Finding Otho: The Search for Our Enslaved Williams Ancestors, by Kathy Lynne Marshall, officially hits the bookstores today. I wrote the foreword for this book, which is a rare work on black family history in Washington County, Maryland. It’s available from Amazon.
Kathy (Kanika) Marshall and I first met via email in 2016, when a librarian from Hagerstown connected us. As a historian working on slavery in Washington County, I do sometimes get inquiries from people working on their African-American family history. But my correspondence with Kanika—the name by which I first knew Kathy—was unique.
Kathy and I began to email back and forth about her ancestor Otho Williams, his possible origins and family, and some of the myriad questions Kanika was asking, investigating, and hypothesizing about. So many questions! Two things struck me about those questions. One was how few of them I was at all able to help her with. The other was what a fertile investigative brain Kathy has. She constantly comes up with new approaches to the information, sources, and research problems she has identified. But what impressed me most, as I first got to know Kathy, and still does impress me, was the tremendous range, depth, and dedication of the research she had done. I was somewhat in awe of what she had already accomplished at that point.
The story of Kathy’s search for her ancestors, which she tells so engagingly and vividly, is one of two stories at the core of this book. The other is the story of those ancestors, most notably Otho Williams. Of course the Williams family history is part of a much larger story, too: the story of African-American individuals and families who were brought to western Maryland in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; were enslaved in agriculture, domestic service, and—notably in this case—industry; and found various routes to freedom. As Kanika unrolled her ancestors’ story, I kept learning from her about points at which her family’s history touched or intersected with significant aspects of Washington County’s African-American history.
Kathy’s ancestor Prince Williams, like so many enslaved persons in western Maryland, had originally come from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Prince had worked in the iron industry that pervaded Washington and Frederick Counties, linking enslaved workers back to the iron-working traditions of Africa. And it was Kathy’s relative Mary Williams who in the mid-nineteenth century made the intricately stitched white quilt (pictured at right) now in the Doleman collection in Hagerstown—one of the oldest items in that important collection. I’ve seen that quilt and found its beauty moving.
Journeys of discovery
Eventually I had the great pleasure of meeting Kathy in person, when she came to Maryland on her 2017 journey of discovery and pilgrimage. That trip, including the delightful day we spent together, is described in this book. But it was only a small part—in a way a culmination—of the years of persistent, patient research that allowed Kathy to tell her family’s history. The resulting book, Finding Otho, is not only a personal and family chronicle, but also a guidebook for others with family histories waiting for exploration. Kathy shares in its pages many hard-won lessons in genealogy, historical research, and writing.
On the wall above my desk hangs a small gem of an artwork, a metal plaque a little bigger than my palm. On its deep bronze-colored background, branches spring up, bearing round blue fruits. Kanika, the artist who created it and gave it to me on that 2017 visit, told me that it represents the family tree. I keep it where it can inspire my research, writing, and teaching about people who lived and worked in both slavery and freedom. I know that Finding Otho: The Search for Our Enslaved Williams Ancestors will be similarly inspiring to readers, as it takes them along on a quest that is both personal and an important part of our shared American story.