Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell almost deleted the email that landed her on television.
A freelance writer, UNC graduate and history student at Duke University, she got a message with a generic subject line about the PBS program “History Detectives.” At first, she thought it was spam.
“I literally was going to trash it,” she said. “I had my finger on it.”
Then, she thought, “Well, let me just see what it is.”
It was a note from Suzanne Glickstein, a producer with the show. They were looking for help researching a recently discovered “bill of sale” – a handwritten receipt for a 17-year-old slave girl named Willoby, sold in South Carolina in 1829. They had heard Greenlee-Donnell had some distant family connections in the area and was interested in this type of research.
Still, as intrigued as Greenlee-Donnell was, her focus of study had been of the late 19th century. She was not sure she was the right one to help.
“The history of slavery is such a specific and specialized thing,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m really not the person to do this.’”
But scrolling down to the bottom, a name caught her eye.
“The thing that kind of made all of the hair stand up on my neck,” she said, “when I get down to the bottom, I see that (Willoby) was sold to a James P. Daniels in Pee Dee township (in S.C.).”
Greenlee-Donnell quickly wrote Glickstein a message back: “I think this could be connected the people who owned my ancestors.” Willoby … and Moses
Greenlee-Donnell quickly rushed to her mother, Betty Greenlee. She had recently inherited boxes of centuries old family records, and had been keeping them in the trunk of her Cadillac Seville.
Among the papers, Greenlee-Donnell found exactly what she was looking for: documents belonging to Moses Daniels, a former slave once owned by a James Daniels in the same region as Willoby.
And when she told Glickstein about him, the producer got excited. “We’ve got lots of stuff here on a Moses,” Greenlee-Donnell said Glickstein wrote back.
During the course of research for the episode, it became clear Willoby not only lived in this same region, but on the same plantation as Moses, her great-great grandfather. They were two of 12 on the Daniels plantation.
“Not only that,” she said, “after the end of slavery, they lived basically as neighbors for a long time.”
With help of local archivists, Greenlee-Donnell was able to do further research on Moses in South Carolina. While there, she was able to find his will – appeared to be written in his own hand.
“Now we know he was literate. He acquired land,” she said. “I found him in the jury list. In order for him to be on jury, there was property requirement so he must have owned some land.”
“Owning land itself, it’s not all that unusual in this area, partially because the land tends to be kind of swampy and hard to develop. So people very often didn’t care that much about selling it to ex-slaves,” she said. “But he owned a pretty significant chunk of land. And some of that land is still in my family.”
And the land, according to her, appears to have been given for the first black church in the area, and the first black funeral home.
“He really seems to have been some kind of pillar in this community,” she said, noting how unusual it would have been for an ex-slave to be on a jury list.
And she never would have known.Not even past
The episode of “History Detectives” that Greenlee-Donnell appeared in – now available online – focuses primarily on the fate of Willoby. But the research allowed her to learn much about Moses in the process.
She was even joined on the trip to South Carolina by her mother.
“My mother actually showed up for the taping,” she said. “She kept telling me I needed to comb my hair. And she was very concerned about what I was wearing. And my makeup.”
“So she was kind of like my executive assistant and cosmetologist.”
The experience was a moving one for Greenlee.
“I was touched by the whole experience,” she said. “I think when you talk about slavery, it still has some sensitive spots for us.”
And her daughter’s television debut?
“I thought she did a fantastic job,” she said. “You know, she works so hard.”
For Greenlee-Donnell, the research was the easy part. Acting out the research process on film was a little more difficult.
“I hope I seem surprised when they show me the bill of sale,” she said. “Because, to be honest, by the sixteenth take I wasn’t quite as surprised.”
“We rehearsed walking into a building.”
Eduardo Pagán, a historian and one of the hosts of “History Detectives,” said the aim of the show is to use a small, personal piece of history each week to tell the broader American story.
“You’d be surprised how many people really can’t go back past their grandparents. So many people don’t have the story of their family,” he said. “That’s what’s so gratifying about what we do.”
“The year before I was born, my grandfather died. His mother was a slave,” she said. “If I had been born one year earlier, I would have known someone in my family whose mother was a slave.”
“So when you think about it generationally, we are so close to slavery that we can still touch it in many ways,” she said.
“I think Faulkner said it better than I could, that history, it’s not even past.”