In 1779, colonial Georgia was under siege and a future governor was set to be executed by the British. But the world's most powerful army at the time was no match for a shrewd and spirited slave woman.
Stephen Heard was wounded and jailed in Augusta for fighting against the Tories in a Valentine's Day skirmish called Kettle Creek, just outside what's now Elbert County. When the woman known as "Mammy Kate" learned of Heard's capture, she rode 50 miles by horse to Augusta to help her owner. She devised a plan to wash clothes for the Tories which ultimately won Kate their trust, according to oral accounts of the incident which took place over a couple of months. Shortly before Heard's scheduled hanging, she asked soldiers if she could wash Heard's clothes so he wouldn't die in dirty clothes. They agreed. The six-foot-tall woman toted the diminutive Heard out of the prison in a laundry basket full of clothes. She and her husband, Daddy Jack, then carried him to safety. The couple's daring escapade saved Heard who was later appointed governor of Georgia. (Heard offered Kate her freedom but she preferred to stay with the Heard family)
That simple but ingenious act more than 230 years ago is now being recognized for its patriotism by the state and national societies of the Sons of the American Revolution as well as the Daughters of the American Revolution.
"Absolutely. She is considered a patriot," said Elberton resident James Larry Wilson, president of the SAR Samuel Elbert chapter, host of the event.
A bronze SAR medallion will be placed Saturday on the graves of the slave couple - as well as four other patriots, including Heard -- in Elbert County, about 100 miles east of Atlanta. The 10:30 a.m. patriotic grave markings at the Heardmont cemetery will be attended by five SAR chapters and 150 to 2oo people. The slave couple is buried near Heard.
Kate is believed to be the first woman of color below the Mason-Dixon line to receive the medallion, which is awarded to people who perform feats of heroism or fought in the American Revolution. "The Forgotten Patriots -- African American and American Indian Patriots of the Revolutionary War," a book published in 2008 by the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, identified and compiled some 6,600 names. Thirty-two were from Georgia. "Mammy Kate" is the only woman on the Georgia list. So far, no descendants of the slave couple have been found.
The couple's patriotism would have remained a postcript in Georgia history had it not been for Sugar Hill resident Michael Henderson, a history-lover who himself made history last year by becoming the first black person inducted into the state Sons of the American Revolution. Henderson was admitted to the organization after tracing his lineage to an ancestor Mathieu de Vaux dit Platillo, a French national who fought under the command of the Spanish colonial governor-general Bernardo de Galvez during the American Revolution.
Earlier this year, Henderson participated in a similar ceremony for Austin Dabney, the first black man in Georgia designated an American Revolutionary patriot due to his Kettle Creek participation. While there, Henderson saw Heard's grave and learned about the slave couple.
"I started thinking, ‘why had these two people not been recognized for their patriotism?’ I took it on as a personal challenge to honor these two patriots," said Henderson, a retired Naval officer and vice president of SAR's Button Gwinnett Chapter. The 25-year genealogist was featured last year in the PBS television series "History Detectives" for his work in tracing his lineage to people who fought in the American Revolution.
"What we all have to really appreciate is the historical narrative," said Henderson, a descendant of a slave who gained her freedom. "A lot of these individuals who participated (in the revolutionary war) may not have gotten their stories told because they were slaves. We have a chance to honor them. This is not generally done. It is symbolic. I owe it to my ancestors to honor people who came before."