The Donaldsons Stand Among Roslyn's Black Pioneers
Part 1: The Donaldsons stand among Roslyn’s Black Pioneer families
by Alisa Weis and Ryan Anthony Donaldson
Authors’ note: This is the first part of a series on Roslyn’s Black Pioneers, made possible due to the diligent research of Lillian “Babe” (Donaldson) Warren and her husband Robert E. Williams through The Donaldson Odyssey: Footsteps to Freedom and the continued efforts of the Donaldson family to bring their family history to light. Please look for Parts 2-5 this coming September.
Jessee Donaldson achieved his freedom before he was fully grown.
In one snapshot Jessee Donaldson is frozen in time: It’s 1902. He’s sitting up straight in a chair, wearing a striped prison issued shirt and a hardy expression that hints at the struggles he’d overcome. He faced more than your average man and lived to prevail despite so many atrocities placed upon him.
Jessee began his life enslaved by his presumed white father and white stepmother and their children. Joining him in this same household was his Black birth mother and Black half siblings who were also enslaved.
Jessee joined the Union Army exactly one year after the Civil War began to escape slavery. He sustained lifelong injuries that hindered but did not hold him back.
In years to come he and his wife Anna successfully relocated their family 2,500 miles west for a better life in the mining town Roslyn, Washington.
His story wouldn’t be stopped by three months of federal incarceration for a questionable offense. Jessee’s legacy carries on today through the hundreds of Donaldson descendants in Washington state, California, Texas, Ohio, and beyond.
In analyzing Jessee’s photo taken 120 years ago, you’ll note his strong jawline and mustache befitting a man at the turn of the twentieth century. His eyes engage the camera with blurred version, one eye wounded from war, the other looking directly to the camera. Perhaps he realized that this three-month stint served at McNeil Island, charged, and convicted for “selling liquor to an Indian,” would only be a minor setback. His journey was paused, but he wouldn’t be stopped for long.
“He was arrested for selling to family!” great great granddaughter Lenora Bentley declared, alluding to the fact that the Donaldsons are a multiracial family comprised of a skin shade spectrum since at least the 1800’s.
Jessee’s great (times five) grandson, Ryan Anthony Donaldson, who works as an archivist, gazed upon Jessee’s image at the National Archives at Seattle for the first time this past May along with his father, Ray Donaldson, cousin Butch Smith, and Butch’s son Greg Smith, and can’t stop reflecting on the experience. To say he was moved is an understatement.
Ryan was notified of the image’s existence from Seattle historian, genealogist, and author Cynthia A. Wilson, who is designating a chapter of her upcoming book on United States Colored Troops to Jessee Donaldson’s legacy. Jessee joins 31 men that Ms. Wilson researched for her book. The four Donaldson men left the archives in awe to finally behold a verified photo of Jessee and that he will be featured in Ms. Wilson’s book.
For years they’d thought that Jessee was another man, identified in an early family photograph. They were astonished to realize Jessee appeared different than the man whose face they’d come to see as their patriarch.
As elusive as his likeness might be until now, details of Jessee’s journey are recorded so that his descendants might know and remember the steep price he paid for his freedom and their own.
The Donaldsons also draw awareness to the fact that they share many white relatives tracing back to the Revolutionary War, but they look to Jessee as their biracial forefather with good reason. That said, more than a few of Jessee’s kin express interest in knowing and meeting more of their white side “as long as we take care of the Black side first.”
The Donaldson Odyssey: Footsteps to Freedom
It was the mid 1980’s, one of Jessee’s descendants, Lillian “Babe” (Donaldson) Warren ventured to the coal mining town of Roslyn, Washington with her husband, Robert Williams, for the first time.
While there, she found herself walking the strangely familiar terrain her Donaldson descendants had trod 100 years before.
She started letting her imagination take flight. What must their lives have been like? What were their struggles? Their triumphs? Their unique experiences? What could she uncover about their stories as one large family within the Pacific Northwest Black Pioneers community?
Babe went to spoken-of haunts: everywhere from the Ronald #3 mine where her ancestors worked to the Mt. Olivet Cemetery where Jessee, his son Thad, daughter Rusia, and grandson Roy are buried. There was so much history written in Roslyn’s soil, and the fact that her loved ones were part of it was a story that bore telling.
“I realized that history had been made here,” she wrote in her introduction to The Donaldson Odyssey: Footsteps to Freedom. “My family had worked here and was part of that history and the history of Roslyn, Washington. I felt tears beginning to fill my eyes.”
The fruits of her labors became known as The Red Book in honor of its striking red cover. Babe shared the book with her extended family and gifted a copy to the Roslyn Historical Museum for those interested in a more in-depth analysis of the family trees and reflections on the Donaldson family lines.
“The Red Book is pivotal. It was written 30 years ago with what resources Lillian had available,” Butch said of his relative’s dedication. “She did a magnificent job collecting the documentation for such comprehensive research. She really set in motion forthcoming research our family would like to do on our heritage.”
What’s substantial beyond Babe’s devotion to publish a 300+ page family anthology is that she did so before the convenience of digitized records available online. Babe and a few loved ones, including her cousin, Lenora Bentley, rolled up their sleeves and made the phone calls, sought the records, booked plane tickets to Tennessee, and asked the questions that collectively provided them with a strong foundation of family knowledge.
Lenora recalls Babe generating financial support for the project through creating and selling t-shirts at family reunions with a book title that could be the family’s mission statement: The Donaldson Odyssey: Footsteps to Freedom.
Karla Jackson, Jessee’s great granddaughter said that although she hasn’t reread The Donaldson Odyssey in quite some time, “I’m [still] in awe of The Red Book.”
Babe’s daughter, Tia Forest, was in her twenties when her mother took up the substantial task of researching the family’s past. She recalls going to the archives with her mother a few times and says of the experience, “She didn’t want to sugarcoat the past. We still have people finding out they are Donaldsons. We’re a very diverse family, and a lot of us don’t look Black. You never really know what [ethnicity/race] people are.”
Tia said that her mother’s refusal to deny her African American ancestry left a lasting impression when she was a little girl. “She told me ‘Don’t ever pass for what you’re not.’” Babe fought three days to change Tia’s ethnicity to “Negro” from “White” on her birth certificate. “To this day, I put ‘Black’ on medical records. When people assume I’m Caucasian, I correct them,” Tia said.
Tia, who is often asked if she’s Creole or Redbone in the clubs she sings in, says that she doesn’t mind people’s inquisitive natures. If they’re really interested, “I’ll sit them down. My mother taught me to never cut a pass, and I don’t. I’ve never allowed people to make racial slurs in my house. I automatically accept people for what they are.”
Tia credits her mother for being a woman of honesty and kindness. “She was a sweetheart and a beauty, but you better not cross her.”
Babe undoubtedly drew on some of the Donaldson steadfastness to see the anthology through to completion, and her relatives are especially grateful some 30 years later.
“Babe laid an incredible framework, and we are honored to be filling in the gaps today,” said Ryan of his continued quest to bring the Donaldson story to light. He’s come to experience the exploration of the past as a “guided journey,” as he follows in Babe’s footsteps and compares stories with other Washington Black pioneer families. Babe said she had a “powerful urge to know more about this family,” and Ryan knows exactly what she’s talking about.
Turns out that Babe faced resistance on her quest to uncover Donaldson family history. Her cousin Lenora said, “When she went down south, she was told not to dig too deep into the past. I don’t know who it was that threatened her in Tennessee. But let’s face it, some of our [white] ancestors didn’t want to bring up the past or know how bad it truly was.”
“I want to continue and pick up where [Aunt] Babe left off,” said Paula Terrell, Lenora’s daughter. “I was close to my aunt and mother when they were working on it, and it’s connected hundreds, if not thousands of us together.”
Paula said that the pervasiveness of the Donaldson presence in Washington state has sometimes meant learning that people she knew as co-workers or friends are, in fact, family members. For instance, she worked with Al Smith, Butch’s father, back in the 1980’s, left on a Friday, saw him at a family reunion over the weekend, and came back to work on Monday calling him “Uncle Al.”
“Because of that book, I realize the importance of knowing your family,” Paula said with conviction. “There’s pride in knowing where you come from. It adds value to each and every one of us.”
No matter who discouraged her discoveries, Babe remained steadfast to further uncover her family’s story. She wasn’t interested in what any naysayers tried to do to derail her efforts and spent countless hours compiling information on relatives across the family trees.
As a result, hundreds of descendants know who their family patriarch was and at least some of the trials Jessee and Anna weathered to provide them a future of hope and freedom. The family understands this rare gift, compared to fellow African American families who lack such detail about their descendants’ lives.
Ryan discovered an earlier edition of The Donaldson Odyssey within the preserved lectern from the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church at the Roslyn Historical Museum little more than a year ago. This edition includes photos and information that today’s Donaldsons are uncovering for the first time.
Considering how new connections are made all the time from The Donaldson Odyssey, the family narrative remains an evergreen wellspring of insights.
To anyone who sits down to read it, its pages outline an incredible journey from an Alabama plantation to postbellum Tennessee then coal mining company towns in Washington state.
Across generations, the Donaldsons are still finding themselves amidst significant phases of national and local history. This coming Saturday, August 13, members of the family anticipate attending the Roslyn Black Pioneer Picnic. They look forward to connecting with other descendants of the courageous African American men and women who arrived west by train many years ago.