“Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present”
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
I worked with Bill Taft for twelve years before discovering that the roots of our collaboration stretch back to the eighteenth century.
Bill and I first met at Slice Pizza on Edgewood in 2010. Someone introduced us at a party, and Bill said he was interested in teaching in prison, and that was the beginning of over a decade of friendship and collaboration: we taught together at Phillips State Prison, collaborated on writing and literature courses, envisioned how the program could flourish and grow, recruited other faculty and tutors, worked with the amazing children at Foreverfamily, organized events, fostered a community of writers, and founded a nonprofit.
We centered “human dignity” as our defining value.
We travelled to Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Mississippi to learn from other prison education folks. We expanded the program to a women’s prison and three other men’s prisons. Bill and I envisioned what equitable access to college looks like, especially for people in prison, and worked together to realize it.
Then I discovered that Bill’s and my ancestors were also friends—Robert Taft and Grindal Rawson—and they collaborated on a similar vision: they made it possible for over 160 colonial kids to attend college, during an era when access to higher education was restricted only to those who had been educated in Latin.
Robert Taft was born in Ireland, c. 1674, immigrated to Massachusetts, co-founded the town of Mendon, MA (now Uxbridge), built a stone bridge over the Blackstone River with his sons in 1709 that still stands, and became the first American ancestor of the Taft family, which went on to include four members of Congress, two state governors, a president of the United States, and a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Also an Atlanta musician, as seen here:
Robert Taft was friends with Grindall Rawson (b. 1659 in Massachusetts), who is my direct paternal ancestor from twelve generations back. Rev. Rawson also co-founded Mendon, and their names can be seen on the founder’s plate, below:
In 1709, lamenting that the boys growing up in rural Massachusetts had no path to college, Rev. Rawson offered to board a Latin schoolmaster without charge if the town would establish a school. The town accepted Taft’s and Rawson’s proposal, and history writes that “thus we find that 160 boys were prepared for college at the public charge” (Rawson Family History).
Bill’s and my ancestors created a path to education where one had previously not existed. In the early eighteenth century—as in the early twenty-first—gatekeepers abounded at the entrance to colleges, arbitrarily choosing factors like family wealth and access to Latin as entrance criteria. Today, social class and wealth continue to open or close university doors, along with a past history of criminal conviction and other personally and politically inconvenient factors. But for the last eleven years, Bill and I have seen the power of resisting those injustices.
When Cotton Mather preached Rev. Rawson’s funeral, he said “we usually took it for granted that things would be fairly done, where he had an hand in doing them” (The Rawson Family 18). I hope that can be said of me: that what I undertake is just and right. If it is true, Bill has played a significant role in influencing me toward justice and integrity.
Whether Nietzsche was right about the “eternal return,” I don’t know. But as it turns out, the Tafts and Rawsons make pretty good partnerships. In 1785, Aaron Taft and Rhonda Rawson married and had a son, Peter Rawson Taft, Ohio legislator and judge, and paternal grandfather of President and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft. Another of Peter Rawson Taft’s grandchildren became the editor of the Cincinnati Times-Star and owned the Philadelphia Phillis and the Chicago Cubs. Another cousin, Lydia Taft, was the first woman to vote in Colonial America.
–Sarah Townsend Higinbotham, granddaughter of Eva Rawson Townsend
Bill and Sarah, 2011-2022