Following in the footsteps of her family and a well-known chronicler of old Whitehaven, the writer traces her roots in Memphis’s city to the south.
By Lori D. Johnson
Part I – McCorkles, Cannons & Finding Celia
February 18, 1989, marks the day that I first sat down with my grandmother, Ethel V. Johnson (1912-1999), and recorded our conversations about our family’s origins and our historical ties to Johnson Subdivision (aka Johnson Sub) – a small Black community located in the southern portion of Memphis, Tennessee that was founded by the formerly enslaved and their offspring. While those recordings with my MaDear contain tidbits of information which, at the time, I found interesting, it wasn’t until years later that I would fully appreciate the degree to which they substantiate my family’s deep roots in the South Memphis community known as Whitehaven.
Consider the following for example:
“The baby was born and raised on McCorkle Place, right here on Raines . . . right behind the police station. That’s where we stayed in a house and that’s where the little boy was born.”
(Ethel V. Johnson “MaDear” 2/18/1989)
The “baby” being referred to in the interview excerpt was MaDear’s younger brother, Venter Hunter Junior, who died shortly after he was born. Her description of her brother’s passing is a fairly detailed and emotional account that she shared with me on more than one occasion. At the time of the tragedy, MaDear and her family were living on “McCorkle Place,” where her father Venter Sr, farmed three to five acres for the property’s owner – Joseph Harris McCorkle.
What I didn’t know when my grandmother first told me the story was that the McCorkles were one of Whitehaven’s founding families. Anna Leigh McCorkle (daughter of Joseph Harris McCorkle) chronicled the community’s history in her 1967 book Tales of Old Whitehaven. It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve confirmed via the Census available on Ancestery.com that not only did my relatives work on “The McCorkle Place” but in the Census of 1920, my then seven-year-old grandmother, and her entire family (parents, siblings, and grandparents) were practically living next door to the then twenty-four-year-old Anna L. McCorkle and her family. Whether a clerical or reporting error, the surname of every member of MaDear’s household in the 1920 Census is incorrectly recorded as “Hunter.” While it is true that MaDear (Ethel), her sisters (Mamie and Alean) and her parents (Ruth and Venter) were all Hunters, the surname of the first two individuals listed in the household, MaDear’s grandparents (Charlie and Margett) was actually “Cannon.”
The presence of MaDear’s grandparents in the household is significant, for a few reasons, chief among them the prominent role they played after the sudden death of Venter Junior. According to MaDear, her grandparents – Margett (pronounced and sometimes written as “Margaret”) and Charles “Charlie” Cannon – were the ones who helped wash and dress the dead infant. They were the ones who purchased the child’s casket, placed it in the buggy for the somber ride to Old Nonconnah Missionary Baptist Church where a little grave was dug, and the family’s beloved was laid to rest.
While MaDear’s knowledge of her maternal lineage didn’t extend much beyond her grandparents, Charlie, and Margett, quite a few of the other details she shared with me proved essential in both my ability to trace our family’s story even further back in time and confirming our place in Old Whitehaven’s history.
“Grandma was a Morgan.”
(Ethel V. Johnson “MaDear” 2/18/1989)
Understandably, MaDear sounded a bit uncertain when she first told me that she thought her grandmother had been born a Morgan. After all, at the time of our conversation in 1989, sixty-one years had passed since her grandmother’s death. But the longer MaDear talked, the more confident she became about that particular tidbit of information. Turns out, she was right. Prior to marriage, Margett Cannon was indeed Margett Morgan (aka Margaret Morgan), a fact confirmed by both census documents and her 1928 Tennessee death certificate, which recorded her own mother’s name as Celia Morgan.
Fifty-one-year-old Celia Morgan and several of her children, including a then seventeen-year-old Margett and her twenty-three-year-old sister, Fanny (aka “Fannie” the infamous aunt whose antics MaDear took delight in sharing with me) appear on the Federal Census of 1870 in Shelby County. In the 1870 Census, Celia’s occupation is listed as “housekeeper” but a Shelby County Tennessee Agriculture Schedule for the same year indicates that she was also a farmer and possibly a landowner. Celia Morgan either owned or “managed” a total of forty-five acres on which she kept livestock and raised corn as well as a bit of cotton. I can’t help but wonder how a fifty-one-year-old Black woman came to possess (or manage) a forty-five-acre farm assessed at $1400 (roughly $29,000 in today’s dollars) a mere five years after the end of slavery. Was she given the land by a previous owner, perhaps? Did she buy the land with her own personal funds? Or was she simply “managing” the land (or sharecropping) for a white landowner?
A far more remarkable aspect of Celia Morgan’s life and one that indisputably links her to those founding families Anna McCorkle wrote about in the Tales of Old Whitehaven is one I lucked upon while flipping through the pages of Edmondson Presbyterian Church, 1844-1931; Desoto County, Mississippi, a publication authored by David Ragland Davis.
While I can’t recall what originally led me to the discovery of this resource, I do know that in the weeks prior to my move from Memphis in 2002, I spent a lot of time in the main branch of the public library researching my family’s history. The library’s Memphis Room is where I first stumbled upon the publication by Davis which contains Edmondson Presbyterian Church’s records and registers.
Founded in 1844, Davis points out that the Presbyterian congregation was “first known as Pisgah, then Edmiston, then Edmondson” before its final incarnation as Whitehaven Presbyterian Church, located in Memphis, Tennessee. The original church (Pisgah) held services in a schoolhouse in DeSoto County, Mississippi. In 1847 the members, many of them of Scotch-Irish descent, chose another site for the church on property owned by William Edmiston and which allowed them to have a cemetery.
Anna McCorkle’s Tales of Old Whitehaven includes several references to Edmondson Church, the church’s cemetery, and various members of the congregation. Even though the church was founded in Desoto County, Mississippi, its relative proximity to Shelby County, Tennessee made it attractive to residents of both regions. Not only were McCorkle’s relatives among the founding members of the old Edmondson church, but she also was a lifelong member of Whitehaven Presbyterian Church. In Tales of Old Whitehaven, McCorkle’s description of the church erected in 1847, includes the following: “This building consisted of one room with a slave gallery in back. There were twenty-five members, five of whom were colored.”
Likewise, five “colored members” also appear in the timeline David Ragland Davis compiled from the church’s records. According to notes in his publication, by 1855 the Edmondson congregation consisted of fifty-eight white members and five colored members. An odd chill ran over me when I first discovered the existence of those “colored members” in the records compiled by Davis. Everything about them intrigued me. Who were they? What might have compelled them to join a predominantly white Presbyterian church in the South, particularly in the years prior to the onset of the Civil War? Is it possible that I’m related to one or more of the five? It didn’t take me long to confirm the latter.
The odd chill I’d felt earlier dramatically intensified as soon as I saw the name “Celia” in the Edmondson church records. In an instance, I knew it had to be her, my third great-grandmother, Celia Morgan. Her name appeared on a list of Edmondson members extracted from Session Minutes that were taken between 1844-1891. The complete entry in the Davis manuscript read:
1853 Celia Servant of Dr. Plunkett
The term “servant” was, no doubt, the church’s polite way of describing Celia’s status as an enslaved person who was in servitude to Dr. John Desire Plunkett. Some of the other enslaved individuals owned by Dr. Plunkett and listed as Edmondson church members include–Eliza, William, Martha, and Martha Anne. Both Marthas and Celia also appear on an Edmondson Presbyterian Baptism list. According to the list, Celia, “a servant” of Dr. Plunkett’s was baptized in 1854, while both Marthas were baptized in 1857.
Several factors led me to conclude that the Celia named in the Edmondson Church records and my third great grandmother, Celia Morgan, are, in fact, one in the same. First, as previously mentioned, on Margett Cannon’s death certificate, her mother’s name is recorded as Celia Morgan. Although, it is worth mentioning that the informant (George Morgan) made an error in his recording of Celia’s name. The certificate asks for the “maiden name of the mother” — a fact, perhaps, the informant either overlooked or didn’t know. Whatever the case, the error was one that ultimately proved beneficial in my search.
Second, when Margett’s younger brother Mose Morgan died in 1930, the informant (his wife Lauretta Morgan) gave his mother’s maiden name on his death certificate as Celia Plunkett. The most logical explanation for the difference in surnames is that unlike the informant who signed Margett’s death certificate, Lauretta either knew and/or understood that the form wanted the “maiden” or birth name of her husband’s mother. Plunkett was the name bestowed upon Celia either at birth or when she became one of Dr. Plunkett’s “servants,” while Morgan was the last name she took either after marriage or at the end of her servitude to Dr. Plunkett.
A third piece of evidence involves an old map featured in Tales of Old Whitehaven that includes the surnames of the early Whitehaven landowners and clearly shows that the Plunketts (aka Plunkets) and the Morgans were neighbors with adjoining properties. The enslaved individuals owned by those two families more than likely crossed those property lines on a regular basis which might explain how Celia Plunkett met and eventually had children with a man whose last name was Morgan.
I doubt if my grandmother knew much, if anything, about her great-grandmother Celia. Knowing my MaDear as I do, I suspect her reaction might have been an equal portion of shock and amusement on hearing all that I’ve uncovered. But I can’t help but wonder what MaDear would think about my contention that Celia very much wanted me to find her, a belief I’ve arrived at over time and based on a series of odd incidents. In Part II of this essay, I highlight a few of the eerie coincidences and baffling events that inspired this belief.
PART II – Did I Find Celia or did Celia find me?
In the years prior to my move from Memphis, I became a mother. My son was born in 1996. When he was three, my husband and I began looking for a permanent place for our family to worship. At some point during our search, and on what at the time I thought was a whim, we visited Parkway Gardens, a Presbyterian Church with a predominantly African American congregation. The sense of peace and immediate sense of belonging we all felt both with the congregation and within the very walls of the building took me by surprise. But it didn’t take more than a couple of visits to realize that our family had found a home in the church, which at the time was located on South Parkway East.
Prior to visiting Parkway Gardens, I wasn’t knowingly acquainted with any Black Presbyterians. My third great grandmother’s membership at Edmondson Presbyterian Church couldn’t have factored into our decision to become Presbyterians or join that particular congregation in 2000 because I didn’t “discover” Celia’s connection to the church until early 2002.
2002 also marked the year our family moved, first to Beachwood, Ohio and later in 2006 to Charlotte, North Carolina. For years after those moves, my genealogy and family research took a backseat to other priorities and concerns. It’s only been in the last several years that I’ve resumed my research in earnest. In 2022, on learning that an updated version of McCorkle’s Tales of Old Whitehaven was available, but only through the Edmondson Cemetery Association, I set out to contact them. The association had been created to care for the cemetery at the site of the congregation’s former location in DeSoto County, Mississippi. From what I understood at the time, the Presbyterian congregation, which had begun in Mississippi under the name Pisgah, before later becoming Edmiston and then Edmondson was now Whitehaven Presbyterian Church and located on Shelby Drive in Memphis, Tennessee.
Easy enough. I’ll just contact Whitehaven Presbyterian is what I thought. But despite several attempts, my Google search failed to produce a website, address, or a phone number for the church. Strangely enough, the first thing that did appear in my list of Google results was the church where my family and I were once members–Parkway Gardens Presbyterian. On reporting my findings to my husband, I said “Isn’t that odd? Wonder why that keeps showing up in my results?
After conducting a brief internet search of his own, my husband offered me an explanation that replaced my furled-brow confusion with open-mouth astonishment. In 2005, Whitehaven Presbyterian Church, a church with an older and predominantly white congregation sold their place of worship to . . . drum roll please . . . Parkway Gardens, the predominantly African American church my family and I belonged to when we lived in Memphis! To put it more succinctly, Whitehaven Presbyterian Church’s old address on Shelby Drive is currently the home address of Parkway Gardens United Presbyterian Church.
Perhaps it is just a fluke that the Whitehaven Presbyterian congregation that once held services at the church located on Shelby Drive has historical ties to Edmondson Presbyterian Church, the same church where my third great-grandmother, Celia was listed as a member in 1853. And likewise, perhaps it’s just by chance that the congregation that currently worships at that same church located on Shelby Drive has historical ties to Parkway Gardens Presbyterian, the church my family and I joined in 2000. But really, what are the odds that Celia and I would be connected, not just through a shared faith, but an actual place of worship as well as a sort of symbolic passing of the torch between those two congregations?
Still, it would be foolish of me not to acknowledge that given Celia’s status as one of Dr. Plunkett’s enslaved servants, odds are good that her decision to join Edmondson was done more at his behest than her own free will. While I can only speculate as far as Celia’s true feelings about her church membership, I’d like to think she’d take pride in the progress many of her descendants have made since 1853, when she was first relegated to a pew in Edmondson’s slave gallery. Perhaps rather than coincidence it is simply poetic justice that a woman, who was once owned by a doctor, will soon have a fourth great-grandson who’s earned the right to wear a “Dr.” in front of his name–the same fourth great-grand (my son, Aaron L. Morris) who as a little boy joined Parkway Gardens Presbyterian with his parents in 2000.
I am claiming David Carnes Park as yet another nod and wink, if not an outright nudge from Celia. In 2019, the park, previously known as Whitehaven Park, was redesigned with funds from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee. According to Google Maps, the distance between the park and the church on Shelby Drive is one minute by car and six minutes on foot. So, the park and the church are practically neighbors, in much the same manner as the McCorkles and my MaDear’s family were in 1920. Moreover, according to my research, David Carnes and Celia Plunkett Morgan are RELATED through David’s mother, Louisa Morgan Carnes.
While I have yet to determine the specifics of the relationship between Lousia and Celia, I do know that their connection is tied to Fannie Morgan Tate. Not only was Fannie one of Celia’s daughters, but she was also the cantankerous grand aunt who starred in many of the amusing tales my MaDear shared with me in our discussions about our family’s history.
The woman MaDear knew as “Aunt Fannie” was also someone David Carnes considered an aunt. In the Federal Census of 1930 for Shelby County, Tennessee, an eighty-three-year-old woman by the name of Fannie Tait (aka Tate) is listed as a member of David’s household and described as his aunt. David Carnes was also named as the primary informant on Fannie Tate’s death certificate. In 1935, MaDear’s Aunt Fannie tragically perished in a house fire, an event MaDear relayed to me during one of our recorded conversations. The 1935 State of Tennessee death certificate signed by David Carnes (above) includes the following pertinent and telling detail about Fannie’s demise: “This woman was accidentally burned to death in her house.”
On a visit to Memphis in October of 2022, I stopped by the History Department at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library in hopes of having another look at Edmondson Presbyterian Church, 1844-1930; Desoto County, Mississippi, the publication where I’d first found evidence of Celia’s affiliation with the church. After all, twenty years had passed since I’d read and made notes on the material while seated at a table in the Memphis Public Library’s Memphis and Shelby County Room.
After conducting a computer search for the reference item and failing to locate a copy in the Memphis and Shelby County Room, Verjeana Hunt, the History Department’s public service supervisor, led me to the open stacks where a number of titles associated with genealogy and family history are housed. She explained that it might take a few minutes to find the reference material since library users sometimes mis shelved items. Ms. Hunt and I chatted while she meandered down the aisle, searching for the spot on shelves which should have held the publication. She’d stopped several feet away from me and was in the process of visually accessing some of the books and individually bound volumes, when I casually reached up and pulled a title from the shelf directly in front of me.
Nothing about the thin booklet I reached for stood out to me. Nothing more than curiosity about the kind of family histories I might find in the section drove my actions and guided my hand that day . . . at least that’s initially what I thought. Now, I’m not so certain, because sure enough the publication I pulled from the shelf was the exact one I’d been looking for: Edmondson Presbyterian Church, 1844-1930; Desoto County, Mississippi, edited by David Ragland Davis.
As improbable as it may sound, a part of me truly believes my third great-grandmother, an enslaved Black woman by the name of Celia Plunkett Morgan, has been eager for me to find her. Indeed, for thirty plus years, starting back in 1989, when I first sat down with my MaDear and asked her to tell me what she knew about our family’s history, Celia has quietly assisted in my quest, dropping hints, guiding my steps, and leaving a trail of verifiable documents for me to follow. No doubt, I’m far from knowing everything there is to know about Celia or our extended family. But thus far, with her and my MaDear’s help, I think I’ve done a fairly decent job of establishing our roots in Old Whitehaven.
Copyright (c) 2023 by Lori D. Johnson. All rights reserved. Lori D. Johnson earned an M.A, degree in Urban Anthropology from the University of Memphis. She is the author of two novels, A Natural Woman and After The Dance. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Midnight & Indigo, Coolest American Stories 2022, Novel Slices, Arkana, Chapter 16 and Mississippi Folklife. Lori lives in Charlotte, NC, but still considers Memphis, TN home. Excerpts and links to her published work can be found on her blog “Lori’s Old School Mix.” Lori D. Johnson’s MaDear’s Scrapbook appeared here on StoryBoard in December 2020 and originally in Chapter16.org
FOR ADDITIONAL READING
From the University of Memphis Digital Commons Special Collections, the “History of Whitehaven, 1963”, by McCorkle, Anna Leigh: “History of Whitehaven, 1963”
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Davis, David Ragland, Edmondson Presbyterian Church, 1844-1931; Desoto County, Mississippi.
Henderson, Nancy, “Reflections of Whitehaven” Better Tennessee (Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee), May 22, 2018. https://bettertennessee.com/david-carnes-park-whitehaven/
Ethel V. Johnson “MaDear” recorded conversations with Lori D. Johnson, 2 February 1989, 15 March 1989 & Unknown Date 1989.
McCorkle, Anna Leigh, Tales of Old Whitehaven. Jackson, TN: McCowat-Mercer Press, Inc, 1967.
McCorkle, Anna Leigh, “History of Whitehaven, 1963” (2021). Shelby County. 20. https://digitalcommons.memphis.edu/speccoll-pub-shelby/20
Census and Death Records From Ancestry.com
“U.S., Selected Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880,” Shelby, Tennessee, Agriculture, 1870, database with images, s.v. “Celia Morgan,” Ancestry.com; citing “Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration.”
“1870 United States Federal Census” Civil District 13, Shelby, Tennessee, database with images, s.v. “Celia Morgan,” Ancestry.com; citing “Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration.”
“1920 United States Federal Census,” Civil District 10, Shelby, Tennessee, database with images, s.v. “Anna McCorkle,” Ancestry.com; citing “Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration.”
“Tennessee, U.S., Death Records 1908-1965,” database with images, s.v. “Fannie Tate,” (1881-1935), certificate 16220, Ancestry.com; citing “Nashville, Tennessee:
Tennessee State Library and Archives.”
“Tennessee, U.S., Death Records 1908-1965,” database with images, s.v. “Margett Cannon” (aka Margaret Cannon) (1852-1928) certificate 7412, file 190; citing “Nashville, Tennessee: Tennessee State Library and Archives.”
“Tennessee, U.S., Death Records 1908-1965,” database with images, s.v. “Mose Morgan” (1862-1930) certificate 14807; citing “Nashville, Tennessee: Tennessee State Library and Archives.”