Harry Mordecai: Ancestor and Artisan
(Editor’s Note: Jacqueline Ridley’s family history research brought her from out of state to Frankfort last month. She graciously agreed to share some thoughts about the experience.)
My grandmother, Florence Yeizer Johnson, only knew her father’s name, Mordecai Yeizer. As a little girl, I saw that interesting name in her Bible. Years later, I began genealogy research starting with that name and in the process discovered the name of his grandfather, Harry Mordecai, born into slavery circa 1784 and died Jan. 3, 1853. The Franklin County, Kentucky, 1816 tax records shows him as a free person of color. My additional research indicates that he was a plasterer, married to a slave woman named Patsey and the father of five children. One of those children was Eugenia Mordecai who would later marry Edward Yeizer. Born to this couple was a child named Mordecai Yeizer.
One genealogical find after another was seemingly not enough to quench my thirst about the history of my family. I knew I had to travel to Frankfort. My research had uncovered facts but I needed more than facts. I needed to literally and figuratively walk in the footsteps of the family that I had come to know and love. And so I did. I walked down Lewis, Washington and Clinton Streets. I addressed the congregation at the church, St. John’s A.M.E., where my ancestors worshipped. St. John’s was deeded in trust to Harry Mordecai and George Harlan in 1839.
At Frankfort Cemetery, I scrubbed the gravestones of ancestors whose lives had influenced my life in ways known and unknown. I toured Liberty Hall where John Brown lived and served as one of the first senators of Kentucky, 1792-1805, and the Orlando Brown House, the home of Sen. Brown’s son. Harry Mordecai had performed plastering work in both houses.
I viewed the mighty Kentucky River coursing its way through Frankfort, a river both beautiful and destructive. I recalled reading about major flooding throughout the centuries and visualized my ancestors in the “Craw”* dealing with the consequences after each catastrophe. But, they had dealt with far worse situations as they had been born into slavery.
As I entered the Old State Capitol, I stood mesmerized and overwhelmed viewing the artistry of a master’s work. It was then that the reality of what I was seeing hit me: The plasterwork that adorned the ceilings, walls and dome of the capitol was a result of my great-great-great-grandfather’s brilliant creative abilities. Whoever taught him the fundamentals of bricklaying and plastering, be it another slave or his slave owner, I give them thanks. Armed with the fundamentals he learned, Harry Mordecai became the leading plasterer in Frankfort. To my knowledge, the skills Harry possessed are unsurpassed even today.
His tenacity, resilience and exceptional skills allowed him to earn enough money to buy his freedom and that of his wife and five children. I swelled with pride trying to reconcile with the fact that this was a man whose blood courses through my veins. I was in total awe but not surprised that, a former slave, my great-great-great-grandfather had created such great beauty. What an awesome feeling.
I wonder how many other enslaved and freed artisans performed work at the Old State Capitol. These artisans are the ones who contributed to the building of grand monuments that still stand today as testament to Frankfort’s history. It is my desire that other people will use Harry’s story as a catalyst to begin research of their ancestors and, hopefully, unearth their untold stories.
My thanks to the people at the Kentucky Historical Society, the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives, the Capital City Museum, Frankfort Cemetery, the African-American Genealogy Group of Kentucky, and the University of Kentucky who contributed in various ways with providing me with your expert assistance. My research was made much easier by your efforts. I will always be grateful for you all going the extra mile.
*The Craw, also known as Crawfish Bottom, was an African American neighborhood near downtown Frankfort that was lost to urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s.