Reprise: Finding Dr. King’s Roots in Slavery

“Finding  Dr. King’s Roots in Slavery” originally appeared at GeneaBlogie on Monday, January 15, 2007.

As is the case for many African-Americans, the ancestors of Martin Luther King, Jr., apparently included a slaveowner. We know that Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. The 1930 census of Fulton County, as mentioned here previously, enumerates the family of “Marvin L. King,” the wife being “Elberta.” We know that Dr. King’s mother was named “Alberta.”

In addition to “Marvin, Jr.,” the census records a daughter, Willie. The Kings live next door to “Allen” D. Williams, a Baptist preacher, and his wife, “Jimmie.” In his autobiography, Dr. King tells us that his mother was the daughter of the Rev. A[dam] D[aniel] Williams.

The 1920 census of Fulton County shows Adam D. Williams, his wife “Jennie” [Parks], (her correct name) and daughter Alberta. In Henry County, the census counts a Jim King, a farmer, his wife “Dealy,” and seven children. In his autobiography, Dr. King relates that his father was from Stockbridge in Henry County, Georgia. The indisputable King Encyclopedia says that Dr. King’s grandfather was James Albert King, who married Delia Linsey, and that they were from Henry County.

In the 1910 census, Adam D. and Jennie C. Williams have their names spelled correctly. They are in Fulton County. At the same time, James King, Sr., is a resident of Henry County, and his household includes a son “Michael,” then about 12 years old.

Martin Luther King, Sr., was known as “Michael,” at least until he was 22 years old. At that time, according to the New York Post in April, 1957, his father told him that his true name was “Martin,” but that his mother had nicknamed him “Mike.” [The senior “M.L.” King went on to say that he had intended to name his son “Martin,” and did not know until 1934 when the boy was five years old that the name “Michael” had been put on the birth certificate. The elder King said he found this out when he was applying for a passport. Reliable sources suggest that the senior King had gone to Germany at that time.]

The odd thing about the 1910 census is that James King’s place of birth is shown as Ohio (as is his mother’s) and his father is said to be a native of Ireland. On the 1900 census, this same assertion is apparent, except that his father’s birth place is given as Pennsylvania.

The 1900 census shows us one Nathan King, a day laborer in Jones County, Georgia. He’s counted with his wife “Malinde” and three children.

In 1880, Nathan King was listed in Putnam County with wife Malinda and seven children, one of whom is named James and appears to be James Albert King, Dr. King’s grandfather.

Back another decade, in 1870 (the first time most blacks were identified by name in the census), there is no Nathan King family in Putnam County, Georgia. There is, however, a Jacob Brannum, age 65, heading a household that includes 38 year old Nathan and 24 year old Malinda, as well as 5 year old James (whose last name is spelled “Branham”). The ages of Nathan and Malinda Brannum and their four children are consistent with the ages of Nathan and Malinda King and their families.

The Branhams were prominent landowners and slaveholders in central Georgia. They were of Irish ancestry and had moved to Georgia from Virginia in the late 1700’s. In the mid-nineteenth century, Henry Branham and Joel Branham were key figures in the family and in Putnam County. Henry owned 29 slaves in 1850, while Joel owned twelve. Both men were physicians.

Dr. Joel Branham attended the birth of one of Putnam County’s most famous residents: the controversial writer, Joel Chandler Harris, who apparently was named after him. A folklorist and journalist, Harris wrote the Uncle Remus stories.

(Another prominent literary figure born in Putnam County is the Pulitzer laureate Alice Walker [The Color Purple], who is fiercely critical of Harris, accusing him of “stealing” African-American heritage).

In any event, it is possible that the Branham family held Dr. King’s ancestors as slaves. Note, however, that in 1870, there were also a number of blacks in Putnam County enumerated under the name “King.” This suggests, of course, that there was a slaveowner named King in that locale. Indeed, Elisha L. King and his wife, Elizabeth Ann, owned 15 slaves in Putnam County as of 1860.

What to make of this name change? Many freed slaves took the names of their recent owners; however, many took other names. It may well be that Dr. King’s ancestors were first owned by the King family and then by the Branhams when freed. The theory would be that they took the Branham name first and, later, for whatever reason, decided to change it to the King name. One reason for such a switch may have been to bring family members together under the same name.

The genealogist William Addams Reitwiesner lists a white man named William Nelson Williams (1804-1863) as Dr. King’s great-great-grandfather on his mother’s side. Williams supposedly had a “non-marital liaison” with an unnamed woman. It’s not clear what supports this assertion. See The Ancestry of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Following that line back one more generation, Reitwiesner shows William Williams (1772-1835) and Rachel Nelson (c.1774-1851) as the next great-grandparents. These people were from North Carolina, but ended up in Dallas County, Alabama.

As is the case for many African-Americans, tracing Dr. King’s ancestry past the middle of the 19th century is not a simple matter. Perhaps some young researcher will take up this matter as a tribute to Dr. King and his message of brotherhood.

Photo from Wikipedia Commons via Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Public Domain.

Other Resources:

The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute (at Stanford University)

The Library of America–Reporting Civil Rights (biography of New York Post writer Ted Poston)


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2 Responses to “Reprise: Finding Dr. King’s Roots in Slavery”

  • Susan Neese says:

    Thank you for re-posting this interesting family history of Dr. King. I have encountered much the same roadblocks in uncovering my husband’s slave ancestry. It has been nearly impossible to trace his great-great grandmother, and we may never know her name, but we were fortunate to have a 96-year old relative, still living as of last year, whose grandfather had the relationship with the young slave woman, producing a son and a daughter, the son being my husband’s great grandfather. But I keep searching, and hoping that one day, it will be revealed to us.

  • Cathy says:

    Thanks for posting this interesting account of Dr. King.

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