Completed in 1991, the Blackwell Family Tree is an intricately detailed feat of genealogical inscription tracing family lineage back to 1735. Hand-written on canvas measuring 9 x 11 feet, there are over 5,000 names on the family tree representing people — including Arthur Ashe Jr. (1943-1993) — from 15 states, Africa, Canada, Germany, and Haiti.
Ashe’s cousin, Thelma Doswell, Certified Genealogist and Blackwell Family Historian, is credited with the creation of the tree. She passed away in 2012. According to Ms. Doswell’s research, the Blackwells are traceable back to a slave auction in 1735, when an African woman named Amar and her daughter, Tab, were purchased by plantation owner James Glenn Blackwell. Amar and Tab had arrived in Yorktown, Virginia, from Senegal, West Africa, on the slave ship Doddington.
Ashe’s cousin, JoAnne Blackwell, has been the steward of the tree since 2012. Her great grandfather, James, was the brother of Ashe’s great great grandfather, Hamit. Ms. Blackwell travelled from Laurel Springs, New Jersey, to donate the work on canvas to VMHC on February 22, 2019.
There are three Blackwell Family Trees in existence. The earliest tree was completed in 1959. At 6 x 8 feet, it has 1,500 names and is a part of the collections at the Library of Congress. Another 10 x 14 foot canvas with 5,000 family names was completed in 1991 and resides at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture. The VMHC first learned about the Blackwell Family Trees from an article in Richmond Magazine, “An Open Book” by Editorial Director Susan Winiecki, which ran in the December 2018 issue.
The tree is part of a variety of artifacts relating to the life of Arthur Ashe in the collections of VMHC, including Ashe’s tennis racket, gym bag, wristband, tennis ball, and numerous items related to Ashe’s monument in Richmond that was designed by sculptor Paul DiPasquale.