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Jane Gates - a historical matriarch

Jane Gates - a historical matriarch Click on the MEDIA ITEMS below for more information


Jane Gates
Circa 1819 - 1888

It's a mystery. Jane Gates is the great-great grandmother of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Born in Piedmont, West Virginia, Gates is the W.E.B. DuBois professor of the Humanities and chair of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. For many years Henry Louis Gates, along with his cousin John Gates of Cumberland, have wondered about their great-great grandmother and their own heritage. Was it true Jane's white owner, one Samuel Brady, had fathered her children? Was it he who later purchased a house for her in Cumberland?

To find the answers, and as part of a four-part 2006 Public Broadcasting System (PBS) series Dr. Gates hosted entitled, "African-American Lives", Henry and John, with the aid of professional genealogists, began to trace their family roots.

Aside from revelations about Jane Gates, they learn of ancestors in Hardy County, Virginia (now West Virginia and about 50 miles south of Cumberland) who were freed in 1823 and living free and economically independent on their own land long before the Civil War and Emancipation. They discover a great-granduncle who served in the Union Army during the Civil War as a member of the United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.). And they learn of a fourth great grandfather who, as a free black man, enlisted and fought in the Revolutionary War, thus making both Henry and John eligible for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution.

As for Jane Gates, she appears in the 1870 census as a nurse and laundress and at 51 years of age, living with two of her children and two grandchildren. They learn that there is no reference to her in the personal or estate records of Sam Brady. However, a slave named "Jane" does appear in the 1851 records of Sam's older brother, John, who lived in nearby Hampshire County, Virginia (now West Virginia and about 30 miles south of Cumberland). And the 1860 census records show John's widow, Hannah, as having a 41 year-old slave named Jane. The ages appear consistent. The records also show that the Brady slaves were rented out to other family member farms, one of which was the farm of Samuel Brady which had located to the Cresaptown area of Allegany County in the late 1850s.

Additional research indicate that Jane's mother was most likely a slave named, "Susanna", whose owner was a business associate of the Bradys and who had decreed Susanna's female children be freed at the age of 25. The ages again appear to be somewhat consistent. Records from the Allegany County Courthouse note that in 1871 Jane Gates bought an eight-room house, her home, at 515 Greene Street in Cumberland, Maryland in the amount of $1,400. Jane Gates was also the first black woman in Allegany County to have a bank account. Ten years later, in 1882, one of her three sons, Edward purchased a home at 503 Greene Street which remains in the Gates family to this day. The Gates children went on to purchase numerous properties on Greene and Cumberland Streets as well as the city's East Side. The Gates family is the first black family to own numerous properties throughout the city. Her grandsons also became successful. One, Roscoe, established a grocery store on North Mechanic Street. Another, George, graduated from Howard University and became a successful doctor in the Washington, D.C. area.

The (Cumberland) Daily News of January 6, 1888 notes Jane's passing. It states that she died at 11:00 pm on the evening of January 5th. She was known as, "Aunt Jane Gates", colored, and a family servant to the Stovers. She was seventy-five years of age at the time of her death (note the newspaper's discrepancy of about five years with other estimated dates - not an uncommon thing back then), and died at her long-time home on Greene Street where services were to be held prior to being interred at Rose Hill Cemetery at 3:00 pm on the afternoon of January 7th.

However, DNA testing shows that Henry and John share no linkage with descendants of either Samuel (died in 1870) or John Brady (died in 1851). The father of their great great grandmother's children, as well as how this former slave-girl in 1871 secured the money to buy the home at 515 Greene Street, remains a mystery.

Dolores Gates-Thomas (1932-2011) was the great-great granddaughter of Jane Gates and considered the current matriarch of the Gates family. She was born in the home located at 503 Greene Street in Cumberland. Dolores attended the Carver School and went on to receive her college degree at Bowie State Teachers College (now Bowie State University and Maryland's oldest historically black university). Dolores taught for thirty-four years in Prince Georges County, Maryland. She and her husband, Harrison Thomas, also a former teacher in Prince George's County, now live in Washington, D.C., but return home to Cumberland very often to the house at 503 Greene Street which remains in the Gates family to this day. The Gates family is one of the very few African-American families in Allegany County to have continuously owned the same property for over 100 years. In 2007, the original home at 515 Greene Street was returned to the family with its purchase by John and Sukh Gates.

Like other black children from the West Side, the long walks to the Carver School in the cold of winter, walking by the all-white Greene Street School, and often waiting for the long trains, particularly on the Western Maryland tracks, to pass are one of the poignant memories which remain. Dolores also recalls the kindness of a businessman on Frederick Street who would open his doors to the children so they could come in and warm themselves.


Text: The 2006 Public Broadcasting System Series, African American Lives , John Gates, and Dolores Gates-Thomas.

Photograph of Jane Gates provided by John Gates and Dolores Gates-Thomas. Photograph of the Gates home taken by Albert L. Feldstein, May 17, 2017

Collection Location:
Allegany County, Maryland

African Americans, History; Allegany County (Md.), History.

Allegany County (Md.), 1890-2008

Western Maryland Regional Library
100 South Potomac Street
Hagerstown, Maryland 21740

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