By J. L. Starkey
If you’re gonna make a difference– Carl Jackson, Larry Cordle, Bruce Bouton
If you’re gonna leave your mark
You can’t follow like a bunch of sheep
You got to listen to your heart
“He ate what??” I asked my mom in disbelief.
“Oh sure…my grandma’s father ate saltines in buttermilk. The kids thought it was gross,” mom said.
Suddenly, I stopped talking. Now it all made sense. Of course he did that, probably because he didn’t know how to make cornbread. I would bet that no one in his family knew how to make good southern cornbread, so my great-great-grandfather settled for the (admittedly disgusting) alternative of saltine crackers in buttermilk. Maybe he ate that peculiar snack when he was thinking of his childhood in Virginia and remembering the good old days. Or maybe he ate it to remind himself of why he left Virginia in the first place .
I can relate to this man in his quest to blaze his own trail. It’s a lonely area, this black sheep territory. He probably felt like he was out of place for most of his life.
He was born into a family steeped in tradition, and his southern roots were “gone-with-the-wind-deep.” His family was supportive, loving, ethical, and well-respected in the Richmond area.
And yet…and yet…he left it all behind.
He left his traditions, he left his family, and he left his roots. He was the first in his family to relocate to “Yankee territory,” a move that probably horrified some while it delighted others.
Not all rebels were Confederate soldiers. In the post-reconstruction south, my great-great-grandfather, William Everett Baugh, may have been the biggest rebel of all.
Who was Willie Baugh?
Born in 1869 in the shadow of the fallen Confederate capital, William was the youngest child of Everett and Anne Baugh . He grew up during the turbulent reconstruction era and found his calling early in life. “Willie,” as he was sometimes called, inherited his forefathers’ talent for woodworking , and as an adult, would own a cabinet and upholstery shop with his uncle-in-law, George Payne O’Neill.
In an era where southern men followed family traditions, William seemed hell-bent on doing things his own way. By the time he was seventeen, he was working in the upholstery business and living on his own . By age eighteen, he had met his future wife, and within days of turning “almost” nineteen (if records are to be believed), he was a married man .
About that wedding…
William and Melcena were married on 4 July 1887 at First Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. . It was tempting for me to assume that the two teenagers had run off and eloped, perhaps to avoid a scandal of some sort. Those things happened, right?
After a search of news articles, I discarded my “secret elopement” theory pretty quickly. The marriage was announced immediately in D. C. and Richmond newspapers, with instructions for Chicago papers to copy the news. Sure, the families may have wanted to keep up appearances, but I didn’t believe that was the case. I decided to research the church and officiant in more detail to learn the rest of the story. Just who was this “Rev. B. Sunderland,” anyway?
It did not take long to find answers, and those answers led to two conclusions. First, this marriage was no secret. And second…William Baugh was one outspoken rebel.
Initially, I wondered why William married so far from home when his family had such strong connections to their local Methodist church. William’s father had a lengthy history of service to the church , and one of William’s nieces had even been named in honor of the church’s minister !
Despite his family’s history and traditions, William chose (yet again) to go his own way when he and Melcena married in that church in Washington, D.C.. But wait right there – you see, this was not just any church. No, this was the church known as “Old First” in the D.C. area. It was a church that counted presidents and senators among its members, and whose senior pastor was a close friend of President Grover Cleveland !
Reverend Byron Sunderland was, by all accounts, ahead of his time, and was not afraid to ruffle a few old south feathers. In 1853, he began his 45-year tenure as Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.. According to church records, Sunderland began preaching in favor of abolition in 1857, an action which was called courageous “…in a city that was essentially a conservative Southern town.” An advisor to President Lincoln, he would later serve as Chaplain of the Senate during the Civil War .
In 1866, Sunderland would make headlines when he allowed Frederick Douglass to speak at “Old First” church. Some Richmond and D. C. newspapers would respond unfavorably to this courageous action, with one heavily-editorialized account calling it a “desecration” to the church .
Sunderland did not let cruel words and prejudice dissuade him from his calling, and he continued to minister to the nation’s leaders. Just one year before William and Melcena’s wedding, he officiated at the marriage of president Grover Cleveland and Frances Folsom. The wedding was the headline-grabbing event of the summer, and news stories gushed about everything from the vows to the decorations to the attire worn by those in attendance .
A “quiet elopement” in a distant city for William and Melcena? Hardly.
With his history in D.C. and Virginia and his dedication to the cause of abolition, Byron Sunderland was a well-known minister. Additionally, his connections to politicians and the D.C. elite surely meant that he was a busy man. Arranging for him to officiate at a wedding on Independence Day – and in our nation’s capitol, no less – must have taken careful planning…along with a bit of cash, I assume.
Reverend Sunderland was respected in many circles, but he was reviled in others, especially in the former capitol of the Confederacy. Still, William and Melcena chose him to perform their wedding ceremony, and then someone (presumably William’s father) announced that fact in the Richmond papers. Was William sending a message to his friends, family, and the Richmond community?
I suspect that William’s choices had a deeper meaning, and that he was making a statement on who he was, and on who he wanted to be in the future. Shortly after the wedding, he and Melcena left Richmond for good.
By 1890, William and Melcena had settled in Chicago, where William remained for the rest of his life. I often wonder if he endured harsh comments when people learned of his southern roots. Was he stereotyped, based on the assumptions of others? Did people assume that he supported slavery, and that he was stuck in the ways of the old south?
How wrong they would have been, and how much they would have learned if they had known the rest of his story. I am so proud to call this courageous and rebellious southern gentleman my great-great-grandfather.
If William Baugh had a theme song, it would probably be “Against the Grain.” It’s a well-known song that was made famous by the husband of a distant Baugh cousin…but that’s a story for another time, isn’t it? For now, I will just have a look at William’s photo, and I will imagine him saying:
I have been accused of makin’ my own rules.
There must be rebel blood just a-runnin’ through my veins.
But I ain’t no hypocrite.
What you see is what you get.
And that’s the only way I know to play the game.
- Cornbread and buttermilk is a traditional southern treat! Find out more about it here: https://www.southernthing.com/why-cornbread-and-milk-is-the-ultimate-southern-treat-2593296467.html.
- “United States Census, 1870,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-6QVB-S2?cc=1438024&wc=92KW-T3L%3A518656301%2C519031901%2C519146401 : 22 May 2014), Virginia > Chesterfield > Revenue District 2, Manchester > image 15 of 38; citing NARA microfilm publication M593 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
- William’s grandfather, James S. Bass, was a carpenter, according to the 1850 census (1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch. Virginia> Lower, Chesterfield > Roll: M432_940; Page: 149A; Image: 302. Retrieved from Ancestry.com.). William’s great-great-grandfather, James Shackelford, was also a carpenter around the time of the American Revolution (Burroughs, Paul H., Southern Antiques. New York: Bonanza Books, 1931, p. 6.).
- Richmond, Virginia, City Directory, 1886, p. 118, col. 2. U.S. City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.
- “District of Columbia Marriages, 1811-1950,” database with images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939V-4N9K?cc=1803979&wc=3FT6-PTP%3A1584493301 : 26 May 2015), 004281821 > image 1699 of 1771; Records Office, Washington D.C.
- “Marriages,” The Richmond Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia, 6 Jul 1887, p. 3, col. 5. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “A Good Man Gone,” Richmond Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia, 23 Jan 1902, Page 5,col. 4. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- William’s niece was named Robena Vanderslice Baugh. The pastor of the Methodist church the family attended was George C. Vanderslice (Manchester and Vicinity,” Daily Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia, 14 Jan 1878, p. 1, col. 6. Retrieved from newspapers.com. See also:
Virginia Department of Health; Richmond, Virginia; Virginia Deaths, 1912-2014. Robena Vanderslice Baughan; 1926> 03630-04165> image 134 of 591. Retrieved from ancestry.com.).
- “The Marriage,” The Richmond Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia, 3 Jun 1886, p. 3, col. 3. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “History of the National Presbyterian Church,” retrieved from
- “Letter from Washington,” Richmond Dispatch, Richmond, Virginia, p. 4, col. 1. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “125 Years Ago: Nice Day for A White House Wedding,” History.com staff – https://www.history.com/news/125-years-ago-nice-day-for-a-white-house-wedding. (See also: “The Marriage of the President,” Alexandria Gazette, Alexandria, Virginia, 3 Jun 1886, vol. 87, p. 3, col. 3-4. Retrieved from genealogybank.com.)