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Thursday, September 21, 2000

A family reunited

Cox decendants embrace roots tangled by slavery

By Ellen Bernstein

Check out the entire series
Alclair Pleasant woke early in a 1950s gray frame house, typical of those abandoned decades ago by white families who foresaw belching stacks of refineries and declining property values on the north Corpus Christi horizon.
   Ninety-four-years old and nearly blind, this retired black teacher combed out her rolled hair and contemplated five outfits on her bedspread. She decided on a snakeskin print dress for a most unusual outing on a Saturday in June.
   Though blistered from a painful bout of the shingles, Pleasant looked radiant as she prepared to welcome into a black neighborhood a descendant of the Southern Confederate who enslaved her ancestors 150 years ago.
David Adame/Caller-Times
Roy and Cecelia Adair embrace 94-year-old Alclair Pleasant on the likely spot of the first home of Cornelius Cox in Live Oak County. Cox, Ceceliaís great-great-grandfather, owned Pleasantís grandmother and great-grandmother as slaves. The Adairs and Pleasant met for the first time in June.

   "I don't know what they'll think of me," she said, absently smoothing the creases of her dress as she sat waiting for a middle-aged white couple from Hays County.
   "And," she smiled, self-consciously. "I hope they don't mind having a black ancestor."
   A mixed-race child was born in 1869 from a union of a white Live Oak County rancher and the black woman he once enslaved. So says Pleasant, whose grandmother Sallie Cox was the 19-year-old slave once owned by 44-year-old Cornelius Clay Cox, who became a Live Oak County judge.
   The unwed Sallie Cox carried the Cox name after she was freed, as did other Cox slaves. But Sallie's child, Willie, had the Cox name because of his white father, Pleasant said.
Contributed photo
Cornelius Clay Cox and his second wife, Nellye Stedman Cox.

   "We were living according to the times we were in," Pleasant said of the hushed circumstances surrounding her Uncle Willie's birth. Of that era, she said "young girl slaves were taken off and used because the girl had no choice. They belonged to the white man. They had to do whatever he said. But Willie was light complexioned, which showed the white blood in him."
   This unsubstantiated bit of family lore, passed down by Pleasant's grandmother, intrigued a descendant of Cornelius Cox - enough to want to meet the granddaughter of his slave.
   Cecelia Adair, 54, the great- great granddaughter of Cornelius Cox, was contacted in May by a Caller-Times reporter searching for descendants of South Texas slave holders and the descendants of the people they owned before the Civil War.
David Adame/Caller-Times
Alclair Pleasant (left) and local historian Bill Sayger look over the ruins of the second home of Cornelius Cox in southern Live Oak County.

   What followed was a rendezvous that many would have shunned out of embarrassment or perceived futility.
   Instead, a retired black teacher in her mid-90s and a white couple from Central Texas bridged a nation's troubled past, embracing, if just for a day, those ancestral roots entangled by slavery.
   A month before the descendants met, Cecelia Adair and her husband, Roy, were visited at their ranch style house in hilly, tree-covered country 20 miles south of Austin.
   On a kitchen table, Cecelia displayed a collection of old family papers and photos with an organization befitting a court records manager. She is district clerk of Hays County.
   Memoirs of Cornelius Cox's early years in Kentucky, his migration to Texas and California as a gold prospector, a transcript of a taped interview with a family elder and photo albums fueled discussion on her family going back 175 years.
   The couple was given a copy of a faded photograph of Cornelius Cox and his second wife, Nellye Stedman, archived at an Austin library. Born in 1825, Cox appeared to be in his sixties in the portrait. He had the close-set eyes, narrow nose and small mouth of his great-great-granddaughter .
   The Adairs were shown other photos, images of Cornelius Cox's slaves, Mariah Cox, her daughter Sallie Cox, and family members, including the mulatto, Willie Cox. In one group portrait, the family stood on the porch of a wood frame house they built after the Civil War at Tancahua and Buffalo streets.
   Cecelia Adair said she never thought much about her great-great grandfather's slaves.
   A family grows
Contributed photo
Alclair Pleasant says her uncle Willie Cox, shown here with his wife Kate, is the son of Live Oak County rancher Cornelius Cox and his former slave, Sallie Cox. Sallie Cox is Pleasantís grandmother.

   Cornelius Cox wrote in his memoirs that in the mid-1850s, he brought four slaves to a crude frontier house with separate slave quarters, a few miles south of what is now Lake Corpus Christi. He had purchased his slaves, Mariah, her daughter, Sallie, and two others in Seguin.
   According to Pleasant, Sallie and Mariah were sold off from a farm in Carroll County, Miss., and brought to Texas in the 1840s. The sale separated Mariah from her husband and Sallie from her father, a slave named Aaron Merriweather. Merriweather never saw his family again.
   Mariah appeared to have the run of Cornelius Cox's household. In 1860, Mariah welcomed Cox at the door when he returned from Kentucky with his bride, Fannie. She apologized profusely to Fannie for the rugged furnishings, Cox wrote.
   Fannie and Cornelius Cox had three children, Sidney, James and Cornelia. Seven years later, Fannie Cox died of yellow fever. In 1871, Cornelius Cox would marry again - Nellye Stedman from Kentucky.
   It's likely that Sallie and her mother, Mariah, continued caring for the motherless children of Cornelius Cox after they were freed, Pleasant said. Sallie Cox also worked as a cook on the nearby Schaeffer ranch where she met her husband, a workhand named Florentino Garcia. Sallie Cox and Florentino Garcia were Pleasant's grandparents.
   During the brief period that Cornelius Cox was widowed and alone, the mulatto Willie Cox was born to Sallie.
   'It all makes sense'
   This much was told to the Adairs about Willie Cox. He married a white woman named Kate and they lived in Mexico for many years. They had no children. He died in 1919 at age 49. No one knows what became of Kate.
   Her Uncle Willie was strange, Pleasant recalled, an opinion passed on to the Adairs.
   "He was never the same after he came back from Mexico," Pleasant had said.
   Pleasant's peculiar uncle wouldn't live with the rest of the family in the Tancahua Street house. So his mother, Sallie Cox, erected a one-room building in the backyard.
   Wherever Willie went, he carried his possessions - pots, utensils, dishes - in a knotted sheet slung on his back.
   "I guess he thought the family would bother his things," Pleasant had said. He once frightened Pleasant and her younger sister, Anita, when he came around the side of the house.
   "Get out of my way," he roared at the young girls.
   Cecelia and Roy Adair stared in utter silence, slack-jawed, as a possible ancestor, half-black, half-white, half-crazy, took shape in their minds.
   Then suddenly, Roy Adair sprang from his chair. He slammed his hands on the kitchen table, as if he'd awakened to an epiphany.
   "I told you, Ceil," he said to his wife. "I told you your family's daffy. It all makes sense now."
   Nervous meeting
   Not much fazed Alclair Pleasant. She'd survived two rocky marriages, the adoption of a son at age 54, and 60 years in the city's school system.
   She'd seen it all. Except this.
   Her face sank into her hands when she first heard a Hays County couple was driving three-and-a-half hours to meet the granddaughter of their ancestor's slave.
   Nervous, she asked her friend, Bill Sayger, to be at the meeting. The white amateur historian befriended Pleasant a year ago while researching local black history. He has produced county histories available at the Corpus Christi Public Library that are among the first to include contributions of blacks.
   "Blacks are very marginal in this country," said Sayger, 57. "And I want to make people more aware of the black presence in Corpus Christi. The accounts of history act like they didn't have any influence here. Well, they had considerable influence."
   Legendary memory
   Sayger sought out Pleasant because of her legendary memory, he said. Her powers of recollection, even at 94, never fail a crosscheck against public records, and she's largely responsible for the preservation of black history in Corpus Christi, he said. Many of the city's earliest black families have moved away - except Pleasant's.
   After researching Pleasant's family, Sayger believes that Cornelius Cox was Willie Cox's father.
   Genealogists often demand three sources to substantiate an ancestry claim. Yet there is not a single written source documenting Willie Cox's paternity.
   "Three pieces of paper? They'll never get it," Sayger said.
   "Genealogy is sanitized history. With these liaisons of masters and children, they have to put a lot of stock in family oral tradition."
   Sayger grew up in a "poor but comfortable family" in rural Arkansas. In his younger years, he befriended many elderly blacks like Pleasant, who talked about slavery and the Old South. As curious as he was protective of his older friend, Sayger didn't want to "miss the sparks" of the Southern drama about to unfold in Pleasant's living room.
   'A million questions'
   "Oh gosh, I have a million questions," said Cecelia Adair, clasping Pleasant's hands as they met in her living room.
   "Honey, you feel free to ask me," Pleasant said.
   The descendant of slave and slave owner talked for an hour. They mined their shared love of family history and speculated about Cornelius Cox's relationship to his slaves. They discovered they both liked to bowl and play bridge.
   It was an auspicious start of an unforgettable day. The Adairs, Pleasant and Sayger, embarked on a 100-mile tour of shared ancestral stomping grounds. An overcast day, a cane and an umbrella permitted the elderly Pleasant to take in additional sites of little significance to her own family. She was just interested in the Adair family, and they in hers.
   They visited a once-segregated cemetery in Corpus Christi, the hidden ruins of an ancestral home in Live Oak County and a Cox burial ground on a rattlesnake-infested ranch near Lake Corpus Christi. Only then did Pleasant stay in the car.
   Lively lunch
   At a lunch in Orange Grove, the conversation took in 150 years of Southern race relations over barbecue and fried fish. The topics bounced from the Confederate flag, to segregation, to black power and "Dixie."
   Like a schoolteacher breaking up a spat between children, Pleasant intervened when Roy and Cecelia Adair argued speculatively about the circumstances surrounding Willie Cox's birth.
   Cecelia Adair believed it was coercion. Her husband couldn't imagine, from all he'd read about Cornelius Cox, that he was anything less than a Southern gentleman.
   "My grandmother always gave Mr. Cox a good name," Pleasant said. "He wasn't one of the bad owners."
   "How did Willie? . . . I guess force. . . . That's not nice," Cecelia Adair said. "I'm just hearing about this now."
   "Well, it was common," Pleasant said.
   A steep climb
   Later that day, Pleasant climbed a steep bank. Her cane brushed aside a tangle of brush to reveal the ruins of an ancestral home of Cornelius Cox. Not the one in which her slave ancestors worked, but Cox's second home near Lagarto, which was built in 1872.
   As Cecelia Adair picked up old nails and hinges to encase in a shadow box, she began to cry.
   "Poor thing. It means a lot to her," Pleasant said quietly. Then she called to Adair: "Do you have enough nails to share with favorite relatives?"
   As Sayger escorted Pleasant back to the car, she told him: "Uncle Willie, he would be so proud to know I'm getting into all of this."
   The last stop of a long day was the presumed spot where Cox and his slaves lived. Bill Sayger brought a vintage map of the area with Cox's original property marked along Belden Creek.
   "He said (in his memoirs) that it's three miles from the bridge to the center of the tract," Sayger said before leading a car caravan to the spot.
   They drove their cars up a hill from the creek. At the highest point is where Cox likely made his home, Sayger decided.
   The cars were parked on the side of the road. First to cross the street was Pleasant, on Sayger's arm. Cars whizzed by, and the nearly blind woman forged ahead.
   She climbed another steep bank of caliche, followed by Cecelia and Roy Adair. By a barbed wire fence, they hugged each other for a photograph, as if they were family.
   It began to rain, and the stench of a dead armadillo, rising from the likely spot Cornelius Cox broke ground for his ranch brought a touch of Texas humor to the end of a sentimental day.
   Pinching their noses at the odor of a roadside kill and laughing at the sight of an empty Lone Star beer bottle in its bosom, everyone promised they would meet again someday.
   Pleasant knew she would never forget this meeting.
   "This one day took 10 years off my life," she said on the drive back to Corpus Christi. "I didn't think that they would want to meet me. I thought they'd be upset to find someone black in the family. I didn't think that they would consider my family to be part of their family history."

Former staff writer Ellen Bernstein can be reached at 886-3672 or by e-mail at

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