Learmond “Buddy” Hayes didn’t quite know what to think.
He’d always been vaguely curious about his lineage — “I watched ‘Roots’ in the ’70s like everybody else” — and a diabetes diagnosis gave a dormant interest more urgency. Family history and all.
So he started to do a little research. He learned details about a grandfather killed in an auto crash, in the ’20s, when they were rare.
That nugget prompted more digging; he sent a DNA sample off to be tested.
And that helped lead to something really remarkable.
Hayes learned about an ancestor who fought as a “free man of color” in the Revolutionary War, and received an invitation to become the first African American member of the local chapter Sons of the American Revolution.
But first he had to do a little more research.
“I thought it was like one of those Civil War things, and I wasn’t sure that was the kind of organization I wanted to deal with,” he said. “Then I found out what they were about.”
The Sons of the American Revolution, simply put, is an organization by and for history buffs who can trace direct lineage to a patriot who fought in (or supported in some way) the War for Independence.
“Every member is required to prove that their grandfather marched into battle, their grandmother secretly spied on the location and troop strengths or helped feed her son’s army,” said Fred Learned, a senior vice president of the N.C. Sons of the American Revolution and charter member of the local Bethabara chapter. “If you can prove your grandparents gave a horse or a hog, or gave (patriots) a coat or a blanket, that qualifies you for membership.”
Which is easier said than done.
Proving lineage two or three generations back can be difficult enough. Eight or nine can be darn near impossible without a lot of persistence and no small amount of luck.
“I have one ancestor listed only as a slave woman,” Hayes said. “Nothing else.”
Hayes has spent a fair amount of time digging through paper records in courthouses Down East, in Bladen, Cumberland and New Brunswick counties in particular, in an area where he spent time growing up.
These days, with the help of DNA testing and the considerable reach (and consolidation) of information on the internet, research can be faster.
Anyhow, his search drew him to a distant cousin from Wilmington named Kevin Graham. “I was born in Wilmington, so it wasn’t far-fetched,” Hayes said. “But I hadn’t heard the name Graham in the family before.”
And that’s when he found the big discovery.
Graham, a genealogy buff himself, had already done a great deal of legwork. The paper trail led to a man named John Blanks Sr. of Bladen County.
According to the research, Blanks Sr. fought as a captain in the Craven County Regiment of a North Carolina militia authorized in 1775 by the provincial Congress.
The regiment is known to have fought in the Battle of Moore’s Creek, at New Bern and other places near the border with South Carolina.
“I find it extraordinary that, whenever I go home, the same fields where I was running around, hunting and fishing when I was young, could have been the same fields where they fought and camped,” Hayes said. “Some of those battles were right there and I never knew it.”
As exciting as the news was, some things about John Blanks Sr. remains a mystery to Hayes.
In particular, he’s curious about 18th Century terminology.
“In some documents he’s listed as white or mulatto or other, which wasn’t uncommon,” he said. “I’m trying to determine how he became a ‘free person of color.’
“It could be that he emigrated from Africa to Europe and then came to America. Or maybe he was the son of a sailor.”
What’s not in doubt is Blanks’ status as an American veteran of the Revolutionary War. A pension check issued in 1784 — Hayes keeps a copy in his records — to him by the state of North Carolina proves it.
Black soldiers indeed fought as patriots, but their role isn’t mentioned often. The Sons of the American Revolution has compiled a list of 80 or so from Eastern North Carolina, but documentation can be difficult to locate.
So when Hayes learned about one of his ancestors, he was both surprised and pleased.
“I knew about Crispus Attucks,” he said, referring to a black man killed during the Boston Massacre, the first casualty of the Revolution, “but not much else. I didn’t realize African Americans fought for the United States.”
The next step — joining the Sons of the American Revolution — got easier once Hayes realized that the group’s mission was simply to honor those who’d fought for America’s independence from England.
Nothing divisive about that; and no hidden agendas.
He’s scheduled to be formally inducted at a luncheon later this week, and he’ll be the first African American member in the local chapter.
“It took all kinds of people to struggle for independence,” Learned said. “We’re very pleased.”
So is Hayes. He’s planning on taking two of his young nephews so they, too, can take pride in the family history.
“It’s not for me or anything I’ve done — trust me — but it’s to honor and respect an ancestor who did for all of us,” he said.