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Tuesday, 28 November 2006

The Collier Family Story

A Family Primer to Inform Our Youth

Introduction to Family History

Every family has a history, and how far back its history can be accurately traced depends upon the available documentation of the past, the preserving and the telling of the stories from generation to generation, and the relating of the first-hand accounts of witnesses of the history. In the case of the Collier Family, we have been able to trace our history back to the 1820s. We have been able to document through the pipeline of the Third Generation – those who have had living experiences with the First Generation of Colliers as well as being part of our current generations.

The following is a collection of recollections, historical facts, memories, first-hand accounts and life experiences of the beginnings of the Collier Family.

To this documentation we appreciate the audio, video and personal interviews contributed by the following Third Generation family members: Eleanor Collier Watson, Ophelia Collier, Gerry Collier Spencer, Joseph “Joe Buck” Collier, and the late Gertrude Brooks Collier, George E. Collier, and Mildred Collier McKelvin. We have been enriched by their tales of growing up in the South, moving to the North, and beginning the Reunion effort. And they represent the experiences of many of our other family members of the past.

Struggle and Survival – The Collier Family – 2003

This is the story of a family, a black American family, whose beginnings date back to the 1820s. This is the story of many black families’ struggle from origins dating back to pre-Civil War times when slavery was a way of life. Our family story is unique in that we are still holding on to each other through this 50 th Reunion as we did then.

Our descendants, born into slavery, witnessed firsthand some of the events of the War Between the States, and in some ways were its victims as well as its benefactors. Vicie Fisher was born in 1851 to her parents, Sterling and Harriet Fisher. Her parents were slaves, and she, along with her siblings – four sisters and two brothers, were also born into slavery. Vicie’s younger brother, John, was taken from the fields by Union soldiers when he was 12 years old and shipped up to Baltimore. There are no accounts as to what happened to him after that. Vicie’s mother, Harriet, fearing that Vice would be taken, or worse, by the Union soldiers, would sit on a stool. There she would drape her large skirt over the entire stool with Vicie hiding underneath the skirt. Ironically, our ancestors were more comfortable and at home on the plantation with their slave owners rather than under the protection of the invading Union soldiers from the North in the war to free the slaves. As the Union soldiers entered the South, including Brunswick County, VA, Vicie and her parents witnessed the taking of horses and livestock, and, in the very kitchen where Vicie worked with her mother, foodstuffs were spoiled by the Union soldiers so they couldn’t be used.

Vicie, her parents and siblings (Charlotte, Louisa, Hattie, Harriet, Andrew and John), survived the Civil War and experienced the freeing of the slaves in 1865 through the Emancipation Proclamation of 1862. There is no evidence that she or her family left the plantation, but in fact stayed in Brunswick County. With the end of the Civil War, another struggle began, but having family support and structure for guidance, protection and love meant life itself to the Collier Family as it emerged from the union of George and Vicie.

The history is that George Collier was born in Georgia in 1845 to Miles and Marie Collier. He had a very light skinned younger brother (who could almost pass for white), whose name was Boss. The two brothers were very close. While living in Georgia as a post-war free man, George apparently had “had words” with a white man. He was told that he’d better leave town the very night of that incident. George did leave town that night with his brother, Boss, and they became two young men without families traveling up North. The pair found work in North Carolina for a while, and then moved to Virginia following work opportunities up there.

George Collier was working as a carriage driver, among other things, for a white family on a plantation. The family that George worked for was acquainted with the Harris family that Vicie worked for. George drove the carriage to the plantation where Vicie worked. During these visits, George met Vicie and visited with her in the servants’ quarters. They were married, or as the saying goes, “jumped the broom,” in Brunswick County, Virginia, on January 8, 1870. George was 25 years old and Vicie was 20 years old. Both the bride’s parents and the groom’s parents were present at the wedding. Their first-born son, George Channel Collier, was born on Christmas Day of that same year.

Vicie and George had six sons in all – Channel, Eddie, Sonnie, Jessie, Willie Ben and Lemuel (later known as Crawley). All of them were born in the attic of their three- or four-room log house. They were known respectfully as “The Six Collier Boys,” growing up in Brunswick County, Virginia. They were taught to be mannerly, to work hard, to clear the land, to plant and harvest the cotton and tobacco crops, to care for livestock, to hunt, to work together, and to support each other. All of them received their religious training and were brought up to serve the church and God.

The Six Collier Boys grew into men. They all married strong and devoted Christian women who also knew hard work, caring and dedication to the family. The wives of the Six collectively bore forty-two children of the Third Generation. The men of the households, in order to support their families during the era of Jim Crowism, learned and applied a variety of skills: sawmill operator, molasses maker, highway builder, blacksmith, auto mechanic, owner and operator of a store and restaurant, and, of course, farming.

At times, the Six Collier Boys and their families lived with the shadow of “The Hanging Tree,” ever mindful of their place in society at the time. Indeed, one of our own, Lemuel, at the age of twenty-one, was chased from his home and separated from his family after false allegations and accusations were made against him that threatened his life. The people who loved him sent him away as far as available funds would take him. He survived and began his life as Crawley Jones in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Collier Boys!

...Our Past

George Channel Collier

December 25, 1850 – September 26, 1954

Channel was born on December 25, 1870, the first child of George and Vicie Collier. When he was old enough, Channel’s parents hired him out for 50 cents a day from sunrise to sunset. He had no formal education – only learning how to write his name in his later years. He married Roberta Drumgold and, upon her death, Dollie “Stoney” Walker. David, Nettie, Joseph and Annie were the offspring.

Channel, a strong, silent type, was a good farmer. His major crops were tobacco and cotton. His skills included carpentry, molasses maker, wheat cutter, blacksmith and church builder. He lost his crops for two years when he dedicated himself to the building of Johnson Grove Church. He served as a deacon for that church until he died at the age of 83.

Eddie Miles Collier

March 15, 1878 – October 17, 1976

Eddie, of all of the six brothers, had the longest life, living until the age of 98. He was married to Eva Collier, who bore him a son and a daughter, Alphonso and Baylease. Eddie took a second wife upon Eva’s passing. Her name as Carrie Lou Haskins, and six children followed and were added to our Third Generation – Atlace, Leana, Charles, George, Haywood, and the only current survivor of the Eddie line – Ophelia Collier. He married again to Maggie Turner but had no additional children.

The sons of Vicie and George were very involved with Johnson Grove Church activities and structure. Eddie became a deacon at the age of 21. He and his family were the first to move North to Claymont, DE and later settled in Chester, PA. There he worked for the Sun Oil Company for many years. He was, no doubt, instrumental in the early years of the Collier Reunions in securing the Sun Oil picnic grounds for this activity.

Ophelia Collier shares this with us: “The most important thing I have learned from my father was to take one day at a time, and on each day, whatever I do, do the best I can. He taught me to be independent, but always know that I have help from Someone above who watches over me.”

Jessie C. Collier

October 14, 1878 – May 24, 1953

Jessie and his wife Melissa were the parents of 12 children. They were married on April 5, 1905. Their children were Otelia, Moses, Johnnie, Jessie, Mary, Naomi, Clara, James, Roy, Eugene, Preston and Miriam. At the time of this writing, there are only two survivors of this Third Generation Group – Clara Collier Wyatt and Miriam Collier Stith.

It is reported that Jessie, with his two wagons and four-horse team, was the hauler of the sand and stones used to build the US Highway No. 1 through Virginia. Jessie was a farmer who worked sometimes with his brothers, Sonnie and Willie Ben, at the sawmill. Jessie served as a deacon of the Johnson Grove Church.

Sonnie Collier

November 17, 1887 – June 14, 1965

Not a farmer at heart, Sonnie found other ways to support his family. He and his wife, Mary Blackwell, produced seven children. They moved from Blackstone to Dolphin and then to Lawrenceville, where Sonnie opened up his store and restaurant and became a businessman. He also had skills as a blacksmith and a mechanic, and he worked with his brothers at the sawmill.

Sonnie has been described as a loving family man devoted to his children – Eutoria, Sonnie, James, Morris, Mildred, Mason and Geroline. Mason was, along with George E. Collier, co-founder of the original Collier Family Reunion. Geroline “Gerry” Spencer is the surviving Third Generation member of this family. She is the very first college graduate of the entire Collier clan.

Willie Ben Collier

June 12, 1891 – March 6, 1975

Willie Ben was the fifth son born to George and Vice Collier. He was born in Brunswick County, VA. As a young man, he met and married Annie walker, the oldest daughter of Hampton and Lucy Walker from Cochran, VA. Annie later died while trying unsuccessfully to give birth to their child.

After her death, Willie Ben left to go to West Virginia to work in the coal mines. While there, he heard about a sawmill (a place where logs were sawed up by machines into planks). He went to the site to see how it worked. He was fascinated by what he saw and he told the owner of the mill “I bet I can do that,” and he did just that.

A few years passed and he returned to Cochran and asked for the hand of Annie’s younger sister, Nettie, in marriage. They were blessed with nine children – Marie, Edward, Hampton, Alease, Bert, Viola, Lawyer, Lucille and Elnora (currently called “Eleanor”). Willie Ben (Papa) provided well for his large family doing so-called “public work” around the area. At one time he owned his own saw mill. As his family grew, he purchased a house in Grandee, VA, and later built a home in Lawrenceville, VA.

Willie Ben was the first black man at the Oak Grove Church to own a “Model T” Ford (a car that you had to crank up to start). Most people around home rode in a horse and buggy. Although Willie Ben did not farm, he did enjoy raising hogs and growing vegetables to feed his family. He grew the biggest sweet potatoes around, thereby earning his nickname, “Tater Ben.”

Lemuel Collier/Crawley Jones

(Dates of birth and death are unknown at this time)

Lemuel was accused of luring a white child to follow him and had therefore found himself in a very life-threatening situation. His family and friends provided him with some money and told him to go away as far as the money would take him and not come back. Lemuel followed this advice and severed his family ties with his wife, Mollie, and his two children, Annabelle and James Berkley.

When his money finally ran out, he ended up in Cincinnati, Ohio, managed to find some work and changed his name to Crawley Jones. After settling in Cincinnati, he later married again, starting a new family that grew to nine more children.

Many of the children of the Six Collier Boys (now brothers and sisters and cousins), with the love and support of their parents, migrated North to look for a better life, more opportunities and freedom, and a better atmosphere to start their families, and the struggles continued. These young people felt the need to help each other to find work, to find places to live, and to provide all the support needed to establish themselves.

It is this generation – The Third Generation offspring of Channel, Jessie, Eddie, Sonnie, Lemuel and Willie Ben – whose strength of character and purpose of family were inherited by family members like Mason, George, David, Berk, Mildred, Connie, Mack, Haywood, Hampton, Ilean, Preston and Annabelle, just to mention a few. Just think of the Great Heavenly Reunion they and all of the loved ones we have lost are enjoying. We remember, respect, and are indebted to this group of our loved ones for starting the Collier Family Reunion – certainly a unique effort ahead of its time – back in 1954.

As we look back and honor the remaining Third Generation members on the occasion of our 50 th Reunion, we thank them for their dedication to our purpose. It is now entrusted to us – the generations that follow – to celebrate and preserve the history and traditions of our past and in developing and implementing positive goals for the present, especially with regard to helping each other, maintaining the support, education and development of our youth, and having a vision towards making a significant impact as a family on society.

Joseph “Joe Buck” Collier

Patriarch of the Collier Family

Our Pipeline to the Past, Grandson of George of Vicie Collier

Joseph’s recollection of his upbringing by his Grandmother Vicie and his life experiences were documented on March 17, 2003, for the occasion of the 50 th Family Reunion – August 2003


At the age of eighty-eight, Joseph “Joe Buck” Collier’s memory was remarkable for recalling his childhood and young adult life. This recall has proven to be very valuable in connecting our current family members to our ancestors. Joe is the surviving son of Channel Collier, and having been raised by his grandmother Vicie, he is truly our link to the Past. The nickname “Joe Buck” was permanently attached to him. He was named after a homemade, handmade black doll. This doll, which was named “Johnny Buck,” was made by Joseph’s Aunt Annabelle. To this day, in Virginia and elsewhere, Joe is known as “Joe Buck.”

Joe does not remember his mother, Roberta Drumgold Collier, who died as did four of her children – John, George, Anne and Yevania – in the Great Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918. Joe did survive, along with his older brother and sister – David and Nettie, and then later his younger sister, Annie.

Joe Buck was two or three years old when his mother Roberta died. He was raised by his grandmother, Vicie Fisher Collier, widow of George Collier.

To this day, Joe strongly feels that his grandmother Vicie effectively served him as both mother and grandmother based on the nature of his complete upbringing. “I remember many a time when I laid up in her lap and fell asleep. She was the greatest!” It is within this context and environment of his relationship with his grandmother Vicie at the original homestead that this Third Generation Survivor and Patriarch links us to our history and ancestors. Joe is our most treasured story teller.

When he was in the fourth grade, Joseph was asked by his father to discontinue his schooling in order to help build the Johnson Grove Church in Lawrenceville, VA. As he grew up, Joseph had his own farm for a while, but did not have a strong desire to continue farming. He worked in a sawmill for a short time before he came to Philadelphia at the age of 27. Joseph served in the United States Army from 1944 to 1946, did tours in North Africa, in Italy, and he was en route to Tokyo, Japan, via the Panama Canal in August 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, at which time his transport ship was ordered to another destination where he served the remainder of his tour of duty.

After the military, Joe worked in the Navy Yard and for Provident Bank and has since retired. Joe, with a fourth-grade education, and what he taught himself, desired to work hard and remain honest and trustworthy. With those attributes, he is living a successful life.

However, Joseph’s advice to young people today is to take advantage of ALL opportunities for education, because it is, indeed, the key to one’s future.

Joseph attended the first Collier Family Reunion Picnic in Norristown in 1954, and he has had a strong presence and has been an advocate of the reunions ever since. In his opinion, family gatherings every year through reunions is a wonderful idea for keeping families together and celebrating life. Joe resides in West Philadelphia, loving and caring for his wife, Naomi.

More About Grandma Vicie

People have described Vicie as a strong, yet compassionate woman. She was, according to some of those questioned, a wonderful, caring, hard working person, considerate of others and a provider for them. She worked in the fields and in her home. It is reported that she could chop cotton better and faster than anyone. She was a great cook who always wore a big apron to carry her fruits and vegetables. She made sure that all branches of the family received a share of the fruits and vegetables coming from the orchards and gardens.

According to Eleanor Watson when recalling her childhood, “Going to Grandma’s house was like “going to The Mall!” We always had much fun over there!” The grandchildren remember Grandma Vicie. She always wore a patch over a “patch” over her left eye. An ember from a fireplace “popped” out and put her eye out. Grandma Vicie smoked a pipe and would rock back and forth in her rocking chair. She was very active in the Johnson Grove Church, where she was a Mother of the Church and would serve Communion. Vicie took in laundry for area white folks. She practically raised her grandson – “Joe Buck” – upon the death of his mother.

Vicie was a small framed person with a big heart who loved and cared for others. She lived through slavery, The Civil War, and the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918, which took four of her grandchildren as well as her daughter-in-law, Roberta Drumgold Collier. She kept her family well fed through The Great Depression, watched and encouraged some of her sons and nearly all of her grandchildren to leave the South for the North to pursue their dreams and aspirations. She lived to be 91 years of age when she died in 1942. She leaves a legacy fit for all to follow.

This was Vicie’s victory over the struggle!

A Tribute to The Old Homestead – Where They Lived

The land on which Vicie and George lived was apparently passed down from Harriet and Sterling Fisher – Vicie’s parents. Some of us will recall our Collier Family Reunion of 18 years ago, when the Willie Ben branch took us “Back to Our Roots,” with Reunion activities at the Bricklayers Club in Lawrenceville, VA. This Reunion was highlighted by a family trip to the “ Old Home Place,” the Collier Family homestead. For many of the younger people, this was their first visit to the Old Home Place. Yes, they had heard stories from their parents and grandparents, some of whom were also in attendance on that Reunion day and learned of the majesty of the Old Home Place.

On a bumpy, narrow road off of Poorhouse Road on that Reunion day, many cars and a bus proceeded with care for about a half mile over this difficult road past two structures on the left which had served as tobacco curing barns. Some in the crowd, in years past, had the experience of staying up all night tending the fires that cured the tobacco.

The road led you into a clearing, and you approached three large oak trees spewing shade over the line of cars and the bus as they arrived. Within the solace and shelter of these trees, one could almost hear the community of voices of the farmers from the past, their neighbors, wives and children as they collectively “passed” and “strung” tobacco leaves in sets of threes in preparation for curing. Occasionally, they took a break to partake of the cool well water nearby. It was easy to smell the biscuits cooking in the kitchen of the house as they waited in great anticipation for the dinner bell.

Although these are memories of only a few, to the majority of the crowd assembled in front of the Old Home Place, the House on the Homestead, it was their first experience in being on, and bearing witness to, this homestead which provided many Collier Family members the heritage, the hearth, and the hope that sustained us then and now.

The history of the Old Home Place – the Collier Family Homestead – can be verified as far back as 1870. There is United States Census Bureau evidence that the Homestead was inhabited and farmed by Sterling fisher and his wife, Harriet, and their five daughters, Charlotte, Louisa, Hattie, Harriet and Vicey Ann, and their two sons, Andrew and John. As the story goes, John was taken from the fields by Union soldiers and sent up to Baltimore – never to be heard of again.

George Collier married Vicie Fisher in January, 1870, and according to the July 1870 Census report, the couple lived with Vicie’s parents. It appears that the family lived in the original log house approximately 40 yards from the current home in front of which we celebrated that 1986 Reunion. The original log house faced the three oak trees which were planted sometime in the 1870s. The six sons of George and Vicie were born in the attic of this log house.

The six sons were involved in clearing the land and learned farming skills initially. Five of the sons migrated to other towns in the area or moved up North while Channel remained on the farm. Upon the passing of her parents, the Homestead was owned by Vicie and farmed by Channel. She later passed the farm on to Channel’s children.

For over ten decades, this land’s soil grew large crops of tobacco, cotton, and corn, and contained orchards of fruit trees – apples, pears and peaches, and cantaloupe and watermelon patches to the delight of all. The homemakers would grow, harvest, and put up (or can), vegetable, a virtual horn of plenty, and the men folk would slaughter, smoke and cure livestock to get them through the winters and the Depression years.

The hallmark of the Old Homestead was its sharing of the fruits of the land with other Family members who were living elsewhere. This was Vicie’s nature. She saw the need to share, and she worked daily to do this.

So the land of the Homestead provided for the needs of the family. The land records show that many times the land was used as collateral for loans ranging from $20.00 to $550.00, and each time it was paid back. This money was used to buy seed, supplies, farming tools, livestock, mules and horses, and tools to prepare for the next planting season. The Old Homestead truly served as a beacon of love, support and stability.

Sadly, time and nature have been unkind to the old house, the land and woods that we remember. The house and land are now plagued with overgrowth, and Hurricane Isabel of September 2003 recently felled the three 130-year-old oak trees. We will be saying “goodbye” to the Homestead, as it is currently up for sale. Our hope is that the Old Homestead will become revitalized by its new owners and become functional and useful again in some dynamic way.

Our thanks to The Old Homestead!


Our Family Unity – Past, Present, and Future

Over the years, much of our family history has been published, and we are proud to relate the story of our fore parents, George and Vicie Collier, and their six sons – Channel, Jessie, Eddie, Sonnie, Willie Ben and Lemuel (better known as Crawley Jones).

The years have passed by swiftly, and the Collier Boys and their dear wives have all fallen asleep in death. However, their children and grandchildren have enjoyed fifty years of family fun and togetherness.

George Collier (son of Eddie Collier, now deceased), and Mason Stevenson (daughter of Sonnie Collier, also deceased), originated the idea of a Collier Family Picnic. As a result, in August 1953, the first picnic was held in Norristown at the home of Mack and Elnora Watson, daughter and son-in-law of Willie Ben Collier

Every year since that time, the third Sunday in August has been a special occasion for family involvement. At these events, our parents and older relatives taught us younger ones, by their example, how to be gracious, loving and hospitable. Many neighbors and friends joined us on that day, and they proudly declared themselves “Colliers For A Day!”

On several occasions, circumstances made it necessary to hold the picnic on Saturday instead of Sunday. In more recent years, we have also enjoyed a number of weekend events. We truly appreciate the splendid cooperation of our family members as they consistently used their time and resources to attend the Family Reunions.

As we reflect on picnics past, we pause to remember our dearly departed loved ones. Their strong determination and devotion have certainly been an inspiration to us all.

We likewise remember the institution of the Branches, along with our individual family colors. All those colorful shirts converging on the picnic grounds! Weren’t we a beautiful sight to see!

In 1980, the Collier Family Plaque was introduced. This proved to be a truly unifying symbol. At the conclusion of each picnic, the Plaque was presented to the next family of branch. These branches were names for each of the family heads (i.e. the Sonnie Branch, the Eddie Branch, etc.) This tradition served as a guarantee that the next branch in the rotation would be entirely responsible for the planning and executing of the picnic for the upcoming year. What a stroke of genius that was!

Now for some great memories that we all can share! Who can forget the various sites used to host our picnics down through the years? During the 1950s and 60s, loaded down with our picnic baskets, we trekked down to Lawrenceville, VA, the Sun Oil Recreation Center in Chester, PA, Smedley Park in Media, PA, Sellersville Park in Montgomery County, PA, the Rod and Gun Club outside of Chester, PA, and Parvin State Park in New Jersey. We used some of these sites for several years.

The 1970s, 80s and 90s found us at Clementon Park, New Jersey, Dorney Park in Allentown, PA, Lum’s Pond in Delaware, Pocahontas Park in Chesterfield, VA, and at the Hyatt Hotel in Claymont, DE, (our first Banquet and Picnic combination affair). In August, 1986, we went “Back To Our Roots,” traveling back to the Old Homestead to learn more about our family history. A picnic was held at the Bricklayers Club in Alberta, VA. In more recent years our hosts have been the Neshaminy Shore Picnic Park in Hulmeville Langhorne, PA, the Tall Pines in Williamstown, NJ, the Ramada Renaissance Suites in Atlantic City, NJ, and the Dude Ranch in Glen Allen, VA.

We are proud of our past accomplishments, and we are also keenly interested in our present and future family stability. In order to ensure the continued dedication and fidelity of our heritage, we have endeavored to come together in one central body with representatives from all the various family groups. No longer will we be identified as branches. Instead, we will be known as the Collier Family Reunion. From this beginning, we will commit ourselves to working together to strengthen and preserve our family unity.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 28 November 2006 )