Until Corrine Patterson was in her 70s, her great-grandfather Jeremiah McCanse was pretty much a stranger to her.
And Janet McCanse Mundy was completely unknown to her.
Now the long-dead former slave and Civil War soldier shares her dining room table.
And the white woman in Belton is a part of her life.
Recently, Patterson moved to the corner of the table where the white, plastic binders stuffed with laminated pieces of history are stacked. She flipped through them to find McCanse’s military pension papers.
And there, in the flowing script of an unknown bureaucrat, are exposed the bare bones of Jeremiah’s war.
Freed in 1863 by his owner in Mount Vernon, Mo.
Enlisted at age 16 in Springfield, Mo., in the 113th U.S. Colored Infantry, a regiment organized in Arkansas.
Played drum and fife in Company A.
Wounded in the leg, possibly by a bayonet, and sent to the hospital. He recovered from the injury and resultant fever but was bothered by residual pain throughout his adult life.
Mustered out in Arkansas in 1866.
“I wish my parents and grandmother had told me about him,” said Patterson, 84. “I don’t know why they didn’t tell me. It never dawned on me to ask.”
But her cousin, Alberta McCanse Goode, had heard all about Grandpa Jeremiah, a fairly well-known barber in Spring Hill, Kan., where he died in 1904.
He owned two buildings in the town, both of which still stand, and was the first black man to sit on the school board. A savvy businessman, he lured customers from other shops by playing a phonograph while cutting hair.
“My daddy told me about my grandpa,” said Goode, of Kansas City. “But I was a kid, and I didn’t think anything more about it.”
Not until the day she spotted a Kansas City Star article about local African-Americans being considered for a mural depicting Spring Hill history. The article appeared with a photo of Jeremiah McCanse. Goode called Patterson.
Goode, 79, wasn’t the only one to recognize the gray-haired man.
“We knew who he was,” said Mundy.
She and twin Andy McCanse are great-grandchildren to William McCanse, merchant, farmer and Lawrence County treasurer in the 1880s. His farm was worked by nine slaves.
“My great-granddaddy — they called him Uncle Billy — had some papers, and it listed all his property and how much they were worth,” Mundy said.
The name of Jeremiah, who, like many slaves, took the owner’s name, was there with the others. A child, he was valued at $600.
“We knew he’d gone on to be successful,” said the 82-year-old Belton woman. “He once sent the family a letter. My granddaddy taught them all to read, I suspect. His letter said he was doing well. I remember he said he had the gayest garden in Kansas.”
Contacts with the newspaper soon connected descendants of the slave with descendants of the slave owner. The families, separated by race and time, had lived only 20 minutes away from one another their entire lives.
Today they talk often by telephone and get together at family affairs as if their connection were blood.
“Who knows? Maybe it is,” said Mundy.
Then she leaned to wrap her arms around Goode. The two giggled like schoolgirls and hugged.
From the moment the families met at her home in 2001, said Patterson, “it never seemed strange to me at all.”
Together they even erected a new headstone on Jeremiah’s grave. The old stone had misspelled his name.
“I don’t put all slave owners in the same boat,” Patterson said. “I believe the way they treat me now is the way they treated them back during that time, like family. Obviously they weren’t all cruel.”
“What’s color got to do with anything anyway?” Goode asked. “We have a great time together. We don’t see color. And anyone with a heart would feel the same way we do.”