Some family revelations

Published 10:08 pm Friday, April 26, 2019

It isn’t often that journalists happen upon interesting tidbits about their own family through their work, but I recently had that enlightening experience.

Regular readers may remember reporter Alex Perry’s story back in March about a woman from Suffolk, Marion Eley, whose name is inscribed on the Wall of Honor, part of the Virginia Women’s Monument on Capitol Square in Richmond. The wall includes the names of 230 Virginia women who have made unique contributions to our state’s culture and history.

While Alex was researching that story, we received a list of all of the women named on the monument. As soon as I opened the document, the surname of one woman stood out to me immediately, for obvious reasons.

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Ella Graham Agnew was on the list.

At first, I didn’t think there was much chance she could be a relative. How would I know? Partly as a result of the fact my paternal grandfather died when my father was a teenager, I’ve never known many of my Agnew relatives. With one possible exception — a sister-in-law of my paternal grandmother with whom she used to play pinochle — I wouldn’t recognize a single one of them if they walked up to me and said hello.

But as I started to read Ella Graham Agnew’s biography, several things stood out to me and connected with the bits and pieces I do know about my Agnew relatives. By the time I was done with my Google research, I became convinced she was related in some way.

The first thing I saw in her Library of Virginia biography is that she was born in Prince Edward County. I always knew my paternal grandfather’s family was from the Burkeville and Farmville areas.

Her father’s first name was James — my father’s name — but that’s obviously not a solid connection, as it’s a very common first name. Then I noticed her middle name was Graham, and her mother’s maiden name was Scott. Those were the names of my grandfather’s two brothers.

I then found a WikiTree profile on Ella Graham Agnew and saw that she had a brother named William. When I clicked on his profile, I saw he married a woman — also Ella — whose maiden name was Wilkins.

This was my “whoa” moment. My grandfather’s name — like many of his relatives, derived from family names — was William Wilkins Agnew.

After some questioning of my mother and my paternal grandmother, I confirmed — with about 99 percent certainty — that this William Agnew and his wife, Ella, were my great-grandparents, making the Ella Graham Agnew on the wall, William’s sister, my great-great-aunt.

I learned Ella Graham Agnew, who lived from 1871 to 1958, was a trailblazing educator and public administrator. In June 1895, she traveled to South Africa and taught stenography at a seminary, where she was a leader of the student Christian movement there.

When she returned to the United States, she continued her education and became interested in practical and vocational education for rural girls. The state superintendent of public instruction in Virginia invited her to create a program for this.

She actually worked in Nansemond County briefly and later became the first female field service home demonstration agent in the United States, acting like an agricultural extension agent but for sewing, cooking and other aspects of home economics.

She was also the founding president of the Virginia Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs in 1919 and also was the first female editor of the Southern Planter (!), the oldest Southern agricultural periodical.

It was a lovely experience to learn a little more about my extended family, simply by glimpsing her name on a list I was looking at for work. The next time I’m in Richmond, I plan to stop and get a photo of her name on the monument. I’ll update when I do.