7/25/2013 10:03:23 AM
By Lisa Randle
As the director of research and education at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, I never know when I will be presented with a tidbit that opens a door to the past that I thought was locked forever. Francis Guber of Pennsylvania had a key that recently opened a door.
While on vacation with his family in April, Guber shared an image of Ephraim Smith Leach with Jenn Haupt, an interpreter with the "Slavery to Freedom" program at Magnolia.
The question that Jenn and I asked: Could Ephraim Smith Leach be related to the Leach family at Magnolia? Four generations of the Leach family have worked at Magnolia since the 1930s.
As a researcher, I needed to verify this new information. A quick Internet search unearthed a post by one of Ephraim Smith Leach's self-identified descendants who lives in Denver, N.C. She states that Leach is her “great, great, great, great grandpa.” Furthermore, she states that he lived in South Carolina and married a free black woman after the Civil War. Could this be the same Ephraim Smith Leach?
Then I started looking at Leach's Civil War record and the U.S. census.
Very little is known about Ephraim Smith Leach, also known as Smith Leach. He was born in 1836 in Connecticut to Ephraim and Sarah E. (Smith) Leach. Ephraim Smith Leach was a member of Co. C, 5th Vermont Infantry. After serving in the Civil War, he settled in South Carolina and operated a store in the lower section of Colleton County near White Hall. In the 1890s, he received a Civil War medical pension due to hepatitis and malarial poisoning contracted during camp life. Before his death in 1896, Leach also served as the postmaster of White Hall.
In the 1880 census for Blake Township in Colleton County, Smith Leach was listed as a white male farmer living with Rebecca White, a black female housekeeper, and their mulatto children - Smith White, J.H. White, Sarah White and Rebecca White. Initially, the children are listed by their mother's last name. Beginning with the 1900 Federal Census, all are listed by the last name Leach.
The eldest son, Ephraim Smith Leach Jr., was a constable in Walterboro and then a farmer in Blake. When he married Isabella Simmons, he fathered Willie J. Leach, who moved to Charleston in the 1930s where he started working in the gardens at Magnolia, according to documents from Francis Guber. His information also matched documents that I reviewed after we first met. Willie Leach later became the first paid superintendent at Magnolia. At the nursery's peak, Willie Leach supervised 18 employees, raising camellia and azalea plants and selling them to customers throughout the South.
Indeed, Ephraim Smith Leach is connected to the Leaches at Magnolia. He is the great-great-grandfather of 90-year-old Johnnie Leach, the son of Willie J. Leach. Johnnie Leach was a combat engineer in the Philippines during World War II before he joined the garden staff at Magnolia in 1946. He lived in one of the cabins at Magnolia where he raised his family.
Johnnie Leach still works at Magnolia along with two of his sons, Isaac and Theodore Leach, and two of Isaac's sons, Jackson and Brandon.
Isaac Leach shared the photograph of Ephraim Smith Leach with his sister, Johnnie Mae Leach. The Leach family was aware of their ancestor, but they didn't have a picture of him. Johnnie Mae Leach wept when she saw the photograph of her great-great-great-grandfather.
In the past, African Americans have experienced difficulty in locating their ancestors. With the proliferation of information available through the Internet, connections like this one are becoming possible. One seemingly insignificant piece can be the missing piece of the puzzle. This story reveals how connected we really are to one another.
As a researcher at Magnolia, I am actively seeking information about the African-American families who lived, worked and died at Magnolia. If you have any information, please contact me at .