Monday, September 13, 2010

What Happened to Byrd Freels?

A number of years ago, I lived in East Tennessee and worked for my geologist father in his small oil exploration company. One of our tasks was to research property deeds before committing to a drilling project, and that meant going all the way back to the first deed registered. We were going through records in the basement of the Morgan County Courthouse, and Dad had showed me how to research old hand-written deeds. We had to not only check the names and signatures but the property descriptions.

It wasn't uncommon to see descriptions that said "120 paces to the White Oak tree, now fallen..." and that sort of thing. Just as common were signatures marked "X (John Jones, His Mark)", since many people couldn't read or write, and someone else had to witness the signature.

That's where my story begins. I had just followed the chain of deeds back to just after the Civil War. On this one, the signatures, signing over the property to John S. (I don't want to tell you his real name, knowing he still has descendants in the area), were "X (Byrd Freels, His Mark)" and "Matilda Freels".

Okay, on to the deed to the Freels family. I found it easily.  It was signed, "Byrd Freels" and "Matilda Freels".

"Dad, come and look at this," I said. He looked at one, then the other. His eyes got really big. Just how could it be that both Byrd Freels and his wife could read and write and sign the deed to acquire the property, but when it came time to sell, only she could read and write?

So Dad took us out into the country to meet an old man he knew who was well versed in the oral history of the county. Here is what he told us:

After the Civil War a Free black man named Byrd Freels arrived in that rural Tennessee county with money to buy a farmstead, which he did. There was a man down the road named John S., who was very hostile to the Freels family, who harassed them regularly. One day John S saw the Freels' dog and shot it. Freels picked up his shotgun and went after John S, killing him. Then Freels vanished, and the said he had high-tailed it out to the West, but not before signing over his property to John S's son by the same name. But, said the historian, the whispers said the white men had chased Freels down and tarred and feathered him before lynching him. He had no explanation for the signatures, and had no idea what had happened to Mathilda.

I always figured Byrd had been lynched and Matilda forced to sign. But a number of years later I was working in a store in Olympia, Washington, when a black man came in to do business.  When he signed his name, I stared. Byrd Freels. I asked him if his ancestors had come from Tennessee, and his faced turned to steely hatred. "We don't talk about that," he said.

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