Genealogy search uncovers relatives, family history for reporter
FOX Carolina's Will Jones meets with Dr. Connie Timmerman-McNeill (left) and Bernice Bennett in Edgefield. (File/FOX Carolina)
GREENVILLE, SC (FOX Carolina) -
For many people, researching their family history can be difficult and emotional, but many say it's always fulfilling.
FOX Carolina reporter Will Jones discovered how a look at his family ancestry online opened a whole new world he didn't know existed.
It started with an ancestry DNA test that Jones took on the genealogy website 23andMe. Bernice Bennett, of Maryland, sent him a message on the site that said their DNA results showed they were distant relatives. However, she didn't know where their family lines connected.
Bennett said she would be visiting the Upstate soon and wanted to meet Jones, so they met at FOX Carolina's studios in Greenville.
It didn't take long for Bennett and Jones to feel like family. Bennett is a long-time genealogist with an amazing story to tell about her roots in South Carolina.
That story took them about two hours away from Greenville to Edgefield, SC, where they met her friend Dr. Connie Timmerman-McNeill, of Abbeville.
Bennett and Timmerman-McNeill's friendship began in the summer of 2004 at the Old Edgefield District Genealogical Society where Timmerman-McNeill then served as president.
Bennett came to learn more about the Kemp side of her family. Timmerman-McNeill helped her with her research and discovered a piece of her own family history that was entangled with Bennett's in Edgefield.
"I was like how was she going to accept this," Timmerman-McNeill said.
Despite her fears, Timmerman-McNeill shared with Bennett her shocking discovery. Bennett had mixed emotions.
"In a way I was happy because I found them," Bennett said. "But sad in a way because I had to face that reality."
Bennett learned that not only were her ancestors enslaved but her new friend, Timmerman-McNeill, was the descendants of their slave owners, the Kemps. Timmerman-McNeill had all the documents to prove it, including estate documents.
On one estate document, Andrew, Bennett's great-great grandfather, was valued at 400 dollars. He was only a child at the time.
Bennett said she found it difficult to grasp that her ancestors were thought of as property.
"That's hard because you have to accept the fact that your family members were counted along with the cattle, the furniture, the silverware," she said.
Bennett and Timmerman-McNeill have maintained their friendship despite their connection to one of the darkest periods in American history.
Bennett said it's important to embrace the past, understand it and move forward. Timmerman-McNeill said she considers Bennett family. She said she jokes with Bennett about them being the Kemp girls. When the Kemp girls get together, Jones quickly learned anything can happen.
They had a surprise for him about his roots in South Carolina.
While originally from Cincinnati, OH, Jones's maternal grandparents Louis Gibert and Vollie Gibert (nee Williams) were from Abbeville County. He knew some information about his South Carolina ancestry but not much.
Bennett and Timmerman-McNeill found his great-great grandfather, John Williams, in the census records and told him Williams was born into slavery in the 1840s in Abbeville County.
That was just the beginning.
Bennett told Jones that Williams was a member of the U.S. Colored Troops, stationed in Vicksburg, MS. He enlisted in 1864, joining the Fifth United States Colored Heavy Artillery. His great-great grandfather was one of 185,000 black soldiers who served in the Union Army during the Civil War, fighting for freedom.
"Wow. I had no idea," Jones said after the discovery.
Bennett said people's pasts have a lot to do with their futures.
"It gives you that sense of accomplishment, that sense of encouragement that you know you can go forward," Bennett said. "If they can do it, you could do it, too."
With a past so bright, Jones said he can only imagine what the future holds for him.
"It's a legacy that I'm proud to carry-on."
Copyright 2012 FOX Carolina (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.
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