Humphrey Barclay (left) and Keith Stokes at the site of the former slave quarters in Unity Valley Pen, St Ann. Photo: Contributed

‘Legacies of Freedom’ Scholarly research produces historic, emotional meeting of two descendants

OCTOBER HOLDS A special place in the hearts of Keith Stokes and Humphrey Barclay.

For both men, October represents family, freedom, emancipation and so much more.

In June, the Institute for Gender and Development Studies (IGDS) – Regional Coordinating Unit, hosted a special seminar at The UWI Regional Headquarters’ Council Room to share details on the life of October, an enslaved African-Jamaican boy, and his connection with Jamaica and Atlantic World countries.

Keith Stokes is a descendant of Little October, while Humphrey Barclay is a descendant of Quaker David Barclay, the slaver owner who freed Little October along with 29 other enslaved people. Little October later took the Name Robert Barclay.

The special seminar, dubbed “Legacies of Freedom: A Family Journey through the Atlantic World”, was moderated by Professor Verene Shepherd, University Director, IGDS. It featured scholarly research and documentation reconnecting the former Unity Pen of 18th Century Jamaica with other countries and historic communities through the experiences of the descendants of Little October.

Shepherd had researched the story of Little October while attending the University of Cambridge. In 2008 she published his story in the Gleaner. She received an email replying to the story seven years later. The professor of social history recalled being stunned but delighted when Stokes contacted her saying he was the maternal great, great great, grandson of Little October and that he had a collection of primary and secondary source materials on the life of his ancestors. Stokes, she said, also expressed an interest in learning more about Unity Valley Pen and the African origins of October.

In 2015, after the article was also published in the UK Guardian newspaper, Shepherd was again contacted, this time by Barclay. Barclay revealed that David Barclay was his great, great, great great, grandfather’s uncle and a grandson of Robert Barclay, the Quaker apologist and one of the first directors of Barclays Bank. Barclay told Shepherd that he had one of the pamphlets that David Barclay wrote describing the liberation of the people on the plantation. He also expressed an interest in communicating with Stokes.

The rest is history.

The UWI, Mona’s special seminar held on June 23, 2016 marked the official reunification of both descendants. Shepherd, who was responsible for this historic meeting, recalled that Little October was among 30 slaves freed by their master, David Barclay of Unity Valley Pen in St Ann. Her story had ended with 28 of these emancipated individuals being transported to Philadelphia, USA, where they worked as either indentured servants or apprentices. Addressing the guests, Shepherd said: “I always wondered what became of them. Now I know what happened to at least one of them.”

Before revealing what became of Little October in his adult life, Shepherd asked Barclay to further elaborate on the journey of these emancipated individuals.

Barclay, who is a UK situation comedies television producer and head of an ancient Scottish family, gave David Barclay’s account. He said David Barclay was a wealthy business owner in London, and had acquired Unity Valley Pen in 1784 as a result of a business debt. The property came with 30 slaves, but David Barclay was a devout Quaker who found owning another human to be “profoundly distasteful”. He quickly proceeded to free these slaves, and “went one step further, at his own expense, to remove the group from Jamaica, where he was told life as freed people was too difficult,” Barclay told the gathering. He said his ancestor sent the newly emancipated individuals to Philadelphia, USA, where they would be “housed, educated, apprenticed and supported and as soon as possible, sent out into the world as equal opportunity citizens” by the Philadelphia Society for the Improvement of the Condition of Free Blacks.

Verene Shepherd

Shepherd … I always wondered what became of them

For his part, Stokes, vice-president for the 1696 Heritage Group and recipient of several awards, including the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society’s Fredrick Williamson Award, told the audience what became of Little October.
He said his ancestor was eight years old when he was emancipated and transported to Philadelphia under the name Robert Barclay. He was indentured to chair maker, John Chapman, where he was clothed, taught to read and write and given his freedom dues. By 1830, Robert Barclay (Little October) was listed as a cabinet-maker and cord winder and by 1860, censuses listed him as a painter. He married Eliza Ann Barclay and had four children, the oldest of whom was George T Barclay. Robert Barclay (Little October) died on August 12, 1861. George married Frances Thorn Morris and had eight children, one of whom was Charles Henry Barclay. His son, George Nicholas Barclay, married in 1903 and had 11 children. Ruth Barclay, one of his daughters, married Archie William Stokes in 1941 and they had three children, one being Keith Stokes.

Throughout their history, several of Stokes’ ancestors have had great accomplishments: George T Barclay established the Black Masonic Lodge, Doric Lodge #4 in 1872; Charles Henry Barclay became a First Lieutenant during World War I, serving in the 372nd Regiment, French Red Hand Division at the Battle of Argonne Forrest; Alfred Barclay (son of George Nicholas Barclay), served in the Army during World War II, along with three of his brothers – he died as a Tuskegee airman. Keith Stokes today is one of Rhode Island’s most prominent citizens: he is a frequent national, state and local lecturer in community and regional planning, historic preservation and interpretation with an expertise in early African and Jewish American history; a former executive of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce; a national adviser representing Rhode Island with the National Trust for Historical Preservation; a former executive director of the Rhode Island Economic Trust for Historical Preservation and a member of the Newport City Council.

Keith Stokes and Humphrey Barclay came together for the first time not only to share the story of their ancestors, but also to walk the historic grounds of Unity Valley Pen in St Ann, where a family journey from slavery to freedom began.