Staff Photo by Mark Kennedy/ Michael Wilkerson has spent years researching his family’s rich Rhea County history.

CLARIFICATION: This story was updated at 12:52 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, to clarify a quote from Wilkerson to state that the fiddle and banjo originated in Africa.

Michael Wilkerson, a 69-year-old Dayton, Tennessee, salesman, feels the full scope of his family's history.

Wilkerson, who operates a seafood and barbecue business, sees progress in the story of his East Tennessee kinfolk. He's part of a large family that traces its Rhea County roots to the marriage of a former slave and and an American Indian woman in the 19th century.

Wilkerson's home in Dayton is on Richland Street, where members of his extended family have resided for generations, he said. Their roots and traditions are deep. His forebears include a saloon owner and a Tuskegee Institute educator, he said.

Wilkerson himself is a child of the civil rights era. He was among the first blacks to attend Rhea County High School when the school was racially integrated in the 1960s, he said.

Years ago, Wilkerson said, he secured the manuscript of an unfinished book about his family from the estate of a deceased relative. He said it sharpened his interest in genealogy.

Reaching back almost two centuries, Wilkerson traces his family's Tennessee roots to Sam McDonald, who a Rhea County history book notes was brought to the territory as a 12-year-old slave in the 1820s and used as a dowry.

Sam McDonald, records show, was given his freedom and worked as a horse trainer for a prominent family. He was also known to be an accomplished fiddler who played Scots-Irish style music. The former slave, who came to be known as Sam "Paw" McDonald, and his Cherokee wife, Leatha Malone, raised 19 children.

Wilkerson looks at old photos of Sam McDonald in wonder. In one, McDonald is wearing mismatched shoes and holding a fiddle, which he played left-handed.

"A lot of people don't know that the fiddle and banjo originated in Africa," Wilkerson said.

When Wilkerson's daughter, Megan Michaela Wilkerson, earned a doctorate in 2018 from Penn State University, he was understandably proud. Dr. Wilkerson has spent time in Africa working alongside farmers and government agencies to help increase food production, according to her online biography. She now has a government job in Washington, D.C.

There was something about the narrative sweep of his family — "from slavery to Ph.D." Michael Wilkerson observed — that seems deeply noteworthy.

"Going from slavery to Ph.D means that you have to keep striving," he said. "Nothing is impossible."

Over time, Wilkerson has scoured family documents, county historical records and legacy photo collections to stitch together his family's history.

"I did a lot of scraping," he explained. "I went all over the place. Looked in a lot of shoe boxes."

He has put together a photographic montage of his family, tracing his lineage across parts of three centuries. The local historical society has agreed to display the photographic timeline in a public space, he said.

At the bottom is a photograph of his daughter, Dr. Wilkerson. At the top is a picture of former slave Sam McDonald.

The contrast is inspiring.

It recalls the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who famously said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Michael Wilkerson has a grandson, Edward, the child of his daughter Lovely Wilkerson Mike, of Savannah, Georgia, who is learning to play the violin.

The irony is not lost on the grandfather.

One day there might be photographs of two violin players on his family history montage, spaced 200 years apart.

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Mark Kennedy / Staff file photo

Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645.