The Importance of an Open Mind

 In October of 2018, I was contacted by Keith Winstead of Louisville, Kentucky, a “family historian”.  He had discovered that he and his cousin Cassius Clay, better known as Muhammad Ali, were related to an enslaved man named Archer Alexander1. For Keith, DNA had confirmed2 the fact that his great-great-grandfather, Wesley Alexander of Louisville, Kentucky, who was also Ali’s ancestor, was the son of the enslaved man named Archer. He had reached out to me asking for help with locating Archer’s gravesite after exhausting all resources. We met to discuss the research of his great-great-great-grandfather and I shared what I already knew of Archer’s story.

As a historian and author, I had been researching and writing about the history of Missouri, especially the counties of St. Charles, St. Louis, and Warren for over thirty years. Also as a professional genealogist with forty years of experience, including many years of teaching genealogy, I have a special interest in difficult stories. My experience in tracing heirs for attorneys and my work on the Utopia project had already taught me that finding descendants could often reveal more unknown history. I had already traced the descendants of hundreds of German immigrants that had come to Missouri during the early 19th century, and Keith’s ancestors would involve research into enslaved individuals which can be even more difficult.

Archer Alexander

Keith began by explaining how he had gone as far as he could with his great-great-grandfather Wesley Alexander, born about 1829. When his DNA research connected him to Archer, he began looking for his grave as most family historians do. Keith’s first question was “Do you know where Archer Alexander is buried?” Thinking that information must certainly be included in William Greenleaf Eliot’s book Archer Alexander – From Slavery to Freedom3 we began to search, only to discover that he wasn’t where Eliot’s book stated. (That is another story for another time.)

It was shortly thereafter, with the help of a colleague at Bellefontaine Cemetery and Arboretum, that I discovered that “Archey” Alexander was buried on December 8, 1880, in St. Peters U.C.C. Cemetery in St. Louis County. Knowing how important it is to any researcher, in keeping an open mind, I began to wonder what else did we not know about Archer. And so began the most amazing journey, for Keith and myself, into the history of a man who should truly be considered an American hero. From Washington, D.C. and Rockbridge County in Virginia; to St. Louis and Saint Charles Counties in Missouri, this is definitely a story we never learned in school.

William Greenleaf Eliot

During the Civil War, Archer risked his life to inform the Union Army that his enslaver was planning to destroy an essential railroad bridge, and thereby saving hundreds of lives. This brave act would have certainly resulted in Archer’s death, if not for William Greenleaf Eliot, the founder of Washington University. Archer’s freedom was granted on September 24, 1863, because of his bravery. And, Eliot would see that Archer would be the image of all enslavement, on a monument totally dedicated by the former enslaved, called the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C. We all need heroes! Young or old, no matter what our skin color, or where we come from. Keeping an open mind, we need to remember that there may be a lot more yet to learn about our ancestors and “their friends” than we ever could have imagined.

For more information:

  1. For more about Archer Alexander’s story see my blog ArcherAlexander.blog
  2. See 18 October 2018 story by Charlotte Carrol in Sports Illustrated https://www.si.com/boxing/2018/10/02/muhammad-ali-ancestry-archer-alexander-civil-war-slave-dna-evidence
  3. In his last years, Eliot would write Archer’s story for his grandchildren. It would be through the help of his close friend Jesse Benton Fremont, that it would be published in 1885 with some names changed at the request of its publishers.
Dorris Keeven-Franke sharing documentation of Archer Alexander’s death and burial location with Keith Winstead on February 28, 2019.