A Michigan man paid a visit to Cabell County last week to see where his ancestors were once slaves.
Maurice Sanders is from Michigan, where most of his family lived for the majority of his life. His visit to Marshall’s campus and to Huntington last week on the surface is not unlike other visitors. What makes Sanders visit special, is that much of his family tree in the 1800’s was once enslaved in the area that is now Milton in Cabell County. It’s just up Route 60 from Huntington. They visited the grave site of Sampson Sanders, the man who owned Maurice’s ancestors, Friday.
The story is different though than many that have been told about slave owners. Sampson Sanders grew up with many of the slaves he would later inherit. And he wasn’t your typical slave owner, he didn’t trade or sell slaves, they were part of a large family. When Sanders died in 1849, according to his will, his slaves were to be set free. So his slaves along with lawyers that had been hired to travel with the slaves to make sure no one tried to capture them, traveled to Cass County Michigan to make their home. Maurice Sanders said his interest in the history of his family started as just a genealogy study.
“I guess I wanted to find as much information as to where they came from as I could with the Allen family, the information I already had, so that took me back to Sampson Sanders,” Maurice Sanders said. “It took me back through my grandfather Oscar and to his father Calvin and to his father Levi and back to Sampson Sanders.”
Sanders was in rare company in that he was in the top 2.7% of slave owners in the south. At one time he owned 51 slaves. Sanders though never hired anyone to oversee his slaves instead taught them to oversee his property and possessions. Maurice said it’s a unique story that he likes to tell.
“I’m kind of proud to say that I’m a descendent of a former slave and was freed and given 40 acres of land and I think it’s a great story that the slave owner Sampson Sanders gave them the land and sent an administrator with them to buy the land, so it says a lot more about him as a slave owner,” Sanders said.
Maurice said his research was made easier by the family keeping the Sanders name. During his lifetime Sampson Sanders was the wealthiest landowner in Cabell County, Virginia. He provided the slaves enough money upon his death that they were able to purchase 40 acres of land in Michigan. Maurice said growing up with the slaves and playing with them made Sampson different.
“He probably thought one of these days when I have enough money I will free them because we played together and we shared things together,” Sanders said. “So I guess I look at it as having the Sanders name and having the Sanders name being a slave name, I don’t see any problem with it, because we had to come from somewhere.”
Maurice said it was an emotional trip to see the grave site of Sampson Sanders.
“Being at the grave site I found it somewhat emotional, but I reserved some of the emotion since so many people were around and it was comforting to have other people with me there and people that knew the story as well or better than I did, but I’m just glad to be able to step foot next to the grave site of Sampson Sanders,” Sanders said.
Maurice’s visit and talk at Marshall was sponsored by the John Deaver Drinko Academy.