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Cora Lee Hill's Story
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Mary Lee Brady, Ph.D.

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Cora Lee Hill Atkins born in June, 1907 was the daughter of William Hill and Lilly Finney who married a year or so preceding her birth.  Oral history from Cora is that her father's brother/cousin/uncle whom she referred to as "Uncle Henry" was Henry Hill employed for over 50 years at Roanoke College.   

 

                Cora Lee Hill, born 1907

                Hill Generations, abt 1753

                William Thomas Kyle Atkins, born 1906

The tale handed down from Cora is that a paternal ancestor to her father was a Union army soldier from Ohio during the Civil War and married a free woman who waited for him to return; and, we have subsequent reasons to believe he was William Hill a Union army descendent (grandson) to Henry Hill of Ohio who was a revolutionary war veteran. 

And, the woman in waiting we now know for certain was Easter Frog, a  offspring of Cherokee Chief Spring Frog.  We have struggled to get this story right since records show there were a lot of William and Henry Hills' in the Union Army, some enlisted in Whites only regiments and others in U.S. Army Colored Troops Regiments. 

Whatever the facts are our research has taken us far and wide in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia in attempts to at least link the spirit of goodness if not the bodies in Christ.  To that extent, our approach has been to go beyond the surname of Hill to seek what commonalities existed in the spirits of people who generated Cora, and named her Cora Lee Hill.  A big question for us is whether or not the Hill's and Lee's are related in the flesh.  It was a common practice of many African-Americans after slavery to name, rename and raise children of offspring within families of their blood relatives. 

We have kept in mind that a lot, over 43,000 African-American young men were killed in battle during the Civil War; and, afterwards many veterans were hunted down and killed by the Ku-Klux-Klan organized and composed of revengeful ex-Confederates like Nathan Bedford Forrest.

                                                    Moses Lee, abt 1815

Relative research on this site indicates that Joanna Lee, possibly a free colored woman in the Roanoke vicinity may have been the ancestral mother in question.  If Henry Hill was her son raised by Moses Lee, ... where did she live?  The question is further complicated by the possibility that offspring born of Joanna Lee during 1864-1866 timeline was the aunt or cousin of William Hill (whose mother was Gilly Frog) born in the mid 1880s.  Some oral history accounts handed down are that his mother Gilly was one of the sisters to Adeline Frog who married Charles Kyle as the first woman married at newly established John Wesley AME Church, Roanoke in 1885. 

We do not know for a fact that Adeline was born a slave, but if so thus must assume her sisters were also slaves if born before 1864 era of emancipation by Union army in the lower Shenandoah Valley.  Indeed, slavery was not simply about chattel labor but very much inclusive of sexual relationships across racial lines. On the other hand, a lot of African-Americans though recorded and listed as free were in fact indentured servants by law and treated as special slaves by local and state customs.

                                                William Thomas Atkins Story

Typical of many oral histories handed down, the central characterization was around Adeline Kyle and her recount of events before and after the war which tended to highlight marriage and children, ... not non-marriages and births by unwed mothers and multiple fathers.  Events relating to the war and the horrors therein tended to be unknown and neglected excepting that Ellis Kyle/Kile, her husband's brother and great uncle to William Atkins apparently was the oldest Civil War veteran in Roanoke County when he died around 1938. We speculate that he was born around 1845 and escaped slavery in 1863-1864 along with his younger brother Robert who was later recaptured, returned, tortured and died soon after the war ended. 

December 15-16, 1863
Federal forces under Brigadier General William W. Averell moved into Salem from the north, destroyed quantities of flour, wheat, saltpork and other supplies housed in the town, burned the depot building and a nearby mill, and destroyed several bridges. Thomas H. Chapman, 26, son of a prominent Salem family, was killed by the Federals as they advanced on Salem.
June 21, 1864
Federal forces under Major General David Hunter, retreating from Lynchburg, burned railside buildings at Salem; Confederate cavalry attacked the Federals in the Battle of Hanging Rock, and both sides suffered casualties.
November 9, 1866
First Baptist Church, Salem's earliest African American congregation, was formed with Rev. J.R. Cooper as pastor.

The problem with relying on oral history accounts is that most are handed down by family females who tend not to have first-hand knowledge or education regarding geographic and other uniquely male experiences like polygamous and amorous relationships by youthful African-American soldiers and sailors during the Civil War; ...

... and more often than not, remained unknown to mothers and sisters who also would lack knowledge of burial locations.  The projects such as the below website offer some insight as to who and how African-Americans came to be in the Salem-Roanoke County Virginia area of today.

                                        Salem Virginia Museum

                                        Salem Museum Archives

The story handed down is that a young woman was sitting on a fence as the Union troops passed by and promised marriage by a soldier from Ohio who we believe was ancestral father of the Hills born in the vicinity of Roanoke between years 1865 and 1887, ... when federal troops were withdrawn from occupation of former rebel states like Virginia.

 

Our speculation and attempted research is that unknown Union soldier was possibly William Hill of Ohio, a descendent of African-American Henry Hill, a revolutionary war veteran.  Research indicated that William was likely assigned to the 27th Regiment organized at Camp Delaware, Ohio in 1864 and duty serving in the Army of the Shenandoah commanded by Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan.   Indeed, we know for a fact from historical records that Union cavalry troops were sent in 1964 into the Shenandoah Valley including the Roanoke area to close it as the major food source for the rebel Confederacy. 

More research is needed but this much we do believe and know for certain. Cora Lee Hill was descended from and related to a lot of people of mixed ancestry including African-American, Native American and European American propagated during and after the infamous slave trade in Africa and America. 

Indeed, decades before slave owners were able to entice marriage or intimacies with European born women, the institution of slavery brought about tens and hundreds of thousands of births sired by White men with African and Native American mothers.  It was not unknown for men of means to take both land and women therein away from Cherokee and other tribal groups.

Cora was born of love between a free-man and free-woman of generation #63 in Christ birthed in the after-math of slavery in Virginia.  And, like Nancy Lee of her generation, she also was raised in a family environment that included parents, siblings, grand-parents, uncles, aunts and many cousins.  The spirit of community in Christ was about a lot more than attending Sunday worship services.  She loved Sunday and kept it holy, and was a Church Clerk for 50 years; but, to her that was the easy part of being a believer.  Community living in the body and spirit of Christ, ... the most difficult part, was to listen, see, read, travel and learn to live a useful life.

And, the blood of young White and Black men, like her ancestor William Hill, a free-colored man who came down south in a Union regiment from Ohio, ... was soaked in the soil of Shenandoah Valley battlefields that helped allow her to be freeborn.

Freedom was not free; and Cora was indoctrinated to believe the men who fought to liberate her ancestors were "Messianic" as opposed to Pauline Christians.  She learned to tolerate tales about Paul; but to love every word out of the mouth of Jesus as the Word of God.

At an early age, she learned the four gospels were about the life of Jesus, and easy to read and understand.  She certainly knew by age of puberty that not all people who called themselves Christians, ... shared the same attitudes.  By the time of her birth in year 1907, ... nearly nine million legally free souls of African heritage lived in witness to the march of Messianic beliefs.  But, not all people of color generated after the death of chattel slavery were indoctrinated to believe their heritage originated with the birth and teachings of Jesus, ... as manifested by Jefferson and Lincoln in the great arch of human history. 

Slavery had not ended due to the evangelical letters of Paul or Pauline Christian practices.  And, the rising tide of screams and shouts of ignorance that came up the Mississippi River in the name of religion was not the church that men and women like Cora would seek to help build.  

By the time of America's entry into World War I in 1917, ... Cora had been inspired and motivated to learn to read, living in the so-called Ash-Bottom suburbs of Salem, Virginia.  It is not known as to who taught her music, but as a gifted child she became the first organist for First Baptist Church in Salem.

Helping herself by helping others was indoctrinated in her as a child.  Her favorite uncle, ... Henry Hill was the janitor and bell ringer for 50 years at Roanoke College, and regularly brought her discarded books and materials that she digested in her hunger for knowledge. And, by the time President Woodrow Wilson died in 1924, she was motivated to become a teacher to help herself by helping others learn.   And, like her mother Lillian, ... she was always a lady in a family that proudly called her "Proud Cora."

"She always walked quickly, with her head and shoulders erect, from her home in Ash Bottom where mostly family lived, down the road through Broad Street in Salem, Virginia; walking past the columned homes of rich White folks, ... all the way to the school-house where she excelled in her studies and daily helped teachers help others." [William Thomas Atkins, Sr.]  

A gifted child and prolific reader all her life, Cora Lee Hill Atkins was inspired and motivated at an early age to value education as a function of mission mandates from Jesus himself... "Suffer the little children unto me, and forbid them not."   And, she learned as a school-age child that most Black men encountered in her birthplace of Salem, Virginia and beyond into the Finleyville, Pennsylvania graveyard shared with husband William, ... were God fearing souls in the Allegheny Mountains chain bituminous coal veins stretching from Alabama through Eastern Tennessee, Kentucky, Western Virginia, West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania. 

Indeed, she loved geography lessons, and learned at an early age the vast difference between the Messianic Christian values in States like Massachusetts and Ohio that freed African-Americans versus the Judeo-Christian values in states where people cited biblical passages to rationalize slavery.  Cora attended the Virginia State Normal School for Colored Students (now Virginia State University) in Petersburg from which she graduated in 1926 as a classroom teacher. 

She taught descendents of Franklin County ex-slaves in a one-room schoolhouse for a year in Gretna, Virginia for children ranging 6 to 13 years of age.  But upon marriage in 1927 she relocated to Pennsylvania with her husband William (Bill) Atkins, .... who was fired from his job in Salem, Virginia after building a new colonial style home that displeased the White tannery owner who viewed it and commented, "If a n..... can build a house like this he doesn't need a n..... job in my tannery." 

In the first half of the 20th century, east, west, north and south, ... race mattered more to Christians (Catholics and Protestants) and Jews in America than did religious beliefs and behavior; and, for African-Americans in the region, even those whose families had been residents therein since the early 1800s and before, ... racial discrimination in employment and residential locations was absolute and enforced by church, government and local Ku Klux Clan chapters.  The one place wherein segregation was not enforced were the public schools albeit none hired teachers like Cora who had been certified by State of Virginia or any other State as qualified. 

In the  Pittsburgh area, she quickly learned there were no public or Catholic school positions available for African-American teachers; but found some comfort in teaching illiterate miners and wives to read and write, and encouraging neighborhood youth to pursue studies where available and possible.  White racism among White Catholic, Jewish and Protestants  in the Pittsburgh region was a reality, polite but firm.  As she would note, ... Booker T. Washington urged African-Americans should "throw their buckets down and draw water where they are."

Professors like John Gandy at Virginia State College had taught her truths about the mass dispersions of family members during slavery, and the mental health effects that lingered on for generations.  She believed in her soul that if Mary had been separated from Jesus, ... the new beginning would not have occurred.  There was never doubt in her mind that children could not be educated without involvement of their mothers in the process.  She patiently explained to those that would listen: "so-called Indian education schemes failed because White teachers separated students from their mothers deemed to be savages." 

She learned the history of Africans in America (first volume publication by George Washington Williams in the 1870s), the teachings of Richard Allen, Booker T. Washington and others who understood Pauline Christianity was not the path that uplifted her from bondage. 

It was rare indeed in the first fifty years after slavery to ever hear an educated Black minister reference Paul or any bible verses upholding doctrines of slave masters.  Indeed, Black ministers were skeptical. Most educated Black ministers (from colleges like Virginia Union in Richmond) motivated their flocks via sticking to the Gospels according to Mark, Matthew, Luke and John.

Prior to radio broadcasting, few ever sought to emulate White southern preachers, most of whom still insisted that Blacks were descendents of Ham and destined to be servants to Whites.  She knew that Nile Valley Africans existed long before the peoples of Mesopotamia.  And Cora knew early-on in her life that organized religion could be used to exploit the traditional African faith/fear in life after death. 

Cora believed Jesus came to liberate people who lacked knowledge and understanding of written words.  She read the King James version and various other bibles, including some parts of the Jewish Torah, ... and had a good understanding of Messianic philosophy given by Jesus beyond what preachers might preach.  For her, bibles and other religious readings were the world's greatest literature and tools that could be used to help inspire and motivate people to live well ... not to invoke fear of dying.  

For her, Jesus came to save human life, not the dead!  She was always saddened by the fervor of "weekly bible studies" by old and feeble congregants who had lived illiterate or unread lives; and in their final months and years fearfully seeking to comprehend aging, health, wealth, happiness, etc. via fervent bible study. 

In her own final months and years, she subscribed and struggled to read the daily word pamphlets for comfort to herself and discussion with husband William of 65 years (who daily watched  with her their favorite television soap operas like "Search For Tomorrow.") They had together generated in love nine (9) children, all of which graduated from high school and seven (7) obtained college degrees in the pursuit of goodness. 

She never avoided challenges in her faith and actively used her abilities to foster support for the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society in its overseas ministries.  She even sponsored a young African student from Ghana to live in her home and petitioned North Carolina A&T University to provide him with scholarship undergraduate opportunities and sponsorship to McDill University in Canada where he received his degree as a doctor of veterinary medicine.

Betty Jane Hill Atkins. born 1934                         William Thomas Hill Atkins, born 1936

Robert Martin Hill Atkins, born 1938                    Julia Morris Hill Atkins, born 1939

George Edgar Hill Atkins, born 1941                    Ann Louise Hill Atkins, born 1943

Mary Catharine Hill Atkins, born 1945                 Lois Jean Hill Atkins, born 1947

Brenda Lee Hill Atkins, born 1948

According to her youngest daughter and companion Brenda Lee Atkins Lockley, she was suffering from glaucoma that had made her legally blind during her last great read in life to digest the book "Roots" by Alex Haley.  Brenda said she loved it, and daily discussed chapter by chapter demonstrating a scholarly memory God had left intact in a devoted servant!  Cora departed this life for her dearly beloved home in the mystery of Christ, ... three weeks after burial of husband William.  Indeed, death could not claim victory over them!  Slaves and freemen built and operated the First African Church (See Below) in Richmond, Virginia some 40 years before the Civil War that would set them all free.  They were not by law allowed to refer to themselves as Americans, ... ie they could refer to themselves as "negroes, colored, mulatto, n..... or Africans if born there."

As a club woman, Cora Lee Atkins was adamant to other members that "If we believe HE is the Christ, then the very act of giving birth and love to children as gifts of love by God is an act of affirmation. HIS kingdom on earth is one of generating life, not death; and, the congregating of mothers (like Mary and Martha) in the cause of raising children to know and love one another was fundamental Christianity 101."  

Cora Atkins and many others in her generation were the beneficiaries of a growing number of ministers educated in the gospels, not the so-called bible studies that cite anything written and approved by King James as the "Word of God."   She was well aware that King James I and the men at Cambridge who published the King James version of the bible in 1611, ... were also the same greedy hypocrites who sanctioned the murderous slave trade in 1619 between Africa and Jamestown.  In her reasoning, if these men were inspired by God, then so was the slave trade; and to believe one was to believe God as unjust. 

She believed in the God that Jesus prayed to, seldom the same that most preachers claimed to know.  Colleges like Fisk, Hampton, Howard, Lincoln, Union, etc. encouraged by White Presbyterians from New England and other sources of salvation, ... were busy educating ministers for hands-on functional evangelization and mission work.  She often made reference to Booker T. Washington's close observance of preachers uneducated in the philosophy or teachings of Jesus. The kind unable to emulate and support Dr. King!  

Cora Atkins cited this fallacy as a reason that most Black preachers in America, including those in the National Baptist Convention, ... feared and avoided involvement and support for Dr. Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.    Cora Lee Hill Atkins was tactfully silent among fellow women about inherent African traditions of spending more money and time on funerals for the dead than enlightenment and education for youth.   For Cora, the question is how does a culture reshape priorities? She was educated enough in African history to understand that funerals and life-after-death, ... are beliefs more deeply seated in African heritage cultures than anywhere else. 

In fact, among many souls of Africa, here and over there, the souls of loved ancestors are constantly with them.  Funerals are the most intimate relationship that many folks ever have, ... even though many may profess to "walk with the Lord."   And, long before the onslaught of Black boys annually killing thousands of Black boys each year, ... she reasoned the problem to be rooted in wide-spread absences of neighborhood based civic clubs and general failures to congregate young mothers to shape the attitudes and behaviors of children. 

She speculated that what is not known, ... Does a bond between mother and child ever cease even when one life ends?  Does the spirit of Christ cement such a bond?  But, Cora was the kind of brainy woman and mother that only uttered such thoughts to minds enlightened and educated enough to ponder such thoughts about the unknown.  For Cora and thousands of other enlightened and educated African-American women, ... churches are partners, not substitutes for women's civic clubs such as urged by Mary McLeod Bethune and Mary Church Terrell.  She was very critical of church cults and pretentious pastors that were not about the business of integrating Black youth into a wider and more fruitful society. 

If the 200,000 Colored Women's Clubs (like the one Rosa Parks belonged to) that existed among Black women across America had been under the thumbs of preachers, ... Dr. King would not have received their critical dollars and march support. She thought it very irritating that Whites insisted on referring to Dr. King as a Civil Rights Leader emulating Mahatma Ghandi,

... rather than as a Morehouse University educated and enlightened Minister of the Good News in the best traditions of Messianic Christianity dating back to Richard Allen through Frederick Douglass, Alexander Crummell, George Washington Williams, Benjamin Mayes, Vernon Johns, Adam Clayton Powell, Kwame N'Krumah and a long line of other believers in Christ that he openly admired and sought to emulate.

Cora once exclaimed, "so many White folks are so completely ignorant about so many Black folks they never heard of, and if Negro writers don't write about us, ... then how can we expect them or us to know."

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