“One day in the late 1960s, a classmate of mine from Morristown College in Hamblen County, Tennessee, invited me to his family’s home for the weekend,” says Jimmy Cook, a lifelong Roanoke resident as he began to describe how he became interested in family history. “When I told my dad I was going to Johnson City, he asked me to look up a cousin we had down there.” To Cook’s surprise, it turned out his friend was a nephew, by marriage, to the man his father asked him to seek out. “At the time,” Cook reflected, “I really didn’t understand how this cousin and I were related. But I did marvel that my friend was connected to him.” Fifteen years later Cook would learn just how deep the connection was.
“Dad was an oral historian. All the family history he shared was from memory. No written record; just total recall – it was amazing,” says Cook. “But there were some gaps in the story.” In the mid-1980’s, Cook and his father Jim Cook, Jr., worked with a cousin, Judy Quarles Jones and her mother to host a family reunion in Roanoke. In preparation, Cook and Jones spent the prior summer researching how all the family members were related. They traced the start of their family tree to the early 1850s when three children, two girls and a boy – Harriet, Barbara and Charles Kincannon – were born in Wythe County to an enslaved woman the family affectionately calls, “Our Hannah.”
Cook and another cousin from California found Hannah’s name on a slave owner’s inventory, listing her value as $500. “It was while doing this research,” Cook says, “I discovered that the cousin my dad asked me to meet in Johnson City was the grandson of Barbara Kincannon Sayles, my great grandmother, one of the three children belonging to ‘Our Hannah.’ ” Cook says the experience of researching, organizing and hosting that mid-1980s reunion solidified in his mind all the family history his father had poured into him for decades leading up to that point. “It all came together, and I understood the relationships,” he adds.
Once again, Cook and Cousin Judy are planning and hosting their second family reunion reuniting the descendants of Harriet, Barbara and Charles Kincannon. This time however, with the help of numerous relatives and subject matter experts including an ancestry researcher in North Carolina and John Johnson, a Wytheville-based historian, the cousins will use the power of pictures to help family and friends understand the scaffold of history. They have amassed over 200 photographs documenting the lives and achievements of their ancestors, their descendants and people connected to them, mostly hailing from Virginia, eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. They will present these photographs in an exhibit, titled Next of Kin.The event will serve as the kickoff for their Kincannon Family Reunion. The exhibit is open to the public for viewing from 5-7 p.m. Fri., July 12 at Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center.
The reunion organizing committee wanted to share their treasured photographs with the wider Roanoke community because it was important to them for the public to see how ordinary people of color, post-reconstruction and into the early 20thCentury, marshaled their resources to accomplish extraordinary things despite the many obstacles they faced.
Jones says, “The institution of slavery was so cruel, and its dismantling took so long with such widespread repercussions, it’s easy to lose the beauty of our ancestors against the backdrop of that quagmire. The photographic exhibit is one way we have chosen to honor or forebearers.” That’s why Cook wanted to share the pictures of Susan Sayles Woolwine.
“Look at how beautiful she was. Her mother, a former slave, died when Susan was about seven. My great grandmother, Barbara Kincannon Sayles, a former slave, became her stepmother when Susan was about 10,” says Cook. “I love the picture taken of her in Wytheville during the mid-1880s. That hat, the umbrella, the ribbon at her waist – she was styling!” he adds.
Susan Sayles’s husband, Prince Albert Woolwine, was a bi-vocational pastor who worked as a carpenter. After the couple relocated from Wytheville to Johnson City in the 1890s, they became acquainted with Dr. Hezekiah Hankal, a mixed-race man of black and Dutch origin, who was a preacher, teacher and skilled physician. In 1893, Dr. Hankel helped start the Langston Normal School, the first African American high school in Washington County, Tennessee. Later, Prince Albert Woolwine built an elementary school to educate children of color. Originally named after him, it was renamed in 1910, for Paul Lawrence Dunbar, in homage to America’s first professional black literary man. “This is the power of story and pictures,” says Jones.
“Who would have thought when I was in college in Tennessee, I had a relative that started a school nearby at the turn of the century,” says Cook. Family reunions reveal and ignite connections that bind and last. Pictures remind us of those ties. Cook and Jones hope this summer you spark your own family’s interest in their history. Hosting a family reunion is a good way to get that going.
By day, Betty Jean Wolfe is an independent operations consultant, assisting small-to-midsize for-profit and non-profit organizations improve their profitability and efficacy. At night, she works as a freelance writer while completing a memoir about the personal and professional challenges she and her colleagues faced implementing education reform in New Orleans’ K-12 public education system between 2007 through 2010.