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I discovered that I’m descended from an enslaved couple who settled a town called Promised Land—and so are two fellow alumni

By Melanie Stewart ’10

When I started the hobby of tracing my family tree, I expected to learn bits and pieces about my ancestors. I did not expect that this hobby would connect me to relatives who also went to Cornell.

Tracing African-American ancestry can be an overwhelming and challenging pursuit—and most research efforts fall short at the point of slavery. Documents from that period commonly omitted the names of enslaved African Americans because of their status as property, making it difficult to continue to identify the next generation.

Melanie Stewart

Despite the challenge, I started researching my family’s genealogy—and was amazed to find other members of my family who are Cornellians!

Information on Ancestry.com led me to meet cousins Evan Reynolds ’19 and his father, Rodney Reynolds ’76. We all descend from Mary Reynolds and her husband, John Goode, who were born in 1810 and 1805, respectively.

I drew the conclusion of our shared lineage after contacting a poster on the Ancestry site named Eric Reynolds, who identified Mary and her sons as early settlers of a historically Black town called Promised Land, SC.

Melanie Stewart and Evan Reynolds, both wearing bucket hats from their Greek organizations
Stewart (right) and newfound relative Evan Reynolds ’19, both sporting their Greek bucket hats.

During our exchange of family backgrounds and my mention that I went to Cornell, Eric said that his uncle Rodney and cousin Evan also went there.

He connected me to them, and I was surprised and intrigued to find out that I had other Cornellians in my family.

I am based in Chicago—and coincidently, the week after I learned of my newfound cousins, Evan moved to Evanston, IL, to begin his PhD program at Northwestern.

Within days of discovering our shared ancestry, I met him and Rodney at a local pizza restaurant near Northwestern’s campus.

Over pizza, we discussed our immediate families and Cornell. It turns out that we had a lot in common.

Rodney and I realized that he spent some of his childhood in Evanston, and that I spent some of mine in an adjacent suburb, Skokie.

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Over pizza, we discussed our immediate families and Cornell. It turns out that we had a lot in common.

Also, Evan, Rodney, and I lived in the same dorm (Ujamaa) while at Cornell, and Evan and I both joined historically Black Greek organizations.

We also discussed how our mutual ancestors established a town, owned land there, and were activists for equal rights just a few years after being emancipated from slavery.

Melanie Stewart, Evan Reynolds, Rodney Reynolds, and Rodney's wife Donna at a table in a pizza restaurant
Stewart dining with her two Cornellian relatives and Rodney's wife, Donna (second from left).

I took great pride in their endeavors and wanted to learn more about the town they established.

To my surprise, I’ve been able to learn quite a bit about the town because sociologist Elisabeth Rauh Bethel wrote a book about it (Promiseland: A Century of Life in a Negro Community).

I didn’t know what I would find when I started my family tree and genealogy research. I just wanted to find out more about the people that I come from.

Even though our families had lost touch about 100 years ago after my great-grandfather moved to Philadelphia during the Great Migration, our commonalities led me to conclude that we came from the same stock.

Through the experience of reconnecting with family, I learned that Mary, John, and their sons very much valued education at a time when education was denied to them.

But their instilled value of education and the passing of that value through the generations can be seen in me, Evan, and Rodney today.

The cover of "Promiseland"
The historically Black town where Stewart’s ancestors settled was chronicled in a book published in 1981.

We now take pride in being a family of Cornellians!

Melanie Stewart ’10 is an employment attorney for a tech company where she puts her ILR education to work by assessing legal risks in the workplace. She maintains strong friendships with several Cornell classmates with whom she has traveled the world and to whom she talks daily. She enjoys cooking, outdoor activities—and her new hobby, genealogy.

All images provided.

Published November 27, 2023

Comments

  1. Renee Dake Wilson, Class of 1992

    Very cool! A small world is cozy.

  2. Leslie Starr, Class of 1976

    This is the best alumni stories I’ve seen! Thank you for sharing it with everyone. And congratulations on your new Ancestry connections!

  3. Amanda Haynes, Class of 1984

    This is great!

  4. Larry Brown

    Wonderful story.

  5. PAUL GARRISON, Class of 1986

    Thanks for sharing your amazing, heartwarming journey to discover your roots and to learn of mutual Cornell ties with existing family. What a success! It made for a unique and interesting story given the potential historical obstacles to finding information.

    I also liked that you are an ILR alum and an employment attorney as I am in the Bay Area. And your cousin pledged A Phi A.

  6. Brenda (Wilkinson) Melvin, Class of 1987

    Such a great story. Thank you for sharing!

  7. Charla Smith, DVM, Class of 1994

    Hey Cousin, hey!
    I am a fellow Cornellian, and just discovered that I am also your family member.
    John and Mary Goode are my ancestors as well, and I look forward to connecting with you and all the others who share our ancestry.

  8. Stephen Schmal

    Truly a fine story. And having yet another family member (Charla Smith) connected makes it all that much more meaningful.

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