Today’s genealogical quest for US Black History Month looks at the African-American poet Cyrus Cassells. This is also the first of several articles I’ll write throughout this year to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. For several centuries the Magna Carta has been seen as a shining example of the granting or rights and freedoms under law. Cyrus Cassells’ ancestry illustrates several of these freedoms, not least of all the freedom from slavery.
Cyrus Curtis Cassells III
was born in Dover, Delaware, in 1957 and was named after his father and
grandfather. Much of Cyrus’s poetry gets its inspiration from his family
history, though I’m not sure exactly how much he really knows about his
Cyrus’s father, Cyrus
Cassells junior, was one of only 6 African-American entrants to West Point
academy in 1955, and when they were assigned segregated quarters they refused
to enter their rooms. Bravely they stood their ground and were assigned new
quarters where they lived among the white cadets. Cyrus junior joined the US
Air Force, studied for a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, and joined
NASA in 1980 as a project engineer. In 1995 he was instrumental in the reversing
of the court-martials of “the Tuskagee Airmen”, black pilots of World War II,
one of whom was his brother-in-law.
Cyrus junior wasn’t the
first in the family to fight for his rights. Back in the early 19th
century members of the Cassells family were helping fellow African-Americans to
escape slavery. The
Cassells were themselves slaves. In about 1814 Thomas James Cassells (Cyrus’s
3xgreat-grandfather) was born into slavery. His mother was a slave called
Rachel Hill and his father was her white owner William Cassells of Virginia.
Although many slave owners were guilty of legal rape and fathered many
illegitimate children it is apparent from surviving documents that William
treated Rachel and her children as his family.
The two had 7 children, and
William bought Rachel and her children land in Ohio while they were still
slaves. Slavery was illegal in Ohio but racism existed. William couldn’t give
his family their freedom in Ohio, however, as that would require posting a bond
of $500 (a fortune in those days) to the Ohio government for each individual
settling there from another state. William may have been wealthy, but not that
wealthy. So he ensured that when he died they would be classed as Ohio
landowners and entitled to settle on their land without paying a bond.
No doubt fearing legal
reprisals back home in Virginia William chose not to free his family, giving
the appearance to the outside world that they were slaves. He didn’t give them
their freedom, along with his other slaves, until his death in 1824.
Using part of her Ohio
property Rachel Hill ordered the building of one of the first schools for
children of former slaves (which was named after her) in Berlin Crossroads,
Ohio, in 1869. Her whole family seem to have been well educated while they were
officially slaves of William Cassells, some of the very few slaves to be given
any form of education.
Two of Rachel’s sons
entered a dangerous and secret underworld where they risked their lives daily.
Thomas James Cassells and his younger brother John were active participants in
a network of secret escape routes for slaves called the “Underground Railroad”
of which the Ohio network was the most active. I wrote briefly about the
Underground Railroad in my “Out of Their Trees” article on Langston Hughes,
whose grandfather was a neighbour of the Cassells and a leading member of the
Members of the Underground
Railroad would seek out escaped slaves. The Cassells brothers were “agents” at
Berlin Crossroads, people who helped the refugees to find somewhere to stay, or
obtain money from supporters before journeying by rail to securer freedom
Another of the Cassells’
neighbours were the Woodsons, also freed slaves, who were even more involved in
the Underground Railroad. They personally led the refugees from hiding place to
the rail station. The danger they faced from their racist neighbours is
illustrated by an apocryphal story in which two Woodson brothers were beaten to
death when their activities were discovered. Their sister Frances went on to
marry Thomas James Cassells and their eldest son, Cyrus Crayton Cassells
(1845-1919), is poet Cyrus Cassells’ great-great-grandfather. Their youngest
son, Thomas Frank Cassells (c.1847-1903), moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and
became the first black Assistant Attorney General of Memphis in 1878. Two years
later he was elected to the Tennessee General Assembly.
It would be remiss of me
not to mention the most intriguing aspect of Cyrus Cassells’ ancestry. Family
tradition says that the Woodsons were grandchildren of President Thomas
Jefferson. At first this seems unlikely, until you realise that Frances
Woodson, wife of Thomas James Cassells, was said to be the grand-daughter of
Sally Hemmings, a slave of President Jefferson.
Gossip about Jefferson
fathering several children with Sally was going around in his own lifetime.
Debate and controversy has continued into the present century with some
historians accepting it as fact. Jefferson’s children was said to have been
“fostered out” to a white farm owner called John Woodson from whom they took
their name. The whole matter is dealt with comprehensively on this website. The
most recent belief, based on DNA tests, is that the Woodson’s have no bloodline
links to Jefferson, or any conclusive proof that Sally Hemmings is their
ancestor. Family tradition is a strange thing so perhaps the Jefferson
connection has some other basis.
Cyrus Cassells’ maternal
ancestry also exhibits high achievement among black Americans of the late 19th
and early 20th centuries. Cyrus’s mother, Isabel Williston, was,
like his father, of mixed-race heritage. Isabel’s African-American great-grandfather,
Frank Williston, obtained an important job with the IRS, and her great-uncle
Edward was a respected physician who became Professor of Obstetrics and Howard
grandmother was Mary Lena Riddle, a white woman whose ancestor emigrated to the
USA from Scotland in the early 18th century. The Riddles are members
of the Riddel clan of Roxburghshire in the Scottish Borders. Through them Cyrus
Cassells has a hereditary claim to wear the Riddell tartan. So I’ll leave you
with the thought of Cyrus Cassells in a kilt and wearing the family badge
proudly on his chest.