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McKnight finds family's history

By Staff
Jonathan Willis
Tom McKnight packed up and moved to Russellville from his native New York three years ago with one thing in mind – to find his family's history.
"My mother had always wondered what happened to the family," McKnight said of his mother, Sophia Snyder McKnight, who passed away in 2004.
"I decided that I would embark on a genealogy project to connect the family dots," he said.
Those dots led him all over the country, including northwest Alabama.
Shortly after leaving his post with the United Nations in Sudan, McKnight began a mission that's almost complete now. He knew a little about his great-grandparents, Rev. Fred Watkins, a well-respected Tuscumbia pastor of the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Watkins' wife, Sophia Watkins, he later found, was a cook for the Keller family during Helen Keller's childhood at Ivy Green.
Strangely, though, McKnight's great-grandfather, is not buried next to his wife in Tuscumbia's Oakwood Cemetery, or at least no marker is placed to indicate that he is.
However, McKnight has found clues that leads him to believe that the couple is buried together in the Tuscumbia cemetery.
"He must have been highly respected because I have learned that he was eulogized in a memorial service at the Muscle Shoals Baptist Association in October 1911," McKnight said.
Watkins died in February 1911, six years before his wife's death in 1917. McKnight believes that the employees at the Keller residence, and perhaps the Keller family, helped with his great-grandmother's burial, but he is puzzled about the whereabouts of his great-grandfather's resting-place.
Since moving to the area, McKnight has attended the same church where Watkins served as pastor.
He has been researching his family's past at the Franklin County Archives and Research Center in Russellville and at the Colbert County Courthouse.
"The people at both have been like family," he said. "They have gone out of their way to help me find my family."
McKnight believes that his family extends to the Nance, Ricks, Winston, Brown, and Donley families in the area.
A native New Yorker who has worked with emergency efforts across the globe, McKnight said he just felt that he needed to come to the Shoals area and find out more about his family's past.
"My roots are so deep in northwest Alabama that they push out on the other side of the planet, " he said.
He is a firm believer that we must all know where we came from and who our descendants are, especially in today's world.
"The greatest threat to national security is not knowing who we are – as a person, as a family, as a community and as a nation."
McKnight is asking that anyone who may know more about his family contact him at tom_mcknight@hotmail.com