Around 200 descendants of a South Carolina slave owner and one of his slaves will receive a replica of the nation’s highest civilian award Friday in Washington, D.C., in an unlikely chapter in a uniquely Southern saga.
The ceremony will celebrate two cousins, one Charleston-born, who served in the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the Army Air Forces during World War II. The segregated units are now famed as the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American pilots in the U.S. armed forces.
The story of how they came together for the ceremony crosses racial lines, spans three different centuries and, ultimately, united two sides of a family.
After Mount Pleasant resident Cynthia Porcher’s grandfather died in the mid-1990s, she went to his hometown of Pageland, in Chesterfield County near the North Carolina border, to look through his things. The obituary for a woman named Emiline Watts Brewer in a family scrapbook caught her eye.
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“It said she was a former slave of my great-great-grandfather, Thomas H. Watts, and that she had been a nurse and a midwife and had taken care of people, white and black, in the community her whole life,” she said. “The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was strange that a black woman in 1925 had a six-inch obituary in a small-town Southern paper.”
She started digging. The Chesterfield County courthouse has burned down twice – once by Union Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s troop during the Civil War – so records were limited, but she found something interesting.
“My great-great-grandfather had given a black woman, Arcilla Watts, probably Emiline’s mother, 50 acres of land at a time when she could not have owned it,” Porcher said. “It was a gift. We believe he had an ongoing relationship with Arcilla and that he married a white woman later on.”
Several years later, one of Porcher’s relatives told her that she’d run across a black family, the Brewers, online looking for information about Emiline Watts Brewer. Porcher connected with them, and their family histories fit together like pieces of a puzzle: They were all descended from Thomas H. Watts.
Members of the Brewer family traveled to Pageland in 2005 to meet Porcher and visit local cemeteries, and the meeting was a happy one.
“It seemed that the elders in both sides of the family knew they were kin somehow, and acknowledged that, but weren’t going to tell that to an outsider,” Porcher said. Now, everyone knew, and everyone was welcoming.
That Thanksgiving, Porcher told her relatives what she’d learned.
“Everyone was very open to it and thought it was fascinating,” she said.
Combining their genealogical research and expertise, the Brewers’ and Porcher’s families discovered new stories from their family tree. For example, Watts had freed his slaves before the Civil War began and refused to guard prison camps for the Confederacy.
They also found out that two of Thomas H. Watts’ descendents were Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American military aviators in U.S. history.
Second Lt. Robert C. Robinson Jr. was born in Charleston and moved to Asheville, N.C., with his family soon after. As a pilot, he was part of a raid on Berlin and declared missing in action at the age of 22.
His cousin, Dr. Charles Herbert Flowers Jr., was the first black flight instructor at Moton Field, in Tuskegee, Ala., where the air unit trained.
When the Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007, surviving airmen and families of the deceased received bronze replicas from then-President George W. Bush. But Robinson and Flowers had no relatives in attendance.
“We found out researching the family that these men had been Tuskegee Airmen and had not received the Congressional medal because, I guess, they didn’t know how to contact their families,” said Porcher. “So one of the relatives got to work finding out what it would take to make that happen.”
Those efforts will culminate in tonight’s ceremony, where Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia, will present the medals, and former Tuskegee Airmen and an Air Force honor guard will be in attendance.
The medal is the highest civilian award offered by Congress, and Porcher is looking forward to the ceremony. But the weekend will double as a family reunion.
“It’s a very close relationship,” Porcher said. “It’s a very heartwarming thing, and I’m glad that we found each other.”