CRAWFORDVILLE, Ga. – The reputation of Alexander Hamilton Stephens, the first and only vice president of the Confederacy, has long been on the decline. Never mind the statue of him that lingers in the U.S. Capitol.
Historians now point to him as the Southern rebel who said the quiet part out loud. In 1861, a month before shots were fired at Fort Sumter, Stephens denounced that key phrase in the Declaration of Independence – the one that says “all men are created equal” – as a social, moral and political mistake.
The “cornerstone” of the Confederacy would be white supremacy, Stephens told a Savannah crowd.
We are now engaged in a yet another debate over whether statues of Stephens and other Confederates should remain on display in the halls of Congress and in other public spaces. (A bust of Stephens is in the state Capitol in Atlanta.)
But an additional, far more personal reason to reconsider Stephens' place in history arrived via email several days ago. It was a copy of a petition addressed to the Georgia General Assembly, which would have to approve the removal of the statue in Washington.
The author was blunt.
“Stephens was a rapist,” wrote Jill Patton, a real estate investor who lives in Wellington, Florida. She and her family are the living proof, she said – Black descendants of a Georgia congressman and governor whom every biography has described as a lifelong, childless bachelor. He was a frail man, reportedly never weighing more than 100 pounds.
Credit: Susan Walsh
Credit: Susan Walsh
“I see glimpses of Grandpa Stephens in our family. The small frames, and prominent cheekbones in my grandmother, mom and several aunts. And, his coloring pops up here and there,” Patton wrote.
The story has traveled 175 years across five African American generations: When a youngish man, Alexander Stephens purchased a 12-year-old girl named Eliza. As a slave, she could not refuse him. She became pregnant and bore a son named Allen Stephens – Jill Patton’s great-great-grandfather.
Alexander Stephens never publicly acknowledged any offspring. Eventually, Eliza Stephens – the enslaved were saddled with the surnames of their owners – married another purchased human being named Harry, with Alexander Stephens’ blessing. The couple stayed with him until Stephens’ death in 1883 – shortly after he was elected governor. Eliza Stephens was the second person mentioned in his will.
A house on the Stephens estate here in Crawfordville was hers to keep until she died. Which she did, for 34 years after her former owner’s death. She and her husband were literate, as were her children.
The compound is now a state park with a pond and paddle boats. The main house, Liberty Hall, is part of the museum – as is the home once occupied by Harry and Eliza Stephens.
Andre McLendon, the park manager, and Judd Smith, the park historian for the state Department of Natural Resources, met me there on Monday. Smith came bearing numbers – which could support the case laid out by Patton and her family.
“I think it’s fascinating. If this works out to be true, that’s an entirely new avenue of interpretation for us to have,” Smith said. “The possibilities are there, there’s no doubt. It’s very possible.”
Smith produced copies of the 1870 census taken in Taliaferro County – the first to count African Americans as more than three-fifths of a human being. And by name.
Eliza Stephens was listed as 37 years old. Allen Stephens was 25, a 12-year difference. That would put Allen Stephens’ birth year at 1845, when Alexander Stephens was 33.
But that is not absolute proof. For decades, Black descendants fought for recognition of their genealogical ties to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, an enslaved woman with whom the author of the Declaration of Independence had a long-term relationship. DNA tests eventually proved them right. And the same could happen here.
Three years ago, two great-great-great-grandnephews of Alexander Stephens, both white, wrote a letter similar to the one penned by Jill Patton, asking the state Legislature to order the removal of their Confederate relative from the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Like Patton, the brothers gave a copy of their letter to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
I contacted one of the brothers – Alexander Stephens, a doctoral history student at the University of Michigan, and told him about Patton’s multigenerational “secret.”
He was something less than astonished. “I had not heard stories about this branch of the family, and neither had my dad or brothers, but that doesn’t mean much,” the modern, living Alexander Stephens wrote in an email. “I study history, so I would not be surprised by any case of a prominent 19th century figure refusing to acknowledge a line of his family descending from a woman he enslaved.”
Both Alexander and his brother Brendan Stephens are “open” to a discussion about DNA tests with Patton and her side of the family tree.
There is a good reason to hope that all parties will follow through. Because beneath this never-ending struggle over Confederate symbolism is a stubborn fact: In many respects, the South’s history remains every bit as segregated as its churches.
“Eliza Stephens has all but been erased from American history, but I stand here as proof she existed,” Patton, 54, wrote in that letter to Georgia lawmakers.
What happened on Alexander Stephens’ land in the 19th century could be a story that helps bridge that gap, however uncomfortable it might make us now.
Let us start with the word “rape.” There is no other term for what happened to Eliza Stephens, Patton and her family ultimately decided. “She was a child. He probably groomed her,” said Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman, Patton’s aunt and the family historian.
And yet Coleman won’t deny that, ultimately, Eliza Stephens, her husband and her children appear to have prospered in a way that was unusual during and after the Civil War. “He was considered to be very good to his slaves,” Coleman said – struggling over that word “good.”
Stephens would remain an unreconstructed white Southerner, even throughout a second, post-Civil War stint in Congress. Yet we also have hints that the Stephens estate – while no paradise – operated in a way that was uncommon for its time and place.
Coleman is the pastor of a Presbyterian church in downtown St. Petersburg, Fla., and carries two degrees from the Princeton Theological Seminary. Last year, in a book that combined personal and family history with poetry, Coleman set down what may be the first written account of Allen Stephens, who was always identified to her as the forgotten, only son of Alexander.
The preservation of Allen Stephens’ memory appears to have been a matriarchal task. Allen Stephens’ wife, Emily, helped raise Coleman’s mother in Alabama. “She would tell her everything. She said always tell your children that they have a very ‘famous’ ancestor. And she told her who it was,” Coleman said.
Historians have described Alexander Stephens as something of a prude, even asexual. Sexual relations with an enslaved woman would certainly challenge that interpretation.
In Eliza Stephens’ preserved house is the transcript of an 1850 letter written by Alexander Stephens from Washington, where he served in Congress. In the missive, written five years after the presumed birth of Allen Stephens, Alexander Stephens gives permission for the woman he owns to marry the slave named Harry.
The letter is often cited as a sign of Alexander Stephens’ generosity. But throw in the issue of paternity, and it reads like an inadequate attempt at reparation.
“[T]ell Eliza to go to Sloman & Henrys and get her a wedding dress including a pair of fine shoes etc. and have a decent wedding of it,” Stephens wrote. “Let them cook a supper and have such of their friends as they wish. Tell them to get some ‘parson man’ and be married like ‘Christian folks.’ ”
After the wedding, Alexander purchased the husband, who became Harry Stephens. They joined 30 other enslaved human beings who were on his plantation as of 1860. But his relationship with the married couple might not have passed muster with the white society that ruled Georgia.
The last major biography of Alexander Stephens was published in 1988 by Thomas Schott. The author appears to have lacked affection for his subject, whom he described as having an “insufferably egotistical attitude.”
But Schott wrote a passage that now screams for more detail:
“Stephens violated the Southern canon on proper management of blacks. ... He never employed an overseer on his place. When he was in Washington, he simply wrote to Harry, Eliza’s husband, and gave instructions through him.
“Several of Stephens’ slaves knew how to read and write, by contemporary Southern lights extremely dangerous knowledge for black slaves and against the law in slave states. The law made no difference to Stephens; he managed his household by his own rules.”
Judd Smith, the park historian, put it another way. “They had a different relationship. There’s no doubt about that, from everything we’ve read, from everything we understand about them,” he said. “Whether that relationship is because of having a child with her – it could be.”
Above the fireplace where they once lived is an elaborate portrait of Harry and Eliza Stephens – of a sort that was undoubtedly rare among African Americans living in the South after the Civil War.
On a wall opposite is a photograph. The subject is a young man, paler than others pictured in the two rooms. The women who have preserved his story say the image belongs to Allen Stephens, whom they know as the only son of Alexander Stephens and the woman he owned.
Smith, the park historian, says the photo has never been identified. He can’t say who the man is – or isn’t. That will require more study.
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