After retiring from a career in banking, Bill Webb began to investigate his family history. His interest had been sparked by a family Bible record of his ancestor Brown Colbert that he saw as a child in Parkersburg, West Virginia. The research of Bill and his wife, Eva Kobus-Webb, revealed the connection to Monticello and brought to light other Colbert descendants like the Civil War soldier George Edmondson and suffragist Coralie Franklin Cook.
Nancy Scott was most likely the daughter of Monticello’s butler Burwell Colbert and his wife, Critta Hemings. In the late 1820s, Jefferson’s grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph sold her to Albemarle County clerk Alexander Garrett, who in 1842 sold her to her husband, Robert Scott. The Scotts had at least nine children and lived on Charlottesville’s main street.
Nancy Scott’s oldest child, Elizabeth, was the subject of a remarkable story preserved orally by her descendants and validated by historical records. It states that Elizabeth, who took the surname of her stepfather, Robert Scott, was Thomas J. Randolph’s daughter and was sold to the Garrett family. She was recaptured, after trying to run away, and put on the auction block and sold to a Dr. Cox, who made her his mistress. They had five children, one of them Nannie Cox Jackson, a noted Charlottesville educator and community leader. When Emancipation came, in 1865, Elizabeth Scott determined to live independently and supported her family by working as a dressmaker.
John Freeman Shorter was raised in freedom in Washington, D.C. In 1863 he left Delaware County, Ohio, for Boston, in order to enlist in one of the first black regiments to be organized, the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. He became one of only three fully-commissioned black officers in the regiment; the other two lieutenants, James Monroe Trotter and William H. Dupree, were also connected to Monticello.
Despite promises of equal treatment, the pay of the men of the Massachusetts regiments was half that of white soldiers and Shorter, like Trotter, became a leader in the fight for equal pay. He was wounded at the Battle of Honey Hill near Charleston, South Carolina, in November 1864. After being honorably discharged in 1865, he returned to Ohio to marry his fiancé, but died within weeks of reaching home. Shorter’s brother Charles Henry Shorter served in the 22nd U. S. Colored Infantry and survived the war to be an officer in a Washington post of the Grand Army of the Republic.
Mabel Hall Pittman Middleton, writer and teacher, grew up in Lexington, Virginia. After serving in the Women’s Army Corps in World War II and graduating from Fisk University, she taught English in Mississippi. She obtained her doctorate from Southern Illinois University and chaired the English Department at Jackson State University. She was appointed to the Mississippi Humanities Council in 2000.
Dr. Middleton, who married and had three children, heard from her family of her connection to Monticello but did not hear of her ancestor Brown Colbert’s emigration to Liberia.
Coralie Franklin Cook, Brown Colbert’s great-granddaughter, was born in slavery and became the first descendant of a Monticello slave known to have graduated from college. She was born in Lexington, VA, to Albert and Mary Elizabeth Edmondson Franklin (1829-1917). In 1880, Coralie Franklin graduated from Storer College in Harpers Ferry, WV. From this time, she was widely noted as a powerful public speaker. She taught elocution and English at Storer and then at Howard University.
In 1898 she married George William Cook (1855-1931), a Howard University professor and trustee. Coralie Cook served for twelve years as a member of the District of Columbia Board of Education. She was a founder of the National Association of Colored Women and a committed suffragist. About 1910, the Cooks became followers of the Baha’i faith. A longtime friend and admirer of Susan B. Anthony, she eventually became disillusioned by the women’s suffrage movement, feeling it had “turned its back on the woman of color.”
Born in slavery in Lexington, Virginia, George Edmondson claimed his freedom in June 1864, when Union forces occupied the town. He evidently accompanied the army across the mountains into West Virginia after its defeat at Lynchburg a week later. He enlisted in the 45th regiment (later the 127th) of the U. S. Colored Infantry in Wheeling and took part in months of grueling trench warfare during the siege of Richmond and Petersburg. He was wounded, promoted to corporal, and was with the first Union troops to enter Petersburg. At war’s end, Edmondson was shipped with the rest of the all-black 25th Corps to the remote coast of Texas.
After his discharge, Edmondson returned to West Virginia, settling in Parkersburg with his wife, Maria McDowell, and their children. He worked in a foundry and glass works and soon owned his own home. A trustee of his Methodist church, he sent one of his sons to Wilberforce University. His obituary described him as “one of the leading citizens of Parkersburg of the older generation.”