Holidays are a time for family. As we approach this holiday season, we prepare for multigenerational gatherings where there will be plenty of food, fun, and love. Likely, we will recount the trials and accomplishments of the ones who have passed on, the ones who paved the way for us who remain. We celebrate their legacy. We, as people who have a rich history of resilience, do not always wait for holidays to congregate and celebrate our heritage. We do that through family reunions. Family reunions began after Emancipation when our formerly enslaved ancestors sought to reconnect with relatives who had been torn away by the cruelty of chattel slavery. It became a tradition for us that remains, even today.
Because of the disruption of families that enslavement caused, many families are unable to trace their roots back to the places where our stories began in this country. There are some who, because of the uniqueness of their stories, have access to the recorded history of their ancestors. One such family is the McKoy family of Columbus County, NC. They recently celebrated the life and legacy of Millie and Christine McKoy, conjoined twins born to Jacob and Monemia on July 11, 1851, while under the ownership of Jabez McKay. The family generously invited The Star of Zion to the celebration of the life and legacy of their very famous ancestors.
The life of Millie and Christine McKoy, affectionately known by their descendants as ‘Aunt Millie-Christine,’ was celebrated with a multimedia program held at Southeastern Community College in Whiteville, NC. This celebration included officials from the university, county commissioners, and descendants of the twins. Students from the surrounding elementary and middle schools performed. There were poetry and dance performances inspired by their lives. The highlight of the day was a special performance by Napoleon Maddox, who is a descendant of Aunt Millie-Christine. He is best known as a hip-hop ambassador, writer, producer, and human beatbox. His artistic practice is the crafting of stories of heritage rooted in parables and shared wisdom. He has a unique way of taking the historical juxtaposed against the contemporary to tell a story that is riveting, informative, and entertaining. His groundbreaking telling of the stories of his great grandaunts was mesmerizing.
After the performances, the audience was invited to the Wyche Gallery to view a sweeping exhibit. The exhibit coalesced the information that the performances alluded to, and a clearer vision of the life of Millie-Christine McKoy emerged for this writer.
The story of Millie-Christine McKoy is fascinating and should be in history books in North Carolina and the entire country. Her/their show value was noticed early in life. From 1852 to 1860, they passed through several owners. Their last legal owner was Joseph Pearson Smith, who reportedly paid $30,000 for them. At age 14, they were freed after the Civil War and embarked on tours around the world. They were known as The Two-Headed Nightingale. Christine sang soprano and Millie sang contralto. They earned upwards of six thousand dollars a week. They appeared in forty-eight states, often accompanying P.T. Barnum’s Circus.
In their own words:
“A great many artists boast of having been before the Queen. Perhaps they have employed great diplomacy to get there. But with us, the case was different. Poor little monstrosities and black babies at that; we were sent for, and that without any influence at court to gain for us a Royal summons.”
On June 24, 1871, Queen Victoria presented Millie-Christine with matching brooches.
Free of the bonds of slavery, they chose to remain under the guardianship of their former enslaver’s widow upon his death.
“None can mistake our determination in remaining under the guardianship of Mrs. Smith. Our objective is twofold: We can trust her, and what is more, we feel grateful to her and regard her with true filial affection. We will not go with anyone else; where she goes, there will we go; where she tarries there, we will halt. We shall endeavor to imitate that deep devotion which Ruth evinced toward Naomi.”
To remain with Smith’s widow was their first independently made decision. Millie-Christine freely chose to be put on exhibition with stipulations that there would be no intrusive physical examinations.
Their great nephew, Fred McKoy, called them “the best Christian-hearted person I ever saw…I often wish I could live the life she lived.”
In a conversation with Fred Mckoy’s grandson, Wilson Spaulding, the importance of keeping the story of Millie-Christine and all of those on whose shoulders we stand alive is paramount. Mr. Spaulding caught his passion for the stories of Aunt Millie-Christine from his grandfather.
“I can remember many stories from my grandfather,” says Spaulding. “He had hundreds of albums of Millie-Christine. They wanted us to know our people. I am the sixth generation of the McKoy’s of Millie-Christine.” Mr. Spaulding is 84 years old. His memory is sharp, and his passion, like that of his grandfather, is infecting the next generations. “We must tell our kids about our history of his father,” Mr. Spaulding says. “I didn’t know he was a black historian. Back in the forties, he told us how to maneuver ourselves through this maze of dealing with white folks.”
It is important to tell our stories to the next generation. Even though this writer grew up and took history in North Carolina. I did not know about Millie and Christine McKoy until their descendant, Rev. Kenneth McKoy, shared their story with me. He knew because someone shared their story with him.
On October 8, 1912, Millie passed away due to tuberculosis. Eight hours later, Christine joined her in death.
“We are indeed a strange people, justly regarded both by scientific and ordinary eyes as the greatest natural curiosities the world has ever had sent upon its surface. Physicians who have examined us say our formation or rather malformation is much more remarkable than the physical condition of the Siamese Twins.”
May the legacy of Millie and Christine McKoy continue to live on.
I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.
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