Descendants of former slave, Union soldier gathering in Freetown

Published 10:00 am Saturday, July 9, 2022

Former slave, Civil War soldier, farmer and father of seven children, William “Bill” Sims’ life will be celebrated at the family’s annual reunion the weekend of July 15-17 in Vicksburg and the Freetown community.

The first black regiments were formed in the spring of 1863 following the creation of the Bureau of Colored Troops. Soon after, African American volunteers were organized into infantry, artillery, and cavalry regiments that eventually became known as the United States Colored Troops (USCT). Nearly 175 regiments of over 178,000 free men and former slaves served during the last two years of the war.

Sims was one Civil War’s African-American soldiers whose service was commemorated in February 2004 at the Vicksburg National Military Park with the nation’s first monument to the “Colored Troops.”  The 1st and 3rd Infantries and all Mississippians of African descent who participated in the Vicksburg Campaign were honored.

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According to a news release, family has relied on oral history, records secured by The Church of the Latter-Day Saints, War Records, Warren County Courthouse records and Ancestry.Com census records for information on Sims and his children.

The Church of the Latter-Day Saints has amassed the records of the Freedman’s Savings Bank of Vicksburg and other cities. The banks were created after slavery to assist newly freed slaves during and after the Civil War. Their records cover approximately 1865-1874 and document names and relationships of those who used the bank.

“Although the records contain limited genealogical information, they are a valuable source of family history information,” Sims’ great-great-granddaughter Thelma Sims Dukes said in a statement. “From these records, the descendants have learned that on Nov. 16, 1868, at the age of 29, Sims opened a savings account at the Freedman’s Bank.”

The family also learned that he was a farmer and worked for M. Harris. He had served with the 3rd Calvary in the Union Army during the Civil War. His parents were Elizabeth and David Sims. He had a wife, Judie, and a sister and daughter, both named Milly, but he had no brothers. He and his parents were born in Virginia.

On April 30, 1896, at the age of 54, Sims and his wife purchased 100 acres of land. The land is located in Freetown, a small community east of Vicksburg. He kept and worked this land until he died in 1930.

Ten acres of that land are still in the possession of his descendants who are counted into the ninth generation. Forty-five years after he purchased the land and 11 years after his death, on May 24, 1941, a quitclaim deed covering 90 of the acres was filed in Warren County with his three surviving children’s names typed on the deed without signatures or X marks to indicate that they knew the land was being quitclaimed. A handwritten notice on the side of the deed stated that the “Press (was) requested not to mention.”

The descendants are currently establishing a foundation and developing a memorial park on the 10 acres.  The three-day family reunion celebration will include a tour of the Vicksburg National Military Park and the Vicksburg National Cemetery, where 5,500 African-American Civil War soldiers are interred — 40 percent of the 17,000 Civil War Union soldiers buried in the 116-acre cemetery.

Culminating the three-day celebration, on Sunday, family members will gather on the land to pour a ceremonial libation honoring their ancestors. Family member the Rev. JoeAnn Harris will be the keynote speaker for Sunday’s Memorial Ceremony.