African-American Bembrys

I am a white Bembry, and my own line of descent is the main focus of my research. However, there are at least as many African-American Bembrys as white Bembrys in the U.S. today. So, I’ve been looking into how all these families may be connected.

It seems that the relationship between the white and black Bembrys was not always strictly “black and white” so to speak. There is circumstantial evidence that at least one white Bembry man had children by a black woman. White Bembrys gave land to at least one, and probably two, of their former slaves after emancipation, and some of the black Bembrys continued to live alongside the white Bembrys for decades after the war.

Enslaved Bembrys were given “special consideration” in at least one white Bembry will, in an effort to keep a slave family together. When some of the enslaved Bembrys were lost by an in-law due to debt, another in-law sued for their return “on behalf of his wife’s relatives.”

If the Bembrys had been on Facebook back then, their relationship status would have been “It’s Complicated.” 🙂

Here is some information about the major Bembry slaveholders that may be useful to those tracing their slave roots. I hope to add more named slaves to this page eventually.

Miles Bembry owned a small plantation just east of Rocky Mount, NC. In 1830, this plantation included 18 slaves, a number that remained more or less consistent from 1810-1830. In a “conveyance” that Miles wrote in 1832, he specified several slaves by name that were given to his son John’s children, and were to be kept together until the youngest grandchild came of age. John’s children’s names were Penelope (later married David Scarborough), John, Kenneth, and Sarah Ann. The names of the slaves were Dinah, Dick, Alice and Saline.

It is interesting that the will specified that that the four named slaves were to be kept together until Miles’ grandson Kenneth came of age. Kenneth was no older than 7 in 1832, so they would not be separated for at least another 11 years, when he reached the age of 18, or maybe even 21, depending on what “of age” meant at that time. This seems to indicate some personal concern for that particular slave family on Miles’ part. “Special consideration” for slaves with whom the master had a personal relationship of some kind was common at the time, and many wills include stipulations of one kind or another for especially valued slaves, including children that had resulted from liaisons with them.

The 1870 census shows a “mulatto” man named Richard Bembry living right next door to John Bembry, grandson of Miles, in Pulaski County, with his family, all of whom are listed as mulatto. He was born 1820-1824 in North Carolina. Richard is probably the “Dick” listed in Miles’ will, above.  If he is a “mulatto,” then some white man was his father. That man was probably Miles Bembry.

John died (or ran off) before Miles’ death in 1838. Dinah and her children, Berry, Jacob, Eleanor and Oran were then were given to Penelope, under unclear terms. She and her husband, David Scarborough, also appear to have been the guardians of her younger siblings, and so I suppose it was logical they they would also take possession of Dinah’s family as well.

Penelope’s husband went broke in 1841 and the sheriff took and sold Dinah and her children to settle debt. Oran ended up being owned by a man named Willis Leonard. (Interestingly, the name “Oran” is also found among the white Bembrys. John’s son Kenneth had a posthumous daughter named Kenneth Oran in 1863.)

In 1845, David sued for the return of Oran on behalf of his wife’s siblings and lost. More details can be found in Supreme Court of Georgia decision, Leonard Versus Scarborough, 1847.

The 1830 census reveals a slave the right age to be Richard, as well as several women the right age to be Dinah in Miles’ household. I am unable to find the 1840 census listing for David Scarborough, but Richard would presumably have belonged to him at that time, although it is possible that when he reached adulthood he was sold to, or given to, another Bembry.

Penelope’s sibling John, Kenneth (both killed in the Civil War), and a sister, Sarah Ann, would have each inherited one of the other slaves (Richard, Alice and Saline.) In 1860, John Bembry has a slave the right age to be Richard in his household in Dooly county, GA. John died shortly afterward it would make sense that Richard would be passed to John’s cousin, also named John Bembry, who lived in nearby Pulaski county. This John Bembry, a son of Thomas Bembry and grandson of Miles, would in fact be Richard’s nephew.

So, that is my working theory, which cannot be positively proved or disproved at this time. But here we have a mixed-race man of about the same age as a white man, with the same last name, born in the same state, living next to each other, apparently voluntarily, in another state 50 years later. Regardless of the other details of the story, what are the odds that they are not related?

Richard Bembry married a woman named Harriet, also mulatto. In 1870 they have nine children listed: Seaborn, Peggy, Richard, Rosanna, Hardy, Lincoln, Isabella, Clifford, and Dock.

Richard died about 1876, and Harriet married a black farmer named John Westbrook who was twenty years older than she was–and apparently willing to take in a houseful of children.  On the 1880 census the children have his last name, but on later censuses they revert to Bembry. Most are found in the Pulaski and Dooly County area for decades afterwards. Seaborn and the younger Richard are listed as property owners on the 1883-1887 tax digests in the same district (Hawkinsville), though as defaulters. Two other Bembrys on the same page of the tax digest are probably also black: Thomas and Peter.

Miles’s sons all inherited and owned slaves as well.  Most likely his daughters also owned or inherited slaves, but they would presumably be less likely to adopt the name Bembry years later.

In 1830, Miles’ son John Bembry owned ten slaves in Leon County.

John’s younger brother, Kenneth Bembry, of Tallahassee, was quite wealthy and owned forty slaves by the time he died in 1851.

William Miles Bembry also had a plantation in Leon County, though he resided in Hawkinsville, Georgia, and owned nineteen slaves in 1830. He died in 1839, leaving his plantation, and presumably his slaves, to his son, also named William Miles Bembry. He owned 85  slaves in Pulaski County on the 1860 slave schedule.

Thomas Bembry owned very few slaves. Six are listed in Edgecombe County, NC,  in 1830, and three in Pulaski County, GA in 1840. There is a notice of a sale of a slave named Rose in 1841 in order to settle a financial dispute between David Scarborough and Thomas Bembry. Rose may originally have been another of Miles Bembry’s slaves. Thomas seems to have gone bankrupt shortly after that point, and owned no slaves by 1850.

Of Miles’ other grandchildren, there are only a few who could have owned slaves.

Miles’ son Kenneth only had one daughter, Henrietta, who would presumably have inherited some of his slaves upon his death.  She married a wealthy man named Hunter B. Fisher in 1854, and he would be named as their owner on the 1860 census. While I did not find an H Fisher on the 1860 slave schedule, there are over 2,700 slaves owned by Fishers in the state of Florida, so some were probably owned by him and the name is just incorrect on the schedule.

The only one of Thomas’ sons to own slaves was the oldest, John. In 1860 he owned six slaves, also in Pulaski County, Georgia.

In short, it is safe to assume that most African-Americans named Bembry who can trace their roots back to the Hawkinsville, Georgia area probably have ancestors who were owned by either William Miles Bembry or John Bembry, both grandsons of the first Miles Bembry. A search of the 1870 census results in about 60 black or “mulatto” individuals with the last name Bembry in the Pulaski/Dooly/Houston county area alone. There are many others in Leon County, Florida (Kenneth Bembry’s plantation) and some in North Carolina.

I am not sure why there are black Bembrys found in North Carolina in 1870. After all, Miles I died in 1838 and all his sons had moved out of the state by 1840. There are no Bembrys, white or black, found on the North Carolina census between 1840-1860. It is possible that they are just “hiding” with a misspelled name, but the name had settled into a fairly regular spelling of Bembry by 1840.

Maybe some of the black Bembrys had been freed before 1860 (in Miles’ will, perhaps), or simply decided to use the name of their first owner, rather than their last one.  I don’t know enough about African-American genealogy to say. But there are some interesting cases, such as an 88 year old man named Dempsey Bembry in Tarboro, Edgecombe County who is being cared for by a young black couple named Savage. He is certainly old enough to have been owned by Miles Bembry at some point. There is also  a Bembry family headed by a black man named Bolivar Bembry in Colerain, Bertie County, which is not far from Scotland Neck, the plantation where Miles worked as an overseer, or the farm that he owned.

Other miscellaneous Bembry slave names that I have gleaned from message boards etc. are: Hannah, Ned, Ben, Clamey, Jane, and Dorcas.

It should also be mentioned that there was one Bembry who fought for the Union side in the Civil War.  His name was Thomas Bembry and he served with the 136th U.S. Colored Infantry out of Atlanta, Georgia.  His name is listed on the African American Civil War Memorial. He is probably the same Thomas Bembry who is found later in 1870 living with his parents in Houston County, Georgia. So, there was a white Thomas Bembry fighting for the Confederacy, and a black Thomas Bembry fighting for the Union at the same time.

In another interesting twist,  a black man named John Elton Bembry was an important mentor to the militant civil rights activist Malcolm X while both were in prison.  John Elton is described as “tall and light-skinned” and, as such, may well be related to the white Bembrys.  Read more about him here (bottom of the page.)  A nephew to John Elton Bembry confirms that his family did originally come from the Edenton, NC area, so there is certainly some type of connection.


5 thoughts on “African-American Bembrys

  1. Could Toney (Tony) Bembry who is listed on the 1870 Census as a 16 year old black farm laborer in the Hickory Grove farming community of Houston County, residing with the Rawls family, be one of Richard’s sons? He lists his father’s birthplace as North Carolina. I was wondering because Tony is my great-grandfather on my mother’s side. Her family is from Hawkinsville. My grandmother, Fannie, was one of his daughters.
    Patricia Ross

    • I think that’s certainly possible. I would look on the 1860 slave schedule for John Bembry and see if there is a black male listed who is the right age to be Tony. But I would also check the 1860 slave schedule for the Rawls family to see if Tony might have been living with them all along. He could still be Richard’s son in that case, of course, but it seems somewhat less likely.

      • Could Toney (Tony) Bembry who is listed on the 1870 Census as a 16 year old black farm laborer in the Hickory Grove farming community of Houston County, residing with the Rawls family, be one of Richard’s sons? He lists his father’s birthplace as North Carolina. I was wondering because Tony is my great-grandfather on my mother’s side. Her family is from Hawkinsville. My grandmother, Fannie, was one of his daughters.
        Patricia Ross

  2. Thanks so much, I checked the 1860 slave schedules and John Bembry did have a black male slave who was six years old, which would have been Tony”s age at the time. I became curious about my grandmother’s ancestry because her family was mulatto, and my mother always said that their set of Bembrys was a different set than the other Bembrys in Hawkinsville. Also, the Rawls family that Tony lived with in Houston county in 1870 was black, so Tony may have moved there with them as a young man to earn money on his own. While checking the historical census tracks for Militia District 542 in Hawkinsville, the Bembry and Rawls families were frequently listed on the same pages, living within close proximity of each other, so the families may have had some kind of connection.

    • I have been collaborating with some black Bembrys from Hawkinsville, as a matter of fact. Maybe they are the “other” Bembrys that your grandmother mentioned? So far, I have not found a DNA connection with these Bembrys, though we seem to have a lot of historical connections. May I forward your information to them? Also, if you have done DNA testing, we can see if you match up with my dad. He is on Ancestry and Family Tree DNA. Email me at kbmgenealogy(AT) if you would like to look into this some more.

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