When Virginia genealogist Joseph Dooley visited Pike County during the weekend, he brought along a print of the famous painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” by Emanuel Leutze.
The print was placed on an easel that stood near a podium situated beside two ancient graves located on a tract of hunting land on the outskirts of Zebulon.
The image of Washington standing in a crowded rowboat and staring ahead resolutely is an icon of American history. The actual painting hangs in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Still, the picture looked about 800 miles and 233 years out of place in Georgia. The only thing it seemed to have in common with its surroundings was climate — had that Delaware River ice been real, it would have lasted a long time in the frigid Georgia air.
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Dooley, who serves as Genealogist General of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, explained the purpose of the picture to the 200 or so people gathered before him.
“Look at the man sitting right in front of George Washington,” Dooley said. “He’s black.”
The point Dooley was making was that the contributions of black Americans to the Revolutionary War are often overlooked.
It was this point that had brought so many people together on such a remote spot on such a cold Saturday morning.
One of the graves behind Dooley belonged to Austin Dabney, a former slave who served in the Georgia militia during the Revolutionary War. The other belonged to William Harris, a younger man befriended by Dabney. The two graves, marked by rough mounds of rocks, have been maintained by Harris’ family and their descendants since the 1830s.
Saturday’s dedication ceremony celebrated the unveiling of a new set of tombstones for the graves and the opening of the site to the public. It was attended by local dignitaries, interested citizens and members of several Georgia chapters of the Sons of the American Revolution. The event included a military brass quintet, a musket salute, a solemn presentation of about two dozen wreaths and many men dressed in Revolutionary War garb, complete with knee-breeches and three-cornered hats.
“To our knowledge, it’s the first time that a black patriot’s grave has been marked in Georgia,” said Bob Galer, an SAR member from Columbus and one of the organizers of the dedication ceremony.
Galer said the SAR had known about Dabney’s grave for a while, but had been unable to honor him with a commemorative marker because it was on private property. Recently the family that owns the land — 116 acres that has been leased for hunting in recent decades — approached the SAR and arranged to provide new monuments and make the site available to the public. The Pike County government built a 3/4-mile gravel road to the grave site from a paved neighborhood street.
“The Sons of the American Revolution locates and marks graves of patriots in Georgia to preserve them for the future as part of our program to perpetuate colonial and revolutionary history,” Galer said. He added that Saturday’s ceremony “means that patriots come in all colors. There weren’t just white patriots that won our independence and liberty and freedom. It was black patriots, too. Without them, we might not have been able to win the war.”
A hero’s gratitude
According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia Web site, Dabney was born about 1765 in Wake County, N.C. He was the slave of a man named Richard Aycock, who brought Dabney with him when he moved to Wilkes County, Ga., in the late 1770s. When Aycock was called to join the Georgia militia in the fight against the Tories, he sent Dabney as his substitute. In February 1779, Dabney fought in the Battle of Kettle Creek in Wilkes County, where he was shot through the thigh. His white comrade, Giles Harris, took Dabney to his home, where he was nursed back to health. From that point Dabney stuck with the Harris family out of gratitude.
In 1786, the state of Georgia gave Dabney 50 acres in recognition of his military service. The Georgia legislature also paid to emancipate Dabney from his owner. Beginning in 1789, Dabney received a federal pension for his war wound. In 1821, the Georgia legislature granted Dabney 112 acres in Walton County, a move that was controversial at the time because of Dabney’s race.
Dabney provided money to educate Giles Harris’ son, William, who became a lawyer. Dabney followed the Harris family to Walton County, Burke County and finally Pike County, where he died in 1830. Dabney left all his land and property to William Harris and was buried in the Harris family plot.
In 1835, William Harris had a son, whom he named Austin Dabney Harris in honor of his deceased friend. William Harris died in 1838 and was buried next to Dabney.
Although many of the people who attended Saturday’s ceremony had ties to the SAR, the property owners or local government, some came just out of curiosity.
Griffin resident Paul Booker, whose family is from Pike County, came to the ceremony with his father after hearing the event publicized.
“This is big history for us, especially in the black community,” said Booker, who works as a commercial real estate analyst for a bank. “I never knew, never read about it in any history books. ... Now I need to go back and do my own research and try to figure out how long black Americans actually fought in the American Revolutionary War. It’s going to be a big step for me in figuring out a part of history that we never knew about.”
Asked what impressed him the most about Dabney, Booker said “he was just a good-hearted person. That sums it up.”
To find the Dabney grave site from the Pike County courthouse in Zebulon, go about 3/4 of a mile west on Ga. 18. Turn left on Pope Street and go about 1/2 mile to the end. Look for a gravel path on the west side of the street.