Henry & Cornelia Seay, A Vintage Vignette

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Henry & Cornelia Seay
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
April 23, 2007

The widow of a man born into slavery provided land for a school to serve black children in West Madison in 1936. According to a draft book entitled “History of Madison County Schools” by Berneice L. Dilworth, black children were rarely afforded opportunity for an education in the early 1900s, but by 1920 school was held in the lodge near Big Shiloh Church on Maple Street, just south of Mill Road and the cemetery there. Beginning in 1926, school was held in a lodge hall along Pension Row. However, in 1936 Cornelia Seay, without compensation, deeded land for a separate building in the Pension Row neighborhood. The WPA provided materials, and interested citizens provided the labor to construct the new school building. L. C. Jamar served as Principal until 1947 at the school. Mrs. Dorothy Turner was Principal in 1947, for that one year only. In 1948 E. C. Binford became Principal, but the school burned in 1949. Dilworth reports that state regulations prevented rebuilding of the school on the same site, so the black children returned to education in the lodge halls and churches that had been previously used in the area. Yet, Walter Betts provided land along Wall-Triana Highway for construction in 1953 of a replacement school that became known as West Madison Elementary, serving black families exclusively until full racial integration in 1970.

It is intriguing that E. C. Binford served as Principal of the school that Cornelia Seay sponsored. It was December of 1881 when Cornelia Binford married Henry Seay. The link, if any, between Cornelia and the future principal of the school is not yet known, but it is quite possible that there was some connection. Just as with Cornelia’s heritage and that of most other black persons of the time, Henry’s ancestry is difficult to firmly establish. However, it appears that he was born in August of 1855 per the census of 1900, while Cornelia was listed as born in May of 1865. If that date is correct (other census years show other dates for his birth), then Henry was born into slavery, before the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. His occupation was usually listed as “farmer”, but he must have done well and purchased property wisely. After his death between 1910 and 1920, Cornelia’s occupation was still listed as “farmer” in both the 1920 and the 1930 censuses. The 1910 record shows that Cornelia had borne 11 children, but only 6 were still alive in that year.

While the family ancestry is difficult to trace, there is a likelihood that Henry was born on the plantation of John Seay in northwestern Madison County in 1855. The 1860 census has only two Seay families listed, John and Willis W. Seay, who lived adjacent to one another and also adjacent to William M. Gooch, a man with family connections in the town of Madison. Willis Seay was born in 1795 in Virginia, while John was born in 1787 Virginia. Only John had slaves (40 of them, including one black male, age 5 in 1860, who may well have been Henry), as did William Gooch, who had 16 slaves – among them could have been Cornelia’s parents.

At least, Henry would not have experienced the horrors of slavery beyond his earliest childhood years, and Cornelia (being 10 years younger) would not have experienced slavery first-hand at all. Naturally, throughout their lifetimes, they still would have had other trials and hardships as the South transitioned its culture, but they seem to have succeeded and been somewhat accepted for their time.

In the 1900 census, Henry’s occupation was listed as “blacksmith”, and his family was living beside that of Seymore Doolittle, who at age 78 was also listed as a blacksmith. Doolittle was the most recognized blacksmith of early Madison, but at that age, he probably left his business operations to Henry. Henry’s household was the 3rd house from that of Madison Mayor Benjamin F. Harper in 1900, and they were also close to the home of John Ford Lanier. John D. Whitworth was their neighbor in the 1910 census. In the 1920 census, the family (headed by Cornelia) was listed on the same page as E. T. Martin, Harvey Anderson (the banker who lived at 17 Front Street), John E. Bronough, and Samuel Balch – all notables of the town. The 1930 census shows Cornelia’s neighbors to include Jim E. Williams (who lived at 19 Front Street), William Binford Humphrey (who lived at 23 Front Street), and Robert L. Sturdivant, who was listed as Mayor of Madison in that census. Obviously, Cornelia and Henry Seay lived among Madison’s most prominent citizens and were a key part of the community in many ways.

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