.

A thirteen year-old soldier?! 

Yes. This was Sim, and he was ready to fight for Union victory.

He was on picket duty at Petersburg, Va. Sept. 1865 when “the Rebs” had built a fire nearby. The wind began to drive the smoke toward their encampment. “All at once we could hear someone coming toward us,” Sim relayed in his slave narrative.

Thinking that the rebel army was attacking them, the picket opened fire. “We found out that it was a bunch of recruits from our own lines. Many were killed,” Younger remembered.

After the Civil War, Sim returned to Oberlin College and attended from 1866-1870 and focused his studies in English. He was a pitcher on the varsity baseball team known as the Penfield Club and arguably became the first African American in the United States to play organized baseball as a member of the integrated team, the Oberlin Resolutes. The Oberlin College archives note, “They won several championships. . . His baseball exploits are well-known.” He later taught school and learned the trades of marble cutting and setting. He was known to also be an incredible poet (as can be seen is his poems included here!).

The Oberlin Resolutes integrated baseball team in 1868. Sim Younger is No. 6 (Second from left seated)
The Ninth Street Theater

After a marriage that didn't last, Simpson returned in the late 1870s to Missouri and later settled in Kansas City. Before Brown V. Board of Education in 1954 and Plessy V. Ferguson in 1896, there was another case that challenged segregation head-on- and it demanded that people reconsider how much outward appearances truly mattered.

On Nov. 27, 1888, Simpson went to the Ninth Street Theater box office at 9th and May St. and purchased two tickets in the orchestra circle. Unbeknownst to the clerk on duty, the man standing before him was a black man. That night, Simpson guided his date, Miss Robinson down to their prime seats. Miss Robinson and Sim both roomed at the same boarding house. The usher glanced at the complexion of Miss Robinson and noticed there must be a problem as “negros” weren’t allowed in that section.
Nov. 27, 1888 advertisement for the 9th St. Theater as seen
in the Kansas City Times

The Kansas City Times reported, “Younger dresses well and could easily pass for a white man under the glare of the gas light.”

… Journalism at its finest.

Younger objected when recalling the events at the Ninth Street Theater, “[The usher] looked at me again and I suppose he discovered that a drop of African blood in me and said, ‘It is a mistake, those seats are occupied.’”

The usher offered to move the couple up to the balcony where blacks were allowed to sit, but Younger refused to back down. He had rightfully purchased his seats in the orchestra circle and only until his date’s darker skin was revealed was there an issue.

Under testimony, the usher refused to seat them in the orchestra because the woman with him “was a colored woman.”

The theater’s manager, Abraham Judah, offered a refund and still Younger refused.

In turn, Simpson C. Younger sued the theater manager for $5,000 in damages and declared, “No amount of money could compensate me for the indignity to which I have been subjected.”

Challenging the Supreme Court

Blacks were only allowed to sit in the balcony at the Ninth Street Theater. And, simply stated, Sim liked good seats. He preferred to sit close, and it was rare that anyone questioned the color of his skin. While testifying, Sim straightforwardly said, “I was never in the habit of going with the colored people.”

It was true that Sim didn’t appear to be “colored” by looking at him or talking with him. George Bartlett from the WPA noted in the slave narrative on Sim, “The impress of his college education and solidarity training are evidenced by his conversation, bearing and the lack of Negro dialect in his speech.”

Judge Francis Marion Black from Jackson Co., Mo. (1836-1902)
The case made it all the way to the Missouri Supreme Court. Younger’s counsel argued that not allowing Sim to use his seats he purchased was in violation of the 14th Amendment where “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges and immunities of the citizens of the United States . . . nor deny to any person. . . equal protection of the laws.”

This wording was consistently challenged and directly led to the ability to make room for Jim Crow laws across the United States. In 1892, Simpson Younger’s fight for equality ended when Judge Francis Black wrote, “When colored persons attend theaters and other places of amusement conducted and carried on by white persons, custom assigns them to separate seats. . . The defendant’s rule was no more than a reasonable regulation which he had the right to make and enforce.”  

Yes. The judge’s name was Judge Black. The puns are a-plenty.

Judge Black even defended his actions by stating, “We have held that our statute which established separate schools for colored children does not violate the 14th Amendment.”

And the rest, unfortunately, is history.

Defending Their Legacy

Simpson married Florence Higgerson in Kansas City in 1889 and had eight children. Florence (1867-1923) was born in Boonville, Mo. and her father, Joe Higgerson (1842-1939) was also interviewed by the Federal Writer’s Project as he, too was born into slavery.

Sim and Florence left the area, settled in Oklahoma near his sister, Kate (who had married a white man) and later chose Sedalia, Mo. as their home.

The Sim Younger family in 1902. Left to right: Elizabeth, Florence Higgerson Younger holding Charley and pregnant with Theodora, Kathleen, Douglas, Simpson C. Younger (holding Jennie), Myrtle and Joseph. Courtesy of Charlene Johnson.
When the Kansas City Star published an article in 1957 about Simpson Younger’s fight in the Supreme Court, it glorified how Simpson, in appearance, was light skinned and was the son of Charles Younger. They wrote, “The boy came to Kansas City to live; and resenting being classified a Negro, he proceeded to do something about it.”

His youngest daughter, Theodora Younger Telford read that article and was enraged on how it represented her father. She wrote the newspaper and her passionate words were printed a week later. She said, “[I resent] anyone saying that my father resented being classified a Negro. Please believe me, you could not tell by his color or his features or his education that he in any way had Negro blood and if you would like proof, I suggest you read some of his poems.”

Citing her own family history, Theodora wrote, “You can believe he resented the white man, if for no other reason than that in slavery days the white man used his helpless slave girls, not only for slaves, but for pleasure, too. . . I suggest you get a little more information on the mulatto side of the Youngers because everybody that is supposed to be lily white may not be.”

Preach, Theodora!
**********

AN AMERICAN
By Simpson C. Younger
Written between 1917-18

Oh yes, I am an American
Debarred from flying an airplane
They fear if I get in the lighter air
It will change the color of my skin and hair.
And then I will have all of the rights
That now are enjoyed alone by the whites
That may be the case, I do not know
Whether it is or it is not so.
But one thing I know, and I know it full well
I’d be on the spot at the tap of the bell
Yes, I’m an American that is true
But I have not the rights that white folks do.

***********

A Sister’s Struggle With Identity

Catherine Simpson Younger in her teenage years
Simpson seemed to accept his black heritage and, in fact, embraced it when he stood up for equality. Catherine Francis Younger (1847-1941), known as Kate, was Sim’s older sister. Her choices throughout her life lead her down a more difficult path.

Kate attended Oberlin College from 1861-1862 and 1866-1869. When she received her inheritance at 21 years-old, is is reported by Becky Carlson, “She went to her mother, traveling as a white woman.”

....That means she rode with the whites and did not "choose" the railroad cars for "darker passengers."

Her upbringing from eight years-old-on was with white people. She identified in the lighter pigment of her skin. Raised for over a decade by a white woman, Delia Shepard, Kate dined with whites, attended classes with whites, and socialized with whites. 

Delia Shepard’s daughter, Mrs. Elisha Gray, wrote, “Oberlin friends had warned her of her danger if she should marry any but a man of her own color. [Kate] said that having lived so long with white people she could not marry a mulatto.”

Thus, Kate went down her own path of unfortunate unhappiness.

She had a short marriage to a white man and lived in Kentucky with their one child. When people discovered she wasn’t pure white, her husband reportedly lost his business, left her and moved away.

Kate Younger Warren
In 1878, Kate married Speed Smith Warren (1850-1898) back home in St. Clair Co., Mo. Speed was the son of a well-known Lafayette Co. doctor and likely ended up in the area because his older brother, William Wilcox Warren was a reverend in Osceola.

She married another white man in a town that certainly knew she was born a slave.

She went onto have five children with Speed, moving for a time to Oklahoma-  but she always returned to St. Clair Co. Probably a formidable fact for her, Kate was unable to give her children the same education that she was given. Mrs. Elisha Gray wrote that Kate “later took in washing, suffered the direst of poverty, but struggled to keep herself.”

Even though several states separated them, Kate kept in contact with Mrs. Elisha Gray whom she had grown up with. Gray wrote that Kate’s letters “were most pathetic telling of disappointments, cruel and unjust treatment from the whites with whom they were obliged to deal, and the misery of associating with the Negros of such low order.”

Because of her DNA, openly mixed with slave and master, Kate was unable to fit into any group of people. Even with a solid education and light skin, she discovered, as her brother did, that acceptance was never guaranteed.

Kate is buried alongside her husband at the family cemetery northeast of Osceola. Speed is the only “pure” white man buried there.
Kate Younger Warren's homestead on family land before it burned, cir. 1970. 

Remembering the Past to Protect the Future

Simpson at 90 years old in 1940
Courtesy of Charlene Johnson
The Supreme Court case brought on by Simpson is an early example of “separate but equal” decisions within the court that were constantly defended within the law. This case was never overturned. The law was interpreted to read that theaters had to admit “colored people,” but where they were allowed to sit was up to the owners. This remained the law until 1964 when Congress enacted the Public Accommodations Act prohibiting discrimination in public places such as theaters and amusement parks- 72 years after Simpson stood up for equality.

72 long years of segregation under the law.

Simpson Younger died at his daughter’s home in Wichita, Ks. just three days before his 93rd birthday in 1943. This man was the half great-uncle of the infamous Younger gang but gained his notoriety by continuously testing the color barrier. He served his country as a soldier, became one of the first (if not THE first!) African Americans allowed to play on an integrated baseball team, persevered through college and stood up to the unequal rights set upon him for the DNA that he was born with.

Sim’s heritage- both black and white- tells a story of the unforgiving time period.  Elizabeth Simpson didn’t live long enough to see true change. Kate identified with 75% of her DNA and never found a place within any society. But early activist Simpson C. Younger didn't survive long enough to see some of these barriers broken down, but he certainly encompasses the true spirit of an American hero.

********

AN ODE TO THE DARKER YOUNGERS
By Diane Euston

Born into the bondage of slavery as it was,
The mulatto chattel did her chores.
She labored arm-in-arm with her kinfolk-
Washed the dishes, scrubbed the wood floors.

Elizabeth couldn’t escape her master’s intentions
As he began to look at her that way,
He ignored his wife and his mistress
And she had no words to say.

Fifteen when she held her light-skinned babe,
Her elderly master’s mixed creation-
She fought for as much as she could
To avoid evil slavery’s devastation.

Manumitted at her master’s death,
She had successfully set Sim and Kate free.
Dreaming of education and equal opportunity,
Elizabeth knew it was what they would need.

Thousands of miles away they traveled,
A new, bright future was to begin.
They studied, thrived and were enlightened
Past the curses of a darker skin.

Sim fought for his country with other heroes
And returned to Oberlin to play baseball-
His future looked as lovely as the sunset
But back to Missouri would be his fall.

Mistaken for one color but not corrected,
Sim tried to take his seat one day.
But his identity was quickly questioned-
A “free negro” was reminded he was once a slave.

He fought all the way to the higher courts,
Before Plessy V. Ferguson was the law.
He may have lost but he fought for equality,
But taught many to stand tall and not fall.

His mother built the Kingdom in St. Clair,
A place the free blacks could call home.
She married twice and had more children-
Slavery was past her- she was no longer alone.

Kate’s fate was a cursed, sadder story-
She had been warned to not marry a white.
But she held onto her convictions
And this led to a harsher, decades-old fight.

Not white, not black, with no place in the world,
Kate never made terms with what wasn’t in her power.
She ran away to new places and found no place at all-
But she always came back home in her darkest hours.

Years have passed since these slavery struggles,
All have now fallen into eternal slumber.
But this story of these brave people must be told
As an ode to the darker Youngers.

Sim Younger celebrating his 90th birthday with his children on May 17, 1940- Sedalia, Mo. Left to Right: Front Row-
Kathleen, Simpson C. Younger, Theodora. Back Row- Douglas, Elizabeth, Joseph, and Myrtle.
Courtesy of Charlene Johnson
** Consider LIKING the New Santa Fe Trailer on Facebook so you don't miss any of my writing! **

Suggested Readings:

“Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936 to 1938.” Library of Congress. Access: https://www.loc.gov/collections/slave-narratives-from-the-federal-writers-project-1936-to-1938/about-this-collection/

“Manumitted and Forever Set Free” by Becky Carlson. Missouri Historical Review, Volume XCVI, Number 1, October 2001. 16-31. (This article is used multiple times throughout the blog)

Missouri’s Black Heritage by Lorenzo J. Greene, Gary R. Kremer, and Antonio F. Holland

Reflections With Grandpa and Me by S.C. Younger and Charlene B. Johnson (poetry and some photos in this piece came from this rare book)