We celebrated our 2016 Cumbo Family Reunion last weekend July 15-17 in Williamsburg, Virginia. One of the reasons we chose Williamsburg was because Colonial Williamsburg features a historical figure – Edith Cumbo – who is an ancestral family member.
Edith Cumbo, as far as I can tell, is my first cousin 9 times removed. Continuing to trace back from my 5th great grandfather Britton Cumbo Sr. of Northampton, North Carolina to our original ancestor Emanuell Cambow, the focus of my current research, will help me to confirm this.
Edith Cumbo was a mixed race, free woman of color born around 1735 to Richard Cumbo Jr., the grandson of Emanuell Cambow, and an Irish woman. According to 18th-century Virginia law, the status of your mother determined whether you were born enslaved or free. Both of her parents were free and so was Edith.
The role of Edith Cumbo in Colonial Williamsburg was played masterfully by actor and historian Emily Jones. We met her at the Lumber House at Colonial Williamsburg and spent the morning with her. She walked and spun captivating stories of our Cumbo ancestors and their contributions to history. It was amazing.
She shared how her father Richard Cumbo had fought in the the French and Indian War and for his service had been granted 50 acres of land in Williamsburg. When he died he left his land to his daughter Edith Cumbo. She then bought two horses and started a laundry business. That’s right, Edith Cumbo was an entrepreneur. She shared how Edith Cumbo, considered a “handsome” woman with means, attracted many suitors in her day, but that she never married essentially because of 18th century law. According to the law, once a woman married, ownership of her property immediately passed on to her husband. She went on to highlight this as the reason why she never married. She wanted to maintain control of her property. I’m currently reading Chernow’s epic biography on Alexander Hamilton and he cites this law as the primary reason why Hamilton and his mother, though she’d been born into a family with means, ended up destitute, because when she and her husband split, he essentially took everything.
While Edith never married, she did have a son Daniel Cumbo. She shared how her son Daniel and many other Cumbos (John Cumbo, Michael Cumbo, Peter Cumbo, Richard Cumbo, Thomas Cumbo) as well as other free men of color served in the Revolutionary War side by side with General George Washington at Valley Forge. She shared how a great number of men of color fought in the war for independence, on both sides (enslaved men were offered their freedom by the British if they chose to take up arms for the Loyalist cause) and how this fact has been lost a bit in history.
She shared the significance of historical events such as Bacon’s Rebellion. I remembered reading about the Rebellion in Zinn’s A People’s History of The United States, but Jones in her portrayal of Cumbo helped me to connect the dots on the event’s significance for our country and for my family’s history.
Bacon’s Rebellion was an armed rebellion in 1676 by Virginia settlers led by Nathaniel Bacon against the ruling class. Prior to Bacon’s Rebellion, society was divided by class – the elites vs everyone else. This meant that poor whites, poor free blacks, enslaved blacks and Native Americans lived togehter, celebrated together, struggled together and started families together. This was the world Emanuell Cambow lived in. After the rebellion ended in failure, the ruling class determined that the best way to protect its power was to divide the governed class by race – black and white, slave and free. This emerging racial caste system would further calcify through the passage of the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705. Events like this set in motion a racial divide in America which created a perilous life for my Cumbo ancestors, free men and women of color living first in colonial Virginia slave society, and then in segregated societies under the rule of Jim Crow throughout the American South.
I commend Colonial Williamsburg for making Edith Cumbo a prominent historical character and for bestowing upon her historical character Nation Builder status, equivalent to founding fathers such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Emily Jones delivers a wonderful and enlightening portrayal of Edith Cumbo. I recommend that you visit Colonial Williamsburg, and when you do I highly recommend that you visit with her to experience her portrayal as Edith Cumbo.