Can a Black judge uncover the true nature of the relationship between his great-grandmother and the Alabama senator who once enslaved her?
October 22, 2022 at 7:00 a.m. EDT
A D.C. judge has long been working to uncover a mystery about his great-grandmother, who was born in slavery in Alabama and raised the first generation of her family born in freedom. (Washington Post Illustration) Comment on this story
All his life, William England has heard the tantalizing story of his great-grandmother Ella Clay’s wedding.
Ella was born in slavery on a plantation in Alabama owned by Clement Claiborne Clay Jr., who served in the U.S. Senate for eight years before the start of the Civil War. She raised her family’s first generation born in freedom. Her great-grandson William, now 80 years old, left Alabama for law school and a long career as a judge in the nation’s capital.
It is a story of success and accomplishment. But like most Black families in America, the Englands have questions about who they are, where they came from, and what happened to them along the way.
The judge has always wondered about the lore he learned as a child from his mother and aunts about Ella. More than a decade after she was emancipated — and Clement Claiborne Clay, her enslaver, was disgraced as a traitor to the United States and imprisoned for his suspected role in President Lincoln’s assassination — why did Ella get married in the former senator’s house?
England, his daughter Faith, and several cousins have been trying to solve the mystery of Ella’s wedding for about a decade.
“It’s kind of like a family hobby,” said Faith England, a 50-year-old consultant who lives in Silver Spring.
They think they know the answer. “The reason was because she was his daughter,” William said. “I can’t imagine any other reason why she would be married in Clement Claiborne Clay’s home.”
But uncovering the evidence to prove it has been difficult.
Clement Clay’s only child with his wife, Virginia, died as an infant. England, who has served as an administrative law judge in Maryland and D.C. for 27 years, surmises that his great-grandmother must have stayed in touch with her former enslaver because he was her father. That Clement Clay felt some sort of affection toward his Black daughter that led him to host her wedding at Wildwood, the same plantation home in Gurley, Ala., where he and his wife often entertained Confederate President Jefferson Davis. And that Ella, whose skin is fair in the weathered photographs he has of her, probably was conceived in rape.
Rape was a deeply entrenched aspect of American slavery. And men like Clay, who wielded power over others both in the halls of Congress and in the more intimate confines of their own homes, seemingly had no qualms enslaving their own offspring.
An ongoing Washington Post investigation into the history of enslavement by U.S. lawmakers has documented that more than 1,800 members of the House and Senate were slaveowners. After William found Clement Clay’s name in the new database of congressional enslavers, he emailed about his quest to learn more about his great-grandmother — and The Post joined it.
When Clay represented Alabama in the Senate from 1853 to 1861, almost every legislator the state had ever sent to Congress had been a slaveholder. Clay and his family were among the state’s most prominent enslavers, buying and selling human beings for decades. Clay’s father also served in the U.S. Senate and as governor of Alabama. The two men, both known as C.C. Clay, together enslaved 87 men, women and children on four Alabama plantations on the eve of the Civil War, when the 1860 census was conducted.
In one letter to his father, Clement Clay shows his harshness as an enslaver, accusing two enslaved men of faking injury. “They used their limbs very well when they chose to do so. … I thought starvation and confinement the best remedy,” Clement wrote.
In Washington, the younger Clay made a name for himself as one of the most extreme defenders of slavery, even advocating for resuming the importation of enslaved people from Africa, a trade Congress had banned in 1808.
When war broke out, he withdrew from the U.S. Congress, then ran and won a seat in the Confederate Congress. He was one of the Confederacy’s most famous faces: For a time, his portrait was on the Confederate dollar bill.
In 1865, Clay was arrested and jailed on suspicion that he had participated in the plot to assassinate Lincoln, but prosecutors later decided they didn’t have enough proof to bring a case against him.
Long after the war, the Clay family perpetuated a myth about life on Southern plantations. Virginia Clay — rumored to have had a long affair with Jefferson Davis — became a leader in the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the group that erected Confederate monuments across the South and idealized “The Lost Cause” in the early 20th century. Virginia’s memoir, “A Belle of the Fifties,” described the glittering social life she enjoyed before the end of slavery. The UDC promoted Virginia’s book across the country, helping create the perception that led to “Gone with the Wind” and generations of rosy pictures of a bygone Dixie.
The Englands believed they were an unacknowledged part of the Clay legacy.
As they researched their roots, the Englands took a mail-order DNA test. William’s results found he had more European ancestry than African ancestry.
More intriguing, when they posted their results to Ancestry.com, White people started turning up as statistically likely to be their cousins — and those White people had family trees showing that they descended from Clement Claiborne Clay’s mother.
Their genetic cousins did not respond to messages, declined to discuss the subject, or knew nothing about Clement Clay when they were contacted by a Post reporter. But the Englands now felt sure that they were Clays.
“The probability that Clement Claiborne Clay is an ancestor of mine means nothing more to me than merely a historical fact — I mean, the man was a Confederate,” William said.
What he and Faith wanted was a deeper understanding of what Ella’s life had been like.
“It’s the intersection of history and our little humble family. You’ve got all these big players on the historical stage — Jefferson Davis, Clement Claiborne Clay,” William said. “But the untold story is the intersection of that with the lives of Black people and their descendants.”
What the Englands knew of Ella’s existence was awful: probably conceived in rape, raised in bondage from her earliest days, circumscribed all her life by poverty. William remembered visiting Ella’s home in Gurley in the 1940s, when he was no more than 10 years old. Two of Ella’s daughters, his great-aunts, still lived there. There was a well out back, the first home William had seen in his young life with no indoor plumbing.
“I have a clear memory of it,” he said. “I remember the well scared me.”
If the Englands could know something more of Ella’s life — maybe even something joyful, something of her relationship with a father who acknowledged her, something of her triumphant day as a bride in a grand Alabama home so different from the unfinished floors William remembered from his visit to her house — that might feel empowering. Redemptive.
Duke University houses Clement Clay’s papers, a staggering collection of letters, diaries, scrapbooks, even notes he took in college. The correspondence is so voluminous that the university’s library in Durham, N.C., has devoted 20 full feet of shelf space to housing 8,568 pieces of paper that Clay or his family once wrote or saved.
The library’s description of the collection lists in detail the topics that the Clay family wrote about in their letters, including “Virginia Clay’s dissatisfaction with Reconstruction period social life” and “her tour of Europe, 1884-1885.” It refers to Clement Clay’s letters about “the management of cotton plantations,” but the description doesn’t once mention slavery, or say whether the people Clay kept in bondage make any appearance in all those thousands of pages. But Faith wondered if Ella might be there.
When William emailed The Post about his great-grandmother, he was among dozens of readers who reached out about congressional enslavers. Some were descendants of slaveowners, some were the people enslaved by them, and some were amateur or professional historians who wanted to help The Post expand its list of slaveholding congressmen.
Asked to help, Post readers sent searing evidence about dozens more enslavers in Congress
One was Vera Cecelski — just the researcher the Englands had been looking for.
As the manager of a state historic site close to Duke dedicated to slavery’s history, Cecelski devotes much of her work to helping Black families research their enslaved ancestors. The Post connected the Englands to Cecelski, who volunteered to search the Duke archives for Ella or other enslaved family members.
Faith imagined Clement Clay might have written a surviving account of his daughter’s 1879 wedding. “Maybe in some of his letters around 1879, if you can narrow it down that way, you can see if there’s any reference to a wedding in the house,” she said.
Cecelski said in her experience, Ella’s existence might turn up in more prosaic records: “Obviously we’re looking for people and family stories. But those might show up in estate documents, or tax assessments, or an internal inventory of property.”
Though the Duke guide to the collection had made no mention of enslaved people, Cecelski discovered that almost all of the early papers were about slavery. Bills of sale showing that Clay’s father had purchased enslaved people every few months while his son was a toddler. A letter from a friend in Virginia about Clay’s father’s desire to purchase enslaved people there.
Cecelski started making a list of every enslaved person named in the files. She read page after page of records, including years’ worth of Virginia Clay’s diaries, but didn’t find references either to Ella or to an 1879 wedding in the Clay house.
But then on one of her visits to Duke, she made a discovery.
That day, Cecelski took from the archives a thick leather-bound volume. One side of the book contained the minutes of a decade of meetings of the Madison County Bible Society. Flip the book over, and it contains a different sort of record: Clement Clay’s accounts from 1870 to 1873 of his transactions with the sharecroppers who worked on his plantation — many of them people he formerly enslaved and now employed as laborers, charging them for every minor expense they incurred.
Cecelski spent about four hours that day turning the stiff aged pages of that one account book. Finally, she got to a page that sparked her trained instincts: Starting on page 71 of the account book, several sharecroppers in a row all had the last name Clay, indicating they were probably once enslaved by the Clay family. And after each of their names, Clement Clay had taken the unusual step of denoting their race, writing in parentheses “col’d,” for “colored.”
One was a man named Joe Clay, who had not come up before in previous attempts to trace Ella’s genealogy. In 1871, Clement Clay deducted from Joe Clay’s wages to pay for bacon, for salt, for cloth — line after line of household necessities marked in ink.
Twenty-five lines down the page, Cecelski stopped cold when she deciphered a barely legible line of text, written in cursive in a fainter gray pencil. Clement Clay deducted $2.75 from Joe Clay’s account to pay for “shoes for Ella.”
Cecelski rushed to the other resources she had gathered — the 1870 census showing the sharecroppers who lived near Clement Clay’s plantation; the list she had created of every enslaved person named in the Clay papers. By the end of the day, she had pieced together a theory.
In the 1870 census, she found Joe Clay and his wife Eliza, living alongside other sharecroppers, with seven children, including the second youngest, 10-year-old Elianor. Ten years later, the census shows Elianor married to Thomas Hancock — who William knows was his great-grandfather — and living near her parents and her childhood neighbors.
“I believe Elianor is your Ella Clay,” Cecelski told the Englands in an excited email.
She showed the Englands another document she had found in the Duke files: an 1843 bill of sale in which Clement Clay purchased enslaved people, including Eliza and her then-6-year-old daughter Salina, at a public sale in the town of Warrenton, Ala.
The family was stunned to see these pieces falling into place.
Soon, they deciphered the likely relationships in Joe and Eliza Clay’s household. Ella seemed to be Salina’s daughter, making her the granddaughter of Eliza.
Their family history had stopped at Ella. Now it went back two generations further. From Ella, who lived in that house with no plumbing and perhaps got married in the senator’s house. To her mother Salina, who was put up for auction in the public square as a 6-year-old child and had to bear her own child into slavery. To her mother’s mother Eliza, who was owned by one man and then another, but ended her life as a free woman married to a man who scraped out a living to buy his children and grandchildren new shoes.
Salina. Eliza. Two more names to cherish, to honor, to wonder about.
In the end, the Englands never found a letter that spelled out Clement Clay’s relationship to Ella or any written evidence that he had hosted her wedding in his house.
But they were gratified with what they did find — those precious new names — and a deeper sense of how far their family had come since Ella’s emancipation.
“She has descendants who’ve graduated from some of the best schools in the country,” said William, an alumnus of Georgetown University Law Center and the father of two Johns Hopkins University graduates.
He thinks Ella might be particularly proud that her descendants have graduated from premier historically Black institutions, including Tuskegee and Howard universities.
Ella’s children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren became doctors and lawyers and jurists. Once it was Ella’s enslaver, Clement Clay, who sat in the Senate making the laws of the land. Today, it’s her great-grandson, William, who sits on the bench in Washington, administering the law.
There’s a photo he keeps beside his pictures of Ella. It’s an image of Otey Hancock, one of Ella’s sons, who became a prominent businessman and Black community leader in Birmingham, Ala.
The image shows Otey as a centenarian, shaking the hand of President Ronald Reagan on the day Otey served as grand marshal of the Independence Day parade in the nation’s capital.
“Talk about putting an exclamation mark on the end of the story,” he said, marveling at the black-and-white photograph. That, William says, is Ella’s true triumph, her true place in American history.