Indiana man confronts legends of his slaveholding ancestors
INDIANAPOLIS -- On the southeastern edge of Marion County, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, lies a family cemetery dating back to the 1800s. Each regally weathered, centuries-old white marble headstone marks the life and death of the dozen or so members of the Joyce family who are buried there.
Beyond the cluster of family graves, near the fence line in the back of the cemetery, is a small tree stump. Next to it is another headstone - this one grey and made from granite, new and modern looking. It reads:
DATES KNOWN ONLY TO GOD
FREE AT LAST
It is the marker of an enslaved black boy who was brought to Indiana from Virginia. It was placed there by a 66-year-old white man from Indiana, a direct descendant of Price's slaveholder. Its existence signifies his act of atonement for his ancestors' sins and for his own racist past.
Slaves were first brought to America to the colony of Virginia in 1619 - exactly 400 years ago. This is the story of two boys: one oppressed and one obsessed. It is the story of a search for the truth and, ultimately, for redemption.
'It's a source of shame for me'
Jeff Purvis considers himself a recovering racist. He subscribes to the theory that just as an alcoholic is never cured, a racist is never absent of bigotry. But he also believes one has the capacity to acknowledge and control their weaknesses.
Purvis is embarrassed about his past. He was embarrassed to talk to me, an African-American woman, about his family's transgressions. He apologized to me more than was necessary.
Purvis has used the N-word, not out of malice, but because it was part of his cultural lexicon. His upbringing in rural Indiana was segregated; for the most part, the only black people he saw were on TV. He grew up convinced African Americans were inferior to white folks because that's what he was told.
But mostly Purvis believes that because the blood of racists flows through him, he too is racist. His ancestors have passed. But he said he feels the weight of the stories, stories of bigotry, that he's heard them tell over the years.
Some he shared with me.
I haven't met many people who cop to being racist, recovering or otherwise. I'm certainly not here to convince Purvis to the contrary. But when we discussed it, I told him that we all have the ability to work to be more virtuous than the previous generation.
And I believe that's what he's done - in large part because of a slave named Price - a boy owned by Purvis' great, great, great grandfather, Alexander Joyce II.
"My family were slaveholders and there are other racist incidents that exist in my family's history and I don't feel good about that," Purvis told me. "It's a source of shame for me."
Alexander Joyce arrived in America from the western shores of Ireland in 1720, settling in Virginia with two sons, Alexander and Thomas. The Joyce family ran a tobacco business on a plantation in Patrick County, Virginia, located on the state's central southern border. They owned at least 21 slaves at one point, according to family documents, including wills.
Thomas Joyce had a son, also named Alexander Joyce. He was known as Alexander I in family archives. In Alexander I's 1817 will, he bequeathed his first-born son, Alexander Joyce II, 200 acres, a mill, a sorrel mare and "one negro boy named Price."
When he was in his 40s, Alexander Joyce II - Purvis' great, great, great grandfather - sold his land and mill to his father-in-law. After the sale, which took place sometime in the 1820s, he headed west with family members and Price - through a tributary of the Ohio River - for St. Louis, Missouri, which was not a free state, according to family legend.
Documentation from that era is sketchy and hard to come by. There are no records that prove that Price was with the family, and under what circumstances - slave or emancipated.
However, Purvis said he was told via family stories that Price was freed by Joyce, and out of gratitude for his freedom, Price wanted to stay with the family - even as they traveled to start a new life.
But Purvis doesn't believe that family folklore anymore.
"I came to discover that probably wasn't the case," Purvis told me. "Sadly, I was unable to document his emancipation, which led me to the conclusion that Price was never freed at all."
When the family reached Jefferson County in southern Indiana, the icy river became impassable. Joyce decided to spend the winter in Indiana, according to family records kept by Purvis' mother and aunt.
Census data from 1830 lists the Joyce family as being residents of Madison in Jefferson County, but there is no mention of Price.
Though Indiana was considered a free state - slavery was banned by the state Constitution - blacks did not have the right to own property, attend public schools or get married without a "sponsor."
And after 1831, black settlers in Indiana were required to register with county authorities and to post a $500 bond as a guarantee of good behavior, according to the Indiana Historical Bureau.
Many slaveholders knew slavery was tolerated in Indiana, even if it was illegal, Purvis said. He said that based on his research, "free" slaves were afforded no real sovereignty. Sponsor was simply code for master, Purvis said.
The family eventually moved North, and Joyce purchased 40 acres of land in Marion County and 40 acres of adjoining property in Johnson County.
Today, part of that property exists in the sleepy hamlet of Acton as the family cemetery. It is there that Purvis believes Price is buried, somewhere among his ancestors.
From an early age, 7 or 8, Purvis became fascinated by the story of Price. He describes it as an obsession. He had grown up listening to his mother, whose maiden name is Joyce, talk with matter-of-fact realism about the negro boy that by default became family in life and death.
When he was 14 or 15, Purvis and his mother tried to find the family cemetery in Acton. They went to the area near his mother's childhood home - near the Marion County and Johnson County lines - following a creek in the woods until they could no longer negotiate the overgrown brush, Purvis said. Disappointed, they went home.
"For reasons unknown to me, I really wanted to find the cemetery and Price's grave," Purvis said.
In 1997, Purvis pushed his mother to try again. She began making calls to old neighbors who still lived in the area, and they were able to help them locate the cemetery. Purvis, his mother, his wife, his stepfather and his 9-year-old son went on a hunt based on directions from those who lived in the area. The area was overgrown - grass was 3 or 4 feet high - but they spotted something that looked like it might have been a fence. They found toppled headstones, including that of Alexander Joyce II and other family members.
But no Price.
"We were disheartened by the shape of the cemetery and not being able to find Price," Purvis told me. "I was talking to my aunt about it and she said, 'Oh honey, he never had a gravestone.'
"It broke my heart," Purvis said, choking back tears. "This person I'd heard about my entire life, who apparently was buried in this cemetery, didn't even have a grave marker. Nothing."
Purvis didn't forget about Price.
But life - children, work - got in the way. He didn't return to the cemetery until 2016, only to find that the fence had been restored by the trustees' office, the grounds manicured and all the headstones were standing at attention on new foundations.
Still, there was no Price.
Purvis began working with the Marion County Genealogy Society to try to piece together Price's story. He learned that slaves were frequently buried in family plots but as far away from the family members as possible.
Sometimes a wooden marker was placed on their graves with just a carved 'S' to signify slave. Other times, a small tree was planted to mark a slave's grave.
Purvis found a small tree stump in the back of his family's cemetery. And he used dowsing rods to detect the existence of water, pipes, electrical wires and other materials underground. He couldn't be certain, but Purvis was convinced he had found Price's grave.
There is no record of how old Price was, no record of if he ever married, no record of him having children, no record of his death. The only documentation Purvis has found mentions him as a "slave boy."
Purvis and his wife, Peggy, traveled to Patrick County in Virginia searching for any documentation that would prove Price was emancipated.
"I learned that freeing a slave wasn't a casual matter - it was a legal proceeding that would have had a paper trail. Freed slaves needed to have documentation they had to carry."
Purvis became even more convinced that Price had been brought to Indiana against his will. He felt even more convinced that this man, man who had been dead for at least 200 years, deserved an apology.
And then Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted.
In August 2017, a "Unite the Right" rally turned deadly after white nationalists, supremacists and others gathered in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. Heather Heyer, a counter-protester, was killed when James Alex Fields Jr. drove a car into a crowd of protesters.
Purvis said when Heyer's mother eulogized her, he took to heart her message.
Susan Bro, Heyer's mother, encouraged attendees to carry on her daughter's conviction by channeling differences not into anger, fear or hate, but "righteous action."
"I think Charlottesville was really the catalyst that drove me to want to do this now," Purvis said. "Because first of all I was astonished by what happened there. I had no idea that there were elements out in our society that were as driven by their hate agenda as what we saw in Charlottesville. So it was after that happened that I really, really got energized to take steps toward memorializing Price."
Purvis contacted the Franklin Township Trustees office, which now maintains the cemetery, to request permission to add the headstone. His request was approved.
"I couldn't even be sure he was there," Purvis told me. "I finally decided it didn't matter if I found the spot or not. I was going to place a monument for this guy. And then I began thinking, 'We shouldn't just put a stone there; we need to have some sort of memorial service.'"
On the Saturday before Mother's Day, Purvis, his wife and two children, and family friends gathered in the family cemetery. There was singing. There was scripture. And there was a brief sermon from the Rev. James Foster, pastor of Living Truth of Christ Church in Lafayette.
I was there, too.
I was there to touch the headstone of a former slave owner. And I was there to touch the headstone of a former slave. I watched Purvis as he struggled to maintain composure, as he fulfilled his desire to atone.
And as Purvis offered a final tearful goodbye to Price, he said: "Price, dude, I love you," I cried with him.
Days later, this time in writing, Purvis again apologized to me: "No individual can apologize for an entire race; similarly, no individual can extend forgiveness to an entire race. I guess what I'd like to know is, can you forgive me?"
I again told Purvis he didn't owe me an apology. I told him I found power in what he had done to honor Price. I told him his efforts to right a wrong - a wrong that he had no control over - meant more to me than he could know. And just as he had declared his love to Price, I declared my love for him.
See, we all have the ability to unite; to work to heal the racial tensions of the past and present; to simply say, "I'm sorry."
Foster summed it best when I spoke to him after the memorial service.
"If everybody takes a little step in the right direction that's going to make things better," he said. "Jeff is beginning to connect with that. No matter how small he thinks his steps were, they are making a big difference in the lives of those he doesn't even know."
Source: The Indianapolis Star
Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com