It began with a picture. Paula Wright, 52, was just a baby when she was photographed in a onesie with her fingers in her mouth while balanced on the lap of an elderly man with a gray tie and a big smile. Each time she visited her great-grandparents in New Jersey, Wright would ask to see the pictures. She would stare at the man’s ruddy complexion and wonder, “Who is he?” she said.
“I would just look at this picture. I was captivated,” said Wright at her home in southwest Atlanta holding the 50-year-old image. “I didn’t comprehend who he really was until 40 years later.”
The man was Benjamin Ramey, Sr. the youngest son of William Ramey and Kittie Simkins, Wright’s great-great-great grandparents. William Ramey, a former Confederate soldier and judge from a prominent white family and Simkins, a former slave, were legally married in Edgefield, S.C. in 1872. Four years ago, when Wright began researching her family history in earnest, she was finally able to uncover the truth about their unique love story that crossed racial lines.
Wright heard snippets of family lore growing up — how Ramey and Simkins married on the courthouse steps (the family has since decided this is not true), how Ramey’s photo was removed from the courthouse and never replaced, and how some townspeople wanted to exhume Ramey’s body from the white cemetery where he was buried in 1913.
In 2008, Wright became the keeper of her family’s history when her grandmother gave her a box filled with the hundreds of pictures Wright had studied so intently as a child. Six generations of her family were documented in the images. Wright spread them across the floor of her dining room and stared at them. She felt as if her ancestors were talking to her, asking her to carry on their legacy.
Her first step was looking up Edgefield online to see if she could learn more. When she found the Old Edgefield District Genealogical Society, she arranged a visit.
“She had this fabulous collection of photographs. It was one of the most incredible ones I had ever encountered,” said Tonya Guy, director of Tompkins Library, the home of the genealogical society. “I helped her fill in the holes with the family history itself and how people were connected.”
Guy shared information from Ramey’s Bible with Wright in which Ramey had recorded his commitment to Simkins in 1864. Guy also shared the only surviving photo of all eight of the Ramey’s living children standing on the front porch of their Edgefield home the day of their father’s funeral.
When she returned home, Wright created a timeline for Ramey and Simkins. She filled in all the information that she knew about them and realized she knew a lot more about Ramey than Simkins. “For African-Americans, you have to put a high value on oral history,” she said.
While African-Americans do tend to have less information, it can vary greatly by family, said Guy. “Some families, regardless of race, will have quite a bit of information and others will have nothing; they barely know who their grandparents are,” she said. In Wright’s case, her photographs gave her a major advantage.
Together, they were able to find Ramey’s census records. Wright discovered Ramey’s father had roots in Georgia and once ran for sheriff in Edgefield. She also learned the street where his family lived, and Guy was able to guide Wright to their graves in the respective cemeteries where they were buried.
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Ramey’s father was a businessman who likely was in the same social and business circles as Frances Pickens, owner of the Edgewood Plantation where Simkins was born in 1845. They probably met on the plantation during a social gathering when he was 20 and she was 14. Ramey left to go to war but returned home after being wounded in Richmond, Va. That’s when he began an affair with Simkins, Wright said. By the time Ramey re-enlisted in 1863, Simkins was pregnant. Their daughter was born in 1864 and Ramey took a three-month furlough. According to war records, after returning to the war, he was captured and held as a POW before returning home for good.
Wright was able to trace Ramey’s brothers and link to their family trees on ancestry.com. That’s how she met a woman in Aiken, S.C. who told her lots of stories about Ramey, including how after the war Ramey had at one point been engaged to a white woman.
Ramey and Simkins had a second child in 1870, who died in childhood. By then, Ramey had started his career as an attorney. He was building a house, presumably for his growing family. Simkins had left the plantation and was supporting herself as a seamstress. Whatever engagement Ramey had entered into was broken. He married Simkins in 1872.
Wright also managed to get plantation records from Pickens’ papers at Duke University. She saw Simkins’ name written alongside Simkins’ mother, Hannah. Seeing Simkins as a real person helped Wright understand her strength. “I was glad to be able to see her on the plantation book, to know her struggles and then to know what she became. She was her own woman. That was so important to me,” Wright said.
Once she knew more about Ramey and Simkins, Wright began sharing her family’s story with others through photo exhibitions and lectures. “I don’t make it out to be a beautiful story because come on, they lived in the Deep South,” Wright said. “When people hear the story and see the story, they are very impacted by it. They can feel what it was and it was not.”
But as the tides changed for African-Americans in the post-Reconstruction years, it got harder for Ramey and Simkins to live their lives together. The couple began to put distance between them. Wright believes Ramey hoped to protect Simkins and their children from the increasingly violent raids and attacks by whites against blacks in the South.
Simkins took regular sojourns to Augusta where their youngest child Benjamin was born in 1880. In 1910, Ramey grew ill. His sister had threatened to take all of his assets. For the first time in their 38-year marriage, Ramey listed Simkins as his wife on the U.S. Census. He sent her off to New York with their children and most of his assets. When he died, his sister successfully petitioned the court to name her as administrator of his estate but most of it had already been transferred to Simkins.
Simkins remained in New York where she at one point lived with Benjamin after his wife died in the flu pandemic. At least one of the Ramey children chose to live as a white man and his descendants do not acknowledge his heritage, Wright said. All eight living children had left Edgefield and never returned. “There hasn’t been a Ramey in Edgefield for over 100 years,” Wright said. When Simkins died in 1929, she had four bank accounts, homes in New York and Augusta, and enough money to leave an inheritance to each of her eight living children, Wright said.
“It is a magical story of this love they had that transcended time. At a time when it could have really been bad for them, they stayed together,” Guy said. “We have interracial relationships throughout history but to have this one that was documented with photographic history … you can see the love. It is so unique. It is so special.”
What Wright admires most about Ramey and Simkins is their courage. That Ramey would choose to give his name, his assets and his legacy to a black woman and that Simkins would choose to accept an offering of love from a white man wasn’t the easy choice for either of them to make at the time. “I am proud of what they did. I am proud they let love rule for them. They had everything to lose,” said Wright.
By 1959, all the Ramey children had died except for Benjamin who would live long enough to see the birth of two of his great-great grandchildren. Wright always ends her lectures by holding up the picture of her as a baby in Benjamin Ramey’s arms. “I would like to think he whispered to his youngest great-great-granddaughter saying, ‘Don’t let them forget us,’”she said.