Being a “May” in the month of May was always tough. I would dread this time of year as a kid, because my classmates thought it opportune for clever (or not so clever) puns using my last name.
“Anthony May is your birthday in May?”
“Anthony May I borrow a pencil?”
“Anthony May I please use the restroom?”
Nonetheless, I want to start off the first week of May explaining how I solved the mystery of the origin of my 2nd great grandfather, Stephen Joseph May (b. 1884)
Bear with me, I am descended from a long line of Stephen Joseph May’s so to distinguish them, I will be putting their birth dates next to their names.
My grandfather, Stephen Joseph May (1935-1993)
Let me start by re-introducing my maternal grandfather, also named Stephen Joseph May (b. 1935). He was born in Mount Vernon, NY, a city a few miles from the northern border of the Bronx. Stephen worked as a merchant marine, a peacetime annexation to the Navy, and traveled many places by sea.
My grandfather inherited his name from his father, Stephen Joseph May (b. 1911). Stephen can be seen here in the 1920 census with his family in Philadelphia.
1920 US Federal Census: Philadelphia Ward 20, Philadelphia, PA
May, Stephen (36)
Although they lived in Philadelphia in 1920, my great-grandfather and his sisters were born in Sewickley, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh. This is written in his Social Security application, filed in Mount Vernon in the 1939.
Stephen Joseph May (b. 1911) Social Security Application (1937)
When my family arrived in the first decade of the 20th century, Sewickley was already home to a burgeoning African American community, who found jobs with domestic work and in construction. As written by Bettie Cole and Autumn Redcross, authors of African Americans in Sewickley Valley
“Sewickley is noted for continuing routes and safe houses for those on the Underground railroad. Known as an affluent bedroom community, Sewickley is considered the wealthiest municipality along the entire 98-mile stretch of the Ohio River. Early residents brought black servants with them to serve as domestics. As construction increased, many African Americans migrated primarily from Viriginia and Kentucky to work in the area as builders.”
Did my family also come from Virginia and Kentucky? The birth certificate for my great-aunt Gatsy would suggest so. Gatsy was born in 1906 in Sewickley.
Gatsy May Birth Certificate (1906, PA)
Louisville, Kentucky is given as her father’s birthplace. Perhaps Stephen (b. 1882) came with this wave of Kentucky migrants as Cole and Redcross describe in their book? Yet, as I uncovered more records on Stephen, things got more confusing. I looked to his draft registration card for World War II.
Stephen Joseph May(s) World War II Draft Registration (1942)
Here was undoubtedly the same Stephen May reporting his birthplace as Houston, Texas. This was even more confusing! Was he born in Kentucky or Texas? I soon came across some evidence that suggested that it was neither.
My first hint came from finding Stephen in the 1900 Census in Norfolk, Virginia. He is listed with a Mary May as his mother.
1900 US Federal Census: Western Branch District, Norfolk, VA
May, Stephen (22)
Lewis, Eddie (12)
Jackson, Robert (23)
Jones, Berry (Benny?) (22)
Doing further research, I found that Mary May was the Husband of Stephen May of Edgecombe County, NC.
1880 Census: Tarboro Township, Edgecombe, NC
May, Stephen (38)
Mary Jr. (10)
At this point, I still felt something was missing. Upon further census research, I found a Stephen May (b. ~1840) living only a 30 miles south of Tarboro in Olds, Greene County, NC. Seen on this map, it would not be a far trip to make in 1880.
Distance from Tarboro, NC to Olds, NC (Via. of Google Maps)
And…this Stephen had a wife named Gatsy.
1880 US Federal Census: Olds, Greene County, NC
May, Stephen (30)
Izell (Isaiah) (7)
There was that name again! The name of my great aunt, daughter of Stephen May (b. 1882). Although Stephen was living with Mary in 1900, he named his daughter after Gatsy. Recently, I received Stephen’s original social security application in the mail. That proves that his mother was Gatsy.
Stephen Joseph May (b. 1884) Social Security Application
The same name given for Stephen’s mother, was the same family that was living in Greene County! It is highly likely that Stephen and Gatsy are my 3rd great grandparents.
My conclusion is that the Stephen and Mary in Edgecombe County, NC and the Stephen who married Gatsy from Greene County are one in the same. I am working to try to characterize more about this Stephen May (b. 1842), my 3rd great grandfather.
There may be one clue to unearthing his family story found in neighboring Pitt County, NC. There is a Stephen May (b.1800) found in the 1870 Census, that is old enough to be his father.
1870 US Federal Census: Greenville, Pitt County, NC
May, Stephen (77)
Pitt is a border county to Edgecombe and Greene, and it would make sense for him to the Stephen’s father, given the long unbroken lineage of Stephen May’s in my line.
Map of counties surrounding Wilson County, NC (Courtesy of FamilySearch Wiki)
In 1866, the North Carolina legislature passed an act to define the marriage of former slaves who had cohabited as man and wife prior to the Civil War. Stephen May (b. 1800) and Parthenia (nee Anderson) are found in these records and have claimed cohabitation since 1855. This means that it is possible Stephen and an unknown woman during the pre-antebellum period could have birthed my 3rd great grandfather in the early 1840’s. As this is speculation at this point, I will need more definitive documentation, oral history and DNA evidence to confirm.
If it is true that Stephen (b. 1800) is my ancestor, then here is my line of Stephen May’s going back in time from my grandfather to my 4th great grandfather.