Nannie Roy worked for one of the most significant families in Dallas during the late-19th and early-20th centuries, yet she was all but invisible. She was not only a woman; she was an illiterate Black woman, apparently without family. And, she was a servant.
She died Sunday morning, August 11, 1919, after living two years with uterine cancer. She was 75 years old. Her death certificate identifies her as a widow born in Kentucky; her most recent address was on Garland Road. In the four blanks reserved for the names of her parents and their birthplaces are four identical responses: DON’T KNOW.
One day after her death, Nannie’s body was buried in Woodland Cemetery in southern Dallas. Only 10 months later, on June 8, 1920, a person (or persons) unknown arranged for her to be disinterred and moved 2 miles southwest to Oakland Cemetery where, for more than a century, she has lain in proximity to the family for whom she once worked.
The interment card prepared for Nannie upon her arrival at Oakland Cemetery includes the usual particulars (name, date of birth and death, etc.), as well as a handwritten note that appears to have been added later. She was “a lady who did laundry for the H.O. Samuell Family, Gaston and Adair Street,” it reads.
Hazael Offutt (H.O.) Samuell was born in Georgetown, Scott County, Kentucky, in 1844, the same year as Nannie Roy. His parents were George Washington Samuell and Nancy Gray, landowners who, in 1850, enslaved 4 women, 3 men and 10 children on their farm. In 1860, the Samuells were worth $46,000 (more than $1 million today).
For reasons that aren’t clear, young H.O. was not raised by his biological parents. Instead, they gave the boy to his mother’s childless sister and her husband, Hazael Offutt. The 1850 and 1860 censuses show H.O. at ages 6 and 16 in the Offutt household, in the same Scott County district as his birth parents and his siblings. Like the Samuells, the well-to-do Offuts enslaved 17 workers.
In 1876, H.O. married Sally Worthington of Mississippi. She was the daughter of a medical doctor who, in 1850, enslaved 78 men, women, and children on Belmont Plantation. Interestingly, Sally’s maternal great-grandmother was the sister of Vice President Richard Mentor Johnson who, despite a controversial background involving a mixed-race woman,* served a term (1837–1841) under President Martin Van Buren.
Dr. William Waring Worthington, whose land holdings included property in Dallas, gave newly-wed Sally a “small farm” of 146 acres, which prompted the Samuells to move to Texas in 1878. The doctor had purchased the land sight unseen, and it was “a wretched bit of land” that White Rock Creek flooded each spring, according to Sally’s granddaughter, Hazael Williams Beckett, in her autobiography Growing Up in Dallas (New Hope Press, 1985).
Arriving in Dallas with H.O. and Sally was the couple’s first-born, sporting his maternal grandfather’s alliterative name. That boy became Dr. William Worthington Samuell, known to be a dedicated and innovative Dallas physician. In 1937, he bequeathed to the city of Dallas $1.2 million in cash and property, including his mother’s “small farm,” now known as Samuell-Grand and Tenison Parks, bounded on one side by Samuell Boulevard.
Within two years of their arrival in Dallas, the Samuell family of three — H.O., wife Sally, and two-year-old William— had in their household four servants: a 46-year-old Black man, a pair of 25-year-old white men, and Nannie Roy, 35, described in the 1880 census as Kentucky-born, single and mulatto. [The latter two identifiers contradict “widow” and “negro” used on her death certificate 30 years later].
There is no 1890 federal census — it burned in a fire — but it’s safe to assume that Nannie Roy was employed by the Samuell family of Dallas for at least two and perhaps three decades. In the 1900 census, she is listed as the family’s cook. Her tenure in the household means she was a witness to young William going off to medical school, as well as the arrival of his three siblings: Joel, 17, Betty, 15, and Edward, 13.
Nannie certainly witnessed the Samuell family’s worst moment when, a few days after Christmas in 1903, word arrived that Joel, 21, the youngest member of the Dallas bar, was accidentally shot and killed in a hunting party in Leota, Mississippi. He had graduated the previous summer from the University of Texas School of Law. He was the first member of the Samuell family to be buried at Oakland Cemetery, on January 2, 1904.
By this time, the original Samuell family of three had been Texans for 26 years. H.O. was well-established in the business of raising livestock, something he had done back home in Kentucky. Increasingly, he turned his attentions to public service. In 1906, he was appointed police commissioner. It was a powerful office to hold, as Edward Samuell Jr. explains in his article for the Dallas County Pioneer Association’s Proud Heritage collection:
City government at the time was governed by a City Council but its operations were directed by a triumvirate of the Mayor, the Police Commissioner and the Fire Commissioner. The threesome met almost daily and important decisions were made by a majority of the three.
In 1911, H.O. ran for mayor, but he did not win. Whether he thought himself out-matched or aimed for humorous self-deprecation, H.O. told one audience during the race that he was unable to make a flowery speech “like the young men who had the advantage of schools and colleges,” as he had to work when he was growing up.
In her autobiography, Hazael Williams Beckett (1911–2006) warmly remembers her “Pop,” as she called her grandfather. Her mother was H.O.’s only daughter, Betty.
Hazael reports that Pop once traveled to Kentucky to buy her a pony; he also surprised her with a puppy, a trip to the circus and, later in life, a vacation in California. She recalls only one encounter with her grandmother Sally, who died in 1914, when Hazael was only 3 years old. In 1922, H.O. succumbed to heart disease and stroke. The two are buried near their son Joel at Oakland Cemetery.
Growing up, Hazael spent a great deal of time at what she calls her grandparents’ “dark Victorian” house on Gaston Avenue, particularly in 1919–1920, when she first enrolled in Miss Hockaday’s School for Girls. Pop’s house was more conveniently located than her parents’ home, she explains in her book, so the family moved in for the school year.
It was here that she encountered for the first and only time a woman she called “Aunt Nan.” She describes the woman — who is certainly Nannie Roy — in a section of her autobiography titled “Some Black People”:
She drove her stylish buggy, pulled by a shiny bay horse, into the backyard drive that made a circle. She was tiny and very light, and she wore a blue uniform with white apron. Beside her, on the seat, was a laundry basket covered with a white cloth…Later, I learned that, though she did the Samuell laundry, she had been established in a nice house in one of the colored communities and provided with a horse and buggy…
The author’s choice of the words “stylish buggy,” “shiny bay” and “nice house” create a positive image of Nannie’s circumstances without neglecting to note she wore a uniform, did laundry and lived in a colored community. Her description of the Samuell laundress as “very light” suggests the 1880 census had it right: Nannie was a mixed-race woman.
These details speak to Nannie’s difference from other Black servants of the time period. She didn’t live in a room in the family’s house nor depend on public transportation for a ride to work. In fact, Hazael Beckett reveals how far beyond custom the Samuells went to care for their employee. She writes:
Uncle Will cared for her as her physician all her life, until she died of cancer. When she died, she was buried, illegally, on the Samuell lot. This was against all regulations.
Perhaps because she was only a child when Nannie Roy died, the author provides no explanation for why the Samuell family’s laundress first was buried in Woodland Cemetery only to be moved, eight months later, to Oakland, then a segregated cemetery. She is thought to be the first person of color to have been interred there.
Was there a family argument about the placement of Nannie’s remains? Was the 8-month lag indicative of a disagreement that took time to resolve? Or did one person act unilaterally to bury her in the shadow of the handsome Samuell monument, near but not alongside H.O., Sally and Joel? Was the decision a sentimental effort to reward her for decades of service? Or was it something else?
Hazael Beckett suggests that Nannie rests in the Samuell plot because — as a member of the family — she rightly belongs there. The author writes:
Once I asked Mother about the tiny headstone that had the simple inscription NANNIE ROY. It was at the very back of the lot. Mother said she had once asked Aunt Nan, who was mother’s age, who her father was…Nan said simply, “Honey, I don’t know, but they say he was your Uncle Pres.”
Uncle “Pres” was Preston Thomson (1815–1889), brother to Sally Worthington Samuell’s mother. That means Hazael’s mother, Betty Samuell, and Nannie Roy were first cousins, the author points out.
Preston was a lifelong bachelor and resident of Georgetown, Kentucky. He attended Georgetown College and served a stint as county court clerk. Records show he enlisted to fight for the Confederacy but never reported for duty. The 1880 census identifies him, at 64, as a single farmer living with four servants. He died, at 73, in the same house in which he was born. He is buried near his parents and older brother beneath a monumental obelisk in Georgetown Cemetery.
Was Preston Thomson the father of Nannie Roy? It’s possible.
Preston’s father, Charles Thomson, enslaved 15 human beings on his Georgetown farm in 1850, according to the federal slave schedule for that year. Among them were 10 females. On the first page that enumerates Thomson’s holdings is a 28-year-old Black female who would have been 22 the year Nannie was born. She could be Nannie’s mother.
On the second page is a six-year-old Black female, a girl born in 1844. This could be Nannie Roy.
How and when did Nannie Roy leave Kentucky and find her way to Dallas? It seems likely she was working in the large Worthington household in Mississippi and, when H.O., Sally and baby William left for Texas in 1878, they brought her with them.
There are so many other questions. Did Sally know about her Uncle Pres and share the story with her daughter, Betty…who then shared it with her daughter, Hazael? Was it more than family gossip?
And did Preston know the story of his notorious kinsman, the Vice President of the United States? Was there, for him, tacit approval in his forming a relationship with Nannie’s mother? Was he in love with her, as Richard Johnson was with the mother of his daughters?
As for Nannie, where did her surname “Roy” come from? There is no evidence she married or had children. As someone who could neither read nor write, she left nothing behind on which she signed her name.
If Hazael Beckett hadn’t asked her mother long ago about the woman she glimpsed as a child — a woman whose existence relied mostly on a modest marker lying in Oakland Cemetery — Nannie would have remained invisible. Thanks to her curiosity, the Samuell family did not take Nannie’s story to the grave.
*NOTE: Prior to his election to the nation’s second highest office, Johnson had a 22-year relationship with an enslaved woman named Julia Chinn; he referred to Chinn as his wife, and he gave their two daughters his surname and openly acknowledged he was their father. For more about Johnson and his mixed-race wife, see The Washington Post article by Ronald Shafer, Feb. 7, 2021.