This article was published Feb. 13, 2021, in the Daily News-Record. Sarah and Benjamin Bixler, co-owners of the Lincoln Homestead north of Harrisonburg, are EMU alumni and faculty. Sarah, a 2002 graduate, teaches at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, while completing her PhD in practical theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. Benjamin ’03, MA (religion) ’13, is an adjunct instructor for EMU’s “Covenant & Community” course and is completing a PhD in Bible and cultures at Drew Theological School.
To honor the enslaved people of the Lincoln Homestead, the Bixlers are posting one name each day on the Lincoln Homestead Facebook page during February/Black History Month. The following article was written about their efforts to learn more about and to share this remembrance.
Despite more than a hundred years of weather making most the tombstones illegible, one engraving on a stone marker can still be seen through mineral buildup.
“Uncle Ned and his wife Queen. The last of the Lincoln slaves. Erected by Mary Lee Pennybacker, a descendant of the Lincolns.”
This cemetery isn’t an ordinary cemetery.
It’s the final resting place for five generations of President Abraham Lincoln’s ancestors, and an erected marker remembering only a fraction of those enslaved by the Lincoln family.
When Benjamin and Sarah Bixler bought the Lincoln Homestead in November 2019, they were not fully aware of the history that came with the yellow building that sits along Harpine Highway just outside of Harrisonburg.
Built by Jacob Lincoln, the great-uncle of President Lincoln, in 1800, the property was home to numerous relatives who owned enslaved African Americans. Jacob was the first of the Virginia Lincolns at the homestead to become a slave owner, Sarah Bixler said.
When the Bixlers began to restore the homestead, they were introduced to Phil Stone, a Harrisonburg lawyer and Lincoln family expert who established the Lincoln Society of Virginia in 2004.
Benjamin Bixler said Stone shared records of the property’s history and its occupants — those records included tax receipts of those enslaved over the years.
“The number of enslaved adults were reported on these records. … It’s really sobering. There were dozens of these,” Sarah Bixler said. “All these human lives were taxed as property.”
As more tax receipts were found and collected, a heavy significance began to weigh on the couple.
“We can tell there were at least 50 different people who would have been oppressed in slavery at this property,” Bixler said.
Feeling a responsibility to not forget what the lives of the enslaved meant, the Bixlers decided that during the month of February, recognized as Black History Month, one enslaved person would be recognized on the homestead’s Facebook page every day.
In most of the records found, only a first name is identified.
Cate was the first to be honored.
Cate, Squire and Jane were three African Americans written in a deed to Captain Jacob Lincoln, who built the home. Jane had two children, who were left to Jacob’s wife, Dorcas Lincoln.
As each day passed, the posts the Bixlers made on the homestead’s Facebook page gained more traction. But the posts also became harder to make.
Mary, a 9-year-old African American girl, was an example of how those enslaved were treated during the time, Sarah Bixler said.
In Dorcas Lincoln’s amended will from Dec. 21, 1839, she wrote “I give and bequeath unto my grand daughter Caroline Hammon one negro girl named Mary aged about nine years, to her and her heirs forever, on condition that her husband pays a debt I owe Adam Allen for leather.”
“A 9-year-old girl was imagined in the same thought as a debt for leather,” Sarah Bixler said. “It illustrates the way that African Americans were understood here in the South.”
In the same will, Dorcas Lincoln also left a girl named Margaret to Josephine Evans to be “her and her heirs forever.”
The enslaved African Americans already featured on the homestead’s Facebook page include Kate, Emily, Machael, Isaac, Lucinda, Ann, Sam and Jerry.
There are not enough days in the month to recognize all those who were enslaved at the Lincoln Homestead, but the posts during Black History Month are only the beginning.
“This is one part of the larger work we would like to do to educate people,” Sarah Bixler said.
“We know there is more work to be done,” Benjamin Bixler added.
As the Bixlers finish their academic work, they will continue to uncover the homestead’s history by conducting research at local libraries, and collaborating with the Lincoln Society of Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley Black Heritage Project.
One element of history they wish to confirm is if Lucy Simms’ grandmother was born at the homestead.
Simms was a well-known educator in Harrisonburg who taught generations of African American children while living in the area for six decades.
Sarah Bixler said they found a research article published by a James Madison University student that dove into Simms’ history. According to JMU’s Celebrating Simms Exhibit, her grandmother was purchased by the Gray family from a nearby cousin of Abraham Lincoln.
Bixler said if they are able to confirm Simms’ grandmother was born and enslaved at the property, it would be a “really significant piece of history.”
When the month is over, the Bixlers hope people who have been following the daily posts are left better aware of what took place at the homestead.
“It’s a matter of remembering and puts into perspective, for me, what African Americans had to overcome,” Sarah Bixler said. “I hope this leads to better awareness and understanding.”
Since the couple is planning on living in the home once renovations are complete, Sarah and Benjamin Bixler said they hope to host community educational groups in the future, as well as occasional tours of the home.