James McKissic holds a photograph of his great-grandparents, Pink, right, and Onie Wilson. Pink was Wilson Wood's youngest son.

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Shaking the family tree: New-found relatives gather after slave genealogy project helps them find their roots

Chattanooga resident James McKissic is about to meet 100 or so relatives he didn't know he had.

It's all thanks to two national media outlets that gave his family tree a vigorous shake leading up to the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture last year in Washington, D.C.

In separate searches, National Public Radio and The Washington Post researched stories about McKissic's ancestry. Then Minnesota National Public Radio featured McKissic in a podcast he has been told was one of the most aired in the country in 2016. The name of the series is "Historically Black." McKissic's episode is titled, "A Slave Bill of Sale."

The combined research connected more than 100 relatives, dozens from across the country and previously unknown to each other. The group meets for the first time in Meigs County, Tenn., on Saturday.

The majority of McKissic's new-found relatives are coming from St. Louis, Mo., but others will arrive from Detroit, Knoxville, Oak Ridge and as far away as Hawaii.

"It's going to be a long day," says McKissic, 45, director of Chattanooga's Office of Multicultural Affairs. "We have about 120 to 150 descendants of my great-great-grandfather [Wilson Wood] and his wife, Sarah Taliaferro [Wood], who are coming to this area to see where they came from."

Among the relatives from Chattanooga attending is Georgia Vaughn, a 65-year-old information technology supervisor with Atos-Anthelio, a digital health services provider that supports Erlanger.

"Our family should be grateful because most blacks will never know who their slave ancestor was because they don't call us by name. If you ever looked at ancestry, it's either Black Male [age] 24 or One Negro Male 15, but [this time] they actually called us by name," says Vaughn about her ancestor. "So for us to find out who he was and who his slave owner was is actually very rare."

Vaughn's daughter went to college with McKissic in the early 1990s, but Vaughn and McKissic didn't know they were third cousins until last year.

Both Wilson Wood and Sarah Taliaferro Wood were slaves. McKissic has a copy of a bill of sale from Sept. 22, 1862, when Wilson Wood was sold to Samuel O. Wood, the brother of his previous owner. McKissic says Wilson Wood's father, who was white, was his previous owner. So Wilson Wood, the slave, was sold to his uncle by his father, William Wilson Wood, explains McKissic.

Wilson Wood's mother was a black slave named Mary.

Being able to trace a family history back through slavery for most blacks is difficult because courts didn't always identify slaves by name, says McKissic.

Their family research started when McKissic, whose full name is James Hardwick Wood McKissic, uploaded a copy of a bill of sale for Wilson Wood in response to an NPR request for African-American artifacts.

NPR contacted him a few days later and asked if he had any more information about the bill of sale. When he said all he knew was that it was a document that his cousin had given to his mother, NPR representatives researched the document themselves to find the original bill of sale at the Meigs County Courthouse in Decatur.

NPR's genealogy research follows the line of McKissic's mother, Margenia Wood McKissic.

During that same year, Vaughn submitted a DNA sample to to research her family. It revealed that Wilson Wood's oldest son, Moses, was her fourth great-grandfather.

McKissic grew up in Cleveland but often visited Meigs County for family funerals. The family cemetery in Meigs County is called the Clint Hill Wood Cemetery.

He remembers seeing Grandpa Wood's headstone, but he didn't know that there was a bill of sale for a Wilson Wood in the courthouse or that Wilson's father was a slave owner.

Nor did he know his great-great-grandfather Wood owned so much land. Some researchers believe he was a trained blacksmith because blacksmithing was a profession in the family for the next two generations, says McKissic.

When family members arrive in Meigs County on Saturday, they're going to the courthouse first. It's normally open half days on Saturdays, and courthouse officials will open a courtroom for the family. Then they'll tour other sites of significance.

"There was always the cemetery, always the farm," says McKissic. "I knew where my roots went back to, but I never had the story or the narrative that went along with it."

The research by NPR and The Washington Post supplied that narrative, he says.

He now knows that his great-great-uncle, Samuel O. Wood, Wilson Wood's second owner, was a Confederate soldier.

Wilson Wood, McKissic's great-great-grandfather, gained his freedom after the Civil War. He owned more than 100 acres of land and a farm worth more than $2,000 in 1868, just three years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery.

Contact Yolanda Putman at or 423-757-6431.