Powhaton Toney, A Vintage Vignette
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
January 20, 2011
Powhaton Toney is the Army's designated name of a cemetery along the old Huntsville-Triana Pike, now the southern portion of Anderson Road, in a wooded part of Test Area 6 of Redstone Arsenal. There was a black man of that name who lived in the area. Records show that he was born in 1867, just after the Civil War, so he was never a slave. Powhaton was a son of Major Toney, who was born in 1825 in Alabama. Madison County records show that Powhaton G. Toney was licensed (as a second marriage for both) to marry Mary T. Graves or Groves in 1896. Therefore, she could be related to the namesake of a nearby cemetery, Austin Groves. In 1904 Toney initiated purchase of the east half of the northeast quarter of Section 11, Township 5, Range 2 West (80 acres) from the American Freeholder Land & Mortgage Company of London. The purchase included land where the cemetery is located. After only five years Toney paid off the debt in 1909. In 1928 Toney claimed this land as his homestead. The action was probably for tax reduction purposes. Then Toney put the land in his wife’s name. This further provided protection from seizure over Powhaton's debts. Riley Toney in 1905 sold land to Powhaton and other trustees of the Spring Hill Methodist Episcopal Church. Powhaton was a trustee of both the Lowe and the Spring Hill Methodist Episcopal Churches. In 1918 Toney was one of ten men listed as owners of a grist and saw mill on a deed from Andy Cowan granting access right of way to the mill. Powhaton sold land to the TVA from the two churches in 1935. Powhaton and his wife sold additional land of their own to the TVA that year. Also in 1935, land was sold by Anna Lou Toney to Powhaton and Mary Toney plus Pitts Griffin as trustees of “The Benevolent Brothers and Sisters of Honor”, which had a clubhouse on the purchased parcel. While Powhaton Toney was a landowner and trustee of two churches simultaneously, he also experienced negative judgments from the legal system of Madison County. There were six “Certificates of Judgment” by the Circuit Court against him from 1922 to 1933. The 1930 census shows Powhaton Toney at age 63. It is known that Powhaton passed away by 1941, when his wife Mary was shown on a mortgage instrument as a widow. The Powhaton Toney Cemetery is not blessed with an abundance of information to be gained from tombstones. However, it has fostered research about a black man who was born just after the Civil War and who died in the late 1930s or early 1940s. His life record shows that he was an active man upon whom the fortunes and financial adversities of farming fell. He was a trustee of two churches plus a member and officer of a black honorary or benevolent society. He had legal support in some of his numerous land transactions from Milton H. Lanier, a Huntsville attorney whose name appeared on several documents involving Powhaton. Oddly enough, there is no tombstone for Powhaton Toney or his wife in the cemetery that carries his name. While very little can be proven for burials in that place, there is a small hand-lettered tombstone with the name Millie Horton, 1898-1936. (Records are inconclusive whether Millie was a daughter of Charles Rhea Toney or Powhaton's step-daughter. She married Robert Horton in 1912.) It is possible that neighbors and members of the Lowe and the Spring Hill Methodist Episcopal Churches were buried in the cemetery, since Powhaton was a trustee of those churches. Similar assumptions fit for the members of “The Benevolent Brothers and Sisters of Honor”. The cemetery may have been more of a church or community cemetery than a private family cemetery. It is unfortunate that no tombstones were erected, or at least that none remain today beyond the one stone for Millie Horton. Still, it has been good to learn something of this man with an unusual first name. His life was a positive influence among his peers and community, regardless of whether he ever had a tombstone.