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Personal Historian Finds Her Deep Roots

America: Thelma Williams has spent 30 years researching her family's 375-year saga of love, hardship, adventure, slavery and freedom. Few records survive, but she believes her ancestors include the first black baby born in New World.

February 22, 1998|HELEN O'NEILL | ASSOCIATED PRESS

HAMPTON, Va. — For 30 years Thelma Williams has spent more time with Anthony and Isabella and their child, William, than she has with many of her living relatives.

She sneaks out to libraries to be with them. She searches for them in court records. She smiles at their ghosts as she drives past the old forts and plantations that shaped their lives: Ft. Monroe, where they were sold to an English sea captain; Jamestown, where William was baptized; Blue Bird Gap Farm, where their slave descendants may have lived.

"Girl, you are living in the past," her husband chides his 54-year-old wife as she sets off on yet another genealogical journey.

Her children roll their eyes. "Let it go," they say ever so gently, because they know she can't.

The shortage of documents doesn't deter her. With stubborn faith in the stories that have been handed down through the generations, Thelma weaves the tale of her family's past.

It's a 375-year-old epic of love and adventure, hardship and endurance, slavery and freedom and redemption.

It's the story of Anthony and Isabella and their son, William Tucker, the first black child born in America.

Today, miles away, there lives another William Tucker. Thelma's cousin is a 52-year-old New York City police officer who works a lot of overtime and talks about returning to Virginia when he retires. He plans to go back to where he came from, back to the town where his famous ancestor was born.

In the 3 1/2 centuries that span the lives of these two William Tuckers lies the history of the black family experience in America, one Thelma has painstakingly traced, through documents and stories, through peace and revolution, through the vine-covered graves in the 300-year-old family cemetery that lies hidden down an old dirt road in Hampton.

Thelma believes that the first William Tucker is buried here, although she doesn't have "100% proof."

She doesn't have 100% proof of many of the twists in the Tucker family tree, and some of what she does have she won't reveal. She's saving her best genealogical gems for her book.

What she does have is a head full of history, cases full of manuscripts and a rich trove of family lore. Her passion and conviction have won her a certain fame and following in her home state, where her family has been formally honored as direct descendants of the first William Tucker.

"They sailed across the high seas and landed here," Thelma says, standing by the shore at the tip of Ft. Monroe and staring across the Chesapeake Bay. "This is where it all began."

Thelma first heard the story from her grandmother, who passed it on from her grandparents, who learned from their grandparents before them.

It tells of a young African couple, brought to the colony on a Dutch man-of-war and sold to a kindly sea captain turned plantation owner who bestowed his name upon their son. The couple, Anthony and Isabella, worked in his tobacco fields and cypress groves. Their son married a mixed-race woman and had a family of his own.

More than three centuries after their arrival, the black Tucker family have stamped their soul upon this town. Teachers and tailors, pharmacists and musicians. They boast that they are everywhere except in jail.

"It's important that people know we didn't just fall out of the sky," Thelma says, standing in front of the Chestnut Street house where she grew up. "We have roots here that go back more than 350 years."

But like a million other families, they run into problems trying to trace those early roots. Where exactly did Anthony and Isabella come from? Were they slaves or indentured servants? Were they captured by pirates? Were they among the famous "20 and odd Negroes" that planter John Rolfe describes as arriving in a Dutch ship around 1619?

The first references to Anthony and Isabella appear in a list of the living and the dead after the Indian massacre of colonists in 1622. They are mentioned again in the 1624-25 census--along with 40 barrels of corn, four pistols and three swine--as part of the household of Capt. William Tucker: "Antoney Negro and Isabell Negro and William theire child baptised."

Why was the baby baptized and given his master's name, a practice that later became common for slaves? Does it suggest that Anthony and Isabella were, in fact, among the first slaves? Could it mean Capt. Tucker himself fathered the child?

No one knows for sure.

Thelma argues that the birth of a child, any child, in a population ravaged by hunger, disease and attack, was cause for celebration. After all, the colony was only 17 years old, a harsh-living place of rough wattle homes and flimsy wooden palisades, where winters were known as "The Starving Time." Planters had little to fend off the elements but their wits and gunpowder. Women had just arrived. Family life, black and white, was just beginning.

"Capt. Tucker thought the event was significant enough to have the child baptized and make himself the godparent," Thelma says. "I admire him for that."

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