In 2022, William & Mary dedicated Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved, a brick structure located on campus to honor the people whom the university enslaved over the course of 172 years.
As the university’s chief facilities officer, Sam Hayes proudly worked with university employees to construct the permanent marker that is meant to symbolize both a place of community and the center of domestic enslavement.
Throughout that process, Hayes said he envisioned his enslaved ancestors like these who were “part of the fabric” of the university.
Working on the memorial and managing facilities at the second oldest institution of higher learning in the United States has allowed him to “embrace the totality of history for me,” Hayes said. “Me being in charge of all this is something my ancestors could have never dreamed of.”
Hayes has passionately tracked his genealogy for almost 47 years, tracing his roots back several generations to his enslaved ancestors. During his extensive research, Hayes has found he is related to many of the country’s Founding Fathers from Virginia.
Throughout his quest to uncover his family ties, Hayes has learned about the many generations of multi-cultural ancestors who have shaped his identity as a Black man growing up in the South.
“This is the story of America,” said Hayes, who was born and raised in Roanoke, Virginia. “During past visits to Colonial Williamsburg, I thought about a bunch of white people riding down the street on a horse, not knowing that 55% of the folks that lived in Williamsburg were Black people, enslaved and free, and the fabric – I like that word fabric – is all tied together.”
Hayes’ passion for genealogy was stoked back in 1977 after watching the critically acclaimed television miniseries “Roots,” based on author Alex Haley’s novel chronicling a family line from enslavement to liberation.
“When that miniseries aired, I thought, ‘Well if (Haley) has a story, then we have a story,’” said Hayes, who has done multiple talks at Swem Library about his work searching for his ancestors.
Hayes became devoted to filling in the gaps of his family tree through research, and that long and sometimes complicated search eventually led him to DNA services such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe that uncovered details that he never could have imagined when he started.
“DNA was a gold mine,” Hayes said.
‘I stand on my faith’
Hayes decided long ago that the best way to come to grips with the painful impact slavery had on his family was to learn everything possible about his ancestors and make sure the stories lived on through his offspring.
“I used to say ‘I stand on my ancestors’ shoulders,’ but I changed my expression to ‘I stand on my faith,’ because if they didn’t have the faith to look for better days, they would have never come out of this,” Hayes said.
When Hayes started his family search nearly five decades ago, he had only incomplete census records at the local library to answer his questions. He made many visits to the Library of Virginia in Richmond and ordered records online through the local library in Roanoke.
With only shoddy records to go by, Hayes hoped to fill in gaps in his family’s history by speaking to his living relatives. Unfortunately, that wasn’t much help either.
“Actually, I knew more than they knew,” Hayes said.
When Hayes asked his maternal grandmother about their family history, she said, “Stay out of the grave.” His grandfather, Samuel Hayes Sr., said, “You don’t want to know those people.”
But he was eager to know, and he kept searching. He picked up clues from family members, like when Hayes Sr. told him he quit school in the fourth grade because “I got tired of starving.”
Hayes Sr. left school and eventually found work at the local railroad. In short time, he was promoted to a position in the shops and eventually undertook special projects for the railroad’s president.
Despite leaving school altogether, the ambition and thirst for knowledge Hayes’ grandfather displayed has been evident in the family line through their educational pursuits. Hayes earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Old Dominion and his master’s degree in public administration and public policy from Virginia Tech.
One of his daughters, Alexandra Hayes ’11, is a William & Mary alumna and went on to earn her doctorate in physical therapy. His other daughter, Kimberly, earned her master’s from Georgetown and works at an advertising firm in London.
Hayes marvels at the educational progress of the family line.
“Only in America can you do this,” Hayes said.
Genealogy research at William & Mary
Like Hayes, there are others in the William & Mary community conducting research on their own family histories, as well as those doing deep dives into the histories of persons with ties to the university.
For example, The Lemon Project Genealogy Research Initiative at William & Mary provides resources and workshops to African Americans exploring their family histories, including students, faculty and staff, alumni and members of communities in the surrounding area.
The research initiative started hosting monthly roundtables in January 2023 of genealogists and family historians of all levels of expertise that have drawn more than 50 participants each month, and it also hosts the Summer Sankofa Genealogy Research Series, an open forum that has attracted hundreds of registrants in recent years.
The next workshop is scheduled for Dec. 14. Sessions in the past have focused on finding and tracing family land, researching free people of color in North Carolina and Virginia from 1800 to 1856 and the use of African American newspapers in genealogical research.
Moreover, a Lemon’s Legacies Porch Talk will be held Feb. 6 with author Char McCargo Bah, who will discuss finding descendants of an African American Civil War Cemetery.
A Lemon Project Genealogy Certificate program is under development for “constituents who value family, their family’s past, the preservation of community and family histories and history in general,” said Jajuan Johnson, a Mellon Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow with The Lemon Project.
“Members of the descendant communities requested this service for years, and it has proven to be the Lemon Project’s largest outreach program resulting in people making connections with friends and relatives around the United States.”
Many questions remain
Through his research, Hayes has discovered much about his ancestors, but still many questions remain. For example, he does not know the identity of one of his great grandfathers, a white man he can trace all the way to the house in which he lived.
That’s only one of his big pursuits, however.
“I want to be able to know more about the Black people that make up my DNA that I know very little about,” Hayes said.
In 2013, Hayes and his wife Geri signed up for 23andMe to explore even deeper into their family’s history. Many of the ancestors Hayes was linked to are white, including a cousin who lives in New Jersey. He met her for lunch one day and has stayed in touch.
He has met other cousins as well, including one who received a heart transplant in Richmond in 2020. Hayes, who lives in Richmond, was in the waiting room at the hospital praying with family members prior to the surgery being performed.
Hayes says some of his white ancestors haven’t been thrilled to be linked to him on DNA websites, but he has encountered many who are just as eager to connect as he is.
“The younger they are, the more open they are,” he said. “That’s just the way it is. I’ve got some really cool, older white people that I’ve connected with who are just like, ‘Hey cousin,’ so it’s a mixed bag. I think now, because so many people have done it, that people are a lot more open than they were when I started using DNA sites 10 years ago.”
Hayes has learned his roots can be traced back to many of the signers of the Declaration of Independence from Virginia.
Hayes also discovered he shares a 10th great grandfather, Richard Cocke, with former U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Hayes has made a wide breadth of familial connections to the likes of Robert E. Lee, Frank and Jesse James and another former U.S. President Barack Obama.
Hayes has been able to trace his mother’s family line back to when they arrived in the United States from Gravesend, Kent, England, in 1723. Other family ties track back to the founding of Jamestown in 1607.
“My roots,” Hayes says, “go all the way back to the beginning of America.”
Through his bloodline, Hayes said he could qualify to be a member of the Sons of the American Revolution, Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Jamestowne Society, organizations not traditionally associated with Black men.
“If you saw me walking down the street, that’s not what you would be thinking about. You’d just see a Black guy,” Hayes said. “So I ask people, ‘When you see a Black person, what do you see? Do you see someone who could be your cousin or do you just see people only for their ethnicity?’”
Nathan Warters, Communications Specialist