Clarissa's Life

Clarissa's Life

Researchers have hit a brick wall when searching for the parents of Clarissa Centers. I have found her parents and a brother and sister.

Clarissa Centers was born, state unknown, in 1815. Various censuses state that she was born in Kentucky, South Carolina and Virginia. At age 21, she supposedly married a Jesse Brown and then became estranged from him. We do know that she was in Kentucky in August of 1837 because that is when her first child, my great-grandfather Franklin, was born.* She gave him her own last name. At some time between 1837 and 1841, Clarissa and Franklin moved to Clay County.

It is inconceivable that a young woman with an infant would be living on her own. She had to be staying with someone and probably she was with her own kin. There are only two Centers families on the 1840 Clay County census. The Micahjah Centers** family on page304 has no male babies so Clarissa and Franklin cannot be living with him. My theory is that Clarissa is living with Abner Centers and that he is her father. The Abner Centers family includes two male children and four females. Clarissa is age 25 and Franklin, at age 3, would be the male under 5 years old. Clarissa's sister, Melinda, is one of the other female children and is ten years old at the time. By the next census, the Abner Centers family has moved from Clay County and left Clarissa, Franklin, and Melinda behind.

Fortunately, Abner appears on the 1850 Knox County census as family 347, living in Flatlick. By this time, he is 70 years old and his wife, Elizabeth is 50. They have a daughter, Emaline, who is 17 and "insane". Their son, Abner, is 24 and lives next door with his wife, Nancy and their daughter, Elizabeth.

Since the 1850 census tells us everyone's ages, we can return to the 1840 census and figure everyone's age then and see if they fit in the age categories. Abner, Elizabeth and Emaline*** fit perfectly into the 1840 census categories but young Abner does not. He would have been 14, not age 5-10. I believe that this was a mistake by the enumerator. The evidence is strong that Clarissa is the daughter of Abner Centers. Assuming that Elizabeth is her biological mother, she would have been only fifteen when she had Clarissa. It is interesting that Clarissa, her brother Abner and their sister, Melinda all named their first daughter after their mother, Elizabeth.

Clarissa stayed in Clay County and by 1841 or earlier, became involved with a freed slave, a mulatto named George Freeman. A longtime resident of Clay County, George Freeman appears as a slave along with five female slaves in the household on the 1820 Clay County census. Clarissa and her baby moved in with George and, although they could never marry (marriage between blacks and whites was not legal in Kentucky until 1965), Elizabeth, the eldest of the the Clarissa and George children, was born in 1841. Nine more children were to follow: John, William, Annie, George, Mary, Polly, Rebecca, Isaac and Antony.

It was during these Clay County years that an incident happened that revealed how tough Clarissa was. Family legend has it that she was on her way to the mill to have some corn ground when she suddenly went into labor. She delivered the child by the side of the road, put the baby on one shoulder and the corn on the other shoulder, and continued on to the mill.

Just before the Civil War, Clarissa is counted again in the 1860 census. George Freeman had probably passed away since Clarissa is now the head of the household. William, age 17, is the oldest of the 7 children living with her. Mary, born in 1848 and age 12, is unaccounted for.

By 1870, Clarissa has left her Clay County farm and I cannot find her on any census. Her eldest daughter, Elizabeth, is living there with five little girls: Martha J., Anlzie, Sally, Melviney and Mary. Two more of Clarissa's children, William and Isaac, are working as laborers on nearby farms. William is married to Liddy and both are listed as "white".

Clarissa Centers appears for the last time on the 1880 Johnson County Census living in Barnett's Creek with her sister, Melinda, and her brother-in-law, Jordan Spencer. By then, Clarissa was 65 years old. She stated that she was born in South Carolina and that both of her parents came from South Carolina. Melinda said that she was born in Virginia and that both of her parents came from South Carolina. Although Clarissa is listed as white; Melinda is listed as a mulatto. There are two possibilities here. Either they are half-sisters; no doubt having the same father but different mothers, or it is possible that the enumerator assumed that Melinda is a mulatto because whe is "married" to one. I believe the latter to be the case only because I believe that they are the daughters of Abner and Elizabeth Centers whose family was not listed as mulattos in either the 1840 or 1850 census. I welcome any information supporting or contesting this idea.

Clarissa was baptized shortly before her death around 1888 at the age of 73. She lies buried near East Point, Kentucky. Franklin was living in Wolfe County at the time. One of his granddaughters gave the following account of his reaction to his mother's death: "Grandpa was working in the field when they come and told him. He said, "I've spent all of my life taking care of them niggers. I'm not going back now.'"

Clarissa Centers was one of the pioneers that settled the wilderness that was Kentucky. She gave birth to eleven children; four of whom fought in the Civil War on the Union side. She shared the harsh life and the poverty of all of the early settlers but because a freed slave fathered her children, no doubt she was scorned by the community and perhaps by her own son. She was a strong woman, indisputably a survivor, and should be remembered with love and honor today as the matriarch of hundreds who owe their very existence to her.

*Franklin's Civil War Discharge papers stated that he was born in Harlan County. His death certificate, filled out by Dr. Henry Dunn, listed his parents as "Clara Senters" and "Jesse Senters".

**It is likely that Micahjah Centers was Clarissa's brother or uncle since both families appeared at the same time. Also, Clarissa's brother, Abner Centers, Jr., later named one of his sons, "Cajer", a corruption of the name, Micah.

***Emaline appears on the 1870 Knox Co census, page 3 under Flatlick. "Emily Centers", age 36, "idiotic", born in Ky. and living with the Collins family along with 4 young men named Begley. The rest of the census is faded and illegible so it is impossible to find Abner Sr. or Abner Jr.


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Last Updated September 5, 2000 by jude