Resilience Runs in the Family: Finding Roots in Fordtown

Mother and son Sharee and DeVonn Burress in Fordtown, Tennessee. Photo courtesy of NBC.

WASHINGTON CO., TN– Sharee and DeVonn Burress of St. Louis had no idea where the search for their family history would take them.

Sharee and DeVonn Burress research their family history at the Tennessee Judicial Museum. Photo courtesy of NBC.

With the help of genealogy research company Ancestry.com and NBC’s weekly show “Roots Less Traveled,” the mother-son duo flew 300 miles southeast to Tennessee, landing at Nashville’s BNA Airport, and continued on to the Tennessee Judiciary Museum in the Tennessee Supreme Court Building. Meeting with Court of Appeals Judge Andy Bennett, the Burress’s learned of an historic case that would change them forever.

That case was Ford v. Ford, a testament to equal rights in the time of the antebellum south. Larkin Ford, a distant great-grandfather of Sharee and DeVonn, had labored as a slave for Loyd Ford until Loyd died in 1843. Loyd stated in his will, written three years prior, that Larkin and his other slaves be freed and the 111-acre property they toiled on to be awarded to them. Loyd’s children challenged the will’s decree when the former slaves sought to prove the will, alleging that the document was invalid because slaves “were not proper parties,” Loyd was not of sound mind when he wrote it, and the 1840 will was forged.

However, the law was not on the side of the Loyd children: The Washington County Circuit Court jury confirmed the validity of the will, and the Loyd children appealed the decision to the state’s Supreme Court in 1846. The case was then remanded back to the circuit court for retrial, and again the will was found valid–a ruling which the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld in 1850. After nearly a decade of fighting Loyd’s sons for what was rightfully theirs, the Fords joined the small number of “free inhabitants” living in the South before the Civil War and were finally granted their land and at least some of the justice they deserved.

For the time, the rulings of both courts were surprising. The 1846 opinion of the Supreme Court’s Judge Nathan Green stated that “a slave is not in the condition of a horse or an ox … [He] is made after the image of the Creator … He has mental capacities and an immortal principle in his nature that constitute him equal to his owner but for the accidental position to which fortune has placed him.”

“I felt great to know I was a part of this. To be able to sign my name on the sign-in sheet and know this is my family put magic in that pen,” said Sharee of her visit to the museum.

Larkin Ford later went on to be selected as a Republican delegate for an 1870 political convention and rallied people to vote. It’s an unexpected turn of events that ensured Larkin Ford a place in Tennessee’s history.

The Burress’s continued nearly 200 miles further towards the northeastern tip of the Volunteer State to Washington County, where they were greeted with a sign bearing the words “Ford Creek Village.” As they stood surveying the scene, the duo were told that the land they were standing on–indeed, all the land they could see–was the land Larkin Ford worked, fought for, and raised his family on.

Sharee and DeVonn Burress at the farm their ancestor, Larkin Ford, worked as a slave. Photo courtesy of NBC.

Seeing the land brought tears to Sharee’s eyes.

“Touching the ground on which my three-times great grandfather worked on, the land told a story all by itself,” she said.

“It was a powerful moment for me,” added DeVonn. “It’s like looking at antique furniture–you can’t buy this.”

Unfortunately, the land no longer belongs to the Fords. Sharee said she’d like to know the history of how the farm changed hands through the years and plans to research with the family.

DeVonn, a fitness trainer, said learning about the perseverance of his ancestor inspires him to continue to push himself further rather than give up. “He didn’t do all the things he did for him, he did it for the family,” DeVonn said. “For him to just make it up to where he did is just amazing.”

He added that since their episode aired, he’d been in contact with family members who reached out via social media and said it felt great to grow the family circle and make connections. The Fords plan to have a family reunion on the land after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended, Sharee said.

“When I first got to Nashville, I felt right at home not knowing the information I was going to learn,” Sharee remarked. “Once we got to the museum and learned more things about our family, it just engulfed me with love and a sense of home. It was just a remarkable feeling to be in Tennessee.” She thanked Ancestry for the experience and Tennessee for “holding the treasure of [her] family at heart.”

Produced by Ancestry.com and Litton Entertainment, “Roots Less Traveled” provides multigenerational family members with the opportunity to discover interesting and inspiring family histories with host Faruq Tauheed. The episode featuring the Burress’s discovery of their Tennessee roots will re-air Sat., May 30 at 9:30 a.m. CST on NBC.