Richmond man reconnects slave colony descendants
on January 17, 2010
Nat Fitz doesn’t consider himself a history buff. The Richmond resident, who is 86, never talked to his parents about the family’s history and ancestors. It wasn’t until he was in his 70s that he started taking an interest in the past, after he discovered that members of his family were part of a colony for former slaves in Kansas. Fitz’s discovery has led to a yearly conference, a virtual museum, a genealogical tracking project and a number of new friends.
Fitz spent most of his childhood in Iowa, and lived in Kansas for a couple years during high school. He moved to the Bay Area in 1970, a few years after he first came to do work as an interior decorator installing blinds and nameplates on seamans’ quarters on Treasure Island and officers’ quarters on Yerba Buena Island. He’s lived in Berkeley and Richmond since then.
“I fell in love with this part of the country and said I was going to come back,” he said.
Around 1940, Fitz came across a short clip of a newspaper article in his parents’ scrapbook about a colony for former slaves from Texas established in Coffeyville, Kansas, but he didn’t think much of it and turned the page. It wasn’t until around 1998 that he happened to be in Kansas and someone mentioned something to him about a house still standing from the original colony. He remembered the article he’d seen and went to the local library and courthouse and started piecing the history together.
A number of slave colonies were founded in Kansas after emancipation, when former slaves, mostly from Texas and Louisiana, were stuck in de facto share-cropping situations and migrated to Kansas to improve their lives. They became known as the “Exodusters.” Fitz’s great-grandparents, Alfred and Sally Teal, were among one of these groups, along with their son, Fitz’s grandfather, who was born into slavery.
Through his research, Fitz discovered that his ancestors had traveled to Kansas in covered wagons, which conjured an image he hadn’t thought of before. “I didn’t believe it because I didn’t realize from my school that blacks rode in covered wagons also. It just never dawned on me!”
A white Quaker named Daniel Votaw bought the land that would become the Votaw Colony, and sold 16-acre sections of it to the Exodusters for $100 a plot, which could be paid off over time. The Votaw Colony inhabitants attempted to grow cotton on their land to support themselves, but after a few years it became clear that they didn’t have enough land to make a profit from the crop. Then in 1895 a devastating flood damaged the colony enough that it couldn’t bounce back, and that marked the beginning of the end. Most people moved out around 1900, and the last person, Martha Coleman, left in 1915. Of the 26 former slave colonies in Kansas, only one — the Nicodemus colony — still has inhabitants. Five families live there today.
Fitz founded the Votaw Colony Museum in 2004, largely as a way to be able to receive donations for the work he was doing uncovering information about the colony and tracking down descendants. The museum is virtual right now, but he’s working on moving it into a physical space in Coffeyville. He has six volunteers spread around the country who help with the work, and he’s received three grants so far.
“When I pass, if I don’t record this, my children will know nothing,” Fitz said.
Reconnecting people is one of Fitz’s main goals in the project. The museum hosts a conference each year in Kansas to bring together all the descendants of colony inhabitants and the people who were involved with helping set up the colony. Through Fitz’s project, people have discovered countless new relatives and in one case, even connected a pair of brothers who hadn’t known each other. He said if he weren’t doing this work, he doesn’t think it’s likely that anyone else would have unearthed the information.
Fitz guesses that his parents and grandparents didn’t tell him about the colony because they didn’t want to burden the younger generations. “The great majority of them had such a hard life in slavery that they did not want their children to know how hard the life was and how bitter it was,” he said. He says he doesn’t feel a bitterness from what he’s discovered, though, only a fascination for learning about his ancestors and the people around them.
Fitz urges anybody who thinks they may be a descendant of a colony member, or is simply interested in the project, to contact him. You can find contact information for the Votaw Colony Museum here.
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