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Jan 09, 2019

Continuing the Search for Our 2nd Great Grandparents

Senator Frank Gilbert, Sr., Florence, SC, Copy held 2019 by Robin Foster (1441 Ireland Dr. #B, Fayetteville, NC, 28304). Senator Gilbert is deceased.

When you conduct African American genealogy, you must consult oral history interviews, those you took and ones that exist before you began. I would be remiss if I claimed to do all this research on my own. On the Johnson-Vance side of my family, I was very fortunate to get to know the family of Senator Frank Gilbert (1934-1999) from Florence, South Carolina. I did not know him in this life, but I feel as if I have picked up the search for our great grandparents on both sides Beverly and Matilda Dunlap Vance and Andrew and Jane Smith Johnson McCoy.

Senator Gilbert became the first African American to become a member of the South Carolina House of Representatives from Florence district. He served six years then in 1988 he became the first African American to be elected to the Senate from Florence. He was an avid family history researcher.

He definitely saw himself in the life of Beverly Vance (1832-1899) as he researched him and the riots of 1876. “This is evidence that high levels were manifested in the great great grandfather, Beverly, a Black Republican, and…Representative (Major) J. K. Vance, a White Democrat, during the Nineteenth Century and showed itself again in the late Twentieth Century, 1982, with Frank being elected to the House of Representatives and later to the S. C. Senate in 1988,” wrote Senator Frank Gilbert.

Jane Smith Johnson McCoy

I would like to focus on one part of his oral history that explains what he discovered about our 2nd great grandmother, Jane Smith Johnson McCoy:

Senator Frank Gilbert, Sr., Florence, SC, Copy held 2019 by Robin Foster (1441 Ireland Dr. #B, Fayetteville, NC, 28304). Senator Gilbert is deceased.
Senator Frank Gilbert, Sr., Florence, SC, Copy held 2019 by Robin Foster (1441 Ireland Dr. #B, Fayetteville, NC, 28304). Senator Gilbert is deceased.

Henry Smith and Jane Smith Johnson McCoy

The most significant findings come as a result of family members sharing what they remember first hand. Some are deceased now. During an interview with William Louis Johnson conducted by James Martin Wall, another Johnson-Vance cousin, and myself, Bill shared with us the fact that there was a definite connection the Johnson descendants and the Smith Plantation in Laurens County, South Carolina. He also alluded to the belief that was passed down that the Johnson’s are somehow related to a friend of the family, Reverend Ulysses Rice Jr. of Washington, DC now deceased.

With Martin’s encouragement, I researched plantation owners in Laurens County with the surname of Smith. I could not find a connection. We decided I should trace the ancestry of Rev. Rice. Rev. Rice shared an interview done by Pat Whitehead. Using census records, I was able to document the ancestors of Rev. Rice.

Henry and Mary Smith are the great grandparent of Rev. Rice. I traced each of their children and even the enslaver, John Skinner Smith, who moved Abbeville County and settled in Laurens County, SC.  I still had no definite connection between the Smith’s and the Johnson’s. Even the memories of those who would know has faded, so I put my research to the side.

Before 2009 while visiting with Lois and her family, Frank Jr. and Lois shared with me two letters which Senator Frank Gilbert had acquired as he researched the Johnson-Vance family. One letter was written by my grandfather, Emory Wallace Vance, Sr.  in 1972. I had never seen it before.  

The purpose for his letter to Katharine Johnson Holland was to try find out certain Smith family members who he had been corresponding with in Laurens County, but was no longer having success reaching. He mentions several of the descendants of Henry Smith and he also explains to Katharine that Henry Smith is the brother of Jane, his grandmother!

The other letter shared with me was written by Katherine in 1995 to Frank Gilbert, Sr. In the letter, she explains that she tried to locate the Smith relative who my grandfather was trying to get in touch with. She also explains that Ernest Vance, Sr. was the person who originally explained to her how the Smith’s were connected and the name of the enslaver.

Putting It Together

I instantly remembered that Rev. Lafayette Frankin Vance was the informant for his wife, Lula Johnson Vance, upon her death. Her death certificate names her mother, Jane Smith. Jane would have probably carried the surname of Smith until her first marriage. Her mother was Katie Smith, and her father was Lewis or Louis Burroughs. Jane was born about 1834, well before her parents would have been allowed to marry.  Jane McCoy was Jane Smith Johnson after she married James McCoy after the death of Andrew Johnson:

"South Carolina Deaths, 1915-1965," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 5 April 2018), 004177352 > image 703 of 1740; Department of Archives and History, State Records Center, Columbia.”><figcaption>“South Carolina Deaths, 1915-1965,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 5 April 2018), 004177352 > image 703 of 1740; Department of Archives and History, State Records Center, Columbia.</figcaption></figure>
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<p>We now know that Jane’s surname was Smith, not Burroughs, before she married. Her maiden name is listed as Smith on several of her children’s death certificates:</p>


<ul class=
  • Jane Smith in entry for Robert E Johnson, “South Carolina, Delayed Birth Certificates, 1766-1900
  • Jane Smith in entry for Laura Sims, “South Carolina Deaths, 1915-1965”
  • Jane Smith in entry for Robert E Johnson, “Michigan Death Certificates, 1921-1952”
  • Janie Smith in entry for Georgia Anna Johnson, “South Carolina Deaths, 1915-1965”
  • Words cannot express the gratitude I feel for these interviews and letters which were shared with me. We would not know the connection between Henry Smith and Jane Smith Johnson McCoy in any other way. Oh, if it were not for that grandson who mentioned his grandmother and great uncle and his cousins in a letter before his death.

    I hope you all will be inspired to search through any letters or photographs that you too may have in your possession which could prove vital in our quest to document our history.

    Sharpen the Saw

    I would like to find the Smith family. My grandfather tried to contact them again after losing contact with the before he died. They are Henry Smith’s descendants, my great great grandmother, Jane’s brother. It was important that family stayed in contact. I will use social media as one way to find them.

    Next, I now can search for Jane’s and Henry’s mother. One way is to search out the records of the enslaver, John Skinner Smith’s plantation. I have been in this spot many times before, and I have successfully found my people each time. I have wanted to document Jane’s parents since 1985.  All I have is Jane’s death. So here goes.

    Do you have an enslaved person whose parents you would like to find? Have you gone back over those old interviews you took? Let us know on our Facebook Group.