A Family’s Journey From Slavery to Soldier

Fred Atwater, abt. 1910. From the Durham County Library (https://bit.ly/3yckt97)

The photo above, taken around 1910, shows a young Fred Atwater.  The 18-year-old was about to take a journey few African-Americans would experience: serving in World War 1.  He would later meet his future wife in Reading, Pennsylvania and move to her hometown of Mansfield, Ohio to raise a family.  Many African-Americans who served hoped to prove their loyalty to a segregated America, but returned to the same racism they left behind.  This helped to “create the “New Negro Movement” of the 1920s, which promoted a renewed sense of racial pride, cultural self-expression, economic independence, and progressive politics.”[1]

Fred Atwater’s grandfather, Stephen, was a former slave in North Carolina.  A list of African-American cohabitation certificates from Orange County, North Carolina in 1866 state that, “the following freedmen together with their wives lately slaves but now emancipated appeared before (___) Atwater an acting justice of the peace and declared that they now live and cohabitate together as husband and wife.”  The certificate goes on to list a number of couples, including “Stephen Atwater and his wife Penting (Pentina/Peutina), 1861.”[2]  1870 and 1880 census records show the couple living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and having a number of children, including Fred Atwater’s father, Felix, born about 1861.

Freedman Marriage Record for Stephen Atwater [2] 

Felix Atwater would marry Jennie Moore on December 8, 1881.  Felix, like his father, was listed as a farmer throughout census records and also, like his father, had a number of children, eight being listed on the 1900 U.S. Census.  One of these eight children was eight-year-old Freddie Atwater. His Veterans Compensation Application from 1934 list Durham, North Carolina, March 15, 1892 as his place and date of birth.  Fred Atwater grew up during the Jim Crow Era, where laws were created to keep races separated and would have been six-years-old when the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898 happened.  On November 10, 1898, 2,000 white men overthrew the biracial government of Wilmington, destroying property and businesses of African-American citizens and killing anywhere from 60-300 people.  This was the most successful coup in American history resulting in no African-American citizen of Wilmington serving in public office again until 1972.[3]

Fred Atwater would soon make his way to Reading, Pennsylvania where he was inducted into the Army and served in the 803rd Pioneer Infantry.  “More than 350,000 African Americans served in segregated units during World War I, mostly as support troops. Several units saw action alongside French soldiers fighting against the Germans, and 171 African Americans were awarded the French Legion of Honor.”[4]  Atwater participated in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, one of the attacks which brought and end to the war.  Atwater served overseas from September 10, 1918, to July 18, 1919, and was honorably discharged at Camp Dix, New Jersey on July 20, 1919.[5]

The U.S.S. Philippines returning from France. Fred Atwater was on this ship returning home. Courtesy of Library of Congress, “803rd Pioneer Infantry Band, No. 16,” 1919

After the war, Atwater returned to Reading, Pennsylvania. In the 1920 census, he is shown as lodging with the family of Andrew Rudolph, including his wife Catherine and daughter Julia.  Catherine Cline had married the Jamaican immigrant in Manhattan, New York on July 28, 1917.  In a 1990 interview in the Mansfield New-Journal, Catherine says Andrew deserted the family[6] and she moved back to Mansfield.  The 1922 Mansfield city directory lists her as living at 193 North Franklin with Fred Atwater.  In December 1922, Catherine officially filed for divorce from Andrew Rudolph and, on February 3, 1923, Catherine marries Fred Atwater in Cleveland, Ohio.  The couple had three children: Frederick Jr., James, and Mildred.  Fred Atwater died on February 12, 1943, in the Veterans Hospital in Brecksville, Ohio.[7]

Mansfield News Journal, 12 December 1922

Fred Atwater and Catherine Rudolf Marriage, 03 February 1923.

Shortly after Atwater’s death, his son, Fred Jr., enlisted in the service and served in World War II.[8]  His grandson, Fred Atwater III, worked for the Mansfield City Schools for 32 years, retiring on July 31, 2000[9] and helped to revitalize John’s Park.[10]


  1. https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/naacp/the-new-negro-movement.html
  2. Ancestry.com. North Carolina, U.S., Marriage Records, 1741-2011 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.
  3. https://time.com/5861644/1898-wilmington-massacre-essential-lesson-state-violence/
  4. https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/african-american-odyssey/world-war-i-and-postwar-society.html
  5. Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania, U.S., World War I Veterans Service and Compensation Files, 1917-1919, 1934-1948 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015.
  6. Mansfield News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). 12 March 1990, p 9.
  7. Mansfield News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). 15 February 1943, p 2.
  8. Ancestry.com. U.S., World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2005.
  9. Mansfield News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). 11 June 2000, p 11.
  10. Mansfield News-Journal (Mansfield, Ohio). 05 October 1999, p 1.


Thompson Jackson and Mansfield’s first African-American Boy Scout Troop

On July 31, 1911, America’s first “Negro Boy Scout” troop was founded.  “Initially started in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, opposition was encountered immediately, but troops continued to meet in increasing numbers.  In 1916, the first official Boy Scout Council-promoted Negro Troop 75 began in Louisville, KY.  By the next year, there were four official black troops in the area. By 1926, there were 248 all-black troops, with 4,923 black scouts and within ten years, there was only one Council in the entire South that refused to accept any Black troops.”[1]  Included in those 248 all-black troops was Troop No. 7 from Mansfield, Ohio founded in 1925.

In April of 1925, while Thompson Jackson was teaching Sunday school to 14 boys between the ages of 12-15, he had the idea to form a Boy Scout troop for the African-American boys in the community. He went into the office of Floyd Dent and laid out plans for the creation of a troop.[2] On June 19, 1925, 20 boys were awarded their Tenderfoot badges at the Friendly House.[3] According to Jackson in a letter in the Mansfield News on September 30, 1930, “the entire official staff of the ‘Johnny Appleseed’ area [had] been four-square behind the advancement of Troop No. 7” ever since its induction.

The Mansfield News, 14 June 1925, p. 3.

In the early 20th century, the Boy Scouts of America let local councils set their policies when it came to segregation. “Unsurprisingly, many chapters — especially in the segregated South — opted not to admit black Scouts. Some troops imposed long waiting periods before letting blacks join, while others allowed black boys to join but prohibited them from wearing uniforms.” It wasn’t until decades after that first troop formed in 1911 “that many troops eased their rules on segregation, and not until 1974 when the Old Hickory council [in North Carolina] — one of the last segregated Boy Scout councils — finally integrated.”[4] Mansfield Troop No. 7 was noted in the News-Journal as being the only “colored” troop in the area up through the 1940s. Years after Troop 7 folded “committee chairman George Hayes helped organize Troop 137 and asked [Joe] Holmes to assist.”[5] Holmes would serve as scoutmaster of Troop 137 for over 30 years. His son Joe Holmes III would take over the all African-American troop in 1993, when his father retired.[6]

Obituary Picture, The Mansfield News-Journal 04 December 1965, p. 13.

Thompson Jackson was born in Henderson, Kentucky on April 1, 1882,[7] and had arrived in Mansfield around 1920. Jackson took an immediate interest in civic matters and, in addition to the Boy Scouts, headed the Mansfield Republican Club for Colored Voters; was elected a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1924; organized the Good Citizen League, and wrote often in the newspaper on matters concerning the African-American community. During his time in Mansfield, he was a city employee, a state liquor inspector, and worked at Westinghouse. Jackson retired in 1948 and continued civic and political activities. On May 30, 1953, he celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife, Mildred.[8] The couple would stay in Mansfield until 1960 or 1961 before moving to Los Angeles, California. Thompson Jackson died on December 3, 1965.[9]

The Mansfield News-Journal, 31 May 1953, p. 27.

Eighteen of the twenty original members of Troop No. 7 were listed in the Mansfield News and included: Gallie Mattison, Roger William, Edgar Smith, James Jackson, Clarence Brandon, William Jones, Richard Jones, Joe Williams, Charles McKinley, Hilton Davis, Eugene Reynolds, Clayton Tucky, Joseph Brooker, Leonard Hayes, Amos Collins, Troy Jester, Eugene Brandon, and future civil rights leader J. D. Middlebrook.


  1. https://aaregistry.org/story/the-african-american-boy-scout-movement-a-story/
  2. The Mansfield News, 30 September 1930, p. 4.
  3. The Mansfield News, 20 June 1925, p. 8.
  4. https://www.npr.org/2013/01/30/170585132/boy-scouts-repeal-of-gay-ban-mirrors-its-approach-to-racial-integration
  5. The Mansfield News Journal, 17 JAN 1988, p. 3H.
  6. The Mansfield News Journal, 20 FEB 1995, p. 7A.
  7. Ancestry.com. U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005.
  8. The Mansfield News-Journal, 31 May 1953, p. 27.
  9. The Mansfield News-Journal, 04 December 1965, p. 13.

African-American Genealogy: Getting past 1870

African-Americans face unique challenges while conducting genealogy research.  While the process is largely the same in the early stages, when researchers hit the year 1870 things can become difficult.  This is true for African-Americans all over the United States, not only the South.  Many families came north during The Great Migration from 1920-1970s.  This is particularly true for Mansfield, Ohio, as many African-Americans came here looking for work.  The black population of Mansfield numbered only 123 persons in 1900, by 2010 that number has grown to 10,592 or 22.1% of the population.

African-American Population 1900-2010 (U.S. Census Bureau)
Year Total African-American percent
1900 17,640 123 0.7
1910 20,768 105 0.5
1920 27,824 249 0.9
1930 33,525 910 2.7
1940 37,154 938 2.5
1950 43,564 1,083 2.5
1960 47,325 4,374 9.2
1970 55,047 8,316 15.1
1980 53,927 8,653 16.0
1990 50,627 9,179 18.1
2000 49,346 9,695 19.6
2010 47,821 10,592 22.1

The first step for family research, regardless of ethnicity, is to write down what you already know.  Start with yourself, parents and grandparents.  After this find records to back up the information.  This can include census and vital records, including birth, death and marriage certificates.  For many conducting African-American research, the first step is getting to 1870.  Begin with the 1940 census, the most recent census we have access to, and use the information contained there, like name, address, birthplace and other individuals living in the house to work backwards.

Once you get to 1870 things become trickier.  Going beyond 1870 usually requires finding the name of a slaveholder.  Many of the family history details were not recorded for enslaved men, women and children, including birth, death and marriage, but families after emancipation often stayed in the same area.  It’s important to look at the 1870 census at neighboring families, particularly white families, and those with the same surname.  After emancipation, former slaves sometimes adopted their former owner’s name.  Also note the place of birth listed on the 1870 census.  If another state is listed than the one they lived in, try to determine how they made it there.

If you are able to find the slave owner, or a possible slave owner, continue by searching records of ship manifests, property records, will and probate records, manumission and emancipation records and newspapers.  This may take advanced research and an understanding of the history of the times, but can turn up valuable information if the sources are read carefully.


Ads such as this would appear in newspaper in the North and South


Example of a “Manifest of Slaves”


Freedman’s Bureau record

Finally, DNA tests are available which can trace your family back to where they originated.  While this won’t go directly back to a homeland, it will connect you with distant family members and cousins across the globe.

Below are records that mention slaves or slave holders. From http://c.mfcreative.com/offer/aa/2013/aa_guide.pdf

Property and probate records

Search property and probate records associated with slave-owning families. You’ll typically find these records in the county where the slave owner lived or in the Tax, Criminal, Land and Wills collection on Ancestry.com. If the slave owner died before the end of the Civil War, estate inventories may list enslaved individuals by name, age, and family group. Slaves were considered property, so you may find transfers of ownership included in deeds of gift or trust, records of sale, and court records in county archives. Plantation records may also include details on slaves who lived there, although these records are not widely available. Look for them in university archives and occasionally at state historical societies.


An 1807 law that banned the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the United States as of January 1, 1808, also required masters of vessels transporting slaves in coastal waters to provide a manifest detailing their slave cargo when leaving or entering a port. Ports of departure or arrival stretched from Baltimore, Maryland, to Texas on the Gulf of Mexico, and manifests could list a person’s name, age, height, gender, port of destination, and name of the slave owner or shipper.

Military records

In 1863, President Lincoln authorized the use of African American troops in combat during the Civil War. More than 175,000 men served the Union as U.S. Colored Troops, and military service records are available for many of them on Ancestry.com. Records for Buffalo Soldiers, the first African American peacetime troops, may also include the names of former slaves.

Emancipation records

Former slaves may also be found in collections of manumission and emancipation records. You will find collections for Washington, D.C., and Illinois on Ancestry.com and others at county archives. Use the map at the bottom of the Search tab on Ancestry.com to get a list of all records available for the location where your ancestor lived.

Freedmen’s Bureau records

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established in 1865 to supervise and manage matters relating to refugees and freedmen. Browse through the Bureau’s records or search the records of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company (also known as the Freedman’s Bank — note the spelling difference between the bank and bureau), which was created for former slaves and their dependents.

To learn more about the Freedman’s Bureau go to https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/freedmens-bureau

North End Oral Histories

In 2011 the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library partnered with The North End Community Improvement Collaborative (NECIC) to conduct oral histories to help preserve the stories of the residents of Mansfield, Ohio’s North End neighborhood.  Below is a promotional video for the project.  I encourage you to visit their YouTube page to view complete oral histories and visit their website to see how they are currently working with the community.

NECIC YouTube page

NECIC Website