ODESSA — Michele Houston-Hicks attended a different kind of family reunion in February.
More than 150 years ago, her great-great-great-grandmother Savilla Allen was enslaved by William Mobley, the pioneering Odessa plantation owner who now has a road there named in his honor.
But Houston-Hicks long believed she was linked to Mobley in another way.
“I was certain we were family,” said Houston-Hicks, citing a family story passed on through generations that Allen bore children with her owner.
It turns out, Mobley descendants heard that same story.
Around 80 years after the Allen and Mobley families last gathered, they did so again.
Those in attendance agreed they were related and shared another similar tale passed on to them about William Mobley and Savilla Allen: that they had loved one another.
“While we all feel slavery is wrong on all levels,” said Houston-Hicks, 56, who was designated by the Mobley and Allen descendants as their spokeswoman, "I think we can all take away a little peace in our heart and mind knowing we keep hearing the same sentiment, that there was love.”
The family reunion happened due to the Tampa Bay Times’ ongoing coverage of lost black cemeteries throughout the Tampa Bay area, Houston-Hicks said.
In December, the Times reported that the all-black Keystone Park Memorial Cemetery might still be somewhere on property that today is the Bay Tree Farm horse ranch in Odessa.
The headstones disappeared in the mid-20th century, but there is no evidence that the bodies were exhumed.
Houston-Hicks’ ancestors were among those buried there.
The physical search for the burial ground has been suspended due to the spread of the coronavirus.
Still, Houston-Hicks had a reignited desire to know the truth about her link to the Mobley family.
“I was using ancestry.com and I saw someone named Dottie Kellogg had already made an Allen family tree and connected it to the Mobley family tree,” Houston-Hicks said. “Dottie, who is 88, is Mobley’s granddaughter.”
Houston-Hicks reached out to her through the website. They connected and planned the reunion at Kellogg’s house. Nine Allen and four Mobley descendants attended.
“It was like we’d always been a part of each other’s lives," Houston-Hicks said. “Everyone was laughing and talking and sharing family information and history. We are all proud to be part of our rich pioneering heritage."
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Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center told the Times there is a record from 1860 showing William Mobley owned 13 slaves, but it does not provide names. Among them was a 14-year-old girl who would have been around Allen’s age at that time.
Five years later, the Civil War ended, and the enslaved were free.
The 1870 census has 25-year-old Allen still living on Mobley’s 2,000-acre timber and cattle plantation, but employed as a laborer.
Allen’s oldest son, Rollie, was listed as 9 and her youngest, David, was 6 months.
The 1870 census reports that Mobley was raising three white children on his plantation with his second wife, Cornelia, who was 30.
It is unclear how old Mobley was that year. The census says he was born in 1810, but his headstone says 1801.
Those government records refer to Savilla Allen as Lavilla. But Houston-Hicks said both the Allen and Mobley descendants are certain her name was Savilla.
The 1880 census shows Allen had moved away from Mobley’s plantation but stayed nearby with her children. All seven were listed as mixed-race — both black and white. No father is mentioned on the census.
It has long been part of Odessa history that Mobley gave 20 acres to Allen and her family. That tale is chronicled in news archives that tell the history of the community over the decades.
Houston-Hicks knew the story, as did the Mobleys, she said.
According to the Allen and Mobley family stories, Houston-Hicks said, Mobley took all his children, white and black, to the white Keystone Methodist Church.
“Initially the church balked at it, but they didn’t say too much because he was the one who had the money needed to build the church,” she said.
Mobley’s second wife, Cornelia, educated the Allen children before there was an Odessa school for black students. In 1925, the Allen family provided land for the Citrus Park Colored School.
Mobley died in 1889 and was buried in Keystone United Methodist Cemetery, which remains at 16301 Race Track Road in Odessa.
Allen died in 1917 and was buried in the now-lost Keystone Park Memorial Cemetery.
The Mobley-Allen bond endured for about another two decades.
Houston-Hicks said her 90-year-old cousin Margaret Mobley remembers from childhood that an older Allen man frequently visited her home and lovingly referred to her father, Hugh Mobley, as “Hugh baby.”
“She said he looked just like her grandfather, Ed Mobley, but just darker,” Houston-Hicks said.
No one seems to know why the families stopped gathering.
“We can only guess that it happened when racism ramped up,” Houston-Hicks said. “When the KKK grew stronger, things changed.”
Still, she said, neither family wants to dwell on the negative.
Slavery was broached during their reunion, but the Allens never pointed fingers.
After all, Houston-Hicks said, the Mobley who enslaved her great-great-great grandmother is her ancestor, too.
“For some of the cousins,” she said, “it softened our hearts a bit to know that this story of slavery is also a story of love and that today we are all here because of it.”
The cousins planned to get together again in May, but that may change due to the ongoing pandemic.
Still, Houston-Hicks said, she regularly checks in on her family, the Allens and the Mobleys.
“COVID-19 has definitely impacted our plans and desire to reconnect again, but it’s also given us all more loved ones to check in on and be concerned for.”