I did not meet my cousin Dr. Edward B. Allen until I was well in my twenties. He was the third and last born of three children born to William Roswell “W. R.” Allen and Mamie Wimbish Allen. His sister Lamay was the eldest, then came Wilhelmina (bka “Billie”) and then there was Ed. He and I met for the first time at his eldest sister Lamay’s home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His sister Billie Allen and I had long been partners-in-crime, but I had not yet met Ed. All I knew about him was that he was a dentist. When I saw him he reminded me of my late father Thomas Charles Allen who was also not very tall, tan-complexioned and balding. Now, allow me to clarify something that Ed and his two late sisters needed clarified: I, Leslye Joy Allen, share the same “Allen” surname as Ed, but my last name comes from an entirely different Allen family, as I am biologically related to two unrelated sets of “Allens,” all on my father’s side of the family. Let me explain.
The original family surname was “Layende.” The Layendes were slaves from Cuba that arrived in the mainland United States. As a historian, I feel obligated to remind people that the Southern region of the USA and Latin America and the Caribbean were quite fluid and did business with one another all throughout the era of chattel slavery. This surname “Layende” was later anglicized to “Laws.” Ed’s paternal great grandfather Milton Laws’ sister Mollie Laws-Maddox was my great grandmother. They were the son and daughter of slaves David and Sarah Laws. Sometime before American chattel slavery ended, Milton Laws was sold, and he acquired the last name of “Allen,” and became known as “Milton Allen.” How he got this last name is not clear, but it is highly probable that Dr. Edward Bowden Allen would have been named Dr. Edward Bowden Laws had this slave sale not taken place.
Not long after Billie Allen asked me to do some family research, I had been searching for two men, one named “Milton Laws” and the other named “Milton Allen” only to discover from our mutual cousin Mittie Ann Tillotson that “Milton Laws” and “Milton Allen” were the same person. Cousin Mittie Ann was the great granddaughter of Richard Laws, the brother of Milton and Mollie. When Billie sent me photos of she, Ed, and Lamay’s paternal great grandparents Milton and Laura Allen, the first thing that struck me was how much my paternal grandmother Minnie Belle Maddox-Allen looked like her maternal Uncle Milton Allen (formerly named “Milton Laws.”) And then things began to click. Stay with me, now…
Now, Mollie Laws-Maddox’s daughter named Minnie Belle Maddox-Allen was my grandmother (My grandmother also named her daughter, my paternal aunt “Minnie Belle,” so I am also related to two “Minnie Belles.” Whew!!) My grandmother Minnie Belle Maddox married a man named Will Allen who was not related to my cousin Edward Allen. Will Allen, my paternal grandfather is where my own surname “Allen” comes from. You can imagine my early confusion at trying to figure out how my paternal grandmother was related to Ed, Billie and Lamay Allen when “Allen” was her married name, not her maiden name. But such is the case with African American genealogy. There are hundreds of descendants of slaves whose family surnames were chosen by newly freedmen and women themselves; they made-up some names; and in many instances the maternal and paternal surname was identical because both slave husband and slave wife belonged to the same owners and both bore the same surname.
This research journey began when Ed’s sister Billie could not remember the name of their paternal grandfather, so off I went to look up their father William Roswell “W. R.” Allen’s Social Security application. On that application were the names of his parents: Doc Roswell Allen and Mary Willie Jones. Doc Roswell Allen and my paternal grandmother Minnie Belle Maddox-Allen were first cousins. Soon after this discovery, and with some prodding from his buoyant wife Shelagh (who l instantly liked), Ed wanted to know more about the family tree. After, acquiring some more information from Billie I discovered that the physician Dr. Edward G. Bowden, who was my paternal grandmother’s physician, was the man Ed was named for. Dr. Edward G. Bowden married Elizabeth Allen who was the sister of Doc Roswell Allen and daughter of Milton and Laura Allen. Doc Roswell Allen’s sister Virgil (who later renamed herself “Virginia”) bore one son out of wedlock, and his name was John Wesley Allen and he was a dentist, the first of many dentists in the family. All of these “Allens” were members of that rather complicated “Laws/Allen” family tree.
I only saw Ed about four times in my life. Yet, each time I saw him, something he said to me gave me some nugget of information. I still remember when he told me he recalled a “John” from his childhood who came to visit but then seemingly disappeared. I told him Dr. John Wesley Allen was killed in a car accident in the late 1930s. In the late 1990s, I mailed Ed a report of everything I knew about our family. I don’t think I even knew about the origins of our slave ancestors the “Layendes” from Cuba when I sent that report to Ed, but he was grateful to receive it. I still have the “Thank You” note he sent me, a “Thank You” note that his sister Billie said was uncharacteristic of her brother. I laughed because I got the sense that Ed knew that the work I did was much more time-consuming and tedious than most people realize.
I remember Ed as a renaissance man who loved the good life, who could be aloof, who was often funny with a dry wit, who was a man who loved a good drink, but one who also yearned to know more about the home and people he left when he journeyed North to escape some of the harsher realities of life for Black people in the South that colored much of the 20th century. Although we did not know each other well, I consider it my privilege to have known him and to have been able to help him answer some of the questions about our family tree and heritage. We always yearn for home, that sense of understanding where and from whom we have come. We yearn for home, no matter where we go. And now Ed has gone home (May 27, 1926 to July 18, 2026). Àṣé.
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Wonderful story. Just don’t give me a test today. I’d have to re-read before taking it! My parents life was sort of left when they migrated from Texas and Arkansas. They both had no interest and I suspect there were many unpleasant memories. My maternal grandmother, who was our nanny while our parents worked, went to the church’s ‘jubilee’ in Texas every year. Until I was in my early teens, it never connected she was attending a ‘reunion’. Suffice it to say I will have my head and hands full in any search.
No tests Rosaline Johnson! LOL! It was a lot of work connecting these dots, but it really helped me understand how difficult African American genealogy really is. And good luck with your research because our histories are not nice and neat like other people. Last names changed. Slaves were sold. I know one actor whose great great grandfather refused to use his former slave master’s last name, so he took the last name of his wife. Others chose the last name “Freeman” for the obvious reasons. Just remember genealogy is a marathon, not a sprint.