2012-04-11 / Front Page

The Walker Settlement

By Elizabeth Billips

The story of two slave mothers and the legacy left to their children is now part of the Burke County Archives collection.

The women’s direct descendents, many of whom grew up in the “Walker Settlement” in Keysville, hope the public record will lead the next generations back to their beginnings in Burke County.

Their stories intertwine in the 1830s with a widowed, white plantation owner named Moses Walker.

Beaver Dam Creek curved through his expanse of cotton like a crescent moon. It also divided the two slaves who bore his sons and daughters. Above the creek was Betsy with their six children. Across the bank lived Elizabeth and her seven Mulatto sons.

“My great-grandfather Ryas Walker was the first black Walker (that Moses bore),” the family’s oldest patriarch wrote before his death in 2009 at age 94. Phinazee “Penny” Walker spent more than three decades stitching together remnants of his ancestors’ lives. His final years were dedicated to following the two lineages that were connected by bondage and blood.

The beginnings that he would uncover were not uncommon, the Walker descendents acknowledge. What intrigues them most are the events that unfolded on the eve of the Civil War and then followed on its coat-tails.

Four full years before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Waynesboro residents watched as 19 freed slaves departed from the town depot. According to an 1859 Waynesboro News article, the slaves were under the charge of Moses Walker and would board a ship bound for Liberia. With a “large fund” from the Walker coffers, they would establish new lives in a West African colony through the assistance of the Colonization Society of Maryland, a controversial activist group that argued freedmen could never be free in the country that once held them in bondage.

Phinazee Walker, left, spent three decades tracing his history back to Walker Settlement. Above is the will of his greatgreat grandfather, a Burke County slave owner. Phinazee Walker, left, spent three decades tracing his history back to Walker Settlement. Above is the will of his greatgreat grandfather, a Burke County slave owner. If Moses Walker’s bold undertaking boiled hostilities in the pre-Civil war farming community, the newspaper didn’t say. But direct descendents like Queen Johnson, 61, feel certain that was the case.

“He was a brave man,” she says succinctly as she flips through Phinazee Walker’s handwritten generational charts. She follows her bloodline from grandparent to grandparent, back five generations to Betsy’s cabin above the creek.

While not one of Betsy or Elizabeth’s children would board that ship, a new life awaited each of them. It would unfurl in 1865 when Georgia finally ratified the 13th amendment and abolished slavery.

Walker descendents Annette Hodge and Queen Johnson present their family history to Burke County Archives volunteers Ed Burke and Marsha Miller. Walker descendents Annette Hodge and Queen Johnson present their family history to Burke County Archives volunteers Ed Burke and Marsha Miller. That same year, Moses Walker would turn his formerly enslaved children into landowners.

Along with freedom, every child got a generous parcel of the planter’s family land.

“It was called the Walker Settlement,” Phinazee Walker wrote, estimating a 3.5-square mile swath that stretched over Beaver Dam Creek. “When Moses gave each one land, he built a large home, placing lighting rods on each of the thirteen homes to protect them from fire.”

Years passed, and while Moses Walker grew old, the log cabin settlement flourished. His children would have their own children and grandchildren, enlarge their houses and build a school, a church, a country store and a community hall.

But according to 65-year-old David “Leon” Singleton, also a direct descendent on Betsy’s side, those gifts of land weren’t made official until Moses Walker died in 1878.

The only person to contest the will, he said, was an Alabama businessman who was married to Walker’s sister. But in the end, the planter’s last wishes were honored.

“I was surprised and amazed that the courts, at that time, upheld the decision,” Singleton said, describing the intensity of holding the will in his own hands. “Apparently his brotherin law went on back to Alabama.”

But back in Burke County, the Walker descendents were prospering.

Their good fortune was sealed when they donated land for the construction of Boggs Academy on a “gentleman’s agreement” that it never be sold and “always be kept available for the welfare of African Americans in the county.”

Walker children would be among the first to fill the classrooms and graduate, and the late planter’s grandson Frank would be the first infant baptized in the edifice of the adjoining chapel.

Access to the college preparatory school bode well for the settlement, which would have otherwise had few options beyond sixth grade. In the decades that followed, Moses Walker’s blood would pump through the veins of distinguished ministers, educators, entrepreneurs, undertakers and some of the county’s most successful black farmers.

“Walker Settlement was just thick with people,” Queen Johnson said, estimating a population of more than 200 family members at its peak.

She and her sister Annette spent childhood weekends at their family farm there; but scores of cousins were already choosing colleges and careers in the northern states.

Many also moved to town and formed a tight neighborhood in the block between Liberty and Doyle (now MLK) streets.

“You couldn’t do anything there without somebody seeing you and reporting it to your parents,” David Singleton laughs, remembering boyhood visits to his grandmother’s Eighth Street home. “ Sometimes they’d come right outside and chastise you themselves.”

By the time Singleton and his cousin Queen Johnson started high school, the original cabins at Walker Settlement were longabandoned and falling in.

“I can still see the steel braces going up from the roofs,” Johnson said, recalling the lightning rods that rose from the wreckage. Those images would always symbolize her ancestors’ first flush of freedom.

She also ponders the freedoms of the 19 former slaves who set sail for a new world.

“I’ve always wanted to find their descendents … to find out what happened to them,” she says, pondering their sharp turn from the creek banks of Burke County. Despite her intrigue, there’s a deep gratefulness her ancestors chose to stay. “I’m glad to be an American … this is home.”

Singleton knows that feeling of home too, especially when he walks the family plots around old Keysville churches like Walker Grove. Besides Walkers, there are headstones for Greshams, Phinazees, Bynes and Greenwoods. There are Hudsons, Epps, Palmers and Bells.

It sets Singleton to thinking about those original 13 plots of land and the hundreds of lives that have sprouted from them.

There is neither resentment toward the white planter nor fanfare for his final gifts.

It is understanding that Singleton wants.

“I suspect Moses Walker had beliefs that conflicted with the ideas of his time,” he offers, wishing he could put a finger on the motivation that drove him. “And I suspect there were things he had to contend with in order to survive … even if he disapproved.”

“I think he did the only thing he could do to reconcile those differences,” Singleton continues, weighing the world that surrounded his grandfather’s grandfather. “What you believe in has everything to do with the person you are.”

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