Brooklyn Bethea family branches into Rabun, other families in area

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 7, 2015

Today’s column will be another featuring the research and writing of one who holds strong appreciation for her heritage in the Brooklyn area of Conecuh County. Marianne Leader has consented to share her account of personal experiences in her quest for learning more of her heritage. Her journey is presented here in her own words. It should be informative on research methods and the genealogy of several families in her lineage who were prominent in the area.

“In mid-May 2013 I stood on the embankment of a little lane that leads southeastward toward the Sepulga River from County Rd 42, the Brooklyn Road; it is called Riverside Drive, as I recall. I was standing at a fence and looking over it toward the lovely house that my great uncle Willie Rabun (born 1856, Conecuh County, Ala.) is supposed to have built—or ordered to be built—for his new wife, Elizabeth Rumbley (born Burnt Corn, Ala., 1877), who was a teacher in the Brooklyn Academy for many years. In the list of teachers in the Academy that I obtained through USGenWeb archives, Elizabeth goes from her maiden name to Elizabeth Rabun somewhere between 1916 and 1920, so this must be the approximate time of the building of the house. Sherry Johnston from the Evergreen Library, who was trying to pull me into some kind of focus after a 25-year gap in my visits to Brooklyn, had already given me pages and pages of information, advice and a map, and had also told me to look up Susan Blair across the road from the Rabun/Amos/Feagin Cemetery (a.k.a. Benjamin Hart Cemetery).

At this point, I had already found out through Curtis Thomasson (e-mails exchanged after I discovered my Aunt Sue’s letter, which mentioned Lizzie’s second marriage to a Thomasson) that Elizabeth had married a George Thomasson in 1932, Willie Rabun had died in 1929. and that one of the Thomasson relatives was still in ownership in 2012 and was trying to maintain the house. In my search for another landmark of my family’s history, I then crossed the road and walked down to the building which was once supposed to have been a general store owned and operated by Willie Rabun; it now had a sign for the Masonic meetings which, apparently, occur upstairs. Willie Rabun’s occupation in the 1900 census was “merchant, groceries” in the Brooklyn, Conecuh County census.

Then, I spent some hour or more visiting the graves of my revered Uncle Willie and his mother, Mary Ann Bethea Rabun (born 1825 Conecuh Co., Ala.) and many other of their relatives. (My great great grandfather, Michael W. Rabun, born 1820 in Conecuh Co, Ala., father to my great Uncle Willie, was a first cousin, through his mother Martha Allen, of all the children of the Samuel Feagin and Nancy West Allen marriage.), I went across the road and found Susan Blair tending her garden. She and her sister, Julia, daughters of W.A. Blair and Mabel Jones Blair of Brooklyn, Ala., blessed my efforts with every kind of assistance, and Susan showed me many pictures from an absolutely irreplaceable copy of Brooklyn, March 1950, which was arranged and published by Susan’s and Julia’s father, W.A. Blair, the principal in the mid-1900s of the Brooklyn School and son of the medical doctor, Wesley A. Blair.

These images in the March Brooklyn, old photos of places and people, have helped me to find my history. For instance, in the pictures of some of the deceased in the community, appears Oliver Bethea as a grown man. I had not seen any image of him since an old inherited photo portrait of circa 1900, in which he sits, as a 5-6-year-old, on the hem of my great grandmother Julia Rabun Robinson’s gown. Above her, also, in the portrait, is my grandmother Sally Beatrice Robinson holding a very ostentatious ostrich feather. Oliver is only identified, on the back of the photo, as nephew of Julia Rabun—a nephew I have recently found out was the last of Julia’s sister, Viola Rabun’s, children, born 1894. One of the two daughters of Mary Ann Bethea Rabun, Viola, born 1855, had married circa 1872 her first cousin, Goodman Bethea, born 1851 in Conecuh County, and they had produced another generation of Betheas, nearly one every other year. Viola died a few months after Oliver’s birth. So, in the photo I have inherited, the Oliver here is with intimate maternal kin, even if not in the company of his natural mother; I begin to understand better the truly extended family picture of that era in rural Alabama. Sally Beatrice in this picture in 1900 will soon leave her Uncle Willie’s house in Brooklyn and will move into Montgomery, Ala., where she became mother and grandmother, the matriarch of a family for several generations. But she was brought up by her unmarried uncle, Uncle Willie Rabun, after she, at age four and a half, had lost her father, Charles Moffet Robinson, in 1883 in Conecuh, Ala.

My mother and my mother’s brothers grew up on what we called the “family corner” in east Montgomery, Alabama, and three of the four in their generation, after marriage, built their houses there, so that most of us first cousins grew up together into the late 1950’s and early 1960’s before leaving home for work assignments or college. Some of our parents were still there even into the late 1990’s and early 2000’s on this “Reservation,” as we sometimes called it, where Grandmother Sally Beatrice Robinson (born 1878 Brooklyn, Conecuh Co, Ala., died in Montgomery 1961) was married in 1907 to Alex D. Chambless Sr in Montgomery, had moved after a small inheritance in 1916 from Aunt Estelle Robinson Williams, sister of Sally’s late father, allowed Sally and Alex to purchase a few acres of land in East Montgomery. We cousins heard family stories about how Grandmother “Nannie” Sally Beatrice Robinson had come first to Montgomery from Brooklyn, with her mother, Julia Rabun Robinson, (born 1853 Conecuh, Ala., daughter of Michael W. Rabun, born Ala., 1820 and Mary Ann Bethea, born Ala. 1825) as chaperone.

Later, from family notes and history, we confirmed that Nannie had come in 1905 and studied at the Massey Business College, and that Alex D. Chambless had appeared in Montgomery in 1906, also from Brooklyn, but he was scarcely acquainted with Sally because Alex was at least five, maybe six years younger than our grandmother. We had to imagine the scene: she had been 28 in Montgomery when they met as young adults; he was 22 years old. But back in Brooklyn, in 1900, for instance, when she was turning 22, he would have been 16. While Alex’s family, too, was an old Georgia family harking back to North Carolina and Virginia during the American Revolution, the Chambless name was relatively new in Alabama, while our grandmother’s family had been there, so it seemed, forever. In Conecuh County, Ala. Census of 1900 does indeed confirm that Alex was 16 in 1900; Sally, still living with her guardian Uncle William Rabun, was 21, nearer to 22. By the way, it appears in this census that grandmother’s mother, Julia Robinson, is, as usual, fibbing about her age—making herself younger than she is—and I have found this fibbing about age to be a common occurrence in public records.

Now, it was not through Sally’s ancestors, the A.J. Robinsons, who came from Georgia and had their claims elsewhere, of course– that she had acquired her long heritage in Conecuh and in Covington and Escambia Counties. The Robinsons, who were Nannie’s paternal grandparents, were Dr. Andrew Jackson Robinson, whose apprenticeship as medical practitioner occurred under Dr. John Scott of Conecuh County from about 1855 to 1859, part of this time overlapping with Dr. Scott’s training, also, of Dr. Charles Taliaferro and his wife, Josephine Caroline Moffet, who had come into Conecuh County about 1854, or about 10 years before the War for Southern Independence.

The older Robinson family, in terms of Conecuh and Covington County roots, was the Edwin Robinson family from Connecticut, Edwin coming into Alabama in December 1818 and settling near Murder Creek, and after marriage 1820 to Amelia Frances Hart, coming (1821) into area of Brooklyn with father-in-law, Benjamin Hart. It was through her Rabun and Bethea kinfolk that my grandmother staked her ancestral claim in Conecuh and Covington Counties, and she loved to talk about her beloved Uncle Willie Rabun who had raised her and her siblings, and had provided for her mother, Julia Rabun, during all the years after 1883 when Charles Moffet Robinson, born 1853, her father, had died. Not only her father, Charles M. Robinson, but also Grandfather Dr. A. J. Robinson had died in that year of 1883–two deaths so close together of a father and son, one a medical doctor who attended the sick, made me wonder if perhaps there might have been one single cause of death from an epidemic. Sherry Johnston of the Evergreen, Ala. Library looked up the records of quarantines for 1883 in Conecuh County and Escambia County and found that these counties had been under quarantine for yellow fever that summer and fall. I don’t yet have further information.

Since Grandmother Sally had wanted me to be named Marianne Bethea Rabun –all this and still a surname to add! I was very curious about who these people, the Betheas and the Rabuns, were, and in approximately 2010, I began my slow but determined search. Mary Ann Bethea, my grandmother’s grandmother, was born in 1825 in Conecuh Co AL, but to which one of the Betheas? Though my grandmother probably had said at some point who her great-grandfather was, we didn’t write her words down, but paid later in regret, of course. At least Grandmother had written down, in the family Bible, a few family notes which went back to early Rabuns and to her beloved Mary Ann Bethea—about whom I had handed-down stories and names of her descendants– but there was no mention of earlier Bethea ancestry, except that the settlers came from South Carolina. On a very large, extended Bethea website, I learned a lot about the clan from Britain, who came to America circa 1695 to 1700 from Suffolk County, England; they might have had either Celtic or Norman origins, and in the 17th century they might have been French Huguenots—an assumption based partly on this name Bethea which, it seems, has always been accented on the second syllable. All of the speculation had the energy of an argument between those descendants who wanted to think they had Huguenot—i.e., French Protestant—ancestors, and those who didn’t want to think so.”

This seems to be a good place to end the first segment of this genealogy story. Additional segments will follow in future columns. Anyone who might have a question regarding this column is requested to contact Curtis Thomasson at 20357 Blake Pruitt Road, Andalusia, AL 36420; 334-804-1442; or Email: