Fellow roots-enthusiasts know that when you research a family tree — even when it’s not your own — there are always one or two ancestors who call the loudest, and in this instance, it was Adelia. This is what I’ve been able to unearth of her story.
Adelia didn’t even make it to 30, but experienced more in that short span than most do in lifetimes that last twice as long. And if she hadn’t existed, neither would her great-great-granddaughter, congresswoman and vice-presidential contender, Val Demings.
Adelia, who sometimes went by Delia, was born in Florida around 1843, and I first encountered her in the 1870 census with her husband and their daughter Melvina. Melvina would one day become Rep. Demings’s great-grandmother, but at this moment in time captured in the first post-Emancipation census, she was a toddler of three. The family resided in Mandarin, a citrus-producing village that would eventually become part of Jacksonville.
Fast forward a decade to the 1880 census and Melvina was living with her father and had acquired seven siblings, but Adelia was gone. In her place was Lourania, so what had happened to Adelia? I had to know.
I began by confirming that Adelia and Lourania weren’t the same person. That may sound strange since the names are so different, but they were both three syllables ending with “ia” and census-takers at the time weren’t exactly renowned for their accuracy, so I wanted to be sure.
A dive into marriage records popped up the 1865 marriage of “Delia Floyed” to “Ruben Bryan,” as expected from the couple’s names in the 1870 census. Now I knew her maiden name!
A second marriage for Reuben — this one in 1873 to “Lorena Manton” (aka Lourania Wanton) — removed all doubts about Adelia and Lourania. They were definitely different women. Adelia and Reuben had four children with the last born around 1872. Given circumstances at the time, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that she died in childbirth or shortly thereafter, but whatever the cause of her death, she would have only been about 29.
I had snippets of her life from 1870 and 1865, but could I find more? She wasn’t in the 1860 census, so I knew that she had probably been enslaved, meaning that some serious sleuthing would be required and there were no guarantees. This is when the genealogical gods smiled upon me.
As is my habit, I had spent time early in the course of my research googling to learn more about the time and place, and while doing so, stumbled across a potentially interesting resource. In November of 1864, a special census had been conducted in the vicinity by military authorities. Huh. The Union conducted a census in eastern Florida in 1864?
Better yet, it included African Americans by name, a rarity for census records at the time. Though the reason is uncertain, some speculate that the Union was on the lookout for potential recruits for the U.S. Colored Troops. Now I was definitely interested.
The Florida State Genealogical Society published a transcription available for $35. What were the odds that some of Val Demings’s family members would be in there? Was it worth it? I had to try. When the book arrived, I methodically searched for each of her ancestors who would have lived in the area at the time but kept coming up empty. Down to my last one and resigning myself to disappointment, I saw her name: “Adilia Floyed.”
She was reported as being 21 years old and 5’5” tall with black eyes and complexion. What a bonus to have a physical description! But this was tempered by seeing her listed as “Contraband” — goods that have been imported or exported illegally. She was apparently free, but still regarded as property. A column on the far right revealed that she had ventured into Jacksonville from somewhere in the same county around March 15, 1862, suggesting that this is when she had gained her freedom.
Further inspection of the records showed that the enumerator had described just about all those categorized as “Contraband” as having black eyes and complexion, so I realized that Adelia’s height was the only aspect of her appearance that had some validity. Still, every detail is precious to descendants.
And then there was this — the name “E. Grissom” in the column entitled “Where registered for draft or former owner.”
This is a double-edged sword moment in African American genealogy. Seeing something as specific as an enslaver’s name hammers the reality home. This was the person who thought it was acceptable to own human beings. Speaking strictly in genealogical terms, though, this is critical information. Because the enslaved were seen and treated as property, much of their pre-Emancipation paper trail is found in that of the enslaver.
Equipped with his name, I searched the index for any others who had provided the same one, and while there were none for this man, there were quite a few for a Jesse Grissom. It didn’t take much effort to discover that Jesse Grissom (aka Gresham) was the father of Ephraim Grissom (the only man of this surname in the region whose first name began with ‘E’), so it was reasonable to assume that Adelia had some connection to the others who gave Jesse’s name.
The fact that she was the only one who indicated Ephraim gave me pause. Why hadn’t she said Jesse? I feared the obvious reason — that Ephraim had taken “ownership” of her in more ways than one. I braced myself for a closer look into the Grissom/Gresham family.
Not surprisingly, they were Confederates. Ephraim had served with a spotty history of being absent without leave and deserting, but it was a document about his father Jesse that commanded my attention. In August of 1863, he submitted a claim to the Confederacy for “slaves lost.”
In it, Jesse stated that the “negro slaves named in the annexed schedule were received, harbored, and carried away by forces of the United States then occupying the St. Johns River, from the plantation of the deponent.” He mentioned that this had taken place in April 1862, not far off from the March 15th date given in Adelia’s 1864 census. I turned to the schedule, and there she was: Delia.
Her age was given as 18 and she was recorded with a valuation of $2,000. Deep breath. I’ve researched so many records of this sort, but you never get used to seeing dollar amounts assigned to human beings.
What I saw next made my eyes fly open: “2 twins of Delia, Bill & Letitia, 2 years old each.”
She had twins when she 16 or 17. The fear I had earlier about Ephraim became more real. Had he raped Adelia? While there would be no documents to confirm this with absolute certainty, a deeper investigation of Ephraim revealed that he had children with at least one other woman his father enslaved, so yes, this was very much in keeping with who he was. Such a common story that it’s reflected in our DNA¹, it can be all too easy to gloss over the horrific reality at the individual level. My heart ached for Adelia. And I grimaced as it dawned on me that Jesse Grissom had likely claimed damages for the liberation of his own grandchildren.
The twins were no longer with Adelia in the 1870 census, so I wondered what had become of them. Returning to the 1864 census, I took a second look at those who had identified Jesse Grissom as their enslaver. There were no entries for a toddler named Bill or William so he probably died young as so many did back then, but there was little “Lutisha” with an older woman named Sarah, leading me to ponder whether perhaps Sarah was Adelia’s mother. That’s a question to pursue another time, but cross-referencing the 27 “slaves lost” in Grissom’s claim with those who mentioned him in the 1864 census resulted in an overlap of 17 individuals, and their clusters hinted at possible family units. I tried to follow Letitia forward in time, but there were a handful of candidates and I didn’t have enough information to pluck out the correct one, assuming she had survived the 1860s.
Adelia’s life may have been abbreviated, but she still managed to leave much of her story behind for those willing to look for it. And I suspect there’s more to learn as she once resided in the vicinity of Kingsley Plantation which still stands today and was the subject of a fascinating ethnohistorical study which includes mention of linked families, both Black and white.
A resilient survivor, Adelia didn’t wait for Emancipation to secure her freedom. That steely resolve, it seems, has been passed on to her descendants.
¹ The average African American genome is nearly a quarter European and almost 4% of European Americans have African ancestry.