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Reunited after more than a century: two families brought together by a fight for freedom

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It was an unlikely crew that piled out of their cars into the parking lot of the Grace Memorial Episcopal Church on a recent morning. Helped from the car by a wooden cane, George Thomas Rosser stepped forward into the open arms of Bobbi Bowman, who was waiting in the shadow of the stone church. 

At first glance, nothing obvious united them. They had driven in from different states, were descended from different bloodlines and until this moment, had never met. 

But as the reunion grew, and nine people were ushered into the church hall in Lynchburg — their greetings punctuated with hand shakes and a flurry of hugs — an unlikely friendship that began in slavery, more than 150 years ago, found its way back home. 

When Bobbi Bowman stumbled across documents in the Campbell County Courthouse in Rustburg in 2010, she did not expect to uncover a story that had been lost to her family for generations. 

Over the years, in moments stolen between work and life, Bowman continued to seek out the story. In October 2017, she found her great-great-grandfather's name in records at The Library of Virginia in Richmond — it was the final piece she needed. 

After publishing an article in The News & Advance in February 2018, Bowman continued a search for the family of Thomas Rosser who saved her great-great-grandfather, William Williamson, from being forced back onto the slave block in Campbell County after buying his own freedom years before. 

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Reunion

Bobbi Bowman smiles as she listens during a tour of the historic Campbell County Courthouse during a two-day family reunion at on Friday, September 13, 2019.

As descendants gathered around a folding table in the halls of the Lynchburg church on Sept. 12, sharing food, cups of coffee and stories, the initial search had come to an end. 

"It's about three stories," Bowman told her sister, cousin and six descendants of the Rosser family as they sat for lunch. "It's a story about how the state of Virginia forced our great-great-grandfather, William Williamson, to make a choice between keeping his freedom and losing his family or returning to slavery."

The second story, she added, was about the white Rosser family that helped Williamson in his 15 years of struggle to keep his freedom, and their role in saving him from the slave auction when he eventually lost. 

"Lastly, it is about the really amazing relationship between white people and black people during slavery that I think we will never begin to understand," Bowman said. 

Forced to make an unfathomable choice between leaving Virginia and keeping his freedom or returning to slavery so he could remain near his wife and children, Williamson was the victim of an 1806 law that stated all emancipated slaves who remained in the Commonwealth more than a year, “would forfeit their right to freedom” and be sold into slavery, according archives in the Library of Virginia — wrote Bowman in her 2018 article. 

Williamson, who bought his own freedom with the equivalent of $25,000 today and was granted it in 1842, was described as a free man and successful farmer in the 1850 census, with 100 acres of land and livestock. 

But after registering as a free man, Williamson battled the Virginia law that would force him to leave his wife and eight children, who were slaves. 

After a 12-year struggle that included petitioning the Virginia General Assembly and its subsequent rejection, Bowman said Williamson felt he had no other choice. 

In 1854, he deeded his land, home and animals to his white neighbor, Thomas Rosser. Years later, in 1859, Williamson filed a motion in Campbell County court surrendering his freedom to return to slavery. Virginia law gave Williamson the right to choose his new master. He chose Thomas Rosser.

"He sold his life and land to Thomas Rosser," Bowman said. "He walked into the courthouse as a free man, and [they] walked out as master and slave."

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Reunion

Bobbi Bowman converses with George Thomas Rosser during a two-day family reunion in front of the historic Campbell County Courthouse on Friday, September 13, 2019.

When they left the courthouse, Bowman said that both men went back to their respective farms, where Williamson continued to work his own land, living as a free man despite the law. 

"That's the trust he had in Tom Rosser ... obviously there is an incredible bond between the two men," Bowman said. "I’m sure grandfather never set foot on Thomas Rosser’s land, except to say hello.”

After Williamson's death and the end of the Civil War, Thomas Rosser returned everything that Williamson had deeded him 17 years before to his now-freed family.  

“That is the extraordinary connection between our families,” Bowman said.

Through the article, the families have found one another again, and it was George Thomas Rosser, a great-grandchild of Thomas Rosser, who suggested they all finally meet. 

Generations later, with the ancestors crowded in the church hall, George Thomas Rosser began to cry. Bowman patted his knee, sympathetically. 

"Excuse my crying," he said. "If I'm just the least bit emotional, I break down." 

As the group continued to talk, the sniffles and wet eyes were contagious. 

“Families don’t always get along, and this family, regardless of color, got along famously through generations," said Joy Peck, Bowman's sister and another great-great-granddaughter of Williamson. 

Bowman, who now lives in Fairfax County and is a retired Washington Post reporter, said her enslaved ancestors have been in Campbell County since at least the 1790s. In Campbell County, the Rosser name is a common one, and most are descendants of the same family. 

“There aren’t many years where there isn’t a Rosser, black or white, playing for Rustburg High School,” said Aubrey Rosser, a descendant who still works and lives in the community. 

Reunion

A view of the Pre-Civil War Era auction block at the historic Campbell County Courthouse on Friday, September 13, 2019.

On the second day of the reunion, the families met by the historic Campbell County Courthouse, braving a dreary drizzle to view the slave auction block that sits behind the building. 

"That's where he would have stood," Bowman said. "I can barely stand to be near it." 

It was the same courthouse that Rosser and Williamson entered in 1859. If Williamson had been auctioned, Bowman said he would have been separated from his family forever. George Thomas Rosser and Bowman stood shoulder to shoulder by the slave block, retracing the footsteps of their ancestors 160 years before. 

"How could that block exist out there? How could we do this to these people?" George Thomas Rosser said. "White people don't talk about slavery. The Civil War was a product of my father's culture, and we didn't talk about it at home ... this personalizes it; it's going to mean everything to our relationship." 

Robert Merryman, a volunteer with the Campbell County Historical Society, led the group on a tour of the historic courthouse. Built in 1848, the classical revivalist building contains a small research library that Bowman visited to help uncover the story of her ancestors. 

Merryman said many different branches of Rossers still are prominent in Campbell County. It's a name that permeates the decades — such as Hugh W. Rosser, the longest serving board of supervisors member in Virginia, who served on the Campbell County board for 52 years and died in 2017. 

Campbell County began as plantations along the James and Staunton rivers, grounded in a tobacco cash crop economy. 

"A big part of the wealth in the county was tied up in people," Merryman said. He seemed grateful to lead the family through the museum, tearing up as they clustered around the squat auction block at the back of the building. He agreed that it was a history the county had to contend with. 

Continuing their journey, the caravan of cars wound three miles out of Rustburg to visit the sprawling acreage that once made up the Williamson land. Now split into two parcels, it houses a white slatted farmhouse, rows of knee-high corn and fields dotted with purple wildflowers. 

Finally, they ended their journey at the Rustburg Baptist Church cemetery, where the group split apart to search the graves until they found a small plot marked with the Rosser name. Crowding the site, the group celebrated a shared history, swapping stories and family names, clasping hands. 

***

Bobbi Bowman - 2018 - searching through old records

Bobbi Bowman searches through old records at the Campbell County Courthouse in Rustburg on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018. 

"This incredible story of friendship and trust had been lost to both our families until I discovered it in the Rustburg courthouse," Bowman said. 

George Thomas Rosser said he has been sharing the story with anyone who will listen. 

Over lunch on the first day of the reunion, he read an email sent by a friend who heard the story. 

“I’ve always said that if people would just talk about the history of what their families went through, that common ground and shared experience would be found. My theory is that everyone who has family origin stories in the South dating back to the mid to late-1800s will find that we’re all cousins," read George Thomas Rosser. Nearing the end of the email, his voice started to shake. “I’ve told this story to many people, and they often have said: Who’s going to write the book?”

Laughing, Bowman raised her hand. 

The descendants plan for this to be the first of many reunions. With both families now spread across the United States, there are children and grandchildren of the ancestors who want the chance to meet, as well. 

"It was so easy to meet each other, it was like we were instantly long time friends, like we had always known each other," Bowman said. "It was like the ancestors had surrounded us to bring us together again, and let us know their story." 

Later that weekend in the courthouse, Anne Rosser Flemming, a great-grandchild of Thomas Rosser, looked around the room at the assembled descendants and smiled. 

"I'd never been to a family reunion before," she said.

Now, brought together through a story of unlikely friendship, across generations of differences, state lines and racial divides, she had. 

Reunion

Anne Rosser Flemming bows her head down in prayer before lunch during a two-day family reunion on Thursday, September 12, 2019 at Grace Episcopal Church.

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Sarah Honosky covers Appomattox and Campbell counties at The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5556. 

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