By Jared L. Olar
Local History Specialist
Among Central Illinois’ African-American veterans of the Civil War was Pvt. Edward W. Lewis (c.1834-1907) of Peoria, who served in the 29th U.S. Colored Infantry from the autumn of 1864 to the spring of 1865.
We have previously devoted some attention to Pvt. Lewis due to his link to Nance Legins-Costley (1813-1892) of Pekin and Peoria, known to history for being the first African-American to secure her freedom with the help of Abraham Lincoln. Lewis married Nance’s eldest child Amanda E. Costley (1834-1900) in Pekin on 24 March 1858.
Although Pvt. Lewis’ Civil War service and marital connection to Nance Legins-Costley are notable in and of themselves, genealogical research on the Lewis family has shown that he had some remarkable individuals and celebrities among his relatives who lived in the 20th century. Let’s take a look at some of what we can learn about the Lewis family and their descendants.
After Amanda’s 1858 marriage to Edward W. Lewis, we find her in the 1860 U.S. Census living with her in-laws the Lewises in St. Louis, Missouri. That census record, dated 14 July 1860, shows Amanda Lewis, 25, a washerwoman, and little Edward Lewis, 1, in the household of Ambrose Lewis, 67, porter, born in Virginia, along with Fillis Lewis, 69, washerwoman, born in Virginia, Fillis Butcher, 20, washerwoman, born in Virginia, Thomas Brown, 3, born in Missouri, and Margaret Butcher, 1, born in Missouri. For some reason, Amanda’s husband Edward Lewis is not listed as a member of this household, but his firstborn child Edward was there with Amanda and his grandparents Ambrose and Phillis. (Other records indicate that Fillis or Phillis Butcher was a daughter of Ambrose and Phillis, and Margaret Butcher was her daughter.)
Remarkably, Edward’s parents Ambrose and Phillis Lewis were double-counted in the 1860 U.S. Census, because another record, dated over a month earlier on 8 June 1860, shows Ambrose Lewis, 76 (not 67), servant, born in Virginia, Phillis Lewis, 75 (not 69), servant, living in the household of Louis Brown, 32, riverman, born in Kentucky, and Mary Brown, 23, washerwoman, along with Polly Lewis, 55, washerwoman, and little girls named Francis Brown, 4, Georgiana Brown, 2, and Emma L. Brown, 5 days old. The little girls were the daughters of Louis and Mary Brown, and Mary herself was a daughter of Ambrose and Phillis (as indicated by the 1854 marriage license of Louis and Mary which gives Mary’s maiden name as Lewis).
These two 1860 census records together provide a picture of the Lewis family in St. Louis at that time, with some members living in one residence and others at another address, and the senior members Ambrose and his wife Phillis perhaps moving out of their daughter Mary’s home two or three weeks after being counted in the census, just in time to be counted a second time in July. The little boy Thomas Brown living with them in July is one of the children of Louis and Mary (Lewis) Brown.
Edward W. Lewis subsequently appears in the 1863 Peoria City Directory working as a tobacconist at 24 N. Adams and living at 53 Birket. He enlisted in the Union Army on 28 Sept. 1864 at Springfield, and served until the war’s end, being mustered out at Springfield on 23 May 1865. While in the service, he had the rank of private, and the Union Army employed him as a cook (as we see in the 1865 Peoria City Directory).
After the war, Edward and his wife Amanda and their sons continued to live in Peoria until their deaths. Over the years, Edward worked as a tobacconist, a cook, a music teacher and musician, and a whitener or whitewasher. His Peoria Star obituary says he died 1 April 1907 at home: “Edward Lewis age 76 years, died of dropsy at 114 Hancock in Peoria. He is a Civil War veteran and a member of the Masons. 3 sons survive. Services April 3 with burial in Springdale.”
His first wife Amanda had preceded him in death seven years earlier. Both Edward and Amanda are buried in Springdale Cemetery in Peoria, but neither of them has a headstone. Research has identified two lines of living descendants of their son Ambrose Lewis, the Marabettas and the Edwardses.
In addition to the living descendants of Pvt. Edward W. Lewis, some lines of descent have been traced from Edward’s sister Mary A. Lewis down to the present day.
As noted above, Mary and her husband Louis T. Brown (who was born April 1828 in Kentucky) married on 28 Dec. 1854 at the Second Colored Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri. The church’s pastor, J. R. Anderson, conducted the marriage. Census records show that Louis worked variously as a riverman, a common laborer, and a whitewasher. Mary and Louis went on to have six daughters and two sons: Frances M. “Fannie”, Thomas, Georgiana, Emma Louise, Matilda, Susan, William Christopher, and Carrie M. Lines of descent down to the present day can be traced from Fannie and her brother William Christopher, but for our purposes we will focus on Fannie’s descendants.
Fannie grew up in the wider St. Louis, Missouri, area. On 24 Dec. 1879, in Madison County, Illinois, she married an African-American farm worker named Thomas Sexton, who was born Dec. 1854 in Illinois. Fannie and Thomas lived at Pin Oak and Collinsville in Madison County and raised a family of two sons and three daughters: Harry, Lucy Amanda, Ella, Carry, and William.
Their eldest daughter Lucy was born 13 Feb. 1883 in Collinsville, Illinois, but later we find her in Belleville, where she married George Robert Cherry (1869-1940) on 11 June 1904. Lucy and George had two daughters, Gladys Hannah Willamena (1905-1985) and Vivian W. (1908-1983), and two sons, George Robert (1906-1978) and Norman Thomas (1910-1969).
It is in the family of Lucy and George Cherry where we meet some truly remarkable individuals who made some significant achievements and score some historic “firsts.”
For instance, their son George R. Cherry married Elizabeth A. Beckham (1912-1992), who was born in Cahokia, Illinois. Her obituary, published in the 20 March 1992 edition of The Belleville News-Democrat, notes that Elizabeth “was the first African-American woman to work as a clerk in the St. Clair County Offices.”
George and Elizabeth (Beckham) Cherry had a daughter named Carol Yvonne Cherry (1936-2017), who married Jackie Koogan White (1927-1978). Born in Water Valley, Mississippi, White moved with his family to Centralia, Illinois during the 1930s. He played basketball for Centralia High School, and went on to attend historic Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was a four sports star and won all-conference honors in football and basketball.
After college, White played for the world famous Harlem Globetrotters from 1949 to 1952. He then became the coach of the Kappas, who under his guidance won several titles in the Inter-Frat series. Settled in Los Angeles, California, White made history by becoming the first black official in the NBA in 1968. Prior to that he had been the first black official in the old ABL as well as the first black to officiate in the Pac-8. Sadly, however, he died of cancer on 3 Aug. 1978 when he was only 51.
Another individual that we find in the Lewis-Brown-Sexton-Cherry family tree attained success and some degree of fame back when Jackie Koogan White was still a child. The link is again found among the children of Lucy and George Cherry: their second daughter Vivian married Leroy Allen Maxey, a jazz drummer who during the high point of his career was known simply as “Maxey.” He rose to fame as the first drummer for the Cab Calloway Orchestra, with whom he toured nationally and internationally.
Maxey was born 6 June 1904 in Kansas City, Missouri, and married Vivian W. Cherry during the 1940s. They had two sons. During those years they lived in Flint, Michigan, but later settled in Los Angeles. Vivian died there on 24 Dec. 1983, and Maxey followed her a few years later on 24 July 1987. They are buried together at Forest Lawn in Hollywood Hills, California.
Several photographs and an advertisement from Maxey’s career as a jazz drummer have been uploaded to his Find-A-Grave memorial by Jeff Pitet of thehidehoblog.com (which is devoted to Cab Calloway’s career).
Videos of early Cab Calloway performances are also available online, in which Maxey can be seen playing with the orchestra.