A Sister’s Love, Annie Jennie Grimsley Tiller

Great Aunt Jennie was the third daughter of my maternal Great-Great-grandparents, Samuel Grimsley and Nettie Smart. Her oldest sister was my Great-grandmother Sarah Lula Grimsley Ervin.

My Grimsley ancestors lived in Abbeville, Henry County, Alabama. Henry County’s border touches the Georgia’s state line.

Sarah, her husband, Jarrett Ervin, and their four children migrated to Columbus, Ohio, in the early 1920s.

Jennie and her husband, Carl Tiller were a childless couple. They migrated to Bayonne, New Jersey, in the early 1930s.

Annie Jennie nicknamed Zada called Sadie came to visit her sister in 1932.

How do I know these names are for the same person?

  1. 1910 Alabama Census shows daughter Gennie Grimsley, nine years old.
  2. 1920 Alabama Census shows daughter Annie Grimsley, 18 years old.
  3. The Ohio death certificate shows, Jennie Tiller, her parents Sam and Nettie
  4. The Alabama marriage certificate shows Zada and Carl Tiller
  5. 1930 New Jersey Census shows Jennie Tiller

My mom’s oldest sister, Aunt Ceil, told me this story about Jennie’s visit.

Jennie didn’t return home to her husband.

Sarah had been ill, near death. When Jennie saw her lying in bed, she prayed, “God allow me to take on her sickness so she can care for her many children.” Sarah had four children at the time of her sister’s visit; three sons and a daughter had previously passed. After her prayer, Jennie became ill. She laid down in Sarah’s bed. Sarah’s health improved, and she rose out of that bed. Jennie died. Family members said an image of a dove appeared and flew away when Jennie passed.

Just like that Aunt Jennie went onto glory.

Abstracted Jennie Tiller’s death certificate

I never repeated that story, until I found some evidence that supports Aunt Ceil’s account about an aunt dying on a visit to Columbus.

Jennie Tiller’s Ohio death certificate shows that she was not a Columbus resident. Jennie died from Bronchial Pneumonia, Influenza on December 19th, 1932. Mrs. Irvin, Sarah is the informant. I discovered a small blurb in the 1933 Jersey Journal Newspaper stating Carl Tiller was an heir to $500 from Jennie’s death.


The Flu is a contagious respiratory illness. It is still a dangerous illness to contract. According to the 1932 Mortality schedule, 129,540 people died to Influenza and pneumonia. Data for Columbus, Ohio, shows that over 200 African Americans died in 1932 from the illness. Jennie is in that number.

Mortality Schedule 1932 Columbus, Ohio African Americans died from the Flu or Pneumonia like illnesses

There is an expression that says; There is no greater love than a brother to lay down his life for another. In this story, Jennie had loved her sister; she died for Sarah to live.

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The repositories and databases I accessed to support my Aunt’s account of our family history are listed below.

Familysearch an online census records database.

GenealogyBank, an online newspaper database.


UPDATE: On June 15th, 2021, A correction includes Sarah lost a daughter.

Elnora Freeman Jennings

My mother introduced me to my maternal Great-grandmother Elnora Freeman Jennings in 1976. It was a 1908 Memorial portrait, a casket photograph. As creepy as a photo of a dead person sounds, I am glad my Great-grandfather Walter Lee Jennings agreed to have the picture made of his wife. She was pretty. My mom looks like her. Matter of fact, their hair was styled the same that day in Afros. Grandma Nora was a head of her time, a “Naturalista.”

Memorial Portraits were common back in the day, but Grandma Elnora’s is the only one I saw in my family to have one made. I think her husband decided to have the picture made so their children would remember their mother. When she passed their children were young. Frank was turning seven, Adele was five years old, and Arthur, who went by his middle name Lee was only 18 months.

The Youngstown Vindicator Newspaper issue November 11th, 1908 reads “Mrs. Jennings dead.” The death announcement included her cause of death, Typhoid Fever.

The cause of death surprised me. The story I heard was that she died on an operating table.

I am familiar with Typhoid Fever disease. In third grade, I gave an oral report on Typhoid Mary, a New York Cook, Mary Mallon infected 51 people from 1907 – 1915. Three people died as a result. There was an epidemic in Philadelphia in 1906. Elnora gave birth to Frank in that city in 1901. Maybe my Great-grandparents lived Philly for a few years.

Typhoid Fever

Typhoid Fever is contracted through contaminated food or water. During this time, people did not use or prepare food with the healthy practices that we use today. We wash fruits and vegetables before eating, and do not eat food at room temperature. The disease is related to Salmonella poisoning. In 1914 an Army doctor developed a Typhoid vaccine that became available for the general public six years after Elnora’s death.

Before becoming a mother and a wife, Elnora was the seventh child of Henry and Hannah Freeman in Halifax County, Virginia. Her mother Hannah Palmer Young died in 1892. Elnora was eight years old. Her father remarried. The 1900 census record shows Henry with his new bride, Rebecca Hamlet, daughter, Elnora, twin daughters Martha and Mary, and stepson Aron Hamlet. Elnora’s six older siblings no longer lived at home.

Even though my mom looks like her, my mom is not her namesake. Her sister is. I learned that a namesake doesn’t share the exact spelling of the honorary person’s name. I ran into research challenges online. My aunt spells her name E-l-e-a-n-o-r like former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. When I typed Elnora’s name like my aunt spells her name, a birth registry for Nora appeared on I thought to dismiss the hint, but I read the entire entry. I recognized Great-grandpa’s name and my Grandpa’s name included on the 1907 Ohio Birth Registry. Then I accepted the document as proof of Elnora’s existence.

The next document I found for Elnora is when she married her husband on March 5th, 1901. Her marriage registration does not list her parents, only Walter’s. I wonder if her father approved of her choice. Their oldest son, Frank was born nine months later on December 25th. Grand Uncle Frank’s birth registry shows his name a Noel. I guess Elnora felt the Noel fit due to the holiday. Uncle Frank didn’t keep Noel as his first name. Records show Uncle Frank using the letter N as his middle initial. The N is not for Noel, but Nora.

Abstracted marriage registry Halifax County, VA 1901 Family History Center

The birth registry included Elnora’s birth place as Virginia. This detail also confirmed that this entry was my family. Grandpa Lee would share stories about growing up in Virginia. After Elnora passed Walter Lee’s parents Orange and Mary Jennings raised Uncle Frank, Aunt Adele and Grandpa Lee on their Halifax County farm. Walter Lee remained in Youngstown working the steel mills.

The steel mills is what bought Elnora and Walter Lee to Youngstown, Ohio. The Youngstown city directories give three different addresses for the young family from 1906 through 1908. In 1906 they lived at 478 Andrews Avenue. The second address in 1907 was on 1401 West Federal Avenue. Then in 1908 they resided at 1856 West Federal Avenue, her last home.

Walter Lee remarried in 1912 to a Canadian woman of African descent named Margaret Cobb. Family members I interviewed shared that her nickname was “Mags.” She gave birth to my Grandfather’s youngest brother, Uncle Roy in 1916.

I mention Grandpa Walter Lee’s second marriage because many relatives believe that’s his only marriage. They never heard the name, Elnora, their direct ancestor. Without her, many of us would not be here.

Elnora Freeman Jennings Never Forgotten Never Forget

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Finding Obituaries

There are online services that have historical newspapers databases. Some are free and some have a fee. I always try free first when searching for obituaries.

I several documents told Elnora’s story. My Amazon Affiliate program has the tools to stay organized!

Special Thanks to the Ohio Genealogy Society and Stacey Adger for their time in locating the news articles and burial records.


In this blog, I am sharing how my interest in family history began after watching the 1977’s T.V. series Roots by Alex Haley.

I was so inspired by Mr. Haley’s storytelling of his family’s history that my mom bought me an Ebony Jr., family research kit to build my family tree and a cassette tape recorder to record my family interviews.

I scheduled my first interview with my Great-grandpa Jarrett Ervin. Ervin is spelled E-R-V-I-N. I am pointing out this spelling because it has changed over the years. Great-Grandpa was in his 90s. He lived in Columbus, Ohio, with his oldest daughter Mary, who was my maternal Grandmother. Grandpa Ervin’s bedroom was at the end of the hall.

His room had an armoire, and not a closet. 

He was a widower by seven years. His wife Great-grandma Sarah Grimsley Ervin passed in 1970.

I asked him my first question, “Grandpa Ervin, What was it like living in Alabama?”

As he opened his box of photos, he answered slavery. He handed me a picture of a woman standing in a field of cotton. He pointed that’s my sister.

I couldn’t focus on the photograph because his answer confused me.

Grandpa Ervin, you were not born in slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was during the Civil War. I explained.

He repeated that it was slavery. Then he signaled for me to return his photo and proceeded to close his box, escorted me out of his room and shut the door.

I was a young, inexperienced ten year -old interviewer. Since my first interview, I understand to ask follow-up questions rather than to correct someone’s experience.

When Grandpa Ervin shut his door, he shut down my interest in family history too.

Recently, family history piqued my interest again. has made researching easy. In their database is where I found them. I found Grandpa Ervin’s dad with his parents, his sister, his grandparents, and cousins by the dozens living together in the 1880 census. It was a great discovery.

I called my mom on the telephone. I described to her their beautiful names, Boston, Luke, Mariah, Julia, Moses, Prophet, and Shepherd. Another thing about their names, their surname was spelled I-r-w-i-n.

How did I find this census record?

  1. I visited my Grand Uncle Michael. Great-Grandpa Ervin’s son. I asked him what were his Grandparents’ names. I called my mom’s older sister and asked her who were Great-Grandparents.
  2. I visited I went to their search tab and typed in their names that were given to me, and the location.
  3. I sorted through the list of populated hints. I noticed their last name was spelled five different ways, Irwin, Irving, Irvine, Irvin, and Ervin.
  4. I looked at the community on the census record. I looked at their neighbors. I recognized other family names, the people the Ervins married.
  5. Lastly, DNA confirmed extended family relationships.

Today I will highlight my Cousin Shepherd. When I see the name Shepherd, I think of someone responsible, law-abiding, and brave.

According to the census records, Shepherd was born 1862. I smiled. I thought he did not have to pick cotton for free.

Shepherd and my great-great-grandfather Boston (Jarrett’s father) were first cousins. They were a year apart in age. I can imagine they were like brothers like their fathers Luke and Moses. Luke was Boston’s father and Moses, Shepherd’s.

How do I know Boston and Shepherd were first cousins?

  1. There were 20 family members listed together.
  2. A 5th – 8th cousin range DNA match sent me a message asking if his ancestor came across my path.
  3. His direct ancestor was Shepherd’s brother Huey/Hugh Irving.
  4. Our 5th cousin relationship fits our direct common ancestors.

The next document I would find for Shepherd would be a convict’s record. This find would be a shock to my soul.

How do I know for certain that it’s Shepherd

  1. I confirmed the dates, location, and family on the document.
  2. I searched other online sources for any other activity for Shepherd.

Shepherd broke the law…

He was convicted of robbery on March 2, 1899, and sentenced for 25 years. He would have been 27 years old. The record does not fit my notion of someone with the name Shepherd. The file does not provide details of what was stolen. I doubt it valued 25 years of Shepherd’s life. My Great-grandpa Ervin was 12 years old during this time.

To paint a clearer picture of Shepherd’s conviction, I must go back to 1865 when the 13th amendment abolished slavery. The Southern states suffered financially due to the loss of free labor. As a result, Southerners concocted black codes and city ordinances to restrict the newly freed Americans’ freedoms. African Americans found themselves falsely accused of crimes and bogus violations. There were trials, but not trials judged by a jury of their peers, but all white male jurors.

As an Alabama inmate, Shepherd worked at Pratts Mills, a textile company – cotton. Alabama prisons had a practice of leasing their convicts. They arranged for prisoners to work for private companies or individual planters. These agreements covered the inmates’ food and housing.

Shepherd more than likely worked in the picker house to haul the boxes of cotton to be cleaned. Something I thought Shepherd would not have to experience picking cotton without pay. In my opinion, an incarcerated person working in a picker house hauling cotton is the same as an enslaved person working in the cotton field. It is forced labor without pay. We understand today that convict leasing is coined “slavery by another name.”

Even the great Confederate cavalry genius Nathan Bedford Forrest, his regiments eviscerated by four years of war, was swept aside with impunity. Wilson crushed the last functioning industrial complex of the Confederacy and left Alabama in a state of complete chaos. 

Author Douglas A. Blackmon, “Slavery by Another Name.”

Many times in the convict leasing settings, these inmates were unsupervised. Arguments would become physical. No one in authority was there to stop any brawls. Sometimes these fights would end in death. I believe that was my cousin Shepherd’s fate. The record described his injuries as left eye out, scar over the eye, and a scar on lower left chin.

On December 22, 1900, another inmate took Shepherd’s life.

My Great-grandpa Ervin would have been 14 years old. Old enough to attend a funeral, old enough to listen to grown folks talk about what happened to Cousin Shepherd, and old enough to understand that after the North won the Civil War, President Lincoln proclaimed emancipation, and the 13th amendment abolished slavery, he lived in an oppressive state.

Great-grandpa Ervin described to me his Alabama experience correctly.

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It was slavery.