Even in her late 80s, Barbara Toney of Roxbury can still recall her childhood lessons about the Revolutionary War. Most of all, she remembers that stories about the wartime contributions of black people like herself were seldom told.
But after a genealogical quest that spanned decades, Toney and her sister made an emotional discovery — their family is descended from a freed slave who fought for American independence.
Their fourth great-grandfather, Winsor Fry of East Greenwich, R.I., served for much of the war and took part in a number of historic battles, from the Siege of Boston to Yorktown.
Last week, Toney and five of her relatives — three of her sisters and two of her daughters — learned they had been accepted into the Daughters of the American Revolution, a group of women who can prove direct descent from those who supported the American struggle for independence.
The heirs, all black women, are joining the General Nathanael Greene-Pettaquamscutt Chapter in East Greenwich, where Fry lived.
“We’re bringing him alive,” said Toney, 86. “It’s really historical for us.”
Their membership becomes official May 5, said Bren Landon, a DAR spokeswoman.
Toney’s sister, Bette Koger, 77, a retired urban planner who lives in Baltimore, said the family was thrilled that Fry’s legacy was at last being honored.
“It’s a major accomplishment,” she said. “We found out so much about Winsor and felt a closeness to him and felt that we wanted to honor him in some way.”
Toney and Koger’s research into their lineage dates back to the 1970s, when Koger completed a 46-page family history that traced her paternal ancestors back to Warren Boyd, a Rhode Islander who lived from 1807 to around 1860.
Koger knew Boyd was married to a woman named Sarah Fry, but did not inquire further.
“I didn’t pursue Sarah Fry,’ she said. “I had no reason to, or thought she had just married into the Boyd family.”
Her cousin, David Harris, had researched his own lineage, and later wound up sharing his findings with Koger. His research delved deeper into Sarah Fry, her father Solomon, and her grandfather, Winsor. Toney said she also came across Winsor’s name in Harris’s writings.
Three years ago, a fellow genealogy buff who is a friend of Koger’s recommended that she search for Winsor Fry online.
“We found so much information about him that we thought we had died and gone to heaven,” Koger said.
Over time, the family traced Winsor’s life to 1773, when his owner, Thomas Fry, wrote in his will that he planned to give Winsor to his son. The family eventually tracked down a copy of the will, which was among the documents they submitted to the DAR to prove their heritage, said Darryn Lickliter, director of the organization’s library and genealogy divisions.
He said Fry, whose first name was sometimes written as Windsor, likely earned his freedom by going to war.
“I think that’s pretty neat that he was fighting for our freedom but also fighting for his own freedom at a different level,” Lickliter said.
Accounts of Fry’s life and his descendants were published last year in “Rhode Island Roots,” the journal of the Rhode Island Genealogical Society. In the two-part installment, historian and genealogist Bruce MacGunnigle chronicled how Fry enlisted in May 1775 and participated in 10 battles, though he also courted trouble.
He once faced court martial for desertion and was later sentenced to death for stealing. General George Washington spared his life with a pardon, MacGunnigle said.
“He wasn’t the perfect soldier, but that makes him more interesting,” said MacGunnigle, the town historian in East Greenwich.
Landon, the DAR spokeswoman, said descendants of African-American patriots often find it harder to establish their roots because the necessary documentation is harder to come by. The DAR does not track its membership, or their ancestors, by race.
In 2008, the DAR published “Forgotten Patriots: African American and American Indian Patriots in the American Revolution,” which includes information about more than 6,600 people of African-American, Native American or mixed descent who supported the Colonial cause during the Revolutionary War.
“We would love to celebrate more minority patriots,” she said. “The more that we can work together to uncover this research, I think the more we can celebrate the diversity of those who helped to found our nation.”
The organization has about 183,000 members worldwide, Landon said.
Toney said she debated whether to apply to the group, citing the organization’s infamous decision to bar Marian Anderson, an African-American opera singer, from performing in its Constitution Hall in Washington D.C. in 1939.
The move prompted Eleanor Roosevelt to resign from the group, and Anderson was invited to sing at the Lincoln Memorial, a famous concert that drew about 75,000 people. Anderson later performed at Constitution Hall.
Toney said it was MacGunnigle who convinced her to move ahead, and said she wanted to join for Winsor.
“I felt proud that he had fought for his country,” Toney said. “He had a big part in building this country.”