Conyers resident Jimi Hicks Bowen Forward, center, discusses slave and Civil War soldier Charles Hicks, with his great-granddaughters, from left, Harriet Walcott and Patricia Wooten. Charles Hicks grew up as a slave on a plantation owned by Forward’s great great-grandparents. (Special Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith)
Charles Hicks worked as a slave on the plantation of Hester Keefer Hicks, a widow who owned about 700 acres in the Oak Hill area in Newton County. In his early 20s, towards the end of the Civil War, Hicks left his home in Newton County and joined the Union Army, serving for nine months in the 138th regiment, an all-black infantry unit.
Over a century later, his great-granddaughters made a pilgrimage to Conyers to find out more about him. They met with Jimi Hicks Bowen Forward and her family, descendants of the family who owned Charles Hicks, to talk about family history and to see the land where their great-grandfather grew up and worked.
Patricia Wooten, who lives in North Carolina, along with her husband Chester Wooten, and her sister, New Jersey resident Harriet Walcott, traveled to Rockdale County last weekend and visited Forward’s home, where several local Hicks relatives gathered to meet the women.
“It was just very emotional. It’s just so much,” Wooten said in a phone interview from her home in North Carolina. “We chatted. We talked about different things, not necessarily Charles Hicks.”
During their time together, the families perused historical photos and documents, discussed Charles Hicks and his friendship with Tommy Hicks, son of Hester and Harmon Hicks, and shared information about their current lives, including careers. They also visited the Hicks family cemetery in Oak Hill.
Wooten said she had made contact with Forward a year ago by phone and tried to set up a visit last year, but family health problems prevented travel.
Wooten’s quest to learn more about her great-grandfather began as a young child. She said as a girl growing up in New York City, her grandmother lived with her and always talked about how her father, Charles Hicks, had served in the Civil War.
“That stuck with me,” she said.
When Wooten, an educator in the New York City Public School System for 32 years, retired in 2001, she started researching the ancestry of her family on websites. She saw that Charles Hicks’ name appeared as the husband of Mary Ann Hicks, who had applied for his pension benefits after his death.
Wooten pursued information on both of her great-grandparents, who resided in Athens after the Civil War. The couple had five children, owned property, and devoted themselves to the success of Pierce’s Chapel, an historic African Methodist Episcopal Church in Athens.
Since the 1980s, Wooten regularly visited Athens with her mother who had friends there. After Wooten’s mother died in 2001, Wooten decided that in addition to her web research, she would continue to visit Athens to interview people and research records to learn more about her family.
When visiting the African American Civil War Museum in 2007, she saw her great-grandfather listed as having served in the 138th infantry.
“I saw Charles Hicks’ name and it was a wonderful feeling,” said Wooten, who obtained a certificate of honor from the museum in her great-grandfather’s name.
Her search led her to the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery where Charles Hicks is buried and eventually to Al Hester, a former University of Georgia journalism professor who had published a book about the history of the cemetery.
As a result, Hester made contact with a representative connected with National Archives to confirm Hicks’ Civil War service. That’s when Charles Hicks’ deposition came to light. In the deposition, he had given an account of his life in order to obtain a pension for having served in the Civil War, an effort he made in 1911, about 40 years after his service.
The deposition revealed Charles’ history of slavery in Oak Hill, chronicled his path into the Civil War and described his life in Athens.
Hester encouraged Wooten and her family to visit with the Hicks family in Rockdale County to obtain more information so they could apply for a grave marker indicating Charles Hicks’ Civil War service.
Wooten is currently in the process of preparing a short biography of Charles Hicks for this application.
Despite being illiterate, Charles Hicks held jobs as a laborer, butler and cook at a hotel. His wife worked as a laundress, and their children were educated and pursued careers such as a teacher and insurance agent. The couple also purchased a city lot at a time when it was rare for blacks to own property in the South.
Hicks died in 1916.
“He was a humble person, from what I can gather, humble and a diligent worker and a family man and made sure his family was taken care of,” Wooten said.
Wooten said that although she didn’t glean much new information about her great-grandfather by meeting with the Hicks familhy, she did form lasting relationships.
“One of Jimi’s main concerns is, ‘I hope Charles wasn’t treated badly. How do you feel about all this?’ I said, ‘Jimi, that was then, that was the way the world was then. It is now the 21st century.’ I didn’t hold any anomosity. That was the way that it was … We studied history and we know how it all came about,” Wooten said.
She said the family meeting was “a good day,” and Forward agreed.
Forward said she appreciates the warm relationship that has developed between herself and Wooten. After a recent phone call, Forward said Wooten told her she loved her.
“She said, ‘I love you, Jimi.’ I feel like the feeling is mutual. I feel like I love her too,” Forward said.