One woman is a descendant of people who were enslaved in Taneytown for generations. The other woman’s ancestors belonged to the family line of the owner of those slaves.
The two have bridged a gap of history and not only formed a friendship, but also embarked on a mission to highlight the contributions those slaves made to Taneytown’s history — including those who remained there after being freed.
Michelle Greer is a descendant of the Hill-Cook line dating to the 1800s before the abolishment of slavery. Some of Greer’s ancestors were enslaved by a member of the Taney family who owned a plantation in Taneytown.
Kate Billingsley is a descendant of Augustus Taney, who was a cousin of the owner of Greer’s ancestors and a brother of Roger B. Taney, the former chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Through their combined research, Greer and Billingsley have yet to find the first name of the Taney cousin who owned Greer’s ancestors.
Even though Billingsley is distant in the lineage of the Taneys that owned Greer’s ancestors, she still acknowledges the wrongs of slavery and doesn’t care about how far back the connection is.
“I know that I’m descended from the original two Taneys that came through. So they were brothers. So there’s a sense of, I don’t really care that it’s fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh cousins away that owned [Greer’s] people,” Billingsley said. “Therefore, there’s a sense of acknowledgement.”
Billingsley’s work as a playwright caught Greer’s attention and led her to reach out.
Billingsley, who lives in New York, wrote a fictional play, “A Man of His Time,” about a descendant of Justice Taney — who, in the Dred Scott case of 1857, wrote the majority opinion ruling that black people, whether free or in slavery, were not and could never become citizens of the U.S. In the play, the descendant invites a descendant of Scott to meet him at a diner halfway between Virginia and Vermont.
Taney’s legacy has come under intense scrutiny in recent years, culminating with the late-night removal of a statue in his image from the State House grounds in Annapolis in 2017.
In light of that controversy, Greer said, “there were a lot of conversations being had and a lot of the radio stations and so forth. A friend of mine called me aside, ‘Michelle, there’s something going on where a descendant of Taney’s is working with a descendant of Dred Scott and trying to address some healing issues and talking about statues.’ So, I’m like, ‘Really? I need to reach out to her because of my family’s relationship as well. So, coming from a different angle but certainly similar purpose.’ ”
That play led to a descendant of Scott getting in touch with Billingsley, then Greer reached out to Billingsley after she learned about her connection with Scott’s descendant. One day they all got together and spoke with people at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., sparking interest with the museum doing a segment at some point to speak about their family histories and personal stories.
“It was wonderful coming together, all of us, and sharing the pieces of, of not just our history, but American history,” Greer said.
Greer and Billingsley have since become close friends, to the point of referring to each other as “Sis.”
They have been working together ever since on the common goal of promoting awareness of the Hill-Cook family contributions to Taneytown.
“I’m really excited about the journey that she and I are taking together because I think, especially with the political climate as it is right now, being able to tell our story together of how you can have a history that is attached to something is so horrific, but descendants from these families can come together and kind of join hands in trying to be one, have a dialogue about it; two, to talk about what we can do to bring healing.”
Billingsley echoed her point about the need for communication: “People need to have dialogue. And then after the dialogue, there needs to be action,” she said. “A lot of times white people have these conversations with themselves or with people of color and make themselves feel really good about it. ‘OK, I said all that; give myself a pat on the back.’ Then they go and nothing, what happened? There’s no perceivable greater action.”
Descendants of Greer continued, as free individuals, to contribute to the growth of Taneytown, a city that is not named for Justice Taney — but rather for Raphael Taney, with whom he shared an ancestor.
The two are also working through their family files and records to find out more about the Taney family member who did own Greer’s ancestors.
“I’m continuing to work with with Kate Billingsley in beginning to reconcile both of our records and showing the connection between the Taneys and my family, of course, but an awareness that we both have found together, that in fact, there was a slave ownership relationship,” Greer said.
According to Greer, all her family records are tied to Taneytown, from birth records to emancipation records.
In February, five African American veterans were honored in Taneytown, four of them ancestors of Greer: John Wesley Cook, Randolph Frealing, David Hill and Caleb Johnson. Even though the family was not formally invited, Greer said, she was still happy that her ancestors were honored.
“I think that that’s a very positive step in the direction of recognizing African Americans’ presence here in Taneytown,” Greer said. “The Hills, the Cooks and the Frailings all have a history of service to our country, but the Frailings in particular have had generations, from Randolph Frailing down to this day, who continue to commit their lives in dedication to serving our country. And certainly it would have been a tremendous honor to them and our ancestors for us to be present there.”
Cook, who was honored at the ceremony, was once a slave of the Taneys but was freed in April 1857 before he became a soldier. According to Greer, “he sacrificed and gave both voluntary and involuntary.”
According to Taneytown Mayor Bradley Wantz, city organizers were not aware of descendants of the soldiers.
“The information about the soldiers were provided to the city by a local historian, and did not include any genealogical information,” Wantz told the Times in an email. “In the short time that we had to plan the event, we tried to advertise it as much as possible to get the attention of anyone interested in attending.”
According to Greer, her family honors and remembers those who came before them every year at a family reunion, held at Taneytown Memorial Park, that they have been celebrating for over 120 years.
Greer said her family had a running joke that Hill men married Cook women. A Hill woman also married a Frailing man and one of their sons married a Cook woman.
Greer’s son is “passionate” about how his generation is removed from their history and gets upset and concerned about it. So, as she sits as president of their family reunion committee, he also joined. Her daughter began coming up with ideas to getting the younger generation more involved.
“There is a concern for me that if we don’t start having more of a visible presence of some way that’s meaningful to the younger generations that going to [Taneytown] won’t seem like a big deal to do,” said Greer, who lives in Timonium. She has one cousin who still lives in Taneytown.
Seeing as two of her ancestors helped build the park where her family’s reunion is held, she’d like something to memorialize that.
“Even though there’s a small sign that’s erected at the park that indicates the name of Theodore Hill, and one of our other members of the family has been contributing to the establishment of the park, it’s very small,” Greer said. “So I would would like to see something erected that is more larger, more symbolic of their contribution to building the park.”
Greer invited Billingsley to one of the family reunions, and she not only apologized on behalf of her family to Greer in private, but also to her entire family at the reunion.
“I didn’t know how they would respond, I knew they wouldn’t beat her or anything like that, but they embraced her,” Greer said. “It felt like our ancestors were with us, like it was long overdue.”
Billingsley feels responsible to bring awareness to hers and Michelle’s family history so others can address it.
“I feel a responsibility to, in my own way, shine light on it for people who are ignorant to this and that has to do with what I feel is my my work as a playwright and the smaller work that I’m doing with Michelle,” Billingsley said. “I think she and I are still formulating what that looks like. There was the proclamation and that was one thing, OK. Then there was this memorial that nobody was invited to so, that just tells us we kind of have to go back. So I feel a responsibility towards Michelle as a friend. I also feel responsibility as a Taney, there has to be something done.”
Greer said there was no difficulty in accepting Billingsley’s apology.
“It wasn’t difficult, because she was already on a path to healing. It was already in her heart she was already committed to that purpose,” Greer said. “So, I expected her to be very down to earth, but I did not expect her to be as as warm and passionate as she was in a very personal kind of way."
They aim for the history of the Hills, Cooks, Frailings and other African-Americans to be highlighted in a major way. At their 120th family reunion, former Taneytown Mayor James McCarron issued a proclamation to the family establishing the first Saturday in July as the Hill Family Reunion Weekend.
“Everything that’s here came to be a significant part of the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors,” Greer said.
Greer hopes that Wantz not only honors the proclamation, but goes a few steps further.
“I would like to have a dialogue with him and see what we can do to bring more visible recognition to the contributions of not only the Hill-Cook family, but African Americans period here,” Greer said.
Greer said she attempted to reach Wantz through the city office March 10 but was told he wasn’t in the office and could be reached via email. Now, though, she and Billingsley don’t have plans to try to meet with him while the coronavirus remains an active threat, disrupting daily life.
Although Wantz said he is “always more than happy to discuss” bringing light to the contributions the Hill-Cook families have made in Taneytown, he also said the city generally refers people to the Taneytown History Museum.
Greer would also like to look into the possibility of preserving the childhood home of her cousin, Joseph Hill Jr., after his death in 2015; possibly some sort of parade; or some kind of celebration during Black History Month — something permanent.
Keeping the history of the Hill, Cook and Frailing families alive is not only important to Greer, but to her family members as well. Each family has a book, called “Yesterday Today,” about their family genealogy, including records of enslaved members of their family, family trees, birth certificates and draft registration cards for family members that served.
This is the lineage that Greer is working to keep alive with her family members — especially those of younger generations — as well as with the City of Taneytown.
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“I would like to see more of a recognition for the family here in Taneytown because obviously our records date back to the late 1800s, mid-1800s,” Greer said, “and so certainly our contribution to the establishment of Taneytown goes without saying.”