An encounter with a forgotten woman

It turned out we had an important piece of history sitting on our back porch.

Nobody expected a hunk of marble unearthed on a riverbank by three boys to lead to a maverick woman whose lineage dates to the man historians refer to as "the first president of the United States," before George Washington.

On Super Bowl Sunday, our son Ian and his friends, Brandon Snow and Glenn McCall (all age 10), decided they'd rather skip rocks on the Elizabeth River than watch the game. That's how they found a jagged slab of marble in several pieces with the following inscription: Julia Lee McKenney. Born Aug. 25, 1839. Died Jul. 9, 1889. When fit together it took the shape of a lyre. Gold leaf still clung to the strings in some places.

Naturally, we were all curious how this postcard from the past had ended up on the riverbank. The shorelines around Norfolk, a historic shipping and naval port dating back to Revolutionary War days, are rich in unmined treasure. Seeing Ian's eyes glittering with triumph over the find, I saw the perfect moment to turn a reluctant student into a history adventurer.

Immediately in our quest to track down Julia's story, however, we were confronted with the challenge that causes women's historians to sigh with frustration: Most 19th-century women are referred to as "wife of" in historical documents, stopping the hunt for ancestry in its tracks. Because Julia Lee McKenney had never been a "wife of," our odyssey led us through libraries, cemeteries, churches, government documents, and even old Civil War letters found on eBay.

We enlisted Robert Hitchings, curator of the Kirn Memorial Library's Sergeant Memorial Room; Norfolk city historian Peggy McPhillips; amateur genealogist Tim Bonney; and Freemason Street Baptist Church historian Jane Hosay. We even bookmarked online.

After a month of searching, Julia's story began to unfold: The stone was a memorial commissioned by the original Kings Daughters Circle of Virginia, originally formed to buy milk for impoverished children. It was later presented to the Freemason St. Baptist Church where Julia had thumped out hymns on the organ for 15 years.

She was the daughter of a state senator, who was also a dentist, William N. McKenney of Baltimore and his wife, Mary Stone. Julia was the second-oldest of five siblings, two girls and then three boys.

Her father was a Civil War captain in the 6th Virginia Infantry (the dentist's troops were appropriately known as "McKenney's Eyeteeth"). While the men were off at war, the McKenney women were left to fend for themselves and their youngest brother in an occupied city. By 1870, the streets of Norfolk were littered with homeless, nearly all women.

The hard economic times might explain why Julia converted from Episcopalian to Baptist at the age of 32, most likely in order to secure the job as organist for the church and Sunday School.

According to a history of the church written by William Lumpkin, one year into the job she prepared to resign because she could no longer afford to "bear the expense of someone to blow the bellows when practicing." She turned down an offer of $150 a year but acquiesced when offered $300, the same amount paid to a male organist, we discovered, in a neighboring church.

What gave her such confidence and backbone? Maybe it was knowing she came from the bedrock of American history.

Julia's grandfather was Navy Chaplain William McKenney, known for his dubious role as head of the Baltimore Colonization Society, which founded Liberia. Her grandmother was Chloe Ann Lingan McKenney, the grandniece of John Hanson, the president of the Continental Congress, signer of the Articles of Confederation, and often distinguished as the first president of the United States.

Hearing this, Ian said in awe, "Mom, we have a piece of important US history in a Rubbermaid container on our back steps."

We even solved the mystery of how the stone ended up in the Elizabeth River. The Freemason St. Baptist Church still exists. Last year the church began renovations, and a junkman hauled away the unidentified stone. But then it was stolen from his truck. Next stop was the riprap along the riverbank.

Newspapers of the time covered "Miss Julia's" funeral at Freemason St. Baptist Church, saying she was "universally adored for her head and her heart." The full choir sang, and three pastors gave remarks in a packed church heavily scented by dramatic floral arrangements. The organ and choir loft were draped in black.

The City of Norfolk has welcomed this long-lost citizen back into a place of honor. The stone and an account of Julia's life is now on display at the Seldon Arcade downtown. On July 9 (a Sunday), the church plans to re-create Julia's 1889 memorial service. The organ will play, and the choir will sing the same hymns.

While finding Miss Julia was a good hands-on history lesson for the boys, for me she holds yet another message: Sometimes we must bear going unnoticed and hitting rock bottom before we are found and well-loved once again.

Lisa Suhay is a children's book author and writer for Old Dominion University publications.

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