Welcome to the Family!
The Stoneworths, a Christian series by bestselling author Michelle Stimpson, offers faith lessons within the context of contemporary romance. Scroll down to read the family history and learn how they got this family name.
Stoneworth Family History
June 19, 1865
Isaac Donaldson startled at the thump outside his shack. By the dim moonlight, he saw two more heads raise up and take note. Papa Joe, who was actually only three minutes older than Isaac, and their oldest sister, Mazie. There they were, six eyes shining in the darkness. Hearts thumping, blood pumping.
Couldn’t have been an animal because it only happened once. An animal would have kept thumping until it got what it wanted.
Isaac rolled to his knees, then his feet, peeking through the wooden slats that allowed the summer breezes to cool them in the night. But the slats also brought bitter winds if they weren’t packed tight with whatever scraps of fabric could be scrounge up in the winter.
“Who there?” he whispered roughly.
The answer came in a short, stolen burst. “Jed.”
Quickly, Isaac and Papa Joe scrambled to the door, waking the other two men and two women—Grandma Leetha and Reeba—in their shack. The children still slept.
Jed rushed inside and, quickly, a small circle of adults assembled in the space that had served as Isaac’s bed only seconds earlier. The musty smell of the tiny quarters was suddenly changed with the fragrance of hope.
Jed’s voice was barely audible. “Slavery is over.”
Isaac swallowed, unable to believe his ears. “What?”
“Union soldiers came today. Announced it for all to hear. No need for the revolt anymore.”
Papa Joe snapped, “Is you foolin’ us, Mister Jed?”
“No, Papa Joe. It’s the truth. Mazie, light the lantern.”
Though hardly visible, Mazie’s sharp breath showed her fears brightly. “Oh, sir, no, I can’t. Master Donaldson don’t like us—”
“Didn’t you hear what I said?” Jed cut her off, which was unusual for him. Since that summer he’d spent in the north, when he met that Quaker woman named Rachel and told his father, Master Donaldson, that he wanted nothing to do with the peculiar institution of slavery, Jed had a softer way with the enslaved. Too respectful, his brothers had said.
Mazie didn’t say another word. But she also didn’t move.
“Reckon we can talk in the dark?” Papa Joe offered a compromise.
“‘Spose we could,” Jed said, “but then we wouldn’t have enough light to read the proclamation.”
Now that his eyes had adjusted, Isaac could see Jed unruffling a piece of paper. “The soldiers gave these to all the people gathered in Galveston. Been running all over Texas leaving these, with the official seal of the government.”
Isaac had to see this for himself. “The light, Mazie.”
“You git it yo’self,” she scolded her younger brother. “That be yo’ back on the post, not mine.”
“There’s no more post, Mazie,” Jed tried to assure her. “It’s over. All the plans we made for a revolt…we don’t have to anymore. Looks like God answered your prayer.”
Mazie clasped her hands beneath her chin. “Thank You, Lawd.” For too many weeks to count, she had overheard her brothers and Jed discussing a plan to join forces with other slaves and some whites who were hoping to bombard their way to freedom. She’d heard of slaves escaping a few here and a few there, but never a large group of them succeeding at anything like what they were planning. This was outlandish, but everyone involved was willing to break free or die trying.
In the time it took Jed to explain a little of what he’d heard, including the fact that President Lincoln had declared the Emancipation Proclamation more than two years ago, Isaac struck up the lantern and brought light into the darkness, hoping the glint wouldn’t travel the hundred yards to the overseer Crawford’s, house.
“Say it was two years ago?” Papa Joe asked.
“Then what took ‘em so long?” Papa Joe demanded.
“Don’t rightly know,” Jed admitted. “Some say the fellow they sent to tell the word got murdered on the way. Might have been they wanted to let us get one more good crop in. I wouldn’t doubt if more than half of the slave owners already know, just didn’t want y’all to know. Might be a matter of all three.”
Jed switched places with Papa Joe. Isaac set the lantern in the middle of their circle. Jed passed the paper to him. “Go ahead. Read it.”
Isaac swallowed, his throat thick with equal parts fear and elation, fully aware that this was perhaps the most important moment in his life, next to the day he was able to read the Bible for himself and find out that there was more to Jesus than what they heard from the preacher while sitting in the colored-section balcony of the town’s church. Jed had risked his reputation in the community and the respect of his family when he’d taught Isaac how to read a few years ago, behind his father’s back and at the urging of his new Quaker lady friend whom Grandma Leetha decided was the next best thing to a saint.
This thin, white paper Jed held between his trembling fingers felt almost as important to him as whatever kind of paper the Lord Himself used to record names in the Lamb’s Book of Life. With Jed helping disclose unfamiliar words, Isaac read, “General Order Number Three. The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”
Silence filled the room again.
Finally, Reeba (short for Rebecca), who had once worked in the house but had burned her face so badly in a kitchen accident that the Missus couldn’t stand to see Reeba anymore, asked, “What that mean?”
The words knocked around in Isaac’s belly before he could pull them up through his windpipe and out of his mouth. “It mean we free.”
“Say who?” Papa Joe wanted to know.
“Says the United States of America,” Jed answered. “The war is over. The north won. Slavery is done with.”
They sat quiet, still, letting the news sink in. This wasn’t quite what Isaac had been hoping for. Not quite how he’d envisioned it. He’d supposed they would have to fight for their freedom. In fact, he and Jed and every man in that circle had been planning what Jed called a ‘revolt’—a fight against Crawford and his crew—and a demand that Master Donaldson set them free, like Old Man Donaldson had commanded in his will when he died. But Jed’s older brothers, William and Jack, had found a crooked doctor to declare that their father wasn’t in his right mind when he signed those papers. Since Jed was still under age at the time, he was in no legal position to fight his brothers.
Thus, despite Old Man Donaldson’s promises to Isaac and Papa Joe’s father and many who had gone on to their heavenly reward, nobody got any kind of freedom when their original owner died.
Only thing they got was a worse Master. William Donaldson, the oldest boy, wasn’t a fair man by any means. Quite given to alcohol, and not above a tryst with a few women from the slave quarters if he had enough whiskey in him.
William had fathered several of the women who worked in the house catering to his first wife, Miss Priscilla. When she died giving birth to their first child, it seemed like whatever goodness he had in him from being a human being slipped away with the baby boy’s last breath two days later.
William gave Crawford most of the power with the hands. And the power went straight to Crawford’s head.
That’s why he was the first one on Isaac’s kill-list.
Except, now, they wouldn’t have to. Or get to. Yet, for as much as Isaac wanted to ram a sword straight through Crawford’s belly, he was relieved that he wouldn’t have to answer to God for it later.
“What we gon’ do now?” Mazie asked. “I mean, since we free and all.” A giddy smile crept across her face and spread around the circle, each face suddenly lit by the outer glow of the lantern and an inner radiance of hope.
“I know what I’m gon’ do,” Isaac declared before the group. “I’m goin’ straight to the Hampton farm, grab up Miss Evelina Jenkins and make her my wife. And we gon’ have us some free babies!”
Mazie giggled. “If she ain’t found nobody else by now.”
Isaac replied, “Oh I know she ain’t. Can’t nobody love her as much as I do.” This much he knew for a fact.
Suddenly, the flimsy door to the shack burst open, slamming against the wall.
The children curled up in tight balls against one another.
Shotgun at his side, Crawford surveyed the impromptu meeting’s attendance. His husky physique loomed overhead, causing Mazie, Reeba and Grandma Leetha to instinctively scoot behind the men—not that they could usually help in times like these.
When Crawford spotted Jed in the bunch, his face morphed to an evil grin. “I see you finally come around, Jed. Gonna try out one of the darkies, eh? Which one?”
Jed snatched the paper from Isaac, stood, and held it to Crawford’s face. “War’s over. Slavery’s ended, by the Emancipation Proclamation from Abraham Lincoln, himself.”
Emboldened by the black ink on that white paper and Jed’s words, Isaac stood. Looked Crawford squarely in the eyes for the first time. His family stood behind him as well.
Crawford laughed so heartily his enormous belly shook. “Shows how much you know. Lincoln’s been dead since springtime. Can a dead man write his own signature?”
An audible gasp filled the room. Isaac’s dreams seemed to slide between his fingers, but he held on tight by a tiny thread. Jed had never lied to him before. Why would he start now?
Crawford jerked the paper from Jed’s hand and pretended to read some if it (everybody knew Crawford could count barrels and bushels but it had taken Jed’s clandestine education to figure out that Crawford couldn’t read worth a lick). Even now, his eyes floated backwards from right to left over the words on the page.
After fake-reading, Crawford ripped the paper to a thousand pieces. The tiny bits representing freedom fluttered to the ground. Then Crawford mashed on the pile with his heavy boot. “This is what I think of the Yankees and their Yee-man-ci-ta-shun Pro-cla-mi-nation!”
“You can tear up a million notes, but that won’t change the law!” Jed declared.
“You best be gettin’ on back to the main house,” Crawford semi-ordered Jed.
“I’ll head back when I am ready.”
A knowing glance passed between Crawford and Jed.
Crawford let the door slam as he left.
They breathed a sigh of relief. Only Isaac understood what had transpired in those silent seconds between Jed and Crawford. Ever since Jed had discovered that Crawford and William’s second wife, Sarah, were getting their fill of one another when William’s duties took him away from the planation, Jed was untouchable. Even so untouchable as to be able to refuse Caroline Luke’s hand in marriage and be afforded a trip to the north to study medicine.
Sarah had been more than happy to send Jed away. She’d hoped he would never return, actually, but his time studying medicine had been tempered by falling in love with the Quaker woman.
From the moment Jed saw her, he knew he could never spend months or years away from his true love.
Thankfully, all of his preliminary studies of the human body had found another use—funeralization. With his growing understanding of anatomy and chemistry, he’d stumbled upon a way to make a living. The concept of preserving bodies had taken off during the war as wealthy northern families sent for their sons’ bodies to be preserved and shipped back home for proper burial.
“What a way to live—by death,” Jed had told Isaac upon return from the north. It was only a matter of time before Jed would marry and try to invite his bride to move south with him. Only a matter of time.
In fact, Jed reasoned, perhaps their freedom had only been a matter of time as well. How long could men enslave other men? How long before someone realized how utterly ridiculous it was for God’s creations to look down on one another?
“He tore up the paper,” Mazie said, her voice filling with emotion. “Does that mean we ain’t free no’ mo’?”
Mazie had seen a man’s freedom papers be torn up once before. A visitor from the north. And the man who tore up the papers seized the free black man right there in front of the market. Took him as a slave, never looked back. Was freedom that flimsy?
Jed’s voice softened. “It doesn’t matter, Mazie. The order is done. The soldiers have put out hundreds or thousands of these papers. Won’t be long before everyone knows. You free, Mazie. Mark my words—free.”
Once again, the huddle smiled. Tentatively, yet hopefully.
Jed stayed a little longer, talking with Isaac and Papa Joe about how he would try once again to get from his brothers what his father had rightly left them. Now that they were no longer slaves, it would be in William’s best interest to sell off some of his land. The Donaldsons were far from being the richest slave owners in town, so the less maintenance the better since they had no more forced labor.
After Jed left, Mazie and Grandma Leetha listened in the dark as Isaac and Papa Joe sat up talking so late it was early morning. First, they couldn’t get over the fact of being free. It was too good to be true. They talked of those who had died in the past few years, not knowing they were free.
“God rest their souls,” Grandma Leetha sighed tearfully.
Jed had been right. The next morning, the house-hands came out to the shack first thing, said Miss Sarah kicked them all out and locked the door behind them “cause she was scared they was gonna do something to her now that they were free by law”.
All over Galveston, the newly freed slaves were packing up, getting ready to try and find family, from Louisiana to the Carolinas.
It had been several months since Evelina was sold to the Hamptons. Too far to keep up a proper courtship by walking to visit, Isaac couldn’t have made it there and back on their only off-day, Sunday. All he had was his memories and the possibility that she might be getting his letters and that someone would read the letters to her when she did receive them. Jed had been invaluable when it came to sending the letters in his name so no one would suspect that Isaac wrote them himself…no one except his sweet Evelina.
Isaac joined a procession of people heading to East Texas, where he knew the Hampton’s plantation to be.
Weeks and treacherous miles later, he was reunited with Evelina. Almost immediately, they jumped the broom. They consummated their marriage outside under the cover of a lovely willow tree.
Two weeks later, Jed sent word to Isaac by letter that he was working behind the scenes to make sure all of his father’s enslaved people would finally fare well.
The next envelope from Jed contained a banknote for more money than Isaac could have dreamed, along with a letter:
Fare well, my friend. You and Evelina. Should you ever need me, I will be in Pennsylvania. I have married now to Leah. Enclosed you will find a check for your share of the funds I was able to pry from William’s stingy hands with an iron stick of guilt. Papa Joe and the rest have decided it best to stay here. Papa Joe spends his money on whiskey. I am not sure why he wishes to spend his first days of freedom in a drunken haze.
Mazie and Grandma Leetha are saving theirs together for the children’s schooling, as the Presbyterians are starting a school for negroes soon. As for work, most of the adults are entering an arrangement with William to tend to the land in exchange for food and shelter and a small bit of the earnings. The concept I believe many have begun to call “sharecropping.” For my take, it is only a small step away from slavery. Their ‘earnings’ will go to pay for their room and board. I do not know if they are better off except they are free to now be cheated of a decent living. It seems the emancipation was only the start of a change. Crawford still oversees. Stay where you are, my friend, and believe no accounts that things are better on the Donaldson plantation under the new laws..
I have enclosed a paper you might wish to complete. It is for you to request a name change. I am a Donaldson by birth, but you were one by cruel circumstance. Should you choose to change your name, please inform me. I shall forward my address as soon as my wife and I are settled.
I understand that many of the former slaves wish to have no contact with their former masters. Should this be your choice, I do understand and hold no ill will toward you.
If this is our last correspondence, I pray God’s best to you, now and forever.
Your brother in Christ and fellow citizen,
For two years following his marriage to Evelina, Isaac pondered the name change. Since he’d been reading the Bible, he liked his first name. But he couldn’t think of a proper surname. Through Jed, he had learned that his twin, Papa Joe, had decided to keep the surname, but Isaac knew he couldn’t. He wanted a name for himself. For Evelina, and for the children he still believed they would have despite the two miscarriages she’d suffered.
God had come through at almost a moment’s notice before—ending slavery before he and countless others were killed in a revolt. Isaac had no doubt that He would continue His reign of goodness, especially now as he read more from the Bible and study materials forwarded to him by Jed’s Quaker wife..
It wasn’t until Isaac found a job as a stonemason, cutting and engraving tombstones, that he got an idea.
Strong. Solid. Dependable.
Stone. But Stonewhat? He and Evelina brainstormed for hours. Stonebrook? Stonewood? Stonepond? Nothing sounded right.
When Evelina miscarried a third time, this time much later in the pregnancy, Isaac had been there when the baby girl was wrested from his wife’s womb because the midwife’s assistant hadn’t been able to cross the creek before the storm hit.
Someone had to help.
Too heartbroken from her loss, Evelina hadn’t wanted to see the baby once the midwife told her of the infant’s fate. “I’m sorry, Ev. She was just too little to make it outside in this cruel world.”
But Isaac had seen the baby—or the beginnings of a baby. Not fully formed, yet defined enough to note most of its features.
As he stared at the form on the stack of sheets and rags, Isaac had wondered, for the first time, if maybe God didn’t want him and Evelina to have children. Maybe he shouldn’t have planned that revolt and dreamt fondly of what it would be like to slaughter Crawford.
Maybe they weren’t good enough to be parents. Not worthy.
And then he felt words inside of him that seemed to kick him dead in the chest: I have good plans for you and your seed.
After attempting to comfort Evelina with a kiss, Isaac raced out of the birthing quarters before she could see him break with emotion. He stole away to the edge of the thicket and fell to the ground the same way he’d imagined Abraham must have fallen to the ground when he heard the voice of God speaking to him. Except Isaac heard the Spirit inside, not outside like the people in the Bible.
It was then that Isaac decided on a name. His children would be strong, solid, and dependable. Yes, like a stone. And they would always know that God had decided them worth the sacrifice of Christ.
A few months later, when he’d proposed the name change to her, Evelina said with a nonchalant glare, “I don’t care.” She had given up.
But Isaac went through with the name change. From Donaldson, the name given to his family by the old man, to one Isaac had picked for himself and his family—the family he didn’t have yet—for generations to come.
It would take another thirteen years for the promise to come to pass. For Evelina to give birth to a live, full-term baby. A boy. They named him Cleo Stoneworth. The next year came a second son, Percy Stoneworth. History repeated itself again with Jethro, their third boy.
Isaac and Evelina were brimming with joy. They overflowed with thankfulness for God’s faithfulness.
Evelina treated her children like precious gemstones, slathering them with love and affection despite her family’s warnings to prepare them for the “real world” where they would be looked down upon because they were black. According to her aunts, she and Isaac were “spoiling” the boys.
But Isaac knew better. He and Evelina weren’t spoiling his boys. As Isaac learned, he taught his family about the God he’d met in the Bible and knew personally in his own heart, and He was love. Isaac’s thoughts about God were almost Bohemian, completely foreign to a group of people who only knew what they’d been told by people who could barely read the Bible themselves. Isaac tried to hold classes—Bible study classes—but people in his neck of the woods weren’t interested, said they had their religion already.
Nonetheless, Isaac knew what the Lord had told him: I have good plans for you and your seed. He took God at His Word and raised his boys to humble themselves before God and expect God to be there for them in every circumstance.
In a practical sense, if one of the boys cut their leg on barbed wired, Isaac and Evelina prayed first before they bandaged the wound. If one of the boys called himself liking a girl, Isaac and Evelina would invite her over to dinner and share the truth about Jesus with her. Might scare her off because she was so used to hearing otherwise, but that was fine. The truth weeded folk out real quick.
Isaac, of course, believed in hard work. Integrity. Keeping your word. All things he passed along to Cleo, Percy, and Jethro. What it came down to was: Isaac and Evelina didn’t just raise up their boys in church. They raised up the church—the abiding life of Christ—before their boys, setting up their family for generation upon generation of favor and blessing. They weren’t a perfect family, but they were fully aware of the freedom Christ had captured for them long before the law did.