Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"How I Came To Write 'The Will'" -- Playwright Sandra Seaton finds inspiration at the Tennessee State Library and Archives

Sandra Seaton is a playwright and librettist. As the author of 10 plays, the libretto for a solo opera, a spoken word piece, and short fiction, Seaton’s work has been performed in cities throughout the country. She received the Mark Twain Award from the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature in 2012, and has taught creative writing and African-American literature at Central Michigan University for 15 years as a professor of English.

In this entry on the TSLA Blog, Seaton recalls her visit to the Tennessee State Library and Archives where she found the wills of her great-great grandparents, Cyrus and Eliza, while researching her family history. This discovery later inspired her to write, “The Will,” a play which dramatizes the human consequences of the Civil War as experienced by an African-American family in a small town in Tennessee.

How I Came to Write “The Will”

By Sandra Seaton

   Since childhood, I had heard the story about an ancestor of mine named Israel who sassed a white man and had to be smuggled out of town disguised as a woman. According to the story, when the Ku Klux Klan came to the house looking for Israel, my great-great-grandmother Eliza refused to disclose his whereabouts. Just minutes before, she had hid Israel upstairs under a mattress. After his escape, no one saw or heard from him again.

   I had been told often that my great-great-grandmother, Eliza Webster, her parents Annie and Demps Cherry, and four others (all free blacks) had founded the first black Baptist Church Mt. Lebanon, in Tennessee in the 1840s. I also knew that Eliza and her husband Cyrus had 22 children together, seven of whom died in the smallpox epidemic. That was all I knew. With what resources I had, I had been doing some research (snooping in attics, basements, churches, and talking to people) since 1989. On my trips to Tennessee I went to churches, cemeteries, and courthouses. As a native of Tennessee and through family oral traditions, I knew that an African American free black community existed in middle Tennessee before the Civil War, one with ties to the free black community in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

   I was anxious to find out any information I could about Cyrus and Eliza, so I made a trip to the Tennessee State Library and Archives in Nashville. Census records revealed that Cyrus had held farmland in Columbia before the Civil War. An 1850 record listed Cyrus, Eliza and a few of their children. Fascinated by the thought of African Americans of that era holding property in the South, and because of my desire to realize a full picture of the world of African Americans, I took a room at a hotel downtown and spent days at the Archives. I think I spent half the time trying to coax the microfilm readers or rewinding the rolls of film. I followed a number of leads but hadn’t turned up much.

   On my last day at the State Archives, a very hot summer afternoon about ten minutes before closing, I found the wills of my great-great grandfather and grandmother. As I read the two wills, I was awe-struck by their evocation of individuals and a way of life entirely different from the stereotypes about African Americans of their place and time. As I read, I was amazed by the beauty of the language and the care evident in each perfectly crafted sentence. My great-great-grandfather Cyrus’s will showed great planning and care. He was the nurturer, and his will revealed an appreciation for things like teapots, mirrors, and blankets. Throughout the will, he used terms of endearment for each family member, describing one relative as “a gentle, loving man.” My great-great-grandmother’s will, Eliza’s, on the other hand, concerned itself with the disposition of the land, down to the last foot.

   I was startled to notice that both wills mentioned Israel. Cyrus’s will left money and household items to Israel should he return. Eliza’s will contained a touching bequest to Israel pointing any reader of the will away from Israel’s actual destination. Archives are even quieter than libraries, but you know when I read those two wills, I couldn’t help it; I cried and cried. It was as if after all those years, there they were waiting quietly for me to find them.

Cyrus Webster's will, probated on Dec. 4, 1891, located within TSLA's Maury County Microfilm Records, Reel 184, Vol. G.
Tennessee State Library and Archives

Armed with copies of these wills, and at the encouragement of her grandmother, Emma, Sandra Seaton made a visit to Greenwood Cemetery, determined to find out more about Cyrus, Eliza and Israel. There, she made a startling discovery, inscribed in stone on the graves that marked her family members’ final resting place. She wrote:

   I desperately wanted to go to Greenwood. I knew there was no way my aunt was going to go with me, so I found a family friend, Mr. Herbert Johnson, and the two of us put on our old shoes and waded through the grass. Although Mr. Herbert, who was in ill health at that time, needed a cane to get around, nothing could stop this committed history buff from making the trip to Greenwood. We had looked at just about every tombstone we could find when we came to a group over in one corner that faced away from the rest. There they were, my family’s graves, just like Grandma Emma had said—Cyrus, Eliza, Eliza’s parents, Annie and Dempsey Cherry, seven little graves off in a corner, and next to Cyrus a very large monument with the name Anna Sanders at the top.

   The inscriptions were barely readable. I had heard of people doing grave rubbings so we went to a nearby drycleaner’s for some thin paper and to Kmart for crayons. Back then, grave markers could tell whole stories. After reading their wills at the archives, it was no surprise that the tombstones were finely scripted. We rubbed and rubbed, but were only mildly successful in making out dates for Cyrus and Eliza. For Anna, I was able to make out something that I didn’t understand, the words “cousin of Israel Grant.” Fresh out of paper, Mr. Herbert and I went to an auto shop next door. Maybe they had something we could use. I felt a little uneasy about announcing our purpose, poking around the white cemetery. A young white guy at the counter was casual about the whole thing. He had family over in Greenwood, couldn’t help out with paper, but was on his way home for lunch; he’d bring back a local historian’s book on the cemetery. Just look in the seat of my pick-up he told me.

   Sure enough, an hour later, the car window rolled down, the book lay there on the seat, waiting. The section on Cyrus and Eliza listed their inscription and the names of the graves of their seven young children and no more. There was no information on Anna Sanders. I called the local historical society. The woman on the phone told me to go to the grocery store, get some cornstarch or flour, throw it on the inscriptions, and dust it off. I threw cornstarch on Cyrus’s mother Anna’s grave and contemplated the words, “cousin of Israel Grant;” they just didn’t make any sense. My grandmother had always said we were related to Ulysses S. Grant. So was Anna the Grant connection? A light dusting revealed something I never expected to find: “Anna Sanders, 1790-1852, mother of Cyrus Webster and consort of Israel Grant.” Consort of Israel Grant! Cyrus had erected a monument over his mother’s grave, one of the largest in the cemetery. And he was proud of his ancestry, not only proud that a white man was his father, but that his mother was the common-law wife to this man, a relationship he cared enough about to inscribe on her tombstone. Here was Cyrus’s legacy, the example of a courageous man, courageous enough during slavery, 1852, to announce this relationship to a hostile world, and honest enough to show his love for his father by naming his first born son Israel.

From that day forward, fired with curiosity and ambition, Sandra Seaton set out to write a play that dramatized the people whose characters were expressed in these wills. She wrote “The Will” shortly thereafter—a play that reveals both the conflicts of Reconstruction and the range of African American culture.

Readers may learn more about “The Will” and other works by Sandra Seaton by visiting her website at: http://www.sandraseaton.com/. The Tennessee State Library and Archives is grateful to have had a part in helping Sandra discover her family’s history. We hope this blog post will inspire you to visit us and possibly help you write your own family’s story.

The State Library and Archives is a division of the Tennessee Department of State and Tre Hargett, Secretary of State.


  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful and beautifully presented entry about my journey and discovery of my ancestors' records at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. Your outstanding collection and your assistance to visitors are wonderful aids to all individuals hoping to find out more about their own family history. With great appreciation and many thanks, Sandra Seaton

  2. You're welcome, Sandra. Thank you for sharing your story with us!