One-hundred-and-fifty-four years after the Civil War’s end and two decades into the 21st Century, Joe Dent’s ancestry might still be a touchy subject for some folks.
But it is nothing of the sort. It is a typical American story, as abiding as the colorful family tree of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. Joe and several dozen other members of the extended Dent family converged on the Golden Isles this weekend from all points of the nation’s compass to get in touch with their ancestral roots.
This included a visit Friday afternoon to the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation State Historic Park in northern Glynn County.
One-hundred-and-fifty-four years after the Civil War’s end and two decades into the 21st Century, this is where Joe’s story might still be a touchy subject for some folks. Joe, a proud American, identifies as black. But the successful realtor from Maryland has every reason to believe that his direct family line begins with one of the white Dent patriarchs of Hofwyl-Broadfield — the Altamaha Delta rice plantation that prospered on the backs of enslaved labor from 1806 up to the Civil War’s end in 1865.
However, this Dent family’s true and revered patriarch is Samuel George Dent I. The black man whose desire to proposer and serve the people of his community has left enough imprints in Glynn County to keep his descendants coming back year after year. That includes stops at Selden Park near Brunswick and Emanuel Baptist Church on St. Simons Island.
But let us go back to the roots of this family tree. As is so often the case with African American family histories, the Dent legacy’s origins were handed down orally, from one generation to the next.
It goes like this:
Samuel George Dent was born on Evelyn Plantation in northern Glynn County — not far from Hofwyl-Broadfield — probably around 1862. That birth year is sketchy, relatives concede. His birth might also have occurred in 1863, 1857 or even 1865. Samuel’s mother was an enslaved woman at Evelyn, the family history informs them. Her name is unknown, Joe said.
The father? According to Dent family oral history, that would be Hofwyl-Broadfield patriarch George C. Dent (1821-84). Or it might have been his son, James Troup Dent (1848-1913), who would have been a teenager, at best, on those dates.
But there it is. An old family photograph of Samuel George Dent I shows the light-skinned characteristics of a man of mixed race. And there is some resemblance between the thick mustached Dent patron and a similarly-posed photo of James Troup Dent.
Earlier this year, Joe took his case to Bill Giles, site manager and historian at Hofwyl-Broadfield State Historic Park. Giles is skeptical about blood ties between the Dents and the Dents, he told both Joe and I. The elder Dent was away at war during much of that time, first as a Confederate captain of artillery on St. Simons Island and later serving as far away as Chattanooga and Jackson, Miss., where he suffered an arm wound. The younger Dent was barely a teenager, away at school at times and serving as a 15-year-old color bearer and signal corpsman late in the war.
The last family member at Hofwyl-Broadfield, Ophelia K. Dent, died childless in the family home in 1973. Giles said the last living Dent ancestor, Ophelia’s cousin Sydney Dent, died two years later in Charleston, S.C. Regardless, Giles told me he welcomed the Dent family’s visit Friday to Hofwyl-Broadfield.
“But you couldn’t even do a DNA test because there are no living ancestors,” Giles said.
However, Joe Dent said he has recently found evidence of a DNA link between his family and the Hofwyl-Broadfield white Dents, via Ancestry.com. He said he also has made contact with folks on Ancestry.com who claim to be relatives of George C. Dent.
“White living descendants have already reached out to us by email,” said Joe, who penned an ebook on the family history this year, titled A Decision by Samuel George Dent, Sr., Still Impacting Us Today. “They just don’t know that we’re not white like them.”
But Joe hopes that a white Dent will come forward to help them bring closure to this early chapter in their family history. The black Dents’ first family reunion in Glynn County in 2015 also included a visit to Hofwyl Broadfield. “This visit is to attempt to establish a connection with what is quite likely — but yet to be established — our ancestral roots,” Joe said. “As demonstrated throughout the years by our oral history, and now by recent DNA research, we would like to try to connect with what is quite likely the white branch of our family.”
Even if that connection is never unequivocally sealed, the legacy of Samuel George Dent gives the Dent family plenty of reasons to return to their roots among us. And we have every reason to proudly welcome them.
From his humble beginnings at Evelyn Plantation, Dent later attended Moorehouse College in Atlanta in the late 19th century. He returned to Glynn County and served as a pastor of Emanuel Baptist Church on St. Simons Island. After the devastating hurricane of 1898, Dent oversaw the reconstruction of the sturdy old church building that still sits today along Demere Road on the Island.
Perhaps more important, the Rev. Dent was the driving force behind the establishment of the Selden Normal and Technical Institute in 1903. The school operated on the grounds of what is today the county’s Selden Park. It offered advancement opportunities for local blacks with a curriculum that included basic reading and writing, teaching, agriculture, dress-making, business, domestic science and carpentry. Dent served as the first chairman of its board of directors.
“The Selden Normal and Technical Institute was considered one of the finest black educational facilities during the early twentieth century,” according to the book, Gullah Geechee Heritage in the Golden Isles.
Before dying in 1910, Samuel George Dent outlived three wives and fathered 12 children. From there the family tree branched out across the nation, apparently following their patriarch’s example every step of the way. Black Dents have made their mark in business, medicine, government administration, arts, music, higher education, the military, politics and more.
Those Dents who are visiting among us this weekend hail from California, Colorado, New York, Virginia, Alabama, Florida and Arizona, among other places. Products of the American dream, these Dents. Not unlike the descendants of Sally Hemings, the enslaved woman who fathered five children through Jefferson, the author of America’s Declaration of Independence.
So, 154 years after the Civil War’s end and two decades into the 21st Century, Joe Dent and his family are in town to celebrate their family roots.
“Not that we’re hankering for it, but we would like to rebut the revisionist history the claims there is no blood connections between black and white America, through slavery,” Joe said. “The ancestry that has been handed down to us by our oral history seems to be corroborated. We just have not made that direct personal connection yet.”