A local educator has helped breathe life back into the once-lost stories of enslaved people from the Antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction eras.
Athens Academy history teacher Randy Reid, University of Georgia professor Christopher Lawton and master’s student Laura Nelson co-wrote and edited the book “South Seen/Unseen: Hidden Lives in a Community of Enslaved Georgians.”
“Seen/Unseen” tells the stories of several Black people who served the wealthy, powerful Cobb-Lamar extended family during the Antebellum and Civil War time periods.
Reid’s interest in telling these stories was sparked while he was writing his doctoral dissertation on family patriarch and mid-1800s politician Howell Cobb. Howell married Mary Ann Lamar. Her brother, John B. Lamar, ran the Cobbs’ financial estate, which included several plantations across Georgia, Florida and Alabama.
The Cobb-Lamar properties included a plantation and other land in what was then just Clarke County. Howell Cobb’s father, John Cobb, ceded control of eight of his Calls Creek plantation lots that ended up forming the city of Watkinsville in 1802.
“I was mostly interested in [Howell Cobb’s] politics, his economics and the Civil War, but as I was going through the letters, there were all these letters of enslaved people that were moving through the Cobbs’ correspondence.”
Reid mentioned the interesting pattern to Lawton, who he had worked with on other endeavors over the past decade. Lawton agreed on the importance of highlighting enslaved people’s stories, but they eventually figured out that scanning and digitizing the additional Cobb-Lamar letters would be very costly.
Rather, they decided to pursue a limited book. Nelson had already been doing some research on Aggy Carter Mills when the duo invited her to join their efforts five to six years ago.
When the Cobb family was bankrupted in the wake of the Panic of 1837, a teenage Aggy and her family members were forced to be auctioned to cover Howell’s debt. John B. Lamar purchased her and then gave her back to his sister.
As someone who could read and write, Aggy penned her own letters to the Cobb matriarch.
“She (Aggy) actually helped teach the young Cobb children their letters...she was the person Mary Ann Cobb trusted the most,” Reid said. “And Aggy is very adept at learning how to protect herself and her family.”
Of the book’s several stories, Aggy’s contains the most complete post-emancipation picture of her family’s life. After the Civil War, Aggy and her husband, Isaac Mills, were able to buy land, and Aggy taught her daughters, Francis and Louisa, to read and write.
The couple also enthusiastically supported the Knox School, where their daughters ended attending and where Isaac served as the school treasurer. Francis and Louisa went on to work as teachers, and Francis stayed in the profession, eventually serving as the Brooklyn School’s principal.
One of the stories that emotionally moved Reid the most was that of Berry Robinson.
“As a very young teen, he’d been dividing his time between his family, who lived on one of the Sumter [County] plantations,” said Reid, “but he also spent a lot of time in John B. Lamar’s home in Macon, where he was learning to be a cook.”
Lamar sent Berry to his cousin, who had a practice of training young, enslaved people to be cooks. By the cousin’s account, Berry was making consistent progress over the following months. Then, Berry’s mother fell ill back in Macon, but he was not allowed to visit because of the upcoming sick season during winter.
“On one occasion he runs away...and eventually he got what he wanted,” Reid said, referring to Berry’s return to Macon. “The real sad thing is while he was struggling to get back to the plantation, his mother died and he was denied the chance to be with her.”
Lawton, Nelson and Reid worked on the book for about two years sitting around a table, discussing each chapter together. The trio considered how to let the slaves tell their own stories while being sensitive to the larger context around slavery and racism.
“We tried presenting things in as unbiased a way as we could about the enslaved people that made [the Cobb-Lamar families’] wealth possible,” Reid said.
When reading about letters like the ones between Aggy and Mary Ann, Reid said it’s important to keep the letter sender-receiver relationship in mind.
“Those letters were to Mary Ann, so the letters were probably not how she’d talk to family and friends,” Reid said. “She was saying what Mary Ann wanted to hear.”
These Black people’s stories, which have remained largely untold, may not be the only stories of enslaved people who served the Cobb-Lamars. Reid suspects more such accounts exist in UGA’s archives.
“Whenever as historians, we can bring a story back from a person who would otherwise be lost, we’re doing a service that’s important,” Reid said.