Helen Davis (center, front row) and Jennie Marshall Davis (hand on Davis’ shoulder) at a Marshal family reunion, date unknown
Ann Brown

Dear Professor Gates:

I’m seeking help confirming a family legend about the origins of my late mother, Helen Sarah Louise Davis, on her father’s side. Her parents were Jennie Eleanor Marshal, from Pensacola, Fla., and a man named Charles Call. Family lore says that Call was married to a woman whom he could not divorce because she was in an insane asylum. It also indicates that he was a writer who fled Florida for California after writing something controversial about white people. Once out in California, the story goes, he made a lot of money, which he hid in the wheels of his car. Unfortunately, as he drove back across country, the money burned up from the heat generated by the wheels.

Advertisement

My mother was born “out of wedlock” on April 17, 1914, in St. Louis, we’ve been told. She died in 2003. She was estranged from the Call side of her family for most of her life; however, shortly after retirement, she traveled to Pensacola and met her Call half-siblings. We learned that Charles was the grandson of Keith Call, who served twice as governor of Florida in the 19th century. Unfortunately, we have never been able to find proof of his connection to Charles Call, my grandfather. Can you help me confirm their relationship, please? —Ann Brown

You may not be able to locate proof of the relationship between Jennie Eleanor Marshal and Charles Call unless Call is listed as the father on Helen Sarah Louise Davis’ birth certificate. Public access to Missouri birth records only extends up to 1910, so you will not be able to locate her birth record through a site like Ancestry.com or FamilySearch. However, as a living direct descendant, you could request a copy of the record from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services or through St. Louis County. An original copy of her birth record may help you locate more clues about Helen’s father.

If that is not available, you could explore a connection through DNA evidence by comparing your DNA with that of known descendants of Charles Call. Try using one of the major testing services, such as 23andMe, AncestryDNA or FamilyTreeDNA. Even if you cannot find a known descendant of Call’s through conventional means, the major services have databases of individuals whom they have tested and who have agreed to make their information available to be matched with potential relatives. There’s a chance you could find a definitive connection that way, too.

What Do We Know About Helen Davis and Jennie Marshal?

We located Helen in the Social Security Applications and Claims index (available through Ancestry.com; subscription required), which records her mother as Jennie E. Marshall and father as John Davis. Perhaps this is the man through whom Helen got the surname “Davis”?

Advertisement

This record helped us to then locate Helen in the 1920 U.S. census living with her mother, Jennie Davis, in the household of her grandmother Sarah Marshal in Philadelphia. This was the first census record that would include Helen, and it states that she was 5 years old, born in Missouri. This matches what you know about her. Since she would not be included in any earlier records, you’ll need to turn your attention to her mother, Jennie E. Marshall (“Davis,” in this record), to see if you can determine whether there is any truth to your family lore.

According to the 1920 census, Jennie (Marshall) Davis was born around 1882 in Florida. We did not find her under the surname “Marshall” or “Davis” in 1910. However, when you told us in a subsequent email that Sarah Marshal had been married to a man named Caesar, we searched the 1900 census for a black female named Jennie born between 1880 and 1885 in Florida and pulled up this record for a 17-year-old Jennie Frazier whose parents were named Sarah and Caesar Frazier. The parents’ names match and she is about the right age. Perhaps this is your Jennie Davis and Sarah Marshal.

Using that information, we found a record in the 1910 census for 29-year-old Jennie Frasier, a black woman living in Tallahassee, Fla. This is just a few years before your mother’s birth, so you’ll want to focus your search efforts to see if you can locate Charles Call in close proximity to her. To account for a surname change from “Frazier/Frasier” to “Davis,” we suggest that you look for a marriage record between 1910 and 1914. Unfortunately, the Florida Marriage Index has a gap in the records between 1875 and 1927. According to the state of Florida, any marriage record before June 6, 1927, must be obtained from the county clerk of the court where the marriage license was issued.

What Do We Know About Charles Call?

We were able to locate a Charlie Call, a married black man in Pensacola in 1920 roughly the right age, who seems to have been living alone. Could this be because his wife was institutionalized, as your family lore states? We don’t know; and because of the time gap in the Florida Marriage Index previously described, we were not able to search for a marriage index record. We should also note that the census taker recorded that this man could not read or write, though all we really know from this is that either this was what Charlie told the census taker or this is what the census taker’s own impression was. If your family lore about him writing controversial things is true, perhaps Charlie provided the safest answer to the census taker.

Advertisement

We jumped ahead 10 years to the 1930 census and found a record for a Charles F. Call in Pensacola who was the 60-year-old single uncle of the head of the household, Bertie Gibbs. If this is the same man, as we suspect, perhaps there is a divorce record to be found. We also suggest looking into the Gibbs family to see if there is a connection or any more clues that might help solve the mystery of whether Charles Call had been married.

To check out your family lore about his time in California, we searched for a Charles Call in that state during the same time period but did not pull up any records. This does not mean he wasn’t there, but it seems likely that his permanent residence remained in Florida.

Is Charles Call Related to a Former Florida Governor?

We worked our way back in time to see if we could locate evidence of Charles’ connection to Richard Keith Call, who was the governor of the territory of Florida twice: 1836-39 and 1841-44 (and presumably is the “Keith Call” of whom you wrote). We were able to locate a Charles Call in the 1885 Florida state census residing in Escambia, Fla., in the household of his father, Henry Call. According to the record, Charles was born about 1869 in Florida, and his race was recorded as mulatto. Others in the household included Henry’s wife, Sarah; his children: Florence (age 18), Charles (age 16), Elizabeth (age 14), Jessie (age 5) and Willie (age 11); a woman named Amelia Call (age 38); and what appears to be her daughter Cherry (age 5).

Advertisement

It appears that the family’s ages may vary across records. This is not unusual for census records, since individuals were not always sure when they were born, or the information might have been reported to the census taker incorrectly. What you will want to search for is consistencies in the family to determine whether you have located the correct people. With this in mind, we located the same family in Pensacola, Escambia, Fla., in 1880 (this state census is free to search on Ancestry.com). In comparing the records, we noted that the names of the family members are the same, meaning that this must be the same family, even though their birth dates are slightly different. The record states that Harry/Henry Call was a minister.

From there we located the family residing in Uchee Anna, Walton, Fla., in 1870. Henry Call was recorded as a minister in this census, too. Knowing that Henry was a minister, you may want to search for African-American churches in the area that were in existence while Henry Call was alive. They may have additional information about the family. His occupation may also be an indicator that he was a minister before the end of slavery.

We tried locating this family in the 1860 U.S. census to see if they were free prior to emancipation, but we could not locate them. This means that they were likely slaves, since they were not recorded in their own household on the census. If they were slaves, they were not far from where Richard Keith Call lived in Leon County, Fla., which may be the connection to Richard Keith Call in your family lore.

Advertisement

Richard Keith Call owned two plantations and was one of the largest slave owners in Leon County in 1860, when he owned 121 slaves. It may be difficult to determine whether an individual in slave census records could be Henry Call, since the records do not contain names and include only a description of age, sex and color. When we checked the 1860 United States Census Slave Schedule on Ancestry.com, it appeared that Richard Keith Call did have a number of male slaves around 20 years old who could have been Henry Call. It looks as though the census taker recorded the slaves in family groups, so by comparing Henry’s known relatives to this record, you may be able to find a possible match.

We examined the Leon County Estate Index, and it appears that Richard K. Call has a probate dated to 1862 that may have information about his slaves. From the index we were able to locate the file relating to his estate, which is quite large and appears to address all aspects of his estate. It is likely that there is at least some information in these records about his slaves. These records are browsable, so you have to search the index page by page.

The State Library and Archives of Florida holds Richard Keith Call’s papers as well as the Call and Brevard family papers that are scanned and available online. A quick search for the word “slave” produced a number of results, some of which appear to be lists of slaves on the plantation. You could search through these records to see if you can locate a Henry mentioned in any of the family’s papers or his work documents. This may help you prove that Charles Call’s family were once slaves owned by Richard Keith Call, although it will likely not demonstrate whether there is a blood relation between your Charles Call and Richard Keith Call.

Advertisement

The only way you will be able to know for certain is to take a DNA test and compare your results with a known descendant of Richard Keith Call.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

Advertisement

This answer was provided in consultation with Meaghan E.H. Siekman, a senior researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.