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The Christopher Columbus (CC) Keys Memorial Association is dedicated to the memory, history and continuation of the ideas of CC Keys, particularly, his views about citizenship and education for African-American youth. Below is a historical summary of CC Keys’ life which demonstrates his commitment to family, hard work, education and good citizenship.
CC KEYS’ PARENTS AND SIBLINGS: The Keys family has traced its African heritage to the Balanta tribe of western African and from there one of their ancestors migrated to Ireland and then onto American as indentured servant. There earliest recorded history of their living in North America shows up in the mid-1700s. Louis' grandmother, Milley Keys, is recorded in this nation's first census which took place in 1790. During the mid-1800s, Louis Keys married M. Sallie Moore. They were both from the Blounts Creek area of Beaufort County, North Carolina. Sometime thereafter they moved to the Free Union area of Darden, North Carolina, which is in Martin County, North Carolina. The Free Union Area was a section settled by African-Americans and Native Americans. The marriage of Louis and Sallie was a union of the African-American, Tuscarora and Croatan cultures. Their marriage was blessed with eight children, 6 boys and 2 girls. They named their children Christopher Columbus, Charles, Sarah, Kizzar, Benjamin Franklin, William Henry, Robert and Ivory Wyatt. To the best of our knowledge, Louis and Sally Keys were never slaves.
CC KEYS’ PERSONAL AND FAMILY INFO: Christopher Columbus (CC) Keyes was a relatively short, slim, brown-skin man. He learned the trade of shingle-making while growing up in Free Union. To make shingles he would go in the woods, cut down trees, mostly pine and cypress. His favorite tree was cypress. From the trees he would make shingles with tools such as a broad axe and a drawing knife. On an average, he could make about 500 shingles a day and would sell them for $4-$5 per thousand.
CC Keyes had two wives; his first married Sophia Peele in the 1880s. Sophia was the daughter of an African-American woman and a white man in Martin County. As a wedding gift, her father gave CC and Sophia 40 acres and a mule. This land was located in an area known as the Mill Neck. CC and Sophia setup housekeeping in this area. Their marriage produced five children: Charles Henry, Sadie, Mamie, Christopher, and Cedon. Unfortunately, Sophia died in 1895 at the age of 25, leaving CC with small kids ranging in age from 1 (Cedon) to 10 (Henry).
On April 8, 1896, CC married Florence Gaylord. This wedding took Martin County, NC. CC and Florence were blessed with three children: Rosa, Lena, and Rudella. Florence was of African-American descent and was 24 when she married CC who was 46 years old. Florence was so young that her step-children called her ‘Aunt Florence’ instead of ‘mama Florence’. Florence's mother, Lou Gaylord, also lived with her and CC. CC and Florence lived an eight-room house but it soon became too small for two women, eight children and him so he built a new house on 20 acres he had purchased back in 1890. This new house had eleven rooms, three fireplaces, and two living rooms. One living room had a piano in it and an organ was in the other. CC, Florence and their children (Rosa, Lena and Rudella) lived in this house with Florence's mother. He also built a store on this piece of property. The children from CC's first marriage continued to live in the eight-room house and CC continued to look after and support them.
CC KEYS’ FARM: CC purchased land from the 1890s to the early 1930s. He eventually owned approximately 400 acres. CC gave his nephews, Alfred and Felton, 15 acres each. They eventually sold their land but all of the rest of CC Keys’ property is still in the family.
In addition to being a shingle-maker, CC became a farmer and retailer. By the 1910s, several of CC’s off-springs lived on the farm with him. There were difficult times due to sicknesses and death but overall it was a good farm life. There was always lots of food, plenty of fun, and an extended family that loved and protected each other, particularly the children. The family raised chickens, ducks, goats, sheep, guineas, turkeys and hogs. All the vegetables eaten by the family were raised on the farm. Various family members raised items such as potatoes, collards, cabbages, tomatoes, corn, beans and peas. They also had several fruit trees. Tobacco, molasses canes, peanuts, com, and cotton were the family's main money crops. Wes Woolard, who married into the family, had a molasses-making machine and all the family would use his machine to make molasses. Making molasses was a big event. The men would harvest the sugar cane in the fields, and young boys would bring the cane to the molasses-making machine which had a fire that constantly burned. At one end of the machine was a grinder that squeezed the juices out of the cane. With long sticks the women would stir the cane juice as it gently moved over the hot bed of the molasses-making machine. By the time the juice got to the other end of the machine it was molasses. It was then drained into barrels for storage and later consumption.
CC KEYS’ EDUCATION PHILOSOPHY: CC was a quiet man with a strong desire for his family and the community’s kids to receive an education. He, Spear Keyes (no relations), and Riley Ruffin formed a committee of three to bring formal education to the Mill Neck community. CC gave the timber and the land to Martin County’s Board of Education for the one room school. It became known as the Keyes School. CC's daughter, Lena, was one of the school's main teachers. The school operated from 1894 until 1940. In 1940, the Martin County Board of Education wanted to close all its one-room schools. It closed the Keyes School due to its limited enrollment. Many of the residents of the Mill Neck had migrated north. This migration resulted in fewer children in the area and the Keyes School enrollment dropped to only 19 children. The Board of Education closed the school with the provision that it would be reopened it if the enrollment got back up to 22. The enrollment never did and the school was never re-opened. The Board of Education announced that it plan to auction the building and land that CC Keys had donated for the school. CC’s daughter, Rosa, purchased the property to keep it in the family. She converted the building into a house. Rosa's daughter, Marjorie Moore, now lives on the site in a newer house.
CC KEYS’ DEATH: His local nickname was "Old Man Chris Keys" and he died on August 14, 1936. At that time, all of his boys were dead. Thanks to God, most of the four hundred acres of land accumulated by him in the Mill Neck Community are still family owned. The family does not farm the land nor does any of CC’s descendents make shingles anymore but quite a few of them live on the land. For app forty years, CC’s descendants have gathered annually to honor his memory and achievements and we meeting every other year on the farm he built. Thanks Grandpapa CC.
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