how we came to be: the legacy of mary roth + wesley rhodes

 All our ancestors are in us.  Who can feel himself alone?
~Richard Beer-Hofmann


In May 2003, my sisters and I returned to Lansing, Michigan to be with our grandmother Gene (Hayes) Merchant during her heart surgery and subsequent recovery. Facing the illness and major surgery of a beloved quickly puts the value of life, family, and knowing one’s roots into new perspective.

Over the next few weeks, Tamara, Atia, and I sifted through several boxes of photographs on a mission to label, organize, and preserve these aging, delicate treasures. We were fascinated by the stories Gramma told us, bringing hundreds of captured memories—smiling faces with familiar features who gathered to share joyous occasions, milestones, or simply everyday wonders—back to life. We had also come across birth certificates and other documents, which provided some vital information and offered us a clearer picture into the past. From that moment, I was inspired to renew the vow I had made when I was 12 years old to research and document our family legacy.

After attending my first Rhodes Family Reunion in Hamilton, Canada the summer of 1989, I was excited to explore our German heritage. But books on German genealogy indicated that most records had been destroyed in World War I. A little discouraged that I could not immediately begin my search, I remained determined to someday have the means to put together the story of how we came to be.

The opportunity finally arrived soon after I had returned to my home in Brooklyn, New York in July 2003. The journey began in the Milstein Division of U.S. History, Local History and Genealogy at the world-renowned New York Public Library (the one with the lion statues featured in dozens of movies) in Manhattan where I discovered that Wesley Rhodes had served in the Civil War. Along with viewing census records of my great-grandparents, Sylvia (Rhodes) Hayes & James Hayes, I obtained a copy of Wesley’s file card from the Civil War Pension Index.

I immediately enlisted the help of Tamara, who lives in Maryland, to visit the U.S. National Archives and Record Administration in Washington, D.C. and copy Wesley’s file. I was amazed when she excitedly called some weeks later that August to tell me that there were actually two huge folders of documents. (It was the best birthday gift I could have asked for!) Neither of us expected there would be so much information! But, as you well know when the government is giving you money, war veteran or not, it doesn’t come easy: they want proof of the proof! As thrilling as it was to hear my sister read the documents to me, I was eager to touch this history myself and visited the N.A.R.A. in October 2003 to collect additional information.

Family, please know how blessed we are to have access to such valuable information. Many people cannot begin to piece together their genealogy, to verify stories that have been passed down orally for generations, or to come upon surprises such as Tamara and I did! Contained within those files are birth, marriage and death certificates, letters written by Mary (or perhaps her daughter Annie on her behalf) to the U.S. Pension Bureau, depositions and affidavits from friends corroborating Mary’s and Wesley’s history, and even a document of Wesley’s health examination, recording his height at 5 feet, 8 ½ inches, weight at 185 pounds and his various ailments.

This booklet is my first endeavor to encapsulate the remarkable legacy of Mary Roth and Wesley Rhodes.  For me, it is one of love against odds, courage, determination and the quest for freedom.

As long as you speak my name, I live.
~African Proverb

Their Story

According to her deposition, dated 18 June 1915, which was requested by the U.S. Bureau of Pensions in order to determine the eligibility of the minor children, Dorothy and Violet, to receive their father’s pension, Mary was born 25 July 1863 in Würtemberg, Germany.[1]  She left her birthplace at 17 years old, traveling with a girlfriend to New York City where she took a position as a servant—first for a Methodist minister and then for a building contractor who, she recalled, lived on 2nd Avenue between 80th and 81st.   (I was blown away at the realization that I have crossed some of the same streets she once walked along!)

About five years later, Mary moved to Hamilton, Ontario in Canada.  She met and married Henry Jackson, a “colored” man and Civil War veteran, in the spring of 1886.  A little over a year later, Henry died (27 May 1887), leaving Mary to care for their infant daughter, Annie.  Mary, a widow at 24, began to take in boarders.  One of whom was Wesley Rhodes.

Soon a relationship blossomed. Four children—Mamie, twins Sylvia and Pearl, and Norman—were born of this union before they married on 9 June 1894.  When questioned about a discrepancy in the date of marriage reported to the Pension Bureau, Mary states:

You have shown me the marriage certificate given to Wesley Rhodes and myself by the Rev. Anderson who married us and have asked me to explain the change made as to the year of said marriage and all I can say is that I don’t know who made said change unless it might have been that my husband and the minister changed it in order to keep my children from knowing that my husband and I lived together from 1890 or thereabouts until we were legally married in 1894.

Of the seven children born after their marriage, only four survived: Jennie [?], Dorothy, Violet[2], and Wesley.

We get an even better sense of Mary’s spirit and tenacity in a handwritten letter dated 23 February 1913 to a Mr. W. Peck, who apparently worked for the Pension Bureau.  Seeking pension for her youngest daughters seems to have been a long and frustrating process, as Mary expresses:

I think as little as they could do is to give the two children there’s [sic] as they are entitled to it[.]  I think I’m as deserving of it as some women I no [sic] that is getting it and never had as hard a time to get a long as I have raising his 10 children the only reason I can give that they are making a difference is because I’m white and he was colored[.] The marriage certificate and birth papers are at Washington and I would like to get them back as I had to pay to get them as well as my fare to Toronto.

Mary pulled no punches, letting these officials know that she was a hard-working parent who supported her family through her husband’s extended illnesses. Whether or not the U.S. government would withhold Wesley’s pension on the basis of their being an interracial couple, Mary seemed to have been aware of the hardships such families faced since, in fact, it was illegal (a felony charge) in many U.S. states for blacks and whites to marry.[3]

Mary died of a stroke on 26 October 1929.  She was buried at Woodland Cemetery in Hamilton, Ontario.

Wesley Rhodes was born into slavery “on or about 15th day of March 1839” to James and Rebecca on the Rhodes Plantation in Bedford County near Lynchburg, V.A.   Whether he ran away or was freed by his owner, on 17 March 1864, at the age of 25, he enlisted in the 5th Regiment (Company L) of the Massachusetts Volunteer Colored Cavalry in Springfield, MA.[4]

He served as a Private for one year—traveling as far as Clarksville, Texas—and was honorably discharged on 22 April 1865, having suffered from several illnesses including bronchitis.[5]  Following his service, Wesley worked as a plasterer and lived for some time in Buffalo, NY before moving to Toronto around 1875, then eventually to Hamilton in 1889.

On the battlefield and off, Wesley continued to fight for his rights. In a letter dated 6 October 1898 written on his behalf by attorney Martin Malone, we learn that Wesley also encountered delays in receiving his pension:

He thinks it strange to say the least of it, that many of his Comrades, who served in the War of the Rebellion, have got their pensions…He is a Colored Man, and hopes that his Color had nothing to do with equal justice being meted out to him, who shed his blood for our Country the same as his brother White man.

Like his wife, Wesley appeared unafraid to express his sentiments about the possibility of racism barring his access to his pension and remained determined to receive fair and equal treatment.

Wesley died of heart failure days before his 71st birthday on 13 March 1910.

Our past is not behind us, it is in our very being.

 Missing Pieces

As stated earlier, this is just the beginning. Some questions may never be answered, yet I hope we can do our best to compile as complete a history as possible for future generations. This will require the help of each one of you! Please gather your records, look through pictures, interview your elders, and visit your local genealogy libraries—anything you are able to do to fill in the missing pieces.

Two things I would most like to have verified are Mary’s Jewish heritage and family’s association of last name Gottlieb with her.  The records I have only list Roth, which is German in origin but widely used by persons of Jewish descent.[6] Confirming this is of particular importance when considering our genetic history, though many of you may find an exploration of the Jewish culture and religion to be of interest as well.

 Researched & Prepared with love & deepest gratitude
for all who have made me possible!

 Your cousin, niece, aunt, sister, daughter and grand-daughter,

 Tara Chanel Scott

Mother of Kiran[7]

Daughter of

Teresa Merchant & Dector Scott

Granddaughter of

Gene Hayes & Pearl Merchant, Jr.

Great granddaughter of

Sylvia Rhodes & James Hayes

Great-great granddaughter of

Mary Roth & Wesley Rhodes

Great-great-great granddaughter of

Dora & Gottlieb Roth [8]


This family record was originally compiled in June 2006 and distributed during the Rhodes Family Reunion picnic in Detroit on 4 Aug 2006. All links have been updated from those listed in the 2006 booklet, as they were no longer functional. Updating those broken links turned out to be a boon — I was able to discover new records through Family Search from Canadian archives that had not been available nine years ago! Also of note: some of these details of our family’s history are featured in “The Journey from Tollgate to Parkway” by Adrienne Shadd, who reached out to me in June 2009 after our cousin Joe Rhodes shared “How We Came To Be” with her.

[1] Würtemberg became Baden-Würtemberg in 25 April 1952. The capital is Stuttgart, which I remember hearing from family was Mary’s birthplace.

[2] According to the Return of Birth, Violet had a twin named Cecily.  There was no indication within the documents as to whether the other deceased children had been given names.

Discovered these Ontario Birth Registrations (29 Jan 2015):

47687-03 (Wentworth Co) RHODES, Ceciliy, f, b. Dec. 8, 1902, father – Wesley RHODES, plaster, mother-Mary ROTH, infm-father, 49 West illegible, Hamilton

040377-88 (Wentworth Co) RHODES Mamie, f, b Aug. 1, 1888 father – Wesley RHODES Plaster mother – Mary JACKSON, infm – Mrs. Mary Rhodes  37 Greig St. Hamilton

47688-03 (Wentworth Co) RHODES, Violet, f, b. Dec. 8, 1902, father – Wesley RHODES, plaster, mother-Mary ROTH, infm-father, 49 West illegible, Hamilton

[3] Anti-Miscegenation laws were on the books in as many as 16 states until ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 (case Loving v. Virginia).

[4] See Wesley’s Civil War Soldier Record on the National Park Service website.

[5] The Civil War, also known as the “War of the Rebellion” and the “War between the States” among others, lasted from 1861 to 1865.

[6] Learn more about the surnames Roth and Gottlieb, click here: Jewish Family Names.

[7] Magical mommy moment: I added this latest branch/”historical marker” to my family tree when updating the original document for publication on my blog on 29 January 2015.

[8] Update (January 28, 2016): In the fall of 2015, my cousin Donna Barnes discovered a newly released archive of Mary’s marriage certificate (with first husband Henry Jackson), which lists the names of Mary’s parents, taking us back another generation! It also resolves the mystery as to whether Gottlieb or Roth had been Mary’s maiden name. We now understand that Gottlieb which is commonly a surname, was actually her father’s first name.


Author: t scott-miller

ancestor-guided. liberation-minded. curator × co-conspirator of safe(r) sacred space × soul care × liberation × legacy work. teacher of contemplative tools to cultivate embodied self-awareness, healing + transformation. facilitator × spiritual director of spiritual inquiry × discernment × accountability. creator of digital spaces: | | |

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