Members of the Ford family gather at the historic marker before continuing on for fellowship and presentations at a nearby community center in Johnson City.

By Ashley Benkarski 

Members of the Ford family gather at the historic marker before continuing on for fellowship and presentations at a nearby community center in Johnson City.

JOHNSON CITY, TN — Tina Ford was driving with her boyfriend from Florida to North Carolina for an annual fly-fishing trip when the pair found themselves struck with wanderlust. With some extra time on their hands, they quite literally took the long way to their destination and ended up in East Tennessee.

While enjoying one of the many scenic roads buffered on each side with mountains, valleys, and seemingly endless forests, Tina spotted a sign that read “Ford Creek Village” and remarked how funny it would be if she was one of those Fords. 

Little did she know just how true her words were, and that tucked into the rolling hills of Johnson City, just off the main path, is the site of a former farm that was at the center of one of the most remarkable legal decisions of the antebellum South. 

Larkin Ford and his family labored as slaves on the 112-acre property owned by Loyd Ford Sr., a Revolutionary War veteran who’d been awarded the land for his service.

When Loyd passed away in 1843 at age 96, his will granted the slaves who worked his land their freedom and nearly all of his property.

Loyd had children of his own and the terms of his will began to fracture their relationship with their father.

For years, rumors circled about why the elder Ford not only gave his slaves their freedom but also such a substantial financial asset while leaving his white children with far less.

Some thought he was losing his wits in his old age; his children argued as much in court in their challenge to the legality of his will.

And some began to suspect that at least a few of those Black workers on the farm were his children. 

“Whether or not they were his offspring (eventually a major court issue) Ford’s slaves were closer to him than were his seven legitimate sons—none of whom, as adults, chose to remain on the family farm and help their father,” wrote historian Anne Klabenow in “Loyd Ford Sr.: A White Man and His ‘Black Children’s’ Inheritance,” which was part of a study titled 200 Years in 200 Stories: A Tennessee Bicentennial Collection. 

According to Klabenow the whole thing began when Loyd Sr. went to his neighbor, Robert Hale, to draw up a will granting the slaves their freedom and handing over the farm to them.

Specifically, Loyd Sr. had feared for the fate of his Black family falling into the hands of his white family, who still very much saw the former as nothing more than property (indeed, the workers were worth more than the land they toiled).

This enraged at least some of Loyd Sr.’s white children, so much so that Dickie Ford had threatened to kill his father over it. Embattled and ill, Loyd Sr. went again to Hale, this time asking for the will to be destroyed. 

Hale’s wife, Sarah, instead gave Loyd Sr. “an old school article” in an attempt to pass it off as the will, as Loyd Sr. was illiterate. 

He wasn’t fooled, but gave the document back, allegedly saying to “put it in the fire and burn it, maybe it will satisfy them.”

It did not. 

The will remained hidden in planks above Sarah’s bed despite the efforts of Ford’s sons to obtain it, even offering a price (which Sarah refused). 

The legal battle over the will lasted 12 years, finally resulting in a victory for Ford’s Black children. But the financial toll of failed litigation pushed the white side of the Ford family into destitution, scattering them across the United States. 

The property has changed hands since Larkin and the others inherited it. The little bit of land some of Loyd’s white children inherited and kept has put that property back in the hands of the white side of the family. But members on both sides have found something more important—their roots, and each other.

“At a time when African Americans were regarded as chattel, farm animals to be branded, bred, beaten or sold away … [W]hat Loyd did at that time was really visionary and took a lot of bravery,” remarked Jane Howard-Martin, a descendant of one of Loyd’s Black children, Rhoda. 

Martin remarked that John, Rhoda, Larkin and the others were visionaries themselves; they had to navigate a legal system set up against them, in the South, before the Civil War, to claim a will for a white man’s land being petitioned by his white children. 

But it wasn’t luck. The resilience and intelligence of John and the others wouldn’t be enough. Martin said it took a lot of people stepping up to help the Black children of the family get justice. 

She remarked “how brave they had to be to bring this case to challenge the status quo in this climate.” 

“This was no small feat,” Martin explained. “They had to find a lawyer, so Robert Hale was the lawyer that represented them. He’d written Loyd’s will, but was he going to probate it for them in this tough climate? He stepped up. They couldn’t bring the case for themselves; African Americans weren’t permitted to access the court system. So they had to find someone who would bring the case for them. Phoebe Stuart, 52-year-old spinster in town, descendant of the town’s first mayor; she stepped up. They had to post a bond. John’s earnings were very rare for an enslaved person but that’s why they were able to come up with the bond to proceed with the case.”

Martin continued, “They had to resist a series of clever, and I’ll call it diabolical, legal maneuvers, including the one that brought this case to the Tennessee Supreme Court, and Judge Nathan Green saw through all that and he stepped up. They had to contend with arguments that their father, Loyd Ford, lacked the mental capacity to write the will; that the will was forged, that he was crazy. And finally, they had to be patient and endure from 1843 until 1855 when finally a jury vindicated their rights and did what Loyd Ford wanted, to free his children and to give them the means to support themselves. So the good people of Jonesborough who sat on that jury— all white men — stepped up.”

Jason Ford, a descendant of Stephen Ford (a cousin to Loyd Ford Jr., Ohio politician and an abolitionist), said that his family boasts a vibrant history. This particular family tree includes some well-known names, such as musician Tennessee Ernie Ford and John T. Ford, whose Washington, D.C. theater was the site of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

But those contributions merely scratch the surface of the deeply rich Ford lineage. Larkin, having finally been given freedom, worked to help others achieve their own through his service of registering voters and was elected as a Republican delegate for an 1870 political convention. Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard authored an award-winning children’s book about her ancestor Virgie Fitzgerald, Rhoda’s granddaughter.

The Fords are the first African American family to send ten of its members to Harvard, and Elizabeth’s daughter, Jane Howard-Martin, is one of them. “That only happened because Virgie wanted to go to school,” Jason said.

Tina Ford discovered that she was part of this historic lineage when Rose Tate, who is Black, contacted Eric, Tina’s brother, saying the two had matched DNA on ancestry.com. Eric stated that it was “proof positive Loyd [Sr.] indeed fathered children with his slaves … We’re not just related by name and association but also by blood.” 

Tina Ford was indeed one of the Fords of Ford Creek Village.

The family held their second reunion June 18 and celebrated the installation of an historical marker on the land, first gathering to meet each other, some for the first time, and see with their own eyes the vast and beautiful land their ancestors lived on. 

With two reunions in the history books, the family is hoping to discover more connections as the list of names grows.

Tina Ford

Serendipity visited Tina once before in July of 1993. She was living at Camp Lester while her daughter was in the NICU at a hospital in Okinawa, Japan, and she recalled feeling an ever-present sense of loneliness.

One particular day, she stepped into an elevator and met a young Black man in uniform. His name tag read, “FORD.”

She spoke with him and told him they shared the same last name, joking that perhaps they were related. She remembers that he laughed and told her he didn’t think so.

Though she hasn’t spoken to that young man in the elevator since, it hasn’t escaped her hindsight that it’s not impossible. She said she felt drawn to him, but whether that feeling came from an urge to find some familiarity in a strange situation or it was purely by divine decree, she doesn’t know.

“Something deep in my roots just felt like I had been there before, like I belonged there,” she said of the fly-fishing detour to her (then unknown) family land. “It was more than just the novelty of the name. It was a feeling,” she said. “It’s that feeling of home that comes rushing back instantaneously, no matter what. You just know that that’s a place that has your energy and your spirit.” She said she feels that same spark with each new family discovery.

“Everybody was so incredibly sweet and wonderful and welcoming, and I think everybody treated everybody there with open arms and this excitement to connect with one another,” she said. To her, the unification of the family is something spiritual and organic; it’s a body that has been made whole.

Jane Howard-Martin

An ancestor of Rhoda, Jane Howard-Martin is a Harvard graduate and is currently Vice President of Labor & Employment, Plant Support and Assistant General Counsel at Toyota Motor North America. Her mother, Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard, wrote “Virgie Goes to School with Us Boys,” a children’s story that teaches about the hardships across race, gender and education during the Reconstruction-era South through beautifully painted pictures. The story centers around an eager Virgie’s journey to school for the very first time with her brothers. 

Throughout their travels, Virgie, Rhoda’s granddaughter, proves to her brothers that she is stronger than they ever expected. In 2001 the story earned Elizabeth the Coretta Scott King Book Award. The illustration was done by E.B. Lewis.

“We need to recognize they were products of their time,” Martin said of Ford’s white children who opposed their father’s will. “If you think about it from their perspective, they saw an estate which in today’s dollars was close to one billion dollars … Their response was therefore not surprising. Had they spent time like their father did with their half-brothers and half-sisters, maybe they would have thought differently, but the times were the times.”

Employing her legal expertise while researching the case, Martin said the money problems were exacerbated by lawyers who, over 12 years and multiple depositions, drained resources from both sides. “A lot of people became impoverished as a result.” 

“The story of our family is a small story in the grand scheme of things but it’s a really important story. To me, it’s an illustration of everyday people and how they can make a difference,” Martin concluded. “We can all play a role in making the communities that we live in what we want them to be, and it’s really important for us to remember our history. As you know, it’s under assault at the moment by people who want to pretend that terrible things didn’t happen in our country and to keep our children ignorant of the past under the guise of protecting the feelings of just some of them. And if you go by that logic this story cannot be told, and what a shame that would be because it’s a wonderful story.”

Sharee Burress

Sharee Burress and her son, DeVonn, are descendants of Larkin Ford from St. Louis, Missouri. The two found out about their ancestor and his fascinating story when DeVonn was approached about appearing on an episode of NBC’s “Roots Less Traveled” that aired in 2020. “It was amazing to step on the land,” she recalled. At the time, Sharee and DeVonn hadn’t met anyone in their newfound family but were eager to attend a reunion once the COVID-19 pandemic became less of a threat. 

A whirlwind of emotions, the journey took the mother-son duo on a 300-mile trek from St. Louis to Nashville and then on to Johnson City, where they took photos by the large Ford Creek Village sign and scooped soil from the Ford family farm into glass jars. 

In honor of Larkin, the two registered people to vote during their Tennessee stay. 

Sharee describes herself as an introvert, but that wasn’t apparent at the reunion. Throughout the day, her face beamed with pride as she navigated this new and exciting experience with grace and confidence. During a reading of Jason Ford’s play at the reunion, Sharee stepped into the family legacy, embodying Rhoda’s tenacious and thriving spirit.

With the impact of the reunion fresh in her heart and mind, Burress said, “Seeing it again with the historical marker on the actual land, that just gives a whole other feeling. It just touches your heart and tears just aren’t enough. Standing on that land with all of the other Fords, it’s a memory that will never fade away.”

“Learning about the Ford v. Ford case, for me, has just been an overwhelming, surreal experience. I didn’t know that I was tied to a famous case … Meeting my new family through Facebook, through social media, talking on the phone– That was great, but being at the reunion now and actually seeing the faces that have a name, it’s a totally different thing. And we communicate as family, and that’s what I love. We feel like we know each other just through the tie of the Fords; that one connection does it for us. That’s all we need. There’s no separation with it and it’s as if we’ve been together and known each other for years and years.”

Jason Ford

Jason Ford is a descendant of Loyd Jr.’s abolitionist cousin, Stephen Ford, and a playwright. He authored Ford v. Ford 1846, an “historical work of fiction,”after discovering the fascinating legacy of his ancestors. He said that he’d been thrilled about the developments in his family’s history; what once was a very small circle is rapidly expanding due to social media and relatively easy access to genealogy services. Today, the Ford family Facebook page is over 400 members strong.

In 2013, when he discovered that famed singer and relative Tennessee Ernie Ford’s ancestors, Dickie Ford, was involved in such an interesting court case, he said he thought it would make a good play. He knew at the first stage reading this story was special, he said, and he remembers at least one of the actors being shocked that much of it had actually happened.

The research was quite an undertaking, he said, adding that at first he could find only one paragraph that referenced an article about the case. So he contacted the author, and the two became friends and from there, he said, he decided to write the script. Jason said Earl Kitzmiller was integral to unwinding the threads of his family’s history.

With the help of Rose Tate, another family member who investigated her family genealogy and found she was related to Eric Ford, Jason got to work. Tate is the descendant of the lead character, a young slave named Rhoda who was the daughter of Loyd Sr. and is portrayed as the driving force in fighting for her family’s rights. 

He also said he could trace the family’s roots back to 1652, when Thomas Ford was an indentured servant in the northeast. Loyd Ford Sr.’s grandparents were Quakers, a branch of Protestant Christians. By the end of the 1700s, Quakers had abolished slavery within their community, as it contradicted their belief that God is present in every person.

As he learned of the dissension between family members and the migration of the Fords over time, the weight of it all set in. “My family history was a microcosm of America,” he remarked.

Agin Shaheed

A descendant of Rhoda Ford, Agin Shaheed is very proud of his family’s history. He recalled hearing about Jason’s play, and though he couldn’t attend the weekend it was billed at the famous Ford Theater in the nation’s capital. “That represented among the first times that what we call ‘white Fords’ and what we call ‘Black Fords’ interacted, at that play, so that was really, really exciting,” he said. “We’re at the vanguard of us, after 175 years, wanting to know one another.”

Shaheed grew up in South Los Angeles, Calif., one of the few major metropolitan cities in America that’s majority African American, he said. After a stint in the U.S. Navy, he served as Special Assistant to the Commodore of the U.S.-Pacific Fleet for race and human relations from 1968-1972.

He said that finding out about this part of his family was a treasure; for him, whose mother was a sort of family historian, learning the rich history of his ancestors filled in a lot of gaps. 

He’s a part of five different families in Johnson City that have left their mark on American culture, including Brigadier General Nathaniel Taylor. 

While he is multiracial, Shaheed relayed he identifies as Black but lives in a society that sees his race as ambiguous. He said that while he’s spent much of his life learning all he can about his Black heritage, as he’s gotten older he feels it’s important to discover more about all of the cultures that coalesce and are uniquely his.

“I want to, for the first time in my being, recognize Loyd Ford. To me, for his times, an American veteran of the Revolutionary War … a war in theory and in concept … creating a land that promised freedom, I like to think that because Loyd Ford was in the Revolutionary War and the ideas of the Revolutionary War that was in his sphere of being,” Shaheed explained. “I like to think that because Jonesborough was very near, which was one of the beginnings of the abolitionist movement here in our country, I like to think that somehow, someway, in his 90-something years he understood the Quaker contribution to challenge the enslavement of Africans.”

For Shaheed, it’s important to recognize a pattern in his family script: A long line of educators with remarkable career paths; Shaheed was a school district program manager for race and human relations for 18 years and oversaw the implementation of culturally relevant instructional strategies. He, Jane Howard-Martin and James … work in diversity, equity and inclusion in their respective professions.

“I read ‘The Peculiar Institution’. In that foundation book, it talks about the Ford case. I didn’t know I was a Ford descendant,” he said, and recalled that he’d also read some of Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard’s books to his students. “I didn’t know Elizabeth was a relative! So we’re all just degrees from one another, separated, not really knowing how we’re tied. For me, this is a celebration of the best of what America has had an intent to be, and continues to have an intent to be.”

Eric Ford

Eric Ford is Tina’s brother, and both hail from the white side of the family. Speaking at the reunion, Eric relayed how he found out the full story of the Ford family.  “My sister, Tina, called me and said, ‘You’re not gonna believe this but I found another part of the Ford family that we didn’t know anything about.’ … I was just amazed at the bravery of Larkin, and Rhoda …It blew my mind and I was so excited to learn more about it,” he said. That was the moment he was struck with the idea of getting an historical marker installed on the land.

Jason Ford crafted much of the wording while Eric worked on the commission process through the Tennessee Historical Commission, “so that we can remember forever that people can come together, can do the right thing.”  

Asked about his view on his white ancestors’ injustices against the freed men, women and children who had become family, Eric said, “The sense is acceptance; we’re all one family now. It’s relieving to have that be the case. If you look at us, we look like two different families, but we are one family … Family, to me, was very small until this.”

James Huguley

James Huguley, one of Larkin’s descendants and a Harvard graduate, was moved by the fellowship. “This is, to me, a beautiful moment to really just soak it in … This is an amazing moment that brings people together, it brings American history right in touch with the American present. This moment really captures what we need in this country, because we have the past that we can reconcile with and we have a future that we need to embrace.” As a former schoolteacher and a college professor, he lamented the distraction of Critical Race Theory in schools as a means to dodge accountability while doing very real damage to the mental and moral well-being of schoolchildren. “There is a battle right now whether we can even teach things that involve conflict, that involve race and if you don’t teach those things– First of all, how do you explain inequality if we don’t talk about the history? Because we have a wonderful story here, in that our ancestors fought for their rights, their opportunities … In other places, these battles didn’t turn out that way. There was another century of violence and people did not get to achieve the promise of emancipation, and a century of political disenfranchisement … And when we think about education … This is precisely the kind of point in history that we want to be able to share with children.”

For reference, here is a list of recurring names within this article. Until his father’s death, Loyd Ford Sr. was known as Loyd Ford Jr. When he had children of his own, Loyd Ford Sr. passed on his former suffix to one of his sons, who went by Dickie.

  • Loyd Ford Sr., a slave owner in East Tennessee who fathered children with at least one of his slaves. Upon his death, he gave them their freedom and ownership of his property.
  • Larkin Ford, a freedman who worked on the property of Loyd Ford Sr.
  • Rhoda Ford, a young Black slave and daughter of Loyd Ford Sr.
  • John Ford, a Black slave who worked as a blacksmith and was the son of Loyd Ford Sr.
  • Stephen Ford, an abolitionist and extended relative to Loyd Ford.
  • Loyd Ford Jr., one of Loyd Ford Sr.’s white sons who fought to wrest the land from his father’s Black children in court.
  • Dickie Ford, another of Loyd Ford Sr.’s white children, who threatened his father’s life over the will.
  • Phoebe Stuart, a woman who went to court as a “next friend” on behalf of the Black Ford children. Black people were barred from appearing in court, so a white “next friend” was required to take their place for the process to begin.
  • Robert Hale, a lawyer Loyd Ford Sr. called upon to help execute his will. Robert’s wife, Sarah, safeguarded the will from the elder Ford’s white children. 

Ford v. Ford: The Legal Battle

Ford Sr.’s white children contested their father’s will in court in 1846, and after a jury trial, an appeal and a lot of love lost, the matter was handed over to the three-man Tennessee Supreme Court.  

But the outcome didn’t favor them; the Court found Loyd Ford’s will valid and Larkin and his family now owned property, one of the most significant markers of generational wealth. Justice Nathan Green handed down the following opinion:

“A slave is not in the condition of a horse or an ox…he is made in the image of the Creator. He has mental capabilities, and an immortal principle in his nature, that constitute him equal to his owner but for the accidental position in which fortune has placed him…the laws under which he is held as a slave have not and cannot extinguish his highborn nature nor deprive him of many rights which are inherent in man.”

The fight, however, wasn’t over yet.   

Klabenow wrote that although the Court agreed with the Washington County verdict upholding the will, it “conceded that errors had been made in the case … A retrial was ordered and Ford’s white heirs asked for a change of venue to Johnson County, but Johnson Countians also upheld the will. Looking a second time at the case, the state Supreme Court that same year, 1850, again backed an East Tennessee lower court in favor of the slaves.”

The court battles stretched into 1855, when a jury of all white men sided with Ford’s Black children. 

Through social media and advancements in genealogical technology, generations of this historical family have been able to come together.