Tatanya Peterson had to know what life was like for her ancestors who lived many years ago on James Chesnut’s plantation in Alachua County.
After 13 years of research, Peterson, 55, unveiled an exhibit called “Reclaiming Kin: Once Lost, Now Found” on Saturday. It will permanently display the details of her family history at the Allen and Ethel Graham Visitors Center at the Historic Haile Homestead in Gainesville.
Peterson’s research began with ancestry.com. It is now a paper trail of historical documents such as wills, newspapers, marriage licenses, and death certificates. The exhibit also offers photography and text to describe her family’s migration from North Carolina to Alachua County.
“To make that trip with no shoes and having to endure diseases of the time, I can’t imagine the pain and suffering,” said Peterson, a transplant assistant at UF Health, who also gave a separate presentation about her findings at Kanapaha Presbyterian Church on Thursday.
Jean Clough, 68, a docent and Historic Haile Homestead board member, listened attentively.
“This kind of research is meaningful and creates a space for learning,” Clough said. “The documents make it real. I love the humanity of it.”
Today, Peterson pictures her grandparents, Hampton and Grace Hathcock, as a united front.
She said they sought to legalize their union straight after emancipation. She believes their actions were a test of character and faith that would shape her family’s legacy.
Peterson’s mother, Martha Lumpkins, 96, played a key role in her research, offering years of oral history. Born and raised in Alachua County, Lumpkins lives in a home purchased by her late mother Maggie Lumpkins. The property has been in the family for three generations.
“It amazes me,” Lumpkins said of seeing all that oral history neatly printed and displayed at her daughter’s exhibit. “I always thought this was something she could accomplish.”
Historic Haile Homestead President Karen Kirkman praised Peterson’s research tenacity.
“Slavery was an abomination in our history, but nonetheless it happened,” Kirkman said. “Today, there are many descendants of that and it’s not easy to trace that history.”
Throughout the years, Peterson met many dead ends but continued to persevere. She searched for members of her family by testing every spelling variation of their names and questioned every detail, particularly when the U.S. Census Bureau mistook her relatives for a white family.
Many descendants, Kirkman noted, meet a roadblock around 1870. Prior to that year, the census did not list the first and last names of African-Americans.
Shakari Peterson, a 16-year-old in the 11th grade at Gainesville High School, witnessed her mother’s determination by growing up alongside piles of documents. Every clue led to a search for more answers. If any papers were slightly moved, her mother would notice, Shakari said.
“I’m her partner. She tells me stories of our ancestors,” she said.
Kirkman and Peterson began to communicate through email nearly a year ago. One night, they emailed back and forth and ended their correspondence with an emotional phone call.
“Oh my god!” Kirkman said to Peterson. “I found your family.”
Kirkman provided Peterson with the final clue to confirm Hampton and Grace Hathcock’s presence on James Chesnut’s property, one of the multiple plantations owned by the Chesnuts. Kirkman found their names listed in his private journal, alongside the names of many other enslaved persons. He kept meticulous notes, grouping family units, including the Hathcocks.
Kirkman and Peterson cried together over the phone and agreed to meet in person.
“I’m a talker and I couldn’t even speak,” Peterson said. “I felt it in my heart that they were all buried together. I could be at peace.”
She believes that the faith of her ancestors gave them the strength to work hard and pursue their version of the American Dream, which they have achieved through their children.
The plantation where her ancestors lived no longer exists, but it could be traced back to a place along County Road 241 near Jonesville. Today, it is a gated area surrounded by oak trees.
Peterson hopes to walk the property someday, but knows that she still has a lot of work to do.
“The research is never-ending,” she said. “I don’t know how far I can take it. Maybe to Africa.”